Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Nuclear Power Climate Friendly? I think not...!

The nuclear lobby shills are going to love this one:

I think Nuclear Energy contributes to global warming.

There, I said it, and now I can sit back and wait for angry comments calling me ill-informed, irresponsible, and unscientific. I'm expecting people to accuse me of pandering to Big Solar and the powerful renewable energy lobby, and to be engaging in a disinformation campaign to discredit the last bastion of centralized might and power that can defend us against the threat of climate change.

Perhaps I'll even get a comment from James Lovelock himself, a man whose Gaia Hypothesis I have always admired, but whose stance on our "urgent need for nuclear power" has always come across as profit-motivated rather than scientific (where is his urgent call for conservation and rapid deployment and replacement of energy inefficient motors and appliances with the highly efficient ones that now exist, a dual move which could instantly obviate the need for any new power plants?)

It would be great to get him into this debate.

Nuclear Power Contributes to Global Warming.

Gaia "herself" says so, Dr. Lovelock.


Here's the thought experiment:

Imagine two Gaian planets. Two identical earths. Twin worlds, ours and a hypothetical "counter-earth" or Antichthon such as was posited by presocratic philosopher Philolaus to support his non-geocentric cosmology, a millenium before Galileo entered the controversy.

While Philolaus turned out to be wrong about the antichthon (though very very right about us living in a heliocentric galaxy) you can still revel in fictional Hollywood portrayals of this part of the thought experiment by watching Gerry Anderson's 1969 film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, (also known as Doppelgänger) or the 1973 film The Stranger. (When I was a teenager John Norman's sci-fi "Gor" novels also invited young minds to consider the possibilities of an antichthon, as did a whole series of Marvel Comics since 1972 that set their storylines on a "Counter-Earth" which "The High Evolutionary placed ... a micro-second out of dimensional synch to hide it from Earth".

We now know there is no planet in our solar system anything like the Earth, which is why biologists like Douglas Erwin and authors like Simon Conway Morris (author of Life’s Solution:Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe) can have so much fun debating The Goldilocks Hypothesis: the idea that, with Venus too hot and Mars too cold, Earth is the only "just right" planet, the only place favorable to the evolution and continuance of life.

The Goldilocks nature of the planet Earth, and the fact that there's nowhere else to go, is what gives a certain urgency to the Climate Change mitigation debate -- viz. "if we mess this one up, we can't just chalk it up to experience and move on". Earth is all we got.

But let's suppose there was another earth on the far side of the sun. Another earth of exactly the same size and composition, spinning at exactly the same rate, receiving exactly the same amount of sunlight. Philolaus' antichthon.

And let us further assume that the human inhabitants of both planets have been engaged in exactly the same activities up until today. Both are facing the same climate change concerns, both atmospheres have shown an increase in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide of about 35% since the beginning of their twin ages of industrialization. Having gone from a base concentration of roughly 315 ppm when I was born in 1962 to a current concentration of 385 parts per million by volume, both planets now have heat-retaining atmospheres that are causing run-away global warming.

Now imagine that one planet's inhabitants follows Lovelock and the Nuclear Lobby's advice and try to solve the crisis with nuclear energy while the other forgoes nukes and concentrates on ramping up and improving solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, micro-hydro, ocean-thermal, wave, and tidal energy solutions.

Which planet heats up faster?

The renewable option path earth (let's call it ROPE), like the Nuke Option Path Earth (let's call this one NOPE), both are heating up because every day the sunshine that bathes the planet is being transformed into heat which is being trapped by the "CO2-Methane blanket" in the atmosphere (that's a gross simplification and not really accurate, but it will do for the sake of argument). So they both have a certain rate of warming that will only diminish as the amounts of CO2 and Methane go down (assuming that the massive amounts of deforestation we are engaged in stop before the rainforests are mostly turned into hardpan, that the massive populations of cattle and swine belching and farting CH4 are ever reduced to manageable levels, that plankton and algal symbionts in coral are able to survive the environmental insults we impose on them and can increase in population, and that the ocean carbon sinks can continue to assimilate carbonic acid).

Assuming we were to stop adding anthropogenic carbon to the atmosphere TODAY, and only had to deal with the effects of runaway climate change caused by a new equilibrium of 385 ppm in greenhouse gases, which planet would get hotter faster?

Consider that ROPE would not only be carbon neutral, but heat neutral. But NOPE? Nope, NOPE would not.

Nobody seems to want to talk about heat neutrality.

Perhaps we need to explore the Goldilock's hypothesis more closely. Did you ever stop and think about why the planet Mars is so COLD?

After all, Mars' atmosphere is 95% Carbon Dioxide . It's other components are 2.7 v% Nitrogen, compared to our 78%, 1.6v% Argon, compared to our 1%, and 0.13v% Oxygen compared to our 21%. Our climate threatening CO2 is actual less than 1%!
But Mars doesn't heat up.
Says the ever reliable wikipedia:
"Martian surface temperatures vary from lows of about −140 (-220 °F) during the polar winters to highs of up to 20 °C (68 °F) in summers.[11] The wide range in temperatures is due to the thin atmosphere which cannot store much solar heat, the low atmospheric pressure, and the low thermal inertia of Martian soil.[46]

Okay, so it isn't just the amount of CO2 in an atmosphere that causes warming, there must be sources of heat, and ways of retaining that heat.

Most heat comes from the sun. But is solar heat the only source of heat we have to worry about being stored in our thick atmosphere, with our high atmospheric pressure and the high thermal inertia of Gaian soil, now compounded by rising concentrations of CO2?

