Optimism and pessimism in Norway

I’m in Bergen, Norway, at a conference, Nanomat 2007, run by the Norwegian Research Council. The opening pair of talks – from Wade Adams, of Rice University and Jürgen Altmann, from Bochum, presented an interesting contrast of nano-optimism and nano-pessimism. Here are my notes on the two talks, hopefully more or less reflecting what was said without too much editorial alteration.

The first talk was from Wade Adams, the director of Rice University’s Richard E. Smalley Institute, with the late Richard Smalley’s message “Nanotechnology and Energy: Be a scientist and save the world”. Adams gave the historical background to Smalley’s interest in energy, which began with a talk from a Texan oilman explaining how rapidly oil and gas were likely to run out. Thinking positively, if one has cheap, clean energy most of the problems of the world – lack of clean water, food supply, the environment, even poverty and war – are soluble. This was the motivation for Smalley’s focus on clean energy as the top priority for a technological solution. It’s interesting that climate change and greenhouse gases was not a primary motivation for him; on the other hand he was strongly influenced by Hubbert (see http://www.princeton.edu/hubbert) and his theory of peak oil. Of course, the peak oil theory is controversial (recent a article in Nature – That’s oil, folks, subscription needed – for an overview of the arguments), but whether oil production has already peaked, as the doomsters suggest, or the peak is postponed to 2030, it’s a problem we will face at sometime or other. On the pessimistic side, Adams cited another writer – Mat Simmons – who maintains that oil production in Saudi Arabia – usually considered the reserve of last resort – has already peaked.

Meanwhile on the demand side, we are looking at increasing pressure. Currently 2 billion people have no electricity, 2 billion people rely on biomass for heating and cooking, the world’s population is still increasing and large countries such as India and China are industrialising fast. One should also remember that oil has more valuable uses than simply to be burnt – it’s the vital feedstock for plastics and all kinds of other petrochemicals.

Summarising the figures, the world (in 2003) consumed energy at a rate of 14 terawatts, the majority in the form of oil. By 2050, we’ll need between 30 and 60 terawatts. This can only happen if there is a dramatic change – for example renewable energy stepping up to deliver serious (i.e. measured in terawatts) amounts of power. How can this happen?

The first place to look is probably efficiencies. In the United States, about 60% of energy is currently simply wasted, so simple measures such as using low energy light bulbs and having more fuel-efficient cars can take us a long way.

On the supply side, we need to be hard-headed about evaluating the claims of various technologies in the light of the quantities needed. Wind is probably good for a couple of terawatts at most, and capacity constraints limit the contribution nuclear can make. To get 10 terawatts of nuclear by 2050 we need roughly 10,000 new plants – that’s one built every two days for the next 40 years, which in view of the recent record of nuclear build seems implausible. The reactors would in any case need to be breeders to avoid the consequent uranium shortage. The current emphasis on the hydrogen economy is a red herring, as it is not a primary fuel.

The only remaining solution is solar power. 165,000 TW hits the earth in sunlight. The problem is that the sunlight doesn’t arrive in the right places. Smalley’s solution was a new energy grid system, in which energy is transmitted through wires rather than in tankers. To realise this you need better electrical conductors (either carbon nanotubes or superconductors), and electrical energy storage devices. Of course, Rice University is keen on the nanotube solution. The need is to synthesise large amounts of carbon nanotubes which are all of the same structure, the structure that has metallic properties rather than semiconducting ones. Rice had been awarded $16 million from NASA to develop the scale-up of their process for growing metallic nanotubes by seeded growth, but this grant was cancelled amidst the recent redirection of NASA’s priorities.

Ultimately, Adams was optimistic. In his view, technology will find a solution and it’s more important now to do the politics, get the infrastructure right, and above all to enthuse young people with a sense of mission to become scientists and save the world. His slides can be downloaded here (8.4 MB PDF file).

The second, much more pessimistic, talk was from Jürgen Altmann, a disarmament specialist from Ruhr-Universität Bochum. His title was “Nanotechnology and (International) Society: how to handle the new powerful technologies?” Altmann is a physicist by original training, and is the author of a book, Military nanotechnology: new technology and arms control.

Altmann outlined the ultimate goal of nanotechnology as the full control of the 3-d position of each atom – the role model is the living cell, but the goal goes much beyond this, going beyond systems optimised for aqueous environments to those that work in vacuum, high pressure, space etc., limited only by the laws of nature. Altmann alluded to the controversy surrounding Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology, but insisted that no peer-reviewed publication had succeeded in refuting it.

