by James P. Hogan
James P. Hogan
Previously by James P. Hogan: The
Warmer, the Merrier
1950s, the future confronting the human race was bleak. With the
global population increasing and becoming more dependent on energy-dense
technologies to sustain its food supplies and rising living standards,
there seemed no escape from the catastrophe that would come eventually
when the coal and the oil ran out. But few worried unduly. It was
only after an escape from the nightmare presented itself with the
harnessing of nuclear processes and the prospect of unlimited energy
that people began to worry. People can be very strange.
that have mainly to do with politics and the media's thirst for
sensationalism, nuclear energy has been a subject of much disinformation
and alarmism for several decades. In fact, nuclear is safer, cleaner,
and potentially cheaper and more abundant than any other proven
source of energy that the human race has come up with. But beyond
this, its real significance is that it represents the next natural
step in the evolutionary progression that has marked the history
of energy development.
muscle power, through the use of animals, wood, wind and water,
to coal, and oil, finding better ways of doing the work involved
in living has reflected the harnessing of more concentrated energy
sources. A lot is written about how much energy can be obtained
from this source or that source. But if you really want to do things
more easily and efficiently and open up ways to doing new things
that were inconceivable before what counts is energy density.
How much can be packed into a given volume. It's easy to calculate
how much energy it takes to lift three hundred people across the
Atlantic, and how much wood you'd need to burn to release that much
energy. Okay, now try building a wood-burning 757. It won't work.
The mountain of logs will never get itself off the ground. You need
the concentration of jet fuel.
argue that we don't need nuclear power because we already have other
ways to generate electricity. This misses the whole point. It would
be like somebody in an earlier century telling Michael Faraday that
we didn't need electricity because we already had other ways to
heat water. What made electricity so different was its ability to
do things that were unachievable to any degree with existing technologies,
and the whole field of electrical engineering and electronics that
we take for granted today was the result. A similar distinction
sets nuclear processes apart from conventional sources. All forms
of hydrocarbon and other chemical combustion involve energy changes
in the outer electron shells of atoms. The energies associated with
transitions of the atomic nucleus are thousands of times more intense,
and hence represent a breakthrough to the next regime of energy
control that the growth of human populations and wealth creation
require. The so-called alternatives do not.
use of nuclear energy, as a replacement for conventional heat sources
to generate electricity by steam turbines, is just a first, exploratory
step into a qualitatively new realm of capability, opening up prospects
of obsoleting most of today's cumbersome and polluting industries
in much the same way as the introduction of electricity revolutionized
the coal-based methods of the nineteenth century. As an example,
at the hundred-million-degree temperatures of a nuclear plasma,
all atoms are stripped of their electrons and become raw, highly
charged nuclei that can be manipulated simply and efficiently by
electric and magnetic fields. This implies ways for economically
extracting the trace elements that exist in all forms of rock, desert
sand, seawater, and construction debris without need of geologically
concentrated ores to make it worthwhile, hence replacing or streamlining
much of our present mining and primary metals extraction industries.
Also, it gives a total recycling method for all types of waste.
Or consider the chemicals industry. The conventional way of getting
reactants to split up or combine is to brew them together for hours,
days, or even weeks in big vats, usually under heat to supply the
energy that the reactions require. But heat is a broadband source
spread over a wide range of wavelengths, which means that energy
is available at favorable wavelengths for many different reactions
among the molecules involved, and so a mix of compounds will be
formed. The typical result is that only a fraction of the reactants
go into producing the product that was desired, which raises its
cost, and the marketing department tries to find uses for the sludge
that's left over. In laboratories, lasers are being used to drive
chemical reactions with narrowband energy at just the absorption
wavelength of the molecule required, transforming all of the materials
into useful products in milliseconds. Recombining reactants from
a tuned plasma state offers the same possibilities on an industrial
Way to Go: South Korea's nuclear park at Yongwang, with 6 x
of cheap, high-temperature process heat opens the way to desalinating
seawater inexpensively in large quantities and pumping it to where
it needs to go to irrigate currently useless land. Furthermore at
such temperatures, water "cracks" thermally into its constituent
atoms, yielding a potentially unlimited supply of hydrogen as a
base for a whole range of synthetic liquid fuels to replace gasoline.
