Aug 25 2017

John Oliver and the Nuclear Waste Hubbub

yuccamountainThe most recent episode of John Oliver’s, Last Week Tonight, featured a discussion of how we handle (or don’t handle) nuclear waste in the US. This has spawned an interesting discussion among skeptics and scientists, including this response from a nuclear scientist on Forbes.

My overall impression is that there are legitimate points on both sides, and which points one emphasizes probably depends on whether they are pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear.

My reaction to Oliver’s piece was that it was reasonable, made a lot of good points I had made myself, and that it was not anti-nuclear. I don’t know if Oliver is pro or anti-nuclear based on this piece. The theme of his show is highlighting crazy things in our society that should be fixed, if only we had the political will to do so. The main point of his piece is that we currently store commercial nuclear waste on site where it is produced. We don’t have any central long term repository for this waste, despite the fact that we obviously should.

The main point of the discussion was Yucca Mountain, a nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada that took years and billions of dollars to research and build, that is a completely safe location to store commercial nuclear waste, but which sits empty for political reasons. Oliver correctly puts the blame mostly on Senator Harry Reid from Nevada who killed Yucca Mountain for purely NIMBY reasons (not in my back yard). It is a legit scandal and Oliver was correct to call Reid out on it and mock him.

Most of the criticism of Oliver’s piece focuses on what he did not say, which is always tricky criticism. Oliver has 20 minutes to tell a complex story, and he has to focus on one main point. He was not discussing the risks and benefits of nuclear power. He was not comparing it to other methods of energy production. He was only pointing out that in the last 50 years we have not been able to summon the political will to put our nuclear waste in a proper long term facility.

However, in many similar episodes Oliver is fond of saying, “To be fair,” followed by caveats that put his main point into perspective. He didn’t do that in this episode, and if he did I think it would have gone a long way to counter some of the criticism.

He could have said, to be fair overall nuclear power is very safe. Forbes also published an article in which they list deaths per trillion kWhr for various energy sources:

Energy Source Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average 100,000 (41% global electricity)

Coal – China 170,000 (75% China’s electricity)

Coal – U.S. 10,000 (32% U.S. electricity)

Oil 36,000 (33% of energy, 8% of electricity)

Natural Gas 4,000 (22% global electricity)

Biofuel/Biomass 24,000 (21% global energy)

Solar (rooftop) 440 (< 1% global electricity)

Wind 150 (2% global electricity)

Hydro – global average 1,400 (16% global electricity)

Hydro – U.S. 5 (6% U.S. electricity)

Nuclear – global average 90 (11% global electricity w/Chern&Fukush)

Nuclear – U.S. 0.1 (19% U.S. electricity)

Other sources give similar numbers – this one claims that coal deaths are 4,000:1 over nuclear deaths (if you take the global averages above you get a ratio of 1,111:1. In fact coal ash (waste from coal burning) is also radioactive and poses a greater health hazard to nearby communities than nuclear waste.

Then again, Oliver wasn’t comparing different forms of energy production, only that we stupidly won’t activate Yucca mountain and put our nuclear waste there, when we obviously should. Still, critics have a point. The piece does not exist in a vacuum, and Oliver and his team should have anticipated that it would be viewed as an anti-nuclear piece and given at least one reassuring caveat (unless, of course, he is ultimately anti-nuclear).

Perhaps Oliver overemphasized how dangerous nuclear waste is in order to make the decision not to store it in Yucca Mountain seem all the dumber. But this is a judgment call. There is no question nuclear waste is hazardous and should be properly stored. There is no question that leaving it is pools near nuclear power plants is not a good method for long term storage – no scientist or regulator thinks it is. Quibbling about how hazardous a waste it is, and how it compares to other wastes, was not really the point of the piece.

What About Nuclear Power?

Going beyond the Oliver piece – what about nuclear power as an option? Like all energy sources, it is not perfect, and it has strengths and weaknesses. Fans can emphasize the advantages and critics can emphasize the downsides. I think we have to recognize all legitimate points on both sides.

Overall, as I said, I am pro nuclear in that I think we will probably need nuclear power this century to meet our energy needs while minimizing greenhouse gas production. Nuclear, all things considered, is superior to all forms of fossil fuel for base energy production. You can make an argument for natural gas, which is also a relatively good short term option (far better than coal). Coal should be phased out.

The advantage of nuclear are that it can produce a massive amount of energy continuously, so it is great for base load production. It is relatively safe. It does not release greenhouse gases (the production of the facilities does, but that is one-time, not operational). We can deal with the waste if we decide we want to.

