Newsletter of the Science Council for Global Initiatives
thesciencecouncil.com - November 2017
 

EXPO 2017 – FUTURE ENERGY

by Tom Blees

Astana, the futuristic capital city of Kazakhstan, is the site of Expo 2017 this summer, the theme of which is Future Energy. Last month, SCGI’s president Tom Blees was asked to participate in a panel discussion there with a group of international energy experts on the future of energy, with a focus on nuclear power. This event presented an opportunity to also present the documentary Pandora’s Promise, followed by a Q&A session with a very engaged audience. Tom’s subsequent interviews with journalists later appeared online, in print, and on television.

Astana is a fitting venue for talking about the future, since its architectural dynamism Expo 2017 Kaz 1rivals that of Dubai. Twenty years ago it was designated the new capital of Kazakhstan, with a city plan that has blossomed into its impressive form in just two decades. Expo 2017 brought yet another burst of inspired building projects to house Expo’s many national pavilions and events.

Since the pavilions were all addressing the theme of future energy, their considerable references to the climate change challenge were ubiquitous, as were paeans to wind and solar power. One would have thought that nuclear power would also be front and center at least in the countries where it is a prominent contributor to clean energy production. The invisibility of nuclear in many such countries’ pavilions was a real surprise. France, which produces 80% of its electricity with nuclear fission, had not a word about it. Likewise the United Arab Emirates, where the first of four large reactors is due to come online this year. Even the United States, with nearly one fourth of all the world’s nuclear power plants, had nothing about nuclear power except one tiny unidentified model in a large diorama showing all the different types of power plants.

Kazakhstan, the host of the Expo, took the opposite tack and had an entire pavilion devoted to nuclear power, with impressive educational displays on the subject. Russia and China also made a point of focusing on the current and future contributions of nuclear power. China has by far the most nuclear plants under construction now, and planned for the near future. And Russia is far and away the most aggressive global marketer of nuclear power plants.

Expo 2017 demonstrated the urgency of public education about nuclear power to dispel its political untouchability. SCGI will continue to work with organizations and individuals who are spreading the word about the need for nuclear power and the tremendous potential of advanced reactor systems that will make it possible to impact both the climate change issue and the elevation of standards of living throughout the world’s developing countries.

During the last couple years, we’ve had a lot of discussions with the Thorcon reactor developers. They are one of several nuclear startups working on molten salt reactors of the type that Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed and ran in the Sixties. While there are significant differences among these various companies’ designs, Thorcon is unique in developing the concept of power ships. Their modular reactors would be ship-borne, along with the rest of a complete power plant. Unlike floating nuclear plant projects underway in Russia and China, these would be considerably larger, with each hull’s system producing a full 500 megawatts of electricity.

This concept was discussed at length by Tom Blees both in Kazakhstan and in mid-June at AtomExpo in Moscow, an annual global nuclear conference sponsored by Russia. The potential for such a ship-borne reactor system to provide power for developing countries is potentially transformative, and representatives from African and southeast Asian nations expressed intense interest.

 

 A New Twist For Global Energy

By Tom Blees

Recently there was a story in The Economist about the development of floating nuclear reactors. It’s an idea that’s been around for decades, and of course there are plenty of ship-borne nuclear reactors, but only small ones to power ships. They’re used primarily on military vessels, though Russia has been using them for years on icebreakers as well.

In recent years, though, the idea of siting nuclear reactors on ships to power shoreside locations has finally started to be realized, with Russia building relatively modest reactors (2 x 35MW) on barges to power remote Arctic locations that have minimal power needs. The first of these will soon be deployed. Recently, though, China has announced that they intend to build reactor-ships with as much as 200MW capacity (a large power plant is about 1,000MW). The impetus for this development seems to be their continuing plans to assert control over areas of the South China Sea that are disputed territory, where China has dredged shallow areas to create islands, subsequently claiming territorial rights over the surrounding waters. The power ships would provide energy for the military bases that they’re already putting in place there.

