Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
If you hang around here long enough you will find that the preferred solutions to the liquid fuel crisis all involve conservation.

Conservation doesn't require inventing new technologies to turn anything into anything else. It may involve doing the same amount of work while consuming less raw materials, but can also be as simple as taking the bus to work instead of driving.

As for real new technologies, when pressed I always promote the idea of a big push to explore practical nuclear fusion. A worldwide annual rate of about $300 billion for R&D is easily affordable, the US military budget alone is over $450 billion and this doesn't include the supplemental requests for the wars.

We don't know if a practical fusion system can be made to work, but it is worth spending the money to find out. Better this than pointless trips to Mars.

Ultimately (perhaps in 200-300) years the only sustainable sources of power will be solar and fusion. Fossil fuels will have been depleted and there is a strong belief that even Uranium will be scarce at that point. Most people feel that that is a problem for future generations to solve and thus prefer to go on with their present life styles. There is no way to force them to change their position. As Reagan said "posterity doesn't vote".

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Wed Jan 17th, 2007 at 11:34:41 AM EST
I regard it largely as wishful thinking.

Let's cut to the chase, a fusion reactor - which will have it's own set of environmental problems by the way - will depend wholly on a fission infrastructure for the forseeable future.

There are a lot of things that haven't been touched by the fusion reality (as opposed to the popular fusion fantasy.)   Among these are heat transfer (most of the energy is gamma radiation which does not interact that readily with matter to make heat) and the matter of tritium breeding, which is not only practically difficult but is also theoretically difficult.   And let's be clear, fusion reactors for the forseeable future will need tritium.   The total amount of tritium on this planet right now that is isolated is about 20 kg, and the vast majority of it is in Canada.   That isn't going to allow anyone to live forever in an energy nirvana.

Now, I really won't mind it if humanity had access to a some high energy neutrons from fusion reactors.   There's a lot you could do with 14 MeV.   I don't think it's going to happen in any time frame that will matter.

We are stuck with the tools we have, and we must choose between them immediately.

As for conservation, that's wonderful, but appeals to it are often parochial.   I have yet to meet a Westerner who waxes romantic about "conservation," who has ever begun to live a lifestyle consistent with, say, the Chadian per capita energy use.

It is great to talk about "conservation," if you are talking about buying a car, but "conservation," is not an issue when you aspire, someday, to have a light bulb of your own.   This is usually a surprise but "most people" don't have cars and computers.

We are not going to "conserve" our way out of this crisis.    There is not going to be a "two hundred years from now" until we fix what's happening right now

by NNadir on Wed Jan 17th, 2007 at 01:24:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In fact in the past 30 years business and industry in the US have made a lot of advances when it comes to conservation.

But in a world run by consumerism, we have to use a lot of energy to make things to be bought and discarded.

At present, however, the biggest portion of the energy we generate is spent on obtaining energy.

The best fuel of all is electricity.

That's why a policy to practice conservation at every level leads inevitably to nuclear energy obtained from energy-dense uranium to make electricity. It can power transportation as well as all the other sectors of society.

But we need solutions to global warming yesterday. So to make the transition to all-electric transportation will of course require nonpolluting synthetic fuels.

by Plan9 on Wed Jan 17th, 2007 at 02:15:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The steps to be taken in the US and other industrialized countries are of a different nature than from those in the emerging countries of India and China and still different from those of the undeveloped world, let's not treat them together.

We can provide a "light bulb" to those with almost nothing without affecting the global consumption of resources to a great extent. But changing consumption patterns in the US would have a dramatic impact. You know the numbers the US has about 4% of the population and consumes about 40% of the resources.

China and India have to be prevented from making the same growth mistakes that the west did over the past several centuries. They are already seeing problems with water and pollution. So three sets of conditions, three programs.

  1. The west - conservation
  2. The new industrial states - planned growth
  3. The rest - growth to a minimally acceptable standard of living.

Will groups 1 and 2 resist. Yes and they will continue to do so. That's one of themes around here, how to get them to wake up and "do the right thing". Do we have a way to get SUV lovers to change? No, but we're discussing it.

As to fusion, all I'm suggesting is a serious effort at R&D. If you are skeptical about the chances of success that is your right, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. I've been around long enough to have lived through several cycles of unexpected discovery like the laser and transistor not to wish to foreclose speculative research. My point is that the world can afford the effort, we just need to stop funding the destruction industries that are absorbing most of the R&D money (especially in the US).

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Wed Jan 17th, 2007 at 02:32:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What impresses me with all these alternatives to fossil fuels--and in the fossil fuels themselves--are the number of innovations out there, many seemingly close to fruition. Venture capitalists have probably had to take speed reading courses to keep up with things.

And there are Americans still alive who were growing up when horses still plowed fields, when there was no radio, when kerosene lanterns provided the light, and people rode horse-drawn wagons to town for groceries.

An area that is 45 miles from me first got electric service in 1950. Amusingly, I can drive 100 miles the other way and end up in Washington, DC.

"When the abyss stares at me, it wets its pants." Brian Hopkins

by EricC on Wed Jan 17th, 2007 at 05:11:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The key phrase is "seemingly close to fruition."  If you pare down the things that haven't actually been built yet and are way more expensive than a coal power plant, you're left with wind and natural gas.  And for transportation, you're left with nothing.  When oil becomes scarce, FT from coal will be used.  It will be cheaper than anything else.
by tjbuff (timhess@adelphia.net) on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 01:38:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
and India from "making the same mistakes?"

Do we declare that we are their big brothers and sisters and know better?

They are burning coal because they want to live like us, all of them.   They don't want a moral lecture from us.

To China's and India's credit, they are expanding their nuclear capacity, but it is still tiny overall.