There was a time when radical fossil-fuel industry shills (like, I suspect, that "Skeptical Environmentalist" Bjorn Lomberg, and his Hollywood "State of Fear"-mongering apologist Michael Chrichton) wanted us to believe that all the data on global warming we were seeing were really due to "heat-island effects" from major cities messing up our instruments and from "natural sources" like volcanos (pumping the earth's internal heat and carbon into the atmosphere).
Anyway, even if climate change were truly occuring, they argued, we shouldn't blame humanity -- the earth itself was an internal fireball, heating up its own atmosphere.

My argument at the time was based on a childhood understanding of Aesop's fables and the straw that broke the camel's back: if the Earth were already carbon and heat stressed by "nature", we certainly shouldn't be adding insult to injury. If anything we should be trying to reverse the trend. When your baby has a "natural" but life threatening fever, you don't turn on the heater if you want to save your child , you put a cold cloth on its brow. Duh.

So it really doesn't matter what it is responsible for global warming -- we must do all we can do to bring the temperature down.

So here is the question from the thought experiment: Will ROPE or NOPE cool down faster if they both stop increasing the amount of CO2 in their atmospheres?

ROPE puts no CO2 in and neither does it add any heat to the equation. ROPE's technologies are heat neutral. The sun powers almost all of ROPE's technologies, from CSP to PV to Wind to wave and water currents and biomass, and the same net amount of heat is being utilized every day. It just gets channelled into useful work on its journey from minimum to maximum entropy. Not one joule of thermal energy is being added to the earth's climate when one uses renewable energy. Even when one uses geothermal energy, this is internal heat from the earth that was making its way up to the atmosphere anyway (through thermal venting and Chrichton's famous volcanos).

So ROPE can't get any hotter than it would if we didn't use any RE technologies and simply went back to living like the Amish.

NOPE, on the other hand, is not heat neutral. NOPE uses fossil fuels to take uranium out of the ground and transport it and refine it through an energy intensive process (the same one the Iranians are working so hard on perfecting with their massive arrays of centrifuges, which also took an enormous amount of energy to produce). The resulting fissile material (The isotope U-235, which originally made up only 0.711% of the huge amounts of U-238 rich uranium that had to be mined and shipped) is put through a controlled fission reaction that produces enormous amounts of heat, heat that never would have previously been found on or in the earth. (Yes the constant internal heat of the earth is produced to a large measure by radioactive decay, as well as gravitational pressure, but the surface uranium we mine would have not undergone any heat liberating fission).

The nuclear reactors use the enormous heat created by the reaction to super-heat water to create steam to drive a conventional electric turbine. Then the waste heat has to go somewhere.
It goes into our environment.

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) had the following headline in 2001:

"New Report Shows Once-Through Nuclear Reactor Cooling Systems Devastate Marine Life and Ecosystems".

The report was called "LICENSED TO KILL: How the Nuclear Power Industry Destroys Endangered Marine Wildlife and Ocean Habitat to Save Money"

After talking about the effect of high pressure pumps pulling cold water out of rivers and oceans to cool the reactor, "The report notes that an equally huge volume of wastewater is then discharged at temperatures up to 25 degrees F hotter than the water into which it flows. Indigenous marine life suited to colder temperatures is consequently eliminated or, in the case of endemic fish, forced to move, disrupting delicately balanced ecosystems."

Nuclear plants have to do something with all that waste heat. Either they vent it into our waterways, raising its temperature (sea-level rise, anyone?) or into the air (sea-level rise anyone, he said again)

Did you ever stop and wonder why nuclear power plants need those huge characteristic cooling towers? What is coming out of them and being pumped into our globally warming atmosphere?


Of course.

Of course this was/is one of the secrets of global warming from fossil fuels that we never seem to talk about.

You see those same cooling towers at coal fired plants, and you see hot steam coming out of even the "cleanest" fossil fuel plants. Hot water vapor is also coming out of the smokestacks of factories, and out of the tail pipes and "exhaust" systems of every car, truck, bus, boat, ship, airplane or train that uses fossil fuels. It is also vented from nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Nothing that uses fossil fuels or nuclear fuels is heat neutral. They all create more heat than would have been in the system, disrupting the delicate thermodynamic equilibrium that keeps our Goldilocks planet hospitable to life as we know it and desire it.

Fossil fuels, when burned, liberate heat energy that was sequestered in their chemical bonds. We all talk about carbon sequestering as though liberated carbon was the only problem. But liberating heat into a heat-retentive environment is what causes things to get warmer, not the amount of carbon in the environment (as Mars clearly shows).

So when we assume two planets with equal heat retaining environments -- ROPE and NOPE, and posit that one of them adds no new heat to the environment by merely making use of what is already in circulation, while the other continuously adds more and more by making stored fissile material engage in a massively heat liberating fission reaction, you tell me which planet heats up quicker.

It is like you and your twin brother in identical beds under identical down covers. One of you is keeping warm by rubbing his hands together, the other has cracked open a sodium acetate heat-pack. Who gets hotter?

Does it matter that the heat pack is carbon-neutral?

So my hunch is that Nuclear Power
is far far far from an answer to global warming, even forgetting for a moment its nightmarish contributions to the toxicity of the planet and the chances it improves of terrorist appropriation of radioactive material, of engineering or material failure and meltdown, or its dismal economic performance, or the fact that it is so complex and takes so long to build that we could have already solved the so-called energy crisis with proper investment in renewable energy long before the first new nukes even come on line,

Nuclear Power Climate Friendly?

I think not!

(now come on you shills, start attacking... :) )

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