Randy Olson’s post about the contribution of a short, alliterative slogan to the mass attraction of the No Nukes movement inspired my recent post about using Fission Fast! to inspire effective action to improve our climate situation. Olson has responded to that proposal with his own idea in a post titled Curb Carbon or Fission Fast?.
In that post, Olson leads with the following statement:
Pro-nuker Rod Adams correctly pointed out that I know nuttin’ when it comes to the issue of nuclear power today, but more importantly, he offered up a simple slogan (Fission Fast!) just as I was thinking of a similar simple slogan (Curb Carbon), neither of which are much use in a world so fractious and leaderless that nobody’s listening to any leaders. Oh, well.
Considering the fact that the initial post that inspired mine was one in which Olson drafted an ode to the No Nukes movement, my gut reaction was probably typical nuke – see, I told you those antinuclear activists were ignorant. I need to educate him! I immediately realized that approach was doomed to failure; Olson is a scientist with a bonafide PhD; he is probably not terribly interested in being educated by an arrogant nuke who can show him the way to the atomic truth.
Instead, I am going to try a more friendly, personal approach that offers inspiration and hope instead of criticism for not knowing much about a technology that has been purposely kept quite secret and suppressed.
Well-educated, successful people like Olson are often quite interested in understanding more about the activities that motivate others. They are intensely curious about the world and are justifiably proud of their ability to read, write, evaluate, form and mold opinions. I am more interested in learning more about Olson’s filmmaking and storytelling expertise than I am in trying to educate him about nuclear energy.
Aside: Olson’s book, Don’t be Such a Scientist inspired me to purchase his film titled Flock of Dodos which is a delightful way to learn a bit more about biology and the environment. He is a skilled communicator who is interested in helping others develop their own skills. End Aside.
Perhaps one way to become closer is to share just a little about what inspires me to be an atomic optimist (or “pro-nuker” in his lingo.)
Since the earth’s ability to sustain our civilization’s infrastructure – coastal cities, farms, rivers, hydroelectric dams, riverfront factories, etc – is being threatened by our combustion waste products, we are in desperate need of a solution that will work. I love homo sapiens as a species and believe that our technology and creations are a fundamental part of what makes us human.
I have enjoyed a good life as a middle-class American enabled by access to abundant energy sources. I’ve always lived in a comfortable home, been able to travel freely, and consumed plenty of good food – perhaps just a little too much of that – and clean water. I’ve traveled enough to know that most people in the world do not live like we do in America. I have read enough to understand that the primary difference is our access to affordable energy that gives us the power to do work.
I want to leave a world full of the opportunities enabled by abundant energy for future generations. I’m inspired by my love of human beings to seek ways to spread that abundance far and wide. If the only solution to a continued increase in CO2 was cutting back or doing without power; I would have probably fallen into an incurable depression by now.
Instead, I had the good fortune to learn early in life about an amazing gift given to humans by nature (God if you prefer) that enables our natural desire to create a better life for ourselves to continue by expanding our capacity to do work instead of living a world of diminished expectations.
Dad introduced me to the magic of atomic energy when I was about eight years old. I was later inspired to focus my career on energy production because I came of age in the 1970s, a time when everyone was frightened about the future by two rather dramatic leaps in the price of oil and reductions in access to oil products.
I chose to attend the US Naval Academy because I wanted to be a nuclear engineer. My high school guidance counselor told me that the Navy had the best program in the world for nuclear engineering. The best news was that the Navy operated a well respected college; not only was tuition, room and board free, but they would pay me to attend. Even though there has always been intense competition for slots at that school, I rarely earned a ‘B’, led a student organization or two, and competed on a national level in swimming. My guidance counselor was pretty certain I could get an appointment – if I would cut my hair and stop hanging out with the pot heads and boozers.
During my senior year at the Naval Academy, Admiral Rickover accepted me into his program, figuring that even though I had chosen to study English, his people could pour enough knowledge into my head to turn me into a nuke.
I personally experienced atomic energy’s incredible capabilities by serving on board submarines built in the early 1960s that were able to operate for 14 years on a load of fuel that could fit under my office desk. It was an amazing experience; the academic descriptions in books did not do it justice. The plant that provided our power did not discharge any waste to the environment other than a little warm water; it retained all of its waste products in that same tiny volume where the fuel was loaded.
Aside: I later learned that all of the US Navy’s used fuel from all of its ships and submarines is stored in a single facility that occupies a small portion of a vast federal installation in the Idaho desert. End Aside.
