By G. Meyerson (Greensboro, North Carolina USA)
This book is a must read for people who want to be informed about our worsening energy and ecology crisis. Before I read this book, I was opposed to nuclear power for the usual reasons: weapons proliferation and the waste problem. But also because I had read that in fact nuclear power was not as clean as advertised nor as cost competitive as advertised and was, moreover, not a renewable form of energy, as it depends upon depleting stocks of uranium, which would become an especially acute problem in the event of "a nuclear renaissance." Before I read this book, I was also of the opinion that growth economies (meaning for now global capitalism) were in the process of becoming unsustainable, that, as a consequence, our global economy would itself unravel due to increasing energy costs and the inability of renewable technologies genuinely and humanely to solve the global transport problem of finding real replacements for the billions of gallons of gasoline consumed by the global economy, and the billions more gallons required to fuel the growth imperative. I was thus attracted to the most egalitarian versions of Richard Heinberg's power down/relocalization thesis.
Blees' book has turned many of my assumptions upside down and so anyone who shares these assumptions needs to read this book and come to terms with the implications of Blees' excellent arguments. To wit: the nuclear power provided by Integral Fast Reactors (IFR) can provide clean, safe and for all practical purposes renewable power for a growing economy provided this power is properly regulated (I'll return to this issue below). The transportation problems can be solved by burning boron as fuel (a 100% recyclable resource) and the waste problem inevitably caused by exponential growth can be at least partially solved by fully recycling all waste in plasma converters, which themselves can provide both significant power (the heat from these converters can turn a turbine to generate electricity) and important products: non toxic vitrified slag (which Blees notes can be used to refurbish ocean reefs), rock wool (to be used to insulate our houses--it is superior to fiber glass or cellulose) and clean syngas, which can assume the role played by petroleum in the production of products beyond fuel itself. Blees's discussion of how these three elements of a new energy economy can be introduced and integrated is detailed and convincing. Other forms of renewable energy can play a significant role also, though it is his argument that only IFRs can deal with the awesome scale problems of powering a global economy which would still need to grow. Tom's critique of biofuels is devastating and in line with the excellent critiques proferred by both the powerdown people and the red greens (John Bellamy Foster, Fred Magdoff); his critique of the "hydrogen economy" is also devastating (similar to critiques by Joseph Romm or David Strahan); his critique of a solar grand plan must be paid heed by solar enthusiasts of various political stripes.
The heart of this book, though, really resides with the plausibility of the IFR. His central argument is that these reactors can solve the principal problems plaguing other forms of nuclear power. It handles the nuclear waste problem by eating it to produce power: The nuclear waste would fire up the IFRs and our stocks of depleted uranium alone would keep the reactors going for a couple hundred years (factoring in substantial economic growth) due to the stunning efficiency of these reactors, an efficiency enabled by the fact that "a fast reactor can burn up virtually all of the uranium in the ore," not just one percent of the ore as in thermal reactors. This means no uranium mining and milling for hundreds of years.
The plutonium bred by the reactor will be fed back into it to produce more energy and cannot be weaponized due to the different pyroprocessing that occurs in the IFR reactor. In this process, plutonium is not isolated, a prerequisite to its weaponization. The IFR breeders can produce enough nonweaponizable plutonium to start up another IFR in seven years. Moreover, these reactors can be produced quickly (100 per year starting in 2015, with the goal of building 3500 by 2050)), according to Blees, with improvements in modular design, which would facilitate standardization, thus bringing down cost and construction lead time.
Importantly, nuclear accidents would be made virtually impossible due to the integration of "passive" safety features in the reactors, which rely on "the inherent physical properties of the reactor's components to shut it down." (129)
Blees is no shill for the nuclear industry and is in fact quite hostile to corporate power. He thinks that these IFRs must be both run and regulated by a globally accountable, international and public body of experts. Blees has in mind a global energy democracy in which profit would play minimal if any role. Blees realizes that democratizing energy in this way, including technology sharing, will be fought by vested interests. But he thinks that the severity of the climate crisis will persuade people of the necessity of global public ownership over energy resources. My greatest disagreements with this book focus on the scale of conflict that would emerge around such proposals. Blees' energy democracy is a great idea, but I doubt the ruling elites would go for it no matter how much sense it makes. Blees is banking on the unique character of the climate crisis to convert a significant sector of our elites to humanity's cause and not their class interests. Let's hope he's right, but I'm less optimistic that this revolution will be as "painless" as Blees suggests.
That said, Blees's solutions make possible the kind of relatively clean growth I did not think was possible under current global regimes. Still, if such a new energy regime as Blees proposes can solve the climate crisis, this is not to say, in my opinion, that a growth regime is fully compatible with a healthy planet and thus a healthy humanity. There are other resources crucial to us--the world's soils, forests and oceans come to mind--that a constantly expanding global economy can destroy even if we recycle all the world's garbage and stop global warming.
Before I read this book, I did not think contemporary global capitalism could sustain itself for long, due to its pathological inequity and its seeming inability to solve the energy and ecological challenge. Blees' book seems to offer immediate solutions to our energy and ecology problems while breathing new life into some kind of growth economy--whether that economy can rightly be called capitalist given its commitment to energy democracy and democratic planning is a question, perhaps, for Blees's next book.
I think it's hard to exaggerate the IMPORTANCE of this book. Those who are opposed to nuclear power have a responsibility to read and respond to Blees' arguments.
I hope that the book's uncanny timeliness--released in the midst of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, a fact that ought to open people's minds to his critique of the free market--allows it to have the mass impact that it deserves.
I saw someone reference this book in an article in the Telegraph about energy from thorium.
Anybody here read it, by chance? Probably not since it's a positive treatment of the energy subject. I haven't read it and it's not available at my library. Looks interesting but I guess I'll have to part with $25 if my curiosity gets the best of me.
The first chapter is available to read here for free.