Easy to extract coal, oil, gas, and minerals have powered the exponential growth of global industrial civilisation over the last 100 years, quadrupling human population, and now maintaining our modern world.
Regrettably, this one-time easy-to-extract fossil fuel and minerals inheritance is running out: the bio-physical laws of nature on our finite ‘pale blue dot’ dictate these building blocks are getting more energy intensive to extract and use.
Energy from the sun and secondary flows induced and amplified in wind and water, are around ten orders of magnitude – a billion times – less energy dense than oil, coal or wood, and fifteen orders of magnitude (a quadrillion times) less than uranium.
Meaning for an equivalent electricity output, harvesting wind, water and solar flows with ‘Modern Renewable’ infrastructure build-out demands correspondingly orders of magnitude more land, and fossil fuel energy for mineral mining and refining, than using fossil energy directly, or nuclear requires.
But geologists warn critical minerals, materials and energy needed to scale-up ‘Modern Renewables’ are orders of magnitude insufficient, needing decades to expand if they can at all. Supplies to meet existing demands for non-energy production already face steep competition, with dwindling reserves rapidly hitting geopolitical limits too.
Manifestly, humans are already sliding down the global ‘de-growth’ slope of ever decreasing energy and material consumption, with prospects over the medium-term future of ever less aggregate wealth, complexity, prosperity and population.
In the race to replace fossil fuels’ 85% share of primary global energy supply, solar’s 1% and wind’s 2% current share can’t scale-up significantly, and they can’t scale-up at all without fossil fuels. Neither can nuclear.
But nuclear’s 4 per cent share can scale-up significantly more, because for the same amount of electricity delivered to grids, nuclear’s ‘disaggregated’ environmental EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) footprint, and its fossil fuel inputs and CO2 emissions are several orders of magnitude – thousands of times – lower than ‘Modern Renewables’.
Throughout human history, civilisations evolved not because their primary energy sources became entirely exhausted: we still have plenty of trees, coal, gas and oil in the ground, but – in response to their sources getting harder to extract – by progressing step by step up the energy density ladder, not down it.
We must ignore the romantic misinformation echoing uncritically across anti-nuclear ‘climate’ politics, blindly urging we blanket wind and solar farms everywhere: all powered by precious fossil fuels, mining the planet into moon-scape wastelands, in a chaotic descent to whatever unnecessary pre-industrial standards of living and global population bio-physical laws would dictate, leaving little leftover to grow food or keep wild.
Exaggerating the dangers of nuclear energy, equals accelerating the already bio-physically imposed ‘de-growth’ trajectory, equals the richest forcing the poorest to bear the brunt of global environmental and social destruction – ‘extractivism‘ – by failing to minimise the risks and severity of inevitable breakdowns in bio-physical and societal systems.
To best avoid this trap, we must rapidly expand nuclear, especially next generation ‘actinide’ burning ‘fast breeder’ reactors. Such as PRISM, offered cost free by GE Hitachi wanting only income from wholesale electricity sales, but rejected by the UK in the early 2000s.
Conventional reactors use about 5 per cent of the energy in uranium fuel. The remaining about 95 per cent ‘waste’ is radioactive for about 300,000 years, but ‘fast breeders’ can recycle it, simultaneously reducing ‘waste’ storage times to about 300 years. The UK’s 120 tons could provide about 1,000 years electricity. Plus warhead plutonium can fuel them, thereby fulfilling disarmament treaty obligations too.
Plutonium, despite being consumed and created by ‘fast breeders’ is a practically non-existent proliferation risk: eliminating it will never prevent conscience-free non-empathic politicians exploiting other ‘weapons-of-mass-destruction’. Such as the UK and USA ‘gas-lighting’ its own politicians and the international community into tolerating theft of Middle East oil with mass murder and war crimes, whilst blocking worldwide commercial roll-outs of PRISM thereby maintaining access to half the worlds nuclear weapons controlled by the USA – who’ve not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
In contrast, Russia has ratified the CTBT, and its ‘fast breeders’ Beloyarsk-3 & -4 have been supplying grids with electricity at around 75 per cent capacity factors since 1981 and 2014. Its floating mass-produced ‘Small Modular Reactors’ are already powering remote mining projects with plans to build five more.
And India’s thorium reactors are scheduled for grid connection in 2022, pursuing long-term energy self-sufficiency plans. Japan, South Korea and China are experimenting too.
Nuclear’s first 70 years has yielded the lowest carbon dioxide emissions, fatalities, health and environmental impacts of any other energy source. Chernobyl is now Europe’s largest wildlife refuge, and Fukushima’s residents and farmers have returned. We must end decades-long propaganda onslaughts, conflating radiation and weapons scaremongering with nuclear’s gift of being orders of magnitude easier to scale-up.
