William Tucker has written about the environment and energy issues for Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, among other publications. In his forthcoming book Terrestrial Energy, he argues that nuclear power is the only technology that can head off global warming and cut carbon emissions. This is his first of three guest posts here on the subject.
Energy matters around the world are rapidly coming to a head. The latest reports from the Arctic are that the North Pole could be ice free this summer for the first time in history. World oil production seems to have peaked in 2005, and the recent run-up in price may be permanent. Natural gas supplies are also bumping up against limits and the world of solar energy seems as far away as ever.
All this has led to talk of reviving nuclear power. After a national debate from 2000 to 2002, the Finns decided to construct the first new European reactor in 30 years. China, India, and Russia are building, and France — which embraced the technology in the 1970′s — now gets 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear. So perhaps it is time for America to reconsider nuclear.
In order to open this national discussion, I would like to suggest that we think of nuclear power as “terrestrial energy.” As we know, nearly all the energy on the earth comes from the sun. Plants and trees are stored solar energy. Fossil fuels are organic matter that was buried millions of years ago. Wind and hydropower are energy flows set in motion by the sun’s heat. Converting sunlight on your rooftop into electricity is the most direct way of tapping solar energy.
There is one form of energy, however, that has nothing to do with the sun. “Geothermal energy” involves tapping the earth’s natural heat. Steam arises naturally out of the earth at geysers and fumaroles and can be engineered anyplace where hot magma approaches the surface. Dig deep enough anywhere on earth and you will encounter terrestrial energy. There is now talk of drilling down 10 miles to tap this heat. (The deepest oil wells only go five miles down.)
What is the source of this energy? Amazingly, 50 to 90 percent of the earth’s heat (no one is sure of the exact figure) comes from the radioactive breakdown of uranium and thorium, which make up 2 percent of the earth’s crust. The energy released from these radioactive elements is enough to raise the earth’s internal temperature to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit — hotter than the surface of the sun.
So here’s a suggestion. Instead of digging down ten miles to access terrestrial energy, why not bring its source to the surface?
Let’s mine small amounts of uranium, put them in a controlled environment, accelerate the breakdown a bit by initiating a chain reaction, and use the heat to boil water to produce electricity. In fact, this is what we do in a nuclear reactor.
A nuclear reactor is not a bomb hot-wired into a power plant. It is a perfectly natural way of tapping the earth’s internal energy.