Green nuclear power is the only practical solution to simultaneously (1) avoid dependence on foreign oil and gas, (2) overcome future oil and gas depletion, and (3) ameliorate global warming. Only two prime energy sources, coal and uranium, can affordably deliver terawatts of "mother" electricity to: (a) feed heavy industry, i.e. manufacture of automobiles, ships, airplanes, bridges, etc; (b) power vast fleets of future electric plug-in autos; and (c) produce enormous quantities of portable synfuels (hydrogen and ammonia) and biofuels to replace oil. However coal worsens global warming and should be preserved as raw material to make plastics and other organics when oil and gas are gone. In spite of many millions of dollars spent by hungry researchers, underground sequestration of gaseous carbon dioxide produced by coal-burning power plants is not economical or practical for thousands of generating stations worldwide. This leaves uranium as the only "big-mama" green energy source, an "inconvenient truth". That is, there is only one economic engineers-certified solution to overcome impending worldwide energy shortages. This is introduction of fast-breeder power reactors that burn up all available uranium and thorium to give the whole world 3000 years of all the electricity and heat it needs. It can be done most prudently by developing multinational nuclear fuel (re-)processing operations such as the proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) program monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which processes/provides fuels for fast breeder reactors that are useless (poisoned) for weaponry.
Popular solar and wind energy are useful for small-quantity power generation in select locations. In future energy mixes they may contribute as much as 15% of all electricity generation. But at terawatt levels, immense areas of land or sea would be needed, requiring enormous maintenance operations, spoiling scenic land- or sea-scapes, and destroying local ecosystems - an absolute nightmare for naturalists. As scientifically documented in "The Nuclear Imperative - A Critical Look at the Approaching Energy Crisis" (ISBN 1-4020-4930-7), by the year 2050 when petroleum fuels are basically exhausted, only uranium and thorium can affordably sustain global energy needs for some 3000 years, using proven fuel reprocessing and advanced fast reactor technology. A serious in-depth analysis of our future energy shortage by accredited professional engineers (not by anti-nuclear self-inflated philosophers) reveals that nuclear power will be essential to rescue our children from a future economic catastrophe. For the USA, 500 additional nuclear reactors are required, built on 9000 acres (@ $1.5 trillion), compared to 1,500,000 windmills with storage batteries on 6,000,000 windy acres (@ $4.5 trillion). Ten times these numbers are needed for the entire world. (Costs are in 2005 dollars; for later years, all costs must be multiplied by the dollar inflation factor).
Because it takes a decade to design, license, and build a reactor, action must be taken immediately to prevent a worldwide depression by 2030 when oil begins to run out. Contrary to false propaganda by anti-nuclear groups, the cost of electricity at terawatt levels is three times less expensive with nuclear than for wind or solar. Solar and wind power generation requires expensive energy storage systems (batteries, etc) when there is no sunshine or wind. Also many miles of access roads for maintenance and repair are needed to keep blades or solar panels clean from bird droppings, dead birds, sand erosion, and storm damage, and to periodically replace electrodes on storage batteries. Aficionados of renewables usually quote peak windmill or solar station capacities, neglecting to multiply their numbers by a factor of four to account for a year-averaged availability of only 25% of peak wind or sunshine. Reactors run continuously all year at 90% capacity. Should a country limit itself to solar and wind energy, it is guaranteed to become impoverished and dependent on portable synfuels imported from other countries (future OPECs ->OSECs), who expanded their nuclear power generation before oil fields were depleted.
Energy consumption for transportation is between 35% and 40% of all energy usage in the world. On the assumption we stop drilling when it costs a gallon of oil to retrieve a gallon, one finds we will run out by 2040/2050, even with exploitation of all the tar-sand fields in the world. There is only so much volume in the 10 km deep surface shell that circumscribes our earth where decayed plants and animals (mixed with lots of sand and river run-off mud) were compressed into oil over a period of 300 million years. We are burning all that up in two centuries. With an increasing world population and with Asia and Africa wanting more of the oil, optimistic estimates show it will all be gone by 2050. While in the next fifteen years, oil and gas may remain major sources of portable chemical energy for aircraft and transport vehicles, beyond 2030 the world can only survive if synthetic fuels are produced on an enormous scale.
Of course nuclear energy extracted from uranium or thorium can not be used directly as a portable fuel to move long-haul transport vehicles (airplanes, trucks, etc). But its heat or turbine-generated electricity can be converted into portable bio-fuels and other synfuels (synthetic fuels) with reasonable efficiency. In bio-fuel production, nuclear electricity can empower farms and the extraction/distillation operations to obtain alcohols or bio-diesels from vegetation. Without input of (nuclear) electricity, bio-fuel farming would be unsustainable since energy needed for cultivation, harvesting, and extraction exceeds the energy stored in combustible plant chemicals. Nuclear-assisted farmed bio-fuels have other limitations however. They can at most replace about 20% of today's petroleum fuels because biofuel farming is limited by available arable land; man also needs to grow food to survive. The other 80% of oil-replacement must come from hydrogen and ammonia synfuels which can empower combustion engines as well as (future) fuel-cells. Hydrogen can be affordably produced by electrolysis (or chemical dissociation) of water into hydrogen and oxygen. But hydrogen has the fundamental problem of being very difficult to compact into a reasonably-sized fuel tank. So ammonia (called "second" hydrogen by some) is now favored, because it can be stored at very moderate pressure in normal-size fuel tanks used today for a comparable driving range. Ammonia is produced by compression of hydrogen with nitrogen (from the air) via the well-developed Haber-Bosch process. This is a less expensive way of storing hydrogen than liquifying it. Ammonia can fuel combustion engines (already commercially available) and solid-oxide fuel-cells (future), and is less dangerous than gasoline in vehicle collisions. Their exhaust is water vapor and nitrogen (air) again from which it was synthesized with nuclear "mother" energy.
