11 March 2013

Learning from China: Coal and its Nukes

Over the past few years I've given the NYT's Justin Gillis a (deserved) hard time for some of his reporting. Today I'm happy to given him some well-earned praise on the occasion of his first monthly column at the NYT Times on climate change. Gillis wisely chose to write his first column on energy innovation, with a focus on nuclear power and China:
We have to supply power and transportation to an eventual population of 10 billion people who deserve decent lives, and we have to do it while limiting the emissions that threaten our collective future.

Yet we have already poured so much carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere that huge, threatening changes to the world’s climate appear to be inevitable. And instead of slowing down, emissions are speeding up as billions of once-destitute people claw their way out of poverty, powered by fossil fuels.

Many environmentalists believe that wind and solar power can be scaled to meet the rising demand, especially if coupled with aggressive efforts to cut waste. But a lot of energy analysts have crunched the numbers and concluded that today’s renewables, important as they are, cannot get us even halfway there.

“We need energy miracles,” Mr. Gates said in a speech three years ago introducing his approach, embodied in a company called TerraPower.

A variety of new technologies might help. Bright young folks in American universities are working on better ways to store electricity, which could solve many of the problems associated with renewable power. Work has even begun on futuristic technologies that might cheaply pull carbon dioxide out of the air.

But because of the pressing need for thousands of large generating stations that emit no carbon dioxide while providing electricity day and night, many technologists keep returning to potential improvements in nuclear power.
The conclusion reached by Gillis is a logical consequence of doing the math on energy and carbon dioxide.  Gillis concludes, quite rightly:
In effect, our national policy now is to sit on our hands hoping for energy miracles, without doing much to call them forth. 
While we dawdle, maybe the Chinese will develop a nice business selling us thorium reactors based on our old designs.
Of course, "we" are doing a lot more than just siting on our hands -- we are fighting over a largely symbolic piece of pipe going across the Canadian border, we are waging battles over arcana of climate science, we are blaming every disaster on carbon dioxide and we use the climate issue to demonize our opponents (whatever their views). So Gillis is right the that we could be spending our efforts much more productively.

The Chinese are certainly not sitting on their hands. At the Washington Post, Brad Plumer has an excellent post on a new Deutsche Bank report (here in PDF) on China's growing pollution problem. Plumer writes:
Earlier this year, when Beijing was choking on record levels of smog, observers wondered whether China would ever get its pollution problem under control. It’s an insanely difficult question, with huge implications for everything from climate change to the global economy.

So here’s one stab at an answer, in the form of a big recent analysis (pdf) from three Deutsche Bank economists. The bad news: Most of China’s current attempts to curb pollution are failing badly — the country is on pace for ever-higher levels of smog that could throttle the nation’s economy and trigger out-of-control protests.

But there are reasons for optimism here, too: It’s still technically possible for China to get a handle on its smog problem without abandoning economic growth. The country will just have to revamp its energy and transportation policies entirely. Starting… now.
Plumer's analysis is worth reading in full, as is that of Kate Mackenzie at FT Alphaville.I agree with Mackenzie's skepticism about the pace at which China's energy intensity of GDP can be reduced. Nonetheless, the comparison by Deutsche Bank with the experience of the UK over the past 60 years is illustrative. The figure above, from the report, shows the evolution of the UK energy mix from 1948 to 2008, moving from almost total dependence on coal to an energy mix with gas as the leading source of energy.

There are reasons why China is not a good analogue to the UK. For instance, Deutsche Bank projects that China will increase its installed nuclear capacity by 10 times by 2030. That would mean something like 170 new nuclear power plants (China currently has 17). For its part, the Chinese government projects 255 new plants. Either way (I'll take the over, thank you), the rate of build works out to about 1 new plant per month from now until 2030. Sounds fantastic? I thought so too until I learned that China built 11 new nuclear plants in 2011. Apparently not content with its domestic build-out, China is planning to export its nuclear technologies in the near-term. (Perhaps the US Congress will take note as realted to US competitiveness, but I digress.)

China can be thought of as a microcosm of the global economy. As China becomes richer and further sees its energy intensive activities shift offshore, its pollution problems will migrate to the next generation of developing economies, perhaps elsewhere in Asia and eventually in Africa. As I have argued, the energy demands of the future are likely to be massive, and to meet this demand coal (and other dirty energy technologies) are just not going to work -- as the image at the top of this post shows -- despite its dominance in the energy mixes of China and India today.

The bottom line from these excellent reports and analyses should be abundantly clear: Looking to the energy future, one is necessarily either pro-nuclear and pro-gas (fracking) OR one is pro-carbon dioxide and pro-pollution. Which are you?


  1. Giles says:

    "And on the far side of the world, China has seized on discarded American research to pursue a safer reactor based on an abundant element called thorium."

    This is what he is talking about.

