Wanted: Energy Realism

Sadly, the misfortune surrounding the massive earthquake and consequential damaging tsunami that breached the Fukushima nuclear reactor storage facility is very likely to disrupt the gradual move of the world and US toward the use of nuclear energy.  Just as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were becoming less visible in our rear view mirror, a body blow to the real or perceived reputation of safe and reliable nuclear energy occurred. The threat of widespread radioactive contamination appears real if not overstated. The events of Fukushima will embolden nuclear opponents around the globe.

If the outcome of these tragic circumstances were acceptance of the need for US expansion of more conventional energy sources; oil, natural gas and coal, we would not be too badly off. However, the Obama administration is in the rut of NIMBY, (Not in my back yard) and a clings to pathological commitment to renewable energy sources. Never mind that there is absolutely no, even remote, possibility that these dreamy sources will do anything but offer a slight and irregular supplement to the power grid.

Of course, unless we wish to quickly enter the twilight years of the economic prosperity and living standards of the 16th century, we will be entirely dependent on such pedestrian energy sources as "dirty" coal and foreign oil. New domestic nuclear energy sources are now on hold and will remain so until we are so desperate because those pesky foreigners, who detest us, cut off their supply, or charge so much we enter bankruptcy more quickly than predictions would indicate.  

We are placing nuclear on hold because of the risks that became apparent in Japan following that deadly earthquake. The interesting aspect of the safety issue is the assumption that all other sources, conventional and renewal are without risk or consequential impact. A few inconvenient facts may help one to understand just what the risks are with carbon based fuels and the uncomfortable assault on the path we would see with renewable sources. According to William Tucker, author of "Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead The Green Revolution and End Americas Energy Odyssey", in an article appearing in a recent Wall Street Journal, non nuclear conventional and renewable energy sources have their own but not highly visible or publicized issues with which we must contend and recognized as not without serious consequences, most we have yet to encounter, and to which the press and public are largely unaware or immune as we continue blithely on.

  • 1. In 1944 a gas explosion in Cleveland leveled a neighborhood and killed 130.
  • 2. Coal mining has killed 100,000 miners, in the 20th century and continues to kill an average of six a day in China.
  • 3. A hydro electric dam collapsed during the last earthquake, wiped away 1800 homes and killed a yet to be established number of people.
  • 4. A coal plant must be fed with a 100 car train every 30 hours while an equivalent nuclear plant will see refueling from six trailer trucks once every two years.
  • 5. Uranium is supplied to the world's nuclear plants from 45 mines. Russia is offering to supply all the world's plants from just one mine. There are 283 mines in West Virginia and 449 in Kentucky alone.
  • 6. The amount of energy that can be harvested from wind, hydro electric and solar is about 15 orders of magnitude less than Nuclear; meaning those renewables are 150 times less efficient.
  • 7. The Hoover Dam requires a 250 square mile land area reservoir to produce the energy equivalent of one nuclear plant on one square mile.
  • 8. Windmills require even more land. Replacing the two reactors in Indian Point in Westchester NY would require lining the Hudson River from New York City to Albany NY with 45 story windmills spaced one quarter mile apart, and since they would operate only one third of the time, backup power would be required.
  • 9. Solar too is a land hog, requiring 20 square miles of state of the art mirrors or photovoltaic panels, to equal on nuclear plant. Of course as the sun does not always shine, a backup plant is in order.
As much as we all want the magic bullet to solve our energy issues, for the time being, nuclear is the source of choice, irrespective of the risks. The risks are in fact quite a bit less than what we saw in Japan, which was thirty year old technology. We have Yucca Mountain but not the political courage, to use it as a safe storage location. Russia has offered to take back old rods for reprocessing, or we can duplicate the French reprocessing technology and eliminate either Russia or Yucca Mountain altogether.

Meanwhile, while the Administration dawdles and behaves like a deer frozen in headlights, as our energy options like domestic oil drilling has been halted and naturals gas remains locked up shale, we remain hostage to the events and unfriendly dictators in the Middle East.

While nuclear is not an easy nor riskless choice, it remains the only viable one.