The moral aspect of the problem aside: GW alarmism: is it "good" or "bad?"
I often hear the argument that GW alarmism might be morally questionable, scientifically unsound, and yet it might be a force for good. Not the fear itself, of course, but its effects on the industry and R&D priorities. What is wrong with looking for alternative sources of energy? What is wrong with massive investment in the energy sciences? in the fuel economy? in the solar power? in the H2 economy? Isn't it what we want anyway? If scare mongering, deplorable as it might be, can force the governments to see the light, what's wrong with that? It serves its purpose, and that purpose is common good.
At some level, this argument makes sense. And then the reality sets in. The result of fear mongering is not common good. The result is government programs that look nearly as scary as the worst predicted aspects of GW. In this post, I would like to discuss one of such programs. This program is called Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and it is taking momentum at the US Department of Energy (DOE), a branch of the US government. This program, (currently at $250m/yr), has been announced by President GW Bush in February 2006 as the US response to the GW challenge (its aim is to "provide abundant energy without generating carbon emissions or greenhouse gases"). The program is closely associated with another initiative that is called AFCI. I forewarn the reader that you will not find much about this program both in the press or on the DOE sites. I have learned about this program not from the paper trail, but from an oral presentation given by a GNEP official. None of this information is classified, and yet it is not easily obtainable. GNEP makes no secrets of its aims, but those are not advertised either. My only goal is to show what kind of programs is brought upon us by the activity of GW enthusiasts. They may have one goal as their aim (saving the planet, reduction of CO2 emissions, obtaining funds, getting their names in the news), but they do not explain how to implement the economy that is not based upon fossil fuels. Look for yourself what kind of exertion would achieving that goal entail.
The logic behind the GNEP is the following. The only presently existing alternative to coal is nuclear power. The renewable sources are peanuts and even these minor sources are too costly. Even if we can go solar at some point (and that would not happen tomorrow, because the technology for mass production of solar power does not exist) that may not be the solution we seek. The projected demand for power indicates that 2/3 of it will come from the developing nations that can afford only the cheapest solution, which is coal. Even if the G-7 introduce, at a great coast to themselves, "clean power" at home -- that is not going to help the planet anyway, but would only somewhat slow down CO2 emission. Hence one has to go nuclear, make the nuclear power very cheap, and make it global. That, however, is difficult. Currently, we produce 13 TW (globally). In 2050, we will need 30 TW, in 2100 - 46 TW. Problem 1 is that to satisfy the projected demand one has to build a lot of nuclear power plants:
...Producing 10 TW [=10,000 GW ] of nuclear power would require construction of a new 1 GW-electric plant every other day for the next 50 years. Once that level of deployment was reached, the terrestrial U resource base would be exhausted in 10 years. The required fuel would then have to be mined from seawater (requiring processing seawater at a rate equivalent to more than 1,000 Niagara Falls), or else breeder reactor technology would have to be developed and disseminated to countries wishing to meet their additional energy demand in this way. http://www.sc.doe.gov/bes/reports/files/SEU_rpt.pdf
Problem 2 is that having nuclear power plants everywhere is the proliferation nightmare. Problem 3 is that though we have plenty of U now, in the long run, with such tempo of consumption, we are going to run out of it before the last plant is built with the presently favored once-through fuel cycle.
GNEP addresses all of these concerns at once. It suggests a barter. The US builds and operates nuclear power plants for developing countries. For that they return all of their spent nuclear fuel to the US where it is reprocessed [only 2% of the energy is used in a once-through cycle]. Reprocessing means that plutonium (Pu), transuranics, cesium (Cs), technetium (Tc), and other nasties are removed, and purified U is used to make new fuel. The extracted Pu is burned in fast-neutron reactors. The U fuel is returned to the customer countries. Since they do not process their fuel, they cannot make weapons as long as they stick to the agreement. The US takes on itself the commitment to reprocess MOST of the world's spent fuel thereby guaranteeing nonproliferation (that is in addition to 55,000 tons of our own spent fuel that we have).
Perhaps most of the readers are unfamiliar with nuclear cycle technologies and the current situation. The only country that is reprocessing its commercial spent fuel is France (it wants access to Pu), and it is doing it at a huge loss. In the US, reprocessing has been pursued only for military use. In the past, the US built a reprocessing plant in NY but it was closed due to safety concerns and inefficiency. The UK used its reprocessing plant until there was a massive release of radioactive material.
