Global Warming: Greens vs Nuclear – “Th” Thorium Documentary


This is a van filled with Thorium advocates, Kirk Sorensen, Kirk Dorius, Baroness Bryony Worthington and myself. Who wants to tell us what it is we're doing here? We're on our way to Oak Ridge National Labs right now to tour the facility, particularly the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, HFIR and SNS. Along the way, we pass by many sources of electricity. All the ash that builds up from the burning of coal, they put it in big pile. It's called a tailings pile. No break this week for crews in Tennessee trying to clean that mess of potentially toxic sludge that oozed across hundreds of acres of land just west of Knoxville. Crews are using heavy equipment to clear away sludge that inundated a neighborhood near Harriman, Tennessee. 5.

4 million cubic yards coal ash residue that comes from burning coal to create electricity at the power plant that is run by the Tennessee Valley Authority. That ash is now entered into the neighborhood, entered into the land, and most importantly, into two rivers here in the Tennessee River watershed. In that ash are heavy metals, like lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic. You can see the ash. See they're still digging. Oh, man, look at that. Four years later, still working on it. What did it spill from? It absorbs a lot of moisture, Gordon. When we had that big rainstorm, it actually took on a lot of water and held it, to where the piles just collapsed and flowed downhill. You're saying an ash pile washed down? I don't see an ash pile big enough where something like that pushed it down. That's because it's already washed down. It used to be a mountain, and now it's just a big wash. Pretty much every coal plant has a huge ash tailings pile. This is not unique.

They've all got them. This is the waste of coal. We're at TVA's Bull Run Steam Plant. This is a coal-fired power plant. This is what provides the power to the City of Oakridge, and also to Oakridge National Labs. I've often found it ironic that one of the nation's premier nuclear labs, and one of the ones that had the very first nuclear reactors, has never been powered by a nuclear reactor. It's always been powered by coal, and particularly this. I did some analysis of UK coal stations. This one probably emits more, but it's about a ton of CO2 every five seconds. That was for me, when I started working on climate change, the biggest thing that I could see. The biggest contributing element of climate change was coal use for electricity Exactly. The single biggest contributor. I'm a little bit of a data geek, I'm afraid.

I like spreadsheets and numbers. I feel safe knowing the numbers tell you something, and you can rely on them, hopefully. I looked at what was going on in the UK's emissions history. We were really at the mercy of global commodity prices. If coal was particularly cheap and gas was very expensive, you'd see these sudden spikes in emissions where everyone switched back to coal. Even if you convince a billion people to reduce their emissions, what it does is reduce the demand for the fuel, lowers its price, and somebody else will burn it. As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, then we're going to keep burning them. Four of the world's top environmentalists have written an open letter calling for more nuclear power. They say it's the only way to reverse climate change, that there's no credible path to climate stabilization that doesn't include nuclear.

Instead of putting our technological prowess into building advanced nuclear power plants, we're putting it into finding more and more fossil fuels. We keep finding more and more of it and the price keeps going down. You and I are religious fanatics or have been about being anti-nuclear, nuclear is bad, fear of nuclear war, and we are the ones then who should lead the discussion. We come from that position. We don't take this lightly. I'm not not supportive of solar. I agree with you. We should try it, everything and anything. But, still, we all know that there isn't four hours of sun here in Michigan every day and so, on those days there's no sun, how am I warming up my pizza? I never discussed nuclear power with my colleagues or my student peer group except in anything other than fairly disparaging terms about why it wasn't required.

Went to anti-nuclear rallies throughout our childhoods. We're anti-nuclear until a few years ago. Then something happened which is that we were forced to actually understand the low carbon technological options we have. The harder we looked at it, the more that we discovered that the alternatives to fossil fuels are very expensive. In the suite of options that I was looking at, being renewable energies, energy efficiencies, and carbon offsetting, without some extra major additional force to come in and help the effort, these solutions were not going to so much as touch the sides of meeting this problem. I needed to come back and look at an option that I hadn't permitted myself to see up to that point. He has opposed nuclear power in the past. George Monbiot says he now supports nuclear power. We're talking about renewables replacing fossil fuel and electricity production, replacing liquid transport fuel, and replacing heating fuels, gas and oil, in people's homes. That's certainly what we're calling for right across Europe as an environmental movement.

