November 08, 2005
Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Disposal Site Funding Cut

Funding for the Yucca Mountain Nevada nuclear waste disposal site has been cut even below the spending levels for the last 2 years.

They agreed to spend $450 million in 2006 on Yucca Mountain, the planned underground repository for 77,000 tons of the nation's most radioactive nuclear waste.

The project's budget was $577 million in each of the past two years, and Bush asked for $650 million for the dump in his 2006 budget request.

The nuclear waste that will eventually to go Yucca Moutain (assuming Yucca Mountain goes into operation in 2012 or some later date) sits at nuclear plant sites around the United States. Each state Congressional delegation doesn't want a nuclear waste disposal site in their jurisdiction. So Nevada's delegation predictably tries to slow Yucca's development. But I do not expect the Nevada delegation to stop it entirely.

Note that the money that is not getting spent here is money that has already been paid by the United States nuclear power plant operators. The nuclear power industry pays a tax to fund the construction of a nuclear waste storage site. The nuclear power industry has paid much more in taxes than has been spent to date preparing Yucca Mountain.

Development of a plant to convert plutonium from old nuclear weapons into useful nuclear power plant fuel has also been slowed.

Spends $220 million to build a plant at the federal Savannah River complex in South Carolina where weapons-grade plutonium would be processed into a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel a less dangerous fuel for commercial power reactors. That figure is $118 million lower than Bush's request.

Congress ought to be greatly accelerating the development of nuclear power, not slowing it. Similarly, Congress ought to greatly accelerating research into photovoltaics and into electrochemistry for next generation batteries. We can't phase out fossil fuels without first developing technologies for producing and storing energy from non-fossil fuel energy sources.

The United States Congress seems entirely unserious about energy policy. The growth of China will boost greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 if current trends continue.

Yesterday the International Energy Agency warned that the growing appetite of China - added to the huge demand in the US and Europe - had created an unsustainable trend. Energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions will soar by more than 50% by 2030 if consumers keep burning oil unchecked, the agency warned.

Most thinkers have just not factored in what the growth of China means. China won't magically stop growing once 2030 hits. Each year will bring further growth and therefore further economic growth in energy demand. See my posts "Planned Coal Plants Reverse 5 Times CO2 Impact Of Kyoto Protocol" and "Carbon Dioxide Emissions Continue Rapid Increase". China produced nearly half the carbon dioxide emissions rise in 2004. China's fraction of the total increase will probably rise much higher in future decades.

If we melt the ice on Greenland the world sea levels will rise about 20 feet. Lots of valuable real estate will be lost. It is very imprudent to simply hope a large increase in atmospheric CO2 won't lead to a climate change large enough to melt the Greenland ice pack. It is especially imprudent because the steps we could take to prevent such a drastic result are probably not very expensive.

I'm not arguing for slowing economic growth or imposing heavy taxes to prevent that outcome. We just need to greatly accelerate the rate of advance of non-fossil fuels energy technologies. The recently deceased Nobel laureate Richard Smalley (felled by cancer at age 62 - what a terrible waste) argued for $10 billion a year to fund research into a wide range of energy technologies. Smalley was right. Acceleration of the rate of technological advanes is the right solution. $10 billion per year is less than one tenth of one percent of the US economy. It is quite affordable. The technologies developed by such an effort would eventually be cheaper than fossil fuels and would displace fossil fuels just by market decisions to go with the lower cost energy sourcse. So why aren't we already making the big push to develop new energy technologies? Our current course seems like a reckless gamble.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 November 08 02:38 PM  Energy Policy


Comments
momochan said at November 9, 2005 12:59 PM:

First, thank you for the indirect reference to my alma mater, Rice U., where Professor Smalley had been working on nanotech. The Rice community mourns the loss of this pioneer.

Just recently we heard announcements by China that they intend to focus on renewable/alternative energy sources. However, before that, I had heard that China was going to demand that the West foot the bill for alternatives to coal. It sticks in my craw, but letting them go with coal is a frightening prospect indeed.

