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A major limitation of renewable energy such as solar and wind is that the sun isn't always shining and the wind isn't always blowing. This has led some people to conclude that nuclear is the only major alternative to fossil fuel to meet base load demands. Some advocates of renewable energy argue that renewables can in fact meet base-load demands through a combination of energy storage technologies, less intermittent renewable energy such as geothermal, and distributed generation.
A common argument used by opponents of nuclear energy is that a significant amount of coal is required in the overall process of producing nuclear energy. This argument is not treated seriously by nuclear advocates, partly on the basis that the amount of fossil fuel energy used in the process is a tiny fraction of the amount of energy produced, and furthermore that there is nothing about the process that requires that energy input to be based on fossil fuels.
Production in biofuels has increased exponentially in the mutually reinforcing wakes of high oil prices and the need to reduce carbon emissions. However, critics argue that biofuels do more harm than good through negative environmental effects such as deforestation, and negative social impacts such as increasing the cost of food.
For nuclear power to be safe against terrorists, the nuclear reactors must be guarded, and the waste must be securely transported and stored.
Nuclear energy has safety challenges with respect to avoiding reactor meltdown, transporting and storing nuclear waste, and mitigating terrorist threats.
Nuclear energy is potentially economically competitive with other major current sources of energy. Compared with coal plants, the cheapest of all energy sources, nuclear plants have a lower fuel cost but a higher initial capital cost. However, certain factors make such comparisons more difficult - with nuclear additional costs are incurred from decommissioning plants and waste disposal, while with coal, additional costs may be incurred due to carbon taxation or dealing with climate change.
The cost-benefit analysis of nuclear power is complex. Its primary benefit compared with fossil fuels is that it is carbon free. Its primary benefit compared with alternative energy is that it has proven to scale effectively, with approximately 15% of the world's electricity coming from nuclear energy today. Its primary drawback is its safety concerns, including reactor safety, waste disposal, and nuclear proliferation.
Thorium is an alternative nuclear fuel to uranium. Its advantages are that it's more abundant than uranium and nuclear reactors based on thorium produce less waste. Research and development in thorium energy has rekindled in recent years driven by the need for a safe alternative to fossil fuels.
Theoretically, the sunlight hitting the surface of the earth amply meets human energy requirements. A 92-by-92-mile square grid in the Southwest of the United States could generate enough electricity for the entire country. However, some doubt whether solar energy sources can be constructed cheaply and quickly enough to significantly replace other energy sources. In addition, to meet base load demands, solar innovation must be coupled with substantial innovations in energy storage.
As oil becomes scarcer and more expensive the world will have to adapt to new energy sources. A common fear is that this adaption will not be fast enough, sending our increasingly energy thirsty world into an economic downward spiral. Skeptics suggest that there is no shortage of raw energy sources and that the problem is fundamentally economic, and that the degree to which the problem exists is proportional to the economic incentive to solve it.
Bill Gates
If you compare it to the amount that coal has killed per kilowatt hour [nuclear] is way, way less. When an accident does occur, however, its effects are much more visible. Coal kills fewer people at one time, which is highly preferred by politicians.
John Large
The thorium reactors don't really work. They're very challenging. It's a whole new fuel technology which has considerable and insurmountables problems in my opinion. They would have problems in developing the processing cycle - the way in which you split the fuel from the waste from the reactor. They would have difficulties in actually storing the fuel.
Donald Trump
We have to be very concerned. [I'm] very strongly in favor of nuclear energy. You know, it's sort of interesting. Somebody was explaining if a plane goes down, people keep flying. If you get into an auto crash, people keep driving. There are problems in life. Not everything is so perfect. You have to look very carefully, though, at really taking care; have the best, the best people in terms of safeguards for nuclear energy. But we do need nuclear energy, and we need a lot of it fast.
World Nuclear Association
Environmentalists have played a valuable role in warning that catastrophic climate change is a real and imminent danger. It is crucially important that they be equally realistic about solutions. Even with maximum conservation - and a landscape covered by solar panels and windmills- we would still need large-scale source of around-the-clock electricity to meet much of our energy needs.
Kirk Sorensen
When it is pointed out to renewables advocates that their plan to use grid resources when mother nature fails to cooperate in the production of renewable generated electricity, they fall back on energy storage. ... All energy storage schemes are ... so expensive that when the cost of the storage system and redundant generating capacity required to produce the energy to be stored, the cost of carbon free renewable systems almost invariably turns out to be higher than the cost of nuclear power.
Caroline Lucas
[The government is] very successfully pulling the wool over people's eyes over whether or not we need nuclear. The bottom line is there are much greater, safer, quicker, cheaper ways of achieving greater emission cuts than going down the nuclear route. Plus the signal that it gives out internationally is an incredibly negative one.
Edison Electric Institute
While our industry is making very major strides in expanding energy efficiency and the use of renewables, we’ll still have to add new baseload generation capacity to help meet the growth in demand for electricity. As we intensify the transition to a low-carbon future, we will need to have all generation options on the table, including advanced new nuclear, advanced clean coal with carbon capture and storage, as well as natural gas.
Jon Wellinghoff
We may not need any [nuclear plants], ever. ... I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism. ... Baseload capacity really used to only mean in an economic dispatch, which you dispatch first, what would be the cheapest thing to do. Well, ultimately wind's going to be the cheapest thing to do, so you'll dispatch that first.