...the preponderant emphasis of GNEP is on restarting Pu reprocessing in the US after a three decade hiatus. Pu reprocessing was tried and abandoned in the US because it was uneconomic and increased the global availability of Pu, which can be used in nuclear bombs. It has been US government policy [since 1977-S.] to set an example against reprocessing because of the nuclear weapon proliferation danger...The US has attempted reprocessing and recycling in the past. The one commercial plant, in West Valley, NY, took 6 years to reprocess one year’s worth of reactor waste and was shut down in 1973 as uneconomic, leaving behind a multi-billion dollar environmental cleanup bill. Japan is about to open a new reprocessing facility in Rokkasho that, at $20b, is about three times more expensive than originally budgeted. The British THORP plant was recently closed after a broken pipe leaked twenty tons [!] of reactor fuel waste. The plant will most likely never reopen. A study requested by the French government estimated that their program cost approximately $25b more than a simple, once-through fuel cycle. Yet, the state subsidized French program continues to produce separated Pu faster than commercial reactor operators are willing to accept it, resulting in ever-increasing stockpiles of Pu. (FAS report)
...The only US commercial reprocessing plant was riddled with regulatory problems and sky-rocketing operation costs...More than three decades later the waste this plant produced as the result of reprocessing is still being dealt with. US DOE estimates that cleaning up the mess from this reprocessing plant will cost $5b+ when all is said and done.
...Since announcing GNEP in February, the US DOE has yet to provide Congress with a lifecycle cost, or indeed any cost, analysis for the program. No reprocessing and transmutation program in the world has been commercially successful, and such a program in the US would likely be paid for in full by US taxpayers. According to a 1996 estimate by the National Academy of Sciences, reprocessing and transmutation in the US will “easily” cost taxpayers $100b. This estimate, however, is only for existing US irradiated fuel, and does not include waste produced as a result of 20-year license extensions, waste from new domestic reactors, or the importation of foreign waste to the United States for reprocessing, as proposed under the GNEP program.
...Reprocessing would not eliminate the need for a geologic repository and would actually increase the number of radioactive waste streams to be managed. In fact, reprocessing is the most polluting part of the nuclear fuel cycle. US taxpayers are still paying several billion dollars each year to clean up contamination from reprocessing programs in the 1960s and 1970s for nuclear weapons at the Hanford and the Savannah River sites, as well as the reprocessing of naval irradiated fuel at the Idaho National Laboratory and commercial reprocessing at West Valley.
No country has ever reprocessed fuel on the monumental scale suggested by the GNEP planners. In the US, no commercial nuclear reactor was built in 30 years. Reprocessing generates humongous quantities of low-level waste. The DOE still has prodigious stock of Cold War liquid waste inventory at Hanford and Savannah River left after Pu extraction. It has hard time dealing with it (in 1993 the expense was estimated at a trillion dollars). There were numerous safety problems and massive radioactive contamination of soil, air, water tables, etc. Now we are talking about dealing with vastly greater quantities. This low-level waste has to go somewhere. GNEP is trying to interest several countries, such as Russia, to be the recipient of this waste. The worst stuff (Cs, transuranics) in a concentrated form will go into the deep geological repository in the US (presumably, Yucca Mountain, NV).
...With a fuel cycle state enriching the fuel, leasing it to a user nation, the user nation can send it back to the fuel cycle state where it would be recycled, burned down in fast reactors and then you have a much more benign waste product that has to be ultimately disposed of, either in the originating country or to be sent back possibly to a third ultimate disposition location elsewhere. http://fpc.state.gov/fpc/61808.htm
GNEP planners observe that if this repository (that has cost us close to $60b) accepts all legacy waste and unprocessed commercial spent fuel, there is no place left for anything else which is required for the development of nuclear power on the suggested scale. Building and certifying another such repository is out of question. Reprocessing removes the small amount of the worst nukes potentially decreasing the load on the repository, as only those go there. Reprocessing also makes it possible to have advanced fuel cycles in which the transuranics and Pu are burned in fast-neutron reactors, resulting in much greater efficiency. That is good, but the price for that is unprecedented traffic in radioactive material and fuel reprocessing effort. Small as this effort was heretofore, there is no country in the world that did not have accidents and occasional release of radionuclides either at the reprocessing facilities or during waste storage. One of the reasons the majority of countries use once-through cycle without reprocessing is to avoid such accidents. Only the strong incentive to make weapons can overwhelm such concerns. It has been estimated that only 100 years from now, if ever, would the reprocessing make economic sense.
