The nuclear energy enterprise is not healthy in North America and Europe, the places that discovered the science and invented the technologies. That situation needs to change with due haste into sustainable progress that is not artificially restricted by annoying, delaying, costly opposition from people who either do not understand or do not value the technology’s capability to empower our society into a more prosperous, equitable, clean and free condition.
Compared to its promise, nuclear energy is a seriously underachieving technology.
In order for our atomic energy enterprise to make progress towards fulfilling its potential, it is important to reconsider our selection of friends and enemies. We need to understand both allies and enemies so that we better comprehend their motives, their strengths and weaknesses, and the ways that they can either harm us or help us achieve common goals.
In my view, there is a lot of confusion among players involved in making energy-related decisions; many powerful participants apparently do not understand how their actions make it difficult to achieve the goals they say they want to achieve.
Energy supply decision making is a geopolitical endeavor. There are going to be some relative winners and relative losers, but it is possible to chart a course that will produce a better world that understands more about nuclear energy, fears it less, and engages a growing number of responsible, creative people to devise new ways to use it to improve the human condition.
Unlocking the vast energy potential that is naturally stored inside the nuclei of the actinide series of elements including thorium, uranium and transuranics like plutonium and americium was one of the most important advances of the 20th century. It opened up the prospect that all people would have access to controllable power without limits caused by falling inventories of accessible fossil fuels or by concerns about waste issues associated with burning ever larger amounts of material each year.
Unfortunately, the timing of Chadwick’s discovery of neutrons and the discoveries by Fermi, Curie, Joliot, Hahn, Meitner, Frisch, Szilard and Strassman of the way that neutrons could enter and change atomic nuclei without the enormous expense of particle accelerators came at an unfortunate time. Not only were the 1930s a time of rapid advances in our understanding of atomic structure and behavior, but they were also a time of massive political disruption caused by the growth of a particularly obnoxious form of tyranny.
Though at least some of the pioneers — especially Leo Szilard and the Joliot-Curies — immediately recognized that nuclear energy had huge commercial potential as a vast new supply of reliable power, they also recognized that it might be able to be released quickly enough to produce a violent explosion.
At least some of the sponsors of the weapons development program also recognized the potential for abundant energy. Some were enthusiastic about that, but many were not so happy about the prospect of empowering the planet’s population with energy sources whose supply could not be profitably limited and controlled. Not everyone likes abundance because people will pay less for products that are easily available in more than adequate quantities.
One characteristic we need to understand about any potential ally or enemy is their attitude about abundance. If they want to empower people, grow the economy, and enable creativity, they should be potential allies that would be worth cultivation. If they fear people, if they believe that power should be tightly limited to only the “right kind” of people, or if they profit from scarcity, they might work hard to prevent nuclear energy development even if they profess that they are “not anti-nuclear.”
A key mantra of real environmentalism is “do more with less.” One of the best ways to achieve that goal is to use the best available materials that provide strength with low weight, that increase durability to avoid disposability, and that provide the most output for the least amount of material input.
Actinide fuels are incredibly concentrated power sources that offer many orders of magnitude improvement in the amount of power that can be released from a given quantity of material. Even using our primitive, second generation nuclear plants with a wasteful, once through fuel cycle, a single pellet of uranium dioxide produces as much energy as 147 gallons of oil, or a ton of coal, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.
With technological advancements, some of which have already been invented and developed through the demonstration phase, it is possible to extract 20 times as much energy from that same mass of material. Using concentrated fuel reduces mining requirements, lowers capital requirements for transportation systems, and enables more inventory to be retained using less materials for storage containers.
The waste produced when actinide energy is released from its natural storage location is similarly compact when compared to the waste produced when burning hydrocarbon fuels. Actually that is a bit of an understatement since the mass of waste from nuclear fission is no larger than the mass of the initial fuel while the mass of hydrocarbon waste increases by a factor of from 2-4 because of the addition of oxygen to the initial fuel mass.
Power sources that consume less material and produce less waste are beneficial to the environment, especially when the waste is so concentrated that it can be contained and stored rather than immediately released.
People who are concerned about the environment, who like clean air and clean water and who are worried about the long term effects of continuing to release massive quantities of hydrocarbon waste, including CO2 and other greenhouse gases, should be natural allies for the actinide power enterprise.
Nations with reliable fuel sources and strong economies are more secure than those whose fuel sources are interruptible by either political or economic actions. Strong, well-balanced economies that produce and distribute material good widely to contributing members of society result in resilience in the face of natural disaster, political challenges, or outright attack.