My guess is that, given the will and the vision, we could be making
our own hydrocarbons more cheaply, and possibly with higher efficiency,
long before the last barrel of the natural stuff is pumped out of
ahead and more speculatively, we have the prospect of ending all
our materials-shortage problems permanently by transmuting elements
on a bulk scale. All atoms can be broken down into their elementary
particles, and the particles reassembled into atoms of whatever
we want a whole new science of structure-building that stands
to nuclei as present-day chemistry does to molecules. Eventually,
we'll make our materials the way nature does in stars, with unlimited
energy as a by-product. And when we've developed the technologies
here on Earth we can ship them up to orbit and to the Moon, and
that's how we'll build our space colonies and starships.
Or would you
rather be a fish?
One of the
fears implanted in the public mind has been that nuclear power is
inherently dangerous. Every form of human activity carries some
attendant risk. The only meaningful way that society can judge the
acceptability of a given risk is by weighing it against the benefits,
and comparing the result with those obtained by similarly treating
hysterical media reactions to the accidents at Three Mile Island
and Chernobyl, nuclear power remains probably the least threatening
to human life of all major industrial technologies. Because the
energy density of nuclear fuels is much greater, the amount needed
to achieve the same result is correspondingly less. Over five thousand
times as much coal has to be mined, transported, and processed as
uranium to produce the same amount of energy 200 trains a year,
each consisting of 100 cars, to feed a 1,000 Megawatt plant, compared
to four car loads of uranium oxide. Fatalities resulting worldwide
from mining operations alone every year are numbered in thousands,
but like automobile accidents they occur in ones and twos spread
over time in many places, and are largely invisible. In the Western
world, nuclear power generation has never killed anybody.
At Three Mile
Island no one was killed, no one was hurt, and no member of the
public was ever in any danger. We were not at the brink of a major
catastrophe. A bizarre set of circumstances coupled with inappropriate
operator responses led to a loss of coolant and damage to the reactor
core that included the melting of some fuel. The safety systems
responded the way they were supposed to by shutting the system down.
The outer layers of containment were never challenged, let alone
breached, putting conditions well within the worst-case scenario
that the plant had been designed to withstand. At one point there
was speculation that an accumulation of hydrogen gas might explode.
Had it done so, there would have been simply a chemical detonation
certainly nothing of a thermonuclear nature as was suggested by
the headline H-BLAST IMMINENT that appeared in some newspapers.
It was established later that an explosion couldn't have happened
since there was no oxygen present; but even if it had, the shock
would have been comparable to that imparted by a sledge hammer,
which would hardly damage a reactor vessel with steel walls twelve
inches thick. The engine block of a car absorbs more stress thousands
of times every minute. Even if the vessel had cracked, any dangerous
material would still have had to get through a four-foot concrete
shield and an outer steel containment shell to reach the environment.
Yes, some radioactive gas accumulated in the containment building
and was subsequently vented to the outside. But the predictions
of tens of thousands of cancer deaths as a consequence were absurd.
The maximum increase in radiation dose measured immediately above
the plant was in the order of eight millirems over the course of
several days. A routine dental X-ray delivers three times as much
in seconds. When a dam bursts, a drilling platform collapses, or
a gas storage tank explodes, you don't have days for the luxury
of holding press conferences and talking about evacuating.
say anything about nuclear engineering. It did say something about
priorities under a militarist totalitarian system in which public
safety doesn't figure highly in policymaking. What happened was
that the reactor's graphite core caught fire after the safety systems
had been turned off for experimental work to be conducted, and the
resultant explosion ejected radioactive material due to the lack
of a comprehensive containment structure. Reduced containment suggests
a design intended primarily to serve military needs, where the fuel
has to be removed frequently to avoid the contamination by fission
products that would prevent purification to the level that weapons-grade
material requires. In civilian power reactors the fuel rods are
changed typically every three years, and the obstruction caused
by containment structures becomes less of a hassle. So what the
circumstances point to is a facility built primarily for defense
purposes being used to supplement the power grid at a time of low
political tension and reduced military demand.
to see how anything comparable could happen with Western nuclear
plants in the way that some critics have claimed. Besides operating
inside multi-layer containment to ensure defense in depth, Western
reactors don't possess graphite cores such a basis for design
was expressly rejected by the U.S. in 1950, precisely because of
the risk of one igniting in the way that happened. Two features
are essential for a nuclear power reactor to function: a "moderator"
substance, which surrounds the fuel and in effect keeps the nuclear
chain reaction running; and a coolant to carry away the heat produced
and deliver it to the steam generator that drives the turbines.
