I think that everyone these days, caught up in being green, likes the idea of new power sources like wind and solar. That is almost one word now: windandsolar. But wind is not going to do it at all and until we can come up with a workable version of something based on the Dyson Sphere concept solar is not going to get it done either.
The stupid thing is that the greenest realistic power source that we have is nuclear. Other than the leftover fuel, much of which can get recycled into other (often medical) uses, it emits no pollutants. And the difference in work required to keep a power plant running is striking. A couple of days ago I listened to a podcast of an interview with a guy named William Tucker who recently wrote a book called Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Long Energy Odyssey, which I have not read. His claims about the productivity of uranium versus coal were so striking that I had to go do some research of my own. I found a couple of sources, one of which was another article by Mr Tucker repeating some of the things that he had said in the interview including the comparison of coal and uranium:
When we mine uranium or thorium and accelerate their breakdown in a controlled environment, we have what is called a “nuclear reactor.” In doing this, we are simply borrowing terrestrial energy from nature—just as we borrow solar energy in the form of photovoltaics, hydroelectric dams, and fossil fuels.
The only difference is the energy density. You will recall that the breaking of a carbon-hydrogen bond in coal or oil produces 1 electron volt. The disintegration of the nucleus of a single uranium atom produces 200 million electron volts. This extraordinary concentration of matter means that vast amounts of energy can be generated from very small quantities of this natural resource.
For example, a 1,000-MW coal plant is fed by a 110-car “unit train” of coal cars arriving at the plant every 18 hours. (Such a unit train now leaves the Powder River Basin of Wyoming to distribute coal around the nation every six minutes. In 1999 it was every 25 minutes.) A 1,000-MW nuclear reactor, on the other hand, is supplied by a single tractor-trailer that arrives at the reactor with a new supply of fuel rods every 18 months.
So the “front end” involves much smaller quantities of a fuel that is typically mined at much less cost to the environment. When thinking about the coal-fired plants, remember how much energy is required to power the constant resupply of coal. Few people would argue with the efficiency of getting power from nuclear sources, as demonstrated by the 1:200,000,000 energy density comparison above, but most objections to nuclear power lately focus on the disposal of the resulting waste. Mr. Tucker addresses that as well, noting that many latest-generation nuclear plants manage to recycle a large percentage of the waste:
This extraordinary concentration of energy occurs on the back end as well. The same 1,000-MW coal plant will release three million tons of carbon dioxide exhausts into the atmosphere every year, while the reactor’s emissions are zero. The only “waste” is the highly radioactive fuel rods that— properly reprocessed—can produce even more energy. France, which has a complete nuclear cycle, gets 30 percent of its reactor fuel from spent fuel rods. All the remaining “waste” from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power is stored beneath the floor in a single room at the La Hague plant in Normandy.
So there is plenty of energy at the bottom. We just haven’t realized where it is yet. The place to look for both for an abundant supply of energy and the answer to our environmental problems from generating energy is in the nucleus of the atom.
There are very few times that you will ever hear me say this, but we need to take a real lesson from France on this thing. We in America developed an irrational fear of nuclear power, oddly enough partly due to the odd coincidence that only two weeks after the movie The China Syndrome opened we saw the Three Mile Island incident.
In checking up on Mr Tucker’s numbers I came across another good read on the same subject called The Astounding High Cost of Free Energy where the author that the allegedly “free” sources of energy in the form of solar and wind are unrealistic. It may be some nuclear lobbying site, I am not really sure, but the pdf linked here was interesting.
From what I have read and heard regarding the latest reactors, I am starting to think that we should build 2 or 3 nuclear reactors in almost every state.