Friday, November 1, 2013

New Nukes: The Rise of Thorium

In the context of Global Warming and climate change, the attraction of nuclear power has re-emerged among serious energy policy discussions after a 30-year hibernation.  Three Mile Island (TMI) and later Chernobyl badly chilled tolerance for "nukes", and the broader zeitgeist surrounding nuclear decommissioning in the wake of the Cold War cooled possbilities even further.  Despite well known cost considerations (read: over-runs), permitting challenges, construction delays and rampant NIMBYism, nuclear power is now receiving renewed consideration: it has the potential to provide vast amounts of electricity with comparative minor greenhouse gas emissions, especially with the popular re-emergence of an alternate fuel source, Thorium.  As a result, certain traditional opponents of nuclear power are experiencing a sort of philosophical glasnost moment, and even environmental activists--long the entrenched skirmish line against nukes--are opting for a second look.  But challenges remain.

Electricity--cheap, reliable and clean. Pick two.   In corporate project management, clients often seek a trifecta of results: a high quality work product, a quick delivery and a low budget. Corporate project managers have an axiom when responding to such requests: "You can have it good, fast or cheap. Pick two."

A similar cost-benefit trade-off tightens the turnbuckle of tension between global warming and industrial-scale electricity production.  Society can have it cheap (conventional fossil fuel), reliable (the lights come on every time we want them), and clean (low-carbon intensity, with side benefit or reduced "conventional" pollutants). But it has not, at least to date, been plausible to have all three. 

For the most part, utility scale generators have generally opted for cheap and reliable.  This trade-off has had relatively minor environmental ramifications--acid rain, particulate matter emissions, localized extraction impacts (think coal tailing ponds and Appalachian-style "mountain-topping").  The spectre of anthorpogenic global warming, however, has changed the calculus, as policy makers and electricity entreprenuers alike have aggressively sought out alternate and ideally magic-bullet energy sources.  The message has been that the clock is ticking, and irreversible climate change lurks around a not-too-distant bend on humanity's timeline.  Things are urgent, the argument goes, and a solution must be found now.

Along Comes Thorium
And a funny thing happened on the road to climate catastrophe: the once-great environmental threat from energy sector suddenly seems like a potential savior.  Not only is nuclear power getting a second look, but proponents are dusting off a technology from the second generation of nuclear reactor development and enabling a "new" type of utility-scale nuclear power.  Recent fanfare surrounding thorium-based reactors, however, suggests that a parallax shift in how we address the energy equation may be at hand.  Thorium reactors resolve several of the problems that bedevil nuclear power on a global scale:
1.  Sourcing and fuel conversion.  Thorium is both naturally more abundant than uranium and enrichment techniques are easier, effectively making thorium even more "plentiful" than uranium.
2. energy density.  Thorium contains up to 200X the energy of uranium1. 
3. weaponization.  Enriched thorium--as well as its by-products--are unsuitable for both weapons-grade and "dirty bomb" development.
4. waste remediation.  A thorium reactor can actually "burn" plutonium, eliminating it from the waste--as well as the weapon--stream).
5.  Reliance on the Imperium.  Almost 90% of known reserves are concentrated in countries that are both politically stable and economically partnered with the United States--which itself holds a 15% of proven resources.

As an added benefit, thorium reactors can be micro-sized to operate at load centers--thereby reducing expensive transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure.

The current accomodation for most of the industrialized world--France, certain parts of Scandanavia and Spain notwithstanding--is fossil intensive.  The commercial grid depends on extensive and complex  (T&D) systems that link central power stations to load centers such as cities and high demand industrial zones. To reliably respond to the "demand curve" that typifies most of Europe, North America and the manufacturing economies of Asia, regional and national electricity systems require a bipartite supply: base load, which runs 24 hours a day and fulfills the minimum constant level of demand on the electricity system; and marginal (intermediate/peak) load, which varies by time of day, time of year, weather and other variables and which is dispatched by a central operating authority in reponse to the demand ebb and flow. Baseload is generally fulfilled with low-cost generation such as coal plants and natural gas-powered "combined cycle" facilities. In addition to high environmental impacts, these facilities have the disadvantage of slow start-up and ramp times, and thus cannot be used to meet variable demand such as high air conditioner use on hot summer afternoons. Marginal load rely on generation types that are easily and quickly dispatchable (turned on), but that are higher cost for reasons such as start-time and fuel efficiency. So-called "peaker" units can start up in as little as 30 minutes, but burn fuel at rates that make them expensive to operate. In combination, the baseload/marginal service is highly reliable, but is requires trade-offs in either costs of operation or GHG emissions.