MIT’s nuclear engineering department has been mulling over plans for siting reactors offshore for some years now, but these are still in the academic hypothetical stage. Due to the difficulty of doing anything new with nuclear power in the United States, any juicy ideas formulated at MIT might well find their way to realization in other countries first. (See this article for an explication of this unfortunate situation.)

In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to have many discussions with the Thorcon reactor team. This small group of talented individuals has combined superlative ship-building skill with a molten salt reactor concept that was demonstrated in the Sixties at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Kirk Sorenson, founder of Flibe Energy, the molten salt reactor idea was resurrected from the valuable but oft-ignored scrap heap of great national lab projects that were shelved for dubious reasons. Now there are several startups eagerly pursuing this promising technology. Most, however, are hoping for one or more breakthroughs (in materials and/or chemistry) to make them workable.

Thorcon, however, is far more pragmatic. They don’t want to invent anything, just use already-demonstrated technology. Unlike most of the startups, the founders are seasoned industrialists who’ve built big things before. In fact, Jack Devanney—one of the two brothers who founded the company—designed and managed the construction of what was at the time the world’s biggest ship, then built three more just like it. These are people who understand how to design and build, including the ability to make realistic estimates of materials and costs related to big industrial projects.

Thorcon’s plan is to build a complete 500MW power plant on a single hull, and they claim to be able to have one ready to fuel up and run in just four years. I’ve discussed this bold timeline with various prominent nuclear engineers and national lab directors, and while all of them consider it to be fast they all believe it’s entirely possible, so long as regulatory hurdles aren’t slowing them down. The Thorcon team understood this early on, and have pursued its development and deployment outside the US, as have several other advanced nuclear companies (Terrapower and Terrestrial Energy, to name two).

An increasing awareness of the floating reactor concept evident online and in certain other media outlets tends to focus on the technical aspects and the idea of powering remote locations, often citing small Arctic community needs. But the ability to mass-produce large-scale reactor ships safely and rapidly using cutting-edge shipbuilding techniques raises the possibility of an utter transformation of global energy. And the countries that would benefit tremendously from such a development are the ones with the greatest need for energy.

Imagine, if you will, an energy-poor country that has a few hundred million dollars to spend on increasing their electricity generation. If they want clean baseload energy, they wouldn’t be able to even propose building a multi-billion-dollar nuclear power plant on their soil. But what if they could just buy electricity like you and I buy electricity from our local utility? Such an impoverished nation could use their limited funds to extend their electricity grid to as many of their citizens as possible, and forget all about building power plants. A power ship—owned by another country or private company—could be floated in and connected to their grid, immediately coming online and selling electricity like any utility company. The possibilities for a rapid rise in a poor country’s standard of living are unprecedented, for electricity is directly aligned with standard of living, for obvious reasons (refrigeration, lighting, A/C, etc.). This scenario could be implemented in any country that has either a coastal border or a navigable river, which includes the vast majority of nations.

The advent of electric-powered vehicles is happening already. Besides the obvious example of Tesla’s electric cars, a friend of SCGI who has a successful trucking firm has designed and has been operating electric 18-wheelers for a while now, with rapid improvements that portend a near-future switch to electrically-powered semis and other heavy equipment. Battery technology is getting better all the time.

Countries that rely on oil and gas for the basis of their economies (Russia, Kazakhstan, and several Middle Eastern nations among them) have seen the writing on the wall and are trying to figure out how they can remain economically vibrant once the demand for oil and gas diminishes considerably. Climate change issues are only exacerbating their dilemma, with people all over the world clamoring for an end to the fossil fuel era before it’s too late. So Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have committed hundreds of billions of dollars to “post-oil funds” to invest in technologies that can both provide employment and continue to generate export income in the future.

As part of this effort, Saudi Arabia is having the world’s largest and most advanced shipyard built for them by South Korea, home of the world’s most advanced shipyard technology. The implication of marrying this new capability with the Saudis’ considerable financial assets to build fleets of power ships has immense potential. The very country that has powered the world with oil for decades could now power the world with clean energy in the form of power ships that they could deploy all around the world. And even if they sell the electricity for a very reasonable price, the ships would quickly pay for themselves.

