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Big Hairy Nuclear Energy Plan

Rezwan Razani - September 08, 2013

How much nuclear energy do we need to achieve a great quality of life for ten billion (10,000,000,000) people with zero (0) carbon footprint, in perpetuity (∞)?  In a flat out push, how soon could we get that energy online?  What steps do we need to take to make it happen?

Big Hairy Nuclear Power Brainstorm

Against nuclear power?  Don’t read on.  Instead, check out “The Debate Beat” in the sidebar at right for links to articles debating the pros and cons of nuclear power. 

You had me at ‘Fossil Fuels are Nuking Our Planet’.

Oh!  OK, then.  This post is for those who have decided that nuclear power is good. Those who are ready for action and want to put together a big hairy nuclear power plan.  Let’s brainstorm!

Establish The Goal

First we establish a Big, Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG). 

We’re not here to “increase nuclear power by a few percent per year”.  Nothing so tepid.  This is a flat out push to bring as much nuclear power online as possible today; and to keep improving nuclear technology for an ever more brilliant future. 

We’re here to nuke fossil fuels in the best sense of “nuking”.  We’re here to save MILLIONS of lives and to improve the quality of BILLIONS of lives.  We’re here to secure a safe, prosperous and sustainable future for everyone as quickly as possible.

We’re here to level up in the civilization game.  To join the Refined League. 

We’re here to be Epic.

Now, how can we squeeze all of that into one handy BHAG phrase?.  Your suggestions below!

Establish objectives:  What are the Numbers?

How much energy are we talking about?  How quickly can we get nuclear energy online to meet that demand?  How quickly can we phase in next generation nuclear power (it keeps getting better)? 

And what about fusion?  What’s the big hairy audacious goal there?

Here are our “back of the envelope” calculations.  You can also skip the math and go to Reality Check.

How Much Energy

At present, the world uses ~21 PetaWatt hours of energy each year.  That’s 21,325,115 GWh.  Converting the GWh - divide by 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year - gives us 2434 GWe (who makes up these units?) 

[Update:  Thanks Bob for pointing out this is just electricity use.  The total energy is closer to 17,000GWe!!!  7 times as much.  Does that seem right?  Only 1/7 of our energy use is electricity?  David MacKay infographic at right suggests that’s about right (estimated energy consumption per person per day in the UK).  Heating and transport are not electric.  That’s a lot of electrification that needs to happen for us to switch off of fossil fuels.  In any case, for the rest of this post, multiply by 7.]

Let’s translate these GWe’s into units we can visualize.  One GWe is a reasonable output for a large nuclear power plant.  One “Reactor” = 1GWe power plant. 

Thus, today’s energy supply could be met with 2434 Reactors.  Let’s round that up to 2500 Reactors. 

Nuclear supplies 6% of today’s global energy.  Let’s round that up to 150 Reactors. 

But Wait!  You say.  A lot of this energy needs to be liquid, for transportation.  You can’t replace oil that easily.  And why are you writing off renewables?  And who wants big centralized power plants? And what about conservation and smart grids?

Yes, of course.  Diversify Your Portfolio.  The world is better served by a diversified energy portfolio, with conservation and carbon offsets galore.  And big centralized power plants are not the ideal choice in every locale.  It’s a good thing nuclear power plants come in other sizes.  We are not recommending specific reactors here.  We are putting things in terms of 1GWe Reactors to get a broad sense of energy requirements. 

Break the Number Down:  2500 Reactors.  Does that seem like a lot?  Does it seem manageable?  Let’s break it down.

With 196 countries, that’s an average of 13 Reactors per country.  (Your country may vary.  China would need closer to 1000).

With a population of 7,000,000,000 that’s 2.8 Million people per Reactor.

Increasing Demand

“2.8 Million people per Reactor” masks great inequality.  Energy isn’t distributed equally around the world.  That brings up an important question.  Can we work with that number (2500 GWe), or will we need a bigger number? 

Reasons it should be bigger:
Most people in the world aren’t getting adequate energy as it is, and there are more people coming online.  We’ll need more energy to accommodate everyone.

