TED Conversations

Sabin Muntean

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

TEDCRED 50+

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Do we need nuclear energy?

Based on the talk involving Stewart Brand and Mark Jacobson I'm trying to get a debate started in which we can explore many aspects of using nuclear reactors as an energy source today and in the years to come.

As the talk above shows there are enough arguments for both sides, my hope is that ultimately - although I am quite skeptical about it - a certain consensus can be reached.

I will not directly divulge my own stand on this topic and wait for a couple of posts to get the debate started.

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter, have fun discussing!

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    Feb 25 2011: Why nuclear? Several reasons:
    1) nuclear power generation is currently the major carbon-free energy source.

    2) 50 years old, with an excellent safety record, as in 1 death/year worldwide

    3) Efficient. France quadrupled its energy production with 78% nuclear.

    4) Tested and proven designs. E.G. the Integral Fast Reactor (http://www.skirsch.com/politics/globalwarming/ifr.htm), which may reduce the half-life of the waste from 100,000 years to 400 years. Spent fuel is all we need for our energies for several centuries.

    The antinuclear mov't claims that some fuel could be diverted into making bombs. However, since the collapse of the USSR, the cat may already be out of the bag for making bombs, so avoiding additional reactors may not gain us much. Antinuclear activists may invoke Chernobyl like a Tourette's tic, but they keep overblowing the death toll: only 56 confirmed deaths. They may also mention Three Mile Island, without telling you that nobody died in that accident, or were there any injuries. Why the lack of casualties? Because that reactor had a containment lid that trapped those gasses.

    Nuclear is certainly cleaner than another so-called alternative: coal. If you still feel safe with these huge smokestacks spewing carbon dioxide, methane, and sulfuric acid; then it’s time for another reality check. Coal-fired power plants are the major sources of radioactive materials released to the environment. Thorium and uranium may only be a tiny fraction of the coal but we burn a lot of coal. These trace amounts add up to far more than the entire U.S. consumption of nuclear fuels for electricity. Coal accounts for half of the energy output in the United States anyway, so what is it that makes coal an alternative energy? On top of that, we’re now getting air pollution from coal plants in China. That’s right, the Chinese are passing gas our way.

    Serious about weaning ourselves off that foreign oil teat? Go nuclear.
  • Feb 16 2011: as long as the demonstration of "alternative" sources lacks credibility, and as long as we outlive potential Chernobyl disasters, it must remain an option on the table. I lean towards Stewart's position that we are NOT really hearing honest debates here. In the end, the pros and cons should be weighed in a democratic political debate with "instructed/informed" voters who can really honestly make sound decisions. Utopian as that may sound, people should understand what the costs are of energy dependency, of any alternative and of any subsidy. The solar panel subsidy disaster in the EU is demonstrating that wrongly targeted gov't measures can lead to a bunch of people roaming off lots of profits for personal usage. I'd say, put up as many windmills etc... as you want; we need the best future-proofed solutions with as many externalities calculated as possible.
  • Feb 28 2011: It is all about living with the second law of thermodynamics. The harder we work,the more waste energy. If this new reactor works techinically, it is a win. To handle coal or oil or even gas requires that we bring out of the earth more than 26 billion tons of stuff, and at the end you will have to bury the 26 billion tons of CO2.. That is a monumental amount of work, and thus a monumental amout of waste energy as a side effect. The tonage of uranium is dramatically less, and if this technology actually works, we will consume some waste uranium that we have not yet buried and in the end bury only a tiny fraction of the mass of radiioactive waste. compared to the tons of CO2 it would replace, thus wasting much less energy . So I beleive that we should as soon as possible put this techology to the test . If it works as advertised, go for it in a big way.
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    Feb 15 2011: There are quite some developments in the nuclear industry.

    Let me first mention the new "traveling wave nuclear reactor" design from TerraPower. I'm not a MS fanboy, but Bill has invested in the right thing (again). These new reactors work on nuclear waste. I'm not sure what their waste product is and what the safety risks are, but it sure sounds promising. See here: gigaom.com/cleantech/terrapower-how-the-travelling-wave-nuclear-reactor-works. There is also a TED talk about it from Bill. Is this would work out, it's a game changer.

    Second, China want to build "greener" reactors based on "thorium", a much more available product than uranium. They also want to make so called "molten salt" reactors, what seem to be the same sort of design as TerraPower's.