This could very well be the core concept that can revolutionize energy throughout the world, and do it very quickly. Given the threat of climate change, it can hardly happen quickly enough. But all the pieces seem to be falling into place. We could well be looking at a world of abundant, inexpensive, reliable, safe, and clean energy for all nations within the space of a few decades. This is what we’ve been hoping for. Now it looks like it’s finally going to happen.

 
Newsletter of the Science Council for Global Initiatives
thesciencecouncil.com - November 2016
 

SCGI President's Message

by Tom Blees


The Science Council has had another incredibly busy year. While we highlight key activities with periodic articles on our website, we try to provide the big picture in this annual letter to friends and supporters.

 

In Paris last December, during the UN-sponsored Conference of the Parties (COP 21), SCGI actively promoted unprecedented attention to the role of nuclear power in fighting climate change. The case was made by four world-renowned climatologists: Drs. James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley. Kirsty Gogan, co-founder of Energy for Humanity, organized a 90 minute, standing-room-only press conference and interviews that generated extensive international media coverage – close to 40 print, audio, or video reports. This was followed by a packed plenary session that featured Jim Hansen, Prof. Sir David King (UK climate envoy), and representatives from UNSCEAR and the IPCC. The reason that these events are truly remarkable is that this was the first time in the history of COP meetings that nuclear power was included for consideration as a source of clean energy.


In Washington DC, SCGI has been nurturing bipartisan support for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear power systems. We have had the opportunity to meet with Senator Cory Booker and his energy advisor, as well as with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s energy specialist, on multiple occasions. Both Booker and Whitehouse are pro-nuclear Democrats with sterling environmental credentials, who are working on legislation to streamline and accelerate development of promising new nuclear technologies. SCGI was also represented at an advanced nuclear summit in Washington, sponsored by the bipartisan think tank Third Way. Prominent lawmakers and industry leaders spoke in support of expanded nuclear power R&D in the US.


Our efforts to encourage nuclear power technology cooperation with Russia have unfortunately experienced recent reversals. Vladimir Putin has backed away from cooperation on both nuclear weapons and nuclear power agreements. However, nuclear scientists in both the US and Russia continue to take the long view when it comes to these issues, so we’ll continue to promote collaboration. SCGI’s charter member Dr. Evgeny Velikhov still has considerable stature within Russia, and we are also in frequent contact with Russia’s nuclear power agency, Rosatom. As a member of Russia’s Global Energy Prize committee, I have the opportunity to visit Russia at least twice a year to maintain and nurture these relationships.


South Africa has continued to seek advice from SCGI. They are planning the construction of nearly ten gigawatts of nuclear power. This past May, we were invited back to share our knowledge with both government policymakers and public audiences. We engaged in TV and radio interviews that enjoyed continent-wide distribution. A recent article written for South Africa’s premier engineering journal as a follow-up to that visit has generated a bit of a tweetstorm and constructive conversation. Nuclear energy could provide an effective response to many of the country’s social and economic challenges and SCGI is grateful for the opportunity to participate in the discussion. South Africa is, in many ways, a model for development elsewhere on the continent, and getting this nuclear program right can have far-reaching implications for its neighbors.


The past year has also included two trips to China. The first one, organized by Dr. Jim Hansen, brought together Chinese and US climate and nuclear experts for the first time. Participants explored opportunities for further collaboration in developing clean energy solutions to climate change. SCGI was subsequently able to continue our conversations with Chinese scientists active in advanced nuclear power R&D. Dr. Hansen and other participants shared the vision of the group in an article in Science (Aug, 5 2016). It calls on the US government to support cooperative efforts by the US and Chinese engineers to develop nuclear power technology. The second trip to China was for a technology conference designed to provide access to high-level Chinese policymakers to discuss energy and environmental issues.


