Here’s a quick thought bubble on a quiet Tuesday.
I have just been chatting with my friend Mike Shellenberger. Mike is formerly of The Breakthrough Institute and is currently spearheading an effort to prevent the closure of California’s last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon.
Within a wide ranging conversation we talked about the way nuclear power is presented to the world. The word “nuclear” itself suffers major brand issues, and it is inconsistent with other sources that are commonly named by energy/fuel source (wood, oil, gas). It would be more consistent to speak of “uranium” as the key fuel, though some of the energy production comes from other elements.
I dislike the grouping “renewables” as it make a family out of a motley collection of technologies that have little in common (picture a home PV system, then a large hydro dam on a river, then a biomass plant burning wood pellets. Ridiculous grouping). Frankly, given the available resources of uranium, the efficiency of advanced nuclear cycles and the vast resource in (un)spent nuclear fuel avialable right now, the idea that “renewables” are in any way more sustainable that nuclear power seems fallacious to me.
I like the word “fission” because it tells me something about what is happening in the process and, critically, distinguishes it from “combustion”. Combustion is a climate change and air pollution problem. Fission is not, because fission has no chimney, because nothing is burning so fission doesn’t need one.
That all made Mike and I think about “Motion” (hydro, wind), “combustion” (wood, biomass, oil, gas, coal, biofuel), “fission” (uranium, thorium, other actinides) and “light” (solar PV and, less directly, solar thermal).
Motion, combustion, fission and light.
The words offer insight into the characteristics, advantages and disadvantages of each. Motion in the environment comes and goes; rivers run differently year to year, wind rises and dips day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. Light varies too, but for different reasons and in different patterns. Lots of us have an accessible light resource at our homes, but we have no accessible motion resource. Combustion can be constant but whether it’s coal or gas or wood pellets, you are burning something; that means CO2 and air pollution is guaranteed. It’s easy to take a little constant combustion with you wherever you go in the form of fuel. One can’t say the same of light, motion or fission. Fission is constant, it’s not burning anything. That means no CO2 or air pollution but you need to take care of the fissioned bits. Combustion and fission are excellent when what you really need most is heat; light can work well and motion isn’t a great starting point to get heat.
Would we consider trying to power the world on motion and light alone? How would we need to alter the world, and our energy systems, to make that happen? Can we do it, and would we seriously wish to do it? How could we store enough light and motion to do without combustion and fission? If we can’t do without combustion, what are we going to combust to resolve our climate dilemma and air pollution danger? Can we make enough combustible fuel? Is that a job for motion, light, fission or all three?
It might be nothing, but maybe some smarter labels would help us ask some smarter questions.