20 February 2014

Just 15 More Years?

In mid-December 2013 a draft report by Working Group III of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked to the press. Here’s how the New York Times began its article on the report (emphasis added):
Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a draft United Nations report. Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, experts found.
Climate change is a difficult concept to get people aroused about. Its dire consequences lie in the future, so it’s easy to think about it as something our children or grandchildren can take care of. But climate scientists worry that if we wait too long, we may reach a point of no return where no one will be able to take care of it.

What’s generally not understood is that the climate is changing more than we perceive. Burning fossil fuels and clearing forests emit carbon dioxide (CO2) that increases the thickness of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) blanketing the Earth and upset its energy balance by preventing it from radiating away all of the energy it absorbs as heat from the Sun. In accordance with the law of physics, the resulting imbalance increases Earth’s surface temperature and thereby the amount of heat it radiates away until radiated heat again matches absorbed heat.

But energy rebalancing is slow, principally because warming the ocean that contains 90 percent of Earth’s living space takes a long time. In the last century Earth’s temperature has increased about 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit. 
That’s an insignificant change when we relate it to our local temperature, but not when it represents the change in temperature of Earth’s entire surface — almost 200 million square miles, 70 percent of which is ocean — averaged across opposite seasons and day/night variations. And because of the thermal inertia of the ocean described above, the temperature will keep rising even if we immediately stop all new GHG emissions until the ocean catches up and the energy imbalance created by current GHG emissions has been eliminated.

Another inertial factor is the longevity of atmospheric CO2, which is more potent than all other GHGs combined in warming the planet. Unlike the other major long-term GHGs, which have chemical (and global warming) lifetimes from a decade or so (methane) to a century (nitrous oxide), CO2’s longevity is controlled by the Earth’s carbon cycle. Under current conditions, about half of an emission of CO2 is redistributed to the ocean, terrestrial biosphere and soil within a quarter century, but almost a fifth remains in the atmosphere to keep the planet warm for more than 500 years.

To forestall global overheating and “preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted,” NASA climatologist James Hansen and other scientists concluded in 2008 that we need to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentration (trim the blanket) from what was then 385 ppm (parts per million molecules of air) and is now almost 400 ppm to a maximum of 350 ppm. How?

According to Hansen’s latest calculations, if we reduce fossil fuel emissions of GHGs by 6 percent a year beginning now, phase out deforestation and other land-use emissions in 2020-2030 and then reverse them — store atmospheric CO2 in the biosphere and soil  through reforestation and advanced land-use techniques — at twice the annual rate of current emissions, we can achieve 350 ppm by the end of the century (2100).

The timing is critical. What concerns climatologists are so-called “slow” feedbacks that gradually reinforce and aggravate global warming. Unlike “fast” feedbacks like the melting of the Arctic sea ice in summer that climatologists can observe and take into account, slow feedbacks are difficult to measure. Some that occurred during the ice ages of the last several thousand centuries like CO2 that the ocean emits when it’s warming are well known. Others like the breakup of the glacial ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and the release of vast methane deposits frozen beneath the permafrost, are more speculative since they haven’t occurred in millions of years. But given enough time to develop, slow feedbacks like these could run away with the climate and offset the benefit of eliminating GHG emissions.

Continuing business as usual and not starting the Hansen 6 percent annual cuts in fossil fuel emissions until 2020 would delay reaching the 350 ppm target until 2300 and give slow feedbacks two centuries (beyond 2100) to gather steam. Waiting until 2030 — just 15 more years — would give slow feedbacks four centuries.

If we want to avoid the risk that slow feedbacks will make climate stabilization impossible, our years of foot-dragging seem to be over. That is, we don't have 15 more years. Yet all Congress has to do is enact a gradually rising carbon tax or (better) a refundable revenue-neutral carbon fee to facilitate the replacement of fossil fuels with non-carbon fuels.

That’s as easy as convening the day after Pearl Harbor and declaring that a state of war existed, thereby allowing the U.S. to commit all the resources it needed to fight it. Call the state we’re in today whatever you want, it still represents an existential threat to the livelihood of everyone who comes after us that must be fought now.

