The Grand Experiment

It’s been two years since the three nuclear reactors melted down at Fukushima, the direct result of their emergency generators being swamped by a tsunami, resulting in loss of cooling.  But also the result of man being arrogant with respect to his ability to control the nuclear genie.

After two years, the levels of radiation in Tokyo continue to rise, and over here in the United States, snow still has twice the normal background radiation levels in some areas.  The atmosphere is now more radioactive than it was during the height of atmospheric nuclear bomb testing.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from around 250 parts per million a hundred years ago to around 380 parts per million today.  I had hoped, as we ran out of fossil fuels, that would taper off, but now with all the recent large “tight oil” discoveries, combined with technology for extracting it, directional drilling and hydrological fracturing, or fracking, there appears to be no end in sight, at least during my lifetime.

It does appear that this is an experiment we are determined to do, find out just how resilient this planet is.  It is an experiment I wish that we were not undertaking.

Humans need energy, and more energy available to us translates into a better standard of living.  A good standard of living for all of humankind is something we would  prefer. Is it a choice between global poverty and trashing our environment?

The original design for the Fukushima nuclear plant called for the emergency generators to be built upon a hill where they may have survived the tsunami without being swamped.  There is still a question of whether wiring would have survived, pumps survived, etc, but had the plant been built as originally designed, there is at least the possibility there might not be three melted reactors there now.

There is a nuclear plant on the California coast, approximately mid-way between Los Angeles and San Diego.  Like Japan, a seismically unstable region, but with two huge cities (that have for all intents and purposes grown together) surrounding it. We have the potential for a disaster very similar to what happened in Japan to happen here.  It seems highly likely that it’s just a matter of time.

The only thing that really matters to corporations is making money and that usually means doing things in the cheapest way possible, even if it does endanger tens of millions of people.

People say that renewable energy isn’t economically competitive.  The thing is nuclear and fossil fuels only are because they’re not being done in safe and environmentally responsible ways.  There are inherently safe reactor designs, designs you can turn the coolant off and nothing bad happens, reactors that will burn the actinides produced by conventional reactors eliminating the very long term wastes, but these are expensive, and so they don’t get built.

BP, the reason we had that big spill in the gulf was that the proper casings for that kind of oil pressure cost more and so they opted to go with what was cheap, before you consider the cost to the environment and the clean-up costs, which are nowhere near enough to REALLY clean it up.

If the oil and nuclear industry actually did things in safe environmentally friendly ways, they would not be cost efficient with respect to sustainable energy sources.  In real terms, when you include the costs to our environment, the costs to human health, the cost of waste disposal, etc, renewable sustainable energy sources are cost effective.

We really need to find a way to alter our economic system such that the true cost of energy production, food production, etc, is attributed to each producer.  If the costs of producing electricity using coal included for example, all the additional deaths from all the mercury and radon and other pollutants that get pumped into the air, and the health care costs prior to death that coal produced, then it would no longer be cheap and more sane alternatives would prevail.

There is a lot of misinformation being brandied about with respect to renewable energy sources.  Solar and Wind are intermittent and therefor can’t contribute to base power, some form of backup power is needed, and since nuclear and coal can’t be rapidly increased or decreased, that usually means gas or hydro where it is available, and hydro has it’s own environmental problems or so they say, fish they say can’t make the fish ladders, even though they did fine for decades prior to the modern era of over fishing and oxygen depleted streams because everyone has to have the perfect lawn.

Germany has proven that these sources can in fact make a much larger contribution to the grid if they are geographically dispersed.  Here in the United States, we have much larger landmass to geographically disperse them over.  However, there are deficiencies in our grid, or should I saw grids, that make this problematic.  Most of our long distance transmission lines are radiatively lossy AC lines.  If we changed all lines longer than about 300km over to DC high voltage, we’d lose a lot less power to radiation, and this would make it feasible to intertie the East and West grids because DC interties would eliminate the issue of phasing.  It would also eliminate 60 Hz radiation and the leukemia that is associated with it.  It would also give those lines immunity to solar flares and coronal mass ejections.  In the process of making it possible for solar and wind to contribute a greater amount of power to the grid, converting these long lines to DC would have all of these other benefits.  Existing lines converted to DC could also carry more power because they’re carrying the maximum current and voltage all the time instead of just during a portion of the AC cycle.

However, there is another renewable that can contribute base load power 24×7, and that’s geothermal power.  Nuclear decay and to some degree fission, occurring naturally in the Earth’s core produce heat that is trying to escape to the surface.  There is more than enough geothermal resources to supply all of our electrical needs.

When you turn on anything electric or start your car, don’t you feel a small twinge of guilt?  Wouldn’t it be good to not have to feel that, to be able to flip on a light switch, or turn up the heat, or the A/C if you’re in a hot climate, and not feel bad about it knowing that your energy is coming from an environmentally friendly source?

I’d rather not do the grand experiment and not continue to dump carbon dioxide into the air and not continue to turn the planet into a large nuclear waste dump.