The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has just published an open letter to President Obama that offers opinions on how to solve various pressing problems.
I’d like to riff on that letter and suggest that we should be pursuing ways to use one problem to solve another one. According to the BAS, there is a pressing need to secure fissile material stockpiles and a pressing need to effectively implement measures that will reduce the amount of CO2 that is dumped into our common atmosphere, raising the serious risk of global climate change.
Despite the title of the publication, however, no one who signed that letter effectively lobbied the other signers to acknowledge that the solution to one problem would also provide a useful tool for solving the other problem. Since James Hansen was one of the signers, I was disappointed to see that the letter’s climate section does not even mention nuclear energy. (Knowing a little about other signers, I did not expect very much on that topic, but Hansen is normally an effective advocate who presses a rational approach that includes a strong dose of passionate information sharing.)
Fissile materials – generally highly enriched uranium and plutonium – are the fundamental enablers of atomic fission power plants. In December 1953, Dwight Eisenhower, my favorite president of the 20th century, spoke about fissile (fissionable) materials and their possible utility:
Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?
We’ve never tried making fissile materials accessible to engineers and scientists tasked with transforming them into universal, efficient and economic usage. The importance of taking that path towards widespread energy abundance increases every day.
According to the open letter, which references a recent inventory report, the world’s current stockpile of fissile materials includes 1,440 tons of HEU and 500 tons of separated plutonium. I cannot think of a more secure and useful location for that material than inside the cores of operating nuclear power plants with their self protective radiation fields and necessarily thick walled pressure vessels and containment shields serving as vaults.
Here is an open source math exercise for Atomic Insights readers. Imagine about how you would best use that fissile material to fuel your favorite style of fission power plant and then calculate how many plants you could fuel and how much of the world’s total energy consumption those plants might be able to provide. Provide your suggestions and your work.
(Unlike 350.org, which has apparently initiated a “Do the Math” speaking tour without offering any math to speak of, many readers at Atomic Insights are not afraid to do a little math in their pursuit of reasonable and effective solutions to pressing problems.)