Wednesday, March 16, 2011

No, we CAN'T Dump Nuclear Power!


Since the devastating tsunami that struck Japan, and the nuclear emergency at Fukushima, a predictable kind of hysteria is settling across the globe as millions of humans now insist nuclear power must be off, OFF the table! Fortunately, as Financial Times columnist Nick Butler has observed ('Nuclear Power Halted in its Tracks', March 15, p. 9) the existing plans for constructing new nuclear power plants in China and India are likely to remain in place, though in the U.S. and Europe "the building of new stations will be delayed and older ones will be closed sooner".

The difference in the approaches? The U.S. and Europe with a narrow core of options (including natural gas, shale oil, coal) are likely to try to avoid riling the masses whose fears all already stoked (almost as bad as the fundies with their hell scares) while both China and India desperately need the electricity that nuclear power provides to keep their economies growing apace. The cost of other sources is simply too expensive, and less efficient, given their vast populations. (Over 1 billion in each country).

The point is that it's easy to engage in cavalier talk about ditching nuclear power (nearly 400 new stations have been proposed around the world) when your population and economy isn't critically dependent on energy, but a horse of another color to do so when it IS. Long term, truthfully, it's sad these devastating nuclear events in Japan transpired because ..frankly....the world can't afford to simply dump the nuclear power option.

There's always talk of "alternative energy sources" such as solar, wind, geothermal etc, but most people who bring up alternatives haven't carefully thought about them realistically, in terms of delivering the goods to large populations.

In The Physicist's Desk Reference, in the section on 'Energy Supply', there is a table (C., p. 187) for future projections of energy supply by the year 2012. The information is divided into categories of energy for categories of energy demand (I, II, III, IV) where I is 'very aggressive', II is 'aggressive, III is 'moderate', IV is 'unchanged' .

The only double-digit exajoule energy source contributors for IV are: oil (47), coal (77), natural gas (24) and nuclear (31). Oil shale is at 3, solar is at 2 and ethanol-wind-geothermal doesn't even make the 'cut' other than as a toss in for the category 'others.' (5 all told). In the important 'very aggressive' demand category (I) Oil is at 24 EJ, coal is at 16 EJ, natural gas at 9 EJ, nuclear at 6 EJ and the catchall 'other' at 2 EJ. This means it unlikely that alternative sources alone will reach even 1 exajoule in the near future !

As Jay Hanson has noted:

The fact that our society can‘t survive on alternative energy should come as no surprise, because only an idiot would believe that windmills and solar panels can run bulldozers, elevators, steel mills, glass factories, electric heat, air conditioning, aircraft, automobiles, etc., AND still have enough energy left over to support a corrupt political system, armies, etc. Envision a world where freezing, starving people burn everything combustible -- everything from forests (releasing CO2; destroying topsoil and species); to garbage dumps (releasing dioxins, PCBs, and heavy metals); to people (by waging nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional war); and you have seen the future. "

This means there must be other sources to carry the load. Nuclear must be one. What alternatives are there for the U.S.? Well, the current total reserves of coal are estimated at 5667 Q (where 1Q = 10^15 BTU, cf. M. Savinar, 'Life After the Oil Crash', p. 33). That means, at the rate of 23Q of coal used per year in the U.S., there is just under 250 years left. However, if that reserve were used to the same extent as oil – to get the same work done as oil now does – the lifetime for the coal reserves reduces to barely 85 years. And that’s assuming no further population growth! Worse, we'd have added some 2 septillion tons of carbon to the atmosphere even with so called "clean coal" methods (which also generate mercury).

Shale oil is being touted too, but if anyone has seen the land after shale oil mining, they'd see why the people living nearby don't think it's too popular. As for natural gas, I have only one word: fracking. Google it! Then think about your water supplies.

Getting past the hysteria, as today's FT Editorial notes, the nuclear industry has had a fair safety record since Chernobyl. This is due to better design and monitoring. The FT adds:

"Nuclear power should have a part to play in cutting carbon emissions."

Indeed! But, the other is to relieve most western nations of their oil dependence, especially on nations which are inherently unstable or which foster anti-democratic regimes. To show how bad things have become, in the early 70s, the U.S. was only 36% dependent on foreign oil, now the figure is nearly 71%. This is insane. Had we opted to go with nuclear power instead, like France, we'd have kept that oil use proportion much lower, and not be subject to wild vagaries of price fluctuations (even accounting for speculators) as we are now.

The lesson of the Japan nuclear emergency is not to halt construction of nuclear power plants, but to build them better, to higher level specifications and fail safes - which entails taking into account earthquakes as well as monster tsunamis. Build them to a high enough standard and we will have adequate energy for the future without going cap in hand to either terrorists, autocrats or potentates.

Could the nuclear plants in Japan, specifically at Fukushima, been built better? You damned well better believe it. But remember, they were designed and constructed nearly 4 decades ago when the warnings we have now weren't on people's radar. One can only plan based on probabilities, and those were viewed as small (at least for the "thousand year event" Japan experienced) back 40 years ago.

Now we know much more stringent standards must apply, and humans need to do it until the alternative sources like solar, wind etc. reach double digit exajoule status. Either that, or reduce our energy consumption by one third or more, or but our population by one fourth.

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