Tuesday, September 11, 2012

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.
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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.

2 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