24 votes

Can A Solution to Massive Carbon Emissions Include Nuclear Energy?

One of my frustrations with political threads generally is that they are often too broad to be meaningful in terms of policy discussion. So I thought I'd narrow the topic of discussion. I am quite interested in political discussion and this seems a fine enough place to have it as any.

So let's talk: Nuclear energy policy!

With the Paris accord attempting to have countries pledged to reduce their carbon footprint to keep the globe from warming past 2 degrees above industrial era temperatures, it seems like a lot of countries have a whole lot of work to do in a rather short period of time. Maybe the US decides to commit to some informal reduction in carbon emissions eventually. Maybe it doesn't. Here we're talking about shoulds.

So for non-US people: how should a given country go about meeting their commitment to the Paris Accord?

For the US peeps: 1.) should the US bother trying to reduce carbon emissions and 2.) how should it go about doing it?

For everyone: What place does nuclear energy have in an energy portfolio that reduces carbon emissions?

22 comments

  1. [13]
    Comment deleted by author
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    1. [4]
      conception
      Link Parent
      I only have comments on 2 and 4 - and agree for the most part. Only wanted to note that with 2 (and 1 I guess): Hydrogen is finally becoming a useful store of energy. It's not perfected as yet but...

      I only have comments on 2 and 4 - and agree for the most part.

      Only wanted to note that with 2 (and 1 I guess): Hydrogen is finally becoming a useful store of energy. It's not perfected as yet but generating hydrogen and moving it, rather than straight electricity -may- prove to be the better alternative. To say nothing of replacing batteries and gas in things like cars.

      As for 4 - I think you underestimate energy reduction efforts. Computer CPU tech has been focused on power reduction for some time and 3rd world countries are looking at lots of sustainable solutions for consumption seeing that the American Way isn't so great long term. I think efficiency will be a driving force for some time creating a reduction in energy use. Peak Oil Demand is already on the horizon - I would be surprised to not see peak energy demand in the lifetimes of millennials.

      6 votes
      1. [3]
        Comment deleted by author
        Link Parent
        1. mantra
          Link Parent
          The other issue is that leaked hydrogen zips up to the upper atmosphere where it's a catalyst for destroying ozone. That's not good. Also when you are playing with hydrogen, it leaks right through...

          The other issue is that leaked hydrogen zips up to the upper atmosphere where it's a catalyst for destroying ozone. That's not good.

          Also when you are playing with hydrogen, it leaks right through of seals that normally keep nearly every other chemical in. So pretty much every infrastructure technology used for gasoline or natural gas is not usable - you have to use special (i.e. expensive, complex and failure prone) technologies to move it around. The space program dealt with this problem but none of their solutions are cheap or easy.

          And finally there's the corrosive effects of hydrogen on pretty much every metal allow. Stainless has to typically be used but even then it's only certain alloys which are very high in chromite (chromium oxide) which doesn't react as much as carbide or iron reacts with hydrogen. Hydrogen embrittlement of metals is a major problem with handling hydrogen gas.

          Most plastics are hydrogen porous so even that's not a real option.

          Part of the reason for finding alternatives to hydrocarbons is to make better use of the finite supplies we have left and to minimize the environment damage they cause. Having to abandon cheap brass for expensive stainless steel valves, piping and containers translates into a massive energy and economic cost increase over the status quo of hydrocarbon fuels and energy storage. You aren't solving that problem if it costs 10x-100x more in either economic or energy costs to simply do the same thing with a new material.

          2 votes
        2. CALICO
          Link Parent
          Hydrogen can also be combined with Nitrogen from the atmosphere to make ammonia, which is an extremely low flammability hazard, and could be used directly in ammonia fuel cells if desired.

          Hydrogen can also be combined with Nitrogen from the atmosphere to make ammonia, which is an extremely low flammability hazard, and could be used directly in ammonia fuel cells if desired.

          1 vote
      2. eladnarra
        Link Parent
        I also think energy reduction/efficiency efforts have an important part to play in all this. It might not be able to decrease our overall usage as the population continues to grow, but my...

        I also think energy reduction/efficiency efforts have an important part to play in all this. It might not be able to decrease our overall usage as the population continues to grow, but my (unscientific) view is that it would help reduce its rate of growth at least.

