Hiroshima and Nagasaki bite back

We all know that the Manhattan Project built the nuclear bombs Little Boy — dropped on Hiroshima — and Fat Man — dropped on Nagasaki. Terrible times. But not many Australians know that Hanford  Site was one of 30 sites involved in the Manhattan Project. It was the primary production site for the uranium and plutonium that went into Little Boy and Fat Man.

And it’s a mess! The government’s war-time urgency to build the bomb cost America something like $24 billion (in today’s money). But the way they left nuclear waste in rusty steel cans will cost them far, far more! Whatever that final figure is, it is going to cost an awful lot of money to clean up. The Hanford leaks are notorious, but I’m wondering how over-sensationalised? What Sieverts are people really taking on there? When the government says “State and federal officials have long said leaking tanks at Hanford do not pose an immediate threat to the environment or public health.”, I’m actually inclined to believe them for once. Because people over-react. The word ‘radiation’ drives FUD like nothing else, and people forget to ask something basic, like how much? Just going on a bushwalk and sitting on granite rocks can give you some micro-Sieverts. Is that bad? How much radiation is there in everything anyway? What about eating a banana? The reality is hardly anyone in the general population knows these things. They just hear ‘radioactive’ and wonder if they’re about to explode, or if Godzilla is about to come crashing through their lounge-rooms.

But Hanford does have a lot of nasty stuff lying around in an unsafe manner. Left there by the military, not peaceful civilian power. It’s leaking. And it is going to cost a lot of money to fix.

Shouldn’t we try to get some money back? If we can use chemical or ion-exchange processes to separate out all this stuff, why not at least get something back by feeding this ‘waste’ into various breeder reactors? Both the Integral Fast Reactor and Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors ‘eat’ nuclear wastes like these. It seems like a lot of money to throw at a problem without getting something good back in return. It seems like there’s a lot of fuel there. If we can isolate it, refine it, and get it up to speed, I’m guessing there could be decades, even centuries of clean power for the Hanford area to retrieve from this polluted site?

It sort of reminds me of the Megatons to Magawatts program that powered 10% of America’s grid for about 20 years on old Soviet warheads. Imagine that! That’s equivalent to powering the whole of Australia off the Cold War for 20 years!

Sometimes the right technology can turn something bad into something good. If anything, Hanford is an economic incentive to build IFR’s and LFTR’s. They should separate out any ‘radioactive goodies’ for fuel, and vitrify the real waste products.  After breeding the waste in the reactors for decades, there are some very radioactive elements left behind. This is the real waste. Fortunately, waste from a breeder reactor is so ‘hot’ it burns itself out in just 300 years. As part of a modern commercial nuclear power program, this waste will be disposed of properly. Stored. Contained. Vitrified even. Then, 300 years later your great-great etc grandchildren can play with it if they want to! ;-)

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I’m in love

For ages I’ve been convinced that the Integral Fast Reactor was the best way to go. Argonne labs tested the the EBR1 and perfected it in the EBR2. Yes, it has passive safety and eats nuclear waste and can go up on the assembly line to be mass-produced cheaply. No, there is no operating IFR in the world today, but remember that the IFR is only one type of fast breeder reactor — those reactors that ‘breed’ nuclear waste up through the fuel cycle and ‘eat’ waste. One that is pretty close in design to an Integrated Fast Reactor is Russia’s brand new BN-800. GE have the S-PRISM design ready to go the moment a country gives them the go-ahead. These are fantastic reactors, machines that could give the world cheap, safe, reliable power forever (when we eventually switch to burning uranium from seawater.) The world could do a lot worse than build out a whole fleet of IFR’s.

There’s just one small problem. There isn’t enough nuclear waste to run them all yet! If I was to wave a magic wand and every coal-fired power plant on the planet changed into a waste-eating nuke like the IFR, there would not be enough fuel for them. It will take decades to breed the waste up for all those IFR’s.

In other words, we were going to have to wait a while for the IFR anyway. In the meantime, we build out today’s technology. A bit of wind and solar here, and a whole bunch of nukes over there. Today’s nukes. Safe nukes. Nukes like the AP1000. I’d much rather live next door to an AP1000 than to an old Fukushima styled reactor, let alone the   horror of the radioactive, heavy metal wasteland of living next to a coal-fired power station! Yuk.

Nuclear power is the quickest way to solve climate change. France increased their nuclear fleet 73% in 11 years. That’s converting three-quarters of their grid to safe, clean, reliable power in just over a decade. That’s amazing!

