The ongoing nuclear situation in Japan has refocused the world's attention on the safety of nuclear power. 14% of the planet's energy is generated by 442 nuclear reactors located throughout the world, many are aging, in geologically active areas or were poorly constructed in the first place.
Current estimates are that there is about 80 years worth of uranium in the earth's crust at current usage rates. And, as one might expect, there is a large vested interest in the nuclear power industry with a truck load of money and an army of lobbyist. There isn't a dime's worth of difference between the coal and oil industries and the nuclear power industry.
The real problem remains that our current power needs and those of emerging economies like India and China along with our population growth will swamp our abilities to produce energy without serious environmental impact – fracking [injecting millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals, many of them toxic, into the earth at high pressures to break up rock formations and release natural gas trapped inside,] mountain top removal, oil shale and tar sands extraction [Making liquid fuels from oil sands requires energy for steam injection and refining. This process generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the production of conventional oil] and more hazardous deep ocean drilling.
There is, however, a technology currently being developed in China, research on which the US abandon over sixty years ago, and that is the Thorium Nuclear Reactor
China’s Academy of Sciences said it had chosen a “thorium-based molten salt reactor system”. The liquid fuel idea was pioneered by US physicists at Oak Ridge National Lab in the 1960s, but the US has long since dropped the ball
...thorium must be bombarded with neutrons to drive the fission process. “There is no chain reaction. Fission dies the moment you switch off the photon beam. There are not enough neutrons for it continue of its own accord
“The reactor has an amazing safety feature,” said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA engineer at Teledyne Brown and a thorium expert. “If it begins to overheat, a little plug melts and the salts drain into a pan. There is no need for computers, or the sort of electrical pumps that were crippled by the tsunami. The reactor saves itself,” he said.
Thorium is as common as lead. America has buried tons as a by-product of rare earth metals mining. Norway has so much that Oslo is planning a post-oil era where thorium might drive the country’s next great phase of wealth. Even Britain has seams in Wales and in the granite cliffs of Cornwall. Almost all the mineral is usable as fuel, compared to 0.7pc of uranium. There is enough to power civilization for thousands of years.
US physicists in the late 1940s explored thorium fuel for power. It has a higher neutron yield than uranium, a better fission rating, longer fuel cycles, and does not require the extra cost of isotope separation.
The plans were shelved because thorium does not produce plutonium for bombs. As a happy bonus, it [thorium] can burn up plutonium and toxic waste from old reactors, reducing radio-toxicity and acting as an eco-cleaner.
Now I'm not one that looks for magic bullets to save our species from being among the toll of the planet's 6th mass extinction, which many scientist believe has already begin. However, it would seem prudent to throw a few bucks into the research and development of what could be at least one magic bullet against the impersonal grim reaper of evolution.
It's time that the oil, coal and nuclear lobby STFU. We need to explore all possible energy generation options rather than listen to the vested interest of a hand full of ultra-wealthy pigs who will still be counting their money when the shit hits the fan.
So an open totalitarian 'communist' oligarchy is better than our plutarchy, show (sham) democracy, and fascist (theocratic, pseudo-capitalist, corporate) government...
What ever happened to Noblesse Oblige :(
Sounds truly wonderful.
But there's a problem. Actually, several.
Thorium reactors produce uranium-233, a readily fissionable isotope that can be used in gun-type nuclear weapons (similar to the one dropped on Hiroshima) that are really simple to make. Because the difference is chemical, it is very easy to separate the uranium from the thorium, meaning that a thorium reactor would be very desirable for a nation with nuclear weapons ambitions. Thorium reactors also produce plutonium 239, another weapons-grade fissionable isotope, also easily separable from the thorium using ordinary chemical processes.
It is also difficult to build a stable large-scale thorium reactor. I grew up in Idaho Falls, and recall that there were several thorium reactors among the dozens built there during my youth, and they were abandoned because of the physical problems involved in building a nuclear pile large enough to produce a significant amount of power, without it becoming unstable. About 1 1/2 megawatts appeared to be the limit with the technology at the time, and I am not sure that much has been done to improve that scalability.
A further problem is the same problem with all nuclear reactors: what to do with the highly radioactive waste. Nobody wants it in their backyard - do you want it in yours? It has to be put in somebody's back yard. Now that Yucca Mountain has been closed (thank goodness - it has proven to be a geologically unsuitable site), the problem of what to do with nuclear waste has still not been solved, a half-century on from the dawn of the nuclear age. And it doesn't look like we are any closer to solving it. One of the problems that created the crisis at Fukushima was that all the spent fuel generated since the plants opened was still being stored on-site - because there was nowhere to send it. Reprocessing has proven to be far more expensive than producing virgin fuel, so it can't be reprocessed economically - and since there is still, a half-century on, no high-level disposal site, it was simply left in place, in the storage pools that caused so much grief in Fukushima.