19 January 2013

Carbon Fee & Dividend


My new-Congress wishes for the new year are first, that the Senate abolish the filibuster in toto, which is unlikely but not unreasonable — why shouldn’t it act in accordance with majority rule like the House does, and other legislative bodies, subject only to the super-majorities specified in the Constitution?  The second is that Congress enact a carbon fee to raise the price of fossil-fuel energy relative to noncarbon energy in recognition of the many negative externalities of all fossil fuels, particularly with respect to greenhouse gas emissions that are changing the climate.
Apparently, a carbon tax is gathering steam in Congress since it would also make a big dent in the budget deficit.  It would also make a big dent in a lot of people’s budgets who are living close to or under the poverty threshold.  Therefore I favor instead a financial transaction tax that would make a dent in Wall Street’s bottom line but probably not one that you could notice without a magnifying glass, though it might reduce the volume and velocity of high-speed trading, which is its other purpose.  Not a bad thing.
As Keynesian economists never tire in telling us — fortunately since an awful lot of people in power act like they’ve forgotten the message or more likely never got it in the first place — the government should run a deficit when the economy is in a recession with high persistent unemployment, negligible core inflation and short-term nominal interest rates at the lower bound (at or close to zero) where the Federal Reserve is unable to lower them further to stimulate the economy.  Too many consumers are spending too little (from the economy’s point of view) because of the housing bust, un- and under-employment, the risk or reality of foreclosure and their lack of liquidity, and business is under-spending and under-investing in our consumer economy, waiting, essentially, for consumers to get back to consuming. 
So who’s picking up the slack to get the economy moving again?  Not exporters, much — our currency is still overvalued in the world judging from the long-standing deficit in our current international trading account.  That leaves the federal government.  It’s spending, blown out of proportion to its revenue by the Bush tax cuts that eliminated the Clinton budget surplus, two unfunded wars and the increased costs of unemployment insurance, supplemental nutritional assistance (food stamps) and other counter-cyclical spending to soften the impact of the recession on people who got caught in its cross-hairs, is increasing the deficit.  As it should.  This is not the time to reduce the deficit by cutting spending or raising taxes on people that would have to reduce their own spending to pay them.  Leave those measure to the day when the economy and employment have fully recovered.
So am I advocating for or against raising the cost of fossil fuels now?  Against a tax.  For a carbon fee.  For, specifically, the carbon fees and rebates proposed by climatologist James Hansen and now called Fee & Dividend.  The fee would be a gradually increasing one collected (like a tax) from fossil fuel companies as they bring the fossil fuels out of the ground or import them, but all proceeds of the fee would (unlike a tax) be refunded on a monthly basis equally to all U.S. households.  Thus the increase in the price of fossil-fuel products such as electricity and automobile, truck and airplane fuel caused by the fee would be offset in the aggregate when consumers purchased them.  Consumers who drive to work and shopping and back might come out ahead.  Consumers who drive to their vacation homes or fly around the world might come out behind.
So everyone comes out even?  Well, yes, more or less— until consumers start finding noncarbon alternatives to fossil-fuel products or perhaps just start economizing.  That’s the real purpose of the Fee & Dividend, of course, weaning the economy off fossil fuels, not reducing the deficit like a carbon tax.  And then the companies that are still producing fossil fuels instead of noncarbon energy wouldn’t come out even. 
In a short (5,000 words!) ebook I’m finishing up that (to quote its description)
examines the history of global overheating caused by industrialization, distinguishing it from natural global warming, and then describes an innovative but little-known technology for providing endless clean energy and the relatively simple steps that the U.S. needs to take to begin stabilizing the climate before global overheating undermines human civilization
the Fee & Dividend is the only one of the five “simple steps” that asks Congress to do anything (except get out of the way).  The five steps are:
1. The President publicly acknowledges U.S. responsibility for having emitted by far the largest quantity of greenhouse gas (more than 2½ times that of #2, China) since the onset of industrialization and commits the U.S. to full participation in global efforts to stabilize the climate.
2. Congress enacts the Fee & Dividend.
3.  The Government fast-tracks the licensing of the Integral Fast Reactor, the “innovative but little known technology for providing endless clean energy” that I’ve described previously.
4. The Government uses its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions to require noncarbon alternatives to equipment and processes that emit greenhouse gases when such alternatives are available at reasonable prices or costs.
5. The President uses his (or her) bully pulpit to help us understand why these actions need to be taken and climate stabilization needs to begin.
Pretty simple, no?

