photo © 2006 Tobin The world is on its way to a scary place. With talk of $5 per gallon gas, the world is again looking at energy as a major concern for the future.
I have spent a lot of time studying the energy situation. In a course on the business and viability of the energy industry, I learned about coal, natural gas, oil, solar, hydro, geothermal, wave, tidal, wind, and other energy sources. My semester project assessed the future of near shore wave based power sources. In other words, I became an expert in powering our future.
The energy solution for our future will take multiple steps, but I have only seen one viable method to power our homes, businesses, and cars without destroying the planet and relying on a finite energy source. That solution is a multi-tiered nuclear based energy solution.
To preface the solution, I want to discuss the most common concerns about nuclear energy: safety and waste.
Nuclear energy is the safest base load power system in existence. I would rather have a nuclear plant in my backyard than breathe in the toxic fumes from a fossil fuel plant. The only major nuclear disaster in history took place under extraordinary circumstances in a power plant with fewer safety controls than anything in the United States. That, of course, is Chernobyl in Ukraine.
The Chernobyl incident took place during a shift change while a test was underway. When the core meltdown occurred, the safety systems were turned off and the engineers were unable to extract the rods from the core. This led to the explosion that devastated the area surrounding Chernobyl and impacted places hundreds of miles away. This is almost impossible in the developed world with modern technology.
But people say, “What about Three Mile Island?” What about it? Everything worked perfectly. The core overheated so all of the automated safety systems were triggered. A small amount of radioactive gas was released, but no one was exposed to more radiation than a hospital patient with a broken bone. People that lived just down the road were perfectly fine. Everyone that worked in the plant was fine. It worked.
Modern technology is even better. Thirty years after Three Mile Island, safety systems are so advanced that I would rather live with a few nuclear plants in my city than have to look up at the “brown cloud” of pollution on my skyline.
Nuclear waste is an issue with today’s laws, but that can be changed. A new nuclear fuel rod contains a specific isotope of uranium refined in a way that it can create the maximum amount of electricity safely. A spent fuel rod contains a small amount of that isotope, an unusable isotope, and plutonium.
Because of a Cold War era effort to restrict the Soviets from getting hold of the plutonium, a law was passed restricting the recycling process of spent fuel rods. In countries like France, the spent rod is broken down and recycled. The good isotope is extracted, the unusable isotope is re-refined, and the plutonium can be used in a new fuel rod. In the end, only about 3% of the fuel rod is left for waste and the dangerous half-life is reduced from tens of thousands of years to about 300 years.
Storage is also a question, but one with an answer. The 3% of spent fuel that is waste needs to go into a secure, safe place far from people. There is a place just for that. The United States government dug a giant hole in Yucca Mountain, Nevada for spent nuclear fuel. Problem solved.
The Nuclear Energy Economy
So, how does nuclear energy solve our problems? It can be used to replace the bulk of our oil imports, it can eliminate the use of dirty energy sources like coal and natural gas. It can reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources and reduce pollution. That is a win-win.
I propose that nuclear energy is used to cover the “base load” power needs of the country. Base load is the lowest level of power usage during any given day. Turning a coal, nuclear, or natural gas power plant on and off is very difficult, so they have to be run twenty four hours a day. That is the major source for our base load power usage.
For mid and peak usage, we can use renewable energy sources like wind, hydroelectric, and solar power. In most places around the world, these power sources, used in combination with nuclear power for base load, would cover 100% of our energy needs.
Cars can be nuclear powered too. A plug-in hybrid car would take advantage of both batteries and a gas tank. The average person drives less per day than the average battery charge. Just plug in at work and home and you have all of the power you need for your daily life. In the event you drain the battery, a hybrid oil or ethanol powered engine (ideally E85 so it can take either oil or ethanol) will kick on and get you the rest of the way. But don’t plug in today for environmental reasons, you are just plugging into a coal power plant that is spilling carbon into the atmosphere.
There are people against every form of energy. Coal and gas pollute. Solar and wind are inefficient. Hyrdo doesn’t have enough capacity. Nuclear is expensive. I could go on. However, there is only one power source that can safely and cleanly power our growing energy needs into the future. That is nuclear.