Reasons it could be smaller:  energy efficiency is increasing so we get more bang per energy buck, and values are shifting so we require less energy intensive stuff to begin with.

What kind of a demand spread does that give us? 

As Hans Rosling elegantly demonstrates with LEGOs, today we have 7 billion people on the planet.  1 billion of them use half of all the world’s energy.  We’ll be hitting 10 billion people soon, then easing off. 

This gives us a range of energy options, based on two main variables, equality and efficiency:

If we want equal consumption for all 10 billion people at Western consumption rates, assuming no efficiency, we need 5x (five times) todays energy supply - 12,500 Reactors.

If we want equal consumption, but assume greater efficiency through technological advances, shifting values and conservation, we’ll need less total energy for the same quality of life.  That gives us a spread depending on the efficiency rate:

  • If we achieve 50% efficiency - then we’ll need 2.5 times today’s energy supply for everyone (6250 GWe).
  • If we achieve 80% efficiency, we’ll be at the same level as today’s consumption rates.
  • To reduce global consumption of energy but get (e)quality of life for all, we’ll need more than 80% efficiency.

Our spread assuming equal consumption is thus from 2500 GWe (80% efficiency) through 6250 GWe (50% efficiency) to 12,500 GWe (no efficiency). 


Those are huge numbers, and that’s a massive spread: An average of 13 to 65 new Reactors per country with each reactor serving from as many as 4Million to as few as 800,000 people.  We know that present day nuclear fission power scales faster than any other power supply known.  How quickly could it scale to those numbers? 

Reality Check!

You’re joking.  This is inconceivable. 

Not technologically. 

Not technologically!  You can’t just wave your hand and have 12,500 Reactors on the planet.  Nuclear power is expensive!  And even if you could supply all that energy - you’re just feeding a consumption monster.  Most importantly, everyone hates nukes!  The best you can hope for is to slip a few unobtrusively here and there in disenfranchised communities that can’t exercise their NIMBY powers.

The purpose of the Big Hairy Nuclear Energy Plan is to figure out just how much hand waving, money, resources and legislation is required to bring the desired nuclear power online.  Those other two points, however, need to be addressed separately.  Let’s take them in turn.

Consumption Conundrum

Adding nuclear power won’t get people off fossil fuels.  It won’t get them to consume less. If we suggest that it’s possible to meet global energy needs with any type of energy, it will invite waste.  “If you build the capacity, they will use it.”  So says Ozzie Zehner.  So says the Breakthrough Institute.  So says my friend:

Take my uncle.  He had 5 credit cards, all maxed out.  He was overwhelmed to be paying five bills with high interest rates every months.  So I took the initiative to help him consolidate those debts with one low interest loan.  Now he had a zero balance on his five credit cards and only one bill to pay every month, with a lower interest rate.  A sensible financial move.  He could look forward to getting out of debt much sooner with a lower overall cost. 

Guess what happened. 

We didn’t cut up his credit cards.  Five cards with zero balance.  He went right out and maxed them out again. 

He was then angry at ME.  Because now he had the same problem as before, paying five high interest credit card bills every month.  PLUS, he had that one low interest consolidation loan to pay off.

People have self control issues.  As noted in “Story of Stuff”, our economy is built on endless consumption with diminishing returns in terms of happiness.  This isn’t an energy problem, this is a values problem.  As such, it’s outside the scope of our Big Hairy Nuclear Power Plan.  We will, however, keep an eye on trends in this area. 

It is unlikely that pursuit of a Big Hairy Nuclear Power goal will worsen the consumption problem.  As noted, nuclear power is not “too cheap to meter.”  There is a cost to nuclear energy, as there is to any energy, which acts as a curb against overconsumption.  [Note: nuclear isn’t much more expensive than natural gas today, and in the long run, it is a safer financial bet.

A Big Hairy Nuclear Energy Plan will aim to make energy supply more reliable and stable; to stabilize the costs of energy and create equal access to energy around the globe; to level the energy playing field for global economies, so to speak. 