I realize many readers of FP don't buy in to global warming, but I wanted to mention here the ph change of the oceans' waters due to carbon uptake. This effect has been measured and has the potential to be a crisis for much of humanity who depend on the ocean for protein. Of course ocean ph has changed before, and life will evolve to cope, but such evolution almost certainly will involve population crashes that will lead to food shortages.

Rob said at November 9, 2005 1:38 PM:

When you talk about China and coal, it's always good to remember that China burns a LOT of coal for no reason:

http://www.itc.nl/personal/coalfire/problem/china_coalfire.html

Can you imagine what the environmentalists would be saying if it was the US burning up more than 100 million tons of coal per year BY ACCIDENT?

Also, you have to think of the hundreds of millions of hibachi's that get fired up for every meal in China.

Goggle "asian brown cloud" if you want to see the result of all of this. I don't think pollution in the US was ever, at any time, bad enough to prevent 15% of sunlight from reaching the ground over a large area.

Joseph said at November 9, 2005 2:15 PM:

momochan

Actually most don't disagree that a climate shift is occuring, climate shift is normal. Most however believe human impact is not the driving force on climate and there's still quite a bit of doubt over what the shift is ultimately to. In the past grapes grew all the way up into vicinity of Scotland, at other times people walked across the river ice in London. The reason I scorn most enviromental fascists is that they seem to believe the planet's weather was perfect some years ago and should never fluctuate forever and ever amen.

But to the main point, if such programs as IFR were running today the need for waste storage at Yucca would be minimal. Most of the previouse high level wastes would be in the pipeline for reprocessing and burn down within the newer reactors.

Invisible Scientist said at November 9, 2005 3:43 PM:

If we reprocess the existing nuclear waste that has already accumulated in the United States, the resulting fissile materials would yield enough fuel for several decades. Additionally, there would be a lot less dangerous long term waste leftover.

The real reason it is very important to start adopting the new generation nuclear reactors, is not just the nuclear waste accumulation, but equally important is the fact that there will be shortage of uranium if we start building hundreds of reactors. The new generation of breeder rectors like the IFR, would be 100 times more fuel efficient because they would essentially burn almost all the existing uranium 238 which gets converted to plutonium and other heavy elements.

Joseph said at November 9, 2005 4:19 PM:

Invisible Scientist

I agree on all you points. Burn it down and get some use out of it. If memory serves the great bulk of waste material is low level (such as irridiated machinery etc..) which you might not want to process into your mattress stuffing material but pose little or no risk if buried properly. In almost all cases the higher level wastes have some potential for special use or power generation and shouldn't be wasted by simple burial in some remote cave.

The way we use nuclear fuel at the moment is a bit rediculous. I't like powering a vehicle by sucking up the stray vapor from a can of gasoline then throwing away the can when the vapor level drops and opening a new one.

Invisible Scientist said at November 9, 2005 4:30 PM:

If we reprocess the existing nuclear waste that has already accumulated in the United States, the resulting fissile materials would yield enough fuel for several decades. Additionally, there would be a lot less dangerous long term waste leftover.

The real reason tt is very important to start adopting the new generation nuclear reactors, is not just the nuclear waste accumulation, but equally important is the fact that there will be shortage of uranium if we start building hundreds of reactors. The new generation of breeder rectors like the IFR, would be 100 times more fuel efficient because they would essentially burn almost all the existing uranium 238 which gets converted to plutonium and other heavy elements.

momochan said at November 9, 2005 7:47 PM:

Joseph:

I'm curious to hear whether you think that the recent drop in the pH of the surface ocean from 8.25 to near 8.14 is natural. Being a log scale, that's quite a change; the oceans have absorbed massive quantities of CO2.

We know from ice core samples that CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by a third since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. (Tiny bubbles of air are trapped in the snow as it compacts to form the ice; all you need is careful measurement). We know that background levels of greenhouse gases bring the "average" terrestrial temperature up to 60 degrees F, compared to 0 degrees F without (from the British Petroleum website). A 30% increase in a gas that's partly responsible for a 60 degree difference can be expected to have an impact.

