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The Renewable Proliferation Treaty

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), originally promulgated in 1968 and entering into force in 1970, has three key provisions: that nuclear weapon-free signatory states refrain from developing nuclear weapons; that signatory states with nuclear weapons work to disarm; and that signatory states remain free to develop nuclear energy technologies. The treaty has worked reasonably well in preventing weapons proliferation (the current post-treaty nuclear states either did not sign the NNPT or dropped out of it prior to testing), but may face an unexpected threat from climate change. One change to the treaty, however, could help on both the proliferation and climate fronts -- and serve as a perfect example of an economy of scope.

Arguably, the covert (if as-yet unsuccessful) proliferation programs in a small number of countries suggests that the provision of the NNPT allowing for nuclear energy technology conflicts with the provision prohibiting nuclear weapons development. The unfortunate fact is that some of the technologies enabling ongoing nuclear power generation also enable nuclear weapons development; as the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said in October of 2007, enrichment and reprocessing technologies "could be the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear non-proliferation regime." The relative success of the NNPT has relied upon the relatively limited development and operation of nuclear power plants outside of the industrialized world. But that's changing.

Half of the nuclear plants now under construction can be found in the developing world. As the risks from global warming highlight the problems with fossil-fuel power -- especially coal -- we're seeing a growing number of calls for greater reliance on nuclear energy as a non-greenhouse gas alternative. The need to avoid carbon-intensive generation will only serve to accelerate global nuclear power deployment.

But the choice isn't just between greenhouse-gas-producing coal plants and proliferation-enabling nuclear plants. Imagine if there were an amendment to the NNPT offering support for the development and deployment of renewable energy technologies to nations that refrain from both nuclear weapons development and nuclear energy development. Support could come in the form of financial assistance, technology transfers, even outright grants, all intended to accelerate the deployment of renewable power in place of both fossil fuel and nuclear energy.

Support could be contingent upon shutting down coal plants, and the details would be specific to the signatory nation's geography. Aside from providing clean energy, this could also serve as a catalyst for the economic development of participating nations, helping them join the "green economy."

People who dismiss this idea based on the argument that renewable power can't match the scale of coal and nuclear haven't been paying attention. Renewable power efforts such as the 500-850MW solar Stirling farm and the 1,500MW wind farm projects now underway in Southern California offer generation levels comparable to larger nuclear power plants. Moreover, what's important is meeting power demands, not keeping all power generation in one building: a hundred 10MW generators offer the same power as a single 1,000MW power plant, and with greater resilience.

Renewables offer a few key advantages over nuclear that may be of particular value to developing nations:

  • No operational waste to dispose of, either with an expensive local facility or by paying to have it shipped off;
  • No conflicts between water needed for cooling vs. water needed for agriculture, likely to be the biggest inhibitor to nuclear power deployment in the coming decades;
  • Location flexibility, with the systems either deployable in a single large site or distributed across a variety of appropriate locations, and with far less local resistance than with nuclear;
  • Fewer insurance risks;
  • Most importantly, far greater flexibility for incremental changes.

    This last one is worth elaborating upon. Solar (photovoltaic and Stirling), wind, and (to a lesser extent) hydrokinetic power rely upon a multitude of small units generating power, while present-day nuclear technologies rely upon small numbers of big reactors. If demands increase, additional renewable power units can be added onto the grid with relative ease. Both new units and existing systems can readily adopt (or retrofit) the latest technology refinements, and broken units (from accident or sabotage) can be taken offline without bringing down hundreds of megawatts of generation.

    Intermittency (energy only being produced when the sun is out or the wind blows) is less of an issue than critics sometimes contend, and can be dealt with through distribution (taking advantage of micro-climates), diversity (not just relying on a single renewable source), and over-production & storage (so that the systems can work at peak capacity even when demand is low).

    With one step, we could reduce the potential threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, reduce carbon footprints arising from power generation, and help developing world economies leapfrog into 21st century markets. When I talk about "economies of scope," where multiple, unrelated problems are handled by a single solution, this is precisely what I mean.

    How likely is this idea? It's not on anyone's agenda -- I haven't heard anybody else talking about the notion. But for a new president looking for ways to deal with big global problems efficiently... let's just say my email address isn't hard to find.