The Chernobyl design used graphite as the moderator and water as
the coolant. This means that if the coolant flow fails the reactor
will continue to produce heat at full power (because of the presence
of the moderator), with consequent rapid escalation to an emergency
as in fact occurred. Western designs, by contrast, use water as
both the moderator and the coolant. So if the coolant should
fail, the moderator is automatically lost also, and the chain reaction
ceases, leaving only the residual fission products as sources of
heat to be disposed of, which represents typically five percent
of the normal power output.
attributed deaths at Chernobyl numbered thirty-eight, from immediate
effects and acute radiation poisoning among firefighters and rescue
workers. The figure of hundreds of thousands of long-term cancers
that was bandied around came not from any physical diagnoses but
from statistical computer exercises using theoretical assumptions
that have been shown to be wrong. Studies twenty years later show
nothing to support these predictions.
If? . . .
seem to be realizing that a nuclear power plant cannot explode like
an atom bomb. The detonating mechanism for a bomb has to be built
with extreme precision for the bomb to work at all, and a power
plant contains nothing like it. Besides that, the materials used
are completely different. Natural uranium contains about 0.7 percent
of the fissionable U-235 isotope, which has to be enriched to more
than 90 percent for bomb-grade material. For the slow release of
energy required in power reactors, the fuel is enriched to only
3.5 percent. It simply isn't an explosive.
So what about
a meltdown? Even if TMI wasn't one, mightn't the next accident be?
Yes, it might.
The chance has been estimated using the same methods that work
well in other areas of engineering where there have been enough
actual events to verify the calculations as being about the same
as that of a major city being hit by a meteorite one mile across.
Even if it happened, simulations and studies indicate that it wouldn't
be the calamity that most people imagine. If the fuel did melt its
way out of the reactor vessel, it would be far more likely to sputter
about and solidify around the massive supporting structure than
continue reacting and burrow its way down through the floor. The
British tested an experimental reactor in an artificial cave in
Scotland for over twenty years, subjecting it to every conceivable
failure of the coolant and safety systems. In the end they switched
everything off and sat back to see what happened. Nothing very dramatic
did. The core quietly cooled itself down, and that was that.
But what if
the studies and simulations are flawed and the British experience
turns out to be a fluke? Then, mightn't the core turn into a molten
mass and go down through the floor?
Yes, it might.
And then what
We'd have a lot of mess down a hole in the ground, which would probably
be the best place for it.
But what if
there was a water table near the surface?
In that case
we'd create a lot of radioactive steam that would blow back up into
the containment building, which again would be the best place for
But what if
some kind of geological or structural failure caused it to come
up outside the containment building?
It would most
likely expand high into the sky and dissipate.
But what if
. . .
Now we're beginning
to see the kinds of improbability chains that have to be dreamed
up to create disaster scenarios for scaring the public. Remembering
the odds against any major core disintegration in the first place,
what if there happened to be an atmospheric inversion that held
the cloud down near the ground, and if there was a wind blowing
toward an urban area that was strong enough to move the cloud but
not enough to disrupt the inversion layer? . . . Then yes, you could
end up killing a lot of people. The statistical predictions work
out at about 400 fatalities per meltdown. Perhaps not as bad as
you'd think. And that's if we're talking about deaths that couldn't
be attributed directly to the accident as such, but which would
materialize as a slight increase in the cancer rate of a large population
over many years, increasing an individual's risk from something
like 20.5 percent to 21 percent. Since air pollution from coal burning
is estimated to cause 10,000 deaths annually in the U.S., for nuclear
power to be as dangerous as coal is now would require a meltdown
somewhere or other every two weeks.
