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Climate change expert calls for geoengineering and nuclear 'binge' to avert global warming | EurActiv

A leading British academic has called for accelerated research into futuristic geo-engineering and a worldwide nuclear power station "binge" to avoid runaway global warming.

Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, said both potential solutions had inherent dangers but were now vital as time was running out.

"It is very, very depressing that politicians and the public are attuned to the threat of climate change even less than they were 20 years ago when Margaret Thatcher sounded the alarm. Co2 levels are rising at a faster than exponential rate, and yet politicians only want to take utterly trivial steps such as banning plastic bags and building a few windfarms," he said.

"I am very suspicious of using technology to solve problems created by technology, given that we have messed up so much in the past but having done almost nothing for two decades we need to adopt more desperate measures such as considering geo-engineering techniques as well as conducting a major nuclear programme."

Geo-engineering techniques such as whitening clouds by adding fine sprays of water vapour, or adding aerosols to the upper atmosphere have been ridiculed in some quarters but welcomed elsewhere. Wadhams proposes the use of thorium-fuelled reactors, being tested in India, which are said to be safer because they do not result in a proliferation of weapons-grade plutonium, experts say. Also, under certain circumstances, the waste from thorium reactors is less dangerous and remains radioactive for hundreds rather than thousands of years.

Wadhams, who is also head of the polar ocean physics group at Cambridge and has just returned from a field trip to Greenland, was reacting to evidence that Arctic sea ice cover had reached a record low this summer.

This latest rate of loss is 50% higher than most scenarios outlined by other polar scientists and coincide with alarming new reports about a "vast reservoir" of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, that could be released in Antarctica if the ice melts equally quickly there. Greenpeace said last night that it agreed with the academic's concerns but not with his solutions.

"Professor Wadhams is right that we're in a big hole and the recent record sea ice low in the Arctic is a clear warning that we need to act. But it would be cheaper, safer and easier to stop digging and drilling for more fossil fuels," said Ben Ayliffe, the group's senior polar campaigner.

"We already have the technologies, from ultra-efficient vehicles to state-of-the-art clean energy generation, to make the deep cuts in greenhouse gases that are needed to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Unfortunately, we're still lacking the political and business will to implement them," he added.

Wadhams, who has done pioneering work on polar ice thinning using British naval submarines from 1976 onwards, said these latest satellite findings confirmed his own dire predictions.

And they feed into the alarming scenarios that the Arctic Methane Emergency Group have been warning about.

by Nomad on Mon Sep 10th, 2012 at 07:10:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This comment should be marked for posterity, because it seems likely to be the path that we will take. When it finally becomes obvious to the political elite that climate change is occurring and is a disaster, there will be a panic attempt to do something. And the "something" is almost certainly nuclear power. Maybe it will be a worse disaster in the long run, but if you want to ramp up your non-CO2-generating electricity generation as fast as you can, nukes are probably the option...
by asdf on Mon Sep 10th, 2012 at 10:49:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Given the historically proven ramp up rates of renewable technologies, asdf's statement remains an unqualified opinion not born out by supply chain realities.

Of course, it remains possible that a sick civilization will chose the wrong path once again.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 03:33:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think asdf is right that this is the preferred option of the corporates which run our governments' energy policies.

however, I remain unconvinced that nuclear is as CO2 neutral as is suggested. You need an awful lot of cement for a nuke power station and none of that is CO2 neutral. The mining and processing of the fuel isn't CO2 neutral and as for the disposal of the waste, god alone knows what the CO2 costs for that will be as nobody has seriously attempted it yet.

But whilst the corporates make more money wrecking the planet, nothing sensible can be done

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 03:50:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are a few review papers in the literature - Fthenakis has one, Lenzen another, that summarise the findings. Full-lifecycle emissions, insofar as they can be estimated at all for a process which won't be complete for a few thousand years, are in the range 5-130gCO2e/kWh, with a median/mode/mean value somewhere halfway, around 60gCO2e/kWh.