We are also making progress in South Korea and Japan. This past year Nobuo Tanaka, former director-general of the International Energy Agency, joined us for a trilateral nuclear cooperation conference in Idaho. The conference reaffirmed the desire of energy experts in all three countries to cooperate in nuclear technology development. The nuclear 1-2-3 agreement between South Korea and the USA was finally renewed, with a compromise between those anxious to employ IFR technology quickly in Korea and US negotiators who want to discourage new types of nuclear power development on the Korean peninsula. The latter reflects a view that this would discourage North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, that horse is long since out of the barn. The new agreement implies changes in the near future that will allow them to build their new IFR-type fast reactor and fuel recycling facility. Stay tuned.


Australia popped onto the nuclear energy scene this year. Dr. Barry Brook, a charter member of SCGI, and his colleague Ben Heard, have teamed up with a dynamic senator to propose development of advanced nuclear reactors in South Australia. Ben’s hard work on the proposal for the senator resulted in a relatively rare royal commission to study the concept, and Barry was asked to be one of the “royal commissioners”. For a country that has no commercial nuclear power plants, the boldness of their vision for a nuclear future is impressive.


SCGI continues to pursue the development of electrically powered long haul trucking in the US. In addition to progress in motors and inverters, two battery technologies are in the works that look particularly promising. Nickel-cobalt-aluminum batteries, a technology jointly developed by Panasonic and Tesla, seem likely to dramatically increase the already impressive 155-mile range. More recently, lithium-air batteries (the Holy Grail of battery researchers) may overcome some of their hurdles as a result of a fortuitous meeting with a physicist-inventor at the recent conference in China. SCGI has facilitated a meeting between the physicist and the electric truck designer we have been following these past few years, and the two are eager to work together.


The Science Council continues to find and facilitate opportunities for solving the major challenges facing humanity and the environment. Our past and future accomplishments, however, are only possible because of the generous support of our many donors and volunteers. We hope that you’ll continue your support by making a tax-deductible donation. It is a truly cost effective opportunity to participate in promoting a better quality of life for all – for many generations to come.


On behalf of the dedicated volunteers at SCGI, thank you.

 

Tom Blees

 
 
Newsletter of the Science Council for Global Initiatives
thesciencecouncil.com - December 2014

SCGI President's Message

by Tom Blees

The past year has been busy and productive. The nature of our work at SCGI often doesn’t allow us to be entirely forthcoming because it often involves consultations with companies and/or governments that are in the midst of negotiations. But I’d like to convey at least a general idea of the progress that’s being made and the promise that the future holds for our goal of promoting an energy-rich planet while addressing the pressing environmental challenges of our time.

 

SCGI president Tom Blees speaking at an international oil and gas conference in Singapore in early December at the invitation of the Russian delegation. His topic, despite the setting, was the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

For the past few years we’ve been advising the UK government regarding their plutonium disposition issue. With the world largest inventory of plutonium (about 140 tons), SCGI suggested to the British Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) that building PRISM fast reactors would be the best solution to their problem. GE-Hitachi then stepped in and offered to build a pair of those reactors and it currently appears to be highly likely that the NDA will choose the PRISM option. If so, it would mean the first commercial-scale metal-fueled fast reactors may well end up being built in England. We continue to encourage cooperation between the US, the UK, and other countries that are interested in this project. 2015 will probably see a final decision being made on this issue.

 

Meanwhile, SCGI was instrumental in initiating a two-year project at Argonne National Laboratory to design a 100-ton-per-year nuclear spent fuel recycling facility that will convert so-called “nuclear waste” to fuel for fast reactors like the PRISM. This will demonstrate a realistic solution to the oft-lamented nuclear waste problem. Since the beginning of this project in 2013, SCGI has been discussing the building of this fuel recycling facility with representatives of South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, and the UK. An international project to build this relatively inexpensive facility would enable the pyroprocessing technology to be shared and facilitate transition to the widespread deployment of fast reactors. All these countries—and others too—have R&D programs for metal fuel, tacitly acknowledging that ultimately this will be the dominant nuclear power technology. Our goal is to bring that future closer for the benefit of all.

