Climate Change is an Existential Threat to All Life on the Planet and to the Continuance of the Human Species as the dominant life form on the planet.
By James Daly, Ph.D
That’s a pretty bleak outlook and as stark as it gets but, sadly, it’s the truth regardless of how many politicians choose to ignore it or refuse to believe it.
The California Wildfires continue unabated, with little coverage by the national news.
Gripped by unprecedented heat and aridity during this year’s Austral Summer, wildfires ravaged Australia largely unabated as firefighters desperately tried to bring them under control.
The Northwest Passage, previously only navigable by ice breaker, is now open water and, this is no joke, major Oil Interests are discussing the real possibility of setting up shop in this region previously reserved for Ice Breakers, Penguins and Polar Bears!
The Polar regions are warming at an accelerated rate compared to the rest of the planet and thus the polar ice sheets, covering both Antarctica and the North Polar region, are disappearing at an alarming rate. The polar ice sheets serve as giant reflectors, reflecting the sun’s incoming energy and thus, over the long term, balance the reflected energy with the retained energy. Since the surface area of the ice sheets is decreasing, less energy is reflected and thus, more energy is retained resulting in greater heating at the polar regions. This isn’t rocket science and is something we’ve known since we first started launching satellites.
I could go on and on but that’s not the point of this article; you don’t have to look too far to know what’s happening.
The recent environmental documentary, “Planet of the Humans” (link here and below), a film written, directed and produced by Jeff Gibbs with backing and promotion by filmmaker Michael Moore, serving also as executive producer, does a great job calling into question and exposing the dark hand of big oil operating in the background, of what heretofore was thought of as our salvation, Solar and Wind Power. The point of the film was multifaceted: to show and highlight the damage done and energy expended producing and deploying this technology but, most importantly, to highlight how a burgeoning population, with many developing countries coming of age and needing an ever-increasing supply of energy and resources, will soon outstrip the planet’s ability to sustain this growth and corresponding energy demands; by some estimates, we’ll reach that mark by 2035.
The long and short of it is this: as a global community and the dominant species on the planet, we have to look long and hard at our demands on the environment and our consumption with an eye towards developing sustainable technologies on a global scale for this generation and the next. Knowing humanity’s track record, the idea that we’ll make life choices amenable to the greater good of the global population and the planet is laughable – we’re not going to change and it’s a fool’s errand to think we will and thus, the solution is technological in nature.
Yes, wind and solar will still be there and the technology works but it comes at a high price and is not scalable or reliable on a global scale. Again, this isn’t something new and we’ve known it for decades. I suspect many are just looking the other way, hoping this problem will just go away – it’s not and it’s here -now, not in ten or twenty years, but now.
You see, its more than just cutting CO2 emissions to zero; if we did that today, cold turkey, just turned everything off, it would take 150 years for the CO2 to return to its pre-industrial age levels. Even if we did that, the planet will still continue to warm, albeit more slowly, abating until the global environment stabilizes. So yes, drastic cuts to CO2 emissions is the order of the day but, until we develop a suitable, reliable, sustainable technical solution, it’s not going to happen and will be just business as usual, the coastal regions and island nations be damned.
Even more worrisome and something that never gets the coverage it warrants is the very real possibility of large-scale Methane release beginning as the planet continues to warm. Methane is 20x more efficient as a greenhouse gas and is currently locked up either on the ocean floor or in frozen regions of the planet and will eventually escape as the warming continues. Even if we cut CO2 emissions to zero today, as mentioned previously, the Methane could still escape as the planet continues to warm, albeit more slowly. Once that happens, we’re on a runaway freight train that can’t be stopped, we would have crossed the Rubicon, a threshold we could not return from.
The technical solutions are within reach with one that could possibly fuel our environmental return from the brink.
So, what are we to do?
This is a 100% green solution but its more or less built out to maximum scale. We need to maintain these existing power stations with an eye towards small deployments and expansions when and if feasible and where building a dam wouldn’t do more harm than good.
Nuclear fission is the process of “splitting the atom” and is also, a 100% green solution, a process and power source that is Largely vilified, receiving a bad rap and thus downplayed by many governments as a viable energy source. Nuclear Fission Power stations, if properly designed and installed, could provide the stepping stone to a green, sustainable future. Clearly, very powerful fossil fuel interests would go into overdrive trying to impede any new Nuclear Fission Power stations and, I suspect, this lobbying effort has played a major role with some of the sensational hype leveled against “Nuclear Power”. In addition, many ignorant and uninformed activists or those with an agenda will join the fray; some will cite Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island as a reason to block the deployment of any future nuclear plants. The problems with each of these facilities can be explained and I’ll briefly describe each of them below. It should also be pointed out, that any new nuclear power stations would be 4th generation plants with automation deployed as applicable, multiple backup layers, failsafes and safeguards. And then they’ll cite the “problem” of nuclear waste. All remaining nuclear waste produced since the dawn of the nuclear age that hasn’t been repurposed or reused would occupy a volume 100 meters in length (1 US Football field) by 50 meters wide and 50 meters high or 250000 cu. meters, a football field 50 meters high which, when you think about it, isn’t that remarkable considering the time, scope and scale involved. And according to the World Nuclear Association:
- Nuclear power is the only large-scale energy-producing technology that takes full responsibility for all its waste and fully costs this into the product.