He mentioned the extrapolations of Moore’s law due to Kurzweil, with the prediction that we will have a computer with a human being’s processing power by 2035. He discussed new nanomaterials, such as ultra-strong carbon nanotubes making the space elevator conceivable, before turning to the Drexler vision of mechanosynthesis, leading to a universal molecular assembler, and discussing consequences like space colonies and brain downloading, before highlighting the contrasting utopian and dystopian visions of the outcome – one the one hand, infinitely long life, wealth without work and clean environment, on the other hand, the consumption of all organic life by proliferating nanorobots (grey goo).

He connected these visions to transhumanism – the idea that we could and should accelerate human evolution by design, and the perhaps better accepted notion of converging technologies – NanoBioInfoCogno – which has taken up somewhat different connotations either side of the Atlantic (Altmann was on the working group which produced the EU document on converging technologies). He foresaw the benefits arising on a 20 year timescale, notably direct broad-band interfaces between brain and machines.

What, then, of the risks? There is the much discussed issue of nanoparticle toxicity. How might nanotechnology affect developing countries – will the advertised benefits really arise? We have seen a mapping of nanotechnology benefits onto the Millennium Development Goals looked by the Meridian Institute. But this has been criticised, for example by N. Invernizzi, (Nanotechnology Law and Business Journal 2 101-11- (2005)). High productivity will mean less demand for labour, there might be a tendency to neglect non-technological solutions, there might be a lack of qualified personnel. He asked what will happen if India and China succeed with nano, will that simply increase internal rich-poor divisions within those countries? The overall conclusion is that socio-economic factors are just as important as technology.

With respect to military nanotechnology, there are many potential applications, including smaller and faster electronics and sensors, lighter and faster armour and armoured vehicles, miniature satellites, including offensive ones. Many robots will be developed, including nano-robots, including biotechnical hybrids – electrode controlled rats and insects. Medical nanobiotechnology will have military applications – capsules for controlled release of biological and chemical agents, mechanisms for targeting agents to specific organs, but also perhaps to specific gene patterns or proteins, allowing chemical or biological warfare to be targeted against specific populations.

Military R&D for nano is mostly done in the USA, where it accounts for 1/4 – 1/3 of federal funding. At the moment, the USA spends 4-10 times as much as the rest of the world, but perhaps we can shortly expect other countries with the necessary capacity, like China and Russia, to begin to catch up.

The problem of military nanotechnology from an arms control point of view is that limitation and verification is very difficult – much more difficult than the control of nuclear technology. Nano is cheap and widespread, much more like biotechnology, with many non-military uses. Small countries and non-state actors can use high technology. To control this will need very intrusive inspection and monitoring – anytime, anyplace. Is this compatible with military interest in secrecy and the fear of industrial espionage?

So, Altmann asks, Is the current international system up to this threat? Probably not, he concludes, so we have two alternatives: increasing military and terrorist threats and marked instability, or the organisation of global security in another way, involving some kind of democratic superstate, in which existing states voluntarily accept reduced sovereignty in return for greater security.

14 thoughts on “Optimism and pessimism in Norway”

  1. Altmann’s nanotechnology book is really good. You should read it. (It’s quite short and only takes an afternoon to read.) It mainly focuses on the risks of NT in general and only touches on MNT a little bit. Nice post btw.

  2. One of the issues which I/We [My voracious crew of knowledge seekers] see continuing is the incessant bickering going on between those who see this technology as the means to transform humanity into the Smarter/Faster/Eternal Beings long dreamt about, those who want to stay the course of progress lest we fall off the rails and do something catastrophic, and those who want to control the whole game. But, gloomy as that assessment is, at the end of the day, there remains a fourth group who simply do the Thinking, the Science, the Art, all the things that are needed to embrace this emerging field in a logical and creative way.

    I have written and relate my Three Rules of Assessment, often, and whenever there are those with eyes to read or ears to listen –

    1 – Look for what is there that shouldn’t be –

    2 – Look for what isn’t there that should be –

    3 – Leave your Ego/Agenda on a peg at the door before you walk through it.

    Rule 3 being the one most needed to be remembered, but too often forgot.

