Thoughts on Lester Brown's "Plan-B"

Last night I was flying back from speaking at TEDxYYC to Alabama and I had a bit of time on my flight, so I watched a program that I had recorded on PBS a few days earlier.

It was called “Plan-B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization” and it focused mostly on the work of Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, as he travelled the world and particularly through Asia discussing how climate change would affect food production, and ultimately, civilization.

The program began with what has become fairly standard fare in these types of programs, describing how fossil fuels have filled the atmosphere with CO2 and all the terrible things that will entail…I’ve seen all that before, many times.

I wanted to know about the solution set–what would Mr. Brown propose to do about it?

The answer was also unsurprising. Nuclear was dispatched in a single sentence as “too expensive.” That was the beginning and the end of the entire discussion on nuclear power. No consideration of how to change that fact, no allowance for any new technologies. Too expensive. Move on.

The tone of the music changed. It went from heavy and ominous to light and hopeful. Glorious computer-generated images of endless rows of offshore windmills appeared, all of them steadily rotating in the computer-generated breeze. These windmills were backlit by a setting sun. Golden light, an artist friend used to tell me, was the key to making everything beautiful. Golden light.

Then there was more optimism. Endless arrays of solar panels. Then the extruded parabola of the parabolic-trough solar concentrator. Even geothermal was included in the joy, with billowing white clouds of steam emerging from a plant nearly shrouded in white. The music told us what we needed to know–that this was good, virtuous stuff, and it was Going To Save Us.

I wish I shared the optimism. Because despite the computer-generated images of the high-speed rail cars moving through a landscape of windmills, the numbers just don’t add up. Solar and wind are too diffuse to be economical and too intermittent to be dependable. Geothermal is just thorium energy with a bad heat exchanger and a long time scale.

Matt Damon’s impassioned narration made it clear that Mr. Brown was absolutely committed to saving the world from the doom that lies ahead of us if we don’t change our ways. I ended the program wondering if I should email him about thorium/LFTR.

I’m still wondering and would appreciate your advice.

25 thoughts on “Thoughts on Lester Brown's "Plan-B"

  1. It is ironic Lester Brown's journey was through Asia since they will now almost certainly lead the rest of the world in almost all nuclear development, particularly thorium molten salt reactors …

    From the Wiki page, this Plan-B video and the associated tour seems to be a continuation/extension of Lester Brown's books. There's no mention of nuclear on there either. Perhaps his books contain more.

    However, he certainly seems to be a heavy hitter in the environmental space. If he could understand that for all intents and purposes the only viable *principal* long term option is nuclear (if for no other reason than the immensity of the energies involved) and that new designs, particularly LFTR/thorium molten salt reactors are not only highly Disruptive Technologies across several areas, but also proven and will likely soon be deployed for utilities, then Lester would need to take some kind of real view on it.

    Designs like LFTR should also have significant cost advantages once their designs are finalized due to key design elements. As Lester clearly realises, cost can have a dramatic effect on deployment. When it would have been unthinkable to have a conventional large/very large reactor under heavy pressure in huge containments in poor countries, now it suddenly becomes an option on the table with small power plant designs. Where a relatively small number of large reactors would be plopped miles from nowhere in developed countries, now passively safe, clean, and hydrogen generating (High Temperature Electrolysis) small reactors would be dotted in smart power grids around cities effecting the change from a fossil fuel economy to a hydrogen fuel cell economy.

    Also, there are reasonable arguments that can be made as to why current nuclear development seems to have changed little in 60 years:

    1. ease of access to fossil fuels (which will rapidly change – it has already begun with shale oil and gas)
    2. nuclear militarization lead (unnecessary after Cold War stockpiles)
    3. nuclear plant economy based on fuel sales/contracts
    4. US lack of energy independence policy working hand-in-hand with the previous issues and other foreign policies as a way to impose their version of trade, capital financing and political system on the rest of the world.

    The clear counterpoint is China and other parts of Asia. Most people do not understand the Chinese think culturally very differently from Westerners. The points 1 to 4 above are not viable options for China, they need a LOT more energy than anyone else and they STRONGLY identify Chinese interests with full independence which naturally leads to the development of energy technologies that guarantee energy security. When Westerners do manage to sell their technology in China, if it is too useful, it will just be directly replicated. This happens at any level, including entire power plant designs! Therefore, being dependent on Western nuclear fuels and plant designs is not in their long term plan … With this huge gap in Western technological development (which is really more engineering than scientific), thorium molten salt reactors are a perfect fit, even from an Intellectual Property perspective.