- The amount of waste generated by nuclear power is very small relative to other thermal electricity generation technologies.
- Used nuclear fuel may be treated as a resource or simply as waste.
- Nuclear waste is neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial waste.
- Safe methods for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste are technically proven; the international consensus is that geological disposal is the best option.
Located on the south side of the island of Japan, this power station was an accident waiting to happen. For a variety of reasons, a much safer and more protected location would have been Niigata or Yamagata on the island’s north side where the island itself would have provided a natural shield to everything from a tsunami to an attack from the sea. This became deadly obvious immediately following the devastating tsunami of 11 March 2011. The destruction and loss of life was on a scope and scale comparable to that of Chernobyl and thus, the event was classified as Level 7, the same as Chernobyl, according to the International Nuclear Event Scale. It is important to point out that the only loss of life attributed to this accident was from the tsunami, not from the reactor!
The nuclear accident at Chernobyl was the worst in history and was classified as a Level 7 event according to the International Nuclear Event Scale along with Fukushima. As is often the case, unforeseen contingencies resulted in an escalating cascade of failures culminating in a runaway core melt-down. In this case, the reactor operators were conducting a power outage safety test. The confluence of reactor design flaws and serious breaches in protocol during a test simulation ultimately resulted in the runaway event. Also, the reactor was an old Generation 2, RBMK-type reactor widely used throughout the former Soviet Union.
Not to make light of these disasters, we’ve learned from them and should move forward with new, improved reactor designs and enhanced safety protocols. Nuclear Fission Power remains the top contender, at least in the near-term (10-20 years), to replace obsolete coal and fossil fuel plants and to build out new generating capacity. As previously mentioned, the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying efforts have already been quite successful in suppressing new nuclear generating capacity:
“The discovery moved Anderson up to exhibit number one in my long-running effort to prove that the illogically tight linkage between ‘environmental groups’ and ‘antinuclear groups’ can be traced directly to the need for the oil and gas industry to discourage the use of nuclear energy,”
writes Rod Adams, author of the blog Atomic Insights.
I’m an Astronomer and Astrophysicist by training and profession and care deeply about all living things, the state of our world and the planet we inhabit. In studying the universe and the natural world most of my life, I have come to learn a few things; among those, I’ve come to learn about the origin of the elements, most notably the origins of Uranium and Plutonium, the essential materials used in either an atomic weapon or in a nuclear fission reactor. You see, all elements in the Periodic Table beyond Helium up through Uranium are synthesized in the cores of stars. In the case of our sun, hundreds of millions of metric tons of hydrogen, through nuclear fusion reactions in its core, are continuously transmuted through nucleosynthesis to form Helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy according to the principle of Mass-Energy Equivalence (E=mc²) first derived by Einstein in 1905. The heavier elements, above Iron through Uranium are only produced in the aftermath of supernovae, the spectacular end to high-mass stars or, alternatively, the spectacular end of a White Dwarf star in a Type-Ia supernova. Thus, the binding energy of the Uranium nucleus, the “energy” that holds it together according to the principle of mass-energy equivalence, the same Uranium that is used in nuclear fission reactors (described above) or in a nuclear weapon, required the energy of an exploding star and was thus produced therein. There could be nothing more horrible or grotesque than to release such energy, the energy released during a supernova, on a human population in the form of a nuclear weapon!
The fate of humankind and its long-term survival rests on if or when we’ll be able to produce a sustained nuclear fusion reaction, full stop! If not, it’s back to sticks and stones. It also goes without saying within the context of Nuclear Fusion, that the fossil-fuel industry has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and the suppression of all measures that would impinge on their ability to sell more carbon-based fuel and thus, the full development and build-out of nuclear fusion power would be a target of theirs as well.
And this brings me to the main point of this article: the development and global-scale deployment of Nuclear Fusion Power.
The Featured Image associated with this story depicts a cutaway view of the ITER, short for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. Located in the south of France, the ITER project is a International nuclear fusion research and engineering collaboration between the European Union, the United States, India, South Korea, Russia, Kazakhstan, Australia, China and Japan. The projected start date for the ITER facility is 2025. ITER is a demonstration project only with a planned output power of 500 MW with 50 MW input power, a 10-fold gain. If a sustained thermonuclear fusion reaction is achieved, it will be for testing and proof-of-concept purposes only with a similar capacity, “production” reactor to be built with a projected completion date beyond 2035.
