Monday, February 22, 2010

Government Based Upon Natural Law - (Part 10) - Nuclear Power to the People

I Have a Dream

I have a dream that we will someday have an energy source that is inexpensive, safe, non-polluting, and virtually infinite. There will be more than enough of such energy for all the people of the world.

Guess what? I can wake up now because my dream is a reality. And it is a reality because of nuclear power. How so? Keep reading.

A Clean Environment and a Prosperous Country

In my post about Environmental Policy, the main point was that countries that are prosperous have the cleanest environments. And that being a prosperous country is closely related to having inexpensive energy. (Having a good government that protects the life, liberty and property of its citizens is also essential, but that’s another story). Prosperous countries can afford pollution controls. They can afford to do research into more efficient ways of obtaining and providing energy, and they can afford to conserve natural resources.

The single most important technological component in the prosperous maintenance of human life is inexpensive, abundant energy.

Current Situation 

Expensive energy contributes to poverty. Many people around the world still burn wood for their major source of energy. This is inefficient, and causes a lot of pollution. Also, reducing the number of trees on our planted reduces the ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

Expensive energy also contributes indirectly to pollution. For instance, the cement factories in Texas produce a significant amount of pollutants, including mercury, lead, and sulfur dioxide. Inexpensive energy would make it more affordable for cement factories (and other industries) to invest in technologies that would reduce their emissions.

Finally, expensive energy adds to the production costs of almost everything we make. This not only lowers our standard of living, but it makes our products less competitive than foreign goods.

What about Solar Energy? 

Solar energy will be a good, inexpensive source of energy – eventually. It has a few difficult hurdles to overcome. First, solar energy is not concentrated; a square foot of earth receives only a very small amount of energy. Therefore, to become a major source of energy, huge areas will need to capture it. Second, it is not constant. There is less solar energy when clouds are out and no solar energy at all at night. We need a constant base load of energy, and solar energy cannot provide that now or in the near future. Related to this, if a number of volcanoes went off at the same time, much of the Earth might not see the Sun for months or years. If we were completely dependent on solar energy, this would be a disaster. So no matter how inexpensive and wide spread solar energy becomes, it should not be our only source of energy.

Why Nuclear Energy is the solution
Nuclear energy is the only current way in which we can provide a constant base load of safe, relatively inexpensive, non-polluting energy. The reasons for these are detailed below.

What is Nuclear Energy, anyway?

Nuclear energy obtained by the fissioning (breaking up) of heavy atomic nuclei, such as uranium and thorium, as a result of a neutron hitting such a nucleus. This fissioning releases very large amounts of energy that can be harnessed by heating water to turn it into steam that turns turbines to create electricity. Each nucleus that fissions gives off neutrons that can then strike another nucleus, so that the process continues.

How safe is Nuclear Energy?

It’s hard to get much safer. Not a single American has died as a result of radiation from a commercial nuclear reactor. Literally, zero Americans have died in over 50 years of commercial nuclear power use.

France gets over 75% of its energy from nuclear power, has the cleanest air in Europe, has the cheapest energy in Europe, exports $8 billion worth of energy to Germany and England, and has shut down its last coal plant in 2004, all because they started using nuclear energy in the 1970s. And it takes them only about 3 years to build a new plant.

To be efficient, they basically use the same plant design for a long time so that they know the plant will be safe, and how to build it inexpensively. They do research into new generation plants, and when they find one they like, they approve it and go with that in the future.

It costs France about 3 to 4 cents to generate a KWH of energy. (I’m paying 10 cents per KWH now). No one in France has been killed from nuclear power radiation in over 50 years of use.

What happened to the United States? We got scared. We saw the fictional movie, “The China Syndrome”, about a nuclear accident that almost happened; a partial meltdown did happen at Three Mile Island, but no one was killed or injured; and then we heard about the Chernobyl disaster. This really scared many of us, even though Chernobyl was built by and run by Communists, who hardly ever did anything right. (They did turn out some good ballet dancers). But those scientists who knew the most, and especially nuclear engineers, knew how great nuclear power could be. Unfortnately, a tsunami hit Japan in 2011 and caused over 15,000 deaths.  It also caused a number of its 40-year-old nuclear reactors to melt down. Guess how many deaths or injuries were caused by nuclear radiation? None. Hard to believe? Check it out for yourself.

Current power plant designs eliminate the possibility of a melt-down, and no design can result in a nuclear explosion. And nuclear plants are designed so that even if a jet were to crash into one, the nuclear fuel would still be contained.

How much energy can we get from Nuclear Power?

Right now nuclear power in the U.S. accounts for about 20% of our electricity.

