In a recent post I expressed some of my frustrations and feelings about those who have been active in the anti-nuclear movement, especially in the context of the recent coal waste issues that the TVA has been experiencing. It is my contention that those who have been so active in opposing the TVA’s plans to operate nuclear reactors at Watts Bar, Bellafonte and other locations are in a way responsible for these coal disasters. This is because the anti-nuclear movement’s efforts in making it as difficult and expensive to build nuclear power plants is responsible for many plants not being built and therefore the continued operation of coal power plants.
I make no bones about the fact that I’m really losing patience with this movement, especially when it comes to claims of having the ethical high ground. I’m pro-nuke and proud of it and I’m tired of having to deal with attacks on my credibility or motives and I’d like to turn the tables.
Professor Ross McCluney was one named in the post and he responded with a comment. I’d like to thank Dr. McCulney for coming up an defending his position. Obviously I disagree with Dr. McCulney in a variety of ways, but I appreciate his response. Energy policy and environmental issues are always going to be contentious and I have no problem with all sides having their fair say. It is healthy and appropriate that both sides in such issues be vetted and debated publicly, as the choices our society makes in this area will ultimately affect not only us all, but future generations as well.
Therefore, I’d like to respond to the comment piece by piece and issue by issue:
IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll answer some of your questions and correct some inaccuracies:
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Also, to Ross McCulney, I noticed you live in Florida and teach at a university.Ă˘â‚¬ť
No. IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘m retired. I was a research professor, but I did do some teaching.
Thanks for correcting that. Sorry for the inaccuracy.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘m therefore sure you have a nice home away from both Bellafonte and Widows Creek. Do you think this means youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘re worth more than the people who have to live downwind from the coal power plant?Ă˘â‚¬ť
Of course not. My roots are in Kentucky and Tennessee, and I have a home in the hill country around Chattanooga. I love my hillbilly friends and am a fan of country music.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Do you think that those hillbillies in Alabama donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t matte?Ă˘â‚¬ť
What a ridiculous question. Of course they matter. How could you think this? I thought your blog was supposed to be fact-based.
It is, but it’s also editorial in nature and therefore I do add some social commentary. I’ll be the first to admit that some things bother me and I don’t make any bones about it.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I also noticed that youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve been working on things like Ocean Thermal Energy for more than thirty years.Ă˘â‚¬ť
No. I did some work on OTEC when I first started work at the Florida Solar Energy Center because of my background in optical oceanography and the interest in this field by the Director of the Center at the time. After a short time, when it became obvious that OTEC had many technical, environmental, and economic hurdles and was going nowhere, I switched to more people-scaled technologies like solar water heating and window energy and illumination performance.
Apologies for any inaccuracies in the statements. Ocean thermal energy is an interesting topic, but given the small temperature difference it is a very difficult technical challenge to get a thermal engine to work effectively with such a source of energy.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Therefore, may I ask, how many decades of fruitless efforts do you need before you start to consider whether or not itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s just not going to happen?Ă˘â‚¬ť
Solar water heating and high performance windows and daylighting systems are now cost-effective. They are but a few of the many energy conservation and solar energy technologies that promise clean, healthy, alternatives to dirty, polluting, global-warming-gas-producing fossil fuel production, and which are way less costly to build, install, operate, and keep secure than obsolete and dangerous nuclear technologies. I could ask the same question in another way: How many decades of fruitless efforts to restart nuclear power in the U.S. will be needed before the folly of this dangerous and economically inviable technology is finally accepted?
Actually, I very much agree that solar water heating is a place where solar energy can more than pull its own weight. Solar heating is another situation where it has some potential. In favorable conditions, a solar hot water system can nearly eliminate the need for gas or electricity to heat water. A solar heating system can be effective in some situations, like more mild climates or when combined with a heat pump. Solar illumination is certainly worthwhile as well, sun light provides an excellent full spectrum light source.
However, lets not kid ourselves about the scale of the issue. Even if every home and business used solar panels to provide hot tap water, the energy savings would be pretty modest in the grand scheme of things. Mankind uses enormous amounts of energy for transportation, for recovering and refining metals like aluminum and iron, for lighting after dark, for industrial processes, manufacturing, for data processing, air conditioning, refrigeration, pumping water and so on.