New Comments

1 Point       Corey Barcus       14 Feb 2012     Can renewables meet base-load energy demands? Neutral
Global energy need (consider the prevalence of poverty) is on the scale of tens of terawatts (currently ~13 TW). As renewable systems are scaled up, they become more expensive because of their dependence upon the distribution system (a significant cost passed on to consumers) to make up for their intermittency. Additionally, they are inefficient at producing many of the chemicals we require at an industrial scale. Even if solar panels progress to the point where they have reached their maximum theoretical efficiency (I hope they do) with zero cost, the environmental impact will be enormous unless installation is limited. We need to be asking how we can make clean energy cheaper so that more people can use it, rather than trying to make dirty legacy energy more expensive. Taxing carbon without having a comparable or cheaper alternative is just going to spread economic instability.

The most reasonable way to achieve global energy demand for cheap electricity generation, fuel/fertilizer/material synthesis, desalination, and eventually carbon sequestration is to pursue those technologies that are theoretically capable of producing the most energy at the lowest cost while being clean. There turns out to be very few candidates worth looking at. One of those is LFTR/MSR, a liquid-fueled nuclear fission reactor that operates at high temperature and low pressure, providing safe and highly efficient energy at the cost and abundance we require for solving problems related to sustainability. These machines would not need to be placed near water sources (lakes, rivers, aquifers, shorelines), unless for example water feedstock was required for synthesis, desalination, or manufacturing. The superior waste profile of thorium (compared to uranium) significantly reduces the quantity of material required to be sequestered in long-term storage (Yucca Mountain). But technical challenges remain, which is why it would be smart for us to aggressively join the international competition for energy development, the so-called Thorium Race, in a bid to secure our future. The rumor is that China is already putting $100 million annually into MSR development, picking up where we left off decades ago- they top the visitor list over at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Our future is waiting for us, but it won't wait forever.

1 Point       Corey Barcus       14 Feb 2012     Will energy scarcity cause a severe world depression? Neutral
The risks of not adequately addressing the energy situation are severe. Luckily, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu has indicated, there appears to be a technological solution, but putting all of the pieces together remains elusive.

The first order of business should be reducing the cost and improving the scalability of nuclear plant construction as this is the largest determinate of the cost of the services it produces. LWR technology has had decades to demonstrate that it is not up to the task, and it should be abundantly clear that this level of technology possesses significant inherent limitations. An alternative technology that has its share of champions utilizes a liquid-fuel approach (LFTR/MSR) which enables high temperature and low pressure operation, high efficiency, a low waste profile, and inherent safety features.