As far as I know, no one's looked at whether there's any significant consequential climate effects from INES7 catastrophes or nuclear conflict; and we still don't have a meaningful probability distribution for those. So lots of uncertainties.

by LondonAnalytics (Andrew Smith) on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 05:59:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
no one's looked at whether there's any significant consequential climate effects from INES7 catastrophes or nuclear conflict

Um, nuclear winter?

If you are not convinced, try it on someone who has not been entirely debauched by economics. — Piero Sraffa

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 06:07:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Just enough and it will balance out the global warming...

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 07:14:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Geo-engineering : Who shall we nuke this year?

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 07:20:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There's another plot twist for one of your novels.

If you are not convinced, try it on someone who has not been entirely debauched by economics. — Piero Sraffa
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 12:20:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"catastrophes or nuclear conflict; and we still don't have a meaningful probability distribution for those."

If there is a (more obvious) climate catastrophe, a decision could be made to return to the idea of massively centralized nuclear power, with proper security and improved containment. Run by infallible nuclear priests wearing hooded capes, presumably.

The bad thing about that model is that it concentrates the potential disasters into a smaller number of bigger disasters, c.f., Fukushima. The potentially good thing is that this would require a new power distribution grid topology. With suitably clever engineers, unhindered by politicians and economists, the distribution system could possibly be designed to support a short-term nuclear supply system and a long-term distributed and sustainable supply system.

by asdf on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 10:42:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Suppose you want to shut down all global coal-fired power stations in five years. Can any sustainable supply be ramped up at the rate this would require?

I am strongly opposed to nuclear power, but if you need to make a fast change to an alternative system, I just don't see how else you're going to do it. Increasing the wind penetration from 5% to 75% or so (depending on solar supply) in fewer than two or three decades seems pretty optimistic. Partly because of the construction issue, and partly because of the grid management problems.

by asdf on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 10:49:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Can any sustainable supply be ramped up at the rate this would require?

And can nuclear? If you want to replace fossil fuels, how many nuclear power plants can you build per year? Less than 2.5% of the global production of energy is nuclear. I am amazed that you think it is easier to build nuclear than to build renewables.

You would need a fully developed police state to enforce nuclear. And then there are the much higher costs. Never ever has a nuclear power plant without public subsidies been built. Face it, it is the most dirty, dangerous, and expensive method to produce power imaginable. I don't think we need worry about nuclear any more.

Oh, and to answer your question: yes, if there is the political will, sustainable energy can be ramped up very quickly. More quickly than nuclear, so forget that.

by Katrin on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 11:19:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The IEEE technical journals about maintaining grid stability when there's lots of wind power involved suggest that it's hard. Nukes are a known factor from the power technology viewpoint. They are a mess in a lot of other ways, but the method for replacing coal generators with nukes is known.
by asdf on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 11:35:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Spain routinely manages above 30% wind.

"Hard" means you have to actively manage your grid, instead of just checking up on it every fifteen minutes or so.

Yes, you need balancing capacity that can be ramped up quickly. This is available on a Europe-wide basis these days. In the medium term, e.g. ten years with renewables ramping up as fast as possible, you have plenty of balancing capacity because -- guess what -- all those fossil plants you are displacing still exist, and you can run them to plug the gaps.

To eliminate those fossil plants entirely is perhaps harder, but we don't need to do that in the medium term.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 11:50:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Sounds counterintuitive. Nukes come as large power plants, and if one of them has to be taken off the grid, there is a large hole in your production. Wind and solar come in much smaller plants and ought to be easier to replace.
by Katrin on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 12:06:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As Katrin says,

> Less than 2.5% of the global production of energy is nuclear

...but 13.5% of electricity is.

Why are we all talking about electricity, when that makes up something like a quarter of primary energy use, and (I think) a similar fraction of CO2 emissions?

Nuclear doesn't help much. It produces electricity and heat. And yes, there's a lot of need for low-grade heat that could come from nuclear, if you're prepared to build the piping infrastructure. But what about transport? What about metallurgy, chemical processes?

by mustakissa on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 06:12:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Quick Points:

  •  wind has already shown its ramp up capability several times in the last decade or so. with stable regimes the ramp up of the supply chain could border on the astounding.