20 October 2012

The 99 Percent Election


When Mother Jones published a video of comments by Mitt Romney at a private upscale fundraising dinner about the 47 percent of the electorate who would never vote for him—
who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it …
and (the payoff)“who pay no income taxes”New York Times columnist Ross Douthat asked whether these comments were “a window into the elusive ‘real Romney’ and proof that his moderate-seeming fa├žade has always been a sham?”
Douthat’s answer to his own question was “Who could possibly know?
Romney has built his career, in business as in politics, on telling people what they want to hear in order to persuade them to let him manage their affairs.  This is a man who tried to get to the left of Ted Kennedy in their 1994 Senate race and to the right of Rick Perry in 2012. The idea that he would reveal his true political beliefs to a group of people he’s trying to flatter, cajole and spook into giving him more money may be appealing to his critics, but it isn’t necessarily convincing.
That answer made sense to me.  Throughout his long campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and for the presidency itself, Romney took so many different positions that they were referred to as etch-a-sketches.
In the first Presidential debate on October 3, 2012, Romney introduced a brand new sketch in an effort to flatter, cajole and spook potential voters tuned into the debate into voting for him as a moderate.  And Douthat was one of those who were flattered, cajoled or spooked.  As he saw it, Romney might just have become the effective leader of the leaderless Republican party by “channeling the base’s passions in a constructive direction and by reinterpreting the party’s ideology to meet the challenges of the present day.”
That’s quite a accomplishment for an etch-a-sketchtransforming Romney from someone whom no one could possibly know what he stood for into a party leader.  But Douthat’s “only question, as we head into the final four weeks of the campaign, is whether [this new sketch came] a little bit too late.”
According to the polls, maybe not.  Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight blog showed Obama free-falling from an 87-to-13 favorite to win the election on October 4 to a 61-to-39 favorite on October 12.  Evidently a lot of the polled electorate did their own Douthat flip, suddenly willing after an hour and a half debate to trust a candidate whom they had never trusted before.
This election is a rarity in that the core issue that has divided the country since the passing of the New Deal’s Social Security Act—whether it is a proper role of the federal government to provide social insurance (aka entitlements) to its people—is pretty much the explicit core issue of the campaign.  In past campaigns the issue has been buried beneath symbolic issues such as whether government is too big or taxes are too high.  And so it might have been this year until Romney chose Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate.
Ryan is the author of two successive budgets adopted by all Republicans in the House of Representatives and supported by all Republican Senators.  If Democrats had not blocked them, both budgets would have eviscerated Medicare and Medicaid, enacted in 1965 by the Johnson administration, leaving Social Security (one has reason to suspect) for future dismembering.  And both Romney and Ryan have vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 by the Obama administration.
A vote for Romney and Ryan in the 2012 election is a vote for the Republican party and a vote to take down the social insurance programs.  The Republican party in Congress “cares solely and exclusively about its rich contributors.”  These rich contributors care about not having their taxes raised or their activities regulated or their being prevented from obtaining monopoly profits.  They’re rent-seekers, seeking to profit from activities that don’t add to the economy but do increase their share of it, rather than free-market capitalists.  They thrive not on fair and open competition but on preferential treatment from Congress and especially the Republican party.  Nor are they friends of small businesses, which represent potential competitors.
The Republicans’ rich contributors may be more interested in privatizing the social insurance programs than in taking them apart, since privatizing creates new rent opportunities with all risks borne by the insured or the federal government.  But if privatizing is not a viable option, the Republican party in Congress is on record (by voting for the Ryan budgets) as favoring the weakening or eliminating of social insurance to make sure that taxes will never have to be raised on their rich contributors.
At the opposite end of the Republican base are the newly self-described Tea Partiers, mostly aging white male workers who partake of government benefits (as have 96% of Americans at some point in their life), often without being aware of their source, but don’t believe that the government should provide benefits for those they perceive as not having earned them—like Romney’s 47%.  Their views can be quite stark.  Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was recently “taken aback by how many readers” of his column about his uninsured, dying former roommate “were savagely unsympathetic.”
Speaking personally, I cannot deny the legitimacy of the Tea Partiers’ lack of sympathy or political views, although I’m of the opposite persuasion and always have been.  But like many others I can point out the one-sidedness of Romney’s emphasis on who pays federal income taxes.  Counting all taxes, state and local as well as federal, and payroll, sales, gasoline and property taxes along with income taxes, all Americans pay taxes.  And the share paid by the lower 40% or 60% or 99% relative to their income is not much different than what the top 1% pays.  In 2010, the 1% claimed just over one-fifth of all income and paid 21½% of all taxes, which amounted to 30% of their income.  The 99% claimed just under four-fifths of all income and paid 78½% of all taxes, which amounted to 28% of their income.  Where’s the beef?
Whatever the disappointments of the Obama administration, this election is about preserving social insurance or getting rid of it, which will depend on whether the Republicans in Washington have the power to get rid of it or the Democrats have the power to preserve it.  Ignore third parties, outlier views and issues not at issue in the campaign (such as the Afghan War or climate change) until after the election next month.  This is the 99%’s election to win, if only they get out and vote.  I’m not sure which way they’ll choose on social insurance, but I’ll trust their judgment far more than the 1%’s.

