Critical Section


the nuclear option

Sunday,  05/29/05  11:23 AM

Relax, this is not a post about filibusters or approving Supreme Court justices.  No, this is about nuclear energy.

oil & natural gas supplies over timeAs you know, oil supplies are peaking, and prices are on the rise.  Neither of these questions is really open to debate.  We all understand that oil is a finite resource.  We can argue about whether supply will peak in 2010 or 2040, but it is clear that it will peak, and thereafter we'll be running out of oil.  Any resource whose supply is limited and decreasing is going to become more expensive.  [ Mark Frauenfelder had a great link-filled post about this. ]

So what do we do?  Clearly there are two paths to follow, and clearly we must follow both of them.  First, we must try to reduce our entropy consumption.  Second, we must develop alternative sources of entropy.

Note: people often use "energy" when they mean "entropy".  The first law of thermodynamics tells us that in any process energy is always conserved.  The second law of thermodynamics causes the problem, it says that in any process entropy always increases.  Think of "entropy" as "randomness".  The more ordered things are, the less random they are, and the more potential energy is available.  All processes which release potential energy to perform work reduce the order, and increase entropy.  Think of any two-year old - as energy is released, order is destroyed :)

Reducing entropy consumption is all very exciting, but I don't want to talk about that today.  In the end this can only help, but it can't solve the problem.  As the worldwide standard of living increases, so, too, does the worldwide consumption of entropy per person.  It is worth trying to slow the trend, but it will be impossible to reverse.

So what alternatives do we have?

First, there is certainly hydroelectric power.  Can we significantly increase production of energy from hydroelectric sources?  Not really.  First, all the low hanging fruit has been picked; virtually every big river flowing through a gorge has been dammed.  Over time we have to use smaller and smaller rivers, which are harder and harder to dam, and which ultimately produce less and less power.  And the ecologic consequences of damming rivers is significant.  Other sources of hydroelectric power like harnessing tides are speculative.  They might work, but they aren't proven to scale.  Furthermore each tends to have some negative effect on its environment.

Next consider solar power.  Can solar power be the solution?  It can certainly be part of the solution.  In sunny areas it is great for small-scale projects like heating swimming pools.  On the upside it seems to have minimal effect on its environment.  However it isn't efficient enough - by orders of magnitude - to replace oil.  The power produced is too low, and the cost of the power is too high. 

How about wind?  I've considered wind power previously.  It really doesn't make much sense; it is inefficient, expensive, and highly detrimental to the immediate environment.  Furthermore the number of areas with consistently high wind and large areas of land is small.  Maybe someday people will figure out how to generate wind power out on the ocean - a good combination of high wind and large areas - but that's speculative.

Which really only leaves the nuclear option.  Nuclear energy is actually the best alternative to burning oil.  First, it scales; it is already possible to build big nuclear power plants which produce energy on the scales required.  Second, it is relatively clean; although the problem of waste disposal is a problem, it is arguably less destructive than releasing hydrocarbons produced from burning oil into the atmosphere, or damming rivers, or covering vast areas with windmills.

Amazingly, this option seems to be gathering support.  FuturePundit reported American electric utilities planning new nuclear reactors, and wondered will most environmentalists decide to support nuclear power?  Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth catalog, makes the case for going nuclear.  [ via David Pescovitz ]

Even the NYTimes reported Old foes soften to new reactors:  [ via Glenn Reynolds ]

Several of the nation's most prominent environmentalists have gone public with the message that nuclear power, long taboo among environmental advocates, should be reconsidered as a remedy for global warming.  Their numbers are still small, but they represent growing cracks in what had been a virtually solid wall of opposition to nuclear power among most mainstream environmental groups.  In the past few months, articles in publications like Technology Review, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Wired magazine have openly espoused nuclear power, angering other environmental advocates.

Interestingly the focus of this article was reducing global warming, which is a consequence of burning fossil fuels, but of course reducing our dependence upon oil as a source of entropy is important, too.

Perhaps the best recent survey was in Business 2.0: Going Nuclear.  One emphasis of this article was on why nuclear energy is safe, and especially why it is safer than it was.  Naturally we're worried about disposing of nuclear waste, but we're even more worried about avoiding another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl.  The risk is nonzero but low, and getting lower.

This is all good.  It seems that intelligent people of all stripes are converging on the nuclear option.  Which is terrific, because the alternative - continuing to burn oil until it is gone - is no option at all.

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