PYHÄJOKI, Finland – It’s a massive construction site with huge trucks constantly moving excavated soil and rock as Finnish company Fennovoima prepares the ground for the construction of a new nuclear power plant with a Russian-designed reactor in order to produce electricity in Finland.
The Hanhikivi 1 nuclear power plant on the peninsula will be built in Hanhikivenniemi, which is located 12 kilometres from Pyhäjoki. After we visited the centre of the sleepy town, we turn off highway 8 and drive on the four-kilometre Hanhikiventie isolated road to the site, which has changed significantly since New Europe visited the nuclear plant construction site in the spring of 2016 and the scale of the project is already visible. After a briefing at the new training center, we change into our safety gear and head to watch the excavation works.
Located in the municipality of Pyhäjoki, the Hanhikivi 1 nuclear power plant with a price tag of €6.7 billion is expected to help the Nordic country reduce electricity imports and provide power at a stable price for decades, according to Fennovoima. With record low winter temperatures and little sunlight, the location is a poster child for the need for reliable electricity.
Fennovoima signed a supply contract with RAOS Project Oy in 2013. The supply contract concerns a 1,200-megawatt AES-2006 type pressurised-water reactor. Russia’s Rosatom will own 34% of the plant. According to Fennovoima, Rosatom’s VVER 1200 is the most advanced upgrade of modern VVER units, with post-Fukushima improved safety systems.
The Russians have been building VVER reactors for years and Fennovoima counts on Rosatom’s expertise to deliver Hanhikivi 1 for a turn-key delivery, Fennovoima Project Director Minna Forsström told a briefing in Helsinki on October 10 before our flight to Oulu in Northern Finland, and drive to Pyhäjoki a day later.
Forsström shrugged off the latest US-EU sanctions against Russia, saying, “They do not affect Fennovoima”. “The legislation on the sanctions take into consideration the cooperation with US allies, but the EU companies are consulting what actions are taken in the EU and EU members have been active in their response and taking into consideration the effects. I would say that the EU members have not really followed to an extent the US path because for many years European countries cooperated with Russia in the energy field,” Forsström said. “But nowadays when there are a lot financing arrangements, this topic comes up. But in reality it does not affect the decision-making. That’s how we see it in the practice,” she added.
The Fennovoima Project Director noted estimated costs of the work done on site before the construction of the plant starts are €0.5 billion, with work being “very extensively done by Finnish companies”.
The construction of the nuclear power plant will begin after the construction licence has been granted, which Fennovoima is expecting to get in 2019. The test run for the power plant will begin in 2022. The NPP will begin producing electricity in 2024 and will have a planned operational lifetime of 60 years, she said.
The plant will operate in the Mankala model, which has enabled a large variety of different types and sizes of actors to invest in energy projects. Mankala companies, which are limited companies that produce energy for their shareholders at a cost price, produce over 40% of Finland’s electricity, Fennovoima President and CEO Toni Hemminki told a briefing in Helsinki on October 10.
The Hanhikivi 1 NPP is also in line with the European Union’s Energy Union objectives and will help Finland meets its climate goals by reducing CO2 emissions according to the Paris Climate Agreement, Hemminki said, responding to a question from New Europe.
In line with the Energy Union’s objectives, Fennovoima’s Hanhikivi 1 NPP would make a significant contribution to Finland’s energy security and the entire EU, he said. Currently, Finland imports almost 20% of its electricity from neighbouring countries. Fennovoima will also strengthen low-carbon power generation in the long run.
Hemminki reminded that, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement 2 °C target needs nuclear power to play a significant role in the low-carbon power mix. He noted that, according to the so-called 450 Scenario global nuclear generation, output would increase from today’s 2535 TWh to 6101 TWh by 2040. In the 450 Scenario, low-carbon energy sources dominate the generation mix. Hydro generates 20%, nuclear 18%, wind 18% and solar PV 9%. Fossil fuel generation declines sharply with gas supplying 16%, coal 9% and oil 1%. A range of other low-carbon sources supplies the remaining 9%. “So I strongly believe that nuclear is part of the climate solution. Not saying that we are the sole solution but part of the solution,” Hemminki argued, noting, “We need investments in all forms of low-carbon power generation to meet our climate goals”.
BETZIGAU, Germany — Katharina Zinnecker’s farm in the foothills of the German Alps has been in the family since 1699. But to squeeze a living from it today, she and her husband need to do more than sell the milk from their herd of cows.
So they carpeted the roofs of their farm buildings with solar panels. And thanks to hefty government guarantees, what they earn from selling electricity is “safe money, not like cows,” Ms. Zinnecker said. “Milk prices go up and down.”
The farm has been a beneficiary of “Energiewende,” the German word for energy transition. Over the past two decades, Germany has focused its political will and treasure on a world-leading effort to wean its powerful economy off the traditional energy sources blamed for climate change.
The benefits of the program have not been universally felt, however. A de facto class system has emerged, saddling a group of have-nots with higher electricity bills that help subsidize the installation of solar panels and wind turbines elsewhere.
Germany has spent an estimated 189 billion euros, or about $222 billion, since 2000 on renewable energy subsidies. But emissions have been stuck at roughly 2009 levels, and rose last year, as coal-fired plants fill a void left by Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power. That has raised questions — and anger — over a program meant to make the country’s power sector greener.
This lack of progress is an “illustration of the partial failure of the energy transition,” said Artur Lenkowski, an energy analyst at IHS Markit, a research firm. “The whole point of the energy transition was to lower greenhouse gas emissions.”
Now, Energiewende is at a crossroads. Chancellor Angela Merkel may have won a fourth term as Germany’s leader after elections last month, but her party lost sway. She must form a coalition with the left-leaning Greens and the pro-business Free Liberals, parties that have diametrically opposing views, including on environmental policies.
How such a diverse group comes together will affect whether Germany reaches its goal for carbon emissions. It wants a cut of 40 percent, compared to 1990 levels, by 2020, and of 95 percent by 2050.
The clean energy movement has deep roots in Germany.
Alternative sources of electric power are flourishing in the Allgäu, a region of rolling pastures, pine forests and domed churches that is home to Ms. Zinnecker’s family-owned farm.
In Wildpoldsried, a village of 2,600 a short drive from the farm, around €40 million has been invested over the years — much of it by residents — into an array of renewable power sources and improvements in energy efficiency. The brightly painted, wood-trimmed houses are heated cheaply by generators fueled by methane gas from cow manure, and wind turbines nearly 500 feet tall provide electricity from the hillsides.
Günter Mögele, Wildpoldsried’s deputy mayor and energy coordinator, said that the village’s decision in the late 1990s to focus on renewable energy had paid off.
Overall, the village generates about seven times as much energy as it consumes, and the surplus is sold to the grid. The income from solar panels on public buildings is fed back into the public purse. It is often doled out to subsidize residents’ shifts to green power, and to reduce fees for the local music club and sports facility.
But renewable energy subsidies are financed through electric bills, meaning that Energiewende is a big part of the reason prices for consumers have doubled since 2000.
These big increases “are absolutely not O.K.,” said Thomas Engelke, team leader for construction and energy at the Federation of German Consumer Organizations, an umbrella organization of consumer groups.
The higher prices have had political consequences.
The far-right party Alternative for Germany, which won enough support in the recent elections to enter Parliament, has called for an “immediate exit” from Energiewende. The party, known by its German initials AfD, sees the program as a “burden” on German households, and many supporters have come into its fold in part because of the program’s mounting costs.
Julian Hermneuwöhner is one such voter. Mr. Hermneuwöhner, a 27-year-old computer science student, said his family paid an additional €800 a year because of Energiewende.
“But it hasn’t brought lower CO2 emissions,” he said. “It’s frustrating that we’re paying so much more, because the country hasn’t gotten anything for it.”