  •  PV has already shown its capabilities, can do rooftop globally very quickly , two decades if necessary.

  •  all manner of efficiency technologies can do the same.

  •  When there's a political desire to achieve something, it gets done. There is nothing in the way of a huge ramp up of sustainable technologies except modern civilization.

  •  Whenever there's a hole, new developments fill it.

As a weird example, here's a report of a new technology allowing coal plants to be load following being done in 'Schland, from Der Spiggle.

Conventional power plants grind coal into dust, which is then blown into a boiler. But in Niederaussem, the pulverized coal is first stored in a silo, making it possible to control much more closely the amount that is later fed to the flame. German energy giant RWE originally built the silo in Niederaussem to make fueling its power plant easier. But the German energy revolution has lent the silo system an entirely new dimension.

A power plant with a silo can run on a low level if necessary. It can be powered down to 10 percent of its maximum output, a function that's impossible for plants without a silo. Even the most modern conventional facilities can go no lower than 35 percent of maximum performance. Operating at a capacity any less than that requires laboriously keeping the combustion going by burning oil or gas -- an option that's far too expensive.

Silos for storing coal dust represent just one of several new technologies that are helping coal-fired power plants shape up for the transition to renewable energy. Time is short. Germany's environmental revolution will mean major upheavals for coal plant operators, and the new electricity supply system will subject them to grim competition.
....
This new system leads to ever greater fluctuations in power generation, with output changing with every gust of wind and every cloud that flits across the sun. Hitachi Power, a Japanese company that builds power plants, estimates these fluctuations will double or triple by the end of the decade, while at the same time the demand for electricity from non-renewable sources will drop by half between 2010 and 2020.

Soon the demand for electricity will likely no longer be enough to keep all the existing coal-fired plants in business, and those that want to continue selling as much conventionally generated energy as possible in this shrinking market must be able to react quickly to fluctuations in supply and consumption. Once this was something only gas-fired plants were able to do, but coal-fired plants are now preparing to challenge them for the role of a flexible provider that can make up shortfalls. Coal and gas power, once partners, are suddenly becoming competitors in a shrinking market.

So Yes, in the mid-term, there will be ways to balance the system, and as long as some form of basic intelligence prevails, the goal of drastically lowering CO2 can be accomplished, even by using what's already built and dirty.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 01:16:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Suppose you want to shut down all global coal-fired power stations in five years. Can any sustainable supply be ramped up at the rate this would require?

OK, that's a bit of an arbitrary target, but let's see. Using figures from the REN21 Global Status Report 2012, and the IEA.

Coal was about 40% of global electricity, which was around 2500GW, so we'd be looking for about 1000GW of electricity.

PV has been increasing at about 70% a year. Wind at about 30% per year. And that's without global co-ordinated effort. What could be done with such an effort? Shall we double those rates? After all, this is as serious as a World War, and so merits the same sort of industrial response.

Global annual PV production capacity was around 60GW at the start of this year. Global annual wind production capacity was around 50GW or so (hard to be sure). Let's take a PV capacity factor of 15%, and a wind capacity factor of 30%, assuming most deployment in high-yield places. So that gives us a base figure of 9GW of extra electricity from PV, and 15GW from wind, for 2012. Let's see what could be produced for the five years 2013-2017, in terms of additional electricity (not capacity, but mean power) per year:

+GWePVWind
2012915
20132228
20145244
201512471
2016299113
2017717181

Total (2013-2017): +1627GW of additional electricity production

So that's easily met the 1000GW, before we've accounted for any extra hydro, and any conversion of coal plant to biomass.

So, it doesn't seem entirely unfeasible, at least at the level of generation.

And how much extra nuclear could we bring on board in that time, assuming planning and design started tomorrow? Well, in round figures, as close to zero as makes no odds. And would you really want anyone living on the same planet as a panic-built nuclear fleet anyway?

