Monday, August 14, 2006

Nuclear Reactions

I've been following mental rabbit trails today. I read a couple of articles at TCS Daily, one about global warming alarmism and greenhouse gas emissions trading schemes, and the other about energy constraints in America, in the face of recent heat waves, that are being met with pleas for conservation rather than policies aimed at generating more energy. The two articles seemed inextricably linked to me. The fears of global warming and other environmental consequences are really a complicating factor in the search for the cheap, abundant energy solutions that developed nations already need and developing nations are growing to need more and more. (The same environmental consequences apply to underdeveloped countries as well, but since their situations are complicated by their limited financial resources and lack of infrastructure, let's stick to talking about the more technologically advanced nations, shall we? After all, if you count China and India as at least rapidly up-and-coming, these are the countries most to blame for the carbon emissions which some scientists fear will upset the climate balance of our planet.) Every form of energy currently available to man comes with some environmental cost. Were there no environmental constraints, petroleum, natural gas, bio-fuels, coal, hydroelectric, solar and nuclear energy would all be competing unfettered for their place in the power pantheon. As it is, they're all still players, but regulation determines more and more how affordable and plentiful they are.

Regulations aren't all bad. I like clean air. I'm sure you like to breathe too. There's a story in my husband's family about a particular time when he was a small child, three or four years old. He lived with his parents in Riverside, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. This was in the late sixties, before low emission vehicles were a Californian passion. While on a family vacation, they came up north, to western Washington State. Legend has it (and from my understanding this is a pretty accurate legend) that upon looking up at the open sky, my cute and adorable husband innocently inquired, "Mommy, what's that blue stuff?" Living in the Los Angeles basin of the sixties, he had not known the sky was supposed to be blue. Like I said, regulations aren't all bad, even if some of them do go overboard.

Given that none of us want to breath toxic fumes, nor kill off all the Salmon, nor experience a Chernobyl-style meltdown, what are our energy options? Is conservation the only ecologically and morally acceptable alternative? Are we simply supposed to get used to a little more heat in summer, and chill in winter, as we adjust our thermostats to avoid further straining power grids already pushed to the limit? Are we all going to be ultimately driven to turn in our driver's licenses for bus passes? Is the energy gobbling technology that makes our lives more comfortable going to become less and less supportable as more of the world's populations can afford it? Are we out of options? (I think that is the most questions I have ever asked in a single paragraph.)

All these questions prompted me to do a little searching online for clean power alternatives. One thing I kept coming back to was nuclear power. Nuclear power doesn't have the best reputation in the States, or in Russia either, for that matter. No one wants to see a nuclear disaster, and most of us are pretty aware of the problem of nuclear waste. Nor are the sane among us really keen on the idea of the by-products of nuclear processes being used to create weapons of mass destruction for proliferation among the terrorist set. (I do not count anyone in power in Iran as sane.) However, there have been a lot of advances in nuclear technology since the rather memorable accidents that have shaped our views of nuclear power's potential for providing our daily energy needs.

One such advance is the development of the pebble bed reactor. I remember reading some time back about pebble bed nuclear technology. I can't remember where, but I do recall being impressed with the great improvements in safety that have been achieved over the last two decades. Since I don't know where to find the piece I originally read, I'll send you to the Wikipedia entry about pebble bed reactors. It's a good place to start if you find the topic interesting. Other concepts developed over the years continue to work the fringes of making nuclear power more palatable to Americans. I've read, for example, about ways to eliminate the danger from nuclear waste. One such notion being a scheme to bury nuclear waste deep in the earth where things are pretty much radioactive anyway. I have no link, but a Google search ought to provide you with a wealth of information. I've never really seen a foolproof answer about how to keep nuclear by-products from falling into to hands of the power hungry. In any case, I've seen a lot of approaches to nuclear power that address one problem or another of the list I mentioned above, but what if there were a way to address them all at once?

What I read about today, was a new approach to nuclear that just may deal with all those issues that currently keep it from appealing to those of us who don't want a meltdown, waste with an intolerably long radioactive half-life, or a by-product that can be turned into Earth-destroying bombs. It even eliminates some of the waste we already have lying around. Tim Dean, writing in Cosmos, examines the potential of the thorium reactor:

What if we could build a nuclear reactor that offered no possibility of a meltdown, generated its power inexpensively, created no weapons-grade by-products, and burnt up existing high-level waste as well as old nuclear weapon stockpiles? And what if the waste produced by such a reactor was radioactive for a mere few hundred years rather than tens of thousands? It may sound too good to be true, but such a reactor is indeed possible, and a number of teams around the world are now working to make it a reality. What makes this incredible reactor so different is its fuel source: thorium.
Thorium is also much more abundant here on Earth than uranium, and according to the blog Advanced Nanotechnology, there's even a plentiful supply on the Moon. (The post at AN also informs me that thorium reactors could provide energy that's five times cheaper than that from natural gas.) Sound intriguing? Dean's article is long, but I'm not going to try to synopsize it. If the topic interests you enough to have read this far, maybe you'll find it worth the time to read the rest of Dean's piece. If not, maybe it will merely comfort you to know that strides are being made all the time to come up with viable, environmentally sustainable, affordable energy sources. I hope that Americans don't turn their backs on a potentially clean power source just because it bears the dreaded name of nuclear. We do need power. I don't want to return to the days of my husband's youth, when a kid could live in LA and not know the sky was supposed to be blue, but I don't want to return to a world without air conditioning and convenient travel, either--and I definitely don't want to give up my laptop. Perish the thought. Perhaps, if scientists continue to investigate every avenue, and we retain (or acquire) an open mind about the "n" word, we won't have to choose.