30 June 2012

Sustaining Obamacare


Except for one minor provision, the Supreme Court on June 28th upheld President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act (ACA), as Linda Greenhouse had predicted, with Chief Justice Roberts writing the opinion of the court and providing the swing 5-4 vote.  But Roberts’ opinion is so convoluted that both CNN and Fox initially reported that ACA had been ruled unconstitutional.
Most of the case concerned the constitutionality of the Act’s individual mandate that will require most people lacking health care insurance to pay a penalty added to their federal taxes and collected by the Internal Revenue Service.  Roberts’ opinion, part of which represents the opinion of the Court and part his own (minority) opinion, starts off by denying that the mandate is justified by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution since not buying insurance is not “commerce”—and shouldn’t be because then Congress could require everyone to buy broccoli to improve their health.  The opinion then goes on to deny that the individual mandate is justified by the Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause since even if it’s a “necessary” part of the ACA, it is not a “proper” one.
Finally, after 30 tedious pages during which he apparently exceeded the attention span of CNN and Fox, Roberts gets around to Congress’ power under the Constitution to “lay and collect Taxes.”  On page 44, he concludes (for the Court) that what the ACA describes as a “penalty” is really a tax and within Congress’ power to enact and is therefore constitutional.  But previously, on page 15, while again writing for the Court, Roberts dismisses the federal Anti-Injunction Act, which forbids lawsuits like this one “for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax,” on the grounds that the penalty is really a “penalty” and not a “tax.”
Justice Ginsburg, whose opinion follows that of the Chief Justice, argues that all parts of the ACA are constitutional as written, particularly under the Commerce Clause.
The provision of health care is today a concern of national dimension, just as the provision of old-age and survivors’ benefits was in the 1930’s.  In the Social Security Act, Congress installed a federal system to provide monthly benefits to retired wage earners and, eventually, to their survivors.  Beyond question, Congress could have adopted a similar scheme for health care.  Congress chose, instead, to preserve a central role for private insurers and state governments.  According to the Chief Justice, the Commerce Clause does not permit that preservation.  This rigid reading of the Clause makes scant sense and is stunningly retrogressive.
Roberts’ “crabbed reading of the Commerce Clause,” writes Ginsburg, “should not have staying power.”  I believe there are good reasons why it won’t.  Roberts’ many pages describing what portions of the Constitution do not support the ACA’s individual mandate are actually irrelevant to the Court’s holding that the mandate is supported by the taxing power.  As such they’re considered (in legal lingo) “dicta” which, unlike the Court’s holdings, do not represent precedents for subsequent decisions.
Furthermore, the Commerce Clause is too important to the Constitution and US history to suffer a crabbed interpretation.  The federal government’s supremacy in interstate commerce was arguably the founders’ number one priority in establishing the Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation and is arguably the number one reason why in early in the 20th century the US became the economic powerhouse of the world.  Europeans have recently tried to create the economic equivalent of the US market with their Common Market.  The Common Market’s flaw, as we see today, is the lack of a single, strong government to regulate it.
The only other opinion in the ACA case except for a short solo dissent by Justice Thomas is a bizarre joint dissent signed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito asserting that the ACA is entirely unconstitutional.  It’s as if the opinion of four of the Court’s five conservative choirboys was designed to be a majority per curiam opinion, an anonymously written opinion “by the court.”
While it would have been a scandalous departure from Supreme Court practice if a 5-4 opinion striking down the landmark ACA had been written per curiam, that may have been exactly what the four anticipated when their opinion was written.  In a follow-up column, Linda Greenhouse suggests that Roberts’ vote affirming ACA may have been a last-minute switch that left his four conservative colleagues in the minority.  Minority dissents are by definition not by the court, so without Roberts’ support what may have been intended as an anonymously written majority opinion became an anonymously written minority opinion.
In the end, the Supreme Court’s validation of the most significant piece of social legislation since Medicare and Medicaid ultimately depended on a halting, awkward and inconsistent opinion of the Chief Justice that eventually found its way to a place in the Constitution that sheltered the individual mandate and saved the Act.  Although the opinion did not persuade any of his fellow-conservatives, not even the supposed swing-voter Justice Kennedy, Roberts has received praise for a courageous vote.  I’m not persuaded that he deserves it.  After donning the mask of someone who respects legal precedent and tradition for his Senate confirmation hearings, he led a coalition of five of the nine justices that ravaged the judicial landscape and in its most notable case destroyed a century of campaign finance reform.  Its clownish behavior at several days of argument for and against the ACA changed public expectation that the Court would surely uphold the Act to one of expectation that it well might not.
And who knows?  Perhaps that’s where it was going, but Roberts changed his vote.  Perhaps he worried about his place in history.  Since Bush v. Gore, when the candidate with the majority of the people’s votes lost the Presidency by one vote on the Supreme Court, the public has soured on the Court that it once respected, and Roberts has done nothing to restore that respect.  Until June 28th, maybe.  We’ll see.