    Thus, this WILL happen, come what may. The quicker high profile players of all kinds understand this and the significance, the more likelihood the public can be informed, contribute and hopefully look to determine their own future.

    So, please contact him. Also, you never know who such a high profile person knows …

  2. Yes! Contact him and provide a link to your presentation on thorium power you did at google. And if Matt Damon is lending his celebrity to promote alternative energy, try to contact him too. I have been posting the link to your google presentation in the discussion area of any article on any site that discusses energy issues. I really appreciate what you are doing and wish you success!

  3. Yes.

    I don't think the problems with wind and solar are quite as irresolvable as you do, though.

    Power magazine recently had a summary article about the state of the art of energy storage options. One of the options is using excess electricity to fix CO2 + water into methane or synthetic gasoline. They claim that electricity at $16MWh can produce carbon neutral gas for $80/barrel.

    The same tech combined with LFTR reactors would be a good bridging technology until ideal batteries are invented.

  4. Do it, because Lester Brown and everyone else who currently opposes nuclear energy needs to understand how the fundamentally different physics in LFTR effectively answer all the concerns and problems associated with 'nuclear energy' but which have actually come from the use of solid-fueled, water cooled, pressurized-cored reactors.

    Do it, out of respect for Lester Brown's concern for the environment and the future of all those he loves.

    Do it because you know that trusting renewable energies alone is a very sure way for that future they long for NOT to happen and it wouldn't be right to leave him wandering down a dead end, and taking many others with him, without saying anything.

  5. Give it a try, and I agree that your talk at Google is a great pointer. I'd also point out that LFTR originally was squeezed out due perceived defense/military needs in the past, and currently is an underdog to traditional nuclear manufacturers. Another great point is the ability and ease of medical isotope creation.

  6. No, don't waste your time contacting Lester Brown about LFTR technology. He will not be interested no matter how good it is because nuclear power is EVIL!!!

    The Chinese and other Asians do not pay attention to our tree huggers. If they meet with them, they listen to these people more to evaluate the future of the West rather than to take the actual advice of these people. In other words, the tree-huggers are there to humor the Asians.

    The reality is that nuclear processes, either some form of fusion if possible, Gen IV concepts such as LFTR and the like if not, is the future of energy production. There is no other choice. The Asians, even the Japanese, understand this despite the problems of the Fukushima reactors. Much of the West does not.

    What is clear to me that the only effect that people like Lester Brown will have is to drive all energy-intensive industries to China and other Asian countries. They will only ensure that the 21st century and beyond will belong to Asia.

  7. I went to a retirement party for a nuclear engineer friend who works at HFIR at ORNL on Friday. He gave a synopsis of his career with some rather humorous slides. One slide was of a summer stint at ORNL (he was an undergrad physics major at the time). He worked that summer on solar power and started out very enthusiastic about solar power, but at the end of the summer he had formulated three main conclusions:

    (1) The sun is only out half the day
    (2) It is dark the other half of the day.
    (3) It rains a lot in tennessee during daytime hours, especially in the summer.

    After making this observations, he switched to nuclear engineering for the remainder of his academic studies. He remarked that 32 years later, people are still pursuing solar at ORNL and have not grapsed these three fundamental facts that he made as an undergraduate 🙂

  8. Jonathan, it appears that Monbiot already knows about thorium.

    trueblue, having visited ORNL and seen the token solar panel placed in perhaps the prominent public place possible, I can only conclude that the lab is more interested in PR than actually making solar work.

  9. If you could somehow reach Matt Damon that would go farther. I hope he's as intelligent and as open as his movies make him appear. Besides he's tackled a few documentaries lately and has proven to be quite the activist. He supports http://water.org so ideas on creating pure water running a thorium reactor in a poor dry country somewhere might get his attention.

  10. Definitely! Please talk to Lester Brown. You can ask why he doesn't like LFTR technology (if he already knows what it is). As cbass, we need a mix of energy sources.
    @Abelard Lindsey – I just want to point out that it's not good practice to generalize Chinese and the Asains as one group. They may look the same to you but all Asian countries speak different languages as all European countries speak different languages. It's not like Arabic countries where everybody speaks Arabic. In additon, China is a communist country so the way they think is certainly different from some other Asian countries that are capitalists. I just want to say that a generalization hinders our critical thinking ability.