There are two big downsides to nuclear. The first is that it is expensive, and it getting relatively more cost ineffective as the cost of renewables steadily decreases. However – if we consider the full cost of pollution and global warming, I think nuclear becomes cost effective again. It’s worth the investment.

The other major downside is that it takes decades to build a nuclear power facility, including doing the site research, getting the permits, and doing the construction. Many people argue that 50 years is simply too long to have any significant impact on global warming. By the time new plants come online our energy technology will be very different.

However, if we really wanted to we could build nuclear plants safely much more quickly. By some estimates we would need to build about 50 reactors worldwide a year over the next 60 years to have a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is not much higher than historic rates, if we extrapolate from countries like France when they were building their nuclear infrastructure.

This does not even consider next generation nuclear designs. We are currently using generation II power plants. Generation III plants with improved safety features are already being built (not in the US), and we are developing generation IV designs that could be built this century.

With regard to the expense argument, worldwide the fossil fuels industry is subsidized to the tune of $775 million to $1 trillion dollars. Investing this money instead in nuclear energy would be a good investment.

The major alternative to more nuclear energy proposed by opponents is renewable energy. I am also a big fan of renewable energy and think we should maximize its contribution to our energy infrastructure. Distributed renewable sources of energy like wind and solar are the way to go. Solar specifically, I think, is our future. So why not just invest massively in renewables?

These are not mutually exclusive options. I think we should do both. But renewables have a major limitation that is often glossed over by some proponents, especially those saying we don’t need nuclear. Renewables are intermittent. In order to displace base load production like nuclear or fossil fuel we need massive grid storage. We don’t currently have massive grid storage. Proponents say – well, we are developing massive grid storage, so it will all be fine.

But that is a huge gamble. That is like saying, well, we don’t have a way to safely store hydrogen in a usable form, but I’m sure we’ll find a way and hydrogen power will be the wave of the future. At least so far, things did not turn out that way. Some technical hurdles prove more difficult than we initially hoped.

We simply don’t know how long it will take to develop a form of grid storage that is scalable to what we need. We cannot rely on overly optimistic projections. Sure, we need to develop grid storage options. I just don’t think we can put all our eggs in that basket. Grid storage is a non-trivial problem and will likely delay reliance on intermittent sources for decades, if not a century.

Meanwhile, fire up those generation IV nuclear power plants.


Actually, I really don’t have hard opinions on the topic of an optimal energy infrastructure. I have no ideology at stake. What I want is whatever science says is the best option or combination of options. I will happily revise any opinions based upon evidence and expert opinion.

At present I think we should be rapidly shifting to an infrastructure that causes minimal pollution, minimal greenhouse gases, that is safe and reliable. What I think is the current best interpretation of all the evidence is this:

  • We should rapidly phase out coal
  • We should continue to use natural gas for now but phase it out when other options are available
  • We need to upgrade our energy grid
  • We need to develop massive grid storage
  • We should continue to develop wind and solar infrastructure and technology
  • We should develop next generation nuclear power plants as quickly as we can
  • We should activate Yucca Mountain to store our waste, and Harry Reid should be given a lollipop.

32 responses so far

32 Responses to “John Oliver and the Nuclear Waste Hubbub”

  1. fbrosseaon 25 Aug 2017 at 8:38 am

    An interesting argument regarding costs is that because of the disposal fees, protection measures needed and advanced technology the cost of fuel is only a small percentage of the cost/kWH for nuclear production.

    Also because the cost of enrichment and preparation the cost of raw uranium is only 43% of the cost of the fuel itself

    This means the cost of power production is fairly robust relative to the cost of the raw material, as opposed other fuel-based energy sources.

  2. DisplayGeekon 25 Aug 2017 at 12:22 pm

    I saw and for the most part, felt that Oliver’s segment on waste storage was dead on. However, I did find something to critique… Plutonium was demonized for having a long half-life and mischaracterized as being 100% deadly if ingested or inhaled. This is simply not true. The RISK of cancer goes up… but it is not 100%. This mischaracterization is rampant in the anti-nuclear circles and is used to create FUD.

  3. MosBenon 25 Aug 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Something that I’d like to see, which I’m sure exists somewhere, is some kind of graphic showing different sources of power, when they generate their peak energy production, how much we could reasonably expect to get if we built out the infrastructure, and how much base/peak load would remain that we would need to generate from non-renewable sources. Solar obviously gets the most play, and would probably be the biggest contributor. But wind farms, especially off shore, probably don’t produce energy in the same pattern that solar panels do. Obviously solar produces all of its power during the day, and there’s a big hit to that production when the sun doesn’t shine. But wind can blow at any time of day, and I would imagine that in off-shore facilities, at the tops of tall buildings, or facilities near mountain ranges the wind probably blows nearly constantly. There’s also tidal generation, which again, would produce power nearly constantly. Add in hydro-electric dams, which can create on-demand energy.