    Game changer: The "green" nuclear. Molten salt thorium nuclear reactors. Much cheaper, safer, and cleaner.

    Feb 2011

    "China has officially announced it will launch a program to develop a thorium-fueled molten-salt nuclear reactor, taking a crucial step towards shifting to nuclear power as a primary energy source."

    "The project was unveiled at the annual Chinese Academy of Sciences conference in Shanghai last week, and reported in the Wen Hui Bao newspaper (Google English translation here)."

    "If the reactor works as planned, China may fulfill a long-delayed dream of clean nuclear energy. The United States could conceivably become dependent on China for next-generation nuclear technology. At the least, the United States could fall dramatically behind in developing green energy."


    June 2012

    "The U.S. Department of Energy is quietly collaborating with China on an alternative nuclear power design known as a molten salt reactor that could run on thorium fuel rather than on more hazardous uranium, SmartPlanet understands."

    "Proponents of thorium MSRs, also known as liquid thorium reactors or sometimes as liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs), say the devices beat conventional solid fuel uranium reactors in all aspects including safety, efficiency, waste and peaceful implications."


    Jan 2013

    And India

    India is hosting what very well may be the first ever true conference dedicated to Molten Salt Reactor technology. They contacted me several months ago about giving a plenary talk and I was very surprised to learn of their increasing interest in MSR technology which is a bit of a departure from their traditional long term nuclear plans. They now have the website up regarding the conference.


    If you browse through things you'll see some of their interest is related to the fact that molten salt technology is also applicable to things like processing of solid fuel fast breeder designs. However in my discussions with the organizers and by looking at the subjects they wish to cover at the conference it is clear that they have an increasing interest in true molten salt or liquid fuel concepts. Perhaps this is slightly reactionary to increased Chinese MSR interest but a hopeful sign nonetheless. Please check things out and I'd encourage people to consider submitting papers and/or attending.

    David LeBlanc


    The solution is there. Technology developed in the US in the 60's. Just needs to be updated. Fortunately the Chinese and India (who do and will burn the most coal) are on to it. We can all breath easier.

  2. Your analysis and commentary was quite good up until the last paragraph. I'm not sure where these statements came from:

    "...one is necessarily either pro-nuclear and pro-gas (fracking) OR one is pro-carbon dioxide and pro-pollution. Which are you?"

    My first concern is that you're being unnecessarily polemic about the issue. There are some legitimate concerns about nuclear power, and no shortage of legitimate concerns about fracking; I don't think it's fair to discredit these concerns so bluntly, nor to set up the strawman that those against these practices are pro-CO2 or pro-pollution.

    My second concern is that these conclusions seem to have come out of nowhere; Certainly the fact that China is mobilizing so heavily on Nuclear Power means that it's serious about making progress on energy sustainability, and it means that the US needs to really get serious about competition from China in the energy sector, but this is an issue entirely apart from the feasibility or desirability of nuclear power. And fracking is a very contentious practice; as far as I know the jury is still out regarding how useful or desirable it will be as a future means of energy harvesting.

    Could you elaborate on these issues?

  3. -2-Mark R

    Thanks for the comment, hitting the sweet spot of necessary polemicism can be difficult;-)

    The point however is simple -- either one supports rapid deployment of nuclear and natural gas power in China, or, necessarily, in the alternative one gets more particulate pollution and more carbon dioxide emissions.

    Yes, there are valid concerns and fears about both nuclear and gas technologies. One has to balance these fears with the realities of the consequences of the alternative to these technologies, which as a matter of practical reality is coal.

    Germany is the best example of these trade-offs being made in the near term, and Germany is choosing coal with its CO2, though the particulate issue is better handled, it would be even better with nukes or gas.

    These conclusions are simply the simple math of real world energy trade-offs. Hence my polemic conclusion. Ask again if unclear.


  4. I once referred to AGW as 'the war against coal'. The real evil of coal is that it is cheap and local.

    Like most people, I had always believed Thatcher's campaign (all out war) against the miners (and her support for AGW) was to destroy the unions. I now suspect that was to remove competition for the oil industry.

    Her husband was an oil executive, her government was subservient to the American oil giants and she was a completely unsuitable person for political office. Norway thrived with North Sea Oil, Britain collapsed along with the coal industry.

    Here are a couple of supportive quotes.

    It was Thatcher who insisted that "nothing can stop the great car economy" and her ministers who announced "the biggest road building programme since the Romans".


    (Top ex CIA employee Miles) Copeland warned British miners union leaders Arthur Scargill and Peter Heathfield that the CIA and MI5 had been involved in kick starting a media campaign against the them and helped to frame corrupt allegations against them


  5. ===]]] The bottom line from these excellent reports and analyses should be abundantly clear: Looking to the energy future, one is necessarily either pro-nuclear and pro-gas (fracking) OR one is pro-carbon dioxide and pro-pollution. Which are you? [[[===

    That statement seems unfortunately simplistic.