The biggest problem of all, is a problem with all nuclear reactors - cost. Nuclear power is "economic" now only because it is massively subsidized. If it weren't for the fact that you, as a taxpayer, were underwriting the liability for the nuclear power stations that already exist, there isn't a one that would have ever been built, because all the insurance companies on the planet, put together, wouldn't have been able to underwrite the required liability policy for a major nuclear power plant. The Japanese are exceedingly lucky that the winds never changed to the northeast last weekend (as they had been forecast to do on Sunday) - if they had, Tokyo would have become uninhabitable. Who would have picked up the liability tab for that one? Any guesses? Somehow, I don't think it would have been Uncle Albert's Insurance & Storm Door Company. Then there is the problem of the cost of the disposal of highly radioactive waste from decommissioned plants - which will cost about as much to dissemble and dispose of than to build in the first place, because of the very difficult but required procedures involved - and then, you still haven't told me where you plan on putting that extremely radioactive core for the rest of eternity. This is one of the reasons that all those old plants keep getting relicensed - it is way, way too expensive to get rid of them, and it is cheaper to keep them going. So the long-captured regulatory agencies simply issue a new license. None of the utilities operating nukes are accumulating the funds necessary to dissemble and dispose of their nukes - if they were, they couldn't afford to operate them. So they get a waiver by the NRC. Guess who is going to pick up the tab for that one in the end? And you want to add to that problem?
It is high time that we, as a species, give up on our wildly uneconomic system of electrification - generating ginormous amounts of electric power in ginormous mega-generating stations, then distributing it on a ginormous electric distribution grid with wires draped all over creation. It would make far more sense to generate it on a small scale close to where it is used.
If every rooftop in the U.S. were covered in photovoltaic panels, we could generate about twice the amount of electricity we currently use. Yes, there are several ways of storing that energy for use at night; that problem has long since been solved. What we need is a refocus of our energy subsidy systems away from mega-projects based on dodgy technologies with unsolved problems and use those same subsidies to simply put up photovoltaic systems up there on everyone's roof.
And no need to make gramma glow in the dark to do it.
Here in Costa Rica, we're approaching this problem intelligently, IMO. Imported oil has never been an option, because of the cost (unlike the U.S., we can't write checks that no one cashes). So from the get-go, we've concentrated on renewables. 80% of our power comes from hydro, and we're building more as fast as we can, concentrating in micro-hydro projects (less than a megawatt, but lots of them). 6% comes from wind, and we're building more wind turbines and replacing older, less powerful ones. 12% comes from geothermal, and we're building more - ultimately, 30% of our power will come from geothermal. The balance comes from oil-fired thermal, and we use it only as a last resort.
Our national electric company (supplying 86% of our customers) is owned by the national government, and its profits go straight into the national treasury, offsetting taxes. While I pay a lot for electricity (14 cents per Kwh), I know that if I weren't paying that much, I'd be paying higher taxes anyway. The power is rarely off, and then only for an hour or so at a time. Power is as reliable and as stable as I experienced in Phoenix, when I lived there.
Contrast that with our neighbors, Panamá and Nicaragua. Both sold off their grids in the forced Washington Consensus neoliberal privatization drive years ago. They're now both owned by Union Fenosa, a Spanish company, which, in responding to the basic incentive of capitalism (charge as much as possible and provide as little for it as can be gotten away with) is looting both countries blind. Customers in each country pay 29 cents per Kwh lowest rate, and scales up from there, based on usage - when the power is on, which isn't all the time - and almost no one I know in either country pays less than US$ 200 per month for electricity - when they can get it. Since UF is making outrageous profit margins (little money is being spent on grid maintenance in either country, maintaining the grids with the proverbial bailing wire and duct tape), all that profit is exported back to Spain - making it a foreign exchange liability, thereby driving up the cost of imported goods. It has been calculated that this costs each Panamanian about $60 per month in higher prices for imported goods. The situation is similar in Nicaragua. So people in both countries pay three times - outrageous prices for power, higher prices for imported goods, and higher taxes. And for all that, their power is off a lot more than it is here.
Yep, socialized power grids are sure sounding good to me!