    So with all that taken into account, where are the gaps in production that need energy from something like nuclear power, and how much of a gap is there? It seems like everyone just accepts that renewables can’t meet peak power demand needs without assistance from either stored energy or on-demand production like nuclear, coal, or natural gas, but I have no idea what the shortfall actually would be if we had a renewable-based energy infrastructure completely built out.

  4. BBBlueon 25 Aug 2017 at 2:24 pm

    For those interested in a favorable treatment of the subject, including possible next-gen solutions for waste management, check out Pandora’s Promise.

  5. skeptoidon 25 Aug 2017 at 2:54 pm

    While I believe theoretically that nuclear power should be developed, our political climate (both long and short term) has proven to be woefully inadequate to regulate this type of low risk but high consequence technology. Every nuclear accident of note (Three Mile Island, Fukishima, Chernobyl, etc) has been an avoidable consequence of poor design and/or operation.
    Manufacturers and operators can not be trusted to eliminate these risks without strict regulatory over site; they are too constrained by financial concerns (and shielded from the potential costs of disaster) to get this right.
    The opening of Yucca Mountain and the proper storage and processing of nuclear waste represents a necessary, but not sufficient, test of our government’s ability to properly regulate this dangerous but attractive technology.
    If we can’t get Yucca Mountain right, why should anyone think that we can build and operate nuclear power plants safely.

  6. bhobon 25 Aug 2017 at 3:02 pm

    Another important item that John Oliver missed is that most other sources of non-renewable energy have a nuclear component to them:

    Coal – Radioactive Fly Ash:

    Oil and Gas – Pipe Scale:

    Hydro Electric – Radioactive element concentration in the sediment of the headwaters –

    How soon before we have a man-made georeactor form in headwaters or near a dam? That we will have to deal with?

    I consider what John does to be a high form of infotainment and that’s about it. I was annoyed by the plutonium toxicity castigation which i think is nothing more than a remnant of the Red Scare / Cold War fear mongering however, that was just as equally annoying, to me, as the non-concern repeated on a recent SGU episode where fear was invoked (i believe the actual quote was “…how scary would it be to have a radioactive asteroid coming towards earth..”). Fear? Scary? Well considering it will be just as life ending without the plutonium that was not utilized in the thermal nuclear device or the activation from the fast neutrons depositing KE on the asteroids surface / blasting the surface away. We should fear no use of a nuclear device in a last ditch ‘Hail Marry’ effort sent to prod an asteroid off it’s collision course with earth. In fact could we get together with the conspiracy theorists and invent an existential threat that would require a majority of our thermal nukes be space launched at a hapless asteroid now so we can contend with a smaller stockpile of useless weapons / fuel?

  7. tb29607on 25 Aug 2017 at 4:24 pm


    In South Carolina a power company failed to even get building a new plant right. They bid $9 billion for the job (paid for by rate hikes for customers) and when construction costs ran over, the executives declared the company bankrupt, took their million dollar bonuses, and left a massive but useless pile of concrete in their wake.

    I agree nuclear power should be developed but some type of accountability for the people in charge is needed. Otherwise their only incentive is to maximize their own bonuses, public interests be damned.

  8. RickKon 25 Aug 2017 at 4:30 pm

    Not only should we fix our ability to legislate such technology, we should put public resources into developing it for our use and for export. This is an important growth industry that we will give away just as we’re giving away renewables while we screw around with coal and oil – two industries that can do nothing but shrink.

    Am in the middle of “The Science of Energy” from the Great Courses series. The lecturer makes a compelling case that the EPA has generated hundreds of billions in net economic benefit by forcing less expensive prevention and avoiding more expensive cleanup and reducing the economic loss from environmental degradation.

    So what Trump and Pruitt are doing will, in the long term, cost us billions or trillions.

  9. Kestrelon 26 Aug 2017 at 9:57 am

    Steve, just to correct one point – when you factor in uranium mining, enrichment, and fuel fabrication, the total carbon footprint of nuclear reactors increases to a (difficult to quantify) output below natural gas but above wind and solar. As our high grade uranium mines dry up, we’ll need to put much more energy into extracting uranium than we do now. There are models that predict that by 2050 nuclear reactors will have a larger carbon footprint that natural gas, as a consequence.

