A reader introduced me to a site that I had not yet visited called Watt’s Up With That. He told me that there was an active conversation going discussing the merits of atomic fission (aka nuclear power) versus renewable energy and fossil fuel. When I found the thread titled Renewable energy – our downfall? I was impressed to find that it had garnered well over 200 comments. Made me feel rather inadequate as a blogger, but that is another story.
After skimming through the comments, I decided to make one of my own, so I thought I would share it here as well. As you all know, I am kind of lazy and like to repurpose my work. I also like to have some kind of record where I can go back and look at places I have visited and where I have tried to add something to a thread. Without a web log (aka blog) it is easy to loose track. Here is what I said in the Watt’s Up With That thread (slightly modified because writers are never quite satisfied and often feel the need to revise):
I’ll admit up front that I have not actually read the entire thread of comments, so mine might have already been covered. However, a loyal reader at Atomic Insights told me there was an interesting conversation here and suggested I might want to offer a few thoughts on atomic energy.
While skimming through the comments, I noted that there are some people, like Steve Goddard, with some serious misconceptions about the potential benefits of atomic fission compared to coal combustion. They claim to be concerned about nuclear weapons proliferation and/or the long term hazards of accidents like Chernobyl. I think Steve even claims family effects from the accident, though he is not very specific about what they were.
My personal witness is that I once spent about 700-800 days (total, broken up into 11 different periods) sealed up underwater with an atomic power plant that provided all of the power needed for heating, cooling, computing, lighting, entertainment, cooking, and propelling for a 9,000 ton submarine with a crew of 150 people. That power plant was a steam engine heated by a tiny volume of fuel that could fit under my office desk. That fuel lasted for about 14 years under rather heavy service – the ship had two crews and spent most of its time at sea. For about 400 of those underwater days, I was the Chief Engineer, so I had a pretty comprehensive view of the technology, training and people required for safe operation in some very challenging environments.
Having had that experience, it is impossible for me to accept the negative comments that people make about nuclear power. That has been reinforced by a lifetime of up-close and personal experiences plus formal academic and technical training with coal, oil, gas, storage batteries, solar and wind power.
Atomic fission produces TINY amounts of waste that can be readily isolated from people and stored indefinitely. No one has ever been killed or even injured by accidental exposure to stored used fuel from a power plant, even though we have been handling it for more than 50 years. It can be dangerous if not properly handled; that is why we train operators to make sure they understand the simple principles of time, distance and shielding. I am confident that we will be able to keep teaching people how to responsibly handle the material as long as humans have the ability to speak. If we lose that ability, all bets are off anyway.
I am not reflexively opposed to fossil fuels, but having seen what I have seen with fairly primitive nuclear technology, I cannot help knowing that fission has a hell of a lot more growth potential than fire. (Note: That amazing power plant I described above was designed in the 1950s, less than two decades after the basic physical phenomenon of self sustaining fission was first proven in a lab experiment.)
Humans have been using controlled fire for at least 10,000 years and we have been living off of the earth’s stored capital of concentrated hydrocarbons for nearly 200 years. In many places around the world, we are starting to scrape the bottom of the stored fossil fuel reservoirs. In others we are choking on the waste that is naturally produced and released to our shared atmosphere and waterways. However, we do have a very rich, powerful and entrenched industry that extracts, transports, refines and markets fossil fuel. That industry HATES effective competition and has worked for at least 50 years to tie fission down.
In my mind’s eye, I see the fission power industry as being like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians – it is tied down with a complex array of easily broken threads by a bunch of self-important but ultimately powerless people. There is a good reason that the organized opposition to fission power has been able to exist for so long – there is a natural alignment in goals with some very rich pro-fossil fuel interest groups. They both like high priced power, both want to restrict new sources of energy, and both are “afraid” of nuclear technology.
The amount of stored fission fuel capital is thousands of times larger than the earth’s hydrocarbon capital. It provides a higher quality output with a much smaller volume of waste that can be readily isolated. One incredible source of stored fission fuel capital is what many people call “spent fuel”. Another one is what is often called “depleted” uranium, a third one is a completely different metal called thorium, and another one is the world’s current inventory of atomic weapons. Of course, there is also an incredibly energy rich inventory of uranium left in the earth’s crust and dissolved in ocean water.
One more comment before I leave the stage – nuclear weapons and the technology needed to make them already exist. There is no way to pull the knowledge out of the heads of the people who have it and no way to control all of the needed materials. Their existence and even their ownership is less of a subject worth worrying about than efforts to ensure that the weapons will NEVER be used against people by ANYONE. MAD (mutually assured destruction) may seem like a terrible strategy, but it has worked so far to make sure that even the most aggressive people recognize that a decision to launch will probably be self-defeating and even suicidal.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
Update: (Posted Sunday May 31, 2009) The discussion described above has continued (current comment count is 345) and become quite interesting. Roger Sowell is strongly defending intermittent power sources, LNG and domestic natural gas while a couple of Professional Engineers are challenging his defense of renewable energy systems and associated policies. In my latest comment, I pointed them to Roger’s professional web site to show that his career has been spent in fossil fuel related businesses. I can’t wait to read his response.