As a clean energy pioneer, Germany has not always seen the results it desired from its heavy spending.
For instance, the country has focused on cleaning up electric power generation, with some success. About one-third of German electricity now comes from renewable sources, a fivefold increase since 2000. In the United States, that figure was about 15 percent last year. Britain generates about a quarter of its power from renewables, and France about 19 percent.
But that progress has been undone somewhat by the government’s decision to accelerate its phase out of nuclear power after the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, Japan. That has made the country more reliant on its sizable fleet of coal-fired power stations, which account for the bulk of emissions from electricity generation.
The country has yet to address the transport industry, where emissions have increased as the economy boomed and more cars and trucks hit the road. Unlike Britain and France, Germany has not set a date to end the sale of diesel and gasoline cars.
Recent political experience does not bode well for Germany. The so-called grand coalition between Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, which governed from 2013 until the recent elections, was bogged down with so many competing interests that it was unable to push ahead on energy policy.
Advocates of Energiewende charge that Germany is in danger of falling behind rivals like China and the United States in the potentially vast, and fast-growing, business of developing and exporting clean-energy technologies. And without new direction, they say, the country will most likely fail to meet its carbon emissions targets.
How the government comes to terms with these problems will be crucial for the sector and for consumers.
Germany has already moved to bring subsidies under control. In particular, it has driven down costs by introducing an auction system for new renewables projects — though it is still on the hook for subsidy payments for the 20-year life of existing projects.
A bigger issue may be that Germany has already taken some of the easier steps in its energy transition by making industry more energy efficient and building up renewables.
Further progress will require taking on tougher targets. That would mean challenging the politically powerful auto and coal industries, including unions and companies, that have opposed plant shutdowns.
“Some of the low-hanging fruit might be gone now,” said Tim Boersma, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “It is becoming clear how challenging making this overall transition is.”
Correction: October 10, 2017 A picture caption on Saturday with an article about challenges facing Germany’s clean energy industry misspelled the surname of a farmer in Betzigau, Germany, who, with his wife, has installed solar panels on his property. He is Norbert Bechteler, not Bechtelier.
Rainer Weiss, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, both of the California Institute of Technology, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for the discovery of ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago but had never been directly seen.
In announcing the award, the Royal Swedish Academy called it “a discovery that shook the world.”
That shaking happened in February 2016, when an international collaboration of physicists and astronomers announced that they had recorded gravitational waves emanating from the collision of a pair of massive black holes a billion light years away, it mesmerized the world. The work validated Einstein’s longstanding prediction that space-time can shake like a bowlful of jelly when massive objects swing their weight around, and it has put astronomers on intimate terms with the deepest levels of physical reality, of a void booming and rocking with invisible cataclysms.
Why Did They Win?
Dr. Weiss, 85, Dr. Thorne, 77, and Dr. Barish, 81, were the architects and leaders of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, the instrument that detected the gravitational waves, and of a sister organization, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, of more than a thousand scientists who analyzed the data.
Dr. Weiss will receive half of the prize of 9 million Swedish Krona, or more than $1.1 million, and Dr. Thorne and Dr. Barish will split the other half.
Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, pronounced in 1916, suggested that matter and energy would warp the geometry of space-time the way a heavy sleeper sags a mattress, producing the effect we call gravity. His equations described a universe in which space and time were dynamic. Space-time could stretch and expand, tear and collapse into black holes — objects so dense that not even light could escape them. The equations predicted, somewhat to his displeasure, that the universe was expanding from what we now call the Big Bang, and it also predicted that the motions of massive objects like black holes or other dense remnants of dead stars would ripple space-time with gravitational waves.
These waves would stretch and compress space in orthogonal directions as they went by, the same way that sound waves compress air. They had never been directly seen when Dr. Weiss and, independently, Ron Drever, then at the University of Glasgow, following work by others, suggested detecting the waves by using lasers to monitor the distance between a pair of mirrors. In 1975, Dr. Weiss and Dr. Thorne, then a well-known gravitational theorist, stayed up all night in a hotel room brainstorming gravitational wave experiments during a meeting in Washington.
Dr. Thorne went home and hired Dr. Drever to help develop and build a laser-based gravitational-wave detector at Caltech. Meanwhile, Dr. Weiss was doing the same thing at M.I.T.
The technological odds were against both of them. The researchers calculated that a typical gravitational wave from out in space would change the distance between the mirrors by an almost imperceptible amount: one part in a billion trillion, less than the diameter of a proton. Dr. Weiss recalled that when he explained the experiment to his potential funders at the National Science Foundation, “everybody thought we were out of our minds.”
The foundation, which would wind up spending $1 billion over the next 40 years on the project, ordered the two groups to merge, with a troika of two experimentalists, Drs. Weiss and Drever, and one theorist Dr. Thorne, running things. The plan that emerged was to build a pair of L-shaped antennas, one in Hanford, Wash., and the other in Livingston, La., with laser light bouncing along 2.5-mile-long arms in the world’s biggest vacuum tunnels to monitor the shape of space.
In 1987, the original three-headed leadership of Drs. Weiss, Drever and Thorne was abandoned for a single director, Rochus Vogt of Caltech. Dr. Drever was subsequently forced out of the detector project. But LIGO still foundered until Dr. Barish, a Caltech professor with a superb pedigree in managing Big Science projects, joined in 1994 and then became director. He reorganized the project so that it would be built in successively more sensitive phases, and he created a worldwide LIGO Scientific Collaboration of astronomers and physicists to study and analyze the data. “The trickiest part is that we had no idea how to do what we do today,” he commented in an interview, giving special credit to the development of an active system to isolate the laser beams and mirrors from seismic and other outside disturbances.
“Without him there would have been no discovery,” said Sheldon Glashow, a Nobel Prize-winning theorist now at Boston University.
The most advanced version of LIGO had just started up in September 2015 when the vibrations from a pair of colliding black holes slammed the detectors in Louisiana and Washington with a rising tone, or “chirp,” for a fifth of a second.
It was also the opening bell for a whole new brand of astronomy. Since then LIGO (recently in conjunction with a new European detector, Virgo) has detected at least four more black hole collisions, opening a window on a new, unsuspected class of black holes, and rumors persist of even more exciting events in the sky.
“Many of us really expect to learn about things we didn’t know about,” Dr. Weiss said this morning.
Who Are the Winners?
Dr. Weiss was born in Berlin in 1932 and came to New York by way of Czechoslovakia in 1939. As a high school student, he became an expert in building high-quality sound systems and entered M.I.T. intending to major in electrical engineering. He inadvertently dropped out when he went to Illinois to pursue a failing romance. After coming back, he went to work in a physics lab and wound up with a Ph.D. from M.I.T.
Dr. Thorne was born and raised in Logan, Utah, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Caltech and then a Ph.D. from Princeton under the tutelage of John Archibald Wheeler, an evangelist for Einstein’s theory who popularized the term black holes, and who initiated Dr. Thorne into their mysteries. “He blew my mind,” Dr. Thorne later said. Dr. Thorne’s enthusiasm for black holes is not confined to the scientific journals. Now an emeritus professor at Caltech, he was one of the creators and executive producers of the 2014 movie “Interstellar,” about astronauts who go through a wormhole and encounter a giant black hole in a search for a new home for humanity.
Dr. Barish was born in Omaha, Neb., was raised in Los Angeles and studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley, getting a doctorate there before joining Caltech. One of the mandarins of Big Science, he had led a team that designed a $1 billion detector for the giant Superconducting Supercollider, which would have been the world’s biggest particle machine had it not been canceled by Congress in 1993, before being asked to take over LIGO.
Subsequently, Dr. Barish led the international effort to design the International Linear Collider, which could be the next big particle accelerator in the world, if it ever gets built.