    Bias, as always, Declared

  3. It can certainly be disorienting to see so many drastically different visions of the future. I hang out on Peak Oil message boards where everyone expects a worldwide catastrophe within a few years, possibly killing off a large fraction of the human race as our international trading regime collapses due to lack of energy. At the same time I have many connections to transhumanists who expect nanotech, biotech and/or AI to elevate the human condition beyond our wildest dreams. Then there are the vast populations of mundanes who expect things to muddle along much as they are today, and worry about issues like the U.S. social security trust fund running out of money in 2030 or whatever – the kind of problem that both Peak Oilers and Extropians expect to be decidedly moot.

    On a more constructive note, I wonder how you see military applications of “soft machine” style nanotechnology? Is this something to worry about, or are Drexlerian nanobots the only real military threat?

  4. I haven’t read Altmann’s book, I’m ashamed to say, Michael, but I will try and rectify this. To be honest, I haven’t thought a great deal about military applications of “soft nanotechnology”; I think, as Altmann was pointing out, there clearly are potential military applications of bionano for chemical and biological weapons, both in offense and defense. I do think these are things to worry about, very much so, because of their potential availability to non-state actors.

  5. I have thought about the above issues, and have decided to be an Urgency Optimist!

    What I mean is that if problems really do come to a head, then humanity will come together to sort things out.

    For example, covering the Sahara with solar stations would easily solve any energy problems! Of course the problem is politics!

    Another idea is to develop rockets which to launch 1000 ton payloads rather than the 5 tons at the moment. In theory, utilising nuclear explosions, the cost of putting 1000 tons into outer space would be the same as 5 tons today. This should lead to the building of massive space solar systems! Yet again politics is of course the issue!

    My point is that there are a HUGE amount of solutions to our problems; are we as a species so stupid as to fail given the opportunities?


  6. Here is info on a cost analysis for recovering uranium from seawater. There is 3.5 to 4 billion tons of Uranium in the oceans.
    Uranium can also be recovered from flyash (the waste from coal usage).

    I am not sure why some would think that scaling up this experimentally proven capability is less solvable than scaling up nanotech for terawatts of solar power.

    Here is the link

    Here is the copy of the table.

    Table 2. Adsorbent production cost (production capacity = 10,000 tons/year)

    Item Cost (billion yen/year) Percent Comments

    Production equipment and amortization
    0.165 billion yen/yr
    3% of total costs
    1.8 billion yen equipment cost

    Precursor material cost
    4.137 billion yen/year
    84% of total costs
    600,000 yen per ton nonwoven,

    87,700 yen per ton for polymerization – reaction reagents

    Operation expense (includes personnel) 0.62
    13 personnel cost, repair cost
    Total 4.93 100 unit cost of adsorbent

    Unit cost of adsorbent 4.93 million yen/ton (4,100 yen/kg-U)

    the biggest cost would be the precursor material.

    Link to polyethylene production.

    You can divert less than 0.1% of the polyethylene for 10 years when you decide to scale up the seawater extraction. Then you can make a little over 1 of the 10,000/ton year processes each year. In ten years you have 100,000/ton year.

    The world capacity of polyethylene production increased up to 70 million tons per year, the polyethylene output in 2005 amounted to 65 million per year

    The 10,000ton/year proposed scaling up looks doable.

    the process can be further optimized too.

    the cost quote was 600,000 yen/ton unwoven + 87,700 yen per ton for polymerization

    So if you think the cost of polymerization will increase then you can scale that cost factor up from the time of the study. The unwoven material is unlikely to go up that much because if new polyethylene got very expensive you can always recycle the hundreds of millions of tons of it that we already have.

    the scaled up proposal was for 10,000 tons/year and it looks straight forward. Our chemical production and food irradiation production lines handle this quantity of material all the time. It was 40,000 tons of absorbant to make the 10,000 ton/year project. That amount of polyethylene is less than 0.1% of the world annual production.

    to make 70,000 tons/year of uranium would take 280,000 tons of absorbant. About 0.4% of the world annual production

    Nuclear power has added more energy than wind, solar and other sources even when no new reactors were being built

    MIT has work showing that current reactors can be up-powered by 50% with nanoparticles in the water and changing the fuel to donut shaped

    Applying the MIT work would add 390 billion kwh of electricity in the USA.