If they're also the replace nuclear power and planned nuclear power, that makes it a very tall order and it makes our task a lot tougher. I think our priority has got to be to kick fossil fuels out of the picture and only then do we start to look at whether renewables can also remove the need for nuclear power. I used to be against nuclear power kind of in a knee-jerk mode. As I look through all of the details of the alternatives with coal, how nuclear actually works, the prospects of the next generation reactors that are coming along, it looks to me like, in terms of climate and in terms of everything else, nuclear's a good thing to expand. It's obviously going to be just part of what we do about energy.

I found out, first of all, that it is a zero carbon power source at least to the exact same extent that we regard renewable energy sources as a zero carbon power source. This has been repeatedly assessed and demonstrated. I thought the opposite. I was wrong. I can't say this is an enormous road to Damask thing because I never put much thought into it initially. It was just if you're involved in a movement, you don't question all of the tenets of the movement. Why would you bother? I'd been instinctively anti-nuclear. Only about four years, I heard about an alternative form of nuclear that was safer and more sustainable. Nuclear has no emissions. If we could have some of the other problems solved, then that's a potentially big part of the solution to climate change. I'm just wondering if you're aware of the "Wind and Solar" Mark Jacobson article that the global plan of $100 trillion? And that assumes dramatic reductions in global energy use over the next few years, massive ramping up of hydroelectric power, massive ramping of a lot of things that environmentalists would disapprove of, plus a total rebuild of the electric grid. It's not that this would not be possible, and I'm not disputing that, but it's just not going to happen.

The whole point about why you arrive at nuclear is because all of the alternatives have problems attached to them. In and of itself, it's got a purity and it's really exciting but it's expensive and it's difficult. Why we haven't done as we might have done in the past is because we've always had alternatives that have been cheaper or easier to do. Are easier to externalize. Yeah, exactly. With the coal, it's only cheap and easy insofar as the burden it creates is being borne by the atmosphere. It's sort of socialized amongst everybody. If we actually took that into account, it wouldn't be cheap. The way the economics at the moment are set up, why would you do anything differently? The idea that the invisible hand of the market can efficiently allocate resources is flawed if the invisible hand is blind.

What blinds the invisible hand so that it cannot see the consequences of its own action? It is the externalities. It is the fact that the prices are not honest prices. Does a price of a barrel of oil reflect its cost? Of course not. $100 a barrel if it's a penny and you throw in the occasional Gulf War. If the invisible hand is guided by dishonest prices, it cannot reach honest conclusions. How do you get the prices right? The legitimate role for government is to control and check externalities. Your best procedure is to try to impose a charge on the disposition of the garbage rather than to try to regulate the details of how the garbage is disposed of. We come to the idea of tax shifts as the available mechanism that an enlightened government could exercise. It could exercise its power of taxation and redress the dishonesty in the marketplace. You have a market now in pollution abatement. The way the situation works in Europe at the moment is that we have made an intervention and we've placed a cap on CO2 emissions and that's created a price for those emissions.

We started to internalize that price but, of course, as soon as you do that, it damages coal and, to a lesser degree, gas but it benefits nuclear and anything that's zero emissions, which is what it's intended to do. But then there are some environmentalists and green groups who really don't like the fact that nuclear therefore gets a sort of implicit subsidy. In Germany, for example, the Green movement has been successful in winning the argument that we shouldn't do nuclear in response to climate change. They've now shut down their existing reactors and canceled any plans for rebuild. They're trying to hit their climate targets just on renewables and energy efficiency, with some gases and bridging technology. It's an enormous achievement, what they've done.

They get five percent of their electricity from solar, now, 27 gigawatts. There's an enormous amount of solar power they put in. If they'd spent that money on nuclear, they'd have a zero-carbon economy, by now. I believe that climate change is sufficiently serious, that we have to have a pragmatic approach to it, not an ideological one. I think most people's commitment to renewables is ideological, not pragmatic. It's because they believe there's something good about renewables. No president is going to turn out the lights. There has to be energy. If renewables aren't providing it, then it's been fossil fuels. Nuclear can be done anywhere, any time. It operates 24/7, it pushes submarines around. This is not Jules Verne science fiction, this is real. Nuclear is a very flexible power source. Is it going to be the number one power source, the only power source? No, that's zealotry.