26 June 2012

Did Democrats Lose the 2102 Election in Wisconsin?


In the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election in early June, Republican Governor Scott Walker easily won the right to continue in office.  Democrats cited his outsized funding advantage from Super PACS, but turnout was high on both sides, and many voters including those from union families apparently approved of Walker’s stripping the (mostly) teachers’ unions of collective bargaining rights or disapproved of the use of recall to decide the issue.
What lessons might we take?
One is that popular mass movements should not waste their energies on political campaigns, which in this case took the Occupy Wisconsin movement that inspired Occupy Wall Street many months later and subjected it to “corporate co-optation by the Democratic Party.”  The Democratic candidate was the same as in the regular election in 2010 who lost a second time to Walker by the same margin.
A second is that there is no way that Republicans backed by Super PACS are not going to out-spend Democrats by large margins.  If the Democrats are to win in November, it will be by addressing the concerns of undecided voters while persuading minorities and unregistered millennials that voting is worth their while.
Finding the means through executive action to further the purpose of the stalled DREAM Act in Congress by suspending deportation of illegal immigrants brought to this country as youths and making them eligible for work permits was a very popular move by Obama.  If now he could find the executive means to alleviate the harshly discriminatory terms of student loans by, say, lowering the cap on maximum loan payments or broadening the definition of loans to which the cap applies, he might persuade those who bear the burden of one trillion dollars of student debt to show up on election day while also stimulating the economy.
Addressing the concerns of undecided voters is more difficult.  I met one while campaigning recently who favored Obama in 2008 but was undecided about 2012.  A man in his forties, he’d had a job since he was 12 and made sure that he had one now with good insurance to provide for his wife and children and himself.  He was negative about unemployment insurance because, he said (speaking from his own experience), there are jobs out there for people who go after them.  He was also dead set against the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka Obamacare, which he was sure he would end up paying for.
Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who maintains that liberals and conservatives don’t understand each other, singles out the Tea Partiers’ concern for justice, which Haidt calls karma—if you work hard, you should be rewarded; if you duff off or screw up, you should suffer the consequences.  The Tea Party movement sprang to life when the government bailed out the banks that created their own (and our) problems, and then, according to Rick Santelli on CNBC, started “promoting bad behavior” among mortgage holders: “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”
As my undecided voter put it, if someone tells you that you can afford a mortgage and you don’t do your own math, who can you blame but yourself when it turns out that you can’t afford it?
In articles asserting that white working people with jobs increasingly identify themselves as Republicans, Haidt claims that Democrats promise to care for the elderly, young, students, the poor and the middle class, “but most Americans don’t want to live in a nation based primarily on caring.  That’s what families are for.”  In fact, almost half of all households receive government benefits based on 2010 statistics, but most of the benefits go to the elderly (65 or older—53 percent), disabled (another 20 percent) or members of non-elderly, non-disabled working households (18 percent).  Only 9 percent goes to non-elderly, non-disabled people without jobs.
The 9 percent, of course, includes unemployment insurance for people who have lost their jobs in the recession.  The economy shed millions of jobs after the housing and credit bubbles burst, and not everyone who lost a job was going to find a new one.  Unemployment insurance, which dates back to FDR’s original Social Security Act of 1935, is considered a countercyclical automatic stabilizer of the economy.  FDR hated doling out money or even paying people for government work as much as anyone, but he knew that the economy couldn’t recover when so many consumers were not spending money because they weren’t earning any.
What Democrats really stand for—or should—is first and foremost the restoring of an economy based on full production and full employment such as we last saw in the Clinton years.  While taxpayer-funded programs like unemployment insurance may be appropriate policies to achieve such an economy, Democrats need to listen to the concerns of working voters who don’t like paying for others they think of as free riders and explain their reasons if they want to win their votes.
Democrats need also to explain the purpose of the ACA, which is to provide taxpayer- subsidized, community-rated, private health insurance to citizens and legally resident aliens who don’t obtain such insurance through employment and don’t qualify for Medicaid.  Community-rated is what allows people with current health issues to be covered and requires people without them to participate.  But as Princeton’s Uwe Reinhardt points out, ACA is just copying employment-based health insurance, which is also taxpayer-subsidized and community-rated.
ACA is polling terribly right now, although the Massachusetts Act, aka Romneycare, on which ACA is based seems to be quite popular among the residents of that state.  I suspect that if it survives to 2014, when most of its provisions kick in, ACA will in time join Social Security and Medicare as programs the public doesn’t want to give up.