    The uranium fuel cycle isn’t ideal, but there are ways we could significantly reduce long term waste and stave off the depletion of our fuel source. We could go back to reprocessing spent fuel, recapturing viable uranium and plutonium, and burn up those elements as fuel sources. You end up with a lot more waste, but it becomes storable for a few hundred years as opposed to 250,000(!!!) years, which is the current paradigm.

  10. spumnon 26 Aug 2017 at 10:14 am

    All fascinating arguments, but zero mention of the fact that the ownership of this land–indigenous or federal–remains an entirely unresolved issue. I know we non-indigenous people find it easier to sweep these sorts of things under the rug (who’s even seen an Indian lately, ya know?). But really, not even a single mention? This is a textbook case of scientific-minded people being so fixated on the “science” of an issue that they are oblivious to non-scientific dimensions of it. Being scientifically correct does not imply that you are also being moral, and I’d like to challenge scientists to try a little harder at the progressivism they all-too-often assume they embody.

    And by the way, I am a research scientist myself with an advanced degree. This is not an “anti-science” post.

  11. tder2012on 26 Aug 2017 at 1:05 pm

    The issue with wind and solar, as correctly stated, is their intermittency. In more detail, this means low capacity factor, non-dispatchable and non-synchronous electricity generators. The following requirements are all necessary (24-7-365, dispatchable and synchronous AC generators) to meet modern societies’ requirements for reliable, around-the-clock, on-demand energy access. as one can read about here and here “Less than the sum of its parts: Rethinking “all of the above” clean energy”

  12. tder2012on 26 Aug 2017 at 1:09 pm

    One can see here which countries have basically succeeded in generating electricity with CO2 emissions of under 100 grams of CO2 emitted per kilo-watt hour Then, on this link, click a country and see how they met their current week’s electricity demand by then clicking “electricity generation” on the left side (takes a while to load)

  13. tder2012on 26 Aug 2017 at 1:15 pm

    “John wasn’t aware just how different commercial waste is from weapons waste. Or that we have a deep geologic repository for weapons waste already. Used commercial fuel will be burned in fast reactors to get ten times more energy out of it, not thrown away.

    Besides, there just isn’t much nuclear waste. 70,000 tons over 60 years? Hello – it’s uranium, the heaviest element on Earth prior to 1940. That much waste wouldn’t even fill one good-sized landfill. Coal generates that much toxic waste every 30 minutes.

    No one is going to die from nuclear waste. No one ever has. And we know what to do with it, where to put it, and what it’s going to cost.

    We just aren’t allowed to do it.”

  14. Kestrelon 26 Aug 2017 at 3:24 pm

    “No one is going to die from nuclear waste. No one ever has. And we know what to do with it, where to put it, and what it’s going to cost.”

    That’s a really difficult position to defend or, actually, even to attack. When you go to a doctor with a cannon ball wound, it’s fairly clear that it was caused by a large ballistic. When you show up with cancer, it’s a lot harder to determine the cause.

    I say this because the industry safety statistics comparing nuclear fatalities to coal, natural gas, etc., are incredibly misleading, perhaps unintentionally so. We know there have been cases of radioactive contamination in groundwater – John Oliver mentioned Hanford, it would be a massive oversight if he hadn’t. Could these and other releases (most frequently tritium into groundwater around nuke plants) have caused health issues, even fatalities? Probably, but there’s not much literature available to support either position. That’s likely a good sign that the health effects are extremely small, but they’re still harder to chase after than may appear.

    We still don’t know how many people died in the wake of Chernobyl. Most people site between 2500-3500, but more recent analyses put the number an order of magnitude above that. Green Peace claims that several hundred thousand people died, but I don’t find them to be a reliable source for anything. There’s still enough ambiguity in the data to make compelling arguments for whatever number you need to back up your industry safety statistics.

    Speaking of which, do those stats include the victims of uranium mining? Because lung cancer deaths attributable to uranium mining are also extremely difficult to quantify and run a similar gamut that Chernobyl death totals do.

    I could go on for hours, but I won’t. Nuclear definitely has its necessary applications (naval, medical, perhaps even power for growing economies, ie China), but don’t buy the industry bullshit. The waste issue is real, getting worse, and the proposed solutions still have serious drawbacks.