Once low-cost nuclear is in place, synthesizing a carbon-free hydrogen energy-carrier like ammonia is rather easy using either a new solid state system (SSAS) or the older Haber-Bosch process. Widespread efficient utilization of ammonia within vehicles is dependent upon a high-performance low-cost durable fuel cell, a technological development that may be achievable within a reasonable timeframe provided adequate funding. While ammonia is a moderately toxic substance with risks comparable to gasoline or LPG, its chemical simplicity combined with the abundance of its feedstocks (nitrogen/air and water) means that it will be very difficult to rival this fuel economically (i.e. carbon-based synfuels). Future ammonia fuel cell vehicles are expected to be every bit as attractive as current ICE vehicles with similar to better range and performance.

But this is only one part of the global energy puzzle. It is projected that tens of terawatts are needed to bring the globe out of poverty. This energy is expected to drive electricity generation (near 50% efficiency possible with a high-temperature super-critical CO2 converter), chemical synthesis (fertilizer/fuel/legacy carbon-neutral fuels), construction (nuclear cement), massive desalination (peace in the Middle East?), and eventually carbon sequestration. For all of this to be accomplished economically, it is critical that the base technology chosen will be able to be incrementally improved towards its theoretical limit, which is why a liquid-fuel system like the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor is favored as the centerpiece of any reasonable global-scale effort to produce energy. With continued development, it may become economically feasible to migrate the global shipping industry (a major polluter) to nuclear power- no emissions, insignificant fuel cost, high reliability, compact so more room for freight, etc.

If the United States intends to embrace energy security and set a global example, it will be hard-pressed to find a better alternative than outlined here. The sooner we get started the better.

1 Point       Nashhinton       21 Nov 2011     Will solar be the biggest energy source of the future? Agree
It's very likely that solar energy will be a major source of usable energy before 2040-2100. According to the Kardashev scale (which is a method for measuring a civilization's progress by analyzing the technological progress and energy consumption of a civilization), all types of alternative energy ranging from solar and nuclear energy will be used before the next 100-200 years. Also my hypothesis is that if humanity survives for another 50 or 100 years, we will have a global government that will ensure that humanity will peacefully cooperate. This global government will bring about a technological utopia, possibly with AIs governing and regulating the world's affairs. I think the establishment of this one world government will happen sometime before or after the technological singularity. So the years for the establishment of this world government are roughly between 2030-2060. Also I believe that many luddites and religious extremists will strongly oppose the one world government and the technological advancements that will be invented leading to a world war.

0 Points       AshleyAnderson       20 Oct 2011     Is thorium a viable energy source for the future? Agree
Thorium is an alternative nuclear fuel to uranium. Its advantages are that it's more abundant than uranium and nuclear reactors based on thorium produce less waste. Research and development in thorium energy has rekindled in recent years driven by the need for a safe alternative to fossil fuels. you can get more information here: http://www.nuclearfriendsfoundation.com

2 Points       Casey Stimson       09 May 2011     Is thorium a viable energy source for the future? Agree
There is long standing studies being done on thorium, with Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, the fuel of the future is here. Here is a link to a video lecture done by Kirk Sorensen, an aerospace engineer and nuclear physicist.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZR0UKxNPh8

1 Point       Benja       27 Apr 2011     Is thorium a viable energy source for the future? Agree
"Yet funding continues to go toward Uranium-based nuclear energy, mainly because Uranium-based atomic power integrates well with our nuclear weapons program..."

That was an incentive in the early days of nuclear technology and up to the end of the cold war. But that's not true today, with the US's arsenal of nuclear weapons that can still destroy the world many times over, a huge stockpile of plutonium, and 104 power plants still producing more plutonium than they know what to do with. The reluctance is due to other factors, perhaps the overarching one that it's a nightmare to push any new nuclear technology through congress.

1 Point       PJ Lamberty       26 Apr 2011     Is thorium a viable energy source for the future? Mostly Agree
China and India are currently pursuing Thorium technology as a cleaner, safer energy source. Oak Ridge National Labs had a working model of a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) which produced energy for seven years before it was decommissioned due to a lack of funding. This technology has been proven. Additionally, the Thorium cycle does not produce Plutonium. Yet funding continues to go toward Uranium-based nuclear energy, mainly because Uranium-based atomic power integrates well with our nuclear weapons program, (even though we are trying to disarm and deter proliferation).