21 May 2012

My Letter to the President Concerning Climate Change and the Integral Fast Reactor


May 11, 2012
The Honorable Barack H. Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC  20500
Climate Change and the Integral Fast Reactor
Dear President Obama:
I write as a private citizen on behalf of myself and my grandson, Cavanagh, age 4, and his sister or brother whose arrival is anticipated this fall.
I believe that today civilization is facing its greatest threat ever in the form of climate change.  The principal cause is industrialization’s reliance for energy on fossil fuels, which emit climate-changing greenhouse gases.  The principal cure is a revolutionary new climate-stabilizing source of energy called the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR).  The advantages of this technology are summarized in my one-page attachment to this letter.
Forty-seven years ago President Johnson was warned by his science advisors that fossil fuel emissions could cause “uncontrollable” changes in climate—and he so warned Congress.  Climate change is a global problem, of course, but the United States was then, as now, the leader of the free world community.  It also happens to be the leader in climate change; its emissions of the most persistent greenhouse gas over the last century and a half are three times those of any other country.  The United States should, therefore, be leading the world in a global response to climate change.  Instead, it is doing, and has done, nothing.
Churchill said you can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.  For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope that’s true, but my reading of history leads me to believe that doing the right thing always requires strong political leadership.  It took all of FDR’s skill and commitment to prepare an isolationist-minded country for World War II; still, extension of the peacetime draft just four months before Pearl Harbor passed the House by only one vote.  Preparing a conservative-minded country for a change to climate-stabilizing energy sources requires equal skill and commitment.
Climatologist James Hansen wrote you (as President-elect) with three recommendations: phase out coal-fired power plants that don’t capture and store carbon emissions; enact a rising tax on fossil fuels with proceeds refunded to consumers; and fast-track the R&D of 4th-generation nuclear power such as the IFR.  Last fall serial entrepreneur Steve Kirsch suggested (in a letter to your assistant Heather Zichal) that you meet with Charles Till, former director of IFR development at Argonne National Laboratory.  I write to add my grandchildren’s voices and my own to theirs: IFR is the key to stabilizing the climate.
Sincerely,
Attachment: Integral Fast Reactor
Nuclear power systems create heat through nuclear fission for steam turbines to generate electricity.  The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) is a nuclear power system developed at the US Argonne National Laboratory that replenishes, recycles, refines and fabricates its unique metallic fuel and meets all five criteria for 4th-generation nuclear power listed below.
1.   Reduce the volume and toxicity of nuclear waste.