Electricity is only 9 to 15 per cent of global primary energy consumption. Without nuclear in the mix, how would we convert fossil fuels’ present-day 85 per cent share to 100 per cent electricity? Much of it near impossible to electrify industrial process heat and transport? Or power chemical synthesise of hydrocarbons and hydrogen as substitutes for diesel and gas?
For contemporary human civilisation to become sustainable, we must therefore fast-track proven high energy density nuclear technologies that are easier and quicker to build-out, consuming thousands of times less land, fossils fuels and materials. Not in the slightest bit easy, with decommissioning being hard too.
But not impossible. So let’s celebrate that with nuclear we are choosing the most doable and risk-free option limiting the steepness and speed of bio-physically imposed ‘de-growth’.
Future civilizations will be powered by nuclear energy’s orders of magnitude lower environmental impacts, in a circular economy extracting vast supplies of uranium dissolved in seawater in ‘Harmony’ and co-operation with ‘Modern Renewables’ – leaving trees, animals, wind, the wilderness, and all the oceans and sunshine in relative peace.
Science works by being wrong, and correcting itself, so it’s safe, pragmatic, expedient, and necessary to change our minds and fully support nuclear energy’s huge potential to manage an orderly bio-physically imposed ‘de-growth’ thereby avoiding disorderly catastrophic collapse.
Informed voters will agree: It is the bio-physical laws of nature that will define ‘climate action’ not political ‘will power’ promoting the naked hypocrisy of deifying climate science whilst demonising nuclear energy science.
Natasha Thoday says
The above essay is a summary of a longer piece, which has links to further reading :-
And this even longer one has lots more background information and references :-
james charles says
March 24, 2015 at 3:47 pm
The main issues with nuclear reactors are their capital cost and long time to build, the odds are good that since they’re all ageing there will be more Fukushima’s and breakdowns, turning the public against their use, and above all, no where to store the waste. Plus nuclear is baseload power and doesn’t ramp or down quickly enough to match demand, which will bring on a blackout (no problem now but a big one when natural gas runs out). But that’s not the real issue – the real issue is that transportation depends nearly 100% on oil, and that transport that really matters, freight, runs on diesel fuel and their combustion engines can’t burn anything else, and coal and natural gas are near their peaks as well, and there isn’t enough biomass to make a significant amount of diesel from biomass. The thousands of suppliers for a nuclear generator won’t be able to ship, truck, fly, or send their components by rail to the building site, the workers won’t be able to get there without cars – civilization ends when transportation stops, especially trucks.”
Natasha Thoday says
Hi James, I am very familiar with Alice Friedemann’s writings, and have been a regular reader of her excellent blog for many years. I do not dispute her general conclusions, as is evident in my concluding remarks:-
“… high energy density nuclear technologies … Not in the slightest bit easy, with decommissioning being hard too. But not impossible.”
a) “capital cost and long time to build” misses the point: all other alternatives are simply not buildable at all. No matter how much time or finance you have. Further, capital costs are numbers in bank accounts. They never run out. So $£ can never be a serious limit.
b) “nuclear is baseload power and doesn’t ramp or down quickly enough…” But this is not always the case. SMR’s (Small Modular Reactors) can be stacked together, and ramped up and down independently, to smooth load requirements. Nuclear electricity could be diverted to short term hydro storage or hydrogen / hydrocarbon synthesis or compressed air storage. Plus intermittent renewables could contribute to load balancing given a large enough grid. Indeed this is the basis of the nuclear industry’s ‘Harmony’ project partnering with renewables.
c) “But that’s not the real issue – the real issue is that transportation depends nearly 100% on oil, and that transport that really matters…”
Which is exactly my point: the same is true for wind, solar and hydro machines, except that less energy is returned by these diffuse renewables’ for a given quantity of all that oil burning. Plus renewables’ low grade intermittent energy that by definition relies on yet more oil burning to build and maintain backup storage.
Given that oil is running out, what do we use this precious diminishing resource for? Something that is at least buildable and can scale-up to some extent, like nuclear power? Or something that’s not buildable and can’t ever scale-up like wind and solar and water energy flow harvesting machines?
Alice Friedemann is a contributor to the Fan Initiative with very similar messages and aims: how are we going to “manage an orderly bio-physically imposed ‘de-growth’ thereby avoiding disorderly catastrophic collapse?”
Natasha Thoday says
” $£ can never be a serious limit” – i.e. the only real limit to new $£ being created by government is what is for sale in the economy (see MMT). Thus if there’s not enough (minerals or other materials or high energy density fuel to power its all) they simply can’t be bought, no matter how much money there is.