        This seems like the area where incentives and regulations come into play, not relying on innovation alone. Things like better building codes, gas mileage requirements, efficient appliances... It's all very easy to say "well, if you use this slightly more expensive light bulb it will last you 20 years and save you x amount on electricity," but people like the familiar and things become stagnant.

        2 votes
    2. Flashynuff
      Link Parent
      @Amarok with the classic wall-of-text breakdown, lmao. I agree with pretty much everything you've said here. Nuclear energy is the most bang for your buck, so to speak, and we need a lot of bang....

      @Amarok with the classic wall-of-text breakdown, lmao.

      I agree with pretty much everything you've said here. Nuclear energy is the most bang for your buck, so to speak, and we need a lot of bang. It's the practical choice. With proper design and responsible management I see no reason we can't completely meet our energy needs with a combo of renewable energy and nuclear.

      5 votes
    3. [3]
      Cirrus
      Link Parent
      I can't speak for other countries, but at least in Canada, nuclear power is declining. All our reactors are aging and needs to be replaced soon, but the government is not willing to provide...

      I can't speak for other countries, but at least in Canada, nuclear power is declining. All our reactors are aging and needs to be replaced soon, but the government is not willing to provide funding or support to the companies. CNL's last reactor is closed already, and they used to produce like 80%(?) of the world's medical isotopes.

      Nuclear energy has an image problem. Everyone is scared of radiation and spills, and the disasters in Japan and Ukraine haven't helped. I can see Asian countries who don't have much access to hydro power turn to nuclear for it's greenness and reliability, but nuclear power seems to be fading in the west.

      4 votes
      1. [3]
        Comment deleted by author
        Link Parent
        1. [2]
          cfabbro
          Link Parent
          Yeah, that's a great idea... that way we have absolutely no Nuclear energy in the country whatsoever. And until the climate of fear surrounding Nuclear energy in Canada changes or some politicians...

          I'd let those old PWRs shut down, decommission them, and get rid of them.

          Yeah, that's a great idea... that way we have absolutely no Nuclear energy in the country whatsoever. And until the climate of fear surrounding Nuclear energy in Canada changes or some politicians at the top grow a goddamn spine, it's unlikely any new plants will get built even the newer designs you're talking about.

          As I said in my response, every single proposal for a new Nuclear energy plant in Canada has been shelved or abandoned entirely because of said climate of fear, in large part perpetrated by the country's media. Until that changes we need to make do with what we have IMO.

          1 vote
          1. [2]
            Comment deleted by author
            Link Parent
            1. BuckeyeSundae
              Link Parent
              I'll be honest. Until your write-up I had no idea what all new advances in nuclear fission technology there had been. I knew there had been some and that new models were vastly more safe than the...

              I'll be honest. Until your write-up I had no idea what all new advances in nuclear fission technology there had been. I knew there had been some and that new models were vastly more safe than the types we built in the 1970s, but I didn't know the science behind those advances until today.

              I don't consider myself a nuclear energy skeptic either. I'm someone who would normally advocate for a replacement of our aging nuclear infrastructure in the US because it serves a LOT of good, from being a very stable producer of energy, to being remarkably clean so long as everything's in good working order. If the only major downside is the cost of production, and even that has come done since the 1970s with the lower cost of MSR, I can't think of much reason against investing in a replacement of this infrastructure at minimum.

              1 vote
    4. [3]
      arghdos
      Link Parent
      RE: batteries, there is some super interesting work going on with latent heat thermal energy storage (e.g., in the simplest case you melt wax and store heat in it, and then use said heat later to...

      RE: batteries, there is some super interesting work going on with latent heat thermal energy storage (e.g., in the simplest case you melt wax and store heat in it, and then use said heat later to power the plant) for solar thermal / CSP plants. One of the newer implementations of this claims to offer 8 hours of operation on stored solar energy, i.e., it can run overnight.

      3 votes
      1. [3]
        Comment deleted by author
        Link Parent
        1. arghdos
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          In real production they tend to use molten salts (among other things) as wax has a nasty habit of you know... combusting above 250C or so, but there's a whole list of commonly used phase-change...

          In real production they tend to use molten salts (among other things) as wax has a nasty habit of you know... combusting above 250C or so, but there's a whole list of commonly used phase-change materials (PCMs) on wiki.