Existing nuclear light water reactors (LWRs) use only one percent of their uranium fuel and leave vast amounts of radioactive spent fuel including plutonium as toxic waste to be sequestered for multiple thousands of years.  IFR pyroprocessing recycles its spent fuel until all the longest-lasting radioactive elements have been used up.  Its much smaller amount of much less toxic waste needs to be sequestered for only 300 years.  Pyroprocessing can also recycle LWR spent fuel for IFR use.
2.   Keep nuclear materials unsuitable for direct use in weapons.
Nuclear fission weapons use uranium (as at Hiroshima) or plutonium (Nagasaki).  While weapons-grade uranium has to be enriched to increase its fissile isotope, U-235, from under one percent of natural uranium to more than 80 percent, weapons-grade plutonium can be chemically separated from the uranium that breeds it.  But in electro-refining during IFR pyroprocessing, plutonium is mixed with other elements that make it unsuitable for weapons.
3.   Be passively safe based on characteristics inherent in the reactor design and materials.
Because its fuel is a solid metallic alloy, IFR responds automatically to overheating caused by loss of coolant flow (as at Chernobyl) or output heat sink (Three Mile Island, Fukushima) by slowing or shutting down its reactor power.  Overheating causes metal fuel in core assemblies to expand, thereby increasing reactor size by a miniscule amount but enough to increase neutron leakage that reduces reactivity and overheating.  Other features—liquid sodium metal coolant with high boiling temperature; large sodium-filled reactor pool resisting the temperature increase; and the weak effect in metal fuel of a natural (stored Doppler) tendency to increase reactivity—provide the time and safety margins for the thermal expansion to take effect.  The metal fuel also has a low melting temperature; when all else fails, it will start melting and then disperse, reducing reactivity.
4.   Provide a long-term energy source not limited by resources.
By recycling its used uranium fuel and the plutonium fuel that it breeds from uranium, IFR increases the productivity of mineable uranium a hundred-fold.  (Plutonium, a natural element like uranium, has to be bred from uranium since it has no mineable sources.)  If IFR or a similar breeder supplied all of the world’s needs for electricity, uranium supplies could last as long as the planet.  Thus IFR is as “renewable” an energy source as solar, wind, water and geothermal.
5.   Be economically competitive with other electricity sources.
Since IFR’s systems are small, simple and designed for remote manufacturing, its capital costs should be competitive.  If the cost of waste storage are accounted for in the operating costs of LWRs and the negative externalities of greenhouse gases, toxic emissions and non-conventional mining in fossil fuel plants, IFR should be a runaway winner.  Its 24/7 availability wherever steam turbines can operate should make it competitive with solar, wind, water and geothermal power.
In 1994 Congress upheld the President’s termination of IFR development as “unnecessary.”
References: Yoon I. Chang, “Advanced Nuclear System for the 21st Century” (2002), http://www.ipd.anl.gov/anlpubs/2002/04/42922.pdf; Charles E. Till, “Plentiful Energy and the IFR Story” (2005), http://www.sustainablenuclear.org/PADs/pad0509till.html; and Till and Chang, Plentiful Energy: The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor (2011), ISBN 978-1466384606.  (Revised 6/17/12)