I've lived in Kansas. I can picture wind turbines being in Kansas. I've lived in D.C., I can't see that being a good market for wind energy, because our greatest demand is when we have the least wind. There are going to be places where wind is more effective than not, there are going to be places where solar is more effective than not, and there are going to be places that are going to need a lot nuclear. My point is that the environmentalists, those who care about climate change, need to engage, and open their minds, and accept nuclear energy, and actually support it as part of our panoply of zero-carbon energy sources. At the moment, the leadership of environmental organizations is emphatically against it. When you have decent discussions, people are generally open to it. The hardest part is the organizations. When you try to talk to NEI or the Union of Concerned Scientists, their members might like what you're saying, but the management.

..The management, their jobs depend on funding their core message. Sierra Club members are trying to get the club to just evaluate and re-evaluate their existing nuclear policy. If they admit that they made a mistake in 1986, in going anti-nuclear, they kind of risk their own continuing as directors. The United States has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions more than any other country in the last five years. In fact, we've reduced our greenhouse gas pollution to levels not seen since 1992. The reason for that is that we're accumulating huge inventories of clean energy. That's absolutely not true. What's displacing coal is natural gas, not renewables. It would be nice if wind and solar were displacing coal. It's simply not true.

This is Sizewell B. It produces four-tenths of a light bulb of power, for every person in Britain. That's more than all the wind farms in Britain, today. if you don't like nuclear, every Sizewell you want to get rid of, you need an extra 2,000 wind turbines. It makes me pretty angry if people are anti-wind and anti-nuclear and anti-coal. It just doesn't make sense. What do they want to have happen when they switch the light switch on? Britain's got impressive wave and tidal resources, but if you covered the entire coastline of Britain with wave machines, you would only get four light bulbs of power per person from wave power. At the moment, we get 90 percent of our energy from fossil fuels, and we've become used to that.

Obviously, if we stop using fossil fuels, then everything else we do has to roughly increase tenfold, to make up for the loss of the fossil fuels. Obviously, audacious things have to happen. We need to be talking about a tenfold increase in nuclear, a tenfold increase in wind, a tenfold increase in everything that we do. Bill Gates, President Obama, Jeffrey Sachs, Richard Branson, Paul Allen, Nathan Nathan Myhrvold, the world's leading climate scientists, all saying we need nuclear energy because we can't bet the planet on solar, which provides one-tenth of one percent, and on wind, which is totally dependent on federal subsidies. That is a very dangerous bet. The response that they have gotten is just rejection, out of hand. We know that the solutions to the climate crisis lie not in nuclear power, but in renewable energy, in energy efficiency, in solar, in geothermal, and wind, and all those things that are already invented, but which the status quo, powers that be want us to think are too difficult to obtain.

I know that our policy is very simple to understand — no nuclear. Is there more nuances demanded there? Because great concerns about nuclear energy can be addressed. We only have a limited amount of money. you want to reduce greenhouse gases, so you want to apply the dollars in ways that reduce greenhouse gases the most, while creating the most employment possible for that investment. A promotional piece from one of the big windmill producers that's bragging about how much material goes into each windmill, "Oh, look at how many people will need to create this huge amount of concrete, and this huge amount of steel, and this huge amount of carbon composite with petrochemical sealants and plasticizers." People have to change the oil out of the gearboxes. So these things will require constant maintenance. These are essentially jobs producers. Some days, you may be doing oil changes, maybe changing filters.

And other days, you may just be testing the bolts, to make sure that none of them have shaken loose. A typical one-gigawatt nuclear plant is maybe a third of a square mile, and a one-gigawatt solar power plant is about 25 square miles of bulldozed desert. I'm all for solar on the rooftops, but to imagine that there are no hard trade-offs is an illusion. Wind, like solar, is an actually relatively dilute source of energy. Typically, to get one gigawatt of electricity, is on the order of 250 square miles of wind farm. We've been here, before. Back in the '50s and '60s, when, again in California, we had a lot of hydroelectric dams coming in, and the Sierra Club said this is unacceptable. The Sierra Club said nuclear power is better than dams. Then they changed their mind about that, but actually, I think they were right the first time. It's very capital-intensive, it takes a long time to build a reactor, and for the dollar invested, you reduce very little carbon, compared to things like a dollar invested in energy productivity improvements, energy conservation.