...A recent study from Harvard University looked at the economic problem in terms of the price of U. They concluded that reprocessing and recycling starts to make sense when the price of uranium reaches $360/kg. Currently, uranium is approximately $80/kg (and that is considered analysts to be a short term spike). No one expects uranium price to reach that break even point for several decades. In fact, the OECD has developed estimates of global sources of uranium recoverable at different costs and these suggest that reprocessing will not be economically justified until the end of the 21st Century. (FAS report)
The incentive to reprocess is not economics but proliferation concerns. These concerns must be addressed to go global; without going global one cannot cut global CO2 emissions (we are not talking about Kyoto-type protocols whose only goal is to pacify the inflamed public opinion). Pu has to be extracted and burned. Only fast-neutron reactors can do that, but this is a relatively untried technology. Yet there is no way to go global without taking various risks, each one worse than the other (these are not the only proliferation concerns associated with GNEP, see the FAS report). To put it in a nutshell, solving the GW problem by going nuclear means facing colossal risks of radioactive contamination associated with massive fuel reprocessing, building a completely new generation of fast-neutron reactors, and storage of large amounts of low- and high- level waste. The reprocessing has to be done in the countries that already have nuclear weapons; the bulk of it will be done in the US. To minimize land transportation of radioactive material coming from the overseas the plants will be built near the coast, where most of Americans live.
Apart from FAS, there were other voices of concern from nuclear technology experts about the goals and the methods suggested by GNEP, e.g. here
GNEP can count on the support of US industries, such as GE and Bechtel, because it calls for massive federal investment in power plant building and nuclear technologies. NEI is actively lobbying Congress for expansion of the GNEP already. It is presently engaged in its latest "clear air campaign." Such is the nature of lobbying: environmental agendas can be used for industrial lobbying as much as any other agendas. "Clean air," to a lobbyist, equals nuclear revival. Then they are all for more "clean air," saving the planet, and GW fear mongering.
For those who might be interested, Greenpeace and other environmental organizations are dead set against GNEP and lobby the Congress against it. They want to cut global GW emissions but they do not want global nuclear power. How are we going to satisfy the increasing energy demands of the world, especially its developing part, according to these organizations, remains unclear. They do not tell us how. Bush's plan somewhat resembles Nixon's "Operation Independence" (1974) that came to naught in 1979 (the year Three Mile Island disaster). Most of the ideas behind GNEP were originally proposed around 1996 at Sandia. The fanned GW concerns provided justification and scale for this program that originated as an anti-proliferation plan. I emphasize that GNEP planners are not "evil:" the global use of nuclear power does lead one to a solution that is resembling GNEP in its essential parts.
It is this kind of programs that are going to be the response of the US government to the insistent demands of GW enthusiasts. They have one agenda (fame, influence, funding, political power) but they push us towards a completely different one. This is how the law of unintended consequences works. GW enthusiasts focus only on their apocalyptic, overblown message. What to do with this message is left for others to decide.
Forget about picaresque windmills and vague dreams of unspecified "energy technologies of the future" that are going to solve all of our problems. GNEP is the future. It is a spent fuel reprocessing plant in your backyard. Not burning coal does not mean that your alternative energy technology has no ecological impact. That impact can easily be commensurate with that of the GW. It just would not be CO2 emission, and that is all.
How many people would prefer GNEP to GW?
Personally (and this is only my personal opinion), I prefer to take my chances with the GW. With GNEP, no "risk assessment" or long-term forecasts are needed; there is dead certainty where it leads.
Update 5/28/06: GNEP news ...The House Appropriations Committee reduced spending on GNEP to $120 million for the 2007 fiscal year...Committee leaders said the US DoE failed to provide enough details about the costs, schedules and development plans for GNEP, as well as what kinds of waste that reprocessing would produce. http://www.pwmag.com/industry-news.asp?sectionID=760&articleID=305616 see also FAS update on http://www.fas.org/main/content.jsp?formAction=297&contentId=525