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July 20, 2006


Last week, there was a mini-conference on Energy and Energy Policy issues at Aspen. I was too engrossed in my discussions with Dan Freed, Greg Moore and Dmitriy Belov on the subject of orientifolds and twisted equivariant differential K-Theory (more on that subject some other time) to attend most of the talks. Fortunately, the slides are now online.

In short, the challenges of meeting the world’s growing energy requirements, while meeting even the most modest targets1 for net carbon emissions will be an enormous challenge, requiring a great deal of technological ingenuity and enlightened leadership.

When you read about the dysfunctional process for getting new nuclear plants built (certainly a necessary, but not sufficient, part of the answer) in this country, you’re not exactly filled with confidence. I’m not sure what humble theoretical physicists, like ourselves, can do in a practical way. But, at least, we can try to raise the level of the public debate above its currently abysmally low level.

1 And even those won’t be enough to stave off various nasty ecological catastrophes. If you like calamari, best eat them now.

Posted by distler at July 20, 2006 12:37 AM

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Re: Energy

Nuclear power is such an obviously elegant, efficient *part* solution to the energy crisis it really boggles the mind why it isn’t talked about even more.

The new reactor types cut down on most of the waste issues, as well as further refine the dollar/watt ratio, I find it sad that the general public still are overly skeptical about something that is sort of a nobrainer to a physicist.

Even waste disposal technology has seen advances in the last twenty years, and more or less down to an exact science. The criticisms tend to be absurd tiny probability scenarios not unlike the recent BS about Strangelets at the LHC

Posted by: Haelfix on July 21, 2006 2:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Energy

As you’d expect from a journalist, the NY Times piece was long, rambling, and basically a stream of he-said/she-said’s. But I don’t think it’s fair to take away from it the claim that the US approval process, nowadays, is dysfunctional.

A better discussion IMHO (albeit one-sided pro-nuclear) can be found in this talk, by Richard Meserve which discusses, among other things, the current approval process and how it differs from the earlier (admittedly dysfunctional) process.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on July 23, 2006 4:12 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Energy

Well I guess everyone is on summer holidays in the northern hemisphere, what with being July and August, and the heat of the Sun still causing migration of humans to the coastal resorts, or air conditioned lobbys and hotel pools.

Where would you like to take this argument to - Nuclear the ‘new’(?) green energy source.

Is it possible to have healthy debate without emotional baggage. I see no problem with doubling the number of nuclear reactors in the world, but that entails allowing Iran, Egypt and Turkey to go nuclear. You know what kind of illogical emotional objections that might raise, and not just from those jumping on the opposition bandwagon to make petty political capital.

So you need to dismantle the non-nuclear proliferation treaty, and re-write to include nuclear power and yet exclude nuclear weaponry.

Ironically without wanting to digress too far, strategically for military(?) security, it makes sense for your neighbours to have nuclear power, just think how much damage you can cause with one air raid or strike, and no need to harvest nuclear warheads, just strike nuclear power plants.

But that aside, as simply an argument to bring on board those fighting Quixotic windmills.

What is your answer to:
(1) Waste. If we double the global waste from nuclear reactors. I have my own solution, but to promote debate I’d like to hear (or see) your current views on this issue.
(2) Source. How limited is the present source of fuel for nuclear reactors.

If you and the Nuclear Industry can give unbiased and decisive positive valuations to these two questions. By unbiased I mean not ommitting any shortcomings, or not glossing the facts or reality.

PS - Do you like calamari? they are about as alien a lifeform as one could hope to find in the Universe. The deep indeed still holds a wealth of knowledge and almost as many misteries, as the ‘heavens’ above.

Posted by: Quasar9 on July 23, 2006 6:39 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Energy

So you need to dismantle the non-nuclear proliferation treaty, and re-write to include nuclear power and yet exclude nuclear weaponry.

Huh? That’s the entire point of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Signatory countries obtain access to civilian nuclear technology and resources. In return, they agree to allow the IAEA to inspect their nuclear facilities to ensure that fisile materials are not diverted for military use.

(2) Source. How limited is the present source of fuel for nuclear reactors.

If you rely on conventional light-water reactors, then the supply of U 235\multiscripts{^235}{U}{} is actually rather limited. But the supply of natural uranium is huge. So I’m a big fan of the CANDU design, which runs on natural (unenriched) uranium, and uses heavy water (D 2OD_2O) as both a moderator and coolant.

  1. Since there’s no enriched uranium, it relatively free of proliferation worries.
  2. Safety: there’s no chance of a catastrophic meltdown. If you lose coolant, you also lose your moderator, and the fission reaction just shuts down.
  3. It can run on a variety of fuels, including spent fuel from Light Water Reactors (which makes it one of several “advanced” technologies for “burning” nuclear waste from conventional LWRs).

I don’t know why it’s not more popular (I gather China is building some reactors based on a similar design). I guess we Canadians are not such good salesmen.

Do you like calamari?