But if we're
talking about directly detectable deaths within a couple of months
from acute radiation sickness, it would take 500 meltdowns to kill
100 people. On this basis, even having 25 meltdowns every year for
10,000 years would cause fewer deaths than automobiles do in one
The Radiation, Then?
It's true that
even an unmelted-down nuke under normal operation and in proper
working order releases some radiation into the environment. But
then, so does a shovelful of dirt from your back yard, the air you
breathe, everything you eat, the water you drink, and even your
body tissues. There's hardly anything that doesn't emit some radiation
from trace elements that it contains, all of which adds up to a
natural background thousands of times stronger than anything contributed
by the nuclear industry. The emission from the granite that Grand
Central Station is built from exceeds the permissible limit set
for industry. Grand Central Station wouldn't get a license as a
This is not
meant to suggest that large doses of radiation aren't harmful. Napalm
bombs and blast furnaces are not very healthy either, but it doesn't
follow that heat in any amount is therefore hazardous. You wouldn't
last long at the no-dose temperature of absolute zero.
of toxicology has long recognized the phenomenon of "hormesis,"
in which substances that are lethal in high doses, turn out to be
beneficial, if not actually essential to health, in small doses,
as a result of stimulating the body's immune and repair mechanisms.
In the last few decades it has become increasingly clear that this
applies to ionizing radiation as well. By just about every measure
that biologists use to assess the well-being of living things
vitality; longevity; number of offspring; the number of them that
survive; healing of injuries; susceptibility to disease and speed
of recovery everything from bacteria through plants, bugs, invertebrates,
to mammals and people fares better when the environmental radiation
is moderately increased. Depending on the type of organism, the
optimum seems to be around ten times the natural background; beyond
that the effects become less benign, then harmful, and eventually
lethal. And this makes intuitive sense. When it comes to temperature,
pressure, humidity, light, internal and external chemical concentrations,
and just about everything else that makes up their environments,
living things are designed, created, evolved whatever you subscribe
to to exist within a distinct comfort zone, beyond which too little
can be as bad as too much. It would seem odd if the same didn't
apply to radiation too.
we are constantly being told that any level of radiation is harmful,
however small. A simple prediction from this would be that cancer
in areas with higher background levels ought to be greater. But
the fact is, they're not. The cancer rate in Colorado, for example,
with twice the nation's average radiation, due to the cosmic rays
at that altitude and the high radioactivity of the rocks that occur
there, when corrected for such factors as age and occupation, is
only 68 percent of the average. The relationship remains negative
i.e. the higher the radiation background, the lower the cancer
rate across the country as a whole, with a spectacular correlation
coefficient of minus 39 percent. That's about the same as the correlation
of lung cancer with cigarette smoking but the other way around.
the foregoing heresies, would it come as a complete surprise if
I were to suggest that the ease of getting rid of the waste is one
of nuclear power's major benefits? Because the amount of
fuel needed for the same amount of energy is much smaller, so is
the amount of waste produced. And the waste that is produced isn't
as hazardous as people are led to believe. It's considerably less
dangerous than many other substances that are handled routinely
in far greater quantities with far less care, which the world accepts
as a matter of course.
Around 95 percent
of the spent fuel that comes out of a power reactor can be reprocessed
into new fuel and put back in saving in a typical plant's 40-year
lifetime the equivalent of eight billion dollars' worth of oil.
Burning it up in this way is the sensible thing to do, and the industry
was designed on the assumption that this would be the case. What's
left after reprocessing constitutes the "high level" waste that
needs to be disposed of. A large, 1,000-MW plant produces about
a cubic yard of it in a year small enough to fit under a dining-room
table. A coal plant of equal capacity produces ten tons of waste
every minute. A facility to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in the
U.S. was commenced as a joint venture by government and industry
at Barnwell, South Carolina. But work was halted in early 1977 essentially
for political reasons, while at the same time the utilities were
cut off from the military reprocessing facilities that had been
handling domestic wastes safely for twenty years. Thus, 100 percent
of what comes out of reactors is having to be treated as if it were
high-level waste, to be stored in ways that were never intended,
and this is what gets the publicity. It's a needlessly manufactured
political problem, not a technical one. The rest of the world continues
to reprocess its spent fuel regardless.
