Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Five Minutes with Joe Heffernan on Nuclear Energy

"The perception of radiation risks is out of whack with the reality."
Wall Street Journal, October 4, 2021

Photo by Patrick Federi on Unsplash
I was first awakened to the possibilities of nuclear energy through a series of Tweets by Michael Shellenberger last year. Throughout his career Shellenberger has been quite vocal with regard to climate issues and environmental awareness. What concerned him was that the warnings being disseminated were being heard as proclamations that "the end is near." This prompted him to write Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All

Reading Shellenberger gave me an understanding of the possibilities that lay ahead if we change our way of thinking with regards to energy. The push to eliminate carbon may be noble, but if it leaves our power grids broken, then what? Shellenberger wrote that we can turn to nuclear energy.

These past few weeks I've discovered that developments in the nuclear field have been quietly ongoing for decades, with many smart people striving to ensure that our grandchildren will inherit a safe, healthy planet earth.

Since interviewing Margaret Angwin at the end of September, I've met (through social media) several people with insights related to this topic. Joe Heffernan of Scotland is one of these.

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EN: You have six years experience in the energy field and have primarily served as a geotechnical engineer. What caused you to become an advocate for nuclear energy?

Joe Heffernan: Around the age of 50 I had a bit of crisis and thought about a change of career.  When I looked around to see what would have the biggest impact on making the world a better place I began to look at nuclear power. The more I looked at it the more I saw what a great world, in my opinion, it would be with more extensive use of nuclear power. I never did change career but my enthusiasm for nuclear power has continued to grow.

EN: We hear people say "trust the science" when discussing global warming, but when it comes to nuclear energy these same people say "ignore the science. Nuclear is not safe." In your opinion, why are the advocates for eliminating carbon so opposed to nuclear?

JH: I think that the reasons that some advocates of eliminating carbon are opposed to nuclear are:

  • Many of the NGOs who are most vocal about low carbon have a constituency that is vehemently anti-nuclear.  They know where their pay check comes from and have to keep the faith with their constituency.
  • Nuclear power would be very disruptive to the current companies and countries that depend on the extraction and sale of fossil fuels. It is not in their short term economic interest to see nuclear succeed.
  • People are poor at understanding the concept of 'relative risk'. Based on data nuclear power is the safest form of energy but that is not the perception.
  • Some people have an attachment to what they imagine is a pastoral existence and nuclear power doesn't fit into that narrative.

EN: It seems like the effort to ramp up EVs has some pretty high hurdles if we don't strengthen our electrical grid. What's your take on that?

JH: I am troubled when discussions about decarbonization seem to only concern themselves with the electrical grid. In rough terms our energy consumption is divided into thirds. One third is electricity, one third is transport and one third is heat. All the conversation about clean electricity ignores around two-thirds of power we consume.  Society's interest in electrifying transport never seems to consider that if we do electrify transport that means the grid will have to practically double in output. I personally feel that electric transport within cities is the way to go as it has good impacts on air quality. But I very much advocate for high density towns and cities where walking, cycling and public transport will work well.

I am a big advocate of Small Modular Reactors. I would very much like to see SMRs used in our towns and cities to provide combined heat and power. Some of that power would be used for public and electric transport rendering the need for private cars less important. This also has the advantage in that it allows power production close to the end use. This reduces transmission requirements. I also believe that this would increase robustness and resilience.

I recognize that changing the layout of towns and cities is a huge challenge.

EN: Will renewable energy -- specifically, solar and wind -- ever replace oil and coal?

JH: In a word no, not if we expect to have a high energy consumption modern life.  Nuclear power can go a long way, in my opinion, to reduce the consumption of coal, oil and methane. I recently finished reading Energy Transitions: Global and National Perspectives, 2nd Edition by Vaclav Smil.  In this book you see that once we start using a source of energy we continue using it forever. As an example, we still use lots of wood and agricultural waste. We will always need oil, coal and methane in my opinion but I would hope we can eventually move away from burning the majority of these materials and use them for chemical feedstocks.

One thing this book brings out is the difficulty of extracting energy from low density sources such as wind and solar. 

EN: If someone were interested in learning more about nuclear energy, are there any books you might recommend?

JH: For me, my entrance drug to nuclear power was Thorium. Therefore I would recommend THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal by Robert Hargraves. He has another book that I expect to read soon. It is titled Electrifying Our World: for climate, for people, with fission

EN: Thank you, Joe, for the book recommendations and your insights on this important issue. 

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Related Links

One Reason Nuclear Power Has Been Overlooked

Grid Fragility and a Book by Meredith Angwin

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