    Don't get me wrong, i'm all for green energy. But the brutal facts seem to be the global warming if happening at a pace that rules out the development of enough really green sources of energy like wind, solar and tidal. So, nuclear has to be an intermediate solution. Development of these reactors take to much time, i agree. But a lot of this is red tape.
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    E G 10+

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    Feb 28 2011: yes yes yes
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    Feb 25 2011: yes
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    Feb 21 2011: Harald Jezek says:

    " Today, the technology might not be good enough to make efficient use of solar energy, but, I strongly believe that eventually the technology will improve and we will be able to harvest solar energy in an efficient manner. "

    I think that we need to be more specific or more abstract here. Does 'solar' mean surface (as opposed to space)
    deployed photovoltaic panels? There is an absolute limit, of about 1kW/m² of what can be harvested at the surface. That can supply a significant share of our needs, in projects such as http://www.desertec.org/,
    but not more then the absolute limit. Technology can improve efficiency of collection, for example genetic engineering can may biofuels cost effective (viz http://goo.gl/4GqTe ), but land requirement will compete with other needs. Neverthless, we can add
    4) Use of photovoltaic cells in deserts harvesting of biofuels.

    It seesm we have concensus here. O propose following is resolved:

    To ask 'do we need nuclear energy' is like asking 'do we need pizza or doughnuts?' Some people want pizza,
    some do not. There is no reason to ban pizza, and there is no reason to ban nuclear energy. Some people would like to prohibit nuclear energy, based on emotional arguments (nuclear bombs are bad) and not understanding that problem of so called 'waste' disappears with new generation of reactors (gen 4 breeders). The issue is issue of economy, safety and convenience. Government should avoid to make arbitrary decisions, such as 'banning nuclear' or subsidizing one mode (such as EU directive 20-20-20 subsidizing solar panels). Government should however support basic research and demonstration plants of new technologies.

    Is there any dissent to such a conclusion?
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      Feb 22 2011: Petr, no, I don't limit myself to surface/non-surface technology. I simply think, we still have a long way to go with that technology. I don't know what the absolute limit of 1kw/m2 is based on. Could you explain ?
      Personally I'm not a big fan of bio fuel. It sounds good, but if you get to bottom of it, it's not so great after all. There is still pollution coming from bio fuel and, in order to cover a significant demand of our needs we would need huge areas of mono cultures producing the crops needed for the bio fuel.
      I think we never will get to only one single energy source. It most likely will always be a mix of different technologies.
      At this point of time, I'm ok with nuclear energy, however, I think society shouldn't rest on it's collective laurels but strive for better, more efficient, safer and cleaner technologies. Maybe nuclear energy will become obsolete or maybe not. In any case, eventually we will run out of nuclear fuel.
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        Mar 4 2011: Hello Harald (and others),

        The Solar constant is amount of energy reaching Earth at the top of atmosphere.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_constant

        It is 1.366 kW/m² (day and night = 24/7). One quarter of that may reach surface (on a sunny day).

        We cannot harvest more than that, be it biofuel, photovolatic atd atd.


        We are really debating only next 20 to 50 years. In the lonG run FUSION will supply all needed energy, and breakthrough in that may come soon. Rational strategy, on climate, on clean energy, is to have Manhattan 2 as explained e.g. here:
        http://goo.gl/taoLn

        Careful with googling this. MaNY PEOPLE ARE USING THAT TERM FOR MANY DIFFERENT THINGS.
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    Feb 20 2011: I like what I've read so far and it appears to be a consensus here that although nuclear energy has its downsides, it remains important for us as we bridge the gap towards things like fusion that may take long to achieve.

    One other technology that I'd like to mention is space based solar power (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space-based_solar_power). Like fusion it will take some time before we can deal with all the problems involved such as safely emitting and receiving the energy via laser or microwaves, the launch costs that would be involved, and so on. However the advantages of this type of power are quite obvious - being able to get clean solar energy the whole year anywhere on the planet.