This combined with the limitations of solar heat, hot water and illumination, such as the fact that it does not provide illumination at night and can’t generally be expected to entirely replace conventional heat in colder areas means that it’s not the kind of technology that can dramatically shift energy use. It can shave off a little bit of fossil fuel use, and I encourage its use in doing so. It’s just not going to move any mountains.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Does the idea of nuclear energy frighten you because it might make your job and research seem unimportant?Ă˘â‚¬ť
Not in the least. Quite the contrary. The more I look into nuclear energy the more I find that convinces me it is not the way for humanity to go, no matter how mature the technology may seem to be.
Maybe I give humanity more credit than some, but I’m not one to think that we as humans should turn our backs on something as fundamental as nuclear energy because it seems too powerful for us to try to meddle with. That is the kind of mentality that stops human progress by ruling some area as being sacred ground that we dare not touch.
Lets not forget something: Nuclear energy is as fundamental as electrical energy, chemical energy, mechanical energy or thermal energy. To say humanity best avoid nuclear energy is as broad in scope as saying that humanity must not use chemical energy and that any chemical reaction, fire included, is to be shunned and avoided. In fact, nuclear energy is more fundamental than any other kind of energy. It is literally the be all, end all, absolute energy to end all energy.
All energy is nuclear in origin. Any time we use mechanical energy or thermal energy, that energy came from a nuclear reaction, whether decay in the mantle of the earth, fusion occurring in the sun or fission in a nuclear reactor, natural or man-made, all the energy in the universe has come from nuclear energy. The universe does not store energy in puny chemical bonds but rather in the binding forces, the quantum variables that hold the most fundamental particles of matter together.
When we tap this energy we are going directly to the source of energy, literally creating energy. If we did not fission a uranium atom, it would decay, releasing only a tiny portion of its potential energy, until it finally ended in lead 206, a stable isotope. At this point the atom would sit quietly, presumably until the thermal death of the universe. Thus when we split this atom, remaking the very nature of matter, we have introduced energy into the universe, energy which has been bottled up since the ancient supernova that created the atom. We’ve cut out the middle man and done it for ourselves.
The fundamental shift that this represents for mankind is mind-boggling. The practical aspect of this is that it is energy which is orders of magnitude greater than any other kind of energy source. However, in terms of the overall impact it is even greater. The difference between making our own energy and gathering it as is vast and basic as the difference between hunting and gathering and growing our own food. Releasing nuclear energy is as significant as creating fire. When we first began to build nuclear reactors in the 1940′s, we were experiencing a kind of turning point in human history as significant as the day that a cave man first figured out how to start a fire or when early experimenters first began to understand electricity.
We use fission because fission is to nuclear energy what fire is to chemical energy – it is the most easily harnessed, the most stable and the most useful. Certainly this is not the only kind of nuclear energy. There is neutron activation, spallation, photofission, gamma-neutron reactions, decay and fusion. Yet these reactions have not proven themselves as viable sources of large amounts of energy. Fusion does not scale down to our needs well and presents few, if any, advantages over fission. The fission chain reaction is like fire, self-sustaining and nearly tailor made for useful energy production.
If we stop and cower in fear of nuclear energy then we have cheated our species out of the greatest potential we have. It is obvious that energy is becoming our limiting factor. We can barely pump oil or dig coal fast enough. Gathering energy from the environment is holding us back and we need more room to expand. We need a source of energy that is more dense, not less. With this energy the sky is the limit. What will nuclear energy bring us in centuries to come? I don’t pretend to even be able to imagine. I am no more able to envision the ultimate uses of nuclear energy than the first fire starting caveman could envision the lithium ion polymer battery.
If we are ever to have truly bountiful energy, if we are ever to have spacecraft to the stars or communities living on other planets then it will be because of nuclear energy. If we are ever to have plenty for all people then it will be because of nuclear energy. It is, undeniably, the be all, end all of energy. And now, in our own lifetimes, it is ours to use for the good of mankind.
Because of this, I take pride that the work I do helps in some small way to move the U.S. toward a truly sustainable energy economy that is more labor-intensive and hence puts more people back to work doing jobs that are healthier and have far less risk for radiation illness in both the short and long terms.
