This posting needs a little context. I occasionally get into conversations with people that wonder why I am so passionate about atomic energy. Explanations of that sort often require some background information. I composed this letter as part of a conversation with a journalist whose views are completely divergent, but who is willing to listen and learn. I thought it might help to provide context for others and my keyboard pal had no issues with me sharing part of our conversation.
I have spent the past 25 years studying and operating various kinds of energy production and consumption systems. My experience includes ocean sailing trips dependent on wind, batteries and and auxiliary diesel, backpacking trips dependent on biomass and auxiliary propane stoves, twelve 90-day patrols on a submarine in engineering jobs including chief engineer, 9 semester hours of advanced graduate level class work studying and designing alternative energy systems, three years running a small manufacturing enterprise, 25 years as a home owner paying careful attention to heating, cooling and other support systems, and 30 years as a driver, often with long commutes.
As we have discussed before, I also started paying attention to energy at a very young age; Dad was an electrical engineer who designed transmission lines and loved having a son who would listen to him talk about his work – Mom was never very interested. I sat with Dad in gas lines in 1974, worried about how to get to my fiance’s house in 1979 when I had only 12 hours of liberty and there were few open gas stations in the DC area and started my nuclear power training when I was 21.
During a shore assignment after 12 years as a nuclear trained submarine engineering officer, I spent about 20 hours per week in the library reading dozens of books and hundreds of research papers while working on a design for an energy system that would meld the best characteristics of all of the options that I had studied and used over the years. Most of the system is based on existing knowledge, but one small part was judged worthy of a US patent. My attorney was rather impressed that the patent was awarded in less than a year from the time that we applied – he said that said something about the uniqueness of the design and the quality of the research backing it up.
I am not trying to snow you with credentials, just trying in as brief a way as possible to let you know that my opinions are based on deep experience supported by formal training and decades worth of thought.
Though it is considered bad form to brag about academic achievements, it might also interest you to know that I was a National Merit Scholar, graduated with honors from the Naval Academy with a BS in English, and graduated with distinction from the Naval Postgraduate School with an MS in Systems Technology, (Command, Control and Communications). I have never worked in the nuclear power industry; I currently make my money as a commissioned officer in the US Navy with most of my work being Information Technology management. In other words, I am not a “vested” interest in nuclear power – in fact, my interest in that technology has been a very expensive hobby.
I share your frustration about the subsidies provided to the nuclear power industry, but those are more a factor of our political system and the fact that companies like General Electric, Westinghouse and monopoly utility companies have a long history of demanding and receiving taxpayer dollars. That is not nuclear fission’s fault, those companies look for and often receive subsidies for all of their development work.
We have been receiving commercial quantities of electricity from nuclear fission for about 50 years, as you mentioned. The technology, however, is an infant in comparison to its competition; even when you include any of the currently known alternatives. The basic physical process of splitting atoms using neutrons was only recognized as a phenomenon in 1938; there are lots of people that were alive then who are still alive today. Up until a few years ago, I used to run into Dr. Glenn Seaborg, the man who discovered plutonium, at American Nuclear Society meetings, and I still maintain an active correspondence with Theodore Rockwell, one of the key designers of the first power producing nuclear fission system – the one used for the USS Nautilus. The power plants currently operating are essentially first generation plants; the ones being proposed today are considered to be third generation plants (the US skipped the second generation since we stopped building plants).
In contrast, people have known that there was energy available for capture from the wind, sun, tides, rivers and dead plants for as long as there have been people. Countless inventors have been designing and using systems to capture that energy for thousands of years and have had plenty of time to refine the systems to the point where there is little room for improvement. In general, there has been no organized effort to slow those developments; any smart person with good ideas was free to pursue them.
Nuclear fission has been actively opposed since the late 1960s. Interestingly enough, it was hugely popular among the general population up until the time that it actually began producing significant quantities of electricity and captured the investment community’s almost complete attention. In 1972, nearly every electrical power plant on order was nuclear powered, and the US Energy Information Agency predicted that something like 80% of the electricity in the country would be produced using nuclear fission by the year 2000.
I believe that the success of the opposition to nuclear power is partially driven by the way that the well established fossil fuel industry reacted to those predictions. Like any other large and profitable business whose market is threatened, they fought to retain their markets, often with tactics that were not too ethical or obvious. They found people that liked to rally and paid them to rally against nuclear power plants. They damned with faint praise their colleagues who were working with nuclear power (remember, most nuclear equipment manufacturers also produce coal, oil and gas equipment and have also been recent entrants into wind and solar equipment) and worked to starve them of funds. You see, in the fossil fuel world, fuel suppliers are king and often provide the capital for plant construction – equipment is a small fraction of the total cost and revenue.
There are lots of other reasons why there have been some failures in the industry, but a key thing to remember is that despite lots of opposition, nuclear fission reactors produce 20% of the electricity consumed each year in the US. That might not seem like much, but the number of kilowatt-hours is actually larger than what all of the power plants in the US produced in 1960, about the time that the nuclear power industry actually began commercial production.
Already too long. However, one final point for your thoughts during the holiday season – if you do not like the idea of large, established industries obtaining subsidies to develop new power systems, how do you like the idea that the primary beneficiaries of subsidies for wind, solar and biomass alternative energy systems are companies like General Electric (the largest supplier of wind turbines in the US), BP (one of the top three suppliers of solar panels in the world and a company whose net profit last fiscal quarter was more than $8 BILLION), and Archer Daniels Midland, a multi-billion dollar grain processing company that receives about 60% of the ethanol budget?