Tuesday, February 12, 2019
The Future of Energy is Bright, Part III: Radiophobia
This is a rather difficult topic to discuss because of all the confusion sown by various “deniers”: peak oil deniers, climate change deniers, debt bomb deniers… There are also vain hopes being sown by technophiles who think that the advent of nuclear fusion is just around the corner or who dream about giant mirrors in space, the hydrogen economy or some other form of nonexistent technology. To make this topic easier to discuss, I will make certain assumptions. I will assume that nonexistent technology… doesn’t exist, so there is nothing to discuss. Please take your fusion reactors, thorium reactors, space mirrors and magic perpetual motion engines elsewhere. I am only interested in existing, proven technologies that can be scaled up.
I will also assume that fossil fuels are exceedingly abundant but too expensive and too energy-demanding to keep getting out of the ground at anything like the current rate. The vast majority of fossil fuel-producing nations are past their peak production. US shale oil and gas production is a transient money-waster, to the tune of $300 billion so far. There are a couple of dates to remember: conventional oil production peaked in 2005-6; diesel production seems to have peaked in 2017.
Lastly, I will assume that climate change is real and accelerating, is largely caused by the human burning of fossil fuels (and cow farts) and will cause tremendous death and suffering, and that this makes the continued and increasing use of fossil fuels a really dumb idea. These are the assumptions I make at the outset and there will be no further discussion of them here; if you don’t wish to accept them, then this article may not be for you.
Lots of people seem convinced that some combination of renewable energy sources—solar, wind, hydro and biomass—will be able to replace fossil fuels. They are wrong. Hydro is already in full use and limited. Wind and solar are intermittent and therefore need to be fully backed up by a variable on-demand energy source such as natural gas. Biomass is also in full use and needed to continue growing food, fodder and building materials. The recent surge in installed wind and solar generation capacity has been made possible by generous government subsidies and by the fact that Chinese manufacturers had been subsidizing solar panel production (they aren’t any more). Even with these subsidies, in the countries with the largest installed base of wind and solar the electricity rates have shot up considerably as a result, as has their use of natural gas.
This leaves nuclear power. It certainly is powerful: a kilogram of nuclear fuel will generate something like 14,000,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. At $0.12 per (which is the US average) the value is around $1,600,000 per kilogram of fuel which only costs $1,400 a kilo, leaving $1,598,600 for building and running the nuclear installation and the power grid. Environmental damage from nuclear power technology, even with a few meltdowns included, is considerably less than from fossil fuels. The two death tolls are simply incomparable: tens to hundreds of millions dead from fossil fuels and a few thousand from nuclear contamination and radiation exposure, most of which came from nuclear weapons testing.
To be sure, there are some serious problems with nuclear power. One is that its share of overall energy production is quite small—4%, behind hydro with 7% but far ahead of all renewables combined at 2%. Another is that a key resource—uranium—is in rather short supply and the fissionable isotope of uranium—U-235—is in even shorter supply. The US is only 11% self-sufficient in nuclear fuel and has been getting half of it from Russia, while along the east coast of the US nuclear power plants produce 40% of electricity and the electric grid cannot function without them. Yet another problem is that the technical challenges of nuclear waste handling and reprocessing have proven too much for many countries, and they simply allow spent fuel—the most dangerous byproduct of nuclear energy—to accumulate at power plants.
Finally, there is the issue of lost competence: all of the nuclear nations except three—Russia, China and South Korea—appear to have lost the ability to build new nuclear power plants. Japan’s nuclear program has been in disarray since Fukushima. The US has a hundred reactors that are aging out but just a couple of ongoing new projects with uncertain completion dates. Germany has decided to shut down its nuclear industry entirely while France’s aging reactors are not being replaced, with just three projects (one in Finland) taking a very long time and resulting in gigantic cost overruns. The UK has had a disastrous experience with privatizing its nuclear industry and has basically ended up handing it over to the French, but the future of this relationship is uncertain because of Brexit. In short, all over the West (plus Japan) the nuclear industry is in disarray or moribund. Around two-thirds of all new nuclear power projects are being executed by Russia’s Rosatom, which also processes around half of all nuclear fuel in the world and has a complete lock on certain key pieces of nuclear technology. These facts cause severe mental difficulties for the political establishment in the US and they go through painful contortions to avoid mentioning Russia in this context.
But the biggest issue with nuclear power is radiophobia. People tend to conflate nuclear power with nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. They can’t tell the difference between radiation and nuclear contamination. All of the above give them the heebie-jeebies and cause them to stand around protesting holding up “No nukes!” signs. Sometimes that’s warranted; certain people lack the necessary aptitude and expertise to make safe use of nuclear technology and should resist the urge to do so. It’s just not a good idea for them; nor is handing a hand-grenade to a monkey. But there is evidence that nuclear technology can be handled safely. There is also plenty of evidence of the high deterrent value of nuclear weapons while the dangers of nuclear proliferation have not been manifested. With one very important exception (the US) nuclear weapons have only been used as defensive weapons of a peculiar sort: their proper use is for them not to be used at all. Yes, the harm potential of nuclear technology is very high, but its probability is very low, and the product of the two is orders of magnitude lower than the evident harm from burning fossil fuels.