People who have honed their skills as welders, machinists, plumbers, electricians, design engineers, manufacturing specialists, logisticians, and countless other professions that enable a prosperous economy are readily adaptable to efforts that might be required to protect their freedom and prosperity. Their economy can also more readily afford the effort that might be required. If they actively seek to increase their customer base and to improve the well being of all, they might avoid the need to engage in battle, but they will retain the ability to rapidly convert to a wartime footing — if necessary.
Actinide fuel enables a high powered economy that balances energy supply and demand by producing more instead of using less. That path empowers people by providing them more effective ways to accomplish both mandatory and voluntary tasks.
When energy is readily available and when its use makes little impact on the environment, it no longer makes much sense to spend too much effort trying to conserve. Energy efficiency will still be worthwhile in cases where the more efficient product provides a better output, but it won’t be made such a high priority that people must sacrifice performance or value.
People whose real interest in promoting “security” or “defense” is increasing sales of specialized goods and services to the defense and security establishment will most likely not be supportive of a nuclear enterprise that improves real security for everyone. Their business model requires the majority of voters to feel insecure enough to keep electing politicians who are not “soft on” the current “ism” they’re supposed to worry about – Marxism, communism, socialism, terrorism, Islamism etc.
Other Energy Fuels
One of the trickiest segments of the population to evaluate in terms of its potential position on atomic energy development is the established energy industry. That segment employs a lot of people and is run by a vast quantity of wealth and power.
It would be self-defeating and inaccurate to decide that the established energy industry only contains competitors. The reality is that most people in the energy business will be nuclear energy’s strongest, most effective allies while others will be the strongest, most dangerous foes.
My take on the alignment might surprise readers and garner some emotional commentary.
The energy business is full of hard-working, dedicated people who understand that they are providing a product that is vital to developed civilization. They often know on a personal basis what it is like to try to live without access to abundant, reliable power sources.
Many of them already accept the value of nuclear energy, but are cautious about its cost, dislike the onerous regulatory model, or fear radiation because they do not understand it. In some specific cases, they have been turned off from nuclear energy because of their own experiences of being rejected by nuclear employers or because they have had to deal with arrogant, self-important, spoiled nuclear professionals who do similar work for a significantly higher salary.
Aside: That last sentence above comes from my own discussions with non-nuclear trained engineers and officers in the US Navy. Until having those conversations, I admit that I might have been one of the spoiled nuclear professionals that they disliked. End Aside.
The established coal industry may be one of biggest beneficiaries of a rapidly developing nuclear industry in North America and Europe. Coal has been demonized for decades despite its enormous and continuing contribution to human development and economic prosperity. Some of the criticism may be deserved, but the rhetoric applied against the fuel source has been dramatically exaggerated by competitors seeking additional market share.
Burning raw coal in primitive furnaces is harmful to the environment, especially when the consumption rate overwhelms the air exchange capability of the discharge area. Technology has been developed that significantly reduces coal pollution, but there are several additional technologies that could be employed to produce cleaner coal or to use coal as a raw material input for producing clean burning distillate fuels that would compete directly with petroleum-based equivalents.
Some people might question why I advocate investing capital into systems that would convert coal into clean-burning liquid fuel. Please consider how much better it might be from a variety of perspectives to keep mining already open coal mines than to keep exploring ever more remote areas of the world — including the Arctic, the Antarctic, and the deep ocean — in search of petroleum resources.
Well-capitalized companies in the energy business might find it beneficial to redirect their annual capital investment programs into developing nuclear energy resources instead of investing more and more money and other resources into the diminishing returns of finding and extracting more oil.
Though the prices of individual units of energy will decrease in a world with growing abundance from actinide fuels, the overall sales of the energy business should increase as more and more people have access to the kinds of products that North Americans, Europeans and other developed nations have taken for granted. The trajectory will not be the same as it was in digital communications, digital data storage or microprocessor computing power, but those industries show that it is possible to make more money with ever cheaper, more abundant products.
Scarcity, real or perceived, is a well understood way to concentrate wealth, but widely distributed access to prosperity also provides ways for high levels of success.
Building a world where people are valued and enabled to become affluent without harming their shared environment is a worthwhile endeavor that can attract a broad coalition. There will be opposition from people who believe they will be relative losers in such a world, but that should not inhibit action or prevent success.
The energy that naturally resides inside the atomic nuclei of actinide materials is available for use. It can provide the power and the prosperity for a growing population and it can enable people to live more abundant lives. Unlocking that energy will help us to achieve abundance without excessively fouling our nest and without rapid depletion of irreplaceable raw materials.
Let’s start and move forward with due haste. Our children and grandchildren will thank us.