  15. tder2012on 26 Aug 2017 at 7:13 pm

    Important to keep in mind that Hanford is a site of waste from nuclear weapons, nothing to do with nuclear power plants

    Also, keep in mind, despite $4 trillion spent on renewables in the last 15 years, fossil fuels continue their domination see “Worldwide investment in renewable energy reaches US$ 4 trillion – with little to show for it” and “These ‘missing charts’ may change the way you think about fossil fuel addiction”

  16. Kestrelon 27 Aug 2017 at 10:23 am

    Yes, you’re correct about Hanford. Spent fuel canals have other challenges. They need to constantly guard against accidental criticalities (having a nuclear reactors accidentally start up in your canal). This may sound like a simple engineering challenge but they do happen unexpectedly.

    The Forbes writer you linked to actually has some really compelling arguments, such as the suggestion of digging a three mile deep hole and throwing the waste down it. If he’s right then you don’t run into groundwater seepage issues. If he’s wrong then you’ve irrevocably ruined an entire ecosystem, haha. Neat proposal though.

  17. Gingerbakeron 27 Aug 2017 at 9:29 pm

    1) Nuclear safety numbers do not include death by cancer. Estimates of Fukushima alone would be enough to put you off your feed.

    Safety is not a feature of nuclear.

    2) Nuclear is already effectively dead in capitalist countries, because it simply can not be made profitable anymore. Virtually no new nuclear plants have come on-line recently, none of them came even close to cost estimates, and projects are being abandoned left and right for huge delays and cost overruns.

    Even China is having these very same problems, and they are the last hope in the world for nuclear.

    And Westinghouse has just got out of the business, so there is no Western Hemisphere company to build the darn things anymore.

    3) Any new nuclear is multiple times more expensive than wind and solar today – and that is today! Tomorrow, wind and solar will only get cheaper and nuclear only more expensive.

    4) Thorium is a pipedream, vapourware. Nuclear is dead, dead, dead.

    5) Contrary to commenter above, intermittency is not a problem of wind, solar. All power sources have intermittency. Intermittency is a complete red herring, a denier talking point, and has been completely debunked by … you guessed it… the electric utilities themselves.

  18. Haggardon 28 Aug 2017 at 5:52 am

    One thing that I find interesting in discussions like these is that the most obvious and easy solution is often completely overlooked.

    We always seem to want solutions for more. More energy, more food, more material goods. What people fail to address, because it seems taboo in our capitalist orientated culture that demands endless (!) expansion, is that we can very easily do with less. My prediction is that people would even find this more enjoyable, if given the cultural permission to think this way.
    Addressing our collective wasteful nature is the most basic, low hanging fruit when juxtaposed with daunting tasks such as storing something like nuclear waste that will require generations of monitoring. I won’t even touch on other environmental challenges that are almost all related to our overconsumption that has gotten completely out of control, to the very clear detriment of the only system we have that can support our life.

    But this is often countered with ideas like “Oh, but we will find a use for that waste eventually.” Or some other magical thinking that assumes future generations will solve the problems we’ve laid down for them. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I don’t have a crystal ball, unlike quite a number of others who seem to think they do. Regardless, it is not a current solution and it only places the burden on future generations to deal with the problems that we create for them. You’re welcome… what a gift.

    For example, I live in Sao Paulo, Brazil. At night, as in many other major cities and even small towns, you can clearly see all of the wasted energy in buildings that are empty, but lit up like they were at capacity. This is but one minor example, and only addresses lighting among many other systems unnecessarily active in a large building. I’ve no doubt that cities heavily reliant on things like coal also experience similar wastage. I’m sure many people have had the experience of walking in to a building from 30 degree heat to see people inside wearing sweaters as if it were winter. The shortsightedness is astonishing.

    Of course, these are social solutions, and perhaps not as sexy or intellectually interesting as “hard” scientific solutions, but in my opinion, they are fundamental to solving issues such as these and we already know how to do it, through many previous successful educational campaigns that tackled “social” problems.

    I guess I am just left dumbfounded that simply talking about our wasteful nature is not first included in these discussions with the absolute seriousness that it deserves. Luckily, it is gaining traction, but it is still quite remarkable that it is not a prominent focus in discussion amongst supposedly intelligent and highly educated people. And I’ve no doubt that the clever science behind reducing waste will be amazing, if it ever becomes something that society wants to seriously address. It is not as if these are separate problems. They are intrinsically linked, but currently, few people want to recognize this link. How can we collectively miss something so comparatively simple?

  19. Steven Novellaon 28 Aug 2017 at 7:12 am

    Ginger – Thorium is not a pipe dream. It is being developed and is a completely plausible technology. Advancements are being made with little support, in fact. If we made it a priority it would likely progress more quickly:

    Intermittency is a huge problem. There are partial solutions, like pumped hydro and other grid storage. Charging electric cars may also help. But intermittency limits renewable penetration, and means we will need baseload production for a long time.

    when you consider the cost of wind and solar (which I support, btw) beyond a certain percentage you have to include the price of developing and deploying massive grid storage.