    Thorium reactors have been made in the past (1960,1970) and can and should be made in the future.

    china may build 300+ nuclear plants by 2050

    If you look at the list of nuclear plants in the USA and when they were completed

    12 nuclear plants were completed in 1974, 10 in 1973, 8 in 1972. There were years in the eighties with 8 completed.
    Before 1968 only small reactors were built. Only two had over 400MW, but most were less than 100MW. 1969, 1970, 1971 had 3-4 each year, then in 1972 the 8 reactors. So from a relative standing start the scale up was rapid to the peak of 12/year. We are in a better position now because US rebuilt a new nuclear plant and is switching on Browns Ferry 1 this year.

    The nuclear industry is a global industry. So the experience developed from the 30 nuclear plants that are being completed now globally by Westinghouse, Areva, GE and other global firms will mostly be transferrable to the US build up. Fly in some of the project managers and lead foreman etc…

    China is able to build additions and new cities to hold 35,000,000 each year. We can build more nuclear plants than the 12 per year high of 1974

    We can research to mass produce nuclear reactors. Currently we are building 2 coal plants every week worldwide. Building a nuclear plant should not be more difficult than a coal plant once we have the process scaled up. So four thousand 3 GW nuclear plants (higher power because of the MIT work) by 2050 is very doable. 120 per year for thirty years. Plus the 600 we would already have by 2020. China making 40 each year, India making 20 each, USA and Europe each making 20 each year. russia and other nations (Japan, S Korea) a total of 20.

  7. It looks like the info for the energy claims are from

    Energy and Transportation: Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century (2003)
    Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology

    The energy information administration indicates that there is already 835GW of installed hydroelectric power and that this will increase to 1150GW by 2030. (Not the 500GW installed and 700GW practical limit of the Chemical sciences report)


    On wikipedia they quote 725GW in 2003

    China is working on adding 155GW of hydro power by 2020

    china claims
    Total theoretical hydro potential is 689GW; total technically feasible potential 493GW; and economically feasible potential 395GW. So they probably plan to go from the 2020 270GW up to 395GW.

    For solar

    Remember the operating load factor. About 20%. Not just the efficiencies of the cells but that you are not getting power at night and less at different times of the day.

    Nanotubes for energy transmission are behind superconducting wire projects

    And increasing the efficiency of motors and generators

    Superconductors are making advances


  8. Hydro from glacial meltwater, like what powers Seattle and Vancouver and what is planned to power some of Eastern China, seems risky. I doubt utility actuaries have fully costed that these rivers will swell and then dry up within the lifetime of the dam.

    From the link: “The recovery cost was estimated to be 5-10 times of that from mining uranium”
    “As described above, although the adsorbent can be said to be at the under-development stage with the targeted improvement still pending, a tentative cost estimate was made by assuming that the adsorbent had reached the point of practical use”

    This is an argument to increase seawater Uranium extraction R+D in Russia and perhaps Japan, not to scale up nuclear. My attacks against nuclear are vitrolic because it seems like such a seductive option…
    Page 11 here, http://www.stormsmith.nl/report20050803/Chap_3.pdf
    suggests after a nuclear reactor is shut down, it must be maintained at an energy cost of 0.5% its construction cost (energy used, not $) for about five decades. Then another 50% of the initial construction energy expenditure must be used to remove highly radioactive waste (the radioactive cooling water being cheaply flushed to sea rather than properly stored). Dismantling the 600 000 tonne plant is 60%. Ignore the 50% energy cost refurbishing the plant in the middle of its 25-40yr operating life will consume. Then you are left with all this radioactive waste that consumes an unknown amount of energy annually (shouldn’t the nuclear actors be forced to pay for this sort of detailed analysis?); must be stored forever.

    All these energy costs are swept under the table (and into freshwater sources) by the nuclear lobbyists. I view every existing nuclear reactor as a science experiment that costed billions of dollars to construct and will only be partially completed when the reactor is decommissioned. Nuclear imposes less free rider costs than coal or oil, but even better would be something nonrenewable like geothermal. Needing wider drill holes to be viable, I wouldn’t suggest it as a long-term solution until the appropriate drilling R+D had been conducted…
    With Konarka and Nanosolar soon to manufacture panels light enough to mail, and Proton Exchange Membranes promising a zero-emissions storage medium; the biggest hurdles appear to arise out of politically motivated vested interests. The idea of massive GHG tarriffs returned to polluting nations for forcible investment in their own alternative energy R+D infrastructures, will be a part of Kyoto III, if Kyoto II lays out the Green Tag accounting framework.

  9. Have you taken the time to look at my links to reprocessing of nuclear materials?
    You can also look at what Wikipedia has on nuclear reprocessing.