So given that today’s nuclear waste is tomorrow’s fuel, we can go ahead and build a whole fleet of AP1000′s while we perfect tomorrow’s design. What is the perfect design for tomorrow? I was convinced it was the IFR. I’ve promoted it for years. It’s a good reactor. No, it’s a great reactor!

But here’s the good news. I’m convinced that there is another reactor that could be even better!

Watch this 2 hour documentary featuring NASA engineer Kirk Sorenson. I watched it in half hour chunks over a week.

It features the “Lifter”, the LFTR, Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. I love this thing!

  • Passive safety, just like the IFR
  • Eats nuclear waste and warheads, just like the IFR
  • But uses stable liquid salt, not the unstable and explosive sodium of an IFR!
  • Uses graphite moderators to slow the neutrons for a slow thermal reaction, not the fast neutron reaction of the IFR (advantage below)
  • Every other reactor on earth uses power to cool the reactor
  • The LFTR uses a lack of power to trigger a cooling emergency.
  • The moment power fails, the ice-plug melts and the reactor drains away into a safe, passive-cooling drain tank
  • Only the reactor tank has the graphite moderator: the drain tank doesn’t have a moderator so the reaction cannot continue!
  • “Melt down” is impossible: it is already a liquid, and gravity never fails. The moment there is a power failure, the frozen salt plug melts and the reactor drains away!
  • Thorium is hundreds of times more abundant than uranium and every nation on earth pretty much has their own supply

But how ready is the LFTR to roll out? Isn’t it just hypothetical? Isn’t it just a nice idea that some scientists talk about, but no one is taking seriously? Isn’t the IFR decades ahead in prototype testing, and the LFTR just a nice idea we can explore sometime in the distant future?


The Chinese visited Oak Ridge a few years back. Oak Ridge built the world’s first LFTR back in the 1960′s, but the Cold War was on and the military needed plutonium. LFTR’s don’t produce plutonium, so LFTR’s were sidelined in the quest for the BOMB. Oak Ridge filed the project on a bunch of CD’s, and abandoned it. Most of the staff are dead or retired.

Until Kirk Sorenson retrieved all those files, uploaded new PDR’s onto his website, and the Chinese started taking notice! Now the son of a former Premier is running a truly massive fast-tracked program aiming to prototype, test, and build out Lifter’s within a decade. This changes everything. I no longer think the LFTR is a ‘nice idea’. It’s serious. And the first nation to massively mine thorium for fuel also wins in the rare-earth market. Valuable rare-earth’s then become another resource stream byproduct of the lithium fuel market! Everyone wins!

As the UK’s Telegraph explains:

  • LFTR’s can’t produce bombs
  • China’s thorium project was launched as a high priority by princeling Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin, in 2013
  • 140 PHD scientists and $350 million, so far.
  • 750 staff by 2015 but could be more
  • Opens the floodgates for a massive, worldwide nuclear comeback once people understand how safe and reliable Lifters are, and how utterly different to anything at Chernobyl and Fukushima

Unobtrusive, tidy, reliable, clean, cheap, abundant power can mean only one thing. Hope.

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NREL and the baseload myth

One of the great problems with charging a whole fleet of electric cars is how would the grid cope. Would we have to double our daytime capacity and build out a super-grid as electricity demand skyrocketed! But NREL to the rescue: the National Renewable Energy Laboratory assures us that if we just charged all our cars at *night* on all that *spare capacity*,  we could charge 85% of American driving without building a new power plant or upgrading the grid at all!

But hang on. This is the same NREL that published statistics and models that Amory Lovins likes. You know, that guy that says we don’t *need* baseload power. He loves those hypothetical models. Not only do they assume *ridiculous* levels of energy efficiency (and I’m all for energy efficiency, but within reason!), they also commit the crime of trying to dodge the ‘baseload bullet’ by claiming we DON’T need baseload energy because not that much happens at night. We don’t really want industry and power and internet servers and airconditioning at night. Not even as the climate warms. We don’t really want our ipads and iphones and idevices all charging, the latest device with the trendiest apps, all requiring more and more baseload internet servers like running a fridge for each ipad.  They don’t matter. Amory Lovins has got a model to push! Too bad about airconditioning and iphones and…. electric cars.

Honestly: these guys are meant to be the renewable experts. Does the left hand even know what the right hand is saying over there?

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Grace from ComicCon should not review movies!

Dear Grace,

You have no right to be commenting on Mad Max if you have not watched the originals! They reflected the rage and angst of the “Limits to growth” reports of the 1970′s, and the horrible feeling of dread that we were running all our resources down without planning for what comes next. They reflected the potential for society to dissolve in a series of lawless acts, and barbaric culture shifts. They reflected on hopelessness.