But isn't it
true that the high-level waste remains radioactive for tens of thousands
of years? So what do you do with that?
Yes, the high-level
waste contains fission products that have long half-lives. But these
are not what constitute a possible biological hazard. They just
provide big numbers that get the public's attention. For obviously,
if the energy release is spread out over that long a time, its intensity
can't be very great. Rusting iron has a long half-life; TNT has
a short one. The principal danger is from the short-lived isotopes,
such as iodine 131, with a half-life of eight days. To allow these
to decay to levels that can be safely handled, the spent fuel is
put into cooling ponds at the reactor site for six months before
being shipped for reprocessing.
So what do
you do with what's left?
are to reduce it to a powder, vitrify the powder into a highly stable
glass, seal the glass into steel canisters, and bury them in a concrete
repository two thousand feet underground although some scientists
have urged that the repository be made accessible, since the "wastes"
contain many rare isotopes that could be invaluable after the current
phobias have abated. Beyond this somewhat mundane approach, more
recent theoretical and research developments point to the feasibility
of artificially stimulating these long-life fission products to
decay instead in ways that will take only minutes, using low-cost
equipment that can be operated on-site, without need for costly
transportation and long-term bulk storage. By definition these are
unstable nuclei, after all, like rocks balanced on the edge of a
precipice, waiting for a nudge to send them in a direction that
they're already set to go. Such a solution has a feeling of "appropriateness"
about it using nuclear technology to resolve an issue that is
of an inherently nuclear nature.
no bones about it. We are talking here about a significant concentration
of radiation that would have to be confined and handled with great
care. If all the electricity used in the United States were produced
by nuclear power, the high-level waste produced each year would
be enough to kill ten billion people more than the present population
of the planet. Sounds scary, doesn't it? But the U.S. also produces
enough barium to kill a hundred billion people, enough ammonia and
cyanide to kill six trillion, enough phosgene to kill twenty trillion,
and enough chlorine to kill four hundred trillion. There's no doubt
enough gasoline around, too, in cars, garages, storage refineries,
and under filling stations to kill us all several times over, and
enough pills in hospitals, pharmacies, and family medicine closets.
But we don't worry about it, because there's no way in which the
population is going to line up to be administered their dose or
otherwise be evenly exposed to any of these substances. This is
even more true of nuclear waste sealed deep underground.
of overlying rock reduces the radiation by a factor of ten, which
means there's no hazard to anyone above ground from the buried material.
What danger there is comes from the risk of some of it finding its
way out of the repository and into a person through being ingested
or inhaled. Unlike chemical toxins, which remain lethal forever,
radiation from nuclear waste decays with time. After ten years of
burial, it would be about as toxic as barium if ingested; if inhaled,
a tenth as toxic as ammonia and a thousandth as toxic as chlorine.
After a hundred years these figures fall to one ten-thousandth,
one hundred-thousandth, and one ten-millionth respectively. Nature's
biological waste-disposal program puts a thousand million tons of
ammonia into the atmosphere every year, and we use chlorine liberally
to clean our bathtubs and swimming pools.
a year's operation of a 1,000-MW coal plant produces 1.5 million
tons of ash 30,000 truck loads, or enough to cover one and a half
square miles to a depth of 40 feet that contains large amounts
of carcinogens and toxins, and which can be highly acidic or alkaline
depending on the sulfur content of the coal. Also, ironically, more
unused energy is thrown away in the form of trace uranium in the
ash than was obtained from burning the coal. Getting rid of it is
a stupendous task, and it ends up being dumped in shallow landfills
that are easily leached out by groundwater, or simply piled up in
mountains on any convenient site. And that's only the solid waste.
In addition there is the waste that's disposed of up the smokestack,
which includes 600 pounds of carbon dioxide and ten pounds of sulfur
dioxide every second, and the same quantity of nitrogen oxides as
200,000 automobiles. So in answer to questions about the "unsolved
problem" of nuclear waste, is this supposed to be a solved one?
nuke, by contrast, produces nothing in addition to its cubic yard
of high-level waste, because there isn't any chemical combustion.
