Nuclear Power as Terrestrial Energy: A Guest Post

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.

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  1. Captain Obviousness says:

    Of course he cites a nearly 2 month old article making breathless predictions about a melted north pole. He couldn’t cite a recent article confirming this prediction because it didn’t happen and there’s more ice this year than last. In any case, environmentalists don’t want anything practical and effective like nuclear, they want pie in the sky feelgood energy sources that will never meet our needs like wind, solar, or chaining oil executives to a treadmill driving a generator. The goal of environmentalists is not to meet our energy needs, its to make mankind pay penance for all our environmental sins. We lived in excess before, so now we have to make up for it by living on less energy. Nuclear would meet our needs, so they don’t want that.

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  2. James Pringle says:

    This blog entry is silly. I generally support nuclear energy. However, to compare it to geothermal energy in order to make people more comfortable with it will not make anyone feel better. One only has to compare the accident at Chernobyl with the worst case scenario at a geothermal plant (hot steam leaking into the air?) to see why people are more worried about nuclear plants. And why sane societies regulate the former more strictly than the latter.



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  3. Ken says:

    There have been clear trends in the nuclear power industry towards more efficient use of fuel, leading to a steady decrease in waste production. I believe that the current fleet of light water and boiling water reactors should be considered to be our first attempt at tapping this energy source. There are several different complete redesigns of nuclear power reactors that are safer and vastly more efficient still and several look far more like what goes on in the Earth’s core than these current reactors. One such is the Molten Salt reactor, or sometimes referred to as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. For a taste of this technology here is a powerpoint presentation recently delivered at NASA’s Glenn Research center:

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  4. Marc Brodeur says:

    I appreciate the science behind nuclear energy. What dismays me is that people do not see that water, as a scarce resource, is too valuable to be consumed by the billions of gallons by nuclear cooling towers.

    Nuclear uses more water than Hydro. Think about that.

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  5. B K Ray says:

    Makes sense to me.

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  6. joea says:

    No, wrong. This is not “what we do in a nuclear reactor”.

    The heat generated in the Earths core is a result of radioactive *decay* of various elements. These elements, when they “decay” generally become less radioactive, hence more “benign”

    What we do in nuclear reactors is “fission”, the active splitting of Uranium or Plutonium into various “fragments” or “daughter elements”. I belive there are an average of 2.3 “fission fragments” per fission. If I recall my nuclear power training correctly.

    Each of these fragments is highly radioactive, in the short or long term, and are hence, highly dangerous.

    The concluding statement is entirely wrong. A nuclear plant is not a perfectly natural way of tapping the earths internal energy. The former is an active means of releasing huge amounts of specific energy, leaving radioactive waste in its wake, the latter is a natural process that leaves less radioactivity behind.

    More of nuclear proponents fudging reality to fit their preconceptions.

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  7. Mike "Dub" Wainwright says:

    As soon as we can figure out just what to do with the radioactive waste, nuclear is a great solution. Unfortunately, people aren’t exactly lining up to take this stuff… It’s pretty much the most poisonous, dangerous material on the planet. Regulatory agencies with nasty, sharp teeth are necessary too, but in short supply.

    Frankly, with the enormous costs, risks, problems and politics associated with it, investing most of the money in truly clean energy like solar seems to be a better solution. Not that nuclear isn’t part of that solution, but if we spent the billions on solar that we spent to develop nuclear, it wouldn’t seem so far off.

    Nuclear is a good solution in situations where a new plant would directly replace multiple existing coal plants in an area where wind and solar are untenable.

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    • Mike "dub" Wainwright says:

      I would like to say that I have changed my opinion on this and no longer believe that solar and renewables alone can replace fossil fuels, and that immediate, massive development of nuclear power is our best bet to stave off climate change.

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  8. Miguel V. says:

    I agree that nuclear energy is a good promise for our energy problems. However, it would be good that the author don’t confuse “natural radioactive decay” with “controlled fission”.

    Before starting a debate about the advantages of nuclear energy, one must discuss the way how we will store the residues. There are some few good ways, and they have to be published and discussed.

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