Nuclear power

What difference does it make if Yucca Mountain leaks waste in 1000 years, or even 100 years?

Seriously. Not that it’s at all likely to, but so what if it does?

There are two possible scenarios. Either we’ll continue advancing, and this planet’s entire population (much less the Yucca Mountain area) will be a minority of the human race in 3005, or we’ll stagnate, and then revert to savagery when our fuel runs out, in which case there won’t be very many people living in the desert and the human population as a whole will have much, much bigger problems than a bit of radioactive waste in an environment that most of them won’t be able to go anywhere near without dying of thirst.

Anything that maximizes the odds of the first scenario coming to pass, and minimizes the odds of the second, is worth doing at just about any cost. Including radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain, and even including leaking radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain.

After Peak Oil, nuclear power is our only hope of not reverting to the worst aspects of the 19th Century (you know, the horse-and-buggy level of energy and industry and technology that caused all the misery that the spectacularly successful laissez-faire economic policy keeps getting the blame for). With a sensible (i.e., much lower and stable, particularly with respect to plants already under construction!) level of regulation on the nuclear power industry, the risk associated with possible meltdown is still impressively low; our plants would have to be many, many orders of magnitude more shoddily built to duplicate the Chernobyl plant, and even with that sort of disaster happening occasionally, which it wouldn’t with any nuclear plants we’re ever going to build, we’re still bearing far less overall risk than we would be running out of oil with no large-scale replacement available.

Of course, any high-density terrestrial energy source is only a stopgap to get us to space so we can use the abundant energy found there. If we screw around until every form of stored energy here is used up, then we’ll be stuck forevermore using energy at a lower rate than it arrives from the sun, which as far as I can tell would leave us stranded on this damned rock until the Sun swallows it whole, or until someone manages to produce antimatter or a fusion generator using only the infrastructure that can be built and operated in such a low energy environment, which may amount to the same thing.

There is no such thing as perfectly safe. Every course we take has risks, and the one with the lowest overall risk involves nuclear power, and lots of it.

What about automotive fuel and fertilizer? How are we going to replace that with nuclear power?

Chemical synthesis, powered by nuclear reactors. There are several schemes for getting fuel from corn, organic waste, and so forth, that show little energy profit. Hook up a nuke plant, and even fuel processes that show a loss would, in effect, ship nuclear power to cars and cargo vehicles. Nuclear plants dedicated to this process can run at constant load as cheaply as physically possible, without dealing with continuously variable load. Given cheap enough energy and high enough demand, nuclear powered synthesis of everything we’re getting from oil should do the trick.

16 thoughts on “Nuclear power”

  1. As a nuclear engineer (now working in mostly non-nuclear areas) who started my career the day of Three Mile Island, I think it’s important to remind people that the current generation of nuclear plants (even the newer ones) are basically second generation technology. Computer types might compare them to an IBM 360 Mainframe. These can make a solid contribution to energy supplies, but to go to a majority nuclear will need to make that technological leap comparable to PC’s.

    Technically feasible, given the right open market structure. These new reactors will have to finally shed their submarine ancestors and aquire features that permit them to be sited in cities and other populated areas. For example, the new gas-cooled reactor designs alow continous loading of new fuel pellets and discharge of used fuel. This keeps radioactive inventories low and thus risk.

  2. Ken’s points are well taken- in general, I believe that a rational evaluation of nuclear energy supports the conclusion that more nuclear plants will be useful both now and in the long term.
    Ken also alludes to another fact that is worth mentioning too. Fissionable materials are a non-renawable resource- perhaps to an even larger degree than fossil fuels are. The only things that we know of in this universe that make heavy elements are novas/supernovas and particle accelerators. The uranium we have here is all that we’re gonna get, unless we get off this particular rock.
    It’s a problem that, if discussed in public, immediately results in yawns and rolled eyes, but the basic fact is unarguable: we will run out of resources here eventually. Getting out of Dodge is the only long term solution. (Read ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’ by Niven (and Pournelle?) for a disturbing look at an intelligent species trapped in their native star system)
    In the longest term, we’re still screwed even if we get off-planet. As the entropy of the universe increases, our (the universe’s) ability to generate power/store information will decrease to the point that replication of any and all information will be impossible and we will cease to exist by any worthwhile definition of life.


  3. Preach on Ken!!

    BTW, the fuel rods being sent to Yucca Mt will first be powdered then mixed with glass and molded into glass logs, a process know as vitrification. The idea being that even if all the geologic analysis should somehow turn out to be wrong (small chance), any water leaking through the storage chambers will then have to DISSOLVE THE GLASS before any nuclear material can be carried away. Considering we’re still picking up undissolved glass from the bronze and iron ages, that should give some idea how slow that process will be. Not to mention that Yucca Mt is located in one the driest regions on the planet. For the opponents, however, no amount of safety or research will ever be sufficient.

    One final point, Ken, regarding the fossil fuels problem. Consider this:

    * Water is hydrogen and oxygen, which form the two constituent parts of a perfectly clean burning fuel. When hydrogen is burned (oxidized) the “exhaust” is water vapor.

