One of the pleasures that I get from writing Atomic Insights is being contacted off line by someone who is intrigued by what I have written. Over the years, those off line contacts have resulted in some excellent friendships and correspondence. Several weeks ago, a local high school student made contact for some assistance with a school project. I obtained her permission to post one of our email exchanges here.
One reason for the post is to repurpose something I have already written on a day when I have little time or inspiration for a new piece of work. The other reason is to share some evidence that public education in the US is not in as bad a shape as commercial news media seems to imply that it is.
Thank you so much for your help. Your blog has been a very interesting and thought-provoking source. I have included a number (seven, to be exact) of questions that I have for you at the end of this email. They aren’t particularly specific, so answer them in what ever way you see fit. All I am really looking for is a different edge for my research–I can only read so many books and encyclopedias–so anything you have to say will be helpful. Thank you so much for your time.
1. I saw you mentioned on your blog that you began studying nuclear energy when you entered the navy, and that your father was a big influence on choosing to study it. Was their anything specific that fascinated you about the topic? What lead you to creating this blog and remaining so active in the debate?
I decided to enter the United States Navy because my school guidance counselor told me it was the best place in the world to learn about nuclear energy. He also helped me to learn more about the US Naval Academy, which is a great place to go to college if you want to do it without asking your parents for a lot of money. (I am pretty sure that a high school junior from Catonsville. MD already knows that students at the Naval Academy are paid to attend a tuition free college, but in case you are interested in learning more, let me know.)
The thing that fascinated me about nuclear energy was the way that you could get so much heat out of such a tiny amount of fuel without producing any waste gases that required a smoke stack. As I say many times on my blog – it is clean enough to run INSIDE of a sealed submarine.
The Atomic Insights blog actually originated as a paper newsletter that I created when I started a company called Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. The mission of AAE, Inc. was/is to design and build atomic powered machines that could propel ships or supply electricity and heat to islands or other remote areas.
The Atomic Energy Insights newsletter was a way to communicate my passionate interest in using nuclear energy to make life better for people. In November 1995, a friend who was studying for her PhD in Nuclear Engineering convinced me that the newsletter should be “on the web”, and she translated the document to html. I learned enough about the web coding to keep it running on www.atomicinsights.com for a number of years. You can still search the archive for Atomic Insights and find the articles that I published between 1995 and 2005. I started using Blogger software in about 2005; it automates a lot of the things I used to have to do for each article.
I remain active in the debate because I cannot think of a more important issue facing humans. Oil, coal and gas have been blessings that enabled us to develop a modern society based on creating amazing machinery to help us achieve things that we would never have been able to achieve without them. However, those hydrocarbon fuel sources are all going to run out in a period of time that is quite short – probably less than a century at our current rate of use is possible. I have a 3 month old granddaughter, but also grew up knowing a great grandmother who lived to be 101 years old. I also love to study history and read historical novels. A century seems like a very short period of time to me.
2. What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the nuclear energy industry?
The biggest and most pervasive misconception is the idea that the major opponents to using the technology are “environmentalists”. The real, powerful, effective opposition comes from people who make a great deal of money selling coal, oil and natural gas or supporting the sales of those important commodity products by producing tankers, pipelines, rail cars, emission control equipment, or combustion engines.
3. What is the biggest weakness in modern nuclear technology?
The initial cost of atomic energy devices needs to be attacked aggressively. We have to stop adding additional layers and extra systems in a vain attempt to make what is already so safe that no one has been killed by radiation in more than 50 years of commercial operation “even safer”. Many of the extra devices introduce additional complexity that make operations and maintenance more difficult. They even add a bit of risk; the Fermi 1 plant would never have experienced a partial melt if the final product had not included a late design change to add a “core catcher”.
4. What do you think is the biggest road block to creating an American energy system that is based on nuclear energy? How do you think this block can be overcome?
Most of the roadblocks come from the fact that nuclear energy challenges the “establishment” that runs today’s modern economy and governments. The best way I can think of to overcome that block is to keep writing, keep talking and keep challenging people to think hard and learn as much as they can about the issue.
It is also good to try to spread some of the passion and fascination that you can develop when you find out that a tiny pellet costing a couple of dollars can provide as much energy as burning a ton of coal – if we limit our technology to the way we have been using it since the 1960s. If we move towards breeder reactors, a technology that we have understood since the 1950s, the pellet has the potential of eventually producing as much heat as burning 20 tons of coal.
5. How would American society change if Nuclear energy became more prominent?
We might stop fighting wars in countries where our only interest is consuming their oil or gas or in using the territory as a path for a pipeline for other people’s oil and gas.
We might stop dumping 6 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year and also stop dumping less massive, but more dangerous quantities of SOx, NOx, small particulates, mercury, and other trace gases.
We might not have oil and gas companies dominating the list of the largest – by revenue – companies in the world.
We might have a renewed interest in studying math, science, and ethics.
6. Do you see the nuclear energy issue continuing to be a hot topic in the future, or do you think there is an end in sight for the debate?
Nuclear energy will always generate a lot of heat, so it will always be a hot topic. (That is an engineer’s attempt at a joke.)
Its capabilities challenge the market dominance of the largest and most profitable companies in the world, so there will always be well-funded, politically connected opposition. The technical reality of abundant, affordable, emission free energy is the only thing that will eventually quiet down the debate as the profit available in selling oil, gas and coal disappears. The profits from fossil fuel depend on a perception that energy is scarce, when reality intrudes on that perception, the profit will dissipate.
7. Finally, what are some of your favorite sources for information concerning the nuclear energy debate?
That is a hard question. I have a rather large library of paper b
ooks and access to the Internet. I love reading anything that Ted Rockwell (www.learningaboutenergy.com) writes on the topic. Kirk Sorensen of Energy from Thorium produces some great pieces; Charles Barton of Nuclear Green shares some amazing history based on growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee with a nuclear chemist for a father; Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat is a wonderful writer and journalist who is working hard to tell many complex stories; and the folks at NEI Nuclear Notes do a great job of producing newsy items on an almost daily basis. There are lots of others – check out the blog roll and list of links on Atomic Insights.
If you are interested in that paper library, let me know and I will send you a list of the books so you can find them in your own library or bookstore.
Now I want to ask you a favor – if you get this far. Can I have your permission to post our exchange on Atomic Insights? I will not use your name unless you really want me to, but I would like to describe where you are from and what your assignment was.
You have asked some interesting and important questions and proved to me that you have done your homework. I am impressed and enthused by the fact that our education system cannot be as bad off as the commercial news media portrays if it can produce students like you.