Joseph said at November 9, 2005 9:36 PM:

momochan

To the best of my memory all atmospheric components together provide a 37F greenhouse effect. CO2 at current levels contributes around .7F of that effect. Water vapor is by far the greatest greenhouse element of the atmosphere. Bluntly the invalidating of the infamous "hockey stick" showed the slightly interesting fact that CO2 levels "trailed" estimated temperature levels by decades.

As far as ocean ph what little I've seen concerning it has not be very concise with some postulations that undersea hydrothermal sources are the primary driver versus the uptake of calcium and related compounds through the carbonate cycle as it interacts with the atmosphere. Who is correct? Damn if I know and I doubt seriously if any of the so called experts know yet. The system has worked with fluctuations quite well on average for the last .8 billion years so with many episodes where admospheric CO2 was tremendously higher that even pessimistic forcasts currently give for our future. The oceans apparently didn't become lethaly acidic (except for one extinction episode which had tremendous geological input apparently which make it a special case).

As I stated climate change occures. I just disagree that human input is a major driver of this change. Should be quit burning oil when other tech is available? Yep, that oil is far more valuable as plastics :)

Randall Parker said at November 9, 2005 10:25 PM:

Joseph,

My problem with your argument is that we do not really know whether human influence is having a major impact on the climate. How can you say that human input is not now a major driver? We just do not know. And when the rate of CO2 emissions goes up by 50% and perhaps even eventually by 75% or 100% what if it turns out your confidence is misplaced?

What do we know? That CO2 is a greenhouse gas and we are in the process of greatly boosting its level in the atmosphere.

Now, maybe its warming effects will be buffered by, say, a reduction in atmospheric moisture. Then again, maybe the warming caused by CO2 will lead to more water evaporation and that will cause still more warming in a positive feedback loop.

Given the scale of the change we are causing in the atmosphere and given that the rate of that change is accelerating it strikes me as very imprudent to do nothing about it.

Joseph said at November 10, 2005 1:41 AM:

Randall Parker

Seriously what would you do about it? Not being confrontational here but other than migration to another energy source/s there's very little in the ways of effective measures. Kyoto is a terribly bad joke at best and would have no measureable real world impact even if we were willing to suffer the drastic economic consequencies. CO2 levels have been far higher in prehistoric periods than even the most pessemistic forcasts from the (spit) UN and had no greatly detrimental effects on the whole.

However transfering to different sources/carriers of transportation energy would rapidly reduce any additions to the co2 level and give many people warm and fuzzies. This is only practical since oil reserves will become more constrained and there's far better uses for the resource than driving a carnot cycle. I doubt however if there'll be any measureable difference in the rate of climate change.

Humanity probably has a far greater impact on the weather cycles via land developement than gas emissions. Overall though the climate will change regardless of whether humans even exist. Ideally within the next 2-3 decades the technology will have moved on and as a consequence emissions will lower. Land use will not and will probably increase till the end of this century. We are currently either hastening to a small amount an extended warming cycle or lightly hindering a return to glacial conditions (I tend to think the latter). Regardless what will come will come. Secure and reliable sources of power for the human race will be the deciding factor on whether we prosper or suffer. That's why I strongly support nuclear. If done properly it's a long term, reliable source of power. Perhaps renewables will assist if the basic vexing problems (mentioned many times here) are ever overcome. Hell even fusion may work out someday.

Bluntly though the world climate cycle might be effected by human activity but not driven by it (even scenarios for "nuclear winter" were found to be exaggerated).

Randall Parker said at November 10, 2005 7:56 AM:

Joseph,

Seriously, I've probably argued a hundred times what I think we ought to do about it: A massive research effort to develop new cheaper and cleaner energy technologies.