Reached by telephone by the Nobel committee, Dr. Weiss said that he considered the award as recognition for the work of about a thousand people over “I hate to say it — 40 years.”
He added that when the first chirp came on Sept. 14, 2015, “many of us didn’t believe it,” thinking it might be a test signal that had been inserted into the data. It took them two months to convince themselves it was real.
In an interview from his home, Dr. Thorne said that as the resident theorist and evangelist on the project he felt a little embarrassed to get the prize. “It should go to all the people who built the detector or to the members of the LIGO-Virgo Collaboration who pulled off the end game,” he said.
“An enormous amount of rich science is coming out of this,” he added. “For me, an amazing thing is that this has worked out just as I expected when we were starting out back in the 80s. It blows me away that it all come out as I expected.”
Dr. Barish said he had awoken at 2:41 am in California and when the phone didn’t ring he figured he hadn’t won. Then it rang. “It’s a combination of being thrilled and humbled at the same time, mixed emotions,” he said. “This is a team sport, it gets kind of subjective when you have to pick out individuals.” LIGO, he said, is very deserving. “We happen to be the individuals chosen by whatever mechanism.”
For the National Science Foundation, the Nobel was a welcome victory lap for an investment of 40 years and about $1 billion. In a news release, France Córdova, the foundation’s director, said: “Gravitational waves contain information about their explosive origins and the nature of gravity that cannot be obtained from other astronomical signals. These observations have created the new field of gravitational wave astronomy.”
The prize was greeted with praise around the world. “Well done Sweden,” said Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, addding about the result, “It took a village and 100 years to do this.”
The awarding of a Nobel to Drs. Weiss and Thorne completes a kind of scientific Grand Slam. In the last two years, along with Dr. Drever, they have shared a cavalcade of prestigious and lucrative prizes including the Kavli Prize for Astrophysics, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, the Shaw Prize in Astronomy and a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Dr. Drever died last March, and the Nobel is not awarded posthumously nor can more than three people share the prize.
Who Else Has Won a Nobel This Year?
Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday for discoveries about the molecular mechanisms controlling the body’s circadian rhythm.
Who Won the 2016 Physics Nobel?
David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz were recognized for research into the bizarre properties of matter in extreme states, including superconductors, superfluids and thin magnetic fields.
When Will the Other Nobels be Announced?
Four more will be awarded in the days to come:
■ The Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be announced on Wednesday in Sweden. Read about last year’s winners, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa.
■ The Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced on Thursday in Sweden. Read about last year’s winner, Bob Dylan.
■ The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Norway. Read about last year’s winner, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.
■ The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science will be announced on Monday, Oct. 9, in Sweden. Read about last year’s winners, Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom.
The nuclear energy industry has had a bad couple of weeks.
On July 31, utilities in South Carolina announced that they are stopping work on two new reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station, saying cost estimates came to more than $20 billion, almost twice what was expected. About $9 billion has already been spent announced costs had swelled from $14 billion to more than $25 billionon the project since 2008.
Then, two days later, developers of another nuclear project in the South — the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia — and predicted completion will be delayed an additional 18 months.
The two announcements come at a particularly bad time for the industry. No nuclear power planthas been built in the United States for 30 years, the nation’s fleet of 99 reactors is getting older and 10 existing plants have announced plans to shut down in the coming years, including Diablo Canyon, the last remaining nuclear plant in California.
And in March, Westinghouse Electric Co., long considered the leader in nuclear power development, filed for bankruptcy protection.
Then there is nuclear’s problem when it comes to competing with natural gas.
Driven by developments in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques, oil and gas producers in sites such as the Marcellus shale formation have dramatically increased the amount of natural gas across the U.S.
The abundance has driven down prices, and utilities have increasingly turned to natural gas as an alternative to nuclear, as well as coal.
“I think what happened to the operating plants is the price of natural gas fell to levels that no one had ever predicted,” said Jay Silberg, a nuclear energy lawyer and partner at the Washington law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.
Another factor is the increasing amount of renewable energy on the grid.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that these plants are getting canceled,” said Rochelle Becker, a longtime critic of nuclear power and executive director of Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility in San Luis Obispo.
“They’re like very expensive dominoes that are falling…. With the price of natural gas and the availability of renewable and new sources that are continuing to hit the market, nuclear is pretty much dead in this country.”
According to the most recent numbers by the California Energy Commission, renewable energy made up 27.9% of in-state generation of electricity in 2016, almost twice as much as in 2009.
In addition, California is one of 28 states that have instituted Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), mandating utilities to include increasing amounts of clean-energy sources such as wind and solar in their grids.
The most recent iteration of California’s RPS calls for the state to derive 50% of its electricity from sources that do not emit carbon by 2030, and there’s a bill in the Legislature this session that would take the target all the way to 100% by 2045.
Like most states, California does not classify nuclear as part of its clean-energy portfolio.
Another stumbling block is the radioactive waste that accompanies nuclear power plants.
Even though the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has not produced electricity for more than five years, 3.55 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel remains at the plant within sight of the Pacific Ocean.
As seen at nuclear sites across the country, San Onofre waste has been stranded because the federal government has not fulfilled its promise to complete a storage facility where nuclear waste can be deposited.
But nuclear energy still has its supporters.
The projects in Georgia and South Carolina each adopted an advanced reactor design called AP1000 developed by Westinghouse. Though the design has its share of critics, a former president of the American Nuclear Society defended it.
“The AP1000 is an excellent technology,” said Ted Quinn, who runs a consulting firm in Dana Point. “In the area of technology, we’re good. In the area of construction practices, it’s a combination of the workforce and the type of contracts that are written. We’re challenged in that area.”
Quinn and others say nuclear energy needs to be retained because of its ability to ensure reliable base load power for the grid, and they maintain that the industry’s ability to generate large amounts of energy without emitting greenhouse gases makes it essential in reaching targets to reduce global warming.
“Without an aggressive buildout of nuclear power, climate goals are still attainable, but at much greater expense,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of Sustainable Development Solutions Network, told Bloomberg News. “We’d make a big mistake if we decide right now we don’t need it.”
A report from Environmental Progress, a pro-nuclear environmental group in Berkeley, said California’s power-sector emissions are 21/2 times higher today than they would have been had the state kept open and built planned nuclear plants.
Before San Onofre was shut down, nuclear power accounted for 18% of California’s in-state generation. Since it has been closed, the figure dropped to 9%, with Diablo Canyon as the only nuclear plant left. Natural gas’ contribution to the mix — and that of renewables — has gone up.
The Brattle Group, an international consulting company, came out with a study in December 2016 that said premature retirements of nuclear plants could increase greenhouse gas emissions. Its research showed that reductions made today have more effect than those made in the future.
“Since CO2 emissions persist for many years in the atmosphere, near-term emission reductions are more helpful for climate protection than later ones,” the study said. “Thus, preserving existing nuclear plants will improve the effectiveness of any climate policy approach, by holding down cumulative emissions.”
But Becker said nuclear’s waste issues blunt that argument.
“For 60 years we haven’t been able to find a solution to the waste that’s left behind at these nuclear plants,” she said. “What you have is very expensive back-end costs. In fact, the back-end costs can be as large as the front-end costs.”
The nuclear industry sees promise in a new generation of plants, including “small modular reactors” (SMRs) that take up a fraction of the space of current facilities and can be used in a multitude of locations, including remote sites.
San Diego-based General Atomics has been working on what’s called the Energy Multiplier Module. But no SMRs are online yet. General Atomics hopes to have its project ready in 2030.
Internationally, the forecast is mixed. Russia and China are building nuclear projects, with China expected to complete five new plants this year alone.
But Germany swore off nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, and two countries that have embraced nuclear in the past may be making an about-face.
