Comment 5693

By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted March 01, 2007 at 10:01:21

Hi Guyincognito:

Thanks for your detailed response. I did read your whole post. I was responding to your assertion that we can afford to wait, even though we're better off not waiting.

I've responded to your points in turn.

  1. Thorium reactor designs have to get around thorium's essential subcriticality (it's not radioactive enough to keep the reaction going), using either a mix of plutonium and uranium or some other method of bombarding it with neutrons. In other words, thorium is a lot more abundant but it's also a lot more difficult to get a net energy return out of it or to scale up to mass production (which is why it was abandoned in favour of uranium in the first place).

Today, 439 nuclear reactors operate worldwide. To replace them with thorium-based reactors would take decades and cost brain-hurting sums of money; and again, this ignores the fact that the fossil fuels necessary to manufacture the reactors, extract, refine, and transport the fuel, etc. will be increasingly scarce and expensive.

  1. Don't forget that nearly all agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels. Right now, growing biofuels via conventional farming produces a net energy return at or below zero, which means amounts to a net energy loss. (Under ideal test conditions, one scientist can produce a net return of 1.3 units of energy for each unit invested. Even if this were practical, compare it to the 30:1 net energy return for Middle Eastern petroleum).

Growing biofuels/bio-plastics on a large scale is basically out of the question, even if we had enough spare farmland to grow both food and biofuels, which we don't.

There's no way renewable energy - wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, etc. - can produce electricity as plentifully or reliably as today's coal-, oil-, and nuclear-powered plants, let alone produce that much plus the additional power required to grow biofuels and produce bio-plastics.

  1. See my responses to #1 and #3.

For a more comprehensive review of the situation, I highly recommend that you read the February 2005 report that Robert Hirsch et al. prepared for the US Department of Defense, titled "Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management".

The report argues that the difference between planning ahead for, and reacting to, peak oil is the difference between a serious challenge and "a long period of significant economic hardship worldwide".

Here's an excerpt from the Executive Summary:

  • Waiting until world conventional oil production peaks before initiating crash program mitigation leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for two decades or longer.

  • Initiating a crash program 10 years before world oil peaking would help considerably but would still result in a worldwide liquid fuels shortfall, starting roughly a decade after the time that oil would have otherwise peaked.

  • Initiating crash program mitigation 20 years before peaking offers the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

Without timely mitigation, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), accompanied by huge oil price increases, both of which would create a long period of significant economic hardship worldwide.

It looks very much like we're already in peak oil today, which puts us squarely behind the eight-ball.

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