Prehistoric CO2 levels: And they've been far lower as well. The planet is billions of years old. It has gone thru lots of weather changes for lots of reasons. You can't draw simple conclusions about past CO2 levels because lots of other conditions were different in the past as well.

Engineer-Poet said at November 10, 2005 8:09 AM:
Not being confrontational here but other than migration to another energy source/s there's very little in the ways of effective measures.
That's not quite true.  Coal-fired IGCC powerplants convert roughly half of the carbon into CO2 in the gasifier, where it can be scrubbed out of the syngas along with the sulfur and mercury.  This CO2 could be sequestered in e.g. deep aquifers at relatively small expense compared to scrubbing the exhaust of an atmospheric furnace and tying up its CO2 with something like serpentine.

If you can get the syngas clean enough, you can feed it to fuel cells instead of gas turbines.  This allows the CO2 to be maintained at near-gasifier pressure and slashes the cost and difficulty of liquefying the portion which goes through the power train.  Do this, and you have close to a zero-emission coal plant.

If you really want to get serious about something like this, you feed biomass to the plant and fully sequester its output.  This produces a carbon-negative energy system.

CO2 levels have been far higher in prehistoric periods
That's news to me.  How recently, and how high?

The most recent data I've seen is that the current warming is about 30% solar and 70% anthropogenic.  This estimate has an error bar, but it goes without saying that the 70% that's under our control is more than enough to make us or break us.

Tdean said at November 10, 2005 9:20 AM:

Joseph,

Your memory serves you not too well. From Wikipedia: "Water vapor(H2O) causes about 60% of Earth's naturally-occurring greenhouse effect. Other gases influencing the effect include carbon dioxide (CO2) (about 26%), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and ozone (O3) (about 8%). " And it gives the total greenhouse warming for all species of GHGs as 32 degrees C, a lot more than 37 F. If you want to pretend to be an expert you should make some minimal effort to get your facts straight.

E-P,

Atmospheric CO2 levels were a lot higher at the Permian/Triassic boundary when the Siberian Traps, huge flood basalts, spewed out lots of CO2 from the mantle for at least a million years. It was also a lot higher at the Cretaceous/ Tertiary boundary when the Deccan Trap flood basalts in India were erupted and when the Chicxulub meteor vaporized hundreds of cubic Km of carbonate rocks in Mexico. Curious isn't it that both those periods were times of mass extinctions on earth.

Engineer-Poet said at November 10, 2005 10:22 AM:

Okay, so we're not talking about anything since the rise of hominids, and they were associated with mass extinctions (insofar as we can accurately measure CO2 from fossil traces).  Still sounds very much worth avoiding a replay.

Joseph said at November 10, 2005 11:14 AM:

Randall Parker

And I concure with the caveat that preserving the resources for other uses is preferred. I disagree with you in the context that human co2 emmissions are not the driving force of trends. Land use would have far higher impact by way of changing weather patterns. This is not something that can be kyotoed away.

Engineer-Poet

I still do not see co2 emissions as being the primary driver. It is the most prevalent but also the weakest of the greenhouse gases. Land use in, in my opinion, has the far greater impact and that's not going to be mitigated.

Tdious

You're a legend in your own mind. The only self appointed expert here is you. Kindly bugger yourself and not address me again and I'll return the favor. Note, continue to read, maybe someday you'll understand Newton.

Joseph said at November 10, 2005 12:13 PM:

Engineer-Poet

A point I forgot to make and a slight correction. The 400k ice core record, when expanded shows that co2 levels trail temperature by 600-900 years versus the several decades I pulled from memory when I mentioned it. This applies for temperature increases and decreases with the exception of rapid onsets of glaciation when temperature drops faster than co2 level. The main point I'm trying to make is that my own assesment co2 is more of an indicator versus a precursor of temperature change, when speaking of nonhuman sources, and even with humanity producing large amount of the gas the primary force for climate change comes from other sources which may include human land modiefications.

momochan said at November 10, 2005 1:15 PM:

Joseph, I agree with you that land use and modification is an under-recognized factor. Drainage of Indonesian peat bogs and subsequent fires is one example. Ocean acidification (which has been measured at the surface, not near undersea vents) should impact plankton, those wee organisms that give us so much of our atmospheric oxygen.
Recently I read that selective logging in the Amazon basin may be partly to blame for changes in the hydrologic cycle (as in "drought"). Since H2O vapor is the major greenhouse gas, major changes in forests would be cause for concern.
The problem I see with such factors is that they are difficult to quantify. For me, uncertainty calls for caution, so I disagree with those who think we should just carry on until things become manifestly awful. Like so many other things in life, climate shift is easier prevented than cured.