          Thermodynamically speaking, you get much higher efficiencies at high temperatures, and particularly for CSP, your central tower is already operating at much higher than the point that wax would burn. You also need to make sure that the melting / solidification temperature is in your operating temperature range (otherwise you have only sensible heat storage which is <<<<< latent heat)

          There's also a lot of work that's gone into optimizing the packaging of the said materials to get around another interesting problem: imagine you have a giant metal box full of wax and you start applying heat to the outer walls, you'll quickly melt the wax near the wall but now you're relying on unforced natural convection to heat to heat the solid wax in the middle of the box; this is VERY SLOW. So people have done pretty much everything you can think of:

          1. Micro/nano-sized pouches of the PCM stored in a sensible heat storage material (e.g., water), this has good heat-transfer into the PCMs (heat transfer rate scales with surface area, amount of heat stored with volume, as the pouch becomes small the surface area to volume ratio shoots up) but the amount of heat you can store is strongly dependent on the volume fraction of PCM, too much PCM however, and you're right back where you started heat transfer wise (the convection bottleneck)
          2. Embedding metal fins etc. in the PCM -- good, but (potentially) expensive and any space that isn't PCM is "wasted" for heat storage, and you generally have to put a lot of metal in there to avoid excessive "charging" times (i.e., to melt the wax). Also for some PCMs you have to worry about interaction of the PCM and the metal
          3. Carbon fiber matrices or nano metal particles embedded directly in the PCM -- good, but hard to ensure consistent distribution, and you have the same PCM / metal interaction concerns as previously

          It's been a few years since I really dug into this stuff, so there may be more. Last I recall however the micro-pouch systems and the embedded nano/carbon-fiber particles were the hot areas of study. People are continuously developing better high-temperature PCMs (to reduce things like degradation, breakdown, metal interaction, and increase latent heat storage capacity as well). One of the professors at my university is very active in this field.

          1 vote
        2. BuckeyeSundae
          Link Parent
          You have put so much time and thought into these descriptions that I feel guilty for what I'm about to say, but I can't shake the image from my head now of you off in some shed watching as a...

          I know from personal experience it can produce some pretty spectacular explosions. ;)

          You have put so much time and thought into these descriptions that I feel guilty for what I'm about to say, but I can't shake the image from my head now of you off in some shed watching as a contraption drips some water onto energized wax and the entire shed explodes.

          One of the bigger concerns I have when it comes to battery storage isn't really from solar energy, which often provides the bulk of its energy during peak usage times and so wouldn't really be seeing much surplus. It's having enough energy in the grid for peak usage times, even as the valley times when wind or water-based energy might be enough to cover the demand. If we can store that energy this way too, then I think we're probably on better footing.

    5. mantra
      Link Parent
      Phenomenal! Engineering truth! Thanks. Absolutely agree on all points. (I'm an engineer so I'm biased by facts and logic)

      Phenomenal! Engineering truth! Thanks. Absolutely agree on all points. (I'm an engineer so I'm biased by facts and logic)

      1 vote
  2. szferi
    (edited )
    Link
    Being a physicist puts me in an interesting position in this discussion. First, I was living both in the time and in space close proximity to the Chernobyl's disaster so I know why people fear...

    Being a physicist puts me in an interesting position in this discussion. First, I was living both in the time and in space close proximity to the Chernobyl's disaster so I know why people fear this rear but serious incidents. On the other side, I got way more radiation exposure from the soccer match we played with Cesium-137 on the corridor of the physic department that I will ever get from all the nuclear incident combined and I'm very fine thank you.
    Related to potential risks Science Vs run two shows related to the question that I recommend:

    I fully support the effort to use a large chunk of nuclear energy in the energy mix of most of the countries and @Amarok summarized very well the current state, showing that the main reason to use more nuclear is not necessarily related to decreasing carbon emission. But there are social and political aspects we should not overlook. Living in a country where we will build a next nuclear reactor using Russian technology with a huge Russian loan I cannot ignore the fact that nuclear projects become so expensive and so large scale that they also become a hotbed of political games and corruptions. Although, this true for all large-scale infrastructure projects somehow nuclear ones are emblematic in that regards. Therefore, I can only support full heartedly lower scale, local and metro level technologies which can be built faster and can be changed faster to the next generation, however, these technologies have to evolve a bit to be ready to prime time.

