THE NUCLEAR OPTION
Here’s the clean, little secret: The waste and operational safety problems in the US and European nuclear industries were solved more than fifteen years ago. High level nuclear “waste”, the spent fissile rods that once powered the reactors, are not really waste at all. They are recyclable. They can be reprocessed or even transmuted (via a breeder reactor) into fresh rods. This can go on for several thousand years. Lots and lots of swords and even more plowshares are languishing in the US inventory. Secondary waste, such as contaminated clothing, can be vitrified (embedded in glass such that only low radiation levels are emitted), and safely stored with minimal maintenance for thousands of years. [I wish we could say the same about some of the worst chemical wastes in ordinary industry!] Irresponsible environmentalists have blocked the multi-billion dollar Yucca Mountain atomic waste depository and a former president (Carter) has forbidden using breeder reactors to reprocess spent fuel rods. Ironically, Patrick Moore, the original co-founder of Green Peace now favors developing nuclear power. (Washington Post, April 16, 2006 page B 01)
This is all about security (something the nuclear navy has solved), political will and overcoming irrational fear.
By January 2010, we could commence a total energy makeover. We will eventually do this because we must. Why not now, when it will contribute to the restoration of the American manufacturing base, mitigate underemployment and help end the recession?
We will eventually rebuild the electric power grid just as President Eisenhower rebuilt the highway grid in the 1950’s. Electric powered transportation means huge electric current demands. Our old blackout-prone grids will fail. So we will build a new grid, capable of carrying unprecedented electric loads; and we will make it more secure and stable.
We can’t expect our car manufacturers to take bold investment risks in electric powered transportation, unless we make the power lines and generating plants needed for their success. We will start early next year on rebuilding America’s power grid.
We must build 200 new plants as fast as resources permit. And we simultaneously need to establish a nuclear security and waste recycling and disposal system worthy of a 21st century nuclear-electric economy.
The pace of construction will be calibrated to drive unemployment down to its lowest practical limits.
And that is to be the measure of our sacrifice. We will sacrifice subsidized idleness, the culture of over consumption and under-employment. We will sacrifice partisan bickering. American talent is a national security asset. We must not, cannot afford to waste it.
We can and will do all of this — and more — because now is the time.
There is a time for everything in life. The time for lofty speeches is over. It is high time to get America moving again.
The irony here is inescapable: The founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, a technically savvy engineer/scientist, is now an advocate of the rapid adoption of a nuclear-electric infrastructure.
In 2006, Moore said:
“In the early 1970s when I helped found Greenpeace, I believed that nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust, as did most of my compatriots. That’s the conviction that inspired Greenpeace’s first voyage up the spectacular rocky northwest coast to protest the testing of U.S. hydrogen bombs in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Thirty years on, my views have changed, and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.
Then again on April of this year, to a group in Boise, Idaho, Moore added:
“The chemistry of the atmosphere is changing, and there is a high-enough risk that ‘true believers’ like Al Gore are right that world economies need to wean themselves off fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gases.”
The only viable solution is to build hundreds of nuclear power plants over the next century, Moore told the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. There isn’t enough potential for wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal or other renewable energy sources…
…. [And] “uranium can be found within the United States and also comes in large quantities from Canada and Australia. Nuclear Power reduces the reliance on supplies in dangerous places including the Middle East.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency Report
At the end of 2006, “There were 435 operating nuclear reactors around the world, and 29 more were under construction. The US had the most with 103 operating units. France was next with 59. Japan followed with 55, plus one more under construction, and Russia had 31 operating, and seven more under construction.”
“Of the 30 countries with nuclear power, the percentage of electricity supplied by nuclear ranged widely: from a high of 78 percent in France; to 54 percent in Belgium; 39 percent in Republic of Korea; 37 percent in Switzerland; 30 percent in Japan; 19 percent in the USA; 16 percent in Russia; 4 percent in South Africa; and 2 percent in China.”
“… I don’t want to underestimate the very real dangers of nuclear technology in the hands of rogue states, we cannot simply ban every technology that is dangerous. That was the all-or-nothing mentality at the height of the Cold War, when …[America saw] ‘The China Syndrome,’ a fictional evocation of nuclear disaster in which a reactor meltdown threatens a city’s survival. Less than two weeks after the blockbuster film opened, a reactor core meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant sent shivers of very real anguish throughout the country.
“… Three Mile Island was in fact a success story: The concrete containment structure did just what it was designed to do — prevent radiation from escaping into the environment. And although the reactor itself was crippled, there was no injury or death among nuclear workers or nearby residents. Three Mile Island was the only serious accident in the history of nuclear energy generation in the United States, but it was enough to scare us away from further developing the technology: There hasn’t been a nuclear plant ordered up since then.
“And I am not alone among seasoned environmental activists in changing my mind on this subject. … Stewart Brand, founder of the ‘Whole Earth Catalog,’ says the environmental movement must embrace nuclear energy to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. On occasion, such opinions have been met with excommunication from the anti-nuclear priesthood: The late British Bishop Hugh Montefiore, founder and director of Friends of the Earth, was forced to resign from the group’s board after he wrote a pro-nuclear article in a church newsletter.”
Political Prisoners of the anti-nuclear Priesthood
If General Motors, Toyota and / or their successors are offering to sell plug-in cars, where is the new electricity to come from? How will the current, blackout prone grid handle the new demand?
The short answer is that we have some heavy lifting to do.
In the June 26, 2006 issue of Scientific American, three authors (Paul M. Grant, Chauncey Starr and Thomas J. Overbye) proposed the construction of a “super-grid” to handle the country’s 21st century energy needs. This was followed by an August 21st, 2006 article in Scientific American by two scientists (John M. Deutch and Ernest J. Moniz) proposing a threefold increase in nuclear power plants in the US.
In the grid article, the history of blackout was discussed and we were reminded that time is running out:
“A more fundamental limitation of the 20th-century grid is that it is poorly suited to handle two 21st-century trends: the relentless growth in demand for electrical energy and the coming transition from fossil-fueled power stations and vehicles to cleaner sources of electricity and transportation fuels. Utilities cannot simply pump more power through existing high-voltage lines by ramping up the voltages and currents. At about one million volts, the electric fields tear insulation off the wires, causing arcs and short circuits. And higher currents will heat the lines, which could then sag dangerously close to trees and structures.”
The authors thought that the cost of the super-grid was staggering at 1 trillion dollars over several decades. One wonders what they would have thought about a 1 trillion dollar credit bailout over several weeks!
A friend of mine who is in the position to know tells me that at least 9 trillion dollars in private funds are currently being closely held in cash accounts earning almost no interest because of the economic log jamb. The next step is to provide leadership, vision, direction, and a rational path to investments in real things that generate real income for real enterprises.
Rarely does politics and history present such a singular opportunity as the energy makeover.