The environment minister in France said last month that the country may close up to 17 reactors to reduce its reliance on nuclear power and boost its amount of renewable energy, and South Korea just elected a new president who has promised to deemphasize nuclear power.
“We will abolish our nuclear-centered energy policy and move toward a nuclear-free era,” Moon Jae-In said in June.
For its critics, nuclear is becoming yesterday’s news.
“The future is not big, base-load plants,” Becker said. “It’s distributed generation and renewable and other energy that is on the table that we haven’t even talked about.”
But nuclear’s supporters see a brighter future, even if the present is problematic.
“I don’t think we’ll see large nuclear power plants in the near future,” Silberg said. “We may see SMRs if they in fact get designed and licensed. But I don’t think at this point in the next 15 or 20 years utility management is going to want to invest very much in a large nuclear plant project, unless of course natural gas prices go back up and the industry figures out how to overcome the problems that showed up at Vogtle and Summer.”
Originally written for the San Diego Union Tribune
AFTER the events of March 11th 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami led to a meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan, you might be forgiven for concluding that atomic power and seawater don’t mix. Many engineers, though, do not agree. They would like to see more seawater involved, not less. In fact, they have plans to site nuclear power plants in the ocean rather than on land—either floating on the surface or moored beneath it.
At first, this sounds a mad idea. It is not. Land-based power stations are bespoke structures, built by the techniques of civil engineering, in which each is slightly different and teams of specialists come and go according to the phase of the project. Marine stations, by contrast, could be mass-produced in factories using, if not the techniques of the assembly line, then at least those of the shipyard, with crews constantly employed.
That would make power stations at sea cheaper than those on land. Jacopo Buongiorno, a nuclear engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reckons that, when all is done and dusted, electricity from a marine station would cost at least a third less than that from a terrestrial equivalent. It would also make them safer. A reactor anchored on the seabed would never lack emergency cooling, the problem that caused the Fukushima meltdown. Nor would it need to be protected against the risk of terrorists flying an aircraft into it. It would be tsunami-proof, too. Though tsunamis become great and destructive waves when they arrive in shallow water, in the open ocean they are mere ripples. Indeed, were it deep enough (100 metres or so), such a submarine reactor would not even be affected by passing storms.
All these reasons, observes Jacques Chénais, an engineer at France’s atomic-energy commission, CEA, make underwater nuclear power stations an idea worth investigating. Dr Chénais is head of small reactors at CEA, and has had experience with one well-established type of underwater reactor—that which powers submarines. He and his team are now assisting Naval Group, a French military contractor, to design reactors that will stay put instead of moving around on a boat. The plan is to encase a reactor and an electricity-generating steam turbine in a steel cylinder the length of a football pitch and with a weight of around 12,000 tonnes.
The whole system, dubbed Flexblue, would be anchored to the seabed between five and 15km from the coast—far enough for safety in case of an emergency, but near enough to be serviced easily. The electricity generated (up to 250 megawatts, enough for 1m people) would be transmitted ashore by an undersea cable. For refuelling and maintenance unmanageable from a submarine, the cylinder would be floated to the surface with air injected into its ballast tanks. And, when a station came to the end of its useful life, it could be towed to a specialist facility to be dismantled safely, rather than requiring yet another lot of civil engineers to demolish it.
Naval Group has not, as yet, attracted any customers for its designs. But a slightly less ambitious approach to marine reactors—anchoring them on the surface rather than below it—is about to come to fruition in Russia. The first such, Akademik Lomonosov, is under construction at the Baltic Shipyard, in St Petersburg (see picture). According to Andrey Bukhovtsev of Rosatom, the agency that runs Russia’s civil nuclear programme, it is 96% complete. It will be launched later this year, towed to Murmansk, and thence transported to Pevek, a port in Russia’s Far East, where it will begin generating power in 2019.
Akademik Lomonosov consists of two 35MW reactors mounted on a barge. The reactors are modified versions of those used to power Taymyr-class icebreakers. As such, they are designed to be able to take quite a battering, so the storms of the Arctic Ocean should not trouble them. To add to their safety, the barge bearing them will be moored, about 200 metres from shore, behind a storm-and-tsunami-resistant breakwater.
Altogether, Akademik Lomonosov will cost $480m to build and install—far less than would have to be spent constructing an equivalent power station on land in such a remote and hostile environment. And, on the presumption that the whole thing will work, plans for a second, similar plant are being laid.
Nor is Russia alone in planning floating reactors. China has similar ambitions—though the destinations of the devices concerned are more controversial than those of Russia’s. Specifically, the Chinese government intends, during the 2020s, to build up to 20 floating nuclear plants, with reactors as powerful as 200MW, to supply artificial islands it is building as part of its plan to enforce the country’s claim to much of the South China Sea—a claim disputed by every other country in the area.
The firms involved in this project intend to tsunami-proof some of their reactors in the same way as the French, by stationing them in water too deep for massive tsunami waves to form. Because they are at the surface, though, that will not save them from storms—and locating them far from shore means the Russian approach of building sheltering breakwaters will not work either. That matters. Typhoons in the South China Sea can whip up waves with an amplitude exceeding 20 metres.
To withstand such storms, the barges will have anchors that are attached to swivelling “mooring turrets” under their bows. These will cause a barge to behave like a weather vane, always pointing into the wind. Since that is the direction waves come from, it will remain bow-on to those waves, giving it the best chance of riding out any storm that nature cares to throw at it. The barges’ bows will also be built high, in order to cut through waves. This way, claims Mark Tipping of Lloyd’s Register, a British firm that is advising on the plants’ design, they will be able to survive a “10,000-year storm”.
The South China Sea is also a busy area for shipping, so any floating power stations there will need to be able to withstand a direct hit by a heavy-laden cargo vessel travelling at a speed of, say, 20 knots—whether that collision be accidental or the result of hostile action. One way to do this, says Chen Haibo, a naval architect working on the problem at Lloyd’s Register’s Beijing office, is to fit the barges with crumple zones packed with materials such as corrugated steel and wood.
Not everyone is delighted with the idea of marine nuclear power. Rashid Alimov, head of energy projects at Greenpeace Russia, an environmental charity, argues that offshore plants could be boarded by pirates or terrorists, be struck by an iceberg or might evade safety rules that are hard to enforce at sea. On July 21st Greenpeace scored a victory when Rosatom said that Akademik Lomonosov’s nuclear fuel would be loaded in an unpopulated area away from St Petersburg.
That, though, is a pinprick. The future of marine nuclear power stations is more likely to depend on the future of nuclear power itself than on the actions of pressure groups such as Greenpeace. If, as many who worry about the climate-changing potential of fossil-fuel power stations think, uranium has an important part to play in generating electricity over coming decades, then many new nuclear plants will be needed. And if that does turn out to be the case, siting such plants out at sea may well prove a good idea.
This article appeared in the Science and technology section of the print edition under the headline “Putting to sea”
Achieving the Paris Agreement’s aim to limit the global temperature increase to at most 2°C above preindustrial levels will require rapid, substantial greenhouse gas emission reductions together with large-scale use of “negative emission” strategies for capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air (1). It remains unclear, however, how or indeed whether large net-negative emissions can be achieved, and neither technology nor sufficient storage capacity for captured carbon are available (2). Limited commitment for sufficient mitigation efforts and the uncertainty related to net-negative emissions have intensified calls for options that may help to reduce the worst climate effects (3). One suggested approach is the artificial reduction of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface by increasing the reflectivity of Earth’s surface or atmosphere.
