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Is Bill McKibben Really Serious About Climate Change?

Rod Adams's picture
President and CEO Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
  • Member since 2006
  • 969 items added with 298,138 views
  • Mar 8, 2013

Andy Revkin recently published a post on his Dot Earth blog titled A Communications Scholar Analyzes Bill McKibben’s Path on Climate. In one of the videos that is embedded in the article, Matthew Nisbet describes Bill McKibben as a public intellectual and compares his activism on climate to that of Rachel Carson on the effects of pesticide chemicals.

Revkin provides this quote about the video:

There’s a lot of value in this short statement, including this framing explaining why global warming has been challenging for all kinds of communicators to address:

Unlike conventional environmental problems like acid rain or the ozone hole, climate change is not conventionally solvable. It’s more a problem like poverty or public health — something that we’re going to do better or worse at. We’re never going to end, we’re never going to solve it.

Submarine Under Ice

Submarine Under Ice

Though I am not a New York Times columnist or the founder of a large and growing non profit like, I am vain enough to believe that I have something to offer on the topic of solving climate change. Instead of describing the work of scientists and trying to synthesize the solutions offered by technologists into some kind of coherent story to convince people that they should both care and take some action, I spend my early morning hours writing about a powerful tool that is based on my own research and experience.

Nuclear fission energy has almost magical properties. It provides massive quantities of the useful ability to do work (that is the technical definition of “energy”) without producing any greenhouse gases at all. It provides that incredibly valuable product from a tiny quantity of naturally occurring material that has few competing commercial uses. We have known about this gift for just 75 years, but within just a couple of decades after it was discovered it was already powering cities, large, fast ships and submarines.

The current fear of nuclear energy is a purely man-made construct; there is nothing natural about being afraid of a force that you cannot see, smell or taste and that rarely, if ever, harms anyone as long as it is properly handled. Anyone who has raised children knows that they are naturally fearless; they have to be taught caution around such dangerous objects as lighted fireplaces, neighborhood streets full of automobiles, and edges of a high wall.

Human beings had to be taught to fear nuclear energy. Despite what some might tell you, it was not an easy thing to do; in the first few decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the images and experiences of the bomb were freshest in the public’s mind, the support for using atomic energy was almost universal. People recognized that any fuel powerful enough to knock down a city with a single blow was powerful enough to solve many pressing energy challenges.

However, the sustained effort to teach people to be afraid of nuclear energy – instead of respecting its power and using its force for good – has been pretty successful in many places, including Vermont, the place that McKibben calls home. It continues to frustrate me when people who claim to be almost solely focused on fighting climate change and the fossil fuels whose use is a huge contribution to the problem refuse to acknowledge that their fear of nuclear energy is hampering their ability to succeed in their self-assigned mission.

Here is a comment that I left on Dot Earth in which I made my case that McKibben is simply not serious enough about climate change to overcome an imposed phobia or take the time to learn just why he and his followers have been taught to have that fear. I wonder if he ever stops to think about how his reluctance to use nuclear energy plays into the hands of the fossil fuel companies whose behavior he is trying to alter through his divestment campaign?

Though I applaud McKibben for his success in focusing attention on a “wicked” challenge, I continue to wonder why he has chosen to avoid support for the best available tool.

Fission can directly replace oil, gas and coal in many applications including power plants, district heating, industrial process heat and ship propulsion. On January 17, 1955, nuclear fission power demonstrated that it was capable of supplying reliable power in the most challenging environment imaginable – a sealed, submerged submarine full of breathing human beings.

In a world where we need reliable power to continue to do work and where we obviously need to take action to make that power cleaner, I fail to understand why climate activists like McKibben are so fearful of nuclear energy.

The technology, despite the scary stories told in the hydrocarbon advertiser-supported media, has a respectable safety record. There have been few, if any instances of anyone in the public ever being harmed by radiation released from a nuclear power plant. There are 0 cases of anyone being harmed by fine particulates, 0 environments being damaged by acid rain, and 0 fish being polluted by mercury released from nuclear plant smokestacks. (There are no nuclear plant smoke stacks.)

McKibben fails my test of seriousness about climate change. People who want us to do better on the issue (Hansen, Brook, Brand, Lynas, Monbiot, Moore, Cravens) have all determined that nuclear cannot be ignored.

Pandora’s Promise is hope.

The post McKibben is not serious about climate change appeared first on Atomic Insights.

Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.
Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 8, 2013

Rod, I believe McKibben is serious about climate change but suffers from the same syndrome Greenpeace does - financial supporters harbor irrational fears of nuclear and he risks alienating them.

For nuclear supporters the task is to speak out, as you have been - to dispel myths and spread facts whenever and wherever possible.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Mar 8, 2013

McKibben shares an infection common to public intellectuals in that he assumes expertise (or passion, in his case) in one area of study qualifies him to prescribe actions in another (or to put it more simply, he stumbles over the boundary separating ‘is’ and ‘ought’). His inability and/or refusal to grasp fundamentals of energy in general and the laws of thermodynamics in particular then become a fatal blind spot.  He accuses fossil fuel companies of being in a war with physics and chemistry, unaware that it is precisely because we understand physics and chemistry that fossil fuels are used (and also why nuclear power can never be dismissed).  He then compounds the problem by overemphasizing political actions like divestment and brinksmanship on the Keystone XL pipeline, unaware that, as the great theologian (!) Oswald Chambers observed, unguarded strength is double weakness.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 8, 2013

Randy - we use fossil fuels because we understand exactly two things:

1) We put them in our cars, and they make our cars go.
2) They're cheap.

No physics or chemistry required.

It's encouraging to see Shell investing in Gen IV nuclear, but in general what fossil fuel companies either don't understand or don't care about is the fact that we're within decades of a tipping point which will lock in climate changes that could last for eons, and result in a hefty percentage of the worlds species going extinct. I suppose we all have a value judgement about our ancestors having to live in a +8C  hothouse for 100,000 years; personally I would be delighted to turn off the oil spigot tomorrow and get by as best I can.

You seem to disparage any intellectual who speaks out a "public" one; I think it's high time intellectuals got into the game and put climate denier idiots in their place. On the subject of fossil fuels,  McKibben speaks for me.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Mar 9, 2013


The first point is a red herring.  I'm well aware the average person doesn't care about the physics or chemistry of an internal combustion engine.  However, when somebody comes along telling us how evil gasoline is, I do not think it unreasonable to expect him to understand why we use it, especially when he drones on about a war against physics and chemistry. In general, I don't have a problem with public intellectuals until they start lecturing us on subjects for which they do not have expertise.  That is certainly the case here.  McKibben's background is in journalism, not the natural sciences or engineering.  You could make the case that his ignorance indirectly aids fossil fuels, in that he chases renewable energy unicorns at the expense of nukes.  I'll take him seriously when he stands in front of Vermont Yankee, screaming that we should build a thousand more.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 9, 2013

Randy, when has McKibben railed against physics and chemistry? That's a new one on me.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Mar 9, 2013


Randy's point is clear. We use gasoline because it's chemical properties serve us well for transportation. All of this talk of outlaws and bringing folks to justice is just stupid irrational blabber. First people like McKibben should identify or provide an alternatve to the ICE and gasoline, then they should lead by example and foreswear ICE automobiles, maybe then we'd take them seriously.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 9, 2013

Here's the context. He was rebutting an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:

"Robert Bryce's Dec. 17 op-ed ("Harvard Needs Remedial Energy Math") attacking campus efforts to have universities divest themselves of holdings in fossil-fuel companies is interesting for what it omits: even the slightest attempt to rebut the mathematical logic that shows fossil-fuel companies have become outlaws against the laws of physics. Here are the numbers: In order to prevent the two-degree Celsius rise in temperature that even the most conservative governments on earth have committed to avoiding, scientists tell us we can burn enough coal and oil and gas to produce 565 gigatons of CO2. Unfortunately, the planet's fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that operate like fossil-fuel companies (think Venezuela and Kuwait), have five times that much in their reserves. It's what their share prices are based on; they obviously plan to burn it; indeed, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars daily looking for more. If their business plan is carried out, the planet tanks."

It's awkwardly worded, because of course they aren't violating any laws of physics. But there's been no acknowledgement from the oil industry that their product is harming the environment (I challenge anyone to find the words "climate change" or "carbon" in any of the API's frequent PR pieces posted on this forum) so it's reasonable to assume their business plan is full speed ahead - drill it, suck it out of the earth, sell it, and burn it - indefinitely. To do that, and simultaneously accept a responsibility for maintaining control of climate change, would necessitate violating the laws of physics.

In that sense Al is largely correct.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Mar 9, 2013

I'm aware of the context.  The central point remains that McKibben needs to educate himself on the laws of physics and chemistry that govern the field of energy before he can be taken seriously.  Or to put in practical terms as Paul O has done, come up with a true competitor to the internal combustion engine.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 9, 2013

Paul, of course there are plenty of alternatives to the ICE and gasoline, if not avoiding them completely then minimizing their use. People use gas because it gets them where they want to go, and they believe it does so cheaply. But does it? If we included the cost of mitigating the effects of global warming decades from now (we should be running estimates on what it will cost to build a seawall around Manhattan and Miami) gasoline would be $100/gallon.

That requires looking at the big picture, and some foresight. A tall order, when the oil industry spends roughly $100M/year on playing down those very effects through lobbying or hiring talented PR people like Mark Green. It also makes it pretty hard for activists with opposing viewpoints to be heard. So even though I disagree with Al on strategy - if he wants to rattle the rafters a little, I say more power to him.

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Mar 9, 2013

When we solve the issue of our irrational health care system that allows 2nd and 3rd opinions and fee for service that provides for procedures that have no evidence of working costing us 1/3 of what we spend on health care for irrational reasons, then we can start to work on the irrationality of fission.

We need to get rid of coal and eventually gas produced power ASAP.  Fission may be the way to do that.First we need to find a permanent waste storage for all the "temporary"stored waste. Then we need to discredit fossil fuels and Mckibben is good at that even if, and that's a BIG if, he exaggerates. I'm not at all sure that at the end of this whole process that fission, at least in the upper midwest, will be cheaper than wind imported from the Dakota's,Nebraska, Kansas,Wyoming and Montana with gas backup and more transmission. We're all waiting for the housing industry to come back,so instead of building more Mac mansions, why not spent it on energy infrastructure that will provide the same boost to the economy with a much better pay off for our future.

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Mar 9, 2013

When we solve the issue of our irrational health care system that allows 2nd and 3rd opinions and fee for service that provides for procedures that have no evidence of working costing us 1/3 of what we spend on health care for irrational reasons, then we can start to work on the irrationality of fission.

We need to get rid of coal and eventually gas produced power ASAP.  Fission may be the way to do that.First we need to find a permanent waste storage for all the "temporary"stored waste. Then we need to discredit fossil fuels and Mckibben is good at that even if, and that's a BIG if, he exaggerates. I'm not at all sure that at the end of this whole process that fission, at least in the upper midwest, will be cheaper than wind imported from the Dakota's,Nebraska, Kansas,Wyoming and Montana with gas backup and more transmission. We're all waiting for the housing industry to come back,so instead of building more Mac mansions, why not spent it on energy infrastructure that will provide the same boost to the economy with a much better pay off for our future.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 9, 2013

Randy, I drive a competitor to the ICE every day. I put my money where my mouth is, and it's a joy.

I know, EVs are impractical. So impractical that ICE car dealers in Minnesota are trying to block Tesla from selling cars there. In five years they'll be affordable and practical for 90% of American drivers, and I can't wait.


Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 9, 2013

@Bob Meinetz

This article is not about an alternative to gasoline. In terms of human CO2 emissions, personal automobiles are actually quite a manageable contributor; perhaps 15% or less.

The "big noises" in CO2 emissions are burning coal, natural gas and oil (in oil exporting countries, mostly) to produce electricity, space heat, industrial process heat, and commercial ship propulsion. (Though that application is mostly invisible to people, ships carry about 90% of all international cargo and burn up about 6-8% of the world's annual oil production.)

Those are all applications in which fission can play a huge role and win on almost all measures of effectiveness - as long as the regulatory environment encourages safe nuclear plant construction and operation rather than being such an onerous burden that it purposely discourages ALL nuclear plant construction and operation.

Rod Adams

PS - You really think gasoline is "cheap"? On a price per unit heat basis, gasoline at $3.50 per gallon is about 7.5 times as expensive as natural gas at $3.50 per million BTU. I drive a fuel efficient diesel Jetta that averages better than 40 miles per gallon have a short commute of about 12 miles. If I go nowhere other than just go back and forth to work, my bare minumum fuel bill is $48 per month. Add some miles choose a less efficient automobile, perhaps because you work as a carpenter or plumber or have a few kids to carry and the fuel bill can start to become a large portion of a paycheck.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 9, 2013

@Bob Meinetz

It would be terrific if Shell and other oil and gas producers would invest some of their vast capital resources on new nuclear power plants; my preference would be Gen III construction in addition to a little Gen IV research.

However, I have not found any evidence of that happening. Can you tell me the source of the following statement in your comment?

"It's encouraging to see Shell investing in Gen IV nuclear, but in general what fossil fuel companies either don't understand or don't care about is the fact that we're within decades of a tipping point which will lock in climate changes that could last for eons, and result in a hefty percentage of the worlds species going extinct." 

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on Mar 9, 2013

Dear Mr. Adams,

While you are correct that nuclear energy is 'clean' in the sense that it does not directly Emmit CO2 (though the industry as a whole does emmitt some CO2) I disagree that it is a wise or sustainable answer to mankind's need for energy that does not alter the chemistry of the atmosphere.

History has shown us that because radioactive materials have such compact energy that they are inherently dangerous. You, of course, know that meltdowns, accidental or not, pose an unacceptable threat to life on earth. As I write this the background radiation readings in the Northwest are as much as 20 times normal due to the disaster at Fucashima. Chernobyl will be uninhabitable for centuries.

Nuclear energy requires massive amounts of water, is a target for mayhem and need I remind you that much of the dense depleted uranium already finds it way into munitions and is being spewed throughout the middle east. The consequences of which have yet to be completely understood.

No my friend, to suggest that Nuclear energy is an answer to our electrical needs is delusional at best and criminal at worst.


Edward Kerr

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 9, 2013


Right now natural gas prices are cheap, but in the last decade have varied by an order of magnitude. The outcry from the American public, were there to be a tenfold price variation in the fuel that gets them to work and back, would be deafening.

Part of this is due to a century-old infrastructure already being in place. But cheap is a measure of value to price, and part of gasoline's inherent value is its ease of use and its energy density. It works at ambient pressure and temperature (API, I'll be contacting you for where to send my check). My main point was that fossil fuels, wherever they're used, are a loan - with a steep environmental interest payment. It's one that our credit-based society finds too convenient to overlook, and payback will not be pretty.

I appreciate the perspective, it's certainly true that there are bigger fish to fry than ICE-powered cars. On a personal level, EVs powered by nuclear electricity are a way that an average citizen could virtually erase their transportation-related carbon contribution.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Mar 9, 2013




Paul O's picture
Paul O on Mar 9, 2013


I am just curious , how many vehicles your family has, and what is your annual income? How far do you go with your non ICE car, what do youand your family  use for shopping, travel, and business trips?

Bob are you seriously saying that your alternative to the ICE car is a practical solution for Americans of all family sizes and incomes?


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 9, 2013

Looks like I may have misinterpreted the gist of this article:

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 9, 2013

There are three vehicles in my family: a 2002 Ford Taurus (15mpg); a Nissan Leaf, and a Ford Escape Hybrid (30mpg). Our family income is above average, but even so the Leaf at $25K after rebates was a stretch. I had previously converted a 1997 Ford Aspire to battery electric power and helped Nissan with product evaluation on their Leaf prototype. I was sold from the start.

Both I and my wife largely work from home, and most of our driving happens in the Leaf. I normally purchase gas for the Escape about once every two months, but we do make infrequent road trips in it. My daughter drives the Taurus to school and back, about a mile.

Right now the Leaf is not practical as an only car for most people. For two-car commuting families, it's ideal. Electricity costs about $.04/mile, and monthly maintenance is virtually nil. Lithium-ion prices are dropping quickly, however, and I expect cars with 200+ mile range to be available in the low $20Ks in five years. With an average daily trip of 29 miles, that would make EVs practical for nearly all Americans.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 9, 2013

Opponents of nuclear power have drawn battle lines around the nuclear spent fuel issue, but their position goes against known science.  

The biosphere occupies a thin outer layer of the planet, beneath that is the crust, which is composed of large rock formations that change only gradually over a billion year time scale.  These rock formations constitute inexhaustible space for storing nuclear waste (as well as containing inexhaustible amounts of uranium and thorium).  

We have for more than a decade been safely and permanently disposing of (military) nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which uses a 125 million year old salt deposit.  Temporary storage complements permanent storage (or recycling) by allowing the spent fuel to cool, which simplifies handling, and ultimately reduces the amount of land area required.  Nuclear waste is unique in that instead of getting more dangerous over time or staying the same, it actually gets safer.  Using temporary storage for now also avoids the delay which a permanent solution imposes, and lets us start replacing fossil fuel sooner. 

You're probably correct that in the Midwest, wind+gas is cheaper than nuclear.  However, wind capacity is around $2/W at 40% capacity factor; and energy storage is also around $2/W (for half a day, varies w/many factors), and long distance power transmission $1-2/W.  So once you try to decrease the contribution from natural gas, or move the power from the sparcely populated central US to the coasts, the price quickly surpasses that of fission.

For transportation, I'm not convinced that launching a fight to the death with fossil fuel companies is the right answer.  The data I have seen suggests that for cars, ammonia made with carbon capture and sequestration will be a more cost effective solution (ie. about the same cost as gasoline) for most Americans that cars powered by lithium ion batteries.  So working to redirect the energy giants might work better than fighting them.  In the long run (sooner if we can't find good places to put the captured CO2), we can make ammonia from renewable or nuclear energy, but for now the economics aren't there.


Paul O's picture
Paul O on Mar 9, 2013

Thanks for your Candor Bob. But Bob, you must agree that for most Americans, we currently have no real choice but to use ICE cars. Transportation is essential for daily living and for work for most of us, and the alternatives currently available are just not affordable, nor will they currently suffice for our practical needs. 

For me I consider statements from Mckibben and people like him as Callous Grandstanding. The ICE is not an evil device created by outlaws whom we should pillory and seek their ruin, instead the ICE has made a modest, bearable living available to us.

It is a disgrace for people like McKibben to falsely paint the debate in the manner he has done.

One day the technology will exist for us to phase out and replace the ICE, but that day is not here yet. I think society should move forward with other viable ways of providing carbon-reduced energy as are becoming available. We should also consider means to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, as the science become available.

Thanks very kindly.

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Mar 10, 2013

"Fukushima Toxic Waste Swells as Japan Marks March 11 Disaster" the latest on Fukushima clean up below

Louise Stonington's picture
Louise Stonington on Mar 15, 2013

The problem with nuclear is that it is more expensive than wind and solar, requires much water, takes much longer and the costs seem to double and triple during the long construction, nobody wants to insure them and, since they use the same enrichment, repositories and materials as nuclear weapons, is this really the technology we want to export to other countries??

Check out George Schultz speaking up for solar energy and electric battery transportation.

Check out Jacobson plan for a switch to all water, wind and sun.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 15, 2013

Nuclear weapons proliferation is an issue, although the fuel used in most utiltiy power reactors is no more than 15% U-235. There's still a lot of work to be done to make a bomb. Much more likely would be a dirty bomb using spent fuel. There are extensive contingencies developed for that but beyond frightening people it's unlikely it would create a catastrophic damage scenario.

There's no theoretical leap to the idea of an MSR burning up spent fuel. It's possible, even if the details are not worked out. But it's extremely important to put waste and spent fuel in perspective. There are quite a few reputable climatologists who believe we're at the edge of a self-inflicted extinction event which will make concerns about 10 million or even 1,000 years moot. We need nuclear now to stop putting fossils in the air, and that should be our #1 priority.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 15, 2013

@Mr Carson

I prefer to think of myself as an advocate, an activist, or even an atomic energy optimist. My decision has nothing to do with ideology other than a fundamental belief that human beings are valuable and their creative energies should be empowered by using the best available energy source.

I've studied them all. Only nuclear fission offers an abundant, reliable source of emission free power that is available today. I do not care about "metastudies"; I know that fission is clean enough to run inside submarines and powerful enough to provide its own source of mining, enriching and fabricating energy. I am familiar with the metastudies that are often quoted regarding the assumed lifetime CO2 emissions of nuclear fission power plants.

The metastudy that you mentioned included at least one infamous study (known as Storm Smith) that used unrealistic assumptions about energy required to mine low grade uranium resources. Nearly ever study in the sample included using coal based electricity to power enrichment facilities. Neither assumption is particularly valid, especially in the fission fired future that I advocate.


Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 16, 2013

@Davis Carson

What makes you think that nuclear powered submarines do not have anything to do with commercial energy generation. Where do you think the basic technology used in about 80% of today's commercial plants originated?

I understand the technical and economic characteristics of the small, factory produced reactors that power submarines better than most people. Not only did I serve as the Engineer Officer of a sub, but I also served as a requirements officer in Washington. I performed economic analysis of nuclear power training and nuclear power plant maintenance and repair.

There are general lessons from that deep well of professional experience that are applicable to building new commercial power plants, especially those in the category of "small modular reactors". This option has not previously been marketed and is not yet available. It will be soon, however.

Not all new reactors will be smaller; China has more than two dozen reactors currently under construction with many dozens more in the active planning stages. India, Brazil, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan have all announced major programs. The UK, Finland, France, Czech Republic, and Turkey also have announced programs to build new reactors.

Economics can be changed, especially when the fundamentals are good. The fundamentals of nuclear energy is that the fuel is widely available, it is densely concentrated, it is affordable, and it is one of very few alternatives that produces reliable power without producing CO2.  

Advocacy CAN change reality, just as antinuclear activism tried to overcome reality and almost succeeded.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 16, 2013

Is that the same "Union of Concerned Scientists" that has an actress and a visual artist on their board of directors?

Seems they're playing a little fast and loose with that "scientist" definition. : )

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 16, 2013

@Davis Carson

I never claim that hippies waving banners had anything to do with the difficulty that nuclear energy has had gaining traction in the marketplace. Hippies waving banners are quite powerless - unless their message happens to be one that makes powerful people very happy.

Nuclear energy was a disturbing development for many of the world's most powerful, wealthy and greedy people - those who have made many billions by selling hydrocarbons to a world population who thought there was no better alternative if they wanted reliable, concentrated, portable power.

Until fission, burning petroleum products was the easiest, cheapest and most portable form of reliable energy. After fission was discovered, petroleum looked pretty feeble in comparison. Even with the primitive first of a kind engine, the USS Nautilus was able to operate for about 2 years without refueling. Today's submarines can operate for 33 years on a single load of fuel from a reactor that would probably fit inside my office. (I know the core of my 1960s vintage boat would fit under my office desk.)

Just think of the implications of having an energy source that is not controlled by OPEC and where percieved scarcity is not an issue. How much do you think oil and gas would cost if there had not been such a focused effort to convince people to fear atomic energy.

You're right about our current situation. That does not make you correct about the basic technology or abiout the future trajectory that will be traveled as more and more people figure out that they have been lied to about the safety, abundance and effectiveness of nuclear energy production.

By the way, despite all of the advances in alternative energy, the annual production from nuclear energy plants (roughly 12 million barrels of oil per day equivalent) dwarfs the output of all other fossil fuel alternatives combined - unless you like to include large scale hydro and burning wood and cow dung in the "alternative" energy category.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 16, 2013

I fully understand what IS. I also understand what is possible. Thanks for the challenging discussion and for renewing my motivation to back up words with actions.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 16, 2013

Davis, your bent is pretty clear in these posts but I have to wonder: how do you think France creates 75% of its electricity, at a cost of about $.05 kWh to its users, as well as export electricity to "nuclear-free" Germany next door - if nuclear's economics are so unrewarding? Why has the reduction of nuclear in both Germany and Japan resulted in a sharp increase in carbon emissions, if renewables could ably step in and fill the bill?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 17, 2013

Davis, your article about France's nuclear industry was written 32 years ago.

Germany's CO2 emissions did drop by 2.4% last year. Their generation also dropped by 5% because of economic factors, meaning their carbon intensity actually increased by 2.6%.

Nuclear down, CO2 up in Japan, Germany

Fukushima was not a "catastrophic nuke failure". Fukushima was a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, the largest in recorded history going back 1,500 years. If we planned our existence around events that happen once every 1,500 years, we're toast. Global warming will see to that, far sooner.

You need to take a hard look at what you honestly want to believe, and what honestly is. It doesn't help your position to try to bend facts to fit your ideology.


Steven HJohnson's picture
Steven HJohnson on Mar 24, 2013

Let's start with data from the Energy Information Administration.  I've pulled it out of their reports, and restated it from BTU to Terawatt-Hours/Day.  End user energy consumption in the US works out to 56 Terawatt-Hours/Day.  Of that, about 2.2 Terawatt-Hours a day starts as electricity generated by nuclear power plants, with about a ten percent line loss before it gets to customers.  Say 2 TWH/Day from nuclear, out of 56 TWH/Day total.  To power everything in America with nuclear would in raw numbers require about a twenty-fold expansion.  That's not on the table, but it does help everyone keep nuclear in perspective.  No option should be taken off the table in advance of a careful analysis.  There may be an affordable niche role for more nuclear as part of a holistic conversion to clean energy sources and clean energy uses.  

To the larger question - a genuine solution to climate change - it would be helpful if all the articles on this website would acknowledge a couple major points.

First.  The logic chain works like this.  Climate change cannot be halted until global warming is halted.  Global warming cannot be halted till the total stock of atmospheric CO2 is capped (preferably at the lowest and safest level).  CO2 cannot be capped until emissions of fossil fuel CO2 are halted.  Emissions of fossil fuel CO2 cannot be halted until yesterday's portfolio of energy technologies that burn fossil fuels has been entirely replaced with clean energy technology alternatives.  We are in the midst of a portfolio change-out problem with many parts.  In the end, we will halt the climate change problem the same way we created it - one capital purchase at a time, one consumer purchase at time, multiplied many times over.

Second.  The clean energy portfolio of tomorrow has two parts - Clean Energy Uses, and Clean Energy Sources.  Clean energy user technologies fall into three main subcategories - clean energy buildings, clean energy vehicles, clean energy industry.  Clean energy source technologies fall into three more parts - clean energy electricity (where nuclear has something of a role), clean energy liquid fuel, and clean energy heat.  Efficiency efforts underpin everything.  There's an enormous efficiency opportunity still to be tapped.  The more efficiency we achieve the cheaper the transition becomes.  And the swifter.

No one can solve this problem by cherry-picking his or her favorite silver bullet.  Not Bill McKibben, not Rod Adams, not anyone.  

The Energy Collective can perform an important public service by spotlighting both major points.  

1. Today's climate change problem is a function of today's energy portfolio. Until we - we civilization - have fully replaced fossil fuel technologies with clean energy technologies, climate change will not be halted.  

2. The new portfolio requires success on several major fronts.  All the source technologies must be clean, all the user technologies must be clean.  And efficiency efforts must be pervasive.

Steven Howard Johnson



Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 24, 2013



There may be an affordable niche role for more nuclear as part of a holistic conversion to clean energy sources and clean energy uses.

On a per-kWh basis, and taking into account natural gas facilities which invariably accompany wind and solar installations, nuclear is the cleanest source of energy bar none. Consigning it to a niche role only pushes us that much closer to the climate precipice.

We don't have time.

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Mar 24, 2013

The choice between nuclear and renewables will be very regional. The utility below should be considering more low carbon power and converting the old 1000mw coal to either: 1. more wind,solar,hydro,CCGT's 2. same but nuclear instead of CCGT's 3. no more wind,solar,hydro but 100%nuclear. The mining and wood product industries, which use close to 50% of their output, could care less how the power is produced, just that it's cheap. The residents of the area would be very divided and could easily vote for number 1 even if it costs more. Right now coal is cheap form North Dakota or Wyoming so coal wins the day without carbon cost.

Minnesota Power In NE Minnesota just filed there 10 year resource plan to the PUC. They decided to shut down two smaller coal plants rather than install emission controls minus CO2. The big Boswell "base-load" coal plant at around 1000mw will continue to burn coal from most likely the parent companies coal mine in North Dakota. . Also have 400mw of North Dakota wind with 100 to 200mw more planed. Some hydro existing but 250mw of Manitoba hydro planed. Over the next decade they do plan to incorporate natural gas generation first to fire existing boilers then CCGT's to the ultimate goal of 1/3 coal,1/3 gas, 1/3 renewables, but only as load increases. To keep the 54 year old Boswell plant going, some $350 million will need to be spent on emission hardware not counting CO2 of course. So unless there is a cost of carbon,it will take maybe two decades to reach this goal. Seems they should just accelerate there plan by shutting down the 1000MW coal spending the $350 million on CCGT's and more renewables This seems like the classic case you explained above to replace coal with CCGT's since I believe they have the gas available. 

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Mar 24, 2013

"Electricity consumption totaled nearly 3,856 billion Kilowatthours (kWh) in 2011. U.S. electricity use in 2011 was more than 13 times greater than electricity use in 1950." according to the below EIA site.

56 terawatt-hours/day = 56 x 10(12)TWh/day x 365 days/year = 20.44 x 10(15)Wh/year = 20.44 x 10(12)KWh/year = 20,440 billion KWh/year not the above 3,856 billion/year

Is it my math wrong or did you copy wrong from the EIA site below?

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 24, 2013

@Howard Johnson

If nuclear requires a 20 fold increase to meet energy demand, and you claim that such an increase is "off the table" how much of any increase does a combination of wind, solar and biomass need? Do you think the required increase for those is any more reasonable?

We do not need to get completely off of fossil fuels to make a real difference. We should pick the biggest noises first (direct burning of coal and natural gas to produce electricity and industrial process heat) and work to increase the share of those applications produced by emission free, reliable power sources. Only nuclear fission - in dozens of different forms - has that proven capacity.

Steven HJohnson's picture
Steven HJohnson on Mar 25, 2013

I convert all US energy use into TWH/Day.  56 TWH/Day represents total end use consumption in all forms.  Of that 56 TWH/Day, about 10 TWH/Day is from electricity.  I use EIA numbers, but as they are all stated in BTU/year - a measurement that will fade in importance as fossil fuels decline - I thought it would be more useful to restate EIA numbers in TWH/Day.  

You can see the Sources and Uses Chart I created from the EIA statistics by clicking on and scrolling most of the way down the page.  It's a chapter-length set of posts, so it's a good way down.  

This chart distills EIA statistics for several different sources and uses.  It isn't drawn from any one page of theirs; it's drawn from their overall report.  Nuclear can seem more important in the EIA reports than it really is.  If a coal plant produces 100 million BTU of heat (I'm picking a number out of the air), and it goes down with nuclear standing by as the backup, operators want to be able to ask for 100 million BTU of nuclear.  In reality, two thirds of that energy turns into waste heat and only one-third turns into electricity.  In the chart I reference here, I distill out electricity from nuclear plants and ignore the waste heat.  

I created this chart to frame the size of the various sub-problems in going to a post-fossil fuel economy.  Transportation energy needs are considerably higher than all residential and commercial energy needs combined.  Industry's energy needs are also higher than residential plus commercial.  On the supply side, America needs electricity for some applications, liquid fuel for others (aviation, ocean freighters, and probably long-haul trucking), and direct heat for others (industry).  Lots of sub-problems.  It's okay to argue a role for nuclear energy, but it's important if one does to explain how it applies to residential needs, commercial needs, transportation needs, and industry needs.  


I K's picture
I K on Mar 25, 2013

Nuclear can produce a lot of electricity and it can be done if there is the will
The USA built a fleet of 100 reactors 30-40 years ago when the USA had a population of near 200 million. That is 1 reactor for every 2 million population

If china was able to just match that she would have 675 nuclear reactors

675 x 1.5GW x 95% capacity factor = 8,426 TWh of electricity per year

That is more than all the electricity produced in china today and would be 84% of her predicted 2025 demand of 10,000 TWh

And all she has to do is what the USA was capable of and did 30-40 years ago.

So its silly to claim nuclear cant produce or meet much demand

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Mar 25, 2013

I wonder about the skill level in engineering,technicians and trades,installation and operation that will be needed to guarantee the safe operation of SMR,s and will they be available at massive ramp up levels, compared to the relatively low levels of skill needed to insure safe operation of renewables.

Steven HJohnson's picture
Steven HJohnson on Mar 26, 2013

Hmm.  If nuclear is to meet all the demand, it has to be able to warm and cool all our buildings, power all our vehicles, including aircraft, and power all our factories.  It's an interesting proposition.  Could you take us through each of those challenges and show us how nuclear is the best solution in each instance?

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Mar 26, 2013


Nuclear does not have to do it all in order to make a huge difference in the world's energy supply and carbon emissions situation.

It can start with the market application where it has proven to be extremely competitive - supplying large scale, reliable electricity that would otherwise be produced by burning coal, natural gas or oil. It can also take large chunks of market share in another application where its proven capability is just as extensive, though less visible to most of the people in the world - propelling large, fast, emission free ships that would otherwise be powered by burning oil.

As nuclear energy increases its market share and suppliers begin building in earnest, manufacturing economies that are almost guaranteed with any product will enter into the picture. As volume sales increase for all of the special parts that go into nuclear plants, they will become less unique and more standardized, leading to overall cost - and then price - reductions.

Nuclear can enter into markets for both space and industrial process heat with almost as much ease as with the previous two markets I mentioned; there are probably a dozen or more reactors around the world that are already supplying reliable heat to urban space heating systems and at least a couple that have been used to supply industrial process heat.

Factories can either be supplied by the grid or by smaller units on site. We have a great deal of experience in building smaller nuclear plants in the same power output range as would be needed by a moderate to large factory. An on site small reactor (or several for an industrial complex) would be able to be a cogeneration facility that supplies both heat and electricity.

Nuclear heat can play a role in supplying personal vehicles and aircraft with fuel by being an integral part of the process that converts carbohydrates from plants or carbon from coal into a liquid hydrocarbon using processes like the endthermic Fischer-Tropsch for coal to liquid or one of several distillation processes for carbohydrate conversion.

There are many challenges to be overcome between our current state and a state of atomic abundance, but the primary hurdles have been erected by human decision making rather than based on physics or weather. The nice thing about human decisions is that they are easier to change than the laws of nature that limit the competitors to nuclear energy.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

I K's picture
I K on Mar 26, 2013

StevenHJohnson: Nuclear can meet the demand of electricity and heating which is nearly 60-70% of all energy demand.

In some countries heating is already primarily done by electricity (and hence Nuclear can run it). An example would be Norway, where almost all homes are electrically heated.

In other countries like the UK most homes use gas, as its cheaper, but if you could mass produce nuclear so its cheaper than gas then we would opt for electrical heating (which in many ways is much better than a gas boiler). Also a lot of industrial heat needs can be met with electricity instead of natural gas or propane.

Transport is far more difficult, but computer driven cars should reduce energy demand in transport by upto 80% so they won’t be much of a concern.

My main point is that anyone who says nuclear is impossible or will bankrupt a country is just plain wrong. America built 1 reactor per 2 million population about 30-40 years ago. France built more than 1 reactor per 1 million in population again decades ago.

So let me make a bold assumption. Most advanced nations can do what France could do four decades ago if there was the will. Build 1 reactor per 1 million in population.

If China did that, she would have 1,350 reactors.
1,350 x 1.6GW x 95% capacity factor x 24h x 365d = 17,975TWh

That is considerably more electricity than china uses today (~5,200TWh) and likely more than she will ever need. Also by comparison that 17,975TWh is 82% of worldwide TOTAL current demand which is ~22,000TWh

So if just china did what France was able to do 30-40 years ago, the world would no longer need coal power stations.

Matt Robinson's picture
Matt Robinson on Mar 28, 2013

Great post Rod.  And some great comments as well.  This whole post and comment stream quite effectively exposes the hypocrisy, immaturity, and shallow-mindedness of some in the anti-nuclear community, in my opinion. It shows they'd rather be part of the problem than part of the solution.

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