The Nuclear Diet: Something Doesn’t Add Up

Three Mile Island - site of worst US nuclear disaster

Three Mile Island - synonymous with nuclear disaster. Those working cooling towers (that's moist air, not smoke, coming from them) are part of Unit 1, which can continue to produce energy until 2034. The two silent towers are part of Unit 2, which failed in 1979, less than 3 months after commissioning.

[shine little glow-worm, glimmer]
Well, that just about does it: with a very real nuclear energy crisis on hand at Japan’s Fukushima reactor (Japan has informed the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency that radiation has leaked directly into the air), the world will have some very hard choices to make going forward. Most reactors are not subjected to 9.0 earthquakes, indeed, it was the infrastructure of the electrical grid that lead to the overheating (not enough power to control the reactor!). Then the double whammy of being swamped by the tsunami. Nature simply overwhelmed our puny efforts to establish order in the universe. The IAEA’s bland recitation of the serious damage to the local environment is almost comical:

Coming as they do when oil prices are rising, these events remind us that the world is running out of choices on how to get its daily recommended amount of electrical energy. Let’s do the math: According to the latest government numbers, 70% of the US’s electrical power is from fossil fuels (oil/natural gas/petroleum) and 20% is from nuclear, so it’s obviously not trivial to make a dent in reducing our present established sources.  Of the remaining approximately 10% of electrical generation, 6% is hydro and only 4.5% is everything else (wind, geothermal, solar, biofuels).   (For those doing the math: Yes, these numbers don’t add to 100% due to accumulated round off errors).

For us to wean ourselves from traditional fuels, we will have to quadruple the present amount of electricity generated with alternative fuels.  (Hydro power is limited in its growth and, lest we forget, requires us to sculpt monstrous dams and bend rivers to get it to work.  These engineering efforts require maintenance against silting – and can also radically effect the local habitats.)

Hydro wind geothermal solar and biofuel electrical energy production

The total of all our non-fossil, non-nuclear electrical energy production. Most of this is from hydroelectric, which is difficult to grow. Note that our continuing demand for electrical power has not been fed by these alternative sources, hence the steady decline in total percentage generated.

The US is currently the second largest producer (behind only China) of wind power. And how much does it generate? A paltry 3% of its needs.  At present, the US has a goal of generating 20% of its needs by 2030 – that’s 20 years away. And just so we stay clear on the math: that 20% of electrical power generation in 20 years will be larger than our present 20%. (Interestingly, Texas leads the nation in wind generation. Why? Gov George W. Bush. Yep. The same guy associated with big oil while President was breaking wind barriers while Governor. Why? I dunno. Life is strange and politics is stranger.)

The US is presently the leader in geothermal electrical energy production. Hey! We’re #1! Unfortunately, this amounts to only about 0.4% (!) of our electrical energy output. Is this a serious contender for us?  You do the math.

US Geothermal Output

This is what #1 looks like. Despite being the world leader in geothermal energy production, the United State's national energy appetite is growing so the percentage of energy produced from geothermal sources is shrinking. Hardly a surprise: there are only so many hot spots - not the wifi kind - in the United States. Not a scalable energy source by any measure. (Okay, there aren't even enough wifi hot spots in the US either.)

Solar?  Please. It’s probably the alternative energy you hear most about and it’s certainly growing very rapidly. Why?  Because if you’ve followed the numbers so far, solar (that’s photovoltaic + heating) represents a mere 1% of total produced US electricity.  That’s 1%.  As in almost nothing. Of course you can grow fast when you are growing from nothing! The current prediction from solar proponents is that 10% of the US electrical needs could be solar – in 15 years. That means we have to sustain the current rapid growth every year for the next 15 years.  And a little more since our energy needs will presumably be greater in 15 years. You do the math.

Biofuels? You can see for yourself how well they are presently deployed – and we need the energy from them now, not in some off future date.  Enough said on this topic; there’s not even any math.

