Every once in a while, I feel the need to step away from politics and detailed technical considerations about the existing machinery designs for systems that can use nuclear heat to remind myself why fission has fascinated so many people for so long.
The bottom line is that it is a clean, immensely dense heat source that is easily controlled by human beings.
Pound for pound – or kilogram for kilogram – heavy metal fission produces about 2,000,000 times as much energy as petroleum combustion. Compared to coal, the ratio is more like 1:3,000,000 for good anthracite and even more impressive for lesser grades. We know from experience that you can fit the fuel needed to power a large ship for thirty years into a space smaller than a home office.
Fission produces such small quantities of left overs (some call it waste, I consider it to be raw material for a future process) that essentially every gram can be retained and stored in simple containers that use materials like water, concrete, steel and lead to ensure safe handling.
NO ONE has ever been able to tell me about an incident anywhere in the world where a worker or member of the public was injured because of accidental exposure to routine left overs from nuclear power plant operation. Sure, there is no agreement on a final resting place; there are conflicting views over many workable solutions for a variety of reasons that often include commercial interests.
Fission is actually a very simple process to control. The knowledge is readily available, but absorbing it takes a bit of dedicated study and hard work. So does learning to drive a car or operate a computer. Of course, there are plenty of people that prefer, often for selfish reasons, to give the impression that fission power is something that should be left to a designated priesthood.
We can build reliable, safe fission machines in about the same amount of time as we can build reliable, safe, combustion machines. Many of the components are common – both operate by simple thermodynamic principles. There is, of course, some baggage that has been imposed on fission over the years, often by ignorant, frightened people who were deliberately frightened by people who had competitive interests in restricting fission developments.
Fission is one heck of a way to produce heat. When it comes right down to it, heat (measured in Joules, kw, hp, BTU, whatever) is the world’s most popular product. Of course, that means that it is also the world’s most lucrative product and that the existing producers have serious reasons for building barriers to enter “their” market.
It would be great to have more leaders who understood the way the world works, like Ike, my favorite president of the 20th century. He pointed the way to a brighter future when he waved a “magic wand” to start the bulldozers used to break ground for Shippingport, the first commercial nuclear power plant built in the US. In doing so, he helped the US eliminate the use of oil from our electrical power production system, freeing it up for many other useful purposes. (Just in case you do not visit the link for the story about Shippingport, remember these key dates – ground breaking for the plant was in 1954, commercial operation started in December, 1957).
It is too bad that the coal, oil and gas industries worked so hard to maintain their heat supply monopoly. It is really a shame that they obtained so much help from people who were supposedly in favor of clean air and water.