All available energy sources have their limitations and disadvantages as well as their advantages. These limitations are generally well known and frequently repeated. “Everyone knows” most of the following litany of negatives:
- The world’s supply of oil is limited and concentrated in politically unstable regions of the world.
- Natural gas is explosive and expensive to transport, especially if there is no installed pipeline.
- Nuclear energy systems are technically sophisticated, generally very large, often inflexible, expensive and require a tortuous planning and licensing process followed by a lengthy manufacturing and construction process.
- Wind energy is diffuse and weather dependent, requiring physically large collection systems for a relatively small and unpredictable amount of energy.
- Solar energy is diffuse, reliably disappears every night, and requires physically large, sophisticated and expensive collection systems.
- Coal is full of contaminants, relatively bulky, and its extraction requires either dangerous underground mining or moving large amounts of overburden.
What many energy observers and pundits fail to do when faced with that litany of true statements is to apply a simple, problem solving logic test to that litany. Perhaps I have a small advantage over many people who engage deeply in discussions of energy because I grew up in a home where one of the more memorable expressions of the required test occupied a place on the wall within the field of view of the chair where I ate almost every meal for 15 years. This is the first verse of the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
I have often been accused of being vain and full of myself, but when I look at the list of challenges that face each available energy alternative, I cannot help but notice that there is only one option whose main challenges are within my ability to change.
- Neither I, nor any other human being, can alter the ultimate quantity and location of the world’s reservoirs of petroleum.
- Neither I, nor any other human being, can alter the fact that the weather is uncontrollable.
- Neither I, nor any other human being, can stop the earth from rotating, get rid of clouds or move the sun any closer than its current 93 million miles to reduce the amount of spherical spreading its energy loses.
- Neither I, nor any other human being, can remove the contaminants or make coal more readily accessible.
What I can do is to work to reduce the time that it takes to build new nuclear energy facilities. I can also work to make them available in a wide variety of sizes in machines that can respond quickly to either human or automatic control signals. With the focused assistance of a lot of other human beings, I can make a meaningful contribution towards overcoming the primary technical disadvantages that remain in the way of making an almost unbelievably abundant, clean and affordable energy source available to everyone. That is what I now do during every working day, with some arguable amount of success.
I can also not help noticing that a small and focused group of people in the right positions could make an even larger improvement in the ability of nuclear energy to meet human needs than is possible by innovative engineering and business process improvements. The famously long, tortuous, and unpredictable licensing process that adds a tremendous level of schedule uncertainty, labor and financing costs, and project completion risk is not a limitation imposed by nature, but by the conscious choices of human beings.
There is abundant proof available to support that statement – you can look to the current nuclear program in China, the famously successful nuclear development program in France, the nuclear development program run by the Atomic Energy Commission during the period from 1954-1974 or even the well known, but little understood nuclear development program that continues to operate here in the United States under the auspices of the dual-hatted Naval Reactors organization. In all cases, human decision makers have recognized that nuclear energy requires careful supervision, but also recognized that it is valuable enough to make that supervision relatively predictable.
It is only in those countries where certain humans have determined that nuclear energy development must be halted that regulatory systems have arisen to become mushy barriers that cause an old sailor to be reminded of expressions of frustration like “you cannot push a rope”, “wading through quicksand” or “herding cats”.
When human beings decide that nuclear energy is valuable and needs to be enabled, it is possible to accomplish tasks like building planning to build 80 GW of new electric generating capacity before 2020, launching ’41 (nuclear powered submarines) for freedom’ in about six years, completing the very first large scale nuclear power plant about four years, and funding, designing, building and installing a prefabricated nuclear electricity and heating reactor under the ice in Greenland in about a year and a half.
When powerful people decide to stop it from being developed, they can impose a regulatory agency that can operate for 35 years without allowing a single new nuclear energy system to be initiated and seen through to completion. (Every nuclear energy plant operating and officially under construction today in the US was started before the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was formed in 1974.)
On a personal level, the Serenity Prayer has not served its purpose of providing comfort and acceptance. If you do a careful study of the posting times of most articles here on Atomic Insights or if you are one of the many people with whom I exchange personal correspondence, you will realize that I am not a very serene person.
I often have a great deal of difficulty sleeping more than a few hours at a time because I am deeply troubled by what I know and strongly motivated to take action to solve what I see as an incredibly important problem that continues to get worse with every day in which humans consume 80 million barrels of oil, 16 million tons of coal, and about 300 million cubic feet of natural gas all while releasing the resulting waste products into our shared atmosphere and bodies of water.
Please help me to spread the word – the process of regulating nuclear energy expansion, innovation and improvement into obscurity in many developed nations is not a given. The process has been imposed by human beings, often for competitive and greedy reasons. It can be changed by human beings if they are properly motivated to make the required changes.
Note: Hat tip to Rick, an Atomic Insights contributor who posted the following thought inspiring comment on yesterday’s post about Dan Rather’s recent investigations into nuclear energy.
I would say Dan Rather asked good questions but clearly did not know enough to steer the conversation toward regulatory reform. These guys always say the licensing is torturous but why do they accept it as a given. Why can’t they even hint that the process needs changing?
Star-Telegram (March 4, 2011) NRC Adds 18 Months to Timetable for Comanche Peak safety review