I spent New Years Day 2012 engaged in an activity that reminded me how much fun it can be to rapidly consume energy for what some may consider to be a frivolous purpose. I joined a group of successful, relaxed and energetic members of the Smith Mountain Lake Water Ski Club to participate in the 19th Annual Polar Bear Ski Day. We had a blast and shared some welcome fellowship while consuming copious quantities of refined hydrocarbons.
Yes, I actually spent some time waterskiing on an unseasonably warm New Years Day with both air and water temperature hovering near 50 degrees F. I might not have had quite as much fun it it had been a more typical New Years Day in central Virginia.
The experience gave me some additional food for thought about why I think it is so important for those of us who are alive today to work hard to develop and build the technologies that will allow our children, grandchildren and countless future generations to enjoy some of the same benefits that we have enjoyed for the past 100-150 years in the industrialized world. It also reminded me that the benefits of abundant power have not been universally shared, but that the world would be a safer, cleaner and more friendly place if they were.
It might put me into a slight minority among the people who invest time in thinking about our energy future, but I see an incredible opportunity for using currently readily available natural hydrocarbons as tools for enabling a prosperous and powerful future for a growing portion of the world’s population. The availability of “cheap gas” in the US should not be an excuse for slowing down our nuclear energy system development; it should be celebrated as a way to make that development happen faster and at a lower cost. I want petroleum, natural gas and coal resources to be used as bridges to a higher energy future powered by fuels that do not release any pollution to the atmosphere.
In most of the developed world, we are experiencing a time of reduced expectations, a period where there is tremendous talent sitting on the sidelines, and a time when interest rates are at an historic low. In some places, we have more fossil fuels being produced and in storage than we can effectively use immediately, so prices have dropped rather dramatically. As we all should know by now, it takes a lot of initial capital – in the form of cash, people, and material – to build new nuclear power stations, but all of those ingredients are currently available at lower costs than most might have imagined just five years ago.
Once we get uranium, plutonium or thorium fueled facilities up and running, they will last for many decades. Their operational costs and continuing need for additional capital investments are quite modest. They do not consume hydrocarbons and do not produce any more polluting emissions once they are built.
That is a good thing because no one is actually predicting that our current abundance of natural hydrocarbons will last for much longer. According to the most recent evaluation by the Potential Gas Committee, an organization with some interesting bias towards optimism about resources, the total amount of natural gas in the United States (even when you include proven, probable, possible and speculative categories of reservoirs) is only 2170 trillion cubic feet. Even if we do not increase our consumption by a single TCF per year, that resource will disappear in 90 years. The math is really simple – 2170 TCF/24 TCF/Yr = 90 Yrs.
That might seem like forever to an executive who is worried about making next quarter’s numbers, but it is a brief period considering the length of a human life and the duration of human history. I had a grandmother who lived to be 97 and a great grandmother who lived to be 101. My granddaughter is two years old; I expect that she will still be alive in 90 years. I cannot imagine bequeathing her a world that is using up a valuable material like methane as quickly as it can.
It would be far more equitable on a generational basis if the world that I departed in a few decades included at least two to five times as much nuclear energy generation capacity as it does today. If I have any say in the matter, that capacity will be used about 60-95% of the time and it will include a growing number of smaller individual units.
It will also include units that are configured to take advantage of heat locked up in atoms of uranium, plutonium and thorium to convert abundant sources of hydrogen and carbon into synthetic hydrocarbons. Energy dense, easily pumped, and easily throttled liquid hydrocarbons will always have useful purposes for such activities as powering airplanes, speedboats, and automobiles.
Aside: I recognize that current nuclear plants are achieving capacity factors averaging more than 90%, but I believe that there are good reasons for allowing some nuclear plants to serve as load-following, on-demand generators that will not be used at that high a capacity factor. They will have very high availability factors and generate value in ways other than producing maximum power output for as many hours as possible. End Aside.
2011 was a challenging year for nuclear energy advocates, but it should be remembered as a year when a nagging question was answered in a way that favors continued growth in the technology. Though some observers have often asked about the worst case scenario, a far more important question has been “What is the worst that can realistically happen?”
In spite of what you might have read in the advertiser-supported media or sourced from press releases from organizations that have been fighting nuclear energy development for decades, the bottom line is that even nuclear plants that were built 35-40 years ago and are not perfectly operated can withstand the worst that nature can throw at them without causing widespread injury or death.
In fact, with reasonably effective response planning and implementation, it likely that severe accidents that melt nuclear reactor cores and release radiation into the environment will not kill anyone. By using realistic radiation safety limits based on health effects and not based on an assumption that the tiniest amount of radiation is dangerous, nuclear power plant accidents will not produce any significant property damage or population dislocation.
We can build nuclear plants that are more resilient to outside influences and are located in places that are less susceptible to those influences. As demonstrated by the performance of other nuclear plants hit by the same tsunami as units 1, 2, and 3 of Fukushima Daiichi, we started building those kinds of nuclear plants at least 30 years ago.
However, I do not want anyone to forget that something akin to the worst possible confluence of events resulted in an accident with demonstrated, measured consequences that were many orders of magnitude less than the consequences predicted by the hand-wringing naysayers. They were far less than the official predictions computed by regulatory contractors who were given tasking to build models that included worst case assumptions – with additional “conservatism” tossed in for good measure.
We need more low cost power in this world. We have been gifted with an abundance of incredibly energy dense materials along with the knowledge of how to use them for the benefit of mankind. It would be a wonderful way to start a New Year if a growing number of decision makers recognized the incredible opportunities that God (nature if you will) has provided just when we need it the most.