Kirk Sorenson from NASA said, “Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors gives many options for inherently-safe, proliferation resistant, economic nuclear power that can last for thousands if not millions of years.

“This technology offers real-options for solving long-term issues surrounding spent nuclear fuel.” This is because such reactors can get rid of spent nuclear fuel by extracting energy from it.

How efficient is Nuclear Power?

A single pound of highly-enriched uranium used to power a nuclear submarine is equal to about a million gallons of gasoline.

The nuclear waste created per person-lifetime could fit in the size of a Coke can, and then can be controlled (by storing it), whereas a coal plant produces 130,000 pounds of waste products in addition to 77 tons of CO2 per person-lifetime.

On a large plant scale, a 1 billion watt (giga-watt or GW) coal plant burns 3,000,000 tons of coal a year, but an equivalent nuclear power plant uses only 20 tons of uranium per year.

What about the waste products?

The radioactive waste products from a nuclear plant can be safely dealt with in a number of ways.

Currently, the United States stores its wastes underground in casings that prevent any leakage at the nuclear reactor site. A jet crashing into such a storage facility would not affect the casings. Furthermore, even completely exposed casings that have been hit by trucks, trains and jets (in experiments!) have not been compromised.

Canada's plan is to safely store the wastes for 175 years (but can be retrieved before then if desired). During that 175 years, the overall radioactivity of the used fuel drops to one-billionth of the level from when it removed from the reactor. At that time, the future Canadians can deal with it in some manner that we cannot currently foresee.

There’s an excellent book called, Whole Earth Discipline, by Stewart Brand. He was also the author of The Whole Earth Catalog, written in 1969, which is one of the most famous books in the world. Steve Jobs compared The Whole Earth Catalog to the Internet search engine Google in his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech. Brand is an ecologist and futurist and says he sees everything in terms of a solvable design problem.

Steward Brand said that he had been against nuclear power because of passing on nuclear wastes to future generations. Then in 2002 he went to Yucca Mountain and talked to a group called "Long Now". They told Brand that is was folly to think about having to store the waste for 10,000 years or more since we have no idea what technical advancements will occur. They said we should put it in a safe place and in 50 to 100 years, "we will be taking it out and using it as a valuable energy resource." This is because spent nuclear fuel still has 95% of its energy. We just need to find ways to extract the energy from it in an inexpensive way. (As we’ll see later, with thorium plants coming, it may not take even that long before we can extract energy from current wastes, and leave only short lived wastes that can easily be dealt with).

Surprisingly, nuclear energy has done more to eliminate existing nuclear weapons from the world than any other activity. There’s a joint U.S. – Russian program to convert warheads into fuel, called, “Megatons to Megawatts.” As a result of this, about 10% of the electricity that Americans use comes from Russian missiles and bombs. What an amazing development!

What’s coming up in the near future with Nuclear Power?

Our current nuclear reactors all use uranium as a fuel. The modern ones (called Generation III reactors) are very, very good.

Many people, such as NASA’s James Hansen, are very excited about the up-and-coming Generation IV reactors such as Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors. (It will take about 20 years to make them commercially viable and as inexpensive as natural gas powered plants). Here's what Hansen has to say about them. They have:

- a practically unlimited supply of fuel (there's more thorium than either lead or tin in the Earth's crust)

- lower construction and operating costs

- super-high fuel efficiency

- greatly reduced waste

- much shorter radioactive life in the waste (a few hundred years)

- create a high temperature that can be used to produce hydrogen from water, or even cheaply desalinate water

- can burn existing nuclear waste (and generate energy from them), and well as burn existing weapons grade uranium and plutonium that we have as a result of the various nuclear weapons reduction treaties

There is even a plan to have a thorium reactor that is buried deep underground, and will generate electricity for 50 years with no maintenance! After that it can just left in the ground in its robust casing that can easily store the small amount or remaining waste until it is no longer radioactive. These would be very inexpensive and safe, and can be used close to wherever they are needed. These would be especially useful in developing countries that do not have an extensive power grid network.

What’s happening now in the United States with respect to Nuclear Power?

Not long ago, NASA's James Hansen, who is very concerned about global warming, wrote an open letter to President Obama. In it he said that how bad coal is and asked for, "urgent R&D on 4th-generation nuclear power with international cooperation. The danger is that the minority of vehement anti-nuclear 'environmentalists' (his quotes) could cause the development of advanced safe nuclear power to be slowed such that utilities are forced to continue coal-burning in order to keep the lights on."

Hansen’s letter may be one reason that President Obama’s proposed budget included increased research on nuclear energy as well as loan guarantees for utilities that build a nuclear power plant.