As I read and heard more about the long term effect of dumping billions of tons of combustion waste products into the atmosphere every year, I became energized about the potential for nuclear energy to save the world. I became an “environmentalist for nuclear energy.” People around the world have always wanted energy that was abundant, affordable and clean, but many of them had, for some unfathomable reason, turned their backs on a fuel that could do the job.
After my Engineer Officer tour on a submarine, I started on a quest to figure out why the world did not like nuclear energy. I took several advanced engineering classes to learn more about alternative energy from one of the real leaders in the field. It took about a year an a half of intense investigation to learn that fission was the ONLY available alternative that could beat hydrocarbons in almost every application.
A friend pointed out that hydrocarbon marketers were not terribly happy about being pushed out of their current dominant role by geeks holding handfulls of tiny pellets of uranium. After I understood the real reasons for the aversion to nuclear energy, I started to work on figuring out how to change the world’s mind about a technology that I had grown to respect, admire and, quite frankly, love.
Based on folklore frequently discussed in Navy nuclear circles, I was under the initial impression that the fuel was expensive and difficult to make. It did not take me long to realize that even with all of the artificial overhead of a fuel fabrication supply line that was deliberately spread out across the country, and the overhead of federal regulations voluminous to sink a ship, nuclear fuel is quite cheap per unit of released energy.
I also found out that it was easy enough to make that the United States had an enormous stored inventory. That treasure trove is so abundant that the US stopped producing the purified version of the fuel that enables extremely small reactors sometime in the early 1990s and still has plenty left for our current fleet of ships and submarines.
Commercial nuclear fuel costs about 0.68 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity or about 68 cents per million BTU of thermal energy including, “amortized costs associated with the purchasing of uranium, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication services along with storage and shipment costs, and inventory (including interest) charges less any expected salvage value”.
That price compares quite favorably with North American “cheap natural gas” which reached a nadir of just under $2.00 per million BTU (MMBTU) and has climbed back up to a hub price of about $3.50 per MMBTU. The delivered price of that widely touted “cheap” fuel has been as high as $35 per (MMBTU) in some locations in the US in the past month. That’s 50 times as costly as commercial nuclear fuel!
The one somewhat legitimate argument against nuclear energy is that building the plants required to gain access to that cheap fuel is substantially more costly and difficult than building the plants that create electricity, process heat and motive force by burning hydrocarbon fuel. However, that fact is not a natural truth, but it is a man-made invention.
After working for more than two years on a project to develop a commercial nuclear reactor for use in the United States, I am pretty confident that I can explain the high costs well enough to develop solutions that will drive down the cost to levels that are competitive with all other options. If nuclear power plant capital costs approach those associated with natural gas power plants the levelized cost of nuclear would be far below all other options when fuel costs are included. Cheap nuclear energy means widespread nuclear energy; which means a real ability to improve the atmosphere’s ability to maintain a more stable climate and a halt in the gradual acidification of the world’s oceans and bodies of fresh water.
Of course, making the cost reducing changes I would propose will require breaking a few eggs (perhaps eggheads is a better choice of words) and moving a few obstacles. The good news is that the obstacles were erected by humans; they can be eliminated by humans. That is a much easier task than trying to engineer your way around fundamental chemical characteristics of lithium ion batteries, solar photovoltaic panels or off shore wind turbines.
Wow – that was a longer diversion than planned.
Going back to the main point of this thought piece – people who are concerned about stabilizing our climate to keep it comfortable for human beings should be excited to know that we have an available set of tools in the form of dozens of different ways to release and capture atomic energy for beneficial purposes. It’s a toolbox that enables us to effective cure the climate crisis and go on living abundantly.
Cure the climate crisis by shifting to fission, FAST!
PS – I am sure that my optimistic message will not resonate with many marketers-in-activist-clothing who have made their living by beating the crisis drum to sell products. I am also sure it will not resonate with the people whose wealth and power depends on maintaining the fiction that energy is scarce, no matter what Einstein’s equation implies on a planet virtually teeming with uranium and thorium resources. It will not resonate with those who want to use legitimate concerns about the effects of combustion waste to constrain the human creativity that is represented by numbers like the Gross World Product – aka “the economy”.
However, I expect it will resonate with happy, optimistic people who prefer to take effective action that improves our collective life styles over trembling in fear, consumed with worry and fatalism.