 

Another exciting breakthrough that is in its very early stages is an electric vehicle technology that promises to make a widespread transition to electric transport a reality in the near future. Amazingly, this has come to pass not with the rollout of a new type of electric car but with a design of an electric 18-wheeler. SCGI got involved with this project a few years ago and in the ensuing years the truck has evolved through three major design iterations. Now it looks as if the lithium-iron batteries that it’s been using to achieve ranges over 150 miles on a half-hour charge will be doubling their energy density, boosting that range to over 300 miles. It will transform heavy truck transportation for,  while it costs about 70-75¢ per mile to run a diesel semi, these electric trucks will cost less than 10¢. They’re clean, quiet, will require very little maintenance, and will cost about the same as a regular truck. We’re looking forward to being able to bring this amazing technology out into the open. We hope to have new prototypes on the road by this summer. This same battery technology will be applicable to cars as well and by converting road transport to electricity instead of some other type of fuel (hydrogen, ammonia, boron, etc.) we’ll be able to avoid the need of investing in a completely different fuel infrastructure. Electricity is already available nearly everywhere, so the transition can be quick and inexpensive. What’s needed most is to make sure that there’s plenty of zero-carbon electricity to charge all those vehicles, hence our efforts to bring integral fast reactor technology into play as soon as possible. About the only country that could manage to make a widespread transition to electric vehicles now would be France which has a substantial excess nuclear capacity.

 

Some of SCGI’s members have been busy recently preparing papers on nuclear power and climate change. What has been especially troubling to us is the issue of methane leakage, something that is rarely discussed but which is extremely serious.  What we’ve found is that because leaked natural gas has a significantly more potent greenhouse effect than CO2, wind and solar facilities backed up by gas are often worse, from a climate change standpoint, than burning coal. The Siberian gas that supplies western European countries with the lion’s share of their gas has leakage that may run as high as 25% as it travels from the wells through thousands of kilometers of pipelines. Yet if natural gas leakage rates are even above about 2%, using gas for backup is no better than using coal. This sort of information must be part of the conversation at climate change conferences. SCGI members are bringing these facts to the UN and other organizations confronting the challenge of climate change.

 

Recently there was news about Google’s RE<C project that was pretty shocking to the general public. Google had put its considerable resources behind an effort to figure out how to make renewable energy cheaper than coal (hence RE<C). The project analyzed the potential of not only wind and solar power but wave, tidal, biomass, geothermal, etc. After four years of effort Google shut the project down. Now two of the men (both Stanford Ph.D.s) who headed up the project have spoken out about why it was canceled. Not only had they found that there was no way to make renewable energy cheaper than coal but they found that there is simply no way that renewable energy can come close to providing the amount of energy that humanity demands. Google, being seen as one of the most environmentally aware corporations, has yet to take a position promoting nuclear power. The results of their project, however, yielded no other known options for generating vast amounts of zero-carbon energy.

 

We plan to meet with these engineers from Google and invite them to join us for an April seminar at Columbia University sponsored by SCGI and the Lamont Earth Institute. The topic will be nuclear power and climate change and the panelists will include the renowned climatologist (and SCGI member) James Hansen, the noted economist Jeffrey Sachs, former head of the International Energy Agency Nobuo Tanaka, filmmaker Robert Stone, and others yet to be confirmed.

 

This is but a brief overview of SCGI’s efforts. Our work is dependent entirely on your  generosity. We make every effort to trim our expenses to a minimum, relying on the selfless efforts of volunteers as much as possible. If you find our goals to be in accord with your own hopes for the future please consider a tax-deductible donation to SCGI as 2014 comes to a close. Thank you for your support.

 

Please donate by clicking here.

Thank you.

 

NewsbitsHeader

Newsletter of the Science Council for Global Initiatives
thesciencecouncil.com - February 2014


Can We Solve the Energy Problem Without Nuclear Power?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held a symposium on February 15 addressing the question of whether greenhouse gas emissions from global energy production can be cut by 80% by 2050. Dr. Richard Lester, chairman of MIT's Department of Nuclear Engineering, delivered an insightful examination of whether this can be accomplished without nuclear power. He has been kind enough to allow us to post the entirety of his talk on our website for the benefit of our readers. His perspicacity in elucidating the issues will likely be appreciated by those who are serious about the interlocking issues of climate change and energy production. Click here to read the entire speech.

