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September 24, 2008

New Nuclear Dawn?

And Why The "Alternatives" Aren't

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, humans can always be relied upon to do the right thing--but only after they've tried everything else first. Despite the posturing and word-plays in public to placate the Greens, it seems that the world is finally coming around to face the invevitable reality that nuclear is the only way to go.

UK
Dawn of a New Nuclear Age, Guardian, March 22, 2008
No Limits for New Nuclear Power Stations, UK Times Online , January 8, 2008.

EUROPE
We Need More Nuclear Plants to Avoid Blackouts, Say German Power Chiefs, Guardian, March 24, 2008.
France & UK to Step Up Nuclear Cooperation, EurActiv.com, March 27, 2008.

WORLD
IAEA Nuclear Technology Review 2007.
"Current expansion, as well as near-term and long-term growth prospects,remain centred in Asia. As shown in Table A-1, of the 29 reactors under construction, 17 were in Asia. By the end of the year 26 of the last 36 reactors to have been connected to the grid were in Asia."

Houston Chronicle, April 27, 2005
"In the current debate over the energy bill, one important factor is being all but ignored: A global renaissance in nuclear energy is gaining momentum, and it could have greater implications than any or all of the other proposed methods being discussed for dealing with our energy problems.

"Today some 440 civil nuclear reactors, in 30 countries comprising two-thirds of humankind, produce 16 percent of the world's electricity. Under current plans, these nations will construct several hundred more reactors by 2030."

I've posted many pieces over the years, making the case that nuclear is the only approach to meeting the world's energy needs for the coming century that makes any sense. It involves no chemical combustion requiring management of huge flows of combustion gases, with concomitant high costs for maintenance and down time; for over half a century it has maintained a safety record unrivaled by any other heavy industry; and even with capital costs and construction times artificially inflated by legal requirements contrived for no other purpose than to obstruct, it retains a competitive edge over the only serious rivals: coal, oil, and gas. (France, with 80 percent of its electricity nuclear--produced under rational legislation--enjoys the lowest rates in Europe--about half those of Italy, which closed down its nuclear capacity in the 1980s in a fit of pandering to Greens, and is now being forced to reconsider.)

But there's a more basic reason than that. Much is made of the amount of energy that the world's growing population will need, and the utter inability of fads like windmills and solar toys to come anywhere close to meeting it. And this is true. But the real key to doing existing things more effectively and to discovering totally new things, in the way that's essential to keep pace with the needs of a growing and advancing civilization, is breaking through into successively higher regimes of energy density. It's easy to calculate how much energy it takes to lift and move 300 people across the Atlantic in 6 hours. A simple lookup table will tell you how much wood releases that amount of energy. Okay, now try building a wood-burning 767. It won't work. The mountain of logs will never get itself off the ground. You need the energy concentration of jet fuel. A while ago I read somewhere that if Canada were to try to sustain its current energy use with wood alone, every tree in Canada would be burned within 9 months.

Every form of conventional combustion derives from energy changes occurring in the outer electronic shells of atoms. Transitions that take place in atomic nuclei are thousands of times more intense. That's why nuclear processes require thousands of times less fuel to produce the same amount of energy, and generate thousands of times less waste. (Substances that are far more toxic than nuclear waste are handled routinely in far larger quantities, with far less care--see earlier posting for example.) Generating electricity is just a first step. Technologies based on nuclear energy densities can be expected to open up such areas of application as:

  • High-quality industrial heat with the potential to transform, compact, and clean up all manner of materials extraction and processing.
  • Revolutionizing of the chemicals industry, with 100% reactants combining in milliseconds from tuned resonant plasma states, instead of low percentages reacting for hours or days with broadband, nonspecific heat sources.
  • Economic bulk desalination of seawater
  • Feasible manufacture of synthetic liquid hydrocarbons to rival or exceed gasoline in cost and performance.
  • Full recycling of all forms of waste.
  • Space propulsion to reach the outer planets in 90 days, effectively reducing the Solar System to the size of the Earth at the time of the Renaissance navigators.
  • Sciences of "nuclear chemistry," involving transmutation of elements on an industrial scale.

Hence, nuclear energy represents the required breakthrough into the next regime of energy density, offering prospects of genuinely new methods and discoveries. The so-called "alternatives" do not.

Arthur C. Clarke commented that the Apollo Program was a magnificent achievement but due to political pressures happened 40 years too soon. It could be that the Manhattan Project and its wartime distortion of priorities had the same effect on nuclear technology.

 
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