.. There's this idea that, through energy efficiency, we can reduce the amount of energy. It's all about scaling back. There are going to be nine billion of us, pretty soon. We're not going anywhere. We're not going to be retreating. The reality is, we're going to keep encroaching… Start with energy efficiency. Put aside everything else. Yeah. We've become more energy efficiency over the last 200 years, Ralph. If you look at the energy studies over 200 years, energy intensity has declined, meaning we get more units of GDP per unit of energy lost. 200 years. That's a long-term trend, and over that same period of time, our energy consumption increases. Now, what are you going to do? Tell the 1.3 billion people in the world who burn wood and dung for their energy that they need to become more energy efficient? They need electricity, Ralph. They need baseload grid electricity. And it's either going to come from fossil fuels, or it's going to come from nuclear.

Do you realize what the national security aspects of nuclear power are? Absolutely. Do you have any idea how tempting a target… There was an attack, actually, on a nuclear power plant, with a bazooka. It was by Greens in Germany. Improve technology. Don't say no nuclear power. Say better nuclear power. The climate scientists who wrote that letter or myself, nobody is advocating building 1970s era nuclear reactors. We are excited about the next generation reactors that can be produced in factories on assembly lines. All technology, an iPhone and wind turbine, solar panels, pocket calculators, the cost comes down dramatically. The reason nuclear power is expensive right now is we haven't been building it. It would unleash a lot of human potential that's currently not being fully fulfilled. Standard of living does correlate quite well with access to energy. Throughout her life, she had been heating water with firewood and she had hand washed laundry for seven children.

Now, she was going to watch electricity do that work. There's a great talk on TED by Hans Rosling of how women in the 50s, when they started to have washing machines, became suddenly hugely more productive. To my grandmother, the washing machine was a miracle. Washing clothes is a really unproductive task. It's just repetitive. You have to keep doing it. You're not creating anything that's sustaining anyone really. It's just time wasted. Two billion have access to washing machine and the remaining five billion, how do they wash? Or, to be more precise, how do most of the women in the world wash? They wash like this, by hand. It's a hard, time-consuming labor which they have to do for hours every week. Sometimes they also have to bring water from faraway or they have to bring the laundry away to a stream far off. They want the washing machine! There's nothing different in their wish than it was for my grandma.

Look two generations ago in Sweden. Picking water from the stream, heating with firewood, and washing like that. They want the washing machine in exactly the same way. But when I lecture to environmentally concerned students, they tell me, "No, everybody in the world cannot have cars and washing machines." How many of you doesn't use a car? Some of them probably raised their hand and say, "I don't use a car." Then I put the really tough question. How many of you hand wash your jeans and your bed sheet? And no one raised their hand. As soon as you could get a machine to do that for you, that time became time for the family. He said that was when he sat down with his mom and started to read with her. That would happen multiplied over. All these women suddenly have much more capacity for being more nurturing or being more productive.

It's a great empowerer to have energy and have machine do things for us that are just routine, rote tasks. Huge fractions of the developing world, women spend all day looking for sources of water. When they get to the water, it is typically filthy — parasites, disease, et cetera. If you could have clean water, disease- and parasite-free water, to homes, you would liberate an enormous amount of time and you'd increase the health of the people. There are a lot of things we just throw away because the energy to reuse them is more expensive than virgin material. Dig it out of the ground, you turn it into something, then you use it, you smash it, and then you throw it back in a pit in the ground. Ultimately, it just means you leave one big hole in the ground over here and then start filling up another hole over there. Is that a sustainable practice or is there more of a closed loop system that could be employed? That's the dream but that does require energy.

That was one of the things that always attracted me about the notion of exploring was that you had to implement that simply to survive. If you were going to live on the moon or Mars, there was no pit over here and pit over there. You better figure out how to make it all stay. Every atom of nitrogen or oxygen or hydrogen became precious to you. When I would tell people why are we doing NASA, that was the most effective thing was the whole idea of recycling and what we would learn from exploring space. What prevents us from doing that right now on Earth? Why do we have to go to space to learn how to be really, really good recyclers? Why can't we just decide to recycle? More importantly, why don't we recycle like that on Earth? Really quickly I realized it was energy. Energy has to be really, really cheap or the penalty has to be really, really bad. In space, the penalty was really, really bad. If you didn't recycle, you ran out of air and water. But, on the ground, to go achieve that dream of a closed loop, you need to have really, really cheap energy.