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.
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. 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. The Chernobly reactor incident had nothing to do with our nuclear reactors.
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.
(As of September 2018, Japan said that a worker died from lung cancer due to the radiation from the Fukushima meltdowns in 2011.
This is unlikely to be true. What actually happened is the government decided last week that the worker’s family should be paid compensation. Just like what happens a lot in the United States. We just don’t want to fight it - it looks bad. Which is fine. It’s a wonderful thing to give grieving people compensation.
The man, who was in his 50s, died from lung cancer that was diagnosed in 2016. There is no evidence it happened because of Fukushima. Instead, it appears the compensation was awarded just because he was a career nuclear worker. Who worked at Fukushima a couple of times. Who got cancer.)
(First, lung cancer is not the type of cancer caused by nuclear accidents, and certainly not this soon after exposure or because of such doses. It took decades for lung cancer to appear in the atomic bomb survivors, and those were at much higher doses than this worker received. By all accounts, this worker was diligent in his protocols and in wearing the appropriate protective gear.)
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.
Nuclear power to the people!
And as Mister Spock would say: “Carbon free and prosper.”
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 email@example.com.