Skip to main content

A Nuclear Energy Binge to Combat Climate Change

Professor Peter Wadhams off ice
This suggests an academic freak-out:
Geo-engineering techniques such as whitening clouds by adding fine sprays of water vapor, or adding aerosols to the upper atmosphere have been ridiculed in some quarters but welcomed elsewhere. Wadhams proposes the use of thorium-fuelled reactors, being tested in India, which are said to be safer because they do not result in a proliferation of weapons-grade plutonium, experts say. Also, under certain circumstances, the waste from thorium reactors is less dangerous and remains radioactive for hundreds rather than thousands of years.
Wadhams is Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University. What he’s talking about are the desperate measures he envisions as necessary to mitigate climate change.

The thorium-powered nuclear future represents what he calls a nuclear energy “binge” – the resort to thorium seems to me a bit of a hedge, but he’s only proposing not disposing. He’d probably be content enough with uranium if it came down to that.

His point isn’t about nuclear energy, but about arctic ice and the fact that it’s melting away. Even worse, underneath it - well, in Greenland, anyway - is a lot of methane.
"What we are now seeing is a fast collapse of the sea ice that means we could see a complete loss during the summer by 2015 - rather than the 20 to 30 years talked about by the UK Meteorological Office. This would speed up ocean warming and Greenland ice cap melt and increase global ocean levels considerably as well as warming the seabed and releasing more methane."
It seems unlikely that that the largest nuclear facility building project in the history of atomic energy (or the largest effort to seed clouds) would make a difference by 2015 (though it could, of course, make a big difference over time.) Which makes Professor Wadham’s call seem like a freak-out, a bit frantic, but even if that were true, he’d has plenty of reason for it.
---
Wadhams has been talking about the snow melt for awhile (I mean, beyond the fact that it’s his specialty.) I poked around the Cambridge archives and found this from 2010.
However, comparing the sea ice extent that had been predicted by the IPCC models for recent years with what was actually observed shows that the models, as they stand, underestimate the rate at which the ice is disappearing. Wadhams believes that this is due to feedback loops which come into play as more ice melts in the summer, but which have not yet been properly accounted for in the models.
So he’s been saying this for a couple of years at least and hopping ahead of other experts – I think the Guardian has picked up on it now because of the recent dire warnings about the methane lurking under the ice. Already, a fair amount of seepage has been recorded.
Writing in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers say this ancient gas [ancient because the methane’s been there since antiquity] could have a significant impact on climate change.
Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas after CO2 and levels are rising after a few years of stability.
But If read the stories correctly, it’s tough to pin down how much methane is there, though a fair amount of inquiry is devoted to figuring it out. But here’s the thing: if the ice melts away by 2015, then there isn’t much time before the methane escapes its icy prison (though I think it lies under the ground, not the ice, so it won’t all go in a single burp.)

In any event, the goal ultimately might be to account for the methane in calculating its impact, not to keep it where it is. Professor Wadhams’ geo-engineering ideas might intend to produce snow in the Arctic, but it seems very unlikely to happen. So, frankly, does a nuclear energy binge, however much that might benefit the planet in the long run and might occur, hopefully without all the implications of a binge, anyway.

Comments

SteveK9 said…
Any realistic estimates on the amount of methane leaking from fracking?
jim said…
Nice concept like some, but who's ear in Congress do you have to help make it reality?

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Popular posts from this blog

Knowing What You’ve Got Before It’s Gone in Nuclear Energy

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Nuclear energy is by far the largest source of carbon prevention in the United States, but this is a rough time to be in the business of selling electricity due to cheap natural gas and a flood of subsidized renewable energy. Some nuclear plants have closed prematurely, and others likely will follow.
In recent weeks, Exelon and the Omaha Public Power District said that they might close the Clinton, Quad Cities and Fort Calhoun nuclear reactors. As Joni Mitchell’s famous song says, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
More than 100 energy and policy experts will gather in a U.S. Senate meeting room on May 19 to talk about how to improve the viability of existing nuclear plants. The event will be webcast, and a link will be available here.
Unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants get no specia…

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…