  • Comments

    I think you've gone straight to the heart of the debate with this remark: "Intermittency (energy only being produced when the sun is out or the wind blows) is less of an issue than critics sometimes contend, and can be dealt with through distribution (taking advantage of micro-climates), diversity (not just relying on a single renewable source), and over-production & storage (so that the systems can work at peak capacity even when demand is low)."

    If this is really true it will change the entire debate. That's assuming that the environmental costs of implementation are reasonably low. Can you refer us to a source for this conclusion?

    I don't see storage as ever being a major part of the solution. Please take a look at this page and tell me where it's wrong.

    TypeKey isn't accepting the link on your page.


    Hi Red

    I'll add these references to the original post, but here are some good sources:

  • Wikipedia's entry on intermittency actually has a decent summary of the different strategies for dealing with it, including distribution and diversity.
  • Work at Oxford puts some numbers on the diversity argument. Here's a summary piece I did for Worldchanging a couple of years ago, and a article by Oxford's Sinden that goes into detail.
  • As for storage, I won't argue your numbers, but I do think it's important to avoid the fallacy of total replacement by a single technology, and to recognize that there would also be some diversity in storage methods, too, from plug-in hybrids & electrics (night-time charging will be a major sink for overnight wind) to molten salt.
  • IEEE Spectrum addressed many of the intermittency arguments about wind back in 2006, and much of the response would apply to solar, too.
  • Who knows, maybe someone will get Vanadium Redox batteries working well, too.

    Sorry about the TypeKey thing, I've had repeated problems with it.

    You got me all excited, Jamais, but it turned out to be the same old same old. All these gimmicks are the same song played over and over. "Gee, if I could just get some grant money I know this could solve all our energy problems." The IEEE opinion piece is no different. "Boy, wouldn't it be great if. . . ." Your article "The Renewable Mix" says the answer to intermittancy is gas-fired backup systems. The Sinden paper offers the same solution: burning more natural gas.

    It's way past the time when we can wait for silver bullets, and natural gas is no solution because of its short supply and because it emits carbon dioxide. Waiting for silver bullets instead of building nuclear power plants is what got us in the jam in the first place.

    All the articles point hopefully to maybe 20% penetration by wind energy. No one guesses what photovoltaics' penetration could be. No one has anything hopeful to say about energy storage, other than "Boy, wouldn't it be great if. . . ." Let's be generous; suppose all the renewables could add as much as 50% of our energy supply, hoping the magic of diversification could raise the level that high. Where is the other 50% going to come from?

    Sorry to have disappointed you, Red, but I'm just not as ready to rule out improvements in storage as you seem to be. This is in part because the transition to more renewable energy won't happen overnight, meaning that we'll have traditional base load while spinning up the various storage options (molten salt looks like a potential winner). It's also because the variety of storage mechanisms, including (in particular) vehicular storage in plug-in designs, means that we're not depending upon any one particular critical breakthrough.

    The other element here, not mentioned before because I didn't realize you were arguing for nuclear power as base load, is the *non*-intermittent renewable energy of wave/current power. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, "The U.S. wave and tidal energy resource potential that could be credibly harnessed is about 400 TWh/yr, or about 10% of 2004 national energy demand." "Credibly," in this case, assumes present-day conversion efficiencies.

    Add to that the accumulating impact of use efficiency -- again, no single silver bullet, but an arsenal of responses -- and I'm quite confident that a primarily-renewable energy mix could support our power needs quite readily.

    In short, the technical problems aren't the problem -- it's behavioral and policy choices that are likely to be the biggest roadblock.

    This is a pretty good conversation. Thanks for the good leads.

    We've been hearing promises of tidal and wave energy for decades. They've been getting R&D money; the problem seems to be operating electromechanical equipment in a corrosive environment. If they ever become practical, they still will be intermittent, because tides quit flowing four times a day and wave action is highly variable. 10% is chump change; as fossil-fuel applications are shifted to electricity the demand for electricity is going to be much higher.

    Actually, I argue for nuclear energy to back up renewables. Instead of just imagining that some magical storage method will appear, pencil out what its dimensions would have to be. Without backup, renewables are just wishful thinking. If people can't get the energy they need from renewables and nuclear they'll take it from fossil fuel.

    John Robb is looking at "resilience" as an organizing concept.

    Alex Wilson at Environmental Building News calls it "passive survivability" and will be talking in March at NESEA's Building Energy conference in Boston.

    You might want to add these ideas to your portfolio as well.

    Of course, I start small and say
    Solar IS Civil Defense.


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