Wow. Just wow. Just wow. I’m not even sure where to begin on this as I am so stunned by this statement. It is just about 180 degrees away from all that I value.
To start with, there seems to be here a statement that it is ‘healthier’ to work in jobs which are labor intensive and have more manual labor than intellectual labor. Historically, this has not proven to be the case. There is some truth to the claim that our current lifestyle, in which many people spend the day sitting at a computer screen and watch television for entertainment is not optimal. It leads to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and so on. Yet, this is small price to pay for the better safety and health it provides. While exercise is generally good for overall health, labor intensive jobs do not necessarily provide good exercise. Working in a mine or digging ditches is just as likely to cause repetitive strain injuries as it is to provide for better health. Labor intensive jobs cause strain, hernias, joint damage and carry the dangers of heat stroke, dehydration or hazards of the job in general.
In low productivity, labor-intensive work, the quality of life is much lower than in more productive and less labor intensive work. Labor saving technology and methods have given us the forty hour work week and jobs that pay well. Today a farmer is not limited to barely feeding his family, but rather can produce enough food to sell and provide his family with a good home, education even vacation and leisure. There is nothing wrong with leisure either. It is a great thing that we as humans can now spend time to pursue our happiness and not be slaves to our own existence.
There is another issue here and that is the consideration of what being for labor-intensive systems says about one’s value of humans. Labor intensive jobs that employ masses of individuals not only pay little, by necessity, but they also devalue the humanity of those involved. An intellect-intensive job or even one which simply makes a worker very productive makes that worker a valuable asset to the company, a major contributor to society and something significant. If a ditch is to be dug by a heavy machine, then the operator of that machine is a skilled worker who knows how to operate it and is licenced and certified. The operator has value and is treated like a valued employee. Yet when the ditch is dug by a large crew of manual laborers, each is of little value and is simply a cog in the big projects machine. If one falls ill, why bother with them? Any idiot can dig a ditch. You won’t even notice the nameless faceless laborer is gone.
It also brings into question some of the social aspects of such a society. When all workers have high productivity and highly productive methods are available, there can be upward mobility and there can be value to each individual. Yet in a labor intensive system, the classes must be strictly cast. There are the foremen and the designers, the bosses and the managers on top then the droves of hard workers on the bottom, valued only for muscle, like bio-robots.
Then comes the economic aspect of such a system. The big problem is that the less labor intensive a pursuit is, the more economical it is. Any company or individual who can get a job done with less labor has a powerful advantage in the market. The farmer who can grow more crops with a tractor will always outproduce the farmer who works the soil by hand. The automated factory will always outproduce the producer who uses hand labor. The product can be sold cheaper and more can be made.
Not only does mean that more efficient production is better for society and living standards (Henry Ford did not make the automobile affordable to the common person by producing them *less* efficiently), but it means that there’s no reason anyone would ever want to be less manpower efficient. You want a company to choose to employ hundreds of people to do with a few dozen could do? That’s economic suicide. That company will go bankrupt pretty fast.
So how are we to achieve this then? When the market favors greater labor efficiency how do we force high labor pursuits to exist? Are we to micromanage things at each and every level? Are we to outlaw tractors, combines and automated harvest machines to give farm laborers more employment? Are we to outlaw production lines so factory workers have more to do? And what of the decrease in what we can have. This would make food and products more expensive and ultimately increase the class divide, reducing the worker to just faceless labor and making the product too costly for most to afford.
There has long been a kind of knee-jerk resentment toward higher productivity on the grounds that it will take jobs. This is not only not the case, but it is the opposite. Higher productivity per worker helps commerce and ultimately the economy as a whole. By increasing growth, the workers become more in demand and not less.
In a way, this is an example of Jevon’s Paradox, because when a given amount of production is less labor intensive, the worker is a more efficiently utilized entity and thus is in higher demand. It’s a simple, if counter-intuitive effect, yet we see it all around us. In the 1930′s a single airline pilot could carry twenty or so passengers, mostly limited to the very wealthy. By the 1960′s, an airliner could carry over one hundred and had a flight crew of three or four. Today a cockpit crew is generally two and a single plane can carry five hundred or more. Does this mean there is less demand for pilots? No, there is far more.