    Have you looked at the components of what goes into nuclear “waste” and what is going on in detail with those components?

    There is a graph in the thread from this link. Read through the thread.

    We should argue for the re-use of the unburned fuel like they do in Japan and France and the UK.

    Why doesn’t the US ?
    1. They think it would be a few bucks cheaper to store it
    2. Jimmy Carter banned reprocessing under the ideology that we can show other countries that they should not reprocess which might increase the amount of nuclear weapons. Yet no other country has followed the ban and nuclear weapons get made independent of nuclear energy plants and reprocessing.

    You can talk about geothermal and solar but two new coal plants get built every week. 50% of the US electricity is from coal. 80% in China. Fuel cells will not be cost competitive until 2020+. Solar is also not cost competitive yet. Geothermal is not cost competitive yet. Yet 3 million + die each year from air pollution.

    Note: the seawater thing just shows that there is a highly likely solution that will be ready after we use existing sources of uranium for 50-500 years.

    How big are the Konarka and Nanosolar plants ? 400MW built over 4 years. Because of operating load (nighttime) they will generate the equivalent of a 100 to 150MW nuclear plant.

    300-500GW of power are being added every year. (you will need 2-3 times the solar wattage because of the load factor) Most of it will be coal power. What have you got before 2020 to help displace the coal ?

    The increased power per year from 1993 to 2005 of non-fossil fuel sources in the United States

    Wood (biomass): 96 thousand megawatt-hours/per year.
    Waste: – 259 thousand megawatt-hours/per year. Negative number.
    Geothermal: – 190 thousand megawatt-hours/per year. Negative number.
    Solar: (Usually everybody’s favorite): +8
    Wind (Another favorite): 1345 thousand megawatt-hours/per year.

    Overall, renewable energy in the United States has increased at a rate of 1,000 thousand megawatt-hours/per year. The nuclear energy figure is 16,203 thousand megawatt-hours per year for nuclear even without building a new plant. From increased operating efficiency.

    Recognize the scope of the problem. Recognize the state of the solutions that are you are suggesting. Make the tough choices.

  10. I agree with Brian on the principle that effective separation technology makes nuclear more attractive at both ends of the fuel cycle. As for the specific route suggested for extracting uranium from sea-water, I think the difficulty scaling it isn’t in the amount of polyethylene needed, but the equipment for functionalising it. A 2 MeV electron beam is a serious piece of high-voltage kit. At the other end of the cycle, in principle it would make everything very much more manageable if you could easily separate out reusable fuel, highly active waste and everything else, but it is fair to say that the reprocessing plant in the UK which reprocesses fuel from the UK and Japan has been, to say the least, not a commercial and environmental success. One interesting point is that nuclear waste contains quite a lot of platinum group metals, particularly non-radioactive rhodium, which would have substantial value if you could separate them. But we are still a long way from having the necessary separation technologies.

  11. Geothermal has similiar technical hurdles to Uranium from seawater with fewer free rider effects, that’s all I meant to point out (don’t know the first thing about drilling). Here is a prototype coal with sequestration: http://www.tickertech.com/cgi/?a=news&ticker=a&w=&story=200706200706120900PR_NEWS_USPR_____LATU047
    I wouldn’t trust the cost estimate but for places where poisoned aquifers aren’t a threat, it might work, if made cheaper someday.

    “Have you taken the time to look at my links to reprocessing of nuclear materials?”

    The radioactive waste I was referring to wasn’t spent fuel rods. I’m with you that reprocessing is better than not. I’m not afraid of one extra Western city getting nuked every few decades. I am afraid the sewers and aquifers of 60% of the world’s cities will force their evacuation; the refugees from Lagos (one city) alone could rival WWII levels. Page 11 on the book chapter I linked above says this waste is called CRUD (corroded residues and unidentified particles), attained after cleansing the reactor cooling system. CRUD works out to 1000m^3 of high-level waste that costs energy to store.
    Forget the CRUD: the reactor itself is radioactive and must be cut into pieces and stored. That is, after you have waited 50 years for the radioactive Co and Fe to decay a lot, you can begin to cut out and dismantle the steel, containing Ni and Nb, and the concrete itself, containing radioactive H, C, Ca and two isotopes of Eu (I don’t even know what element that is)…
    The disposal options being considered now are the cheap ones (I’m serious, the Nevada option is relatively cheap). They will get much more expensive. And post-MNT, post AI/AGI, post space replicators, humanity will still have to pay this annual energy debt to store these radioactive products (basically the whole reactor). Quite frankly, any “solution” that poisons aquifers, like nuclear and like the coal sequestion I linked, doesn’t seem like a solution at all.
    Over long time-scales nuclear reactors are energy negative, just like ethanol from corn using present technologies. All we are talking about is whether the breakeven point happens decades with existing nuclear reactors or in centuries with novel reactor technologies.

