Monday, July 28, 2008

Kooks And Nukes

One of the side effects of paying $4.00/gal for gas is the reminder of what politicians said about domestic energy policy a generation ago. We heard all sorts of things about energy independence that was empty rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Saudis paid for a nice park downtown next to the Gerald Ford museum. I figure oil producers have spread around a lot of petrodollars in a bipartisan fashion to get us where we are today. And what do we do about it? Mr. Bush goes to the Middle East and asks the Sheiks nice to increase production. And Mr. Obama tells us our thermostats are set too high.

I've believed a lot of lies spread by malthusans. For one thing, there was an argument about nuclear power plant safety where Navy said they could guarantee nuclear power plant safety and the non-navy guys said that there was a chance of a cascade of rare events that would lead to a nuclear accident. As a believer in the Murphy, I believed the latter. This belief was vindicated by Three Mile Island and Chernobl.

The biggest disaster of TMI was that it gave credibility to Jane Fonda when "The China Syndrome" movie came out at the same time. Nobody died and nobody got cancer from any radiation released by that event.

Chernobl is another story. People died. But think about it. There was a core meltdown and for ten days the Chernobl reactor was out of control. There was no containment of radiation or radioactive fallout.

And the world did not end.

Last spring a friend and I flew over two electrical power plants, a coal-fired and a nuke. The first thing I noticed about the coal-fired plant was the huge amount of space allocated to storing coal with trains bringing more coal in all the time. Coal is not 100% pure carbon. It's a mix of whatever else is in the ground nearby. And when it burns what do you suppose comes out with the smoke, but fly ash. I was surprised to learn recently that there are trace amounts of radioactive materials in that fly ash. If you live downwind of a power plant, you'll get less radiation from it if it's a nuke.

Safe and clean natural gas can also contain trace amounts of radon gas. Radon gas is radioactive and the biggest cause of cancer after cigarette smoking.

But nuclear fission produces nuclear waste that remains deadly for thousands of years, right? Yes. But it doesn't have to. If your president isn't an idiot peanut farmer, you can reprocess nuclear fuel rods to remove unburnt fissionables, greatly reducing the volume of nuclear waste.

Or you can use a different nuclear fuel cycle. Nuclear fission seems to be all about neutrons. And when you burn enriched uranium, the fission products like to soak up neutrons poisoning the reaction. But there are other fission fuel cycles that do not depend upon enriched uranium, and manage neutron flux differently. These reactions produce much less nuclear waste and what they produce has a half-life of a few centuries, not several millenia. Moreover, there's a lot more thorium than uranium on this planet.

And a thorium fuel cycle generates no bomb-grade isotopes, eliminating the risk of proliferation.

And when you're talking about radioactive waste, you should consider the uranium mine in Oklo where a fission reaction burned up all the U235 leaving its fission products safely encapsulated in situ.

So, why is it that we haven't built a new nuclear power plant in this country for a generation? For one thing, it's plain ignorance and gullibility of the public and the media in the face of propaganda by anti-nuclear activists. For another thing, it costs a lot of time and money to license a new nuclear plant. Look at the billions that were lost by Consumers' Power when they dropped the Midland plant. The only way they could have been stupider would have been to buy energy futures from Enron. Putting a lot of money in a decades-long project that's subject to the whims of politicians, bureaucrats and judges is as risky as it gets.

The people who own and operate nuclear power plants know this. They have a license to print money and more nukes would just mean more competitors. They can uprate their reactors, and make incremental improvements, but they'll do nothing revolutionary.

And that's why we're paying so much for energy.

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