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August 20, 1998

Nuclear Note

Putting a few things in perspective

An acquaintance of mine visited the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona recently and mentioned the following facts among others, that I thought I'd pass on. After all the fantasies we hear incessantly about windmills and chicken-manure engines, it doesn't hurt to be reminded occasionally of what real engineering can achieve when it isn't being politically sabotaged.

Palo Verde currently has three reactors producing 1140MW electrical each and serves 4 million people. This output is enough to meet the requirements of Hong Kong, New Zealand, Denmark, and Portugal combined. A single fuel load of for the plant--less than three railroad-car loads of uranium oxide-- contains the energy equivalent of a coal train that would stretch from Phoenix to Pittsburgh.

Those who go into ecstasies over solar dreams seem to forget, or never understood, that simply considering the amount of energy available from a source isn't enough. Making its extraction worthwhile requires a sufficient energy density. It's easy to calculate the energy needed to lift three hundred people across the Atlantic, and to work out how much wood contains that much energy. Now try building a wood-burning 747. It won't work. The mountain of logs would never get itself off the ground.

Transitions of the atomic nucleus involve energy densities thousands of time greater than those attainable from changes of the outer electron shells, which form the basis of all conventional combustion. Hence, nuclear processes offer the potential to break through into the next regime of energy densities that the demands of the twenty-first century will require. The so-called "alternatives" do not.

 
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