0 Points       Benja       12 Apr 2011     Can renewables meet base-load energy demands? Mostly Disagree
This is a critical question, because it seems nuclear energy makes sense if and only if renewables cannot meet base load demands. At this point I'm reasonably convinced renewables are indeed hard to scale, so I'll advocate building modern nuclear power stations unless new facts or arguments suggesting otherwise come to my attention.

0 Points       Benja       12 Mar 2011     Is nuclear energy safe enough to justify its use? General Comment
It's disheartening when greens promote their "nuclear is always bad" dogma at every opportunity, especially when nuclear power is arguably the best solution we have to solve the Global Warming problem.

In the case of Japan's nuclear incident, some green politicians are blatantly misinforming the public, saying the Fukushima plants are of the "most advanced technology" available. A basic Wikipedia check shows the Fukushima plants were built in the 1970s.

Interesting blogging heads talk on Fukushima here.

0 Points       Benja       12 Mar 2011     Should the world embrace nuclear energy? Mostly Agree
There are three broad energy trajectories (mixtures possible):

1) Continue to use fossil fuels and risk fucking up the planet with millions dying from natural disasters such as floods.
2) Move to renewable energy (and away from fossil fuels, but underinvest in nuclear) and risk fucking up the economy with millions dying from famines and political turmoil.
3) Move to nuclear energy and risk fucking up some cities with thousands or even millions dying from a terrorist acquiring nuclear material.

The utilitarian answer should be to choose the least awful option. Conservatives tend to deny trajectory 1 is a reality. Greens tend to deny trajectory 2 is a reality. As a nuclear advocate, I believe trajectory 3 is a reality, but I think it's a possibly a better reality than trajectories 1 and 2. Some nuclear advocates believe good nuclear designs can mitigate the risks of trajectory 3. I hope they're right. It's unthinkable what could happen if extremists could get their hands on some plutonium.

What will actually happen? Politicians won't allow trajectory 2 to occur (i.e. we'll move to renewables to some extent, but not the point it severely hurts the economy). They will to some extent move towards trajectory 3 (i.e. we'll build more nuclear power plants), but if a big enough nuclear incident happens, they'll be forced back into trajectory 1.

--

Some data now in here:

"The poll, which was conducted by GFK NOP shows a drop of 12% in support for nuclear power to 35% compared with a similar poll conducted by IPSOS MORI in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Opposition to the technology rose 9% to 28%."

1 Point       Benja       12 Mar 2011     Is thorium a viable energy source for the future? Agree
"The People’s Republic of China has initiated a research and development project in thorium molten-salt reactor technology". More here.

Is China going to beat the US on clean energy? The senators Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid have tried to sell the merits of using thorium energy to the US government with little success. Steven Chu (the Energy Secretary of the US) was asked about thorium nuclear power research here. His answer seems to be that "normal" (i.e. uranium) based designs are sufficient (perhaps he's right - 4th gen designs are pretty good). OTOH I worry that the lobbyists for nuclear energy want to promote their (uranium based) plant designs, and don't want the competition.

0 Points       blacktrance       11 Feb 2011     Are biofuels good? Disagree
Biofuels are dependent on government subsidies, which shows that they are inefficient, as they provide no externalities. Moreover, they drive up the price of food.

New Editorial Comments

0 Points       Benja       06 Nov 2010     Does nuclear energy require a significant amount of fossil fuel? Editorial Comment
Note: This comment is more applicable to the question Is thorium a viable energy source for the future?.


Energy Question Index

Is nuclear energy safe enough to justify its use?
Is thorium a viable energy source for the future?
Should the world embrace nuclear energy?
Can renewables meet base-load energy demands?
Is nuclear energy safe enough w/ respect to terrorist threats?
Is nuclear energy safe enough w/ respect to waste management?
Will solar be the biggest energy source of the future?
Are biofuels good?
Was oil a motivation for invading Iraq in 2003?
Does nuclear energy require a significant amount of fossil fuel?
Should oil be drilled in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
Will energy scarcity cause a severe world depression?
Can nuclear power be economically competitive with other major energy sources?
Will oil prices surge over the next year?