Similarly, the IT field has grown and employs millions worldwide. Many of the things that one employed in the field does are many times more productive and less labor intensive than their predecessors. As a member of the IT field, when I go into an office and install a computer or service one, I am doing something which is not very labor intensive and which pays well. Yet, I am accomplishing far more than those in years past could do with much more labor.
That one computer can send an dozens of email message across the country with little effort. At one time sending a message across the country involved teletype operators, switchboard operators, curries to run the message to the end user and so on. The computer can also do financial operations simply which otherwise would involve a small army of people working with adding machines. But even this is more efficient than what came before. It is less labor intensive to send an email than a telex, but it is less labor intensive to send a telex than a telegraph-transmitted telegram, and it is less labor intensive to send a telegraph telegram than it is to send a note by the Pony Express.
So how is it, how could it possibly be, that something as labor un-intensive as the IT industry could actually create jobs? What of all the telex operators, the typesetters, the delivery persons, the orderlies with adding machines and those who oiled the adding machines, inked the typewriter ribbons and so on? It’s simple. Less labor intensive means more jobs.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“(Just between you and me, you knew this renewable crap wasnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t going anywhere when you started, right? But hell, I mean it gets you plenty of speaking spots and finances your worthless projects, so there ya go.)Ă˘â‚¬ť
This gratuitous comment is not worth a response.
Two words: power density.
Going back to the issue of worker productivity, the nuclear power plant near me provides jobs to about 1200 persons. Each one of those 1200 corresponds to roughly two megawatts of power. Can any renewable sources (besides hydro) compete with that?
The ability to provide vast, ample amounts of energy, just ain’t there. Wind power uses air. Air is not very heavy and it doesn’t move very fast. Solar uses radiant flux which, at surface level, provides pretty modest power per square meter. A nuclear reactor can produce more energy in an hour than the largest solar plant in the world can in a year.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I also noticed you contributed to the book HumanityĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s Environmental Future: Making Sense in a Troubled World and to the website The Future Of Humanity. Do you think energy issues are only part of the future?Ă˘â‚¬ť
If you would read the book, youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘d discover the error of this assumption. In fact, one of the points I make, and one of the reasons I wrote that book, is that the current focus on global warming and fossil energy production as the primary cause of it is too narrow. The bigger picture addresses the many additional aspects of civilizational development that have led the industrial world to the point of systematically taking apart the very life-support system of the planet for humanity. If you had bothered to look at the book, youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘d have found that chapter 13 is titled: Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“The Big Picture Ă˘â‚¬â€ť Taking a longer view. Avoiding narrow thinking.Ă˘â‚¬ť
On this I agree. We need to look at the big picture. Fossil fuels are a huge part of the problem, but are not the only part of the problem. I’d argue that the thing we need to consider is how to get the most bang for our buck, both financially and ecologically. We need to mine something like uranium, where a small mine can give us huge amounts of energy and not coal, which means tearing up vast areas to get the same energy. We need to farm the land more efficiently so that we don’t need to slash and burn to get the land to use.
Above all, we need more energy, because energy is the limiting factor so often in what we can do with the world. If we had enough energy, we could recycle waste water and therefore would not need to drain watersheds for our use. If we had the energy, we could reduce waste to its component elements instead of looking for a landfill to put it in. If we had enough energy we could make plastics out of any organic material around and not oil or gas. Energy is the key to working with materials and not needing to acquire new ones.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“IS that how you rationalize what you do? Do you think of these things as being in a distant, theoretical future? Does that help you justify things to yourself? IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘m sure that you know, given your background that because Bellafonte did not open and therefore because Widows Creek continued to operate that people have suffered and died. IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘m just wondering how you can live with yourself each day, having been part of that.Ă˘â‚¬ť
Of course I donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t see my work as contributing only to a Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“distant, theoretical future.Ă˘â‚¬ť The technologies I investigate are here and now, and can also benefit the distant future, however theoretical you think it might be. The policies I have been advocating for years are wholly aimed at rescuing humanity from the multiple threats facing it, mostly of its own making. This is not to deny the value of civilization, but to support efforts to make our civilization truly viable for the long term, truly sustainable.