    * Nuclear power plants can supply the electrical energy to ‘crack’ water in fuel.

    * The amount of energy required to crack water is exactly equal to the amount of energy generated (or delivered) by the burning of it parts {Minus efficiency losses. No machine is perfectly efficient}.

    * We have virtually unlimited amounts of water at our disposal. We’re literally swimming in fuel. It’s raining fuel.

    ~Commander, that was a cheerful post! Should I sell my stocks now, while there’s still time before the universe ends?

  4. Watch for Greens to get behind nuclear.


    Not to worry. In the long run we’re all dead.

  5. Hydrogen may be easier to make, but it’s a pain to store and transport. Liquid fuel is more convenient if we can get it. Plus, we still need to make fertilizer as well as fuel – we may get to use some common infrastructure for both.

  6. A dark vision, Commander. But somewhat “over the horizon”. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.Ē (Matthew 6:33-34) We have a lot on our plate between now and the heat-death of the universe. TMIGE is a bloody masterpiece, BTW, and I remember many details of it to this day. So, knock off this Crazy Eddie talk about getting off-planet!

  7. Yeah, Cornflake’s a big Stephen Baxter fan, but letís put things into perspective: according to this useful little article on Wikipedia, we have 10^14 years before the last of the small, slow burning stars begin to burn out. Thatís 100 trillion years.

    I, for one, plan on being there in my robotic brain-jar (itíll be kind of like those beer-can helmets except with a brain in it instead of a fat guyís head) to watch as the last of the dim red stars burn out.

  8. Mojo, cool.

    That scenario reminds me of something from an Olaf Stapledon novel. I can’t remember which one, but I think it was in this volume. I also remember the phrase used by William Hope Hodgson in “The Night Land” — “kalpas of eternity …” A kalpa is one thousand mahayugas or 4,320,000,000 years. I remember looking that up and getting this dizzying feeling at span of time which would be composed of slabs of that duration … ..Also, it reminds me of one of the greatest esthetic experiences of my life, the summer after sixth grade, sitting on a lawn chair in my back yard reading the closing chapters of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, where the Time Traveller travels into the remote future and the sun is burning out and the earth is dying. I got a chill I can remember like it was yesterday at that most majestic vista of the immensity of time and our smallness within that immensity … .

  9. Despite doom-and-gloom predictions about near disasters and VERY long term disasters, I am encouraged by two closely related phenomenae,
    1) The exponential growth of the human species (this is a good thing)
    2) The exponential growth of human scientific knowledge. Our intelligence and our voracious desire to advance ourselves will allow us to overcome many of the problems we might run into.

    If we’re still around when the heat death of the universe becomes an issue, we’ll just build as many other universes as we like.

    Buy an American-built universe! Far superior laws of physics than all competitors!

  10. Oh, and Lex, if you REALLY want to get a chill, read Stephen Baxter’s ‘Manifold: Space.’ His descriptions of the farthest future, where all of the energy in the universe has been thinned out and all particles have collapsed, is one of the most frightening mental trips I have ever taken.

  11. Of course these end-of-the-universe scenarios presuppose that all of our enormous extrapolations are justified.

    What we know of as The Laws of Physics, including conservation of mass-energy, ever-increasing entropy, and all that jazz, looks impressively solid – as closely as we can measure, using only instruments on or near Earth.

    Einstein found a case when solid-looking Laws of Physics didn’t apply in weird environments, and shocked pretty much the whole world with his news that those Laws we’d been using for several centuries had some interesting exceptions. I would not be surprised to learn (assuming I am fortunate enough to live to see it) that similar weird exceptions to other well-known and apparently rock-solid Laws of Physics start popping up as we extend our range a bit.

    (Hell, Pioneer’s not even completely out of the solar system, and it’s not quite where we expected it to be, and no one seems to know why. And there’s other weird things going on in this universe…)

    In which case, all bets are off concerning the the size, the age, the life-expectancy, and the eventual fate of the Universe (all extrapolated by taking observations from Earth-bound telescopes and applying the Laws of Physics as we know it.

    Of course, we’ll never find out if we wind up stranded on this damned rock…

  12. And, as coincidence would have it, Baxter also wrote an authorized sequel to The Time Machine, The Time Ships.

    Ken is right. If our understanding of basic forces such as gravity are as off as it seems, all bets are off. (I mean, dark energy and new cosmological constants? sheesh.) And, as Cornflake points out, we go long enough, and we’ll be building our own universes (Mine will be heavy with beer and meaty looking women).

    All we’ve got to lose is this crappy gravity well…

  13. Physics and astrophysics has, in my opinion, in some elite circles, extrapolated far beyond it’s experience and understanding (ala civilization’s effect on global warming) into the realm beyond good science fiction.

  14. Just a comment on storing nuclear waste for the long term. The Egyptians found ways of preserving bodies that have lasted intact for several thousand years. That is meat, flesh. I suppose we can figure out ways of isolating nuclear waste that last a bit longer! Storage for tens of thousads of years just isn’t that big a deal.

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