Research in this area gained traction after Crutzen (4) called for investigating the effects of continuous sulfur injections into the stratosphere—or stratospheric aerosol modification (SAM)—as one method to deliberately mitigate anthropogenic global warming. The effect is analogous to the observed lowering of temperatures after large volcanic eruptions. SAM could be seen as a last-resort option to reduce the severity of climate change effects such as heat waves, floods, droughts, and sea level rise. Another possibility could be the seeding of ice clouds—an artificial enhancement of terrestrial radiation leaving the atmosphere—to reduce climate warming (5).
SAM technologies are presently not developed. Scientists are merely beginning to grasp the potential risks and benefits of these kinds of interventions (6). Earth-system model simulations have been used to explore idealized scenarios and thereby improve the understanding of the climatic impacts of such approaches within the geoengineering model intercomparison project (GeoMIP). Results suggest that use of SAM would mitigate greenhouse gas–induced changes in global temperatures and extreme precipitation. However, different models consistently identify side effects; for example, the reduction of incoming solar radiation at Earth’s surface reduces evaporation, which in turn reduces precipitation (7). This slowing of the hydrological cycle affects water availability, mostly in the tropics, and reduces monsoon precipitation.
Model studies have helped to improve the understanding of sulfur aerosol microphysics and transport; for example, models have successfully reproduced aerosol distributions after recent volcanic eruptions (8). It has also become clear that the cooling efficiency—that is, the cooling per injected unit of sulfur—falls with increasing injection rate (9). Thus, the more SAM is done, the less effective further injections are at reducing temperatures (see the figure, left panel). But the extent of injection required for a given level of cooling is uncertain, varying widely between models (10). The magnitude of the cooling effect also depends on injection location, height, and area and differs between models of different complexity.
Furthermore, the aerosol distribution patterns that result from SAM are uncertain and depend on aerosol microphysics and transport in the models. Stratospheric sulfate absorbs terrestrial radiation and thereby warms the stratosphere. This warming affects stratospheric dynamics; for example, it may increase the wind velocity in the equatorial wind systems of the stratosphere, increasing the tropical confinement of the aerosols and reducing the poleward transport of aerosols (11). This has consequences not only for sulfate but for the transport of all stratospheric constituents. In models, changes in stratospheric chemistry caused by SAM have been shown to affect stratospheric ozone concentrations and cause a delay of the Antarctic ozone recovery by several decades (12).
Aerosols with different characteristics than sulfur may eventually be developed to reduce some side effects (13). Small-scale experiments in the stratosphere have been proposed to further understand chemical and aerosol microphysical characteristics of sulfur and alternative aerosols (14). Those experiments, however, will not contribute to the understanding of largescale climate impacts of SAM due to SAM-related changes in stratospheric temperature and dynamics. Global changes and impacts can only be assessed with Earth system models, although it is difficult to attribute impacts to SAM.
Most current Earth system models do not adequately capture important interactions, such as the coupling between stratospheric aerosols, chemistry, radiation, and climate. They cannot, therefore, simulate the full impact of the interventions. A comprehensive description of these interactions in models as well as coupling with ice, ocean, and land are expected to provide a better estimation of the uncertainties and risks. Processes in Earth system models can be further improved through expanded continuous observations of the atmosphere’s composition. Such observation capability would also ensure high-quality measurements after rare large volcanic eruptions.
Beyond the scientific assessments of possible impacts, it is crucial to understand the economic costs and technological requirements of stratospheric sulfur injection. Assuming a scenario in which aggressive mitigation and large-scale carbon capture and removal start as late as 2040, sulfur must be injected for 160 years, with a peak injection of 8 TgS/year, to limit the temperature increase to 2°C above preindustrial levels (see the figure, right panel) (15); this injection amount is equivalent to one Mount Pinatubo eruption per year (see the photo). Without the intervention, temperatures would have risen by 3°C. The estimated delivery cost of sulfur into the stratosphere for ∼1°C of cooling with aircraft newly developed for SAM is US$20 billion/year (10), requiring 6700 flights per day. The cost would increase for higher injection rates because of the decreasing cooling efficiency (9).
Additional costs arise from the need to set up a comprehensive observation system with which to monitor atmospheric changes, including aerosol distribution, impact on chemistry, and climate. The necessary amount of sulfur injection would need to be estimated according to comprehensive forecast models, requiring extensive modeling capabilities. The total cost of SAM would also need to include compensation for potential side effects and would thus be much higher than the delivery costs (16).
Currently, a single person, company, or state may be able to deploy SAM without in-depth assessments of the risks, potentially causing global impacts that could rapidly lead to conflict. As such, it is essential that international agreements are reached to regulate whether and how SAM should be implemented (3). A liability regime would rapidly become essential to resolve conflicts, especially because existing international liability rules do not provide equitable and effective compensation for potential SAM damage (17). Such complexities will require the establishment of international governance of climate intervention, overseeing research with frequent assessments of benefits and side effects.
Climate intervention should only be seen as a supplement and not a replacement for greenhouse gas mitigation and decarbonization efforts because the necessary level and application time of SAM would continuously grow with the need for more cooling to counteract increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. A sudden disruption of SAM would cause an extremely fast increase in global temperature. Also, SAM does not ameliorate major consequences of the CO2 increase in the atmosphere, such as ocean acidification, which would continue to worsen.
References and Notes
1. ↵ R. Joeri et al., Nature 534, 631639 (2016).
2. ↵ K. Anderson, G. Peters, Science 354, 182 (2016).Abstract/FREE Full Text
3. ↵ J. Pasztor, Science 357, 231 (2017).Abstract/FREE Full Text
4. ↵ P. J. Crutzen, Clim. Change 77, 211 (2006).
5. ↵ U. Lohmann, B. Gasparini, Science 357, 248 (2017).Abstract/FREE Full Text
6. ↵ A. Robock, Earth’s Future 4, 644 (2016).
7. ↵ U. Niemeier et al., J. Geophys. Res. 118, 11905 (2013).
8. ↵ M. J. Mills et al., J. Geophys. Res. 121, 2332 (2016).
9. ↵ U. Niemeier, C. Timmreck, Atmos. Chem. Phys. 15, 9129 (2015).
10. ↵ R. Moriyama et al., Mitig. Adapt. Strat. Global Change 21, 1 (2016).
11. ↵ D. Visioni, G. Pitari, V. Aquila, Atmos. Chem. Phys. 17, 3879 (2017).
12. ↵ S. Tilmes, R. Müller, R. Salawitch, Science 320, 1201 (2008).Abstract/FREE Full Text
13. ↵ D. Keith, D. K. Weisenstein, J. A. Dykemaa, F. N. Keutsch, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 113, 14910 (2016).Abstract/FREE Full Text
14. ↵ J. Dykema, D. Keith, J. G. Anderson, D. Weisenstein, Philos. Trans. R. Soc. A 372, 20140059 (2014).Abstract/FREE Full Text
15. ↵ S. Tilmes, B. M. Sanderson, B. C. O’Neill, Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 8222 (2016).
16. ↵ J. Reynolds, A. Parker, P. Irvine, Earth’s Future 4, 562 (2016).
17. ↵ B. Saxler et al., Law Innov. Technol. 7, 112 (2015).
18. Acknowledgments: We thank B. Sanderson, Y. Richter, and H. Schmidt for very valuable comments and A. Jones and C. Kleinschmidt for providing data for the figure.
It’s the dawn of the age of the electric vehicle. For real, this time. Probably.
The evidence: Tesla’s delivery of its first “affordable” compact sedans, the Model 3, and the road maps of more or less every other automaker on the planet promising widely available electric cars in the next three to five years.
Within a decade, electric cars will even have similar sticker prices to their gasoline competitors, says Stephen Zoepf, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. Some analyses say EVs are already cost-competitive, if you factor in savings on fuel and maintenance.
Aggressive pricing and sales projections are all part of the seemingly self-fulfilling prophecy of rapid EV adoption. To hit Chief Executive Elon Musk’s targets, Tesla must sell 430,000 cars by the end of 2018 and continue to sell 10,000 a week after that.