Now, maybe you've got additional questions about balancing. But that would need a systems model for the entire world, and that's a decent-sized research project (call it a million Euro, off the top of my head - please send a formal request for quotation to andrew at {my EuroTrib username} dot info ;-). The bottom line is probably going to be something about building a few million gigawatt-km of extra transmission infrastructure, and converting as much of the world's existing storage hydro to pumped-storage as possible, and maybe building a hundred GW of peaking gas plant). I don't yet know how to assess the feasibility of those things.

by LondonAnalytics (Andrew Smith) on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 03:46:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You probably know about this Finnish invention: Waveroller

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 04:01:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ooh, no, I didn't, and thank you. That looks interesting. Yes, I've excluded tidal barrage, tidal stream, wave, OTEC, osmotic power, and probably a few other things too. Of those, I wouldn't expect to see many new tens of gigawatts of them combined by 2017, even in a "global war on carbon" scenario. Geothermal and concentrated solar thermal might provide quite a few gigawatts of new electricity in such a scenario, though.
by LondonAnalytics (Andrew Smith) on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 04:53:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the actual build time of a nuke is a few years. The approval process can be lengthy, though...
by asdf on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 04:50:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
oh yeah so we'll just ram 'em through without any planning or approval process. That'll work well. After all, we have all these armies sitting around doing nothing. They can just dig in on the perimeter of the construction sites.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 04:55:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not to mention that the "actual build time" recently is more than just "a few years."

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 06:34:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wasn't there evidence that casting the metalwork needed for reactors was a significant bottle neck? You'd need a couple of years to build the systems required to build a lot of reactors, at least. Or you'd end up using more dangerous reactors.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 06:36:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Bloomberg: Samurai-Sword Maker's Reactor Monopoly May Cool Nuclear Revival (March 12, 2008)
From a windswept corner of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, Japan Steel Works Ltd. controls the fate of the global nuclear-energy renaissance.

There stands the only plant in the world, a survivor of Allied bombing in World War II, capable of producing the central part of a nuclear reactor's containment vessel in a single piece, reducing the risk of a radiation leak.

Utilities that won't need the equipment for years are making $100 million down payments now on components Japan Steel makes from 600-ton ingots. Each year the Tokyo-based company can turn out just four of the steel forgings that contain the radioactivity in a nuclear reactor. Even after it doubles capacity in the next two years, there won't be enough production to meet building plans.

Much water under the river since early 2008...

If you are not convinced, try it on someone who has not been entirely debauched by economics. — Piero Sraffa
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 06:42:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Has there been an expansion of capacity?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 06:46:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In the middle of a depression?

If you are not convinced, try it on someone who has not been entirely debauched by economics. — Piero Sraffa
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 07:05:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are but a very few forges in the world which can make the unwelded containment vessels, i think. Current capacity was a half dozen a year, again, off the top of my head.

China and South Korea could indeed build more forges and ramp up the supply chain within five years. Then we'd be back to the original  blindness that the answer is staring us in the face, but we refuse to see it.

A healthy civilization would want its energy directly from the sun, distributed throughout society, period. Not with 400 million years of poison added on, not with ersatz suns created by a military-technical elite, not with the danger of a "whoops" hanging around for a few thousand years.

But what do eye know?

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin

by Crazy Horse on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 06:49:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So that's a build time of five years plus a few years for a reactor, and producing enough of them to be useful could take twenty years? (Leaving aside the whole question of whether we should be building them at all.)
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 07:00:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And by then we'll have clean fusion anyway ...
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 07:00:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What, in 50 years' time?