    Both technologies – next gen nuclear and massive grid storage – are not ready for prime time. Anyone can dismiss one as a pipe dream and pretend the other is already here or not a problem. That is just bias and ideology.

  20. tder2012on 28 Aug 2017 at 8:17 am

    Regarding cancer readings at Fukushima, fear is the real killer, they had far more screenings for thyroid cancer than the typical population, which is what may have skewed the numbers. “Fear is a killer, nuclear expert reveals radiation’s real danger”

    As for using too much energy, many do, but as one can see in the graph, billions all over the world have no, or inadequate, access to energy (Africa, India, south Asia, etc) be sure to read “more than a lightbulb” . Whether we like it or not, global population is projected to be well over 9 billion by mid century, we’ll need to ensure all have adequate access to energy to ensure as minimal as possible live in poverty.

    In addition, linear no threshold is the assumption used as a standard for radiation protection. It leaves much to be desired and perhaps should be subjected to burden of proof.

  21. Gingerbakeron 28 Aug 2017 at 11:26 am


    Thorium is still in development. Nobody is using it – the link you provided is part of a research program which is not close to actually using full thorium. They will likely never be built in the U.S., because, as I said, there is no longer any company interested in the nuclear plant construction business over here.

    Could next gen nuclear be developed at any price? Sure. But there is no need to contemplate it, because RE is already a fraction of the price, comes on-line in 1/10th the time, is safer, and has a working life much longer than a nuke plant. Modern solar PV panels, for the best example, appear they may have a working lifespan of 125 years. At that point, they would still be outputting 80% of their original rating (!).

    Back to intermittency. You claim it is a “huge problem”. Yet, people in the business of using RE and providing it to the public – utility managers, say the opposite.

    Studies suggest that we would need to get to 80% penetration of RE into the electric sector before we have a true need for storage:

    and battery storage systems are falling dramatically in price, and being used all over the place. As transportation goes electric, car batteries alone could be part of the grid. Solar plus battery storage is already price competitive with older tech, so there should be zero problem in future:

    Solar-thermal and concentrated solar power installations are now coming on-line which produce electricity 24 hours a day – without battery storage. New CSP-salt projects are already bidding at less than ten cents per kWh.

    We could, if we wanted to, run the U.S. completely off of such plants and put them all in the American Southwest deserts. We could be on-line in 10 – 30 years if we wanted to, the tech is here today.

  22. BenEon 28 Aug 2017 at 12:03 pm

    Grasping big numbers is difficult. $775M – $1T is a range too wide to inform much of anything. If you click through, you’ll find that the correct range is $775B – $1T – a much tighter range that does indicate that huge sums of money are subsidizing fossil fuels. Also, this is an annual figure.

    To put it into perspective, gross world product (GWP) which is basically all annual global economic activity is about $80T. So, you can pretty reasonably say that 1% of human economic activity is subsidization of fossil fuels. That’s astounding.

  23. Gingerbakeron 28 Aug 2017 at 12:31 pm

    “I guess I am just left dumbfounded that simply talking about our wasteful nature is not first included in these discussions with the absolute seriousness that it deserves.”

    Considering that solar, wind, tide, geothermal are abundant in an excess of about one billion times more than we could ever possibly use as a civilization, I think energy waste is a concept that is not useful anymore.

    Right now, we shudder at energy waste, because energy from fossil fuels is expensive, polluting, on its harvest has gigantic environmental problems. But that is not a problem with RE.

    And focusing on energy waste, and on over-consumption, and on over-population is – at this moment in time – a very bad strategy. All of these problems have a very long window of opportunity to correct. Over-population is a 100 or 200 year project.

    But we have a very very short window of opportunity to address global warming. We MUST build ourselves a carbon-free energy system in the next 30 years, or civilization as we know it is going to disappear within the next 100 years. The only truly important issue right now is building and deploying new RE systems so we can pull the plug on things which burn carbon.

    And all these other issues do is take our focus off of that ball.

  24. Lukas Xavieron 28 Aug 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Steven, recently came across this. Haven’t gone through it properly yet, but I’d like your take on it.

  25. sarah_theviperon 28 Aug 2017 at 3:30 pm

    My Dad is friends with an old couple who live out in the woods off the power grid. Dad helped them set up a solar wind battery system. I think they have been content with the power they get. Although their power demands may be lower, I don’t think they have a washing machine or dryer.