So, no matter what your personal views on the situation are, it’s going to take a lot of effort for these alternative sources to provide the electrical energy we need for modern life. Moreover,  with the exception of the not-used-too-much biofuels, these alternative sources can’t be conveniently stored. Fossil and nuclear fuels don’t have that problem.

And oh, yes.  Against this backdrop, you have a bunch of politicians trying to curry favor with their constituents about the evil government trying to restrict the type of light bulbs you can buy.  US Senator Rand Paul was so proud of his “arguments” on this topic that he posted them on YouTube:

Apparently not all people in Kentucky understand how to get decent indoor plumbing. (I’d write that Senator Paul hasn’t had the light bulb go off over his head but he’d probably argue that’s because he couldn’t find the legally correct one to buy.) So much for developing a creative energy policy in the face of a serious societal crisis. Try to cut back on our electrical needs?  Nope.  We need to plow ahead and just develop more ways to produce.

But fossil fuels are being used up at an alarming rate. Half of all the oil on the planet has been pulled out of the ground and burned. And that was the easy half. Add to this mix that the Saudis have admitted to the US that their oil is running out. Fast.

That’s some scary math.

And the build-out of our new infrastructure won’t be happening for at least 10 years as we have seen.  Think we can accelerate that?  You do the math: Even the people associated with progressive energy policies do not want to deal with the new reality.  People like NRDC attorney, Robert Kennedy, Jr.  People like the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite.  These people tried for years to block the deployment of a wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts – which happened to block their view of the ocean.  Even the venerable Sen Ted Kennedy tried to fight this thing – and that was when he was dying! You know someone really hates something when he has the stamina to lobby the President to not put in equipment that will block a view he won’t see in a short while anyway.

So there’s our commitment making sure we have the means to produce the electricity that will keep our iPads and Xboxes going.  Somewhere between backed-up toilets and not-in-my-backyard.

You do the math. By process of elimination, nuclear energy is about the only stop-gap left us.

But there’s a rub:

Since March 1979 (which coincides with the release of both radioactive gases from Three Mile Island and THE CHINA SYNDROME from Columbia Pictures), there hasn’t been a lot of love for nuclear energy in the US.  Part of that can also be attributed to the cheap oil of the 1980s, part also attributed to the famed Chernobyl disaster.  If you think wind turbines can spoil the view from your backyard, just imagine the spoilage created by a malfunctioning nuclear plant.

Construction of nuclear power plants world-wide reveal a definite trend.

With every major nuclear accident, the world loses a bit more of its appetite for this form of electricity generation.

To make matters worse, it takes time to build the plant.  Time – as we just learned – we don’t have.  We also still don’t have a plan of what to do with the nuclear waste generated – also know as “spent rods”.  And finally, would it surprise you that a large corporation dealing with extreme technology (think BP drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico), might be inclined to cover-up some nasty details regarding a nuclear plant’s construction or operation? Nothing like inspiring the local community with a tarnished corporate image.

So there you have it. Our national energy shell game. You do the math.

This week the Swiss, whose nuclear industry provides 40% of their country’s electricity – twice the percentage of the US – protested, wanting to shut down all nuclear power plants in the country.

The Swiss gave us Leonhard Euler.  I thought they were good at math.

Update March 17, 2011: This is no way to build trust for the industry!

[Gregory Jaczko’s, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,] comments to a House committee were disputed but not explicitly denied by Japanese authorities, exposing an apparently major communications issue between the United States and Japan. If Jaczko’s information was correct, the plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) may have withheld information about the gravity of the crisis. If not, then a senior U.S. official may have wrongly inflamed fears in a country wracked by tragedy following last Friday’s earthquake and tsunami.

When you search for something true, change your perspective; askew your view!

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One thought on “The Nuclear Diet: Something Doesn’t Add Up

  1. outstanding but I don’t like how it ends with out a happy ending!

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