    Coming back to nuclear energy, one thing I cannot quite understand is the reaction of many environmentalists regarding this topic. Of course we need to deal with nuclear waste, but at least the reactors help us save tons of CO2 every year. Isn't this then the lesser evil?
    I often miss viable energy plans from Green parties around Europe, who simply seem to concentrate on demonizing nuclear, but in my eyes fail to offer alternatives.
    Then again perhaps I'm looking at things from the wrong perspective...
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      Feb 22 2011: I look at it from a pragmatic point of view. Sometimes we simply have no choice but to use a technology that is less than perfect. Nuclear energy is such a solution. However, the currently viable alternatives are environmentally even worse, so, as you said, let's use the lesser evil.
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    Feb 19 2011: First, we should strive to create consensus on facts, including technical facts.
    Then, some debate on possible strategies would have a chance to come to some agreements.
    Event then, the final strategy, will depend on technological breakthroughs, which are inherently uncertain and unpredictable.

    So. let.s enumerate options. Revett Eldred says : The only things left are so-called 'clean' coal and nuclear and
    we don't know how to dispose of the spent material,

    But, there is more:
    1) SPS aka Space parasol described here :
    http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-10408897-54.html?tag=mncol
    has advantage of providing geoengineering option (shade) we may need, in addition to clean energy
    2) Gen 4 reactors - solve two problems: what to do with spend fuel, and limited amount of U and Th
    hint : They burn the 'waste', which is really potential fuel. A bit like coke from coal.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_IV_reactor
    3) Fusion energy. Guesses are that it may be ready in 50 years, and some say, it is sliding, so it is always
    50 years. But, unexpected breaktrough, advence in RTS (room temperature superconductors) make radically
    shorten the schedule see: www.iter.org/

    Is there more? Anyone?
  • Feb 17 2011: I think some form of nuclear power is inevitable. (1) Sooner or later, fossil fuels will decline and become ever more expensive. They will then tend toward exclusively mobile applications -- being still the most efficient way of storing hydrogen energy -- leaving static power generation to other technologies. (2) No so-called "green" technology has yet shown even a glimmer of becoming feasible on a large scale. Not solar power, not wind power, not tidal power, not burning waste -- none of them. (3) The only things left are so-called 'clean' coal and nuclear. Nuclear has problems, particularly in that not one nuclear power plant anywhere in the world was contructed without public -- read tax -- money, so it isn't quite as economically self-sustaining as its fans would have us believe. We don't know how to dispose of the spent material, the technology requires huge amounts of water for cooling, which has sometimes dramatic effects on the neighboring environment, and even though its safety record is excellent, when it does go wrong it tends to do so in a big way. But I see no alternative other than coal, and it is becoming ever more politically incorrect.

    We need fuel and always will. I don't see how nuclear power generation can be avoided.
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    Feb 17 2011: When WE all learn the art of Ki Maah .....dancing with The Creators or dancing with the NUCLEUS of each and every cell dancing in perfected harmony....maybe then WE will start to fully experience the art of listening and hear of new ways of creating energy in a more natural abundant manner.

    I walked across america in 1986 with a group called the great peace march ...with a group mission of global nuclear disarmament. From the nine months of prayer, contemplation and meditation on the 'subjects.' ....twenty-five years later....i am still on the first step of understanding THE NUCLEOUS ENERGY within and how to master it.....of even dance with it.

    I believe we did a great job of creating nuclear everything....created a lot of jobs, killed a lot of people, keep things moving that maybe shouldn't have been moving. A great intellectual exercise, hopefully sooner than later our multiple intelligences( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences ) will integrate to intuitively create more amazing natural based clean energy for everyone. Till than, mastering the art of Mi Kaah is my way of experiencing the future magic of utopia.
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    Feb 10 2011: Unfortunately, the discussion about nuclear energy is more often than not emotionally charged instead based on reason.
    As you, Sabin, mentioned in your opening statement, there are pros as well as cons to this question.
    I like to take an pragmatic approach here.
    I think as of today nuclear technology is a fairly efficient way to produce energy and over the years it also became a reasonable safe technology as well.
    On the other hand, nuclear fuel as fossil fuel doesn't last for ever, which means that eventually we will have to find alternative energy sources.
    Also, although I'm in favor of nuclear energy today, I also believe that it is not the end of our wisdom. We need to keep searching for better, more efficient energy sources. My personal favorite is here solar energy. Today, the technology might not be good enough to make efficient use of solar energy, but, I strongly believe that eventually the technology will improve and we will be able to harvest solar energy in an efficient manner. Solar energy seems promising to me because of it's virtually limitless supply and it's safety.
    Will nuclear energy become obsolete ? Probably not any time soon, but hopefully, in the long term, it can be replaced with better solutions.