  26. Steven Novellaon 28 Aug 2017 at 4:17 pm

    Ginger – your references do not support your position. This reference, for example ( does not say intermittent energy is not a problem up to 80%. It says we can get there with a “flexible electrical system” which includes grid storage. We only get to 80% renewable if we update the grid to allow for transport of electricity across the county, and include massive grid storage.

    I agree that is where we should head. Solar is the future. But my point remains – you can’t just gloss over the grid storage issue as if it is already solved. It isn’t. Batteries are highly limited. We only have so much raw material. They don’t have long charge-discharge cycles. Capacity is limited. You can’t just scale up current batteries to get us where we need to go.

    There is no reason not to also develop next gen nuclear, which includes thorium. I know these are not up and running yet, I never said they were. But neither is massive grid storage. If you want to give us the best chance of getting completely off fossil fuels in 30-50 years, we should do both. And hey, if in 20 years we completely solve the grid storage problem then we can abandon nuclear. If not, it will be too late to start.

  27. Steven Novellaon 28 Aug 2017 at 4:45 pm

    Lukas – they rely on batteries for grid storage, which I think it overly optimistic with current tech.

  28. Gingerbakeron 29 Aug 2017 at 1:01 pm

    “Ginger – your references do not support your position. This reference, for example ( does not say intermittent energy is not a problem up to 80%. It says we can get there with a “flexible electrical system” which includes grid storage. We only get to 80% renewable if we update the grid to allow for transport of electricity across the county, and include massive grid storage.”

    Have to disagree. What the report says is that intermittency is not a problem. Even when one looks at electricity supply by the hour everywhere at 80% or 100% penetration. And it does not call for “massive” storage. It shows that storage needs will be 10% or less. What shocked me is that it shows that we already have a couple of percent of storage today (who knew?). Therefore, our need for storage is nominal.

    And, as I said, storage costs are plummeting at the same slope as solar PV costs. Not surprising, as it a nascent technology. And do not forget – RE plus storage is *already* cost competitive with fossil fuel technologies, as the Australia link references.

    So, I do not see why you continue to paint the picture that RE can not work. It can. Or that intermittency is a “huge” problem It clearly is not. Or that “massive” storage is needed. It is not, and even IF it was, that would not be a problem from either a technical or cost perspective.

    Yes, we WILL need investment in upgrading our grid, in making it smarter. But we all knew that. But, let’s put this into cost perspective.:

    Jacobson and Delucchi, Stanford professors who have published many recent peer-reviewed studies on the topic of RE are pretty much the best available information. They give us a sense of how much it will actually cost if we transitioned to 100% RE in an intelligent way. They say that to take California to 100% RE would cost $1 trillion.

    California uses 1/6th of the energy of the U.S.. We could extrapolate then, to $6 trillion for the entire U.S. We could, but let’s not. Let’s instead say, that they are optimistic and that doing all of the U.S. will be relatively more expensive. So, let’s call it an even $10 trillion dollars. Sounds like a lot?

    The U.S. currently spends $1.5 trillion dollars every year for fossil fuels. So a mere seven years of fossil fuel spending would buy us a brand new shiny RE system that would pretty much eliminate the need for fossil fuel burning. And, if we did it collectively, the American people would own that system, which has zero fuel costs, small maintenance costs, and longevity of components measured in centuries or large fractions thereof.

    We literally could take the meters off the walls. Because just like a homeowner who, having paid off his capital expense for rooftop PV, now enjoys free electricity, so could our nation.

  29. Haggardon 30 Aug 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Gingerbaker – You said “Considering that solar, wind, tide, geothermal are abundant in an excess of about one billion times more than we could ever possibly use as a civilization, I think energy waste is a concept that is not useful anymore.”

    This may well be true, that these renewables are in potentially useful abundance, but it does not address the fact that we are not using them more than fossil or other harmful fuel sources.

    Google (I know, but it’s a rough guide) says that by 2020, we could expect around 26% to come from renewable. Wunderbar! That’s leaving about 74% of our energy to come from current harmful production, which is highly significant and relevant (assuming we all agree on sources of climate change). So, focusing on energy waste right now is an excellent strategy because it is exactly part of the massive problem we are facing and it can be tackled right now. We have the technology to tackle it. Right now. We just don’t care to tackle it. Which, obviously, is incredibly stupid of us.

    Overpopulation, in my opinion, is a red herring. I agree with you there. Sure, it is a problem, but where the population is still significantly expanding, the “footprint” of the expanding population is a fraction of the typical wealthy population that is not rapidly expanding, or in some cases, declining.