14 May 2012

The Silver Bullet for Climate Stabilizationo


In 1994, the Clinton administration induced Congress to terminate development of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) at Argonne National Laboratory, describing it as unnecessary, and told its developers to shut up about it.  Thus a technology that has been called the silver bullet we need to stop global warming disappeared into a memory hole.
What is this technology about?
As World War II ended, the US started researching civilian uses of nuclear fission, specifically to heat water for steam turbines that generate electricity.  The research proceeded on two tracks: (1) “thermal” reactors that consume their fission fuel—uranium enriched by increasing the proportion of its “fissile” (readily fissionable) isotope, U‑235, from less than one percent to about four percent; and (2) breeder reactors that optionally replenish their fission fuel— plutonium bred from the “fertile” isotope, U-238, that comprises 99 percent of natural uranium.  While thermal reactors create plutonium as a byproduct and fission it, plutonium is the primary fission fuel of breeder reactors while uranium is their breeding fuel.
Thermal reactors “moderate” the speed of the neutrons created by fission because slow neutrons do a better job at fissioning U-235 than fast neutrons.  Breeder reactors don’t moderate because fast neutrons produce more (fast) neutrons in fissioning plutonium than slow neutrons do and accordingly produce a higher breeding ratio.  Of the neutrons produced by a fission, all but the one that is needed to perpetuate the fission chain reaction are potentially available for breeding, which occurs when U‑238 “captures“ a neutron and becomes (through transmutation) fissile plutonium Pu‑239.
What emerged as the standard for commercial nuclear power was the “2nd generation” thermal Light Water Reactor (LWR), the first of which was installed at Shippingport, PA in 1957.  LWR uses uranium oxide as a fuel and light (ordinary) water as both a coolant and a moderator.  Today more than 350 commercial reactors are operating in 27 countries, including 100 in the US that produce 20 percent of the electricity.
Meanwhile, breeder development continued at Argonne.  In 1964 the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II) started up to test what eventually became the IFR and kept going for 30 years.  Instead of a water coolant, IFR uses liquid metal sodium, which doesn’t moderate neutron speed.  As a fission fuel it settled on a solid metal alloy consisting of uranium enriched with plutonium and mixed with zirconium in something like a 70-20-10% ratio, with uranium used by itself as a fertile “blanket” around the fuel assemblies when IFR is operating as a breeder.
The choice of metal fuel is unique among current “4th generation” breeder technologies and has important advantages.  Foremost among them is its inherent safety, which in the last analysis means not letting any radiation escape into the outside world.
Metal expands when heated by fission, and when it gets too hot the expansion allows more neutrons to run away, thus “passively” reducing or even stopping fission and lowering the temperature.  In public tests conducted in 1986, neither loss of the internal coolant flow nor loss of the heat sink transferring heat to the steam turbine—the causes of all three of the operating LWR accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima—made EBR-II fail.  Given “a couple of chances to melt down” and release radiation, as one of the nuclear engineers commented, “It politely refused both times.”
Another advantage is pyroprocessing, IFR’s technique for reprocessing its metal fuel and fuel assemblies through standard electro refining to cleanse them of impure fission products.  Performed remotely in a highly radioactive “hot cell” that no one can enter, electro refining mixes the reprocessed fuel in a mixture that makes the plutonium element too impure for use in weapons.  Thus, unlike oxide fuel reprocessing, pyroprocessing poses no risk of nuclear proliferation.
The slow process in IFR operations is breeding—upwards of a decade is needed for an IFR reactor to produce enough surplus plutonium to start up another IFR reactor.  Which raises the question, where will the first commercial IFR reactors get their start-up plutonium?  Although it’s a natural element like uranium, plutonium has no mineable sources.
Bit LWRs have left a large amount of radioactive spent fuel containing plutonium that’s waiting to be buried in some tomb like Yucca Mountain NV for hundreds of thousands of years.  And what’s toxic waste to the LWR is potential fuel to the IFR.  With the addition of a facility to reduce oxide fuel to metal, pyroprocessing can reprocess it and save the US government hundreds of million dollars a year in waste handling costs.
Counting both the uranium that is “depleted” by stripping it of the U-235 that enriches LWR fuel and the fuel itself, LWRs use only one percent of the uranium they mine.  IFR, by contrast, keeps reprocessing its fuel until all of the longest-lasting radioactive elements including plutonium are used up, leaving a much smaller amount of much less toxic waste that needs to be sequestered for only 300 years.  And since depleted uranium is still fertile, IFR can use it, too.
While uranium resources are plentiful, they’re not unlimited.  But IFR extracts a hundred times more energy out of uranium than LWRs.  If IFR reactors supplied all of the world’s electricity needs, uranium would last as long as the planet.  In this sense IFR is as “renewable” an energy source as solar, wind, water and geothermal power.
The economics of IFR as a base load power producer have yet to be established.  But given the intermittence and geographic limitations of these alternative non-carbon energy sources, and the high cost of LWR waste, IFR should be very competitive.  And compared to fossil fuel power, if the negative externalities of their greenhouse gases and toxic emissions are properly accounted for, IFR should be like Secretariat at the Belmont in 1973—a runaway winner.
IFR generates power safely and efficiently and is the key to climate stabilization.  The problem is political: how do we get it back on track?