But if Tesla and its competitors succeed, they face a new problem: Where are all those cars going to plug in?
At present, electric cars represent only about 1% of cars sold in the U.S., and 0.2% of our total automobile fleet. They aren’t yet taxing our electrical grid or fighting each other for the roughly 44,000 public charging stations now available in the U.S. Yet if anything like analysts’ projections come to pass, they could rapidly dwarf that number.
Electric-car owners at present overwhelmingly charge at home. What public stations exist are found in parking lots and at businesses in cities and wealthy suburbs where early adopters reside. But the current charging infrastructure offers little support for a larger pool of people who have both the income and the impetus to buy EVs: city dwellers who lack garages.
“You see models that say, ‘We’ll sell a million EVs this year, then two, then four and so on,’ but I have concerns about the practicalities of this transition,” says Francis O’Sullivan, director of research for the MIT Energy Initiative.
“All things cannot be sorted before the industry starts,” says Pasquale Romano, chief executive of ChargePoint, which controls the largest U.S. network of charging stations.
Charging infrastructure is adequate to meet current demand, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue to scale in line with future demand, he argues. ChargePoint makes and sells charging stations to businesses, individuals and governments, charging monthly to maintain the stations and accepting payments for the electricity they provide.
ChargePoint was part of an initiative in Los Angeles to put charging stations in existing lampposts, says Matt Petersen, until recently L.A.’s chief sustainability officer. (The city has installed 82 so far.)
That makes sense because a good chunk of a new charging station’s cost—which can hit $5,000—is installing it and wiring it up, ChargePoint’s Mr. Romano says.
German firm Ubitricity is pioneering relatively low-cost, low-power plugs that go directly into lampposts, and can be accessed with an internet-connected “smart” power cable that handles all metering and billing.
Kieran Fitsall, head of service improvement and transformation for the Westminster City Council of central London, says it has installed 20 Ubitricity plugs in street lamps. The plan is to increase that to 100 by March 2018.
One of Ubitricity’s advantages is the plugs don’t require the council to designate EV-only parking spots, which are unpopular with people who don’t drive them, Mr. Fitsall says. Ubitricity currently has no U.S. presence but is seeking investment to expand, says company co-founder Knut Hechtfischer.
While these efforts may show where the technology is headed, it isn’t clear that it’s rolling out at anywhere close to the pace automakers anticipate they will sell vehicles.
The biggest challenge for those building out charging infrastructure is that no one can predict the demand for charging as EVs become commonplace, says MIT’s Dr. O’Sullivan. In fact, he calls some of the behavioral factors needed to make such predictions “exceptionally opaque.” These include the time of day people will choose to charge, how responsive they will be to price incentives on electricity designed to encourage them to charge at the “right” time, and how often they’ll use “superchargers” versus lower-power outlets for overnight charging.
This brings us to another looming issue: America’s often-overtaxed power grids won’t be able to handle a large influx of new demand without careful management. This generally won’t be a problem if cars charge at night, when the power grid is underutilized. But as EVs proliferate, drivers who can’t charge them at home will want to charge them at work, during the day. They’ll also seek superchargers, which typically are installed along highways and designed for fast charging and long-distance travel.
“Superchargers are enormous power draws,” says Jesse Jenkins, a researcher at the MIT Energy Initiative. “Chargers in parking garages or superchargers at rest stops are not a solution for charging EVs en masse unless we are OK with significant costs to upgrade distribution grids.”
Even the regular charger found in homes and businesses could present a costly problem when cars charge during demand peaks. Anything that increases peak demand could increase the cost of electricity for everyone, says Stanford’s Dr. Zoepf.
The sheer scale of the transformation of the electrical grid to accommodate mainstream adoption of EVs boggles the mind. A major portion of the energy currently trapped in automotive fuels will have to arrive in the form of electrons, instead. While some analyses indicate America’s existing electrical grid can handle it, it may be only if millions of American consumers can be coaxed to play along and charge at the right place and time.
That’s also assuming private companies and public utilities can get the needed charging infrastructure to the public at a price they are willing to pay.
If Elon Musk and his competitors succeed at selling as many electric vehicles as they project, keeping them all full of electricity will be a long, hugely expensive and potentially contentious undertaking. It could also be quite lucrative for the people who figure it out.
The cost of building the only nuclear power plant under construction in the U.S. has ballooned to more than $25 billion, but chief owner Southern Co. SO -0.84% said it isn’t ready to throw in the towel on the project.
The company released the new cost estimate for Georgia’s Vogtle Electric Generating Plant on Wednesday, adding that it expects completion of the plant, which has already seen years of delays and rising costs, to be delayed by another 18 months until February 2021 at the earliest.
The price would be split between Southern, three regional power companies, which are partners in the project, and Toshiba Corp. TOSYY -0.31% , whose subsidiary, Westinghouse Electric Corp., went bankrupt earlier this year while building the plant.
The disclosure from Southern comes two days after Scana Corp. pulled the plug on a similar nuclear plant in South Carolina. It also had years of delays and cost increases that put final completion of that facility above $25 billion as well.
Southern Chairman and Chief Executive Thomas A. Fanning said during a conference call with analysts that he wasn’t ready to give up on the Vogtle plant.
“When you abandon, you have nothing to show for the amount of money you have spent,” he said. “If you go forward, you have a nuclear plant that will serve us for decades to come.”
He then added: “But please understand there has been no decision made.”
The escalating expenses have heightened concern that what was supposed to be a rebirth of the nuclear power industry in the U.S., driven by Westinghouse reactors, is becoming a costly failure.
In 2008, Southern’s plant was supposed to cost $14 billion. Scana’s plant was projected at $11.4 billion.
The plants have identical designs, using a new approach that is supposed to be simpler and easier to build. But numerous changes—some for safety enhancements, others because construction began while final plans were still being developed—drove up costs.
Mr. Fanning did not disclose any specific reasons for the most recent estimates, but he said that since Southern took over construction of the Georgia plant earlier this summer, productivity has improved.
“Our near term experience tells us that we can do a better job than Westinghouse should we go down that road,” he said.
Southern said it would make a recommendation to Georgia regulators later this month about whether it would proceed with the project. Construction at the Georgia facility is 44% complete, compared to 35% for the South Carolina plant.
Vogtle is the only nuclear power plant still under construction in the U.S., and the first to be started since the 1980s.
The new plants’ troubles come at a time when the idea of generating electricity from nuclear power has received a boost. Some environmentalists have supported nuclear plants as a way of providing power that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide. And President Donald Trump said earlier this summer he wanted to “revive and expand our nuclear-energy sector.”
Atlanta-based Southern is going through what Mr. Fanning called “tumultuous times.” The company on Wednesday reported a $1.38 billion loss for the second quarter, compared to a $623 million profit in the same period a year earlier. It is only the second loss posted by the company since 1993, according to data from S&P Capital IQ.
The loss was due to a $2.8 billion pre-tax charge the company took related to an expensive, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to build a “clean coal” power plant in Mississippi.
In June, Mississippi regulators said they were unwilling to pass any additional costs onto to electricity customers. The plant cost $7.5 billion and seven years to build, but Southern couldn’t get the carbon dioxide technology to operate properly for extended periods.
OSLO (Reuters) – Scientists are sucking carbon dioxide from the air with giant fans and preparing to release chemicals from a balloon to dim the sun’s rays as part of a climate engineering push to cool the planet.
Backers say the risky, often expensive projects are urgently needed to find ways of meeting the goals of the Paris climate deal to curb global warming that researchers blame for causing more heatwaves, downpours and rising sea levels.
The United Nations says the targets are way off track and will not be met simply by reducing emissions for example from factories or cars – particularly after U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 pact.
