7.12.2008

Wanted: Nuclear Researcher to Develop Cold Fusion Process and Save US!

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121432182593500119.html?mod=2_1586_topbox


I'd be remiss if I didn't mention energy on this blog. Last week (actually June 30), The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting piece on nuclear power and alternative energy. Although not the best piece of work I've ever seen by WSJ, at least it touched on a wide range of alternative energy options most of us wouldn't have ever considered. And it included a "debate" over nuclear power - as bullet-ridden as the arguments were. In any event, it is a good read, not a great read, for anyone interested.

Let me first point out something I've mentioned in other blogs - we've had 30+ years to address this matter. WE are all at fault. Consumers are at fault (yes we are) because we didn't demand fuel efficient automobiles after the previous gas price spikes dating all the way back to 1973. As soon as gas fell to acceptable levels in September, we forgot all about the pain at the pump in June. Government - specifically those individuals in office - is at fault too. Elected officials could have been leaders as opposed to being politicians. They could have forged a way around our oil dependence - but they didn't because they aren't concerned about America as much as they are about their careers. It would have been politically incorrect to require 50MPG from trucks and SUVs in the 1990s (a very achieveable goal had we started in 1973 or even 1979). Automotive companies are at fault too, even though they did nothing more than satiate our thirst for bigger, badder, and more powerful cars and trucks. They saw the writing the on the wall but chose to ignore it. Now they are paying the price along with the rest of us.

So, shame on us. But that's not the main reason for this post.

I wanted to talk mostly about WSJ's Micheal Totty story about the pros and cons of nuclear energy. His article missed the biggest point of nuclear technology while focusing exclusively on the current state of nuclear energy. Unfortunately I don't know who Michael Totty is, but his arguments on both sides have holes, but like all controversial topics - both sides are right. Which means the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Nuclear technology in its current form clearly won't wean us off fossil fuels. As the "Con", Totty correctly points out that it is quite expensive to build nuclear plants - regardless of who pays for it (i.e. private enterprise, taxpayer, or combination of both). Even if the resources were there to build, it would take years - even decades - to complete such projects. The "Con" also points to the safety issue, which is where one of the holes lie. Safety issues exist in any form of power generator or energy creation - the fact that it is a nuclear facility doesn't make safety somehow "more important".

The "Pro" Totty probably never designed anything himself. If he did, he'd know better than to say this: He states that nuclear plants are economically feasible. Yet in the very next paragraph says that loan guarantees and other federal incentives are needed (as a means to calm fears of cost overruns). If loan guarantees are required, then nuclear plants aren't economically feasible. Further, he says regulatory and political delays push costs into the stratosphere, yet can't seem to come up with any hard numbers of by how much. Does it increase costs by 50%? 100% 200%? He doesn't know because such data probably doesn't exist. Which leads me back to my assertion he never designed or planned anything himself (like purchased a car or a house). Lenders and financiers can and should know exactly how much a nuclear plant costs to build - under perfect conditions at the very least. Which means they know that a plant will cost NO LESS than $X.XX B. That would at least be a starting point.

"Pro" Totty does however make a point by acknowledging the shortage of parts and skills. Even if the plants were built who would man them? There's only so many people and companies capable of building let alone working the complex machinery inside of a nuclear power plant. I mean no offense to any of my countrymen, but a lot of us who have lost jobs a manufacturing plants aren't cut out for technical jobs - if we were we'd already be technicians.

Apparently the safety issue is lost on both the "Pro" and the "Con". Improvements have been made - yes. Can accidents still happen - yes. But the concern for the public is a matter of perception. Kind of like a mid-air plane crash. People are scared to death of a mid-air crash on a commercial jet even though they are 1,000 times more likely to be in a car crash on the way to or from the airport. Why? Because the damage can be so catastrophic so quickly and completely out of the control of the individual. Plus there's no safety net once the accident occurs. All you get is lap belt and a flotation device - which doesn't help when you're free falling 18,000 ft above Kansas. As compared to an auto-crash where the individual has some control, damage isn't always catastrophic and in most cases just bumps, bruises, and maybe a broken bone. A nuclear accident is viewed much the same way - which is WHY Hollywood made "The China Syndrome" (not because Hollywood-types are a bunch of liberals). People know what a nuclear bomb can do. So we don't want to find out what a real accident at a real nuclear plant can do. That's why the public is so resistant to new plants, or even existing ones. The actual safety record really doesn't matter.

"Pro" makes note of the reinforced concrete used, fewer possible equipment parts to fail, radiation containment, all in an effort to make sure incidents like the fictional one in "The China Syndrome" would never occur. The fact is, any and all safety processes, any and all safety product designs in any and all industries under any given circumstance can be and will be circumvented by someone at some point. They will get away with it time and time again, they will teach others to get away with it, knowingly or unknowingly. Eventually the official processes get re-written because the top brass won't understand why the rule was there in the first place and then BAM an accident. History is full of them. The biggest and most prominent example - The HMS Titanic (1912). Other examples: ValuJet Flight 592 airline crash over the the Florida Everglades (1996); BP Oil Refinery Accident (2005); the list can go on forever.

Then there's the BIG question of waste - which is the other reason why nuclear power isn't the solution to our global energy needs. "Pro" Totty seems to think it is okay to swap one environmental problem (carbon emission/global warming) for another (toxic waste) just because the radioactive waste takes up such a small space (a football field 5 yards deep). That's an absurd argument. How do you think consumerism got started in the first place? Someone thought it was perfectly okay to throw trash in some unused corner of the world, and next thing you know we literally have mountains of trash in various parts of the world! That line of reasoning isn't sustainable long term, especially if "Pro" gets his wish of more and more nuclear plants built.

We're talking radioactive waste, so it is far from having a biodegradable trash bag in a landfill or something.

***

So, the answer is?

RESEARCH! That's right research. Nuclear research holds the promise of energy nirvana actually. You Star-Trek fans know what a replicator is. You may or may not know that a replicator is a nuclear reactor. It takes atoms of various elements and puts them together to create whatever item you ask it to create (nuclear fusion). The reverse is also true - whatever you don't want anymore also goes into the replicator (nuclear fission) where the item is separated atom-by-atom and stored until somebody needs something that requires those atoms.

What makes our current nuclear technology so bad is that we can only harness the nuclear power of certain atoms - uranium-236 to be precise, which becomes radioactive after the process if I remember my science correctly. The process involves separating one electron from the outer shell of the atom, creating an isotope. Anyway, the uranium cannot be used again so we have waste which has to be disposed of or stored somewhere.

What if we could reverse the process and slam the atom back onto the uranium atom? We could then neutralize the radioactive waste we have. (We'll call this Nirvana 1). Unfortunately right now, that requires far more energy than we would ever get out of the process, for that matter, for more energy than we can produce to put into the process in the first place.

Then, if we could do that, what if we could use other, more common elements to generate this nuclear process - something isn't so volatile after the process - like say hydrogen or carbon? Or better yet, what if we could use ANY element or complex molecule to extract nuclear energy from? We could then obtain energy from our existing landfills! Clean up our earth AND get clean energy at the same time! (Nirvana 2).

Again, this is Star Trek fantasy stuff. Although not impossible, just not possible right now. Only with research in this field can we get anywhere close. Will a replicator ever look like a common vending machine that anyone can operate - probably not.

Thanks for visiting my world

CT

NPR Topics: News