Since this chapter is about how a properly implemented “nuclear renaissance” (not just more of the same) could solve most of the future’s agricultural problems, let’s begin by coming up with an estimate of how much energy/power that would require.

The exceptionally “rich” lifestyle of the United States’ ~320 million people is nominally supported by about 99.5 EJ (98 quads) of raw/primary energy per annum, which figure has remained roughly constant for over two decades (LLNL 2018). It’s “nominal” because its consumer-driven economy consumes energy and other resources from an area outside of and greater than that of the United States, which isn’t counted in such compilations.

Approximately 80% of the United States’ primary/raw energy is provided by fossil fuels, which translates to a mean per capita raw/primary energy consumption rate (power) of 9860 watts [99.5E +18J/3.15E+7/320E+6], or about eight [99.5/3.2e+8/570/7.5E+9] times that of the world’s average person today. Since one joule’s worth of raw/primary (heat) energy currently provides about 0.4 joules worth of useful “energy services” (the efficiency of most of fossil fuel’s applications is Carnot-limited) and Europeans apparently live almost as well, consuming one-half that much raw/primary energy per capita, let’s assume that supporting the lifestyles of each of the future’s equitably EU-rich people would require ~2 kW’s [9860 x 0.5 x 0.4 = 1972 « 2000] worth of energy services (electricity). Consequently, a world with 11.2 billion such individuals (the United Nations’ current best guess) must possess power plants able to supply an average power of about 22.4 [11.2E+9 x 2000 x 3.15E+7/1E+ 12/3.17e+7 = 22.4] TWe (terawatt electrical - that’s about 3.5 times as much useful energy as today’s people consume). Finally, assuming that each individual region’s peak power demand is about 40% higher than its average and that no magic worldwide, zero-loss, “super grid” exists, our descendants would need ~30,000 [22.4 x 1.4 x 1012/109] one GWe power plants to live that well.

That power could not be generated with fossil fuels because even if there were enough of them (there isn’t), burning it would have catastrophic consequences. For example, the raw/primary (heat) energy represented by the world’s remaining 1139 billion Mg (tons) of coal reserves, 187 trillion m3 of natural gas, and 1.707 trillion barrels of petroleum (BP 2017) is about 5.0E+22 J’s, which, if consumed by 40% Carnot (heat to electricity) efficient power plants, could generate 22 TWe for 29 years —35% of a current first-world human life span. Additionally, those reserves collectively contain about 1200 Gt (10 + 9 Mg) of carbon, which, if converted to CO, and dumped into the atmosphere, would push global warming well past any of the “tipping points” (irreversible change in the earth’s climate) suggested by the world’s climate modeling experts (Hansen 2008).

That much energy could not be produced with the same sorts of “burner-type” reactors utilized in today’s nuclear power plants, either. The reason for this is that they are extremely inefficient in terms of fuel (uranium) use - only about one of 160 uranium atoms mined/processed is actually “burned”; the rest go to waste. This means that enough such reactors to generate 22.4 GWe of power would run through 100% of the world’s “affordable” uranium reserves within about five years. To become “renewable,” nuclear power must be generated with reactors that consume nearly 100% of the uranium (or thorium) mined/processed, i.e., with breeder-type reactors coupled with fuel recycling/ reprocessing systems. That’s certainly possible, but civilian nuclear power remains in “technological lock-in” because its first movers succeeded in establishing a profitable business model that didn’t emphasize efficiency or long-term sustainability. It worked for quite a long time, but its drawbacks eventually rendered nuclear power much less attractive than it should/could be (Cowan 1990).

In order to better understand what these facts, figures, and trends mean, it’s useful to consider them on a longer time scale than that which we customarily employ. Figure 11.1 was excerpted from a paper written/delivered by the one of the petroleum industry’s most influential geologists (and, eventually, most influential gadfly), Professor M. King Hubbert, 63 years ago (Hubbert 1956). It depicts mankind’s total energy consumption extending from the dawn of recorded history 5000 years ago to 5000 years in the future based upon two assumptions: that human population eventually stabilizes and that we choose to replace finite fossil fuels with a sustainable (breeder reactor based) nuclear fuel cycle before civilization collapses. While the fossil fuel industries’ champions and apologists have repeatedly proven Professor Hubbert “wrong” by cherry-picking assumptions, time scales, and data sets, the fact remains that his figure’s message, i.e., that “on such a time scale, the discovery, exploitation, and exhaustion of the earth’s fossil fuels will constitute an ephemeral event,” is correct.

Another relevant observation was made by English-born American economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding in a Science article almost two decades later (Abelson 1975): “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” (That’s why economics is still deemed to be a “dismal” science.)

Mankind’s long-term energy consumption

FIGURE 11.1 Mankind’s long-term energy consumption. (From Hubbert, M.K., Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, Publication no. 95, Shell Development Company, Exploration and Production Research Division, Houston, TX, June 1956, http://www.hubbertpeak.corn/hubbert/1956/1956.)

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >