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Fracking in North America could be partly to blame for methane spike – study (newsweek.com)
359 points by colinprince 53 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 108 comments



https://www.wired.com/story/atmospheric-methane-levels-are-g... is a somewhat older but a much more informative and balanced article.

The td;lr version is that there is a minority that blames fracking, but most have concluded that it doesn't fit the data. There are a bunch of other theories as well. And the isotopes are not definitive. The fact that someone recently wrote an article concluding otherwise doesn't actually change this since neither data nor the line of argument are particularly new.


The irony of natural gas is that while it emits half the carbon of coal or gasoline per same amount of energy release, methane is 20 times amore potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So a 3% leakage pretty much erases its green house savings. No fuel company wants to leak and waste that much methane, but stopping leakage is not easy.

One of the few facts the President got right is the US has reduced carbon emission more than any other country be converting from coal electricity to natural gas electricity. That is mainly because the US was highest or second highest carbon emitter for decades with any fractional decrease having impact. The decrease has pretty much stopped withcoal plant closures slowing.

Environmentalist se natural gas as a transition phase to full renewables.


> methane is 20 times amore potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide

The 100-year GWP of methane is ~30, but only because it has such a short atmospheric lifetime (~12 years).

Over shorter terms its way worse, the 20-years GWP is >80.


The other way of looking at this is how much Methane is removed from the atmosphere every year vs how much is added. In that context, many continuing sources of emissions have negligible net impact year to year.

This is why Methane concentrations where basically flat from 1998 to 2008. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_methane Methane does however turn into CO2, but represents a small percentage of overall CO2 emissions.


No, that doesn’t seem like a useful way to look at it.

The old methane break down into CO2 regardless of our current emissions. Our choices now affect future emissions of methane, the effects of which are essentially independent of the past methane release.

Finding a consistent yardstick (methane = 30x CO2) seems better than pretending it’s not a problem just because there’s some delayed negative feedback loops already in play.


The issue is we already experience climate based on the current methane concentration. If the addition is exactly equal to the removal, we don’t get climate change from Methane.


Fracking is the primary reason a bunch of *nuclear power plants in the USA are shutting down early. The over-supply of gas from fracking, plus the inherent simplicity and efficiency of gas turbines makes them crazy hard to compete with. The carbon-free nuclear plants weren't overly expensive to operate, but when the electricity revenue dropped (especially in deregulated markets), they started struggling mightily.

Nukes produce 60% of the carbon-free energy in the USA. As they shut down, they're often replaced with natural gas, which locks in carbon emissions and indirect emissions from pipelines and the wellheads.

It's on the nuclear people to figure out how to get operating costs safely down. But boy howdy it'd be nice if their carbon-free nature could be valued higher, or if fracking could be made more expensive.

This is also a big part of why coal is struggling, but this doesn't bother me because coal is high carbon and high in killer air pollution (especially outside the US. Air pollution kills 4 million people/year globally [1]).

[1] https://www.who.int/airpollution/en/


Something like making the producer of the thing causing remnant environmental leftovers fiscally responsible for cleaning them up? That would price cleanup into the sticker price.

Should probably be a thing for plastics, coal, natural gas, meat, etc.

But hey - that would undo the indirect subsidy of offloading pollution onto governments and future generations, and we can't have that now...

Man, the biggest con these companies played was dodging upstream responsibility by pushing PSAs of individual personal responsibility while lobbying frantically to avoid actual regulation. "Dear consumer, turn off your A/C when in the other room to save the environment, rainbows, and cute furry creatures" instead of "hey energy company, clean up your crap."


Yeah that would do it. Can you imagine fossil fuel power plants paying a cut of their electricity revenues into a "Climate Change Fund" that accumulated over decades to help solve the problem? I'd love that.

In 1982 the Nuclear Waste Policy Act established the Nuclear Waste Fund which does exactly this, but for nuclear waste. Rate payers have been paying for nuclear waste disposal ever since, and it's up to around $40B! [1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_Waste_Fund#Nuclear_Was...


I can't imagine it, but that's exactly the sort of thing we need for coal, oil, gas and nuclear. Well everything really, to solve the incessant tendency to fail the business and let the state sort (or not) the cleanup adequately.

Whatever way it's done needs to provide a level playing field to permit real comparisons of cost, environmental impact, and real consequences for not bothering to fix the pipeline leak etc. If you want to subsidise green energy (or fossil), it should be a visible layer on top, not baked in so you can't easily compare.

Maybe then, markets could start giving the correct answers...


It won't work, as when it comes time to pay for the cleanup the parent company will go 'bust', and like a phoenix a new company will rise from the ashes with the same owners.


I'm sure there's lots of fair and creative ideas could be dreamed up that can solve this, without destroying commerce, or leaving gaping loopholes. Do we want sustainable, or just the pretence of it?

How about requiring some large percent of turnover or profit to be held in escrow until decommissioning? Set it at whatever level necessary such that all companies will eventually get a refund from it, only if they still exist, otherwise it goes to state coffers, or distributed to the population. Added bonus of encouraging some long-termism.

Beats socialising all losses and cleanups via the state. Might not be quite so popular with the extremely wealthy. :)


> around $40B

There are 90000 metric tons of nuclear waste in need of disposal in the US [1]. That’s half a million per ton, available right there. A pretty intriguing startup idea ...

[1]https://www.gao.gov/mobile/key_issues/disposal_of_highlevel_...


I have to believe that's at least part of the pitch behind the new Deep Isolation company out of Berkeley

https://www.deepisolation.com/


40B will not be enough to clean up the mess left behind by nuclear planets AND take care of radioactive waste for 100.000+ years.


Yeah. The Fukushima cleanup has already cost almost half of that fund, and estimated to have cost upwards to 200 billion when it's done (but who knows).

The total economic damage caused by Chernobyl is estimated to be 235 billion dollars (but who really knows).


That's like comparing a car crash to an oil change, though.

Cleaning up after a disaster isn't the same as cleaning up a plant's stored waste.


nuclear planets sounds amazing


And you base that statement on what exactly?

I could as well say that I've calculated that 42 dollars will be enough to take care of all the leftover nuclear waste forever.


Around where I live a nuclear plant is being decomissioned - for over 20 years now. The labor cost alone is over €1 billion. I'd say it would be wildly optimistic to plan for €2 billion per plant for decomissioning and waste disposal.

The fund has $40 billion, but there are 60 commercial plants in the US. Even with the optimistic $2 billion per plant and ignoring scientific plants and interim storage facilities and Fukushima situations, there are still about $80 billion that are not yet internalized into nuclear power production costs.


The nuclear waste fund in the US is for long-term nuclear waste disposal only, not decommissioning.

Decommissioning is paid for by plant-specific trust funds that are also paid into throughout the life of the plant.

In general, it's looking to be slightly cheaper than expected to decommission plants, and so there's a bit of a gold rush to access these funds. That's why you see stuff like this: https://www.ipsecinfo.org/2018/11/23/holtec-seeks-approval-t...

This is another element in the equation of why nuclear plants are shutting down early.


I wonder what the ballpark cost to decommission existing fossil fuel plants and install and operate enough carbon scrubbers to undo the environmental damage from oil, coal and gas plants.


Decomissioning fossil fuel plants is vastly cheaper because those are not radioactive.

The obvious alternative are renewables, though, not fossil fuel plants.


It is always the consume who pays, never the producers, any proruction expenses are factored in the commodity price. The revenue margins do not change all that much in a competitive industry.


That’s not necessarily a problem — coal power being more expensive to run by virtue of a tax on production means there’s an opportunity for renewable energy to undercut it without having to be subsidised directly as the “good” option (c.f. how fracking has reduced the price of gas to the point that running a coal plant is economic madness).


>Something like making the producer of the thing causing remnant environmental leftovers fiscally responsible for cleaning them up? That would price cleanup into the sticker price.

There was a report estimating how much the "environmental leftovers" that fossil fuel industries don't have to pay for cost - https://www.vox.com/2019/5/17/18624740/fossil-fuel-subsidies...


> It's on the nuclear people to figure out how to get operating costs safely down. But boy howdy it'd be nice if their carbon-free nature could be valued higher, or if fracking could be made more expensive.

Well, it is not like there is a law of physics prohibiting a carbon tax (and dividend) scheme...


> Well, it is not like there is a law of physics prohibiting a carbon tax (and dividend) scheme...

After trying twice and failing twice in WA state, it sure feels like there is! Doing this on the national or international level seems even harder. I guess we may have to wait and see some more serious climate effects to get people onboard. I've heard a few anecdotal stories of climate change deniers quickly changing their minds after hurricanes/floods that haven't happened in 50 years take out their homes.


As far as I'm aware there's a good reason why the carbon tax in washington failed: They didn't implement a mechanism to give back the money to citizens. However this is a key part of what many believe a carbon tax should contain, so it doesn't look like a "government wants more money" scheme.

Most carbon tax schemes proposed by economists explicitly have this built in, see e.g.: https://futurism.com/the-byte/carbon-tax-give-citizens-money


I-732 was the first attempt, designed by some real pros and supported by James Hansen [1], who tends to agree with your assertion that revenue neutral approaches are the only way to navigate the politics. It got weird and lost support from prominent organizations related to not being inclusive enough in its design... or something. The more inclusive follow-initiative (I-1631) was worse from a neutrality perspective and lost.

[1] https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/washington-can-lead-on-...


I've never heard anyone refer to nuclear power plants as simply "nukes"; just a heads up that that's very confusing as most people will think of "nukes" as nuclear warheads instead.


I've never heard that use before either, and I was surprised to find that according to both the OED and Webster [1], "nuke" can be a shorthand for "nuclear power station". It doesn't really work for me, either.

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nuke


Thanks. In the industry it's common but glad to hear this feedback. I edited above.


Absolutely and thanks, I didn't realize it was so common, but sounds like it is very widely used within the industry.


As a layperson in Australia, I absolutely have heard "nukes" used non-derogatively as short hand for a nuclear power station.


The idea nuclear plant cutting costs scares me, especially if it comes from the safety budget.


What if I told you that, if you look at the data, nuclear is the safest form of energy known to humanity [1]. It's on par with passive energy collectors like wind and solar where a tiny number of people die installing things on roofs or doing maintenance.

How much extra money should we be spending to keep saving so many millions of lives simply by displacing air pollution?

Obviously we can't be cavalier with radiological hazards, but we don't have to make it as expensive as we've chosen to.

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/what-is-the-safest-form-of-energy

Nuclear is like a lot like air travel. More people are afraid of it, but it's statistically very safe. Human minds, unfortunately, don't work like this.

I fully understand that saying this doesn't make you or anyone else feel any better about cutting costs at nuclear plants. It just seems weird to have this demonstrably excellent energy source sitting here ready to decarbonize the world rapidly (as done in France in the 1980s), and have everyone be more influenced by pop culture and the media than by simple comparative analysis.

I wish I knew how to change people's minds here but I fear we're up against some evolved human nature, and it's an uphill battle.

Fukushima death rate from radiation? 0 (maybe 1, but highly debated). Deaths from air pollution this year? 4.3 million. Future deaths from climate change? Potentially hundreds of millions.

In this real world, I'll take my low-carbon nuclear energy any day.


I think- people are afraid of dying but more than that, are afraid of dying _badly_. Death from radiation poisoning can be one ugly motherfucker death and its rarity also makes it strange and otherworldly which only helps to stoke the flames of terror. Reading about the symptoms of radiation victims I'm often reminded of H. P. Lovecraft's stories- it seems like some other-dimensional horror has caught them in its tentacles [1].

Dying from air pollution is not exactly fun either. Chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, having to spend the last years of your life on oxygen, lung cancer... but there is something going on here that is quite separate from people not being good at statistical reasoning [2]. Perhaps dying from air pollution has becoe commonplace, exactly because it happens so often, that it has lost its edge. Perhaps we have all internalised the fact that our cities are full of deadly pollutants that we breathe in daily.

Fear of air travel is similar: it's an ugly way to die, trapped in a giant metal cigar with strangers, and it's also rare. Yet another example is fear of sharks: it's rare that a shark kills a person, but the way they kill you is really not how most people hope to die.

Maybe, if you wanted to change attitudes, you'd have to make death from radiological accidents much more common and death from air pollution less so. But I don't think that really solves your problem.

_____________________

[1] I was just now reading the article about Louise Slotin's death. Some choice cuts from his symptoms: "The hand eventually took on a waxy blue appearance and developed large blisters"; "He had internal radiation burns—what one medical expert called a “three-dimensional sunburn.”". That is horrible and also _weird_.

[2] It's more complicated than that:

https://aeon.co/essays/we-are-more-rational-than-those-who-n...


In real life basically nobody who isn't walking around a nuclear disaster site, preventing a Russian submarine from becoming a nuclear disaster site or doing dumb things in a lab dies of radiation poisoning though. You just have a higher chance of getting cancer later.

Your comment is exactly the kind of sentiment that is not backed up by numbers that the person you are replying to is complaining about.


But I say that deaths of the freakish kind I describe are rare. In fact, I say that this is the very reason why they are considered so disturbing. In what sense is my comment "not backed up by numbers"?


>What if I told you that, if you look at the data, nuclear is the safest form of energy known to humanity

Because so much money is spent on safety. I feel like you are almost saying the safety budget is unnecessary.

Nuclear power is safe because of, not despite, the many millions poured into safety.


I am less concerned with the immediate safety and more concerned with the long term waste that we don’t really adequately deal with.


I am glad you asked because this is an interesting time in the nuclear waste world. The simple answer is that you put it deep underground in geologically stable places like crystalline bedrock or salt beds where it will sit out of danger until after at least 100,000 years, when it will have released all of its excess energy and reached stability.

For example, the Finns, being a pragmatic people, decided collectively to build and operate a deep geologic repository for nuclear waste called Onkalo. It's mostly complete and has test canisters in place as we speak. [1]

[1] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-finland-nuclear-waste/wor...

Relatedly, a company in Berkeley called Deep Isolation is now working to commercialize a new waste disposal technique called deep borehole disposal. Rather than mining out something a few hundred meters deep, you use modern oil/gas techniques (ironically, the same tech that allows fracking) to cheaply drill down 5-8 km and put the spent fuel down there where it really has no credible way of making it back up. This particular company is run by a woman and they focus on community outreach first. It looks to be a good approach [2].

[2] https://www.deepisolation.com/technology/

Also worth noting is that once it's out of the reactor, there's no more high pressure coolant or nuclear chain reaction to drive its dispersal. It sits in incredibly robust canisters on parking lots at the plants where it's almost impossible to imagine anything going wrong. See my buddy Jim doing a walk-through in Washington state to get a visual [3].

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUvvIzH2W6g

The comparison of risk between stored nuclear waste vs. things like air pollution and climate change is astronomical: nuclear waste risk is incredibly low. In a high-carbon, high air pollution world, it's hardly a footnote in the world risks.

Yet, for every person I talk to, this is the primary concern. I feel like we've let too many MacGyvers and Captain Planets and Simpsons and HBO's run wild without correction. Nuclear PR people have been hiding under rocks since Three Mile Island. The millennial new nuclear people are much more aggressive because we got into this to cut carbon emissions, and this appears to be pretty urgent.


You say that "Nuclear PR people have been hiding under rocks", but that is not my picture of the fission industry.

You mention Onkalo. AFAIK, that uses the same solution as the proposed Swedish nuclear waste storage. Copper canisters embedded in bentonite clay.

Experts NOT employed by the nuclear fission industry tend to disagree with the industry experts: https://www.dw.com/en/sweden-plans-first-ultimate-storage-si...

Also, this SKB company in cahoots with SSM (the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority) had suppressed an internal report made by independent experts saying the same thing (article in Swedish, but with English quotes from the report): http://www.mkg.se/ssm-rapport-avslojar-att-skb-dolt-problem-...

This report about the report only came to light because of a lawsuit by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.

The whole tale is a bit more complicated and sordid (for the Radiation Safety Authority), but I can't find an article in English for you: http://www.sverigesnatur.org/aktuellt/stralsakerhetsmyndighe...

It should also be mentioned that the European radiation limits from nuclear waste storage are much more stringent than in the US. EPA's limit defined for the (fiasco-laden) Yucca Mountain storage for the first 10,000 years is 10 times higher, and then for the remainder, up to 1,000,000 years, 250 times higher, but maybe that's moot since it looks like Yucca Mountain is a dead end.


My perspective on PR is very US-heavy. I have literally never seen a fission advertisement or billboard or anything in the USA. I see ads for natural gas all the time, filled with wind mills and wizards and all sorts of garbage.

> Experts NOT employed by the nuclear fission industry tend to disagree with the industry experts

I suspect that may be over stated. The fission industry is relatively small and lots of people are not employed by it. Certainly it's possible to find opposing viewpoints on most topics, as anti-nuclear groups has a rich and powerful history.

The solution in terms of the topic discussed in your link (corrosion) is generally academia. Independent university labs can perform various kinds of corrosion tests and discuss in the open literature. Does this not happen like this in Sweden?

I've been surprised by how low some of the European radiation limits myself, especially given the growing body of science suggesting that biological systems are quite robust against low-dose radiation (perhaps because we evolved with an ever-present natural background of it).

For example: "Integrated Molecular Analysis Indicates Undetectable Change in DNA Damage in Mice after Continuous Irradiation at ~ 400-fold Natural Background Radiation": https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/ehp.1104294


I'm more wondering how we get the nuclear fuel in the first place and how long we can keep picking it up until it gets too expensive to find/process? And are we still using coal powerplats to process the fuel to usable quality? Then it's not very carbonfree.


Excellent question. As with many minerals, uranium-bearing minerals are found in various parts of the world in various grades of ore. Some areas have high-grade ore, and others are more diffuse. The best information on this that I'm aware of is at world nuclear [1]. In summary, there is a whole lot of uranium.

[1] https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-c...

At the diffuse extreme, there's nearly infinite uranium in seawater, and lots of research has been done recently to extract it passively with special polymers. In 2016, this special edition journal summarized the progress [2]. It's still more expensive than conventional mining, but not so much that it's unreasonable to think we'll be able to economically get uranium from seawater. Then nuclear is renewable for billions of years, as uranium in seawater replenishes via runoff and plate tectonics faster than we could ever imagine using it.

[2] https://pubs.acs.org/toc/iecred/55/15

This is all further complicated by the fact that conventional nuclear reactors burn about 1% of the nuclear fuel pulled out of the ground. More advanced breeder reactors with recycling facilities can get up to 90% of the energy (there are always some process losses). This extends known resources by another factor of 90x.

There's also Thorium, which can be used as nuclear fuel. There's a whole lot of that too [3].

[3] https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-fu...

Regarding power to enrich, France and some others uses nuclear power plants to power their nuclear enrichment and reprocessing facilities. In the USA, I believe there's still lots of coal and fracked gas powering enrichment plants. The gas centrifuge enrichment plants are so energy efficient that this matters much less than back in the day when we used gaseous diffusion. In the end game, the plan would be to do as France does and make the whole fuel cycle ultra low carbon.


in comparison to wind and solar nuclear power

- is more centralized

- is a better target for terrorists

- favors monopolies

- uses fuel which could be used to build bombs? Just speculating, but I guess nobody will be happy if some of that stuff gets into wrong hands.

- produces waste which we need to keep in mind for thousends of years

- has serious PR issues ( is less accepted by society )


> - is more centralized

Any form of energy production with decent prices is centralized, that also includes wind and solar. Solar panels on rooftops has to be the most inefficient way of producing electricity right now.


Nuclear power plants are awful terrorist targets. They're designed to withstand planes crashing into them. There's high security everywhere. There are many easier targets for terrorism


> uses fuel which could be used to build bombs?

If we banned every technology because which has a potential for destructive misuse, we'd have no technology. Sticks would be banned because you could rub them together to make fire and burn down the village.


Nuclear technology IS banned for most countries. If one advocates nuclear technology as a solution to climate change they should accept the right of other countries to have that technology too, e.g. Iran


Actually, it's not, the NPT Article IV explicitly grants access to nuclear power technology for any country that is willing to rescind any interest in nuclear weapons.

Most countries signed it.


I see that link about nuclear safety a lot. It's worth pointing out that it's explicitly not comparing with wind or solar:

"Here we limit our comparison to the dominant energy sources—brown coal, coal, oil, gas, biomass and nuclear energy".

There's another similar, but bloggier, link that only includes rooftop solar but excludes grid scale.

So it's basically saying fossil fuels suck, something I'd agree with.

I wouldn't consider myself anti-nuclear, but think it would still get beaten pretty thoroughly on price in a market with carbon priced in.

Yes it's better than coal and fracked gas, and a carbon price would help existing plants compete with those but anyone pushing nuclear because they think renewables are hopeless are likely to be angry right-wingers looking for a convenient scapegoat for the fact that they repeatedly voted for conmen in the pocket of big oil.

If you genuinely want to change minds here, then show how nuclear could be rolled out on a global scale starting today cheaper than renewables.

Which I don't think it can, and don't think I've seen anyone try to make that claim. They usually stop at "it's better than coal" and "baseload!" and "you know who is responsible for climate change? Anti-nuclear hippies" or my favourite "if climate change was real, then the greens would support nuclear".


> If you genuinely want to change minds here, then show how nuclear could be rolled out on a global scale starting today cheaper than renewables.

It’s simple: renewables can’t be rolled out on a global scale to cover our current usage, because of the huge variability in production. Modern economies require very predictable production. Nuclear on the other hand is a proven technology that works.


So this is wrong on various levels.

Solar and wind are fairly predictable, you can find graphs of predicted versus actual production at various times ahead.

Usage is not flat, it has peaks and troughs on daily and seasonal cycles.

If it was perfectly flat then nuclear would have a big advantage. But it's not, so it has the same options as solar or wind that doesn't match demand. You can build more than you need and just throw some away sometimes or you can build roughly what you need on average and store it when you have more than you need for when you have too little.

At the moment the former is cheaper (and getting cheaper for renewables), but the storage options are getting better too.

You need the storage for nuclear anyway, but as it gets rolled out it undermines nuclear's big advantage compared with renewables.


> Solar and wind are fairly predictable, you can find graphs of predicted versus actual production at various times ahead. Usage is not flat, it has peaks and troughs on daily and seasonal cycles.

I didn't want to say that, and should have used 'controllable' instead of predictable. Because when you have a week without wind or sun in the middle of winter you are not going to tell people to shut down their heather. There are advance in storage but nowhere the order of magnitude needed for dense cities.

Have a look at how nuclear power can be rapidly adjusted to compensate for changing production in renewables (in french sorry): https://twitter.com/tristankamin/status/1102620969808658432. There is no way we'll achieve that kind of adjustment with renewables alone in the short term, whereas nuclear + renewables is proved and working at the moment for very low C02 emission electricity production in France[1]. There are interesting things going on like pumping water up into dams with excess peak power from renewables, but that'll cover a few days, not a full winter.

[1] https://www.electricitymap.org


You get that flexibility from renewables the same way you get it from nuclear. You build too much and when you don't need it you just throw it away. Then you can magically increase or decrease production to match demand. No storage needed. Though we already have some storage and more on the way. But it'll always be cheaper to overbuild and "waste" some unless some radically cheaper storage is invented.


What about energy storage systems to balance the load during off-peak hours? Shouldn't we invest in developing these kind of batteries (not only Li-Ion or related technologies) to support the baseload?

Even if it's inefficient we have, globally, enough capacity for wind, solar, waves, hydro, etc., to power our current needs multiple times without having to deal with construction of nuclear power plants that are always delayed and overrun forecasted costs, be it because of regulations (which I think are REALLY important for safety, very few complain that aviation is too regulated, I'd put nuclear reactors a step above that) or just because it is difficult to build an efficient and safe design.

As safe as it is even a single accident has huge implications and is much more disastrous than almost any other form of energy production.

I'm saying this as someone who always supported nuclear, I just believe that we might be on an inflection point where it might not be so relevant if our renewables technology continue to accelerate its progress as it's been during the past decade.


> Even if it's inefficient we have, globally, enough capacity for wind, solar, waves, hydro, etc., to power our current needs multiple times without having to deal with construction of nuclear power plants that are always delayed and overrun forecasted costs, be it because of regulations (which I think are REALLY important for safety, very few complain that aviation is too regulated, I'd put nuclear reactors a step above that) or just because it is difficult to build an efficient and safe design.

See other comment, the problem is not production capacity alone, it's also adjusting production to demand.

> I'm saying this as someone who always supported nuclear, I just believe that we might be on an inflection point where it might not be so relevant if our renewables technology continue to accelerate its progress as it's been during the past decade.

Good, I come from the opposite and changed my opinions after seing the numbers, from quantity of material needed for renewables to grid constraints.


There is two things the most extreme environmentalist and nuclear advocators (some which are right-wing) agree on. Lets have a law that makes it illegal to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity. Preferably very soon. The market will solve the question if renewable and battery combination is cheaper than nuclear.

Personally I don't care that much which of the two are cheapest. I want the ban on using fossil fuels and any side that want the ban is an ally. There is a perception however that its really only the nuclear advocates that support such extreme action as a complete ban, as even power grids that has basically reached peak usage of either wind or solar has to rely on natural gas to fill in the gap when neither are producing.

One of the few countries that I know which has a power grid that could be independently removed from fossil fueled energy production in favor of renewable is Norway, and that because the output of hydro and nuclear is very similar.


  Lets have a law that makes it illegal to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity. Preferably very soon. The market will solve the question if renewable and battery combination is cheaper than nuclear.
The market wouldn't solve anything in that case, you'd have rolling blackouts and extremely expensive power until solar/wind/nuclear get spun up more.


My response here got flagged but I cannot comprehend why. Can you see it? I can repost or otherwise send it to you.


I can see a response from 10 hours before this one about sea based mass produced nuclear. It doesn't appear flagged to me (though I'm not sure what that looks like).

I didn't respond as I have no real issue with people that understand rolling out nuclear involves challenges just like rolling out renewables.

It's when it veers into conspiracy land and people act like we're collectively choosing renewables over nuclear in a fit of green luddism that I object. Doubly so if it seems like cover for climate change denial.

For people that believe in climate change and don't think renewables are a scam then they're entitled to their opinions on nuclear even if I think they're wrong. They're not being maliciously stupid or stupidly malicious like a subset of noisy nuclear fans.

Personally, I still maintain that renewables on their current trajectory and a carbon tax are the only tech we need to solve climate change and turn a profit compared with the status quo. All that remains is the hard part, collective global action when some people can profit from screwing everyone else.


There are indeed lots of angry right-winger variable renewable haters. The people who got into nuclear specifically to fight climate change (i.e. everyone under 40, and lots of others) are not among them; we are all in on renewables and anything else that's low carbon. New-age nuclear designers are pushing for design features like intimate integration with large thermal storage facilities to work appropriately in a future world powered by ~50% variable renewables (or more!).

Variable renewable prices are excellently low, with solar PV falling from $350/MWh to like $43 in 10 years. The variability and massive land/material use is where I suspect they will eventually run into modest troubles at scale (around 50% of total energy). Already, in San Bernardino county (of all places!), large new solar installations in the desert were banned, largely (from what I can tell) because of NIMBYism. Thus, I personally believe that at scale variable renewables will eventually struggle, as almost all other energy systems have in the past. The exponential curve in the sub-10% range gives way to a plateau in many cases. I think there's sufficient reason to consider this, if not likely, at least imaginable. Many studies, including some from NREL, show costs of solar going absolutely vertical at certain levels of penetration, for intuitive reasons that when you're building that last solar panel that's only needed on December 15th at 1pm for 1 hour, it's pretty darn expensive. Energy storage helps, but has externalities and cost. As usual, there is no free lunch.

So, you want some ideas to make nuclear cheap? Ok! Barring what's been dubbed the Mobile Chernobyl, building large nuclear plants in huge shipyards and floating them to their location where they're either embedded on land and operated terrestrially or (even better) operated 10 km offshore is the kind of idea that can cut costs dramatically while actually improving safety. Sounds crazy, but hear me out!

Shipyards are like assembly lines. It's Henry Ford meets decarbonization. You can pump out massive components and assemble them in a controlled environment with local labor without any temporary structures or shops or roads or anything that makes heavy engineering projects expensive. You get economies of mass production and economies of scale.

When operating at sea, you are intimately coupled to an infinite heat sink that can cool you in all situations. If you're in deep water, tsunamis are long wavelength and non-threatening. Earthquakes don't exist. Weather can hurt, but the Prelude was designed to operate in category 5 cyclones.

For maintenance, you just get relieved by a spare powership and go to the shipyard. All fuel handling equipment is shared across the fleet, not duplicated in each plant. The uptime at the customer site is 100% because of the spare ship.

In case of military attack, you design it to sink safely and coolably, and have a salvage operation built into the design.

Absolutely epic. This could decarbonize the planet extremely rapidly.

Anyone working on this? You bet! This is Thorcon's entire pitch, and they think they can hit $1000/kW capital cost. MIT studied it too. [1].

[1] http://news.mit.edu/2015/new-look-floating-nuclear-power-062...


You seem to be knowledgeable. What do we do with the waste?


There is an unbelievably small quantity of nuclear waste produced from traditional power plants as compared to other power sources. Coal plants likely release more total radiation into the environment than nuclear plants -- 100X per unit energy according to [2]. Breeder reactors and Fast Nuclear Reactors (FNRs) produce orders of magnitude less total nuclear waste [1] than traditional plants.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fast-neutron_reactor

[2] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coal-ash-is-more-...


Fast breeder reactors make sense when uranium is expensive or scarce. They and their reprocessing facilities are universally more complex, expensive, and unreliable than their water-cooled brethren. In today's fracking world, we need to bring nuclear costs down. Breeders will make costs go up, almost for sure (I study the history of this, and current efforts, very carefully).

Honestly just disposing of nuclear waste in deep geologic repositories is a really pragmatic and relatively cheap approach for now.

If we do end up ramping nuclear to 50% of the world energy supply, then breeding will likely become important. With breeders, we can use uranium dissolved in seawater effectively forever (hundreds of millions or even billions of years at 10x world scale consumption, effectively fully renewable).


Breeder reactors are not intended to bring down costs, they are intended to bring down the scale of the waste problem. As someone already said upthread, there is a $40Bn fund for managing said waste, paid for by current-generation nuclear plants. If the breeder reactors reduce waste by 90% (low estimate, most figures predict 99%), that frees up $36Bn to offset the higher cost of breeder reactors.


The waste problem is sorely overstated, the waste from the operation of all nuclear reactors in the history of the United States fits on one football field.


I just typed out a detailed response to someone else who asked the same thing in this same thread. I hope you'll excuse me just referring you to that: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20817030


We put it in breeder reactors and extract the remaining 98% of the energy it contains.


Now why can’t we build nuclear plants underground? Seems like that would be pretty safe.

Or build them in a depression and flood it with water if there’s a major problem. Or build them on a floating platform in the ocean and simply sink it if something goes wrong?


Indeed! And this was a fundamental pillar of Edward Teller's quest for socially-acceptable forms of nuclear energy. Nuclear legend Alvin Weinberg towards the end of his career favored the PIUS passively-safe BWR, undergrounded [1].

I think the biggest practical concern is that underground construction is more expensive that above-ground construction, and nuclear's active constraint today is cost.

There may be opportunities for step changes if people make fully autonomous, maintenance-free, factory fab reactors that can slide into easily-constructed holes. Unfortunately, all of this is hard, and so far economies of scale have dwarfed gains from economies of mass production. The small reactors of the past have all been crazy expensive. The truck-mounted ML-1 military reactor, for example, was 10x too expensive for the Army back in the early 1960s.

As for floating, this is my single favorite idea ever, as expressed elsewhere in this thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20817497

[1] https://www.osti.gov/biblio/6332659-process-inherent-ultimat...


yip, it looks like shale gas is just another example of "penny smart pound stupid"


I challenge the claim that nuclear (fission) reactors are carbon-free.

Like coal, many of the costs are externalised or simply ignored by advocates, especially the decommissioning and waste disposal.

Getting good/accurate figures for lifetime carbon emissions from nuclear power plants is very difficult, as this [1] article concedes, but quoting from same:

"The conclusion from the eight most rigorous LCAs is therefore that it is as likely that the carbon footprint of nuclear is above 50 gCO2/kWh as it is below."

They touch on build costs, and the likely correlation between larger CO2 emissions compared to similar power generation from hydro structures. I can't find good data on manufacturing and embedded energy costs of the vast quantities of concrete needed to construct a nuclear power plant -- I suspect it is not flattering to the industry.

[1] https://theecologist.org/2015/feb/05/false-solution-nuclear-...

[EDIT] improved the politeness of the first sentence.


Please omit swipes like "disingenuous" from comments on HN. It's basically a way of saying someone is lying. If another comment is wrong, it suffices to correct it with accurate information.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


There's quite good consensus on the low-carbon nature of nuclear. 12 gCO2-eq/kWh is what the IPCC group of scientists recommend [1]. That's the lowest of any form of energy, except for wind, which is at 11. Solar PV's around 40. Coal is 820.

Waste disposal and decommissioning are factored into this number, of course. It's lifecycle analysis.

Recall that the beauty of nuclear energy is energy density: there is 2 million times more energy in a uranium nucleus than in any chemical's electron shell. An average american can get 100% of their total primary energy for an entire 88 year lifetime and only use 300 grams of nuclear fuel. At that kind of fuel/waste footprint, it's relatively easy to have a low carbon footprint. And the data is in. The number is 12 gCO2-eq/kWh.

[1] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5...


With regards your other points, I'll happily concede the energy density advantages, but refer you to the other factors that plague construction of new plants (design, economics, NIMBY, etc). It may well be a 'better option' by some assessment, but not by the ones that matter, unfortunately.

The article you cited [1] quotes min/med/max numbers for gm CO2 / kWh for nuclear fission as: 3.7/12/110

Following the references, I'm directed to an annex [2] that describes the metrics & methodology behind those figures.

In section A.II.9.3.2 Nuclear Power there is only one paragraph:

"The data on nuclear power was taken from Lenzen (2008) and Warner and Heath (2012). There is no basis in the literature as far as we know to distinguish between 2nd and 3rd generation power plants."

Lenzen's mentioned in the review that I cited, but only in passing. Warner and Heath is more heavily scrutinised -- in comparison to a slightly earlier (Benjamin Sovacool, 2008) meta-analysis, which identified a range of 3-200, with an average of 66 gm CO2 / kWh -- compared to the median in Warner and Heath's meta-analysis of 12.

Keith Barnham more fully explores the metholodogical peculiarities of the Warner and Heath meta-analysis in that article I posted above.

[1] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5...

[2] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5...


> There's quite good consensus on the low-carbon nature of nuclear. There's quite good consensus on the low-carbon nature of nuclear.

I'm aware that it's low-carbon.

Your original claim - made twice in your earlier post - is that it's 'carbon-free'.

This is what I was suggesting was not entirely accurate.


Ah, gotcha. So then, would you say that nothing is literally carbon-free, and the phrase can never be uttered without being disingenuous?

I usually use it for any process that doesn't require combustion. Splitting atoms is carbon free, as is solar PV, but both require various lifecycle work that inherently emits carbon since 81% of our world energy is from fossil.

Nuclear or solar or wind could all become carbon free if we phased out fossil fuel. Biofuel and hydro (because of biogenic methane) can not.


So I think we basically agree ... except for the interest in building more fission nuclear plants. ; )

You've suggested it's close to zero carbon by selecting the median value in one meta-analysis. Specifically the 3.7 / 12 / 110 figures for min/median/max.

The mean wasn't supplied - I presume it's substantially higher than the median -- so I'm wondering how much credence you have in those figures, and why we should be ignoring the large disparity in those figures?


I won't deny that there is some regional variability in the carbon intensity of energy systems. As mentioned elsewhere, France uses nuclear power to run nuclear fuel enrichment and reprocessing services, where some places in the US use coal. Thus, nuclear in France is lower-carbon than nuclear in the USA.

Given that increasing nuclear's share would proportionally decrease nuclear's carbon intensity, and that nuclear at worst is ~10x less carbon-intense than the current average energy mix, I say it's OK to use the median values from that table for basic energy system comparison purposes.

Note also that utility PV max is 180, and hydro max is 2200 (2x coal's median!) because of uncertainties in biogenic methane. So if we compare the max of each in this table, we make roughly the same energy system decisions as if we compare the median (again, except for hydro, which we'd have to phase out rapidly if that max is realistic).


Technically, releasing methane into the atmosphere also requires no combustion. That seems like the wrong criterion in this thread.


Its like the claim that electric cars are fossil fuel free. Technically they still use oil in the engine, the tires, glycol in cold temperature, and last the energy itself is likely to be generated from fossil fuels. The roads it travel on is often petroleum based.

A lot of Fossil fuel is involved when a electric car travels so a more accurate description is to call them low-carbon transportation, but no one does that.


It's rare that I hear an EV described as 'fossil-fuel free'. What may be said about them is that they are - or can be - carbon-neutral ... usually with the qualifier 'to operate'.

Manufacturing releases a lot of carbon, I agree. That's changing, but I expect the pragmatic view is that the change is best described as an asymptote.


I did mention oil for the engine, glycol, and tires, which are all considered operational costs for a car owner rather than manufacturing. Neither of those are carbon-neutral in that you extract carbon as fossil fuels from the ground and release it into the environment.

We do have manufacturing like the steel and plastic parts of the car, but those are as you say a different matter to the operational costs.


I've read about an unorthodox solution [1]. Can anyone comment whether these are actually practical in the field?

[1]https://www.upstreamdata.ca/post/natural-gas-venting-how-bit...


Although Methane is far less abundant than carbon dioxide and stays in the air for only a decade or so, molecule for molecule its warming effect (calculated over 100 years) is 25 times higher

https://archive.is/vThtr


Ahh, but what happens to methane after that decade or so? Doesn't most of it decompose via oxygen into water and carbon dioxide?


Fracking also releases radioactive radon from the ground - https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190618083347.h...

However, as regulations consider it "natural" (it wasn't man-made, although it was released as a result of human activity), frackers are not required to do anything about it.

So we have a repeat of the tragedy of diluted pollution - as long as your pollution is invisible and evenly distributed (like radioactive waste from coal plants), nobody cares. But concentrate it instead of releasing it to the environment, and there's public outrage (high-level nuclear waste).


A couple issues with the science here:

>Between 2005 and 2015, global rates of fracking went from producing 31 billion cubic meters per year to 435 billion

>In the last half of the 20th, century levels of methane in the atmosphere rose. They then plateaued, and spiking in 2008.

So the shale gas revolution started in 2005, but the spike didn't occur until 2008? Also it isn't clear if this was a transient spike or the author is referring to a sudden and sustained increase.

> While methane released in the late 20th century was enriched with the carbon isotope 13C, Howarth highlights methane released in recent years features lower levels. That's because the methane in shale gas has depleted levels of the isotope when compared with conventional natural gas or fossil fuels such as coal, he explained

First, all conventional gas is "shale gas," except for a tiny minority of highly atypical cases where reservoir sections have experienced prolonged high temperatures and matured further. Thus almost all natural gas ultimately comes from shale - fracking is merely extracting it at the source, where it does not significantly differ in composition from gas which has migrated to reservoir in conventional extraction. So, second, I'm suspcious of the use of c13 to differentiate fracking and non fracking sourced methane, but I'm not a petrophysicist. It should be related to the age of the fluid, and I don't expect shale gas to be substantially younger than reservoir gas in most cases.


On the second point, whether ¹³C can be used as a signal to differentiate fracked vs. non-fracked gas, the paper [1] does discuss this a bit. This seems to be the key paragraph:

Several studies have suggested that the δ¹³C signal of methane from shale gas can often be lighter (more depleted in ¹³C) than that from conventional natural gas (Golding et al., 2013; Hao and Zou, 2013; Turner et al., 2017; Botner et al., 2018). This should not be surprising. In the case of conventional gas, the methane has migrated over geological time frames from the shale and other source rocks through permeable strata until trapped below a seal (Fig. 2a). During this migration, some of the methane can be oxidized both by bacteria, perhaps using iron (III) or sulfate as the source of the oxidizing power, and by thermochemical sulfate reduction (Whelan et al., 1986; Burruss and Laughrey, 2010; Rooze et al., 2016). This partial oxidation fractionates the methane by preferentially consuming the lighter ¹²C isotope and gradually enriching the remaining methane in ¹³C (Hao and Zou, 2013; Baldassare et al., 2014), resulting in a δ¹³C signal that is less negative. The methane in shales, on the other hand, is tightly held in the highly reducing rock formation and therefore very unlikely to have been subject to oxidation and the resulting fractionation. The expectation, therefore, is that methane in conventional natural gas should be heavier and less depleted in ¹³C than the methane in shale gas.

[1] https://www.biogeosciences.net/16/3033/2019/


> So the shale gas revolution started in 2005, but the spike didn't occur until 2008?

That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t have expected a spike to occur at the start but rather a few years after when production has ramped up?


Yep, also be sure to read to the end of the article to get other caveats and criticisms.


I have a hypothesis that fracking sometimes causes impermeable rock layers to become permeable, and dissolved methane ends up in water underground. Over years, that water ends up in tapwater/rivers/oceans where it isn't under pressure, and the methane comes out of solution.

Anyone who knows the field better able to comment on my hypothesis?


Is this widely accepted? if so, why is there no G7 outcry like for the amazon rainforests?


The guys over at GHGSat in Montreal are doing great work. They take satellite imagery of methane releasing sites and model their output. Not perfect but for a broad estimate it’s not bad.

When I worked in energy we took part in an investment vehicle called the OGCI to invest in them.


Maybe I've been listening to too many JRE podcasts, but at this point I think I've accepted that the Earths climate was, and is going to continue to change with or without humans. I'm all for cleaning up our poor environmental behavior, but methods to manipulate the climate at a large scale should be considered if we want to keep pumping out people, consuming resources and enjoying the current temperate climate.

The big issue under all of this, is that we're going to start having to waste resources paying down "climate-debt", and those resources could be better used elsewhere. At the same time environmentalism has a clear and direct value, but it can't be allowed to get in the way of progress as we really don't know how much time we have before a big enough rock falls from the sky and Earth gets another do-over.


Things that should not be part of the "Should we work to mitigate climate change" discussion: 1) Meteor strikes 2) Whether or not it'll be hard

Question: You believe climate change is not caused by our actions, but you believe climate change can be stopped by our actions? How does that work?


Can you please edit swipes like "Wrong." out of your comments to HN? It's unnecessary and makes your comment acerbic when it would be just fine without it.

The way to reply to a wrong comment is to supply correct information, which I assume is what the rest of your comment does.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

Edit: detached from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20816911.


You bet, done. I was responding to the unfounded accusation of being disingenuous. You're totally right that the community is better without that kind of reaction, and the comment is way better with out it. Thanks. Forgive me.


I would like to thank you for your replies throughout this thread in general though. It's actually ironic that you got called out for this one, since I was just thinking that you were doing a great job responding to various misconceptions in a positive, informative, and non-judgemental manner. Really enjoyed reading your comments.


Hey, you're welcome. Thanks for saying so. I'm sure it's clear that I love doing this.


Thanks. Yes, disingenuous has become an extremely overused word lately and is basically a way of saying someone is lying. I will reply above.


Instead of focusing on this you should focus on the prior comment using the accusation of disengenuous. That was the trigger point.


I've replied above.


There must be solid reasons why fracking isn’t at fault.




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