They are pushing for other ways to keep temperatures down.
In the countryside near Zurich, Swiss company Climeworks began to suck greenhouse gases from thin air in May with giant fans and filters in a $23 million project that it calls the world’s first “commercial carbon dioxide capture plant”.
Worldwide, “direct air capture” research by a handful of companies such as Climeworks has gained tens of millions of dollars in recent years from sources including governments, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the European Space Agency.
If buried underground, vast amounts of greenhouse gases extracted from the air would help reduce global temperatures, a radical step beyond cuts in emissions that are the main focus of the Paris Agreement.
Climeworks reckons it now costs about $600 to extract a tonne of carbon dioxide from the air and the plant’s full capacity due by the end of 2017 is only 900 tonnes a year. That’s equivalent to the annual emissions of only 45 Americans.
And Climeworks sells the gas, at a loss, to nearby greenhouses as a fertilizer to grow tomatoes and cucumbers and has a partnership with carmaker Audi, which hopes to use carbon in greener fuels.
Jan Wurzbacher, director and founder of Climeworks, says the company has planet-altering ambitions by cutting costs to about $100 a tonne and capturing one percent of global man-made carbon emissions a year by 2025.
“Since the Paris Agreement, the business substantially changed,” he said, with a shift in investor and shareholder interest away from industrial uses of carbon to curbing climate change.
But penalties for factories, power plants and cars to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere are low or non-existent. It costs 5 euros ($5.82) a tonne in the European Union.
And isolating carbon dioxide is complex because the gas makes up just 0.04 percent of the air. Pure carbon dioxide delivered by trucks, for use in greenhouses or to make drinks fizzy, costs up to about $300 a tonne in Switzerland.
Other companies involved in direct air capture include Carbon Engineering in Canada, Global Thermostat in the United States and Skytree in the Netherlands, a spinoff of the European Space Agency originally set up to find ways to filter out carbon dioxide breathed out by astronauts in spacecrafts.
Not Science Fiction
The Paris Agreement seeks to limit a rise in world temperatures this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), ideally 1.5C (2.7F) above pre-industrial times.
But U.N. data show that current plans for cuts in emissions will be insufficient, especially without the United States, and that the world will have to switch to net “negative emissions” this century by extracting carbon from nature.
Riskier “geo-engineering” solutions could be a backstop, such as dimming the world’s sunshine, dumping iron into the oceans to soak up carbon, or trying to create clouds.
Among new university research, a Harvard geo-engineering project into dimming sunlight to cool the planet set up in 2016 has raised $7.5 million from private donors. It plans a first outdoor experiment in 2018 above Arizona.
“If you want to be confident to get to 1.5 degrees you need to have solar geo-engineering,” said David Keith, of Harvard.
Keith’s team aims to release about 1 kilo (2.2 lbs) of sun dimming material, perhaps calcium carbonate, from a high-altitude balloon above Arizona next year in a tiny experiment to see how it affects the microphysics of the stratosphere.
“I don’t think it’s science fiction … to me it’s normal atmospheric science,” he said.
Some research has suggested that geo-engineering with sun-dimming chemicals, for instance, could affect global weather patterns and disrupt vital Monsoons.
And many experts fear that pinning hopes on any technology to fix climate change is a distraction from cuts in emissions blamed for heating the planet.
“Relying on big future deployments of carbon removal technologies is like eating lots of dessert today, with great hopes for liposuction tomorrow,” Christopher Field, a Stanford University professor of climate change, wrote in May.
Jim Thomas of ETC Group in Canada, which opposes climate engineering, said direct air capture could create “the illusion of a fix that can be used cynically or naively to entertain policy ideas such as ‘overshoot'” of the Paris goals.
But governments face a dilemma. Average surface temperatures are already about 1C (1.8F) above pre-industrial levels and hit record highs last year.
“We’re in trouble,” said Janos Pasztor, head of the new Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Project. “The question is not whether or not there will be an overshoot but by how many degrees and for how many decades.”
Faced with hard choices, many experts say that extracting carbon from the atmosphere is among the less risky options. Leaders of major economies, except Trump, said at a summit in Germany this month that the Paris accord was “irreversible.”
Raymond Pierrehumbert, a professor of physics at Oxford University, said solar geo-engineering projects seemed “barking mad”.
By contrast, he said “carbon dioxide removal is challenging technologically, but deserves investment and trial.”
The most natural way to extract carbon from the air is to plant forests that absorb the gas as they grow, but that would divert vast tracts of land from farming. Another option is to build power plants that burn wood and bury the carbon dioxide released.
Carbon Engineering, set up in 2009 with support from Gates and Murray Edwards, chairman of oil and gas group Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, has raised about $40 million and extracts about a tonne of carbon dioxide a day with turbines and filters.
“We’re mainly looking to synthesize fuels” for markets such as California with high carbon prices, said Geoffrey Holmes, business development manager at Carbon Engineering.
But he added that “the Paris Agreement helps” with longer-term options of sucking large amounts from the air.
Among other possible geo-engineering techniques are to create clouds that reflect sunlight back into space, perhaps by using a mist of sea spray.
That might be used locally, for instance, to protect the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, said Kelly Wanser, principal director of the U.S.-based Marine Cloud Brightening Project.
Among new ideas, Wurzbacher at Climeworks is sounding out investors on what he says is the first offer to capture and bury 50 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air, for $500 a tonne.
That might appeal to a company wanting to be on forefront of a new green technology, he said, even though it makes no apparent economic sense.
Would you eradicate malaria-carrying insects? Change your baby’s DNA? Scientists soon may have the power to do both.
Rewriting the code of life has never been so easy. In 2012 scientists demonstrated a new DNA-editing technique called Crispr. Five years later it is being used to cure mice with HIV and hemophilia. Geneticists are engineering pigs to make them suitable as human organ donors. Bill Gates is spending $75 million to endow a few Anopheles mosquitoes, which spread malaria, with a sort of genetic time bomb that could wipe out the species. A team at Harvard plans to edit 1.5 million letters of elephant DNA to resurrect the woolly mammoth.
“I frankly have been flabbergasted at the pace of the field,” says Jennifer Doudna, a Crispr pioneer who runs a lab at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’re barely five years out, and it’s already in early clinical trials for cancer. It’s unbelievable.”
The thing to understand about Crispr isn’t its acronym—for the record, it stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats—but that it makes editing DNA easy, cheap and precise. Scientists have fiddled with genes for decades, but in clumsy ways. They zapped plants with radiation to flip letters of DNA at random, then looked for useful mutations. They hijacked the infection mechanisms of viruses and bacteria to deliver beneficial payloads. They shot cells with “gene guns,” which are pretty much what they sound like. The first one, invented in the 1980s, was an air pistol modified to fire particles coated with genetic material.
Crispr is much more precise, as Ms. Doudna explains in her new book, “A Crack in Creation.” It works like this: An enzyme called Cas9 can be programmed to latch onto any 20-letter sequence of DNA. Once there, the enzyme cuts the double helix, splitting the DNA strand in two. Scientists supply a snippet of genetic material they want to insert, making sure its ends match up with the cut strands. When the cell’s repair mechanism kicks in to fix the cut, it pastes in the new DNA.
It’s so exact that Crispr blurs the meaning of “genetically modified organism.” The activists yelling about “frankenfish” are generally upset about transgenic plants and animals—those with DNA inserted from other species. But what about using Crispr to alter only a few letters of an organism’s own genome, the kind of mutation that could happen naturally?
Last year a professor at Penn State created blemish-resistant mushrooms by knocking out a gene that causes them to turn brown when handled. “It attracted attention,” Ms. Doudna says, “because the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that that type of plant product would not be regulated as a genetically modified organism.”