No ash, no gases, no smokestack, and no need for elaborate engineering
to generate and control enormous air flows. Because of its compactness,
nuclear power is the first major industrial technology for which
it is actually possible to talk about containing all the wastes
and isolating them from the biosphere. A study of the consequences
of the U.S. going to all-nuclear electricity concluded that the
total additional health risk that the average citizen would be exposed
to, covering everything from uranium mining through transportation,
power generation, to final disposal of the wastes, would be equivalent
to that of raising the speed limit by six thousandths of one mile
per hour. The risks eliminated, of course, would be far greater.
Fears are expressed
that the spread of nuclear power would make available the resources
and materials for politically unstable nations and terrorists to
make bombs. To whatever degree such possibilities may exist in today's
world, domestic nuclear power is pretty much irrelevant. Any group
that has the determination and funds to make a bomb can do so in
any of at least a half-dozen ways that are cheaper, simpler, faster,
and less hazardous than going through the complications of using
new or used power plant fuel, and require no access to civilian
generating technology. Expertise is available that can be bought
for a price, and with laser isotope separation techniques the materials
to produce bomb-grade materials exist in rocks everywhere. Slowing
the introduction of nuclear power to developing nations does nothing
to reduce potential weapons threats. It does, however, retard their
economic development and thus help perpetuate the differences in
health and living standards that perhaps make resorting to such
threats more likely.
If the way
forward into the future calls for higher energy densities, the notion
that we can depend on solar or wind (which is another form of solar)
represents a move backward. To get an idea of just how dilute a
source solar is compared even to coal, consider a lump of coal capable
of yielding a kilowatt-hour of electricity, which would weigh about
a pound, and ask how long the Sun would have to shine on it to deposit
the same amount of energy that the coal will release when burned.
The area of its shadow, which measures the sunlight intercepted,
would be about fifteen square inches. In Arizona in July, with a
24-hour annualized average insolation of 240 watts per square meter,
it would take 435 hours, or almost three weeks , for this amount
of surface to receive a kilowatt-hour of sunshine. For the average
location in the U.S., allowing for bad weather and cloud cover,
a reasonable estimate would be twice that. But to obtain a kilowatt-hour
of electricity, at the ten to twenty percent efficiency attainable
today, which appears to be approaching its limit, we'd be talking
somewhere between thirteen and seven months.
The Sun shining
on forests for tens or hundreds of years affords an enormous concentration
of energy over time that Nature performs for free. Subsequent geological
compaction into coal adds another dimension of concentration in
space, which humans carry further by their activities of mining
and transportation. Hydroelectric power is another form of highly
concentrated solar. The Sun evaporates billions of tons of water
off the oceans, which fall on wide areas of land and drain through
river systems to strategic points suitable for building dams. Once
again, most of the work involving the concentration of energy in
time and space on enormous scales is done for nothing by Nature.
I wonder if
the people who talk glibly about attempting to match such feats
artificially really comprehend the scale of the engineering that
they're proposing. A 1,000-MW solar conversion plant, for example
the same size as I've been using for the comparisons of coal and
nuclear would cover 50 to 100 square miles with 35,000 tons of
aluminum, two million tons of concrete, 7,500 tons of copper, 600,000
tons of steel, 75,000 tons of glass, and 1,500 tons of other metals
such as chromium and titanium a thousand times the material needed
to construct a nuclear plant of the same capacity. These materials
are not cheap, and real estate doesn't come for nothing. Moreover,
these materials are all products of heavy, energy-hungry industries
in their own right that produce large amounts of waste, much of
it toxic. So much for "free" and "clean" solar power.
doesn't end there. When a power engineer talks about a one-thousand-megawatt
plant, he means one that can deliver a thousand megawatts on demand,
anytime, day or night. A nuclear plant can do this; so can a conventional
fossil-fuel plant. But a solar plant can only operate when the Sun
is shining, which straightaway gives it a maximum availability of
50 percent low enough to be considered prohibitively uneconomic
for any other type of power plant. To ensure supply when the demand
is there, some kind of regular supply would have to be available
as a backup anyway, making the whole idea of solar as a replacement
The only other
way would be to provide some kind of storage system that the solar
plant would be able to charge up during its operating period, and
then draw on when demand exceeds supply. At present there isn't
any really satisfactory way of storing large amounts of electrical
energy. What's usually proposed instead is to convert it to potential
energy by pumping water up to a high reservoir, and letting the
water flow back down through turbines in the nonproductive periods.