If you are not convinced, try it on someone who has not been entirely debauched by economics. — Piero Sraffa
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 07:04:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, that was 30 years ago.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 07:32:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, now it's more like 60 to 80.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 08:17:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, actually it has been 30-40 years. Constantly. And in 30 years it will still be at least 30 years away.
by Katrin on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 08:42:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Containment vessels are so 20th century...there will be no accidents in the glorious nuclear future...
by asdf on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 10:11:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, I was suggesting what was likely to happen, not what "should" happen...
by asdf on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 10:03:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There isn't the political will to build new nukes. Which politician would want to tie their future to nukes? I mean more than just Sunday speeches: advocate a plant at a given location where the population would have to be made not to oppose it. This campaign would depend on Tepco's ability to suppress the news. Fat chance of that. Every member of any local council would have to bear that in mind: their political career would be ended.

Even if we can conceive of a politician advocating a new nuke near a given village AND being successful at that: the costs. Nukes need a lot of subsidies, they can't be profitable. Who is to (successfully!) argue for these subsidies?

Forget nukes. They are politically dead. As much as I like to give arguments against them (because it is so dead easy and I am by nature lazy), it's not worth it. We are flogging a dead horse.

by Katrin on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 07:09:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
i wish i were so sanguine...italy was about to roll over for them under burlesquoni.

thing is there's a split in the road coming up for big energy investment/subsidies, one leads to alternative/renewables, the other goes nuke.

germany has a spirited defence against them, so much so even merkel had to fake it, but the rest of europe.... i hope so.

energy costs being so fundamnetal to the sucess of any industrial efforts, no serious investments will happen here in europe until this is resolved, and the obstacle is the lobbying power from the enrgy cartel vested interests, who count on a passive, scared and ignorant public.

as you said upthread, the nuke road will need a police state to ram it down the public throat.

as renewables get cheaper every day, the dark side has to move soon, or the narrative will change too much and they will have lost the bet to nuclearise the planet, using global warming as cudgel to get 'er done.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 08:11:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
thing is there's a split in the road coming up for big energy investment/subsidies, one leads to alternative/renewables, the other goes nuke

Not true. There are no serious private investments in nukes, and public ones are decreasing rapidly. The old model of shifting costs and risks to the public, but privatising the profits no longer works for new plants.

The only interesting debate is what to do with old plants. They are written off, that makes them profitable. They clash with renewables though. So, do we want technological stagnation, and exponentially growing risk (from ancient nukes) or do we want innovation, investment in renewables, and a different structure of the producers (large entities or a network of small ones) and the corresponding grid?

by Katrin on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 08:40:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As I pointed out above, the balancing is less urgent. While you're doing your war-mode build-out of renewables capacity, you need a war-mode expansion of transmission infrastructure, but the balancing is provided by the fossil plants you're displacing. You don't need any new peaking gas plants, surely?

So, when you hit your target in terms of renewables capacity, and your fossil plants are only producing say 25% of the electricity they are producing today, you switch the war-mode effort to pumped storage etc... having done the planning carefully in the meantime of course.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 05:01:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
eurogreen, I agree with you when you write that:
the balancing is provided by the fossil plants you're displacing. You don't need any new peaking gas plants, surely?

But the challenge set by asdf was an end to all coal-electricity within five years. So, I took that to mean no balancing with coal either, at least for this extreme-test scenario.

Yes, you're right that it would be cheaper to have some coal for balancing, in a 10-15 year transition. And in reality, that's what's happening: fossil plants just run with lower capacity factors, and might spend much of the year in mothballs.

by LondonAnalytics (Andrew Smith) on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 06:49:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
and even if we're still using existing plants less efficiently, the real goal of moving from poison is being accomplished. Under a "war-footing" we probably could eliminate coal within 5-10 years, but that would entail the enlightenment of an ignorant population, and the immediate germination of a new class of visionary politicians.


"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Wed Sep 12th, 2012 at 07:00:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If the TPTB want to go the nuclear thorium route they should have started 10,15 years ago.  There isn't even a full size prototype working yet.
by tjbuff (timhess@adelphia.net) on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 10:23:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hmm, an oceanographer speculating on energy policy.

I suppose we could have given him some credit if he had said something interesting about marine energy. But as it is ...

by LondonAnalytics (Andrew Smith) on Tue Sep 11th, 2012 at 05:53:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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