Several times in the past week, I have pointed out just how much money is involved in pushing people to act in certain ways in response to the threat of global climate change. It seems so obvious to me that the most useful tool in shifting our economy to sustainability without emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is to accept the proven fact that atomic fission produces reliable, controllable, power from a tiny quantity of abundant materials in a way that is so safe and clean that it can be sealed up inside a submarine full of people. We have been using that process for 50 years on hundreds of machines operated, not by Nobel prize winning scientists, but by well trained high school graduates supervised by just a few people with broad educations and some technical training.
Sure, there are challenges to overcome and technologies that need to be refined, but there are many humans alive on the planet today who were alive when humans first figured out that heavy metals can be broken apart to release five millions times as much energy – pound for pound – as combining carbon with oxygen in a fire.
There are even quite a number of people alive today who were adults when that discovery was made.
My reason for pointing to the youth of fission technology is to put into question those often repeated statements that the technology is “obsolete”. In contrast to knowing about fission for just 70 years, humans have known for tens of thousands of years that the sun and wind have useful energy that can be captured. Countless generations of scientists and engineers have watched trees blow in the wind or been warmed by the sun and thought to themselves, in a rather naive way, that they could do wonderful things if they could just capture and focus that energy. Many of them have tried and not failed, but realized that it takes a LOT of material and a LOT of land area to capture and concentrate diffuse, weather dependent energy sources like the wind and sun. Many of them realized rather quickly that some of the main reasons for wanting to capture energy was to overcome the negative effects of not having any control over the weather. That becomes a tail chasing exercise if your solution is to try to use weather based energy sources!
Dreaming about solving energy challenges using the wind and sun is understandable, but doomed to be insufficient. The people who like selling coal, oil and natural gas KNOW how seductive it can be to envision a world powered by natural flows, so they encourage people to think that is the easy and natural path to the future. The marketers in the fossil fuel organizations know those sources are insufficient for doing much of anything that people really want to accomplish, so that provides them plenty of headroom for selling fuel TODAY and, by the way, TOMORROW and the next day and the next one after that.
The fly in the ointment for the purveyors of established energy sources is fission – which can work with uranium, thorium or plutonium – to provide clean, abundant power for millennia before its supply runs out. Fuel marketers used to working in an industry where perceived scarcity leads to dramatic profit improvements are simply at a loss for how to proceed in a world where material limits do not seem to apply. Energy focused companies have known for decades that fission fuels present a real and present threat to their business, so they have worked like the Lilliputians to tie the Gulliver-like fission down with countless threads before it had a chance to really wake up and take charge of the power industry.
The companies who were invited to learn about fission were largely part of the established energy industry; they all maintained larger divisions and branches associated with finding, extracting, transporting, and using fossil fuel, so they ensured that their fission focused parts of the company did not grow fast enough to disrupt their existing revenue streams. Some of the fossil fuel companies got involved early in the nuclear business, particularly in the fuel cycle, initially thinking that they could parlay their expertise in fuel manufacturing, quantity and quality control into a new, profitable revenue stream. The reasons for their departure from the business are a little fuzzy, but it is at least partly true that they learned that the supply of potentially fissionable material is far larger than they thought, so they were never able to achieve any kind of control over that supply. (There is a fascinating story about a real attempt to control uranium prices by a cartel that ended up contributing to some serious economic damage to at least one major reactor vendor, but that needs to be told when I have more time.)
All of the above was instigated when I watched the introductory talks at the National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 Roundtable and heard John Podesta, Harry Reid, and Al Gore go on and on about T. Boone Pickens, natural gas, renewable energy, smart grids, and jobs without a single mention of the fact that we have a reliable, American, clean, efficient, proven, abundant (help me here, I am running out of adjectives) energy source that has been pushed into the back of the closet for far too long. Nuclear fission energy DESERVES as seat at a roundtable billed as a Clean Energy Summit even if it shakes the foundations of the American fossil fuel enabled political and economic system.
Allow me to remind you of some numbers from yesterday’s post. The difference in daily income for ExxonMobil from one single development project between selling natural gas at today’s prices versus selling exactly the same amount at last year’s prices is $62 million per day. That works out to more than $22 BILLION per year. That is just one company and one – admittedly large – project.
How do you think you would act if you thought that an interloper like nuclear energy was poised to take even more market, sales and profit from your company by increasing the supply of the commodity that you sell (heat energy)? How do you think you would react if you have spent a couple of decades trying to teach the world that you are selling a cleaner fossil fuel that can reduce CO2 emissions when a nuclear energy salesman – like me – clears his throat at a Clean Energy Summit Roundtable and asks politely:
“Perhaps you do have a cleaner fuel, but can you burn it inside a sealed submarine?”
Unfortunately, I think the reaction, at least today, would be for the purveyor of natural gas to wave his enormous wads of cash to encourage all of the political “friends” that he has rented over the years to shout me down, pass new restrictive rules, and and work hard to prevent anyone from hearing the message. When it comes to T. Boone Pickens organized Clean Energy Summits, unlike the situation in Harry Potter novels, it is the good guys whose name cannot be spoken.