On Monday, September 27, 2010, Michael Brune, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, participated in a live interview on Daily Kos. During that interview and in the on-line question and answer period, he talked about the Sierra Club’s participation in current campaigns to increase regulations on coal ash, to halt mountain top removal coal mining, to stop the increased development of Alberta tar sands, and to eliminate the Haliburton Loophole that exempts the natural gas extraction industry from the Clean Water Act.
Until I added my comment a few minutes ago, you could search the entire post and comments without finding the word “nuclear” at all. I could have gotten upset and criticized the conversation with some snide commentary about ignoring the elephant in the room. However, the more I thought about what Brune and his commenters were saying, the more pleased I got.
Most of you have heard the often repeated construction “If you are not for us, you are against us.” One of my hobbies is turning cliches inside out, so I sometimes rephrase that construction in my own mind “If you are against our competition, you are for us.” With that thought in mind, I added the following comment to the thread on Daily Kos:
Thank you for a terrific set of responses. I have often told people who advocate for using wind, solar, and geothermal as the only new energy sources that they will consider that they are, in effect, arguing for increased use of coal and natural gas.
I guess I should be consistent and recognize that anyone who argues as effectively as you have against the increased use of coal and natural gas that you are, in effect, arguing for the increased use of nuclear energy.
As you have pointed out, coal, oil and natural gas have some environmentally unfortunate side effects that simply cannot be overcome. They all release vast quantities of CO2, and their extraction, refinement and distribution consumes vast quantities of other materials and releases even more noxious chemicals into the environment.
Their only real competitive advantage in the energy production world – and it is a big one – is that they can be controlled to release their stored energy when and where humans need and want it. No one has to wait until the sun shines or the wind blows in order to turn on a light, cool their stored food, visit Grandma, or take a trip to see the ocean. No one needs a 400 foot tall tower housing a machine larger than most locomotives connected to blades longer than a football field in order to have the economy of scale needed for low cost POWER. They can get it from a motor the size of a weedwacker or scooter.
The big competitor to fossil fuels on a playing field that values reliability and energy density is nuclear energy. Pound for pound, uranium packs an enormous energy punch – it contains 2 MILLION times as much energy per unit mass as oil, more than 3 MILLION times as much as most grades of coal, and 5-10 MILLION times as much as most forms of biomass.
That energy density means that only a few mines around the world can supply enough uranium to produce 7% of the world’s total energy needs now, even though we only use about 0.5% of the potential energy before removing fuel rods from reactors and storing them away for future generations.
When we need to, we can start using fast spectrum reactors and such sophistications as Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors to take advantage of all of the fuel that we have already stored away in carefully marked and protected above ground reservoirs. As people realize the benefits of these kinds of systems for large scale power production, they might also realize that systems like Hyperion’s power modules and NuScale’s modular reactors will make dense, emission free nuclear energy available on a smaller scale.
They might even recall that scientists and engineers have figured out how to turn nuclear heat into useful electricity on a scale small enough to power satellites, navigation buoys and even pacemakers. Those proven innovations can enable nuclear energy to compete against fossil fuels in a much larger portion of the energy market than is currently being allowed by the establishment energy industry.
Keep on fighting coal, oil and gas. You do not even have to say anything positive about nuclear – we know that its use will continue to grow as long as our competition has to begin paying for a complete product that actually does what we already do.
When coal, oil and gas have to capture their waste and protect the environment, nuclear costs will look pretty darned reasonable. When nuclear energy system production ramps up, the usual effect of dropping prices as we learn will take over and release an enormous resource of abundant, emission free energy.
Publisher, Atomic Insights