Tdean said at November 10, 2005 5:12 PM:

Joe,
I will continue to call you on your misinformation and misapprehensions. Your childish insults do little to support your arguments which are clearly derived from the big oil propaganda campaign against real science.

It is pretty clear that the ice age, which is when most of the ice core records were laid down, were driven by orbital forcings i.e. the earth's wobble on it's axis. That CO2 follows warming to some degree in this circumstance is to be expected and illustrates the problems of positive feedback. A warming earth gives off more sequestered CO2 which causes more warming which releases more CO2...

We can see this happening on a much faster time scale now in the arctic and the tropics. As permafrost thaws the organic rich soils are exposed to rapid bacterial oxidation so they become a large CO2 source. And as we have read recently, decreasing snow and ice cover decreases albido leading to more warming. As the climate becomes increasingly unstable due to a spike in CO2, rain forests are periodically exposed to droughts which leads to massive forest burnoffs with pulses of CO2 larger than all other human sources in those years.

The other major feedback effect can go both positive and negative: increasing water vapor in the atmosphere with warming. Current climate models indicate clearly that water vapor is now a positive feedback. But when the earth warms more, cloud cover could become so extensive that it would become a negative feedback due to albedo effects. But because the residence time of water in the atmosphere is so short, we could enter a phase where the climate cycles rapidly between warming and cooling leading to total disruption of agriculture and ecosystems around the world.

Such a scenario is possible but not certain, but it is certain that if it occurred, the costs would be incalcuable. We would be far better off not playing this game of chance with the earth's climate and bite the bullet to develop renewable energy and carbon sequestration technologies. Going back to nuclear is only trading one disaster for another.

Joseph said at November 10, 2005 6:01 PM:

momochan

I see your points but I simply can't speak to any extent on ocean PH. I only remember stray bits of info from this area. One was the arguments I've seen concerning geothermal chemical and heat imput into the deep ocean. The only thing else that comes immediately to mind is the argument over pre-cambrian co2 levels since the levels postulated to warm earth above freezing with assumed solar output was something like 10k times higher than today. It was stated there was nothing even close to the level of chemical compounds in ocean sediments to support that thesis hence the argument over why the earth wasn't frozen solid till about .8 giga years ago when solar output reached levels close to current.

What I would ask is how was the ocean different during say the Eocene period. Climate then was warmer than even UN (spit) projections and I think co2 was estimated at ~700ppm. The continents were very close to present day configurations though no ice caps were present. I'm not sure if reliable PH info can be projected for such a period but life seems to have flourished (whales and the Teddy Kennedy genotype were evolving).

I still believe that while human action (not primarily involving co2 release) may be impacting whatever climate change is coming such actions are not the primary driving forces. Seriously the best possible action is to continue tech developement, then bootstrap the remaining nations. Heavily reduced emissions, reduced land use even with increasing population etc.. Fatalistically when climate change does come, and it will eventually no matter what humanity does, there's a lot to be said for a balmy Miocene climate, or if it goes the other way towering glaciers make for very scenic veiws.

Paul Dietz said at December 21, 2005 12:48 PM:

assumed solar output was something like 10k times higher than today

Joseph: I'm not sure what you're trying to say there, but solar output has been increasing over time. This is because the increased mass of helium in the core makes the core denser and hotter. The solar constant has increased about 30 percent since the sun settled onto the main sequence shortly after its formation.

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