A sleight-of-word commonly slipped in by solar advocates when pushing
for this kind of option is to continue referring to the facility
as a "thousand megawatt" solar plant. However, the power industry's
normal criterion expects a practicable storage system to be capable
of recharging at five times the nominal rating. This means that
for "thousand megawatt" to mean the same as it does for every other
kind of plant, the solar facility would have to have a peak capacity
of six thousand megawatts, adding vastly to the size, complexity,
cost, and environmental effects implied by the figures above.
by putting solar panels on everyone's roofs wouldn't reduce the
cost or the amount of materials, but simply spread them around.
In fact things would get worse, for the same reason that McDonalds
use less oil to cook two tons of fries than eight thousand households
that make a half a pound each. The storage problem wouldn't go away
either, but would become each homeowner's responsibility. In a battery
just big enough to start a car, gases can accumulate that one spark
can cause to explode sometimes with lethal consequences, as some
unfortunates have demonstrated when using jumper cables carelessly.
Imagine the hazard that a basement full of batteries the size of
grand pianos would present, which a genuinely all-solar home would
need to get through a bad spell in, say, Minnesota in January. And
who would do the maintenance and keep the acid levels topped up?
Then we have
the problem of keeping the roof panels clean and free from snow
and wet leaves, not in the summer months, but when the roofs are
slippery and frozen. Even today, the biggest cause of accidental
deaths in the country, after automobiles, is falls. If we build
all those houses with bombs in the basements and skating rinks on
the roofs, it seems to me we'd better add in a lot more hospitals
and emergency rooms too, while we're at it.
As a science-fiction
writer, I'm certainly enthusiastic about the thought of our expanding
into space for the right reasons. Solar power satellites has never
struck me as one of them. The intensity of solar radiation outside
the atmosphere is about six times that on the surface, which isn't
a lot really. I don't see how it could justify the expense of putting
huge amounts of technology into orbit to reconcentrate energy diluted
by ninety-three million miles' worth of the inverse square law,
when we can generate it at the Sun's original density right here.
One study that I read estimated 10,000 shuttle launches to build
a satellite capable of powering New York City and on top of that
would be the cost of ground equipment to receive the beamed power.
apply equally to wind power, which seems to be the current fad of
the political savants who would lead us into the twenty-first century.
The picture above shows the South Korean nuclear park at Yongwang,
which has six one-thousand-megawatt reactors. Matching that capacity
with wind generators would require a wind farm 175 miles wide extending
from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Direct solar would require somewhere
around 20 square miles of collector area alone, i.e. without allowing
any spacing for steerable geometry or the maintenance access that
would be necessary for a practical plant design.
to say that solar doesn't have its uses. It can be beneficial in
remote places far from a supply grid, such as isolated farms or
weather stations, and if somebody who lives in the right place finds
it worthwhile to shave something off his electricity bill, there's
nothing wrong with that. But the problem that matters isn't simply
a domestic one of keeping the living room at 75 degrees and heating
the bath water. The real issue is that of running the aluminum smelters,
steel mills, fertilizer plants, cement works, factories, and transportation
systems that keep a modern industrial society functioning. Solar
and its variants can never make a significant contribution. And
that is precisely the reason why those who don't want a modern
industrial society are so much in favor of it and would like to
see everything else forcibly shut down.
And here, finally,
we come to what the controversy is really all about. In a word,
population control. The availability and cheapness of energy is
probably the single best measure of the wealth and living standards
that a society has attained, and will be reflected in the size to
which its population can grow. But not everyone agrees that letting
populations grow to the level that advanced technology can support
is a good thing. In particular, the empowered and advantaged, whose
influence has a lot to say about how the world is run and how the
public's perceptions are shaped, would prefer not to see their place
in the sun at the top of the social pyramid being crowded by overproducing
rabble spilling up from the levels below.
especially new about this. No previous economy has ever been able
to support more than a privileged minority at reasonable standards
of comfort and affluence. In early days there were a few privileged
families, later an entire class, and in more recent times a minority
of privileged nations. When a privileged group becomes entrenched,
two things tend to happen. First, a rationale is constructed, based
on religion, contrived science, or some other belief system, to
justify the existing social order and induce the masses to accept
their inferior lot. Second, reasons are found why the progress that
has enabled the privileged to get where they are has gone as far
as it can and should stop right now.