While our understanding of nuclear fusion, the process that powers the stars, is mature, the engineering hurdles necessary to achieve a sustained fusion reaction are quite high. The sun’s energy is produced in a 15 M degree (K) core according to the Standard Solar Model: hundreds of millions of metric tons of hydrogen are transmuted (fused) into helium every second, a process that has been ongoing for the past 4.6 billion years. The main fusion process occurring in the sun’s core is the “Proton-proton” chain, a three step process that takes four hydrogen nuclei and produces one helium nucleus (aka, an Alpha particle).
For stars like our sun, given it’s mass of 2×1030 Kilograms and evolutionary status, the Proton-proton chain occurs at 15 Million degrees (Kelvin). In order to accomplish the same result in a “non-stellar” environment such as a thermonuclear reactor on the earth’s surface, the production of a helium nucleus with the release of energy, different light nuclei are required: hydrogen isotopes of deuterium and tritium. This combination of different light nuclei and low relative pressure available compared to the sun’s core, the reaction requires a temperature of 150 million degrees(!). “Regular” hydrogen contains one proton and one electron while Deuterium contains one proton, one neutron and one electron and is commonly referred to as “Heavy Hydrogen“, whereas the far more common protium has no neutrons in the nucleus. Tritium contains 2 neutrons, a proton and one electron to electrically balance the single proton as does the other two isotopes of hydrogen.
So what’s the problem with Nuclear Fusion? As mentioned above, the sun has considerable mass and thus provides an enormous pressure on its core; that combined with certain quantum effects, the required temperature for the Proton-proton chain is 15 M K. Those same conditions don’t exist here on earth’s surface and thus, a temperature of 150 M is required; so what’s the problem?
The Problem with Thermonuclear Fusion Reactors
Containing a 150 MK plasma is the problem. There is no physical structure or material that could contain a plasma with such a high temperature; so how do we do it? Through the use of powerful magnets that produce an enormous magnetic field in the shape of a torus or a “doughnut”. Sustaining such a magnet requires enormous amounts of power and, in the case of ITER, that power requirement would be 50 Megawatts (50 Million Watts)! Two engineering hurdles need to be overcome:
- producing and sustaining the fusion reaction and
- containing the plasma
The path to a clean, sustainable future will be some variation of the following:
- Maintenance (and additional capacity build-out, as described above) of hydropower plants
- Eliminating all coal-fired power plants immediately, replacing them (preferably) with Nuclear Fission Power plants
- Rapid phase out of all fossil-fuel (natural gas and oil-fired) generation, replacing them with Nuclear Fission Plants
- Substantial public investment from many countries (beyond the commitments of the participating governments involved in ITER) in Nuclear Fusion R & D. The current pace of Nuclear Fusion R & D and the projected deployment of it as a viable energy alternative puts it well beyond 2035 and closer to 2050, a point in time beyond which the polar ice caps would have melted with the concurrent flooding of coastal regions and the submersion of many island nations. The US Department of Energy can and should be taking the lead in this regard. Instead huge public subsidies are provided to wealthy fossil fuel interests in a frenzied attempt to extract the quickly-diminishing and non-renewable deposits of oil and natural gas (fracking). This investment will promote the long-term public good and not enrich private fossil fuel interests to the long-term detriment of the public and the greater world at large.
While the governing regime in this country continues to fund a grotesquely bloated military while eliminating national participation in the largely symbolic Paris Accords, there are NO NATIONAL PLANS for Nuclear Fusion R & D aside from minor programs ongoing at two national laboratories. This is unacceptable and needs to be a part of any comprehensive “Green New Deal”. The same sense of urgency, fervor, dedication and focus that brought about the development of nuclear weapons at the close of WWII and the subsequent incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, should be brought to bear on the development of utility scale nuclear fusion technology. The brilliant minds involved in the Manhattan project, minds such as Einstein, Szilard, Oppenheimer, Fermi and Feynman to name a few are gone and that shouldn’t be an impediment now. The clarion call with a redoubled fervor has to go out with the same urgency that existed in the early 1940s but now with a gravity unlike any other.
It has to be noted that the men and women involved in the project believed they were acting in the greater good, to develop nuclear weapons technology before the Nazis. Without exception, when they realized the scope and scale of the horror and destruction that would be unleashed with the use of these weapons, they became deeply opposed to any further development with J.R. Oppenheimer reciting a now famous verse from the Bhagavad Gita as he witnessed the Trinity test in New Mexico:
Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds
Nuclear Fusion energy is the only viable, long-term solution. Solar and wind are stop-gap measures and since Nuclear Fission requires Uranium, a non-renewable ore, it figures into the long-term strategy only as a platform from which we eventually disembark. That combined with the necessity of nuclear waste disposal, Nuclear Fission can never be a long-term solution into the 22nd century.
The end game should take the following form: as Nuclear Fusion generating capacity is developed and built out, the phased elimination of all fission reactors begins as they reach their end-of-life (generally between 30-50 years depending on the reactor’s design).
James Daly, Ph.D
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