    The significant problem is not overpopulation, but overconsumption and waste. It is a basic concept, but one which the majority in wealthy countries that create our global problems through an unsustainable lifestyle find deeply troubling to confront and accept. It is not easy to accept our errors, and I personally suffer from this as well. Even if we could find a way to erase carbon from our energy production, do you really think that our consumption lifestyle can be sustained? For just one week, consider everything coming into your home, your friend’s homes, your neighbours homes, and think carefully about where it comes from. The raw materials do not magically appear out of thin air. They come from somewhere… and that is the system that we depend on for life.

    So, I completely disagree that focusing on energy waste, and waste of all kinds is not an issue. In fact, I think it is the most important issue that we face as a species. We are deep in debt and digging deeper. Without tackling our wasteful nature, which also includes obtaining ever more things that we do not really need (if you are honest with yourself), we are doomed. Even if it all comes from renewable energy, we’re still going to kill ourselves off because of an unchecked level of greed and ignorance. Nature, on the other hand, is keeping score, as we can well see today.

  30. doomvoxon 31 Aug 2017 at 4:46 pm

    Storing spent fuel at reactor sites simply isn’t some terrible
    threat to civilization– this John Oliver piece is simply a mess,
    among other things it conflates Hanford (leftovers from frantic,
    cold war era bomb production) with spent fuel sitting in dry

    And burying that “spent fuel” too deeply would in fact not be a
    good idea, because it’s not actually all that spent– the
    light-water reactors we’ve been using don’t really burn it very
    throughly, and there are some fourth generation designs in the
    works that can actually use this “waste” as fuel.

    Arguably, the real reason the Yucca Mountain repository was
    closed is there was no one willing to fight for it, as it became
    clear it wasn’t that great an idea to begin with (it was always
    an insanely gold-plated concept intended to assuage paranoia
    more so than to serve a practical purpose).

    By the way, if you want to pick something to worry about that
    *is* a threat to civilization, you might try global warming,
    which despite the breathlessly excited headline writing of
    “renewables” enthusiasts, is not in fact a solved problem.

    As far as costs are concerned, we need an energy market with
    carbon pricing built-in: energy sources like coal and fracking
    essentially get a free-ride on the environmental damage they
    cause in ways nuclear power never has. We demand it to be safe,
    and as you note with the data from Forbes, it is overall very
    safe: you get what you pay for.

  31. doomvoxon 31 Aug 2017 at 4:54 pm

    Gingerbakeron 29 Aug 2017 at 1:01 pm:

    “Jacobson and Delucchi, Stanford professors who have published many recent peer-reviewed studies on the topic of RE are pretty much the best available information.”

    Mark Z Jacobson has been shot down, and shot down badly in a report that was published by the National Academy of the Sciences back in June:

    What was that you were saying about “the best available information”?

    You renewables enthusiasts really need to watch it: you talk a good line but you could end up getting the planet fried.

    Don’t bet the planet on technology we don’t have.

    Once again: we need carbon-pricing built-in to the energy market, then we can stop arguing about where “renewables” are going to max out.

  32. Bill Openthalton 07 Sep 2017 at 7:25 am

    Haggard —

    The significant problem is not overpopulation, but overconsumption and waste.

    Of course, the problem is overpopulation. If there were only a million humans on the planet, they could have mountains of stuff and produce lots of waste and it would hardly register. Even if you could limit what humans consume to a (for you) reasonable level, unless you stop the population from growing, that reasonable level of consumption will eventually deplete Earth’s limited resources. Technological advances allow humans to produce more with less (it’s called “productivity”), but absent those, the population needs to be limited to avoid running out of resources.

    The success of a creature is measured by the number of its descendants, and regulation takes place through the environment — either there are limited food supplies, or predators keep the population in check. Unless a new predator enters the scene (it doesn’t need to be a big critter, a virus will do nicely), human populations will continue to expand until they run out of resources. It is possible to create “artificial scarcity” to reduce the desire for procreation. Western societies do this by increasing the “goodies” needed for social success: both parents need a degree (as advanced as possible), both need an established career, the couple needs a well-appointed house, a car, the ability to finance their children’s education, etc. Until these goals have been achieved, humans will experience a feeling of scarcity, and hence a reduced (or absent) drive to reproduce. Thus, perversely, lowering the standards for social success could lead to an increase in procreation.

    The well-being of future generations (which might never come into existence!) is not a sufficiently strong motivation to reduce one’s standard of living. You’ll always find a small percentage of the population prepared to go along (you can find supporters for each and every idea under the sun, no matter how crazy), but getting everyone along requires a change of environment (or a dictator).

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