Modern nuclear power plants are absolutely safe. Because of the negative "coefficient of reactivity", reactor fuel elements only melt (an explosion is not possible) during a maximum credible accident in which the emergency core cooling system totally fails. This was "experimentally" proven in the Three-Mile-Island (TMI) accident. A negative coefficient of reactivity means that neutron multiplication is automatically stopped when the temperature in the reactor gets too high. The Russian Chernobyl reactor, which took the lives of 57 people, had a positive coefficient of reactivity because it used graphite as moderator. Such a design for nuclear power plants is now prohibited in all countries. Furthermore the Chernobyl reactor had no containment vessel, as is the law in all Western countries and now worldwide. The assertion that perhaps thousands of people could still die from radioactive fallout around Chernobyl is nonsense. Of the 60,000 inhabitants of Pripyat who had been exposed to fallout, about 9,000 will die at an advanced age of cancer because worldwide 15% of all people ultimately die from cancer. To ascribe those 9,000 deaths to Chernobyl's fallout is equally ridiculous as claiming that such a death toll is due to drinking coffee because 15% of all people drink coffee. Security precautions and containment measures for today's nuclear power plants do reckon with the possibility that terrorists might crash a large airplane or bomb on a reactor. Even if aerial obstructions (e.g. balloons) or underground construction can not prevent penetration of the large dome-shaped containment vessel, the reactor core vessel is designed to remain mostly intact. It can further be inundated with neutron-absorbing borated water which instantly suppresses all uranium fission in case of an accident.
A worn-out anti-nuclear cry is "what do we do with all the long-lived radioactive nuclear waste". The volume of waste amounts to one aspirin tablet per year per person using nuclear electricity, compared to tons of air pollutants and globe-warming gaseous CO2 emitted by coal or fossil-fuel combustion. Nuclear waste can be easily stored and safely transported, as the US nuclear navy has done for half a century. Contrary to allegations that uranium and plutonium in spent fuel elements pose a problem because of million-year half-lives, they are separated from fission products by reprocessing and burnt as fuel in future fast-breeder reactors. They will not be dumped. This reduces 50 tons of spent fuel per reactor per year to 0.5 tons of fission products (with shorter decay lives), taking centuries instead of decades to fill the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. The notion that long radioactive lifetimes are undesirable is also erroneous. The longer the decay lifetime, the less the radiation emitted per gram of radio-isotope. Most elements that make up our bodies (hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, etc) have infinitely long decay lifetimes. All humans are "hot" because everyone has radioactive potassium-40 (K-40; 0.012% abundance) in his body, which continuously emits beta particles with a half-life of one billion years! Man successfully evolved in this environment, and there are even indications that low levels of radiation benefit health (called hormesis). The hue and cry about possible terrorism and "dirty bombs" is also highly exaggerated. By the reasoning of anti-nuclear activists, we should stop flying 707 jets because they can be used as weapons to kill thousands of people.
Energy is man's third most important need after water and food. Those who hinder expansion of nuclear power will be viewed as irresponsible neo-luddites by future generations and must be held accountable. Any further delay of a committed worldwide nuclear energy program will cause certain impoverishment and deaths of many people by 2050. Without large-scale synfuel production by greatly expanded nuclear power, desert cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix will become ghost-towns. Originally the US had planned to have 200 to 300 reactors (@ 1 GWe each) by the year 2000, but instead there are only 104 today. After the Three-Mile-Island (TMI) reactor meltdown in 1979 in the US (with 0 casualties) and Russia's Chernobyl accident in 1986 (with 57 fatalities), public hysteria fanned by fear-mongering antinuclear activists caused cancellations and moratoria on construction of new nuclear plants. While the USA was once the leader, most US businesses with reactor manufacturing know-how closed. Instead France, Russia, Japan, South-Korea, India, and China are now in charge. Zealous anti-nuclear lobbyists and a mal-informed government have created the pending energy crisis. We are entering a war-like energy-deprivation period as serious as WW-II or Al-Qaida. Strong Manhattan-project-like leadership is now needed to reverse the short-sightedness and follies of prior administrations.
Jeff W. Eerkens, PhD
Adjunct Research Professor,
Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute
U of Missouri - ColumbiaUpdated: 2008-12-28 04:23:27
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