    12 votes
  3. cfabbro
    (edited )
    Link
    Can it? Yes. Will it, given the climate of fear perpetrated against the indutry by the media in NA? Unlikely, IMO. I can’t speak to the US or EU but at least here in Canada all the recent...

    Can it? Yes.
    Will it, given the climate of fear perpetrated against the indutry by the media in NA? Unlikely, IMO.

    I can’t speak to the US or EU but at least here in Canada all the recent proposals for new plants have been met with serious media “scrutiny”, public backlash as a result and so politicians are hesitant to approve any new projects. As a result all of them have been abandoned or put on indefinite hold. It’s sad but until the media takes their responsibility to accurately inform citizens seriously, especially in regards to the realities of modern nuclear energy safety standards, and cut the fear mongering bullshit out, we’re stuck in this position and achieving the goals of the Paris accord will be that much harder.

    4 votes
  4. [3]
    acwell
    Link
    The two questions that come to my mind with regards to nuclear power in the US: Can we figure out a long term waste storage solution? Yucca mountain seemed like a reasonable long term solution,...

    The two questions that come to my mind with regards to nuclear power in the US:

    1. Can we figure out a long term waste storage solution? Yucca mountain seemed like a reasonable long term solution, but has been derailed largely because the people of Nevada don't want it in their "back yard", and to a lesser degree that people didn't want waste being transported through their cities or states. As far as I can tell, its not a financial problem, the Nuclear Waste Program has tens of billions of dollars in unspent funds: https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2016/12/f34/OAI-FS-17-04.pdf

    2. Can we figure out how to do nuclear safely for a reasonable cost? Current reactors are so expensive they are virtually guaranteed to never break even. Both construction and operation require massive subsidies. Given that ample wind and solar resources exist in the US, its hard to justify massive government expenditures on nuclear just to reduce emissions.

    4 votes
    1. Space_Kn1ght
      Link Parent
      I recall that some modern reactors can recycle nuclear waste into less toxic materials. Doesn't completely solve the waste issue but might make it less severe. On nuclear safety? Ehh, depends on...

      I recall that some modern reactors can recycle nuclear waste into less toxic materials. Doesn't completely solve the waste issue but might make it less severe.

      On nuclear safety? Ehh, depends on how safe you actually want it. Most of the worst nuclear disasters where caused by inadequate staff, or just crappy design.

      The way I see it is that even if wind and solar are more abundant resource wise, nuclear just produces way more power than both. I do understand that backlash against nuclear power in general will probably put a hold on it becoming the dominate power source (barring magic like cheap & easy cold fusion).

      4 votes
  5. Space_Kn1ght
    Link
    As an American I think it's crucial that we play a part in reducing emissions; even if climate change is a hoax, (which it's undoubtedly not but that's offtopic....) the US should focus on...

    As an American I think it's crucial that we play a part in reducing emissions; even if climate change is a hoax, (which it's undoubtedly not but that's offtopic....) the US should focus on reducing our dependency on fossil fuel given how they are limited resources. If not for energy independence then for the sake of keeping up with the rest of the world.

    Personally I'll admit I don't know much about actually implementing such things but I feel as if the Trump administration isn't doing all it can. It voices it's support for coal, a dying industry that ultimately I feel will only bring us down with it if we prop it up. Thankfully many state and companies are doing the job themselves whether the fed are helping or not. And whether they do it from the kindness of their hearts doesn't matter if it gets us free from oil and coal.

    While I do support nuclear power, I understand that it's a hard sell to the public and the cost of implementing it would be pretty high. So solar and wind are really the two most promising options, I haven't really kept up with tidal or geothermal but neither seemed too advanced or efficient especially for the US.

    4 votes
  6. [4]
    Silbern
    Link
    Yes, of course. Every country should try to reduce its emissions, that is our collective responsibility as humans, to take care of the planet. It's not much different then saying "should parents...
    1. Yes, of course. Every country should try to reduce its emissions, that is our collective responsibility as humans, to take care of the planet. It's not much different then saying "should parents bother raising their children?"