    “How big are the Konarka and Nanosolar plants ? 400MW built over 4 years. Because of operating load (nighttime) they will generate the equivalent of a 100 to 150MW nuclear plant. ”

    I think they can be scaled to provide TeraWatts of power. The used panels and printing presses can be thrown out or sent to the scrap yard, the used chemicals treating using standard industrial processes I assume. Whereas used nuclear reactors must be stored using energy intensive storage sites that don’t come cheap. The nuclear industry has never costed this. I will. I’ll hazard it costs 0.05% annually the reactor’s total energy output, to store its waste (even assuming reprocessing). I’ll assume this penalty last one million years. Does it matter what figures I plug in? A paper costing a few hundred thousand dollars could estimate this, but strangly the tens/hundreds of billion dollar nuclear industry has never penned this paper. There isn’t anywhere to store the waste and the long-term energy math is negative, is a pyramid scheme for the grand-kiddies to deal with.

  12. Reprocessing of nuclear fuel ‘s commercial and environmental success should be viewed in the context of the actual historical alternative. Reprocessing adds 10-20% onto the cost of nuclear power. Nuclear power reduced coal usage by 40%. Instead of 50% electricity from coal the world would be looking at 70% from coal.

    That would have increased the deaths from about 1,000,000 per year up to 1.4 million per year. Carbon would also be at higher concentrations.

    Saving 400,000 lives per year. Seems like 10-20 billion well spent.

    The nuclear waste has been sitting politely in cans for years and decades. We have the time to solve the separation tech. We should work on solar as well but as of this year, and next year and the year after it is not ready. The closest solar is the concentrated solar.

    It is also not fully ready for big time coal displacing prime time.

    None of the tech can take down coal and fossil fuels alone. But the more non-coal and non-fossil fuel energy we get (cost comes into the equation) then the more lives, health, environment and money we can save.

    The “seduction” is in actually saving a lot of lives. By vitriocally attacking nuclear (which is not perfect, but can get far better and is already far better than coal and oil) then the only actual way the 300-500GW gets added is with coal, oil and natural gas. It also takes longer to get to adding only clean power and displacing the old and in place killing energy sources.

    At least no one is trying to trot out the idea that the world will just not add any of that energy, when historically faced with those kinds of choices:
    Not use oil or kill millions in an war for oil.
    Constrain my economy or start a war and kill the other guys for resources
    Stop driving or let 1.2 million people die each year in road accidents
    Build only solar, wind, geothermal and limit my economy to those sources which give me about 1 to 2% now (add in hydro for another 16%) or use oil and coal and kill millions and build nuclear power and kill only when something has gone horribly wrong a few times over 5 decades.

  13. Ultimately energy demand is, barring a catastrophe, going to carry on increasing, and the attempt to meet this demand in a more sustainable way is going to have to involve a combination of technologies. I’m not a massive fan of nuclear and I think that capacity is a severe bottleneck – there’s simply not that much expertise in the world for building them any more (outside the French nuclear industry, of course, but even they are suffering cost overruns in their new reactor in Finland). The politics of nuclear continues to be queasy simply because of the huge expense that will be needed to clean up the mess of previous generations (this is not all sitting politely in cans, much of it is sprawling in the form of uncharacterised and inaccessible sludge in large ponds in places like Sellafield and Hanford). I accept that there is some unfairness in this, in that new generations of nuclear plants will produce considerably less waste than these earlier ones, but that’s reality. New designs such as the pebble bed are attractive but still need substantial development work. Various forms of carbon sequestration will become increasingly attractive and important. Why solar is interesting is simply because that’s the technology where the gap between what is possible in principle and what is achieved in practise is by far the largest. The problem here is largely a process problem of how to get away from existing batch processing methods, which are intrinsically difficult to scale, to very large area continuous processes capable of producing the stuff on the square kilometer scale. This of course is the promise of the polymer and hybrid technologies but of course many technical problems remain.

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