I agree in part. I like civilization, a lot actually. I like libraries and sky scrapers. I like art and music, movies and plays. I like science and technology. I’d like to see them continue in the future. I don’t believe that humanity is necessarily creating problems that cannot and will not be solved. When we ran out of wood to burn and whale oil we survived. We’ve gone through two world wars, the little ice age, the crusades, the black plague, the fall of Rome and other worldwide problems and still we continue on.
It is unfortunate that TVA went so heavily into fossil fuel production and still today fails to consider safer, environmentally more benign alternatives. I was not part of TVAĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s misplaced decisions to go that way, have lived most of my life distant from the TVA service territory, so was for a long time unaware of how heavily they have gotten hooked into fossil fuels. The U.S. had a wonderful opportunity back in the early 1970s, when the U.S. passed its peak of domestic oil production and started switching more and more heavily to foreign oil. It could have begun a multi-decade program of researching, perfecting, and implementing energy conservation and renewable energy technologies, and employing them as soon as each was ready. Instead, the country took what it thought at the time was the easy and cheap way out, so got hooked on oil and the other fossil fuels. At least the nation got away from nuclear power production many years ago for very good reasons. There is no good reason to try and switch back to that dangerous and costly technology when we have better alternatives readily available and on the horizon.
The TVA relies heavily on fossil fuels because their demand has continued to grow past the point where hydro alone can provide for the need for electricity. In the US we get 60% of our electricity from coal. We’re not alone. Much of Europe, China, Russia, India get their electricity from coal. Australia gets nearly all electricity from coal. We get huge amounts of our energy from oil and gas as well.
Efficiency will not reduce the amount of energy we need. At best, it might reduce the rate at which our need for energy grows, but only slightly. Due to Jevon’s paradox it may very well do the entire opposite. There ave been many improvements in efficiency. Yet these have not turned the tide. High bypass gas turbines are far more efficient than turbojet engines, yet more people fly and thus aviation continues to use more energy. Modern refrigeration is far more efficient than the early systems of the 20th century, yet today everyone has a refrigerator and many people have two.
We cannot count on efficiency to decrease our need for energy, especially given the way so many in the world live today. Much of Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere have populations which live without clean water, without safe and mechanized mechanized transportation or good shelter and comfort. If we are going to have a world where people in central Africa can get an MRI at their local clinic and then get home by mechanized transit instead of days of working in the hot sun and where there is plenty of purified water for the world, then we need more energy, not less.
But imagine if the entire population of the world contributed as much energy as the workers at the local nuclear plant. Six billion of us each with two megawatts per person. That’s six million billion watts. Six quadrillion watts. Six yodawatts. What could we do with that? What couldn’t we do?
I think the new wave of nuclear will die of its too heavy economic burden. Where will they find the financing to support such an expensive way of making energy that ties up precious capital for many years before it can begin generating power and providing revenue to start paying off the debt?
Well, the French seem to have done pretty well with it. In any event, there’s no doubt that nuclear power plants are capital intensive, although not necessarily by that much more than coal or gas and per watt they’re orders of magnitude cheaper than solar and wind, which never pay for themselves except with subsidies and tax breaks. Though capital intensive, the operating costs of a nuclear plant are very low and thus it does manage to pay itself off, as long as road blocks don’t stop it from being completed in reasonable time.
Many of the expenses are regulatory in nature. Back in the days before the NRC, when US policy was pro-nuclear we built some of the cheapest nuclear power plants around. Plants like Connecticut Yankee, Oyster Creek, Yankee Rowe, Peach Bottom and others showed how economical it can be to build a nuclear plant. It’s not surprising anyway, because it’s really just a standard thermal power plant with a reactor, which is a big boiler inside a concrete structure with a few other design elements, but nothing that is inherently super-expensive.
Of course, there’s huge room for improvement. The molten salt reactor is one design which has great potential because it offers better efficiency, due to higher temperatures and it can operate at ambient pressure. It also has the ability to continuously refine the fuel to make for much better efficiency. I happen to like the lead cooled fast reactor. It has very high theoretical burnup, thus making fuel costs almost nill, and it can operate at ambient pressure, reducing the need for pressure vessels. It does not need as much maintenance and refueling, which cuts down the amount of labor – of course, I’d like to see a lot of these and thus many employees.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 27th, 2009 at 4:36 pm and is filed under Agriculture, Culture, Enviornment, Good Science, Humor, Nuclear, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
View blog reactions