    2. Can it? Certainly. Nuclear power still takes far less space, is always reliable, has the least impact on the environment outside of the nearly impossible meltdowns, and has minimal foreign dependencies.

    But here's question #3: will it? I don't think so. Misinformation has made most people strongly against it, while solar and wind have a much greener image. Nuclear power is incredibly expensive and can only pay off an investment in the very long term. And it lacks the flexibility of solar and wind + batteries. You can roll out solar panels in small steps, the up front investments and costs are lower, and you can miniturize them for use in rural homes for example, even if power lines can't reach. And today solar and wind have enough research into them that nuclear probably can't outweigh its own drawbacks.

    3 votes
    1. [3]
      crius
      Link Parent
      I'm not from US and not against nuclear power but I come from the generation that was a kid living in Europe when Chernobyl's disaster happened. It's clear that it was bad management and much less...

      I'm not from US and not against nuclear power but I come from the generation that was a kid living in Europe when Chernobyl's disaster happened.

      It's clear that it was bad management and much less sophisticated technology but while technology advance, bad management don't.

      That's why I wouldn't ever feel much safe with nuclear reactor around. Even if completely automated, my work experience tells me that there is always that exception that you could have forgot and there wasn't a test about it.

      However I understand that the renewable energies don't compare with raw output but couldn't we go for the middle ground?

      Go full renewable and have the minimum necessary world reactors for when that energy is not enough?

      2 votes
      1. [2]
        Silbern
        Link Parent
        See, that's kind of the point though. Much of it is perception. Compared to the terawatt hour of energy produced, nuclear averages about 0.07 deaths per twh. Solar averages about 0.44/0.83. Coal...

        That's why I wouldn't ever feel much safe with nuclear reactor around

        See, that's kind of the point though. Much of it is perception. Compared to the terawatt hour of energy produced, nuclear averages about 0.07 deaths per twh. Solar averages about 0.44/0.83. Coal has a US average of 24.62. In other words, for the same amount of power that it would take to kill one person in the nuclear industry, you would need to kill 351 coal workers. And that's only looking at the workers themselves, not looking at the people that die because of air pollution or radiation (yes, coal power plants emit much more nuclear radiation in a normal work day then a nuclear power plant would ever be allowed to go anywhere near at a single time, let alone on a regular basis). Looking at Chernobyl again, the UN estimated that around 4,000 people died as a result of the incident, and although that number is very uncertain because it's difficult to tell death from radiation exposure from normal aging, the number of people who have died in a car accident this year in just the US is estimated at about 40,000. That means even if Chernobyl happened in the US today, it would be 10x less dangerous then driving a car would be. Worldwide there are about 1.25 million people dead because of driving cars. If driving a car doesn't make you feel unsafe, then there's no (rational) reason to be worried about reactors, especially since modern designs involving molten salt physically can't meltdown like the older ones can. Even if we assume however that it does melt down, in the worst possible way imaginable, the total environmental impact from the worst case nuclear disaster is far less then for example the certain environmental impact the Hoover dam has had on the Colorado river or indeed global warming, which comes from coal and oil power plants, is going to have. I don't blame you for your fears given when you grew up, but those fears were founded on perceptions and feelings, not reality.

        5 votes
        1. crius
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          I admit my ignorance already but let me ask you another question then. We're taking about people's death here. What about the environmental damage? And let's be clear, I'm just comparing renewable...

          I admit my ignorance already but let me ask you another question then.

          We're taking about people's death here. What about the environmental damage?

          And let's be clear, I'm just comparing renewable with nuclear. Carbon must die and there is no reason to even talk about it :)

          My feeling of unsafe...ness? (It's a real word?) don't comes from the death toll but from the long term damage on the environment in case of an accident. When you hear things like "the damages will make the land inhabitable for tens of years" or "the wastes will take thousands of year to become not toxic anymore", it's natural to think of the trade off.

          And again, the main reason to not trust this solution for me don't comes from the science and technology behind (I'm proud to consider myself quite invested in science topics) but from the biggest "error"of them all: the human behind the screen and keyboard that take the decision.
          It's not something rare that someone decided that was good enough to dump toxic waste in a field, contaminating a water reserve for years or forever.

          Imagine the damage with something so powerful and unforgiving as nuclear power.

          Edit: well, @Amarok just answered also my other point here.

          3 votes