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Are nuclear fusion, fission and 'renewables' viable alternatives to fossil fuels?

This blog entry is perhaps my hundred-and-umpteenth response on various online forums to the question of supposed alternatives to fossil fuel as an energy source for all of the demands of modern industrial society. The article was posted to a forum in response to an article Australia’s oversized footprint by Queensland Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett. The article had considerable merit but was fatally flawed by Bartlett's blindness to the question of Australia's population. Bartlett, whilst an avowed environmentalist, is in favour of high immigration (although he has yet to come out and give his explicit support to the current near-stratospheric unoffical annual rate of 300,000 now allowed by the Federal government) and population growth. He has used his profile to give practical support to community campaigns against environmentally unsustainable infrastructure projects such as the North-South Bypass Tunnel, but has failed to address one of the principle underlying causes, that is South East Queensland's relentless population growth which is officialy encouraged by both the Queensland state government and the Commonwealth government.

Andrew Bartlett's articles, as well as attracting posts from people, like myself, who are critical of his pro-population-growth stance, also attracts critical posts from extreme market fundamentalist anti-environmentalists, who object even to Bartlett's flawed and limited pro-environmental stance as well as his progressive humanitarian values. One of those contributors, 'alzo', posted the comment:

"Fission reactors should tide us over until fusion reactors become a reality. There are lots of possible energy sources."

This is my response.

Alzo, today we seem no closer to realising the dream of unlimited supplies of energy from nuclear fusion than we were thirty years ago. According to one scientist, who has worked on nuclear fusion, the nail in the coffin of nuclear fusion will prove to be the lack of sufficient supplies of the necessary hydrogen isotope tritium. For further information, see the forthcoming second edition of "The Final Energy Crisis" edited by Sheila Newman (http://candobetter.org/sheila).

Hazards of nuclear fission

In regard to nuclear fission, it is obviously a more viable source of energy that just may, if we are extremely careful, provide a bridge towards a more sustainable future whilst stocks of Uranium and Thorium last, however it has a very considerable environmental cost. If we increase the scale of nuclear power generation to the extent necessary to fill the gap power the environmental risks we currently face will be multiplied many times. The Chernobyl disaster. which could have been far worst if not for the quick thinking of those courageous workers on the spot is one illustration. On top of the hazards of nuclear fission electricity generation, even more environmental threats are posed by mining of uranium, enrichment, reprocessing and disposal of nuclear wastes. A likely consequence of the expansion of uranium mining in Central Australia is that the Eastern seaboard stands to be exposed to clouds bearing poisonous radioactive uranium and other toxic metals blown from the mine tailings dumps (see David Bradbury's film "Blowin' in the wind" for a graphic illustration of this threat). In the past, the long-term containment of tailings from mining operation has been problematic and, more often than not, fails in the longer term (as Jared Diamond has illustrated in describing past mining operations in Montana in Chapter 2 of "Collapse" pp35-41). I don't hold out any greater hope that the mining companies will do any better a job containing the mountains of tailings from the planned expanded Uranium mines.

Practical limitations of nuclear fission

Another problem with nuclear fission is that it can only be used to generate electricity. In order to operate transport or run factory machinery or mine milling equipment, the electricity has to be either somehow stored chemically, or transported directly as electricity using power lines, transformers and other expensive infrastructure. In the former case, energy is lost, in creating, for example, hydrogen from water, and the containment of hydrogen necessitates the fabrication of particularly strong and well-sealed containers. In the latter case, large quantities of non-renewable resources, particularly copper, are required, and it is expected that the world's production of copper will begin to decline next year (http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa003&articleID=000CEA15-3272-13C8-9BFE83414B7FFE87).

Practical limitations of other 'renewables'

The other "lots of possible energy sources" are essentially derived from solar energy or geothermal energy. All require the use of equipment, the manufacture of which now requires non-renewable rare metals, petroleum-derived plastics and fossil fuel energy. The problems in building renewable energy generators, on a scale necessary to indefinitely meet global society's demands, as well as to provide the necessary additional energy to build replacement generators and infrastructure, without reliance upon fossil-fuel energy, appear to be overwhelming. It seems unlikely that this can be done on a scale anywhere near the scale we have been able to do thus far relying on our finite endowment of fossil fuels.

Applying the precautionary principle

So, I would suggest that it would be extremely imprudent to continue to consume natural resources at our current rate, let alone to increase our rate of consumption, and to go on trashing the world's ecology as we are doing now on the assumption that we can find an easy replacement to so much of that conveniently packaged solar energy captured over tens of millions of years that we have found buried under the ground. It would be far more prudent to assume that our current practices are unsustainable, and to begin now to reduce those levels of consumption.

Those who are consuming the most whilst contributing the least to society, such as property speculators and financial advisers should be amongst the first to be made to do so.

Comments

Further post put here because of Online Opinion's stupid 350 word limit.

Bernie,

Your post reads like a rationale for doing nothing.

Of course, half measures like cutting back Australian aluminum production will achieve little if it is to be done in China instead, but even such half measures are at least a start and better than doing absolutely nothing.

However, rather than doing nothing or only doing half the job we need to approach the problem from as many directions as possible.

The Chinese people, as well as ourselves, must come to understand that maintaining the current rate of non-renewable resource extraction is threatening their future as well as our own.

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Alzo, I suggest you read read the articles on the impending decline in the production of the world's preciouls metals more closely. For a start, of the 1.6 million figure you cite, the abovementioned Scientific American article states:

"In contrast, the U.S. Geological Survey predicts there is only 950 million metric tons of the metal that could be recovered."

Note the use of the words "could be recovered" and recovering that total amount of copper, even if those somewhat more realistic estimates are wholly accepted, will still incur a massive cost in non-renewable energy and other natural resources including water and the overall degradation that mining causes to the envirnment as I explained above.

The production of Copper in Chile (perhaps not the world, sorry) will peak next year. (see http://www.321energy.com/editorials/watson/watson121605.html) As Chile is the world's largest copper producer, informed experts expect that the overal decline in world Copper production will follow that of Chile's.

It is upon copper and other precious metals that many of the high--tech 'renewable' alternatives to fossil fuels as well as nuclear power will depend. Without them we may face no alternative but to go back to pre-fossil fuel forms of energy, i.e. human labour, horses, bullocks, etc.

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BTW, alzo, I would be fascinated to learn how you discovered that I was a 'government handout taker'. However, even though you have now revealed my secret to the world, I somehow think if those now struggling to pay for the unearned windfall profits of property speculators, by working late in to the nights with their mortgage repayment terms extended to 30, 40 or more years, instead of 20 years as was the maximum a generation ago, were to consider the issue objectively, they would be less unsympathetic to the likes of 'outed' dole bludgers like myself than they would be to the property speculators.

Very good article thank you...