Ms. Doudna welcomes this kind of streamlining as the Food and Drug Administration considers its own approach to Crispr crops. “It’s crazy. It takes years and years and years to bring a plant to market,” she says. “I’m all for safety of course and that has to come first. But I think it has to be done with knowledge of the science that makes sense.”
Medical labs are also putting Crispr to work, since it is potentially meticulous enough for routine use on people. The human genome is 3.2 billion letters, and in the wrong place a single typo—a dozen or so misplaced atoms—can create misery. For patients with disorders like cystic fibrosis, the obstacles to fixing the genetic glitch with Crispr seem mostly practical.
First, there’s delivery: A human body contains some 50 trillion cells. How do you get Crispr to the affected ones, and what percentage need to be edited successfully to matter? Ms. Doudna says injecting Crispr-laden viruses into animal tissues has resulted in rates of editing on the order of 70%—enough to have a therapeutic benefit: “In muscular dystrophy, for example, it looks like you only need to have somewhere between 10% to 20%.”
Second, there’s the risk: Although Crispr aims at a 20-letter DNA sequence, occasionally it can hit a partial match and make an unintended edit. “For any drug that we’re developing for treatment, you’re going to have some kind of risk factors,” Ms. Doudna says. “In this case it might be changes to DNA, and you have to decide what’s the right level that you would tolerate.” There are ways to minimize the mistakes, and some studies show so few off-target edits “that it’s difficult to distinguish them from just errors in DNA sequencing.”
What seems to merit the risk today? “Sickle-cell disease,” Ms. Doudna says: “Well-known mutation. Single gene is involved. No treatments right now for people. They have these horrible crises where they’re in terrible pain.” Moreover, the faulty red blood cells can be drawn from a vein and isolated. “The actual DNA editing can be done outside the body,” she says, “validated first, and then the cells implanted and allowed to repopulate the blood supply.” The approach may work for cancer, too: A Crispr clinical trial awaiting FDA approval would pull white blood cells, give them tumor-killing superpowers, and then put them back into action.
It would be technically simpler, rather than working in fully grown patients, to fix genetic disorders early, in human eggs, sperm or embryos. But this raises thorny moral questions, since edits made to these cells would pass down to future generations, who can’t consent to having their genes tweaked. In debates about this, the word “eugenics” comes up.
At first, Ms. Doudna was reflexively opposed. “I’m not a religious person,” she says, “but it’s more, just—I don’t know—sort of an intrinsic reaction, that it feels like a realm where maybe we shouldn’t be messing around.” Her position softened, somewhat to her own surprise, as she heard from hundreds of people facing horrific genetic diseases. “They’re reaching out because they’re desperate,” she says. “A lot of them are asking me the questions you’re asking about: How soon? How long will it be? Is there hope for my child?”
Ms. Doudna recalls an email from a 26-year-old woman who’d found out she carried a mutation in the gene BRCA1 that is associated with a 60% risk of breast cancer by age 70: “She said, ‘Should I have a mastectomy?’ ”—this was right after Angelina Jolie, worried about a similar mutation, did the same—“ ‘Or do you think that gene-editing is going to come along in time for me? Or if not for me, at least so that I can get rid of this mutation in my eggs?’ ”
There was a man who watched his father die of Huntington’s disease and had three sisters diagnosed. There was a woman whose daughter had given birth to a child with Fragile X syndrome, which causes intellectual disability, but deeply wanted to conceive again. “She was very emotional,” Ms. Doudna recounts. “She said, ‘If there were a way to use this, and if I could use it in embryos or germ cells, I would have absolutely no hesitation about doing it.’ ”
A few bioethicists have even argued that research on editing human embryos is a “moral imperative,” since roughly 6% of all babies have “serious birth defects.” As for the risk of “off target” edits, merely smoking cigarettes can create mutations in a man’s sperm. One academic joked that if old-fashioned sex were up for regulatory review, the FDA would never sign off.
Not everyone has the same reaction. A reporter interviewing Ms. Doudna once revealed she had a son with Down syndrome. “She said, ‘I just want you to know that he’s perfect just the way he is.’ It was very touching,” Ms. Doudna recalls, her voice flickering with emotion. Even if Crispr could have fixed that genetic defect, the woman said she wouldn’t change it. Some people in the deaf community feel the same way, and Ms. Doudna respects that. “Everyone’s feeling about DNA and about their inheritance and their children is going to be different,” she says. “It has to be a choice. People can decide what they want to do.”
Ms. Doudna remains opposed to nontherapeutic editing, often characterized as “designer babies,” and she says regulators won’t allow it, at least in the U.S. But other countries are less stringent. Is news of the first Crispr baby simply going to break one day? “It would be naive to think that that won’t happen at some point,” she says. Pressure to push forward will come not only from desperate people but also clinics abroad that may drum up business by saying: “We’ll do things here that will be advantageous for your children that are not allowed elsewhere.”
That’s why Ms. Doudna sees the ethical debate as vital. “It’s very hard to enforce any kind of global regulations on anything, but certainly on science,” she says. “So I think the next best thing is to try to encourage a global consensus that is strong enough that people feel some pressure to conform to it.”
The plan to eradicate the Anopheles mosquito presents a similar problem of collective decision-making. One iteration would involve a version of the insect edited to carry DNA that creates sterile females. That trait could then be forced into the wild population using a “gene drive.” Recall the basic rules of heredity—think back to that Punnett square from high school. Normally, an edited male in the wild would pass on the sterility gene to only half its offspring. Over many generations, the edited DNA would be diluted into oblivion.
That’s where the gene drive comes in. Scientists using Crispr in the lab have given the mosquito DNA that causes its cells to create Crispr. The result is a recursive, self-propagating gene that slices its reproductive competition. The edited mosquito passes on the sterility gene to nearly 100% of its offspring—which in turn do the same. Theoretically, releasing a single gene-drive insect, or letting one escape out an air-conditioning vent, could spread the edited DNA to the entire species.
Theoretically. “Although we understand that these gene drives can work in a laboratory setting efficiently in fruit flies and things like that, how well would they really work environmentally?” Ms. Doudna asks. “Evolution is a very strong force. If you put a species in a wild setting where they have to compete with other species, if they have a disadvantage reproductively, even if it’s a small disadvantage, they’re going to lose out.”
Ms. Doudna still needs to be convinced, too, of the wisdom of letting loose a gene drive. She cites her native Hawaii. “Species were introduced to that environment that ended up having large unintended consequences,” she says. Seeing that made her “very respectful of nature and very cautious about human beings’ thinking they have the knowledge to predict what will happen.”
A final Crispr worry is that it makes DNA editing so easy anybody can do it. Simple hobby kits sell online for $150, and a community biotech lab in Brooklyn offers a class for $400. Jennifer Lopez is reportedly working on a TV drama called “C.R.I.S.P.R.” that, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “explores the next generation of terror: DNA hacking.”
Ms. Doudna provides a bit of assurance. “Genetics is complicated. You have to have quite a bit of knowledge, I think, to be able to do anything that’s truly dangerous,” she says. “There’s been a little bit of hype, in my opinion, about DIY kits and are we going to have rogue scientists—or even nonscientists—randomly doing crazy stuff. I think that’s not too likely.”
Still, a couple of years ago Ms. Doudna had a dream in which a colleague asked her to explain gene-editing to someone very important. Turns out it was Hitler, except with the face of a pig. This, she says now, was her awakening to Crispr’s potential. “Try to imagine: We’re biochemists here, we’re futzing around with bacteria, just fartin’ around the lab, and students are doing experiments,” she says. “Then suddenly you have this discovery that you realize can be harnessed in a very different way.”
A few moments later she adds: “It was just this growing realization that this is no joke. This is a really seriously powerful technology.”
Mr. Peterson is the Journal’s deputy editorial features editor.