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Sunday, 1 March 2009

What if the energy/climate crisis was solved?

The reality of Peak Oil is pretty much indisputable as far as I'm concerned. If we can't find an equivalent alternative energy source in a big hurry, there's no escaping that the world is going to change dramatically. That's the underlying premise of the Transition movement.

But what if we do come up with an alternative energy source? One which doesn't change the climate, which won't be as destructive to the landscape as coal mining, which doesn't require practically eternal waste management to avoid poisoning the biosphere, which is affordable and practical, and which can scale up fast enough to address the twin crises of Peak Oil and Global Warming?

It's an incredibly tall order. But I'm becoming increasingly hopeful about the possibility of one particular technology, which I've written about before: the thorium-fuelled molten salt fission reactor.

Environmentally-conscious people have an almost instinctive reaction against anything "nuclear", and I understand that. On the basis of long-lived radioactive waste alone I also agree with it, in respect to the current fleet of uranium-fuelled reactors. But the fact is that thorium-based reactors have been designed and even tested which don't suffer from any of the major drawbacks of uranium-based systems.

Features include:
- Abundant, stable, safe raw fuel (100% usable ore vs 0.7% usable from uranium)
- Passive reactor safety (cannot overheat, not pressurised, no complicated mechanical control system)
- Proliferation-resistant (in particular it produces no plutonium)
- Produces very small amounts of relatively short-lived waste (~300 years, certainly manageable)
- Can burn high-level waste from other reactors
- Simple enough to mass-produce in a factory and deliver on a truck
- Electricity probably cheaper than today's coal-based prices

It sounds so good, why wouldn't it have been done before? Well it actually was done before in the 60's and 70's, but the US at the time was more interested in creating plutonium for their weapons program. Hence the molten-salt reactor research program was shut down. Research has now restarted in eight or so countries, including the US, India, France and Japan. Incidentally, Australia has the world's largest reserves of thorium, followed by India.

There is a fairly real prospect of this kind of mass-produced, cheap, safe (enough) reactor technology being available within 15 or 20 years, with known fuel reserves sufficient to power humanity for several millennia.

So what if that came to pass?

Well... it would help. But it wouldn't be sufficient to solve the problems of over-population, destruction of ecosystems, resource depletion and so on. In some ways it could actually make them worse, by providing humanity with the means to continue on with its awful business as usual.

So even if we did solve the energy problem there'd still be plenty of reason to keep working on sustainability in general. That's probably the way I'll be approaching the Transition work - it's absolutely vital if we don't find a new energy source, and it's still hugely worthwhile even if we do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

John W
I suggest that looking for more energy sources apart from the sun, wind and tide; will just aggravate the problem.

Man has overshot use of energy for 150 years and devastation has occurred.

Undoing the devastation is not much to do with energy except using less.

The mind shift cannot be avoided as eventually that must be the endgame.

The rest is pretty much details.

Population has to fall as it will. The problem being that the more destruction caused by natural resource exploitation then the smaller the surviving number of humans in the longer run.

All the angst searching for solutions is really avoidance.

Mankind has a problem of cooperating towards commonly held understandings.

Our political systems have to change.

Your vision for 2050.

Have you read the CSIRO review of LTG.