The first: a cop in the outback loses his mind as his wife is murdered by thugs near the end of civilisation. The second: Max wanders the wasteland, law and order long gone and the world at the whim of road warriors riding wild around the outback, threatening a last outpost of compassion. The third: a fantasy about children around an oasis in the desert, and what comes next. ‘Fury Road’ seems to be somewhere after the Mad Max 2, when his legendary car is destroyed.

I was a teenager when these movies came out, and they were more than just action movies. They mourned the sheer waste and horror of an environmental apocalypse, the loss of so many good things in the name of short-term profits and the blindness with which we are stumbling forward into oblivion. Focusing on who plays what, and how good they look, is like analysing the colour scheme on the hydrogen bomb about to drop on your city. You’ve somewhat missed the point.

This is “The Road” for movie-goers; it rages against the machine, it roars as the darkness rolls in. For are we planning for a world without oil? Are we planning for abrupt climate change? Are we saving our forests? No. We’re using it all up exponentially faster. Mad Max warns us what comes next. Our topsoil dries up and blows away and nothing is left but desert! You need to watch the trailer again. Listen for the children’s voice: they know what’s going on. “You’ve killed the world!” these children accuse us from one potential future. But are we listening? Your comment: “Tom Hardy, it’s time to accept that you look great!” Alas. It seems not.

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What do WW2 and climate change have in common?

Was WW2 about national food security? If so, what implications does this have for geopolitics as climate change starts to bite? This “Crash course” in world history looks at WW2 and takes 10 minutes to briefly summarise the war, and then dives into causes and consequences.

Posted in Food, Global Warming, War | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Fossil fuels in disguise

Hi all,

I always thought wind and solar had a pretty good ERoEI which stands for Energy Return on Energy Invested, or Output / Input, or how much energy you get back after counting the energy it took to build the solar PV unit or wind farm in the first place.

I thought that solar PV produced something like 7 to 10 times as much energy as it took to make the solar PV, and wind had an energy profit of somewhere between 30 to 50!

But what if we try to make them reliable? What if we try to make them baseload? What if we try to build enough storage to make them reliable 24 / 7?

First of all, on the positive side, we don’t have to use one technology exclusively. Grids are big things and using a mix of solar and wind ensures that there will be a lot of energy flowing a lot of the time. But many experts I read have calculated that to really get through tough winters, some European countries might need as much as a week of backup. Given that there are 52 weeks in a year, that’s not very much backup: not as much as I feared renewables might need given that solar PV only pumps out maximum electricity a quarter of the day.

How do we store a week’s worth of energy? In batteries? Not really. Given batteries only have a limited number of times they can be charged and recharged, their lifetimes are just far too short to be economical. The main ‘battery’ with the longest lifespan is pumped hydro power. When you have extra power, pump water up a hill into a hydro dam, and then when you require that power, let the water rip. Unlike batteries, hydro dams can last 100 years!

The problem is that hydro dams — one of the most efficient ways of storing vast volumes of energy — take so much energy to build. The renewable ERoEI’s drop off a cliff. This is where most life cycle analysis of renewable energy are fatally flawed. They only measure the ERoEI of the solar PV or wind farm itself. They ignore the energy cost of building the storage that is supposed to make the wind farm viable. As you can see, when ‘buffered’ to account for storage, solar and wind ERoEI roughly halves.

But what about thin film solar PV? I have heard it argued that thin film has an ERoEI of 60 or more, therefore the ERoEI with storage will only be halved back to 30, more than enough energy to run society. Wrong.  It gets such a high EROEI by being 15 times more energy efficient to produce, not producing 15 times more actual electricity. Sadly, it still produces roughly the same amount of energy as regular PV. So the same amount of output is still divided by the same energy cost of storage, however little energy input went into making the thin-film PV.

In fact, the thin-film could hypothetically be ‘free’ to make (with no energy cost) and it wouldn’t really change the overall ERoEI at all. The massive investment in building a huge pumped hydro dam or battery bank still dominates!
All this for a relatively small amount of storage.

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Salty land or water? Grow potatoes!

The Guardian reports that salt tolerant potatoes can survive salty water and grow food where previously the land was dying.

But thanks to a partnership with Dutch development consultants MetaMeta, several tonnes of the Texel seed potatoes are now on their way to Pakistan where thousands of hectares of what until now had been unproductive land because of sea water encroachment have been set aside for them.

If the experiment works and the potatoes adapt to the Asian climate, it could transform the lives of not only small farmers in Pakistan and Bangladesh,, where floods and sea water intrusion wipe out crops with increasing regularity, but also worldwide the 250 million people who live on salt-afflicted soil.

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