President Obama announced (in February, 2010) loan guarantees to build the first U.S. nuclear power plants in three decades. There are 13 applications at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC) for new plants. The earliest they could be approved would be late 2014 to 2015, but it's a start. President Obama is strongly pushing for the United States to generate much of its electricity from nuclear power, and he should be loudly applauded for it.

The feds will allow up to a three-year period for hearings, addressing any concerns, etc. This will minimize delays once the NRC has approved the site (which the state must also approve) and the reactor design, which the NRC has already done. For example, Westinghouse's AP1000 reactor has already been approved, and a number of other reactors are in the process of receiving approval. In the past, lawsuits from certain environmental groups have prevented the construction of nuclear power plants, but the hearing process mentioned above will presumably stop these groups from doing this.  Fortunately, many environmental groups whe were previously against nuclear power are now for it.

At least three thorium-related bills are making their way through the Capitol, including the Senate’s Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act, cosponsored by Orrin Hatch of Utah and Harry Reid of Nevada, which would provide $250 million for research at the Department of Energy. “I don’t know of anything more beneficial to the country, as far as environmentally sound power, than nuclear energy powered by thorium,” Hatch says.”

Intellectual Ventures, LLC, which is partially backed by Bill Gates, has a team of 30 scientists and engineers working on concepts for better thorium nuclear reactors, among many other things.

There are about 50 countries that have, or are planning to build nuclear power plants. The number of countries as well as the number of proposed plants is increasing as people become aware of the advantages of generating inexpensive, safe, virtually infinite, non-polluting nuclear energy. And the United States is now, once again, ready to jump back onto the nuclear-energy bandwagon.

If you’re interested in some of the technical details about the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, there's a video called, "What Fusion Wanted to Be", presented at one of the Google Tech Talks.

What else can the U.S. do with nuclear power to help developing countries?

We could build and help to run nuclear power plants as well as provide the fuel for them, and dispose of any wastes produced. (They would pay us to do this so U.S. taxpayers would not be paying for other’s energy). Then developing countries would also have inexpensive, non-polluting energy, which would assist them in becoming prosperous.

The lesson of Haiti was that it wasn't the earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, it was poverty. If we implement the suggestions I've given above, we will do more to increase prosperity and decrease pollution than any carbon tax will do. And it doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that prosperous countries rarely, if ever, go to war with each other.

Conclusion

Nuclear power to the people!

And as Mister Spock would say: “Carbon free and prosper.”
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Tim Farage is a Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at Dallas. You are welcome to comment upon this blog entry and/or to contact him at tfarage@hotmail.com.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Why Liberals Should be Liberal

What is Liberalism, anyway?

We can’t have an edifying discussion about liberals and liberalism without defining these terms, otherwise confusion could result. So I’ve looked up a couple of terms from a number of sources, and here are some definitions that I’ll use:

Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, "of freedom") is the belief in the importance of individual liberty.

Classical liberalism refers to a political philosophy that is committed to liberalism: to the ideas of limited government and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, and free markets.

Liberal refers to a person who believes in liberalism.

These definitions fit well together. Liberalism is a belief, and classical liberalism is a political philosophy that reflects this belief. A liberal is a person who believes in liberalism, and would seemingly embrace classical liberalism as a political philosophy. But some people who consider themselves to be liberals do not embrace the political philosophy of classical liberalism. The purpose of this post is to convince them to do so.

Just to be up front about it, using these definitions I am a liberal. And my political philosophy is that of classical liberalism. Today, the term libertarianism is more often used than classical liberalism.

Also, it is very important to note that individual liberty does not mean that a person can do anything he or she wants to do. Rather it means that a person can think what he wants, and can do what he wants as long as this action does not infringe on the individual liberty of others. Usually, this means that actions that cause another person harm are not part of the concept of liberty. To put it another way, liberty implies that actions that affect others be voluntary and informed. So murder, rape, theft, and assault are not voluntary, and so violate liberty. Similarly, fraud, patent violations, and incomplete disclosure of relevant issues are a form of theft, and thus also violate liberty. On the other hand, playing football in the NFL may well cause harm, but players are playing the game voluntarily, so this would not violate liberty.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many people in America, who call themselves liberal, are, in many ways, not liberal. That is to say, they do not seem to foster individual liberty.

To give some examples, let’s first consider public education. There are two components to public education and it is important to distinguish between them. One component is that government subsidizes education. The other component is the government decides how students are to be educated. These are quite different, but frequently this difference is not made explicit.

Most of us agree that the government should subsidize education.

On the other hand, it seems to me that anyone who calls themselves a liberal would allow this government-subsidy of education to be controlled by the parents of the child getting the education. They are responsible for their children, and should be free to choose whatever school they wish for their child using this subsidy. It would be a substantial violation of liberty for a government to only subsidize the schools that it runs, for then it can teach whatever it feels is best, even if some of what is taught violates the beliefs of the parents.

