Thursday, June 12, 2008

Nuclear Power Generation: Why Aren't We Pursuing It?

I've long been fascinated with nuclear power and why we cannot seem to do much more with it in the USA than we have. I read once, years ago, about how European nuclear power plants use a different technology (with smaller, safer plants) than the standard adopted decades ago here. (That article appeared in the 80's in that right-wing rag, The New Republic.)

Very few here on this board would consider France anything but a very advanced country. France derives over 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy, part of long-standing national policy based on energy security. Other factoids:

  • France is the world's largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation, and gains over EUR 3 billion per year from this.
  • France has been very active in developing nuclear technology. Reactors and fuel products and services are a major export.
Anyway, I saw this by William Tucker in a recent Weekly Standard:
The nucleus of the atom is the greatest storehouse of energy in the universe. The amount of energy released in the Hiroshima bomb was equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. Yet the amount of matter transformed into energy at Hiroshima was about 3 grams. If we are ever going to access enough energy to run our industrial economy without overwhelming the environment in the process, we are going to have to find it in the nucleus of the atom.

The energy holding together the nucleus of an atom is called "binding energy." When an atom splits in two--which happens occasionally in nature and can be induced in a nuclear reactor--some binding energy is liberated. This energy release is two million times greater than any "chemical" releases that come in, say, an internal combustion engine or a coal-fired electrical generating plant. This 2-million differential explains why a 1,000-megawatt coal plant must be fed by a 110-car train loaded with 16,000 tons of coal arriving every day. Meanwhile a nuclear reactor of the same size is fed by a single flatbed truck that arrives with a new set of fuel rods once every 18 months. The energy stored in the nucleus of the atom is almost incomprehensibly larger than the energy stored in fossil fuels or the kinetic activity of wind, wave, or water.

Atomic energy occurs naturally in the earth with the breakdown of uranium and thorium atoms. It is enough to heat the core of the planet to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit and is the only form of energy that does not come from the sun. We could call it "terrestrial energy," to differentiate it from solar energy.

Terrestrial energy is the answer to all the unpleasant questions raised by solar energy, which is why the nuclear industry in this country is poised for a comeback. Safety elements have been vastly improved, revamped plants are making enormous amounts of money, and the nuclear industry is chafing to start new construction. Although nuclear power cannot directly replace oil, it could become the basis of an expanded electrical grid that would support vehicles running on either electricity or hydrogen. It could end our energy odyssey. In light of last week's food riots and soaring world prices, it can't happen soon enough.
I do think we need to pay serious attention to alternatives like this. The Democrats' only solution for the fossil fuel problem seems to be conservation. That doesn't make sense to me.


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