In order to be able to intelligently discuss nuclear technology one has to have some background in physics and chemistry and at least a rudimentary understanding of national and international security, defense technology and power grids. None of this is required if the goal is to cause people to fear nuclear technology—because it is truly awesome. It is much more awesome than electricity, which most people don’t understand either. Primitive peoples have tended to think that lightning consists of lightning bolts thrown by a god in anger; supposedly non-primitive people are loath to think that this is the case, but they mostly don’t know what to think instead. (If you do, please draw me a diagram that explains how lightning is created.)
Getting zapped by lightning is scary enough, but when people hear that nuclear bombs can destroy all life on Earth (not really, but they can definitely ruin your whole day) that’s pretty much all they need to know and are now scared of all things nuclear. At least the lightning bolts are visible, while radiation mostly isn’t (you’ll start seeing sparks or snow with your eyes closed if gamma radiation is strong enough, in which case you should get the hell out of there pronto).
Most people know that radiation can give them cancer, and invisible things that can kill you are definitely the stuff of nightmares, although what gives most people cancer is not radiation but perfectly legal products of the fossil fuel industry and the chemical industry. Just think of all the chemicals you can buy at a hardware store that carry warning labels about their carcinogenic effects. Unlike carcinogenic chemicals and air pollution, radiation can also be good for you. It can cure cancer (or at least send it into remission). If you are perfectly healthy, you still need radiation—solar radiation—in order for your skin to generate vitamin D, without which your immune system will weaken, you will become lethargic and depressed, your bones will become fragile and your hair will fall out. But if you lay in the sun too long you’ll burn your skin and increase your chances of developing skin cancer.
Also, you cannot escape being exposed to radiation because it is absolutely everywhere. Pour yourself a nice hot cup of tea, and it will emit infrared photons, which are a form of electromagnetic radiation—a very nice form of radiation, nice and warm. But if a welder takes off his mask and looks at a fresh weld while it’s still glowing orange, slightly higher-energy infrared photons will give him a nasty headache. Similarly, a little bit of radiation in the 12mm wavelength—the kind used in microwave ovens—won’t do anything, but a lot of it will cook you until you are crispy. The nastiest kinds of electromagnetic radiation—shortest-wavelength and most energetic—is X-rays and gamma rays because they can cause damage to the molecules in your body. If there is too much damage then it becomes irreparable and you become horribly sick and die.
And so you see it’s all a matter of dosage. People who spend many hours a day with a cell phone clapped to their faces may have a higher likelihood of developing brain cancer (evidence is still inconclusive). But people who pick their noses all day every day probably have a higher likelihood of developing nose cancer—you haven’t thought of that, have you? It’s very helpful to know how much radiation exposure you are getting, and of what sort, because just generally fearing radiation makes you a radiophobic nutcase. Being afraid of nuclear power plants because they are radioactive is just plain stupid. If there is one place where everyone is acutely aware of radiation and its risks, it’s a nuclear power plant. In fact, you usually get a lower dose of radiation standing inside a nuclear reactor containment building with the reactor running at full power than you would spending the same amount of time standing outside under the open sky being bombarded by solar radiation and other space rays.
Nuclear science is as close as humans have come to actual real-world alchemy. Medieval alchemists searched for philosopher’s stone that could transmogrify lead into gold. Well, nuclear scientists have figured out how to transmute elements, although it turns out to be much easier to turn gold into lead than vice versa, and in either case it’s a huge waste of energy. What’s not a waste of energy is transmuting uranium into plutonium. You can take uranium containing 0.7% of the useful U-235 isotope, enrich it to 3-5% U-235, put it in a reactor, generate lots of steam and electricity, and what you get at the end is something that contains 0.7% of equally useful plutonium (plus a lot of other, nasty radioactive junk that takes a long time to cool down and become safe). And if it’s a fast neutron “breeder” reactor (which only Rosatom has managed to figure out) then the amount of plutonum you get out is a multiple of the amount of U-235 that went in.
Some fear of nuclear technology is certainly called for—not of the technology itself but of human error in making use of it. In this regard, the biggest, most dangerous human errors have been made not by nuclear engineers or technicians but by citizens who consent to being ruled by narcissistic homicidal sociopaths for whom nuclear technology offers excellent opportunities to achieve their nefarious aims and to generally strengthen their stranglehold on society by threatening nuclear attacks and by staging nuclear accidents. Since nuclear attacks are strictly suicidal moves, they never move beyond mere threats; not so with nuclear accidents.
If you look carefully, at the three largest and most famous nuclear accidents—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima—they look like accidents in the same sense that a person who stabs himself through the heart from the back several times over several days can be deemed a suicide. Rather, they look like meticulously planned special operations involving officials at the highest levels and designed to achieve very specific (formerly) secret aims. They share the common signature of being contrived so that the allegation of them being carried out on purpose by those whose job was to prevent them is sufficiently outrageous to make it unthinkable for the vast majority, making it possible to paint the minority who do manage to see through the deception as “conspiracy theorists” (a thought-stopper derogatory term invented for just this purpose). I will discuss these three “accidents” with regard to means, motive, opportunity and modus operandi in this Thursday’s post.