Very much. While supplies last …

Posted by: Jacques Distler on July 23, 2006 8:02 PM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: Energy

Now do you see how the obvious some times eludes us. To many people’s minds non-proliferation means non Nuclear Power.

I agree with your preference of CANDU, since it can also be fuelled by plutonium from old US and Russian warheads.

However India closely observed the US in Gulf War I, and the line of destruction evidenced on the Road to Basra by the use of Depleted Uranium warheads, is quite appealing to their psyche, and written into their Myths. And the risk of proliferation has not yet been removed. A nuclear strike on one or more cities in India would not have the same psychological impact on the Indian government as Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Egypt could greatly benefit from Nuclear power to supply and ‘clean up’ its dirty heavy industry. Though it is only ‘natural’ they should continue to develop solar power for household use.

If economics are to influence decisions which they invariably and inevitably do, then there are some choices should be taken off the table before we start:

(1) Higher initial costs, are only relevant to a private sector seeking quick returns, and should not influence or bias government decisions.
(2) There need to be several options. As in more than One (horses for courses). Re-using spent fuels has to be one of the options
(3) Costs of Removing plutonium from US and Russian arsenals, should not fund higher grade weapons.
(4) Waste management should be better explained, and more open to public scrutinee.

This is still shrouded in ‘doubts’ in ordinary people’s minds. It might help to remove the dumping in space option.

Calamary stocks should last as long as we have fishing ‘quotas’ and protect breeding grounds. These challenge and to prevent glowing in the deep, more than they already do (amazing visual displays) requires no further dumping of nuclear or toxic waste at Sea.

Posted by: Quasar9 on July 24, 2006 3:10 AM | Permalink | Reply to this


Calamary stocks should last as long as we have fishing ‘quotas’ and protect breeding grounds.

Squid, octopi, and other species will soon succumb to rising ocean PH levels. It has nothing to do with over-fishing.

See the link that I posted.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on July 24, 2006 8:05 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: Energy

Hi Jacques, I thought you wanted to keep the debate above the abyssmal level.

Ocean acidification could change the ocean ecosystems driving our marine food(?) species to extinction.

It is essential to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, even if you don’t believe in climate change.

I repeat stocks should last as long as we don’t overfish, protect breeding grounds, and continue to monitor toxic waste

Correct me if I’m wrong but CO2 is toxic waste, in the atmosphere (air) and in the sea.

But returning to energy, and I am a green in case I hadn’t mentioned it. Doubling the number of Nuclear Power Plants, all things being equal, ie: removing the risk of weapons grade plutonium being developed, still poses serious sourcing and waste management.

It is these I thought were going to be seriously explored here. What is the 21st energy source going to be, not forgetting Nuclear Energy is still not highly significant outside France, the US or Britain.

How practical is liquid coal? How clean is clean coal likely to be?
Can the CO2 be trapped at source, in the case of energy - and why isn’t more being done to do so. Nevermind sinking CO2 at source of Oil, that is only a proportion of the CO2 produced by cars, planes and industry.

Any progress with harvesting solar energy on an industrial scale, like hydro power. Why are governments not seriously funding tidal (estuaries) power?

Posted by: Quasar9 on July 24, 2006 4:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Energy

Incidentally, Texas is the lead center doing some ground breaking research into the causes, intensity and increasing frequency of storms in US cities.
I understand there is a rather conclusive and inextricable link between human activity and climate change correlated in highly and densely populated cities and heavily ‘industrialised’ cities, where the heat rising is being seen to aggravate the intensity and frequency of the thunder storms you are already used to.

Now this is not the ‘global warming’ argument, but localised effects on local weather. I’ll not refer to any research or data or graphs, for this argument.

The point being made is that we need to seriously address public concerns about the safety and reliability of nuclear power. Thebenefits a clear given to the industry but no so clear to joe public at large, perhaps less so in Europe where the anti-nuclear lobby has held some political sway outside France and Britain.

This should help reduce CO2 levels, is perhaps an ambitious argument to make, since the foreseeable projected growth in car ownership, and car use in India and China is set to grow to European and US levels, as is air travel.
So it would be more accurate to say it will help to reduce yet further projected increases in CO2 levels.

And then we need to address the other non trivial causes of energy consumption by households and office blocks in high density cities - Efficiencies need to be introduced in air conditioning and/or central heating, as well as washer dryers, etc,which themselves produce additional heat contributing to the heat which rises into the atmosphere, and aggravates the storms.

I’m happy to say we have an advantage or lead on these issues, mainly because we were (are?) lagging behind in the number of white household goods, even for central heating and or air conditioning use - so whilst demand for these is growing, it is always easier to instill a sense of ‘frugality’ than if you are already heavy laden with inefficient systems. The same applies to the love affair with gaz guzzlers on the roads. Bad habits are always hard to break.

Furthermore Europe is also lagging behind on the intensity of storms. Yes different geography and weather patterns - but also different energy uses and less(?) man made heat hot spots.

Posted by: Quasar9 on July 25, 2006 10:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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