How people play on that field is up to them - and to emerging social and economic institutions that people create. 

Ideally, global consumption rates would stabilize at the lower end of the spread (2500 GWe).  Technologically, this is possible, given the creativity being poured into efficiency and grids.  Socially, it is also possible, given the shifting values we are witnessing in things like the emergence of Benefit Corporations, “Conscious Capitalism”, Crowdfunding and the rise of the artist and ephemeral experience economy.  Social innovation is moving in leaps and bounds, creating a dazzling new - low consumption, high quality of life - world.   

Everyone Hates Nukes

Sure, dodge the consumption issue.  That’s not your biggest problem.  Your problem is that people hate nukes!  Can’t you hear that debate raging in the sidebar?  It’ll never happen.  You’ll never get a green light.

Alas, yes.  Political barriers and the lack of public appreciation.  We’re not going to worry about those barriers in this post.  This is a space to brainstorm.  A space to envision a Big Hairy Plan. 

But if it’s not politically feasible, why bother fantasizing? 

Things happen.  The day will come when people finally get that fossil fuels are nuking us, nukes are paradoxically safe, and we can live in an awesome world. 

And when that day comes, you’ll be glad you were ready with a bold, inspiring plan that was developed in an open forum. 

As Naomi Klein noted in “The Shock Doctrine,” other people are counting on impossible days to come.  They are preparing for action.  So should we be.

One of Milton Friedman’s most influential acts was to articulate contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum. “That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

3 mile island is an example of this phenomenon.  People are superstitious about radiation.  A minor nuclear incident was quickly leveraged to frighten people into derailing the nuclear program.  Looking back on it, we see that the radiation spill at its worst was on par with background radiation.  The danger was overstated.  In contrast, with fossil fuels, you get massive sinkholes that swallow up your town.  And yet, folks don’t freak out about fossil fuels.  It’s all out of proportion.

Other Renewables:  This same exercise can apply to other renewable sources.  Show us your numbers and your big hairy plan.  In a flat out push, what would it take for solar to replace fossil fuels worldwide and supply energy for 10 billion people?  Is it feasible?  And what is the footprint?  Wind, likewise.  What are the numbers?  I invite renewables to showcase your plans and footprints at the Energy Cinderella Ball

What’s your plan? Think BIG!

Back to The Numbers, and Metrics

2500GWe to 12,500 GWe. 

Those numbers aren’t just big for nuclear power, they’re big for any energy source. 

Given the eternal energy debate (still in progress in the sidebar) - the plan needs to have a comparison component. 

Start with the 2500 GWe number.  Now translate that into easily visualized NIMBY units.  How many “back yards” will be required for 2500 Reactors?  What’s the water footprint?  How many cancers will ensue?  What level of investment is required? 

Now compare:  How many solar panels will we need to do the same job?  What is the resource cost for solar energy to supply the equivalent of 2500 Reactors?  Where will we put the panels and arrays?  Show us on Google Maps. 

Compare to coal.  What are we saving?  How many mountains will we have to blow up if we use coal in lieu of the 2500 nuclear Reactors? 

What is the footprint for each of these approaches? How does the footprint and roll out compare to the footprints of other energy sources for the same amount of energy?  Showcase your answers at the Energy Cinderella Ball

Aren’t there already big nuclear plans?

There are several key plans in circulation that can help as a springboard for the big hairy plan.  These plans are thorough, detailed and powerful.  Yet they aren’t as big and hairy as we would like them to be. They strive to be “realistic.”

We take “being realistic” as a starting point, given that we live in a world where the reality is that 3 million premature deaths from air pollution is an acceptable cost of doing business. 

The plans: 

Nuclear Fission:
Next Gen Nukes:  How to Make Nuclear Cheap.  A must read!  Note, this plan includes nuclear fusion in the mix. 

The report from the Blue Ribbon Commission for America’s Nuclear Future.(pdf)

Fusion Plan:  There is a plan circulating to fund a broad array of fusion research.  Link pending. 

Please tell us about any other plans you know of so that we can list the links here. 


Your thoughts below.  Thanks!


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