So the conumdrum remains. The industrialized west has extremely high demand for electricity and high population emerging economies such as China and India understand that cheap and reliable electrification is a cornerstone of modernization. Fuel is being burned at geometrically-increasing rates, which has corresponds directly with GHG emissions and threatens climate stability.

Conventional nuclear power is at best a difficult political pill to swallow and at-worst a catastrophe in-waiting.  Thorium could be the comfortable compromise.  But much would have to be done, from revised permitting processes, to a successful (and honest) public education campaign, to neutralizing the fossil fuel lobby that would oppose a nuclear renaissance.  In sum, this represents a sort of public policy Rubic Cube, where a lot of inter-linked variables would have to line-up "just so."  Is it possible?  Cynicism is justified: For a nation that split the atom, but the gridlock of entrenched interests in national politics are a force of a whole-other magnitude.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Thin Blue Line: More on Bottled Water

Apparently, it takes 1.5 million barrels a year of oil to manufacture the plastic water bottles Americans use.
That's right; you heard me:
Of Oil.
For water bottles.
Of course, it doesn't end there, because you still gotta extract, bottle, refrigerate and transport the stuff around. Which bumps the total to 50 million barrels of oil a year.  So it seems that, not only are there serious questions about the economics and health ramifications of drinking a largely un-regulated consumer product, but doing so actually has other destructive characteristics, such as promoting the social injustice associated with extractive imperialism in oil rich nations, increasing GHG emissions (all that CO2 from drilling, pumping, shipping, and burning 50 million barrels of OPEC Ooze has to go somewhere), and adding a whole lotta junk to the global waste stream. (But hey, why shouldn't we expand the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?)  And let's not forget: numbers proffered here are for Uncle Sam only.  Europe and Asia spend their share of Euros or Yuan to answer the orgiastic call of mass marketing half-truths pimping a product that is free and of equal or better quality.  Unless you live here:

(See the full series of fun, happenin' Chinese Environmental Disaster Photos here)

But hey, don't take my word that there's trouble bubblin' up from the world's fresh water bottling wells.  Go see Tapped, coming to DVD player near you.

Oh, and one other thing: the trouble with fresh water isn't limited to the bottled kind:  Regions that destroy native eco-systems in order to grow agricultural products (such as Brazil, razing rain forests to create grazing lands for McDonalds'-grade beef) are in some ways trading short-term financial gains for long-term water pain. While they appear to be swapping beef for hard-currency, their real import may be drought: as rain forests disappear, so does their rain-making capacity. This not only impacts regional bio-dynamics, but also local water supplies. Reduced rain capture undermines surface supplies, but also down-rates water table re-charge.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Think before you drink

Corporate sustainability is an enterprise-wide undertaking. Why? Because CS is not merely about recycling waste-paper, setting printer defaults to "two-sided" and turning off computers and office lights when not in use. (Tho' these are all fantastic ideas, and ones that you should incorporate into your daily code of sustainability behavior.) It is ultimately about achieving a "zero-net" carbon footprint--and since virtually all commercial activity involves carbon output (usually from fossil fuels), virtually all enterprises are net-positive contributors to GHG output. Achieving zero-net therefore requires coordinated corporate action, such as purchasing offsets, participating in corporate transportation programs such as BP's CoolFuel (, and proactive energy reduction measures in the supply chain.
But that doesn't mean that individuals can't make meaningful contributions to energy reductions that lead to corresponding curtailment of GHG emissions. As part of an on-going series of "Individual Actions", this is post offers one easy and high-impact way that you can reduce your personal footprint (while also saving a BIG BUCKS*): Switch to filtered tap water.

Bottled water is almost incomprehensibly fossil fuel intensive: energy is required to pump it, bottle it, ship it, deliver it and display it. And that's before the manufacturing (and disposal) of the petroleum-based plastic bottle is accounted for. It is certainly true that filtered water also requires energy: it has to be pumped from the reservoir to the tap. But whereas many bottled water sources are extremely remote from the point of consumption (Evian is in France; where are you?), most municipal water comes from local sources and doesn't require an energy outlay (or corresponding GHG emissions) to run either a bottling process or a trucking-based delivery chain. Best of all, tap water doesn't require a fossil-derived plastic bottle that required limited resources to produce, and limited resources to dispose of. So when it comes to water, please think before you drink.

Note: For everything you ever wanted to know about bottled water (but were afraid to ask), take a deep dive into NRDC's report on the topic.... learn such frothy, fun facts as one 'brand of "spring water" whose label pictured a lake and mountains, actually came from a well in an industrial facility's parking lot, near a hazardous waste dump, and periodically was contaminated with industrial chemicals at levels above FDA standards,' and most cities have to test surface water for Giardia--yet bottlers don't have to.

*Bottled water can carry a price tag as much as 10,000 times that of tap water. Yikes.