If China survives climate change, it will have more reactors than either France or Japan within two decades, but that will be nowhere near enough.

The cost of providing one billion chinese with 20,000 euro solar systems and the batteries for night time is some 20 trillion dollars - excluding the huge external cost.   It won't happen.

by NNadir on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 12:38:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"The cost of providing one billion chinese with 20,000 euro solar systems and the batteries for night time is some 20 trillion dollars - excluding the huge external cost.   It won't happen."

The toxicity that accompanied the manufacture of PV components on that scale would be devastating. Batteries are also toxic waste.  Far better for the environment to go entirely to nuclear power.

by Plan9 on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 12:47:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Can you quantify the toxicity of 1 GW-h of PV power compared with 1 GW-h of nuclear power?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 12:50:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Brookhaven National Laboratory has assembled about 150 studies of solar energy and finds that the toxic gases involved in PV construction would become an issue if production were ever scaled up.  Meeting safety standards would increase cost. See

One tonne of nuclear fuel produces energy equivalent to two to three million tonnes of fossil fuel. [Suzuki (1993), cited in Lehman (1996), p. 138.] Burning 1 kilogram of firewood can generate 1 kilowatt hour of electricity; 1 kg of coal, 3 kWh; 1 kg of oil, 4 kWh. But 1 kg of uranium fuel in a modern lightwater reactor generates 400,000 kWh of electricity, and if that uranium is recycled for maximum burnup, 1 kg can generate more than 7,000,000 kWh. These spectacular differences in volume of fuel per unit of energy produced largely determine the differing environmental impacts of nuclear versus fossil fuels from mining or extraction, through transportation, to environmental releases and the disposal of waste. Generating 1,000 MW of electricity for a year requires 2,000 train cars of coal or 10 supertankers of oil, but only one 10 cubic-meter fuel assembly of uranium. [IAEA (1997), P. 32.] Out the other end of such fossil fuel plants even with abatement systems operating come thousands of tonnes of noxious gases, particulates and heavy-metal-bearing (and radioactive) ash plus solid hazardous waste: up to 500,000 tonnes of sulfur if coal, more than 300,000 tonnes if oil and 200,000 tonnes if natural gas. In contrast, a 1,000 MWe nuclear plant releases annually no noxious gases or other pollutants, [5]  and trace radioactivity many times less per person than airline travel, a home smoke detector or a television set. It produces about 30 tonnes of high-level waste (spent fuel) and 800 tonnes of low- and intermediate-level waste about 20 cubic meters in all when compacted (roughly, the volume of two passenger cars). [6]  [IAEA (1997), pp. 32-34.]


Photovoltaic cells are large semiconductors; their processing produces a highly toxic waste stream of metals and solvents that requires special disposal technology. A 1,000 MWe solar electric plant using photovoltaics would generate 6,850 tonnes of hazardous waste over a thirty-year lifetime from metals finishing alone. A comparable solar thermal plant (mirrors focussed on a central tower) would require primary metals that would generate 435,000 tonnes of manufacturing waste, of which 16,300 tonnes would be contaminated with lead and chromium and considered hazardous. [Lehman (1996), pp. 53-54.]


IAEA (1997). Sustainable Development and Nuclear Power. Vienna, International Atomic Energy Agency.

Lehman, L. L. (1996). Nuclear Fear: The Environmental Cost. Prior Lake MN, Technical & Regulatory Evaluations Group, Inc.

Excerpts from: Richard Rhodes, Denis Beller, "The Need for Nuclear Power", Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2000  http://www.nci.org/conf/rhodes/index.htm

In about 40 years of operation, commercial nuclear power in the US has generated about 70,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel.

by Plan9 on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 01:31:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually most of the heat transfer really is in those 14 Mev neutrons and the "cooling" neutral helium that is left to drift down the bottom of the torus.

Neutron deposit heat directly in the reactor structure, which must all be cooled. And their is a "heat conveyor belt" with water of helium at the bottom of fusion torus, whether it's JET, Tore Supra, or ITER. And last time I checked, to my great surprise, heat extraction WAS NO LONGER a challenge. It is solved at ITER target powers.

Challenge N°1 is materials durability under neutron bombardment. Unless it's greatly improved, fusion reactors won't have enough uptime to be viable, and will produce just as much waste as fission, except it's structural not fuel.

Tritium breeding is not even a challenge anymore, hope is given up. It's now a known limitation of the deployment speed of the technology: a fusion reactor needs an initial tritium capital to put in its first blankets, and more tritium will be bred out of it only  very slowly. Mankind would NEVER be capable of bootstrapping more than 1 fusion reactors per two decade and per fusion reactor already running. And all the initial stock built and painfully maintained over decades by all fission reactors would go into the first commercial scale fusion reactor. There was a very interesting discussion of this on The Oil Drum a few weeks ago.

Being an ugly malevolent nuclear lobbyist, I think we should move to thorium breeders (and multiply fuel availability by 300 compared to PWR), but it is interesting to note that they too have widescale bootstrapping contingencies, albeit not as stringent.


by Pierre on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 11:15:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
How about mining the moon for tritium?

But, yeah, if the breeding capability of fusion is 0.05 per reactor-year...

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 11:43:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Only Helium 3 on the moon.  As I understand it, wouldn't work in the proposed fusion plants.
by tjbuff (timhess@adelphia.net) on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 01:40:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Darn, you're right... I'll trade you a neutron for a proton. Deal?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 01:43:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You have to throw in a positron into the deal to conserve charge.  Wrap it separately for shipping.
by tjbuff (timhess@adelphia.net) on Thu Jan 18th, 2007 at 03:06:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]