One can argue that if parents don’t like their public school, they can send their child to a private school. But this is only possible if the parents have enough money to do so. In practice, this means that the well-off get to choose their child’s school, but the not-so-well-off don’t. And since we all pay for schools, all parents should be free to choose how their children get educated.

This is not the place discuss the details as to how this would be implemented, but one thing I would do would be to take all of the education money a state has collected (in Texas this is around $9,000 per student) and give parents an educational voucher worth this amount for each school-aged child they have. They can use this voucher to send their child to any accredited public, private or parochial school of their choice. The freedom to educate one’s child as parents see fit ought to be the foundation of liberalism.

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Another example has to do with government spending. Virtually everyone wants government, and everyone wants government to pass laws that protect individual liberty – the right of individuals to lead their lives as they wish, as long as they allow others to do the same. At the same time, most of us do not want government to pass laws controlling what we think, we our religion should be, where we work, etc. This can be summarized by saying that we wish a limited government that protects our right to be free. And our Constitution (which includes all of the amendments to it) does this by enumerating the powers of Congress and the President.

Unfortunately, the part of the Constitution that limits what Congress can do has received scant attention for decades now. From Social Security to Medicare to laws that prohibit the use of certain drugs, the Constitution does not give Congress the right to implement these. For instance, Social Security was passed in 1935 during FDR’s administration as part of a package we call the “New Deal.” In 1937, the Supreme Court struck down many of the provisions of this package as being unconstitutional, because no authority was given to Congress to pass such laws. FDR threatened to pack the court with more Justices that he would pick, and eventually the Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that the New Deal package was constitutional. If the gentle reader is in doubt about whether these items are permissible according the Constitution, I invite him to read the enumerated powers and see if any of these are there.

This started a trend, which has been increasingly exacerbated over the decades, such that Congress essentially ignores the enumerated powers clause. For instance, you are probably aware that the Constitution was amended to prohibit the sale and use of alcohol, commonly called prohibition. Amending the Constitution was the right thing to do since Congress had no constitutional authority to prohibit the use of alcohol. It was a terrible amendment, and was repealed, of course, but at least they didn’t ignore the Constitution. Since then, Congress has passed many laws prohibiting the use of many substances. Do you remember when the Constitution was amended to allow them to do so? Neither do I.

So what are some of the results of these extra-constitutional incursions? For one, it is estimated that Social Security and Medicare are underfunded by around 50 to 70 trillion dollars! This means that the money we are currently paying for them, the FICA taxes, are not enough to cover the promised benefits by this amount. Worse, these entitlement programs, along with the interest on the national debt are expected to consume the entire federal budget within a few decades unless some drastic steps are taken. This would leave no money for the things like defense or anything else that are actually authorized by the Constitution.

Just the interest on the national debt in fiscal year 2009 was about $3,500 per family. In 2010 it is expected to be over $4,000 per family, and will keep growing each year for the foreseeable future.

What does this have to do with liberalism? To be a liberal means to believe in freedom. And you can’t be free without money. With the astounding growth of the federal government, more and more of the money we earn is being taken, and more and more is used just to pay for entitlement programs and interest on the national debt. This means that each year we are less and less free to live as we wish. The solution? Amend the Constitution to require Congress to balance the budget, and to limit its spending to, say, 20% of Gross Domestic Product. It would take time to get to do this, but once we do, we’d start being more prosperous, and thus freer than we have been for a long time.

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A final example of what it would mean to be a liberal has to do with the United States becoming the world’s policemen. We have over 360,000 troops stationed in over 150 countries. I can’t even name 150 countries, but go to one of them and you’ll find American troops. What does this have to do with liberalism? It is not our duty or right to police the world. It creates enmity toward us, and likely doubles the cost of our military. We could bring our troops home, reduce their number, protect our ports and borders, train them in disaster management and emergency medical care, and give them a raise. The result is a more protected country, less enmity from others, and less defense expenditures. We would still have the best military in the world by far, and would likely be safer than we are, since many of our enemies don’t like us in their countries. At a far lesser cost, we could just do intelligence gathering overseas in order to attempt to root out those who intend to harm us. Less cost and a safer country means more freedom for us.

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Those are just a few examples of what we liberals should want. One could fill a 100 gigabyte hard drive with other examples, but mine is only 80 gigabyes.

“Power to the people” is what a true liberal wants. “Power to the government” is what the communists want. And we know where that leads.

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Tim Farage is a Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at Dallas. You are welcome to comment upon this blog entry and/or to contact him at tfarage@hotmail.com.

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