Tom Talks at MIT

SCGI's proposal received the most votes in the MIT Climate-CoLab climate solution contest (a big Thank You! to all who voted). SCGI President Tom Blees spoke about nuclear energy at the two-day MIT climate conference. He also spoke at the Center for Global Energy Policy event at Columbia University with Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency; Dr. Yoon Chang, Integral Fast Reactor expert; and Dr. Ray Hunter, Department of Energy's senior adviser to the State Department. It was a very informative and productive gathering.

Radiation: Fears and Facts

 

Fukushima heightened world fears of radiation. The media continues to encourage this fear of the unknown. The following brochure and You Tube presentations are very helpful in understanding radiation.

Keeping it Cool!

In the wake of the Fukushima experience, the risk of a complete station blackout has led to questions about the safety of various reactor designs. Nuclear power plants around the world are being re-examined to assure that such a situation cannot be repeated. Backup power systems must be safely sited in areas unthreatened by natural disasters that might impact the plant itself.
Nevertheless, passive safety systems that allow for a complete station blackout without damage to the reactor core are increasingly being incorporated into new designs. Even the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), a GE design that was first built in Japan in the mid-Nineties, incorporated such concepts to allow all electrical power and water to be withheld for up to 36 hours before having to be concerned about core damage. The AP-1000, currently being built in China and the USA, brings a considerably longer safety margin, and the soon-to-be-licensed ESBWR is even substantially better. The PRISM reactor-the design that SCGI has been favoring for deployment-takes it to a whole other level of safety.

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Newsletter of the Science Council for Global Initiatives - thesciencecouncil.com - February 2013


Special Pandora's Promise Edition

How do we continue to power modern civilization without destroying it?


Pandora's Promise, a documentary by director Robert Stone, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19th. It features several of a growing number of environmentalists who are renouncing decades of antinuclear orthodoxy and have come to believe that nuclear power is probably our greatest hope.

Pandora's Promise

The reactor meltdowns in Japan in March 2011 ignited passionate worldwide debate about energy and the future of nuclear power. Pandora's Promise is a feature-length documentary that explores how and why mankind’s most feared and controversial technological discovery is now passionately embraced by many of those who once led the charge against it. The film is anchored around the personal narratives of leading former anti-nuclear activists and pioneering scientists who, in the face of considerable controversy, are directly challenging the anti-nuclear orthodoxy that is a founding tenet of the mainstream environmental movement. Pandora's Promise stars Stewart Brand, Gwyneth Cravens and Mark Lynas. Their stories and ideas are brought to life through a combination of incredible archival footage from 1945 to the present and original filming across the globe.

Operating as history, cultural meditation and contemporary exploration, Pandora's Promise aims to inspire a serious and realistic debate over what is perhaps the most important question of our time: how do we continue to power modern civilization without destroying it?

Pandora’s Promise was three years in the making, filmed on four continents. It may be the most consequential film on the future of our environment since Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Pandora's Promise is due to be in theaters this summer. Watch for updates on this site.

 Robert Stone on Pandora's Promise - an interview with Robert Stone.

Pandora's Promise website


If You Care About the Environment, You Should Support Nuclear Power

By

Nuclear power in FranceNuclear power reactors in Saint-Vulbas, France.
Photo by Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP
Nuclear power reactors in Saint-Vulbas, France.
Photo by Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP

A good, politically charged documentary often seizes on what the audience already believes and throws fuel on the fire (see, e.g., the work of Michael Moore). A better such documentary tries to convince its audience that what it takes for granted is flat-out wrong. Pandora’s Promise, which premiered at Sundance, does just that. It makes the utterly convincing case that anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist or takes climate change seriously should favor more nuclear power. Read more on Slate