Today we see
it as promotion of the essentially Malthusian ideology that sees
a planet with finite resources straining to support an exponentially
growing population until either nature imposes limits through its
traditional agencies of famine, disease, and war, or we impose artificial
ones by rationing energy and curtailing growth, and the majority
accept simpler lifestyles. Anything else will simply produce more
people than we can we can reasonably support, and hasten the day
when everything runs out.
This is a legitimate
view to hold. But it's a social and political issue, and should
be openly recognized and treated as such. Trumped up phony science
will eventually be refuted, and the main casualty will be trust
in any science which is already happening.
The fears are
misplaced. Applying observed dynamics of animal populations to human
societies is to deny the qualities that set humans apart. Unlike
animals, who simply consume resources and react to their circumstances
with fixed behavior patterns, humans create new resources and are
capable of adapting their behavior to the new conditions that they
bring about. In primitive agricultural societies, with no life insurance,
retirement pensions, social security, or machines to do the work,
children are an economic asset. And in conditions of high infant
mortality, with all manner of risks lying in wait between cradle
and grave, having large families to ensure at least one or two strong
sons to run the farm and provide for one's old age makes a lot of
sense. But with urbanization and industrialization, children become
expensive to house, feed, and educate, and family sizes plummet.
In addition, traditional values give way to more liberal attitudes
and lifestyles that don't presume early marriage and the raising
of families to be the only respectable aim in life in the first
place. The result is that as populations reach higher levels of
security and well-being, they become self-limiting in numbers in
ways that Thomas Malthus never dreamed of. In the meantime, while
the old ways and customs continue to exist alongside rising longevity
and falling mortality, of course populations are going to
increase. So it was in Europe in the 18th to 19th centuries, in
North America in the 19th20th, and today it's happening across
the Third World. It's a sign that things are getting better, not
resource is not a resource until the knowledge and the means exist
to make use of it. Human civilization is a continuation at the level
of applied intelligence of the evolutionary process that invented
the photosynthesis industry, opening up the entire surface of the
oceans as a biomass factory; the first space suit in the form of
the amniotic egg, which enabled life to launch itself out of the
oceans and colonize the alien environment of dry land; and the hemoglobin
molecule to harness oxygen as a higher-power energy source. New
technologies create new resources and always on a scale that dwarfs
everything that went before. Tomorrow's needs never have to be met
by yesterday's methods. The harnessing of steam, the discovery of
electricity, and the exploitation of oil all opened up eras of wealth
creation that were as qualitatively distinct from each other as
they were from the economies of the Middle Ages based on wood, wind,
and water. The average Englishman today enjoys a better standard
of living, materially, than Queen Victoria did. Most Americans are
millionaires by the standards of a century or so ago.
All of the
world's peoples would like to think that a century from now their
children will be living that way. They could be, too. The human
race possesses the knowledge and the ability to ensure that every
child born on the planet could look forward to a healthy and well-fed
body, an educated mind, and the opportunity to become the best that
he or she is capable of. But when the demand is translated into
energy needs providing a globally stabilized population of, say,
ten billion with energy per person probably greater than that of
the U.S. today the amount is utterly beyond any approaches that
are merely variations of what we have. Only continued evolution
into the next logical realm of energy control can do it.
So, can we
make nuclear energy work, safely, cleanly, and efficiently? Sure
we can. When we take a long, hard look at the alternatives, we see
that we have to. Fortunately for all of us, the Neanderthals who
first learned how to tame fire thought the same way.
P. Hogan [send him mail],
a former digital systems engineer and computer sales executive,
has been a full-time writer since 1980. He was born in London, moved
to the USA for many years, and now lives in the Republic of Ireland.
His web site is at www.jamesphogan.com.
© 2009 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.