    There are many who don't fall into your binary characterization. As one example - there are those who advocate nuclear but who adopt an unrealistic attitude about the top-down approach that it would take to make it happen, and it is highly questionable whether there is the political will to realize the required centralized government energy policy and funding. Is someone "pro-nuclear" if they favor nuclear energy but won't support what it would take to build enough nuclear plants to make a big dent? Would that then make them "pro-carbon dioxide and pro-pollution?"

    Do you really see some purpose in calling someone who has concerns about nuclear and fracking "pro-pollution?" Aside from being inaccurate - it also seems to me to be entirely counterproductive.

  6. Looking to the energy future, one is necessarily either pro-nuclear and pro-gas (fracking) OR one is pro-carbon dioxide and pro-pollution. Which are you?

    There is a third option: pro-poverty.

    That, realistically, is where a large part of the environmental movement would want us to head. Sure, they talk about "sustainable sources", but they might as well be talking about unicorn power. Poverty is an acceptable option for many, and quite a few are prepared to state that explicitly. (Of course they don't call it poverty, then call it making do with less, but going without is pretty much the definition of poverty.)

  7. You say: "Looking to the energy future, one is necessarily either pro-nuclear and pro-gas (fracking) OR one is pro-carbon dioxide and pro-pollution. Which are you? " I am now (regrettably) pro-nuclear, pro-gas because it is vital to be so,and pro-carbon dioxide as it is essential to life itself and is not a pollutant. I am against real pollution as any sane person must be. China has 1950's style pollution - very badly.

  8. How about this math working out...

    This study maps energy needs for New York by 2030 using only "wind, water and sunlight (WWS)".


    I know it's "publication by press release", but what do you think about this?

    12,770 offshore wind turbines by 2030 (among other things) for New York alone? Are these researchers able to hide behind declaring it only analyzes economic/technological feasibility? At some point, some of the obvious barriers to this kind of deployment have to dabble in the realm of tech or economy, no?

  9. Mark: It's clear that what McKibben, for example, is preaching is a deliberate return to poverty. A lot of his proposals - e.g. local food production -- are actually harmful; the fleets of small vehicles needed to get produce to local markets use more hydrocarbons than the efficient modern food supply chain. The real goal is not to get the atmosphere to 350 ppm CO2; it is to return us to an agrarian, pre-industrial economy, in which life was nasty cold poor brutish and short.

  10. The link to China building 11 nuclear plants in 2011 takes you to the "Chinese plans to export" page.

  11. Industry in the United States hasn't sat on its hands. It has accomplished far more carbon reduction in five years than the environmental movement and EPA have accomplished in 25 by vastly improving the economics of natural gas (although this does have the side effect of making nuclear less economically attractive).

    Frankly, I want to eliminate coal from power production entirely; the health problems it causes alone make this worth doing.

  12. Large scale solar and wind projects necessarily means large scale displacement of humans, animals, and plants by low density, unreliable means of energy production. It also means environmental and human disruption both during pre-manufacturing (e.g. resource recovery) and in operation, which is especially an issue for wind. Why are we only now discussing the limitations of "green" technology in its current form? It's a niche technology, which is only suitable for isolated markets, including robust applications (e.g. water desalination).

    Hopefully, we are now prepared to discuss the terms and circumstances of reality, where there should be no reasonable expectation for instant (or immediate) gratification without consequence.

    As for nuclear technology, are Americans prepared to have a rational and objective discussion of energy production methods and application-specific requirements? I don't think many of us have have yet overcome our irrational fear of esoteric physical processes or the technologies which exploit them. There is in particular a specially developed (i.e. learned) mental association with nuclear processes which provokes an extreme visceral response.

  13. "its pollution problems will migrate to the next generation of developing economies, perhaps elsewhere in Asia and eventually in Africa"

    That's my understanding too. It's human economic evolution driven by the masters of the universe, the banks. Carbon trading speeded up the process, but it looks like it is a giant FAIL.

    China will do whatever it takes to please their western banking masters. Full speed ahead and the devil take the environment.

    The top of the economic evolutionary ladder is the UK which has been designated the world's bank as China is its factory. The current economy is a true disaster zone due to the global banking crash.

    Read Guardian economics editor Larry Elliot's 'Fantasy Island' for a brilliant (popular) demolition of post industrial economics.

    Good summary


  14. "... until I learned that China built 11 new nuclear plants in 2011."

    I'm not sure what they meant to say with that statement. China started construction of 9 reactors in 2009, 10 in 2010, 0 in 2011, and 4 at the end of 2012. They brought 2 online in 2010, 3 in 2011, and 1 in 2012. There are currently 28 under construction; the number obviously varied considerably over that period.