Sunday, November 7, 2010

Terrestrial Energy

When I first moved here two years ago I was interested in nuclear energy more for what it represented as an economic prospect for this town than as an energy production method in and of itself. In the ensuing years I heard so much misinformation and emotional banter thrown around about nuclear power I decided to dig deeper. I did a lot of research from trusted sources on the Web. The more I dug, the more this incredible technology interested me. So, I did what I always do and I bought two in-depth books on the subject.

Now, don't get me wrong, I really did try to find a book that presented the anti-nuclear viewpoint. I just couldn't. I found a few but when I read the excerpts it was very clear they were not looking at the issue from an objective standpoint. When I research something in the scientific literature I want to see references to back up statements. The few anti-nuke books I found were so devoid of references as to be essentially personal diatribes against the industry. Not so for the two balanced yet conclusively pro-nuke books I finally purchased.

The first is called Power to Save the World by Gwyneth Cravens. Cravens is a former anti-nuclear protester turned pro-nuclear supporter after she set out to find as much about the industry as she could to fight it. What she found so astonished and amazed her that she couldn't help but support the cause, which she did by writing this overview of the entire nuclear industry from uranium extraction right on to handling of nuclear waste. The book is exhaustively researched and well documented. It's a thick sludge of a read at times but for the most part is quite captivating, especially for those of a scientific mindset.

I am now onto the second book, called Terrestrial Energy by William Tucker. In contrast to energy sources derived from solar energy (wind, biofuels, fossil fuels, solar) terrestrial energy is that which comes from the Earth. Geothermal energy is the most obvious form of terrestrial energy, but believe it or not, nuclear power is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is responsible for the balmy molten core of the Earth. The book attempts to look at the entire energy picture, starting with discussing the ongoing public disagreement about the causes of global warming, then moving onto fossil fuels, solar and renewables, and finally onto nuclear, ending the book with a discussion of the nuclear industry in France, world leaders in nuclear energy.

Honestly, if every Albertan were to read these two books, or even just excerpts, Alberta would be jumping on the nuclear bandwagon. We would be able to stop importing electricity from British Columbia and possibly even start exporting some at a net economic gain. According to Alberta Energy, we currently net import $110 million worth of electricity per year. We would also stop emitting more greenhouse gases than any other province in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, in 2005 Alberta produced 30 million more tons of GHG emissions than Ontario, a province with a population 4 times that of Alberta. If Alberta were to replace one 4000MW coal plant with one 4000MW nuclear plant, that single act alone would make us achieve our carbon emission reduction targets for 2030 (I cannot reference this statement; it is from an engineering study done internally by a company for which a colleague works).

So why aren't we? Well, like I said, read the books. I'm seriously considering sending my copies to Ron Liepert, Alberta Minister of Energy, once I'm done with them. Although, I think a bulky package arriving in his office might arouse suspicion. But for those of you reading this, I treat you to an excerpt from Mr. Tucker's incredible book that I found truly awe inspiring. Enjoy. (Emphases added.)

"[Speaking of the incredible energy inside the earth that makes its core hotter than the surface of the sun]...anywhere from 60 to 90 percent by most estimates comes from a remarkable diminutive source--the slow breakdown of two of the ninety naturally occurring elements found in the earth--uranium and thorium...Because of their size, they are "radioactive", meaning they are unstable. The internal "binding energy" that overrides the mutual repulsion among positively charged protons is occasionally overcome itself. This releases large quantities of energy, which sets subatomic particles in motion, creating large amounts of heat. Incredibly, the slow breakdown of these two radioactive elements, uranium and thorium, is enough to raise the earth's internal temperature beyond the level of the surface of the sun...Drill down ten miles almost anywhere on earth and you will encounter enough heat to boil water...But here's a better idea. Why don't we just take the source of that heat---the uranium or thorium--bring it to the surface, and reproduce or even accelerate the process that produces this heat in a controlled environment?
This is what we do in a nuclear reactor.
[This process] is really no different than tapping fossilized solar energy...We find stored solar energy beneath the earth's surface. We mine it, we bring it to the surface, we concentrate it. We ignite it, starting a chain reaction where the energy released from one molecular breakdown triggers a breakdown of the next. We capture the heat to boil water, to produce steam, to drive a turbine, to generate electricity...A nuclear reactor is nothing more than terrestrial energy brought to the surface, just as a coal plant is stored solar energy brought to the surface. There is nothing sinister or diabolical about it. We are not defying the laws of nature. Rather, we are working with a process that already takes place in nature. (In fact, nuclear fission chain reactions have been found to occur in natural uranium deposits near Oklo, Gabon)....
There is one great difference between terrestrial energy and solar energy, however, and that is the energy density. Terrestrial energy is far more concentrated--by a factor of about two million...This distinction is the key to understanding why terrestrial energy offers such a remarkable possibility for powering the planet without disrupting the environment....
Consider a gallon of gasoline. The "orbital" energy (that contained within the electrons orbiting the nucleus) stored in this gallon is enough to propel a 3,000 pound automobile about 30 miles--an extraordinary feat when you think about it...Yet if we could tap the binding energy stored in the nucleus of those same molecules it would be enough to propel the same automobile 60 million miles, almost all the way to Mars...
[Let's compare two power plants, one coal, one nuclear]...The North Omaha Power Plant in Omaha, Nebraska, produces 500MW of electricity, about one-fifth the power needed to run the city. Every three days, a 110-car unit train arrives and each car is loaded with 125 tons of coal (13 750 tons every 3 days). One car produces twenty minutes of electricity. (Roughly 36 hours of electricity produced by the whole train.) The plant occupies more than two square miles. Each day's consumption of 4500 tons of coal at North Omaha will combine with atmospheric oxygen to form 15000 tons of carbon dioxide. Across the country, America has 600 similar coal plants that provide half our electricity and put 3 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year--10 percent of the world's total...
About thirty miles south of Omaha lies the Cooper Nuclear Station on the banks of the Missouri River. The plant occupies two square miles...Every eighteen months, a single tractor-trailer arrives carrying several dozen bundles of 18-foot nuclear fuel rods. These rods are only mildly radioactive and can be handled safely with gloves. They are loaded into the reactor core, where they will undergo nuclear fission for three years...The Cooper Station produces no sulfur emissions, no mercury, no soot, no particulate matter, no ash, no slag, and no greenhouse gases. And it does produce more electricity than North Omaha--750MW...
Solar energy in its many forms has accustomed us to the idea that using energy must create huge environmental impacts, either by polluting or by occupying vast tracts of land. Terrestrial energy is so highly concentrated that it can provide us with enormous amounts of energy while barely leaving a trace."

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