  11. Go for it, Kirk. We must dispel ignorance whereever it lurks. BTW: I end all my emails with this:
    "Thorium's the answer – so what's the question?", to stir a little bit of curiosity at least. It would be good if everyone who is aware of the potential of Thorium and LFTR did likewise. I haven't patented it, so they're more than welcome :-).

  12. Another interesting thing that Lester B et al should be aware of, is that many of the current and most promising renewable technologies as well as their electronics rely on "rare earth elements". As you can probably appreciate, there is a very large and growing demand for these elements since so many advanced technologies at least assume their availability. For example, an electric car carries a few kilograms of rare-earth elements, and a 3-megawatt wind turbine uses about 1.5 tonnes. Total world demand for the elements leapt from 30,000 tonnes in the 1980s to 120,000 tonnes in 2010 (which was met in part by depletion of national stockpiles), and is predicted to hit 200,000 tonnes by 2015.

    While these are not technically rare, the elements are diffuse and difficult enough to process that only a few places on the planet currently have the capability to produce them (after having also been priced out by Chinese exports). It turns out that 95% of that world capacity is from China/Mongolia, despite having only 37% of the known reserves.

    China, in the last few years, has been aggressively limiting exports of these very useful elements using reasons such as "conservation". Though it is more likely they recognised the enormous value of their reserves for their own primarily manufacturing-oriented exports now and in the future. This has contributed to causing, for example, the price of neodymium oxide to jump from USD 17 a kilogram to USD 85 a kilogram in 2010 alone! So, far this year, based on released 2011 quota rule changes, its looking like China will export at most 23,000 tons in 2011…

    An almost waste product of rare earth mineral mining is thorium (though it does require some processing to be isolated). Not much is needed to power the entire planet via thorium thermal spectrum nuclear fission reactors. The US alone is estimated to have 13 million metric tons of rare earth elements and yet currently has zero capacity to produce them. Thus, the US, in this and many other areas of energy and industry, are highly or totally dependent on imports and external states.

    Good article here: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110406/full/47202

  13. Lester Brown has what Stewart Brand calls "legacy resistance" against nuclear energy. I believe that he is located in the Washington DC area, so you could suggest a meeting around the time of the TEA conference in May.

    "Whether the carbon-free future that we both want should be primarily powered by renewables or nuclear energy, I believe that there are a few things about the molten salt reactor concept that you should know. There is growing public interest in this technology, and can address many of our biggest challenges, such as carbon emissions, energy poverty and water scarcity."

    … something like that.

  14. It's ironic that we let actors and muscle builders run our lives. Everything will be ok, just so long as government makes all the decisions.

    Not only are the rosy scenarios computer generated, so are nearly all the gloomy scenarios. This is on purpose. There will be winners and losers when the government decides who gets the contracts. Mostly it's companies that help to kill people with weapons, but starving people so someone gets rich making wind turbines is just as likely.

    Would it be worth sending an email to an actor? No worse than sending one to the actor at the white house I suppose.

  15. You should also watch, at least out of the corner of your eye, the threads on Huffington Post concerning the Fukushima crisis.

    Predictably, the threads are dominated by extreme environmentalists who believe all nuclear is unconditionally very evil, and who refuse to believe that renewables will fail to save the planet.

    But despite that dominance, there is a notable number who are at least asking the right questions about thorium. I try to answer as best I can, but I can't answer them all.

  16. Total Newb question here: How is Thorium's Plan A coming along? What design and research steps are being done now to move LFTR's to a reality?

  17. I see a lot of speculation and misinformation in the preceding comments. Anyone reading them should not take their word but instead do their own thorough independent investigation.

    I like the idea of nuclear power, but the Fukishima disaster has put one more nail in the coffin as far as new power plants being built in America. The Chinese are supposed to build hundreds of them in the next few decades. That's great if it will take the same number of fossil fuel power plants out of commission.

  18. Kirk,
    Thanks for your excellent video presentation. I was most impressed with your enthusiasm and grasp of the subject of LFTR. If there is anyway I can assist you in my capacity as a well-respected international science writer I'd be happy to work with you.

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