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.

Mike B

A better example would be the natural nucular reactor that ran 1.5 billion years ago in what later became Gabon. When natural U235 levels were higher water seeping into a deposit of Uranium acted as a moderator to form a self sustaining fission reaction that lasted for a few hundred thousand years.

Even more interesting, the non-volatile radioactive byproducts have only migrated a few centimeters through the surrounding rock in the last 1.5 billion years. Its a good case study to shut up all those NIMBYs opposing Yucca Mountain.



I just viewed the .ppt attachment to your post and am impressed. Where do we stand in the US regarding this technology?

If it truly has all the benefits that are shown why haven't we heard of it in the mainstream media?

I can find little downside based upon what little I just learned

Van Huebner

Why am I thinking Walter Pigeon and the Krell...


The idea that we have no place to put nuclear waste is absurd. Of course we do! It's called Yucca Mountain and it's being worked on as I type this. It will be ready to accept waste in 2017, IIRC.

Of course, it would have been ready to accept waste a full ten years ago ... had the environmentalists not prevented it from being used. How convenient for them ... they get to oppose nuclear waste on the grounds that there's no place to put it, but that's only because they've prevented us from having any place to put it.


I often actually wonder about the real economics of nuclear power. Because it doesn't really seem that economical in terms of replacing carbon based fuels.

You have to mine and refine the uranium which seems to me to be pretty fuel intensive. You need to build elaborate reactors (also require lots of fuel and input capital.) Then you produce power for maybe 20 years before the equipment needs to be replaced. All during this you need to dispose of the wastes (which also takes energy to prepare and manage disposal sites; and you need to manage them for a virtual eternity)

Finally, I've heard that we only have maybe 25-50 years worth of uranium world wide that could be made useful for power generation.

So it all seems to be a pretty useless and stop gap measure to the world's energy problems.

It will certainly make alot of people rich in the process, but it won't make a dent in the world's energy problems in any significant time horizon.

Anyone care to counter-argue that one?



Since several Gen IV designs can be utilized to burn up actinide waste from current stock piles. By burn up I mean that they will undergo fission in the reactor releasing energy and turning into short lived radio isotopes. Since this is the case, why all the fuss about the waste we have on hand? A few hundred MSRs could dispose of most waste in a relatively short time when combined with reprocessing. I could envision reprocessing plants recovering uranium and plutonium to run LWRs that remain as dinosaurs, and the Np, Am, and Cm could be feed into MSRs. Fission products decay to background in around 300 years. That why they are commonly mixed with glass for disposal, by the time the glass degrades the isotopes are decayed to background. Waste is a technical problem with technical solutions.


It baffles me how people can complain about the _potential_ problem of nuclear waste and the harm it brings to the environment, but then conveniently ignore the fact that pollution caused by coal and oil consumption has created a vastly greater number of REAL health problems that our society may need to recover from decades after their initial use.

Non-recyclable nuclear waste even if it were highly toxic, which it is not, is at least concentrated enough that its potential impact on the environment is relatively small by virtue of the fact that it would be very hard to spread it around enough to impact anyone. Realistically the only danger nuclear waste can pose to us is if someone managed to vaporise it and release it into the air e.g like a dirty bomb, or if a very large amount of it managed to escape into the water supply. The former is what happened during Three Mile island and the environemntal impact of that incident, if any, has been questionable at best as no actual nuclear waste managed to escape. The latter is the reason Yucca mountain was chosen as the geological features of the area make such a possbility unlikely at worst, and is at least better than storing the waste ont he grounds of current nuclear plants where the geology has not been nearly as well studied.

Compare this to the thousands of tonnes of particulate pollution that coal and oil use release into the atmosphere daily, in major population centers no less. People like to complain about NIMBY so much but why then are they okay with breathing and drinking the byproducts of our less controversial industries?

I'm all about being stewards of the environment and alternative energy sources, but the sheer amount of ignorance and scare tactics employed against nuclear energy has turned me off against just about every environmental organization with the short sightedness to attack it.



With regards to today's and tomorrow's energy, its all about the mix. Nuclear is part of our mix of energy sources today, and it will be for many years. That's the reality. However, the conservative position is to manage the nuclear facilities we have, and not build one more. We know that we a creating significant health risks for future generations. Continuing down that path a radical course.


A few comments

- Nuclear energy is almost exclusively confined to electricity generation. Almost none of our electrical generation capacity comes from oil.

- In the US high costs of nuclear plant construction came from individually designing each reactor / power plant. Great economies can be had from standard designs perhaps factory produced and transported to the site. France did this to some extent on the tail of their building cycle (standard designs).

- It would be a good idea to do a source to end product cost (dollars, emissions, lives/injuries, etc.) My gut says this is already reflected in the delivered cost but it would be useful to see it broken down to allow attack on the high cost points.

- Agree that all eggs should not be in one basket. A good mix of sources is like diversification in investments.

- Tax policy is a strong force in the US in what technologies get in invested in. Sometimes overlooked is that while tax policy is a good starter at some point industries must be weaned away and allowed to stand on their own.



there is a book called "the last hours of ancient sunlight" which is all about how we need sunlight to support the population. by farming we better utilise that sunlight and therefore can support a larger population. by hydro, wind, solar power etc we also utilise even more sunlight and support more population. Then by burning oil we utilise sunglight that hit the earth millions of years ago (ancient sunlight) and support even more population. Now as the oil runs out we only have a few hours of ancient sunlight left and can only use today's sunlight, thus when oil runs out we cannot support the population of today and a large portion will die off.

The book doesn't discuss this but essentially the next step is creating our own sunglight with fusion nuclear power. Fission nuclear power is a nice stepping stone but what happens when the uranium runs out? plus we have the problem of nuclear waste.



I've heard that nuclear power requires a surprisingly large amount of petroleum during the mining of the fuel. Apparently uranium does not occur in nice veins and tons of earth must be processed to obtain relatively small amounts of uranium. Certainly, the nuclear industry is not a zero emissions industry, even if the end plants are. Plus, how soon would there be a peak in uranium production? How large is the supply? How long will it last? I think my grandmother was correct when she advised me not to put all of my eggs in one basket. Doing something about global warming is going to involve many changes to our way of living.


And if you can show me a perfectly natural way to dispose of the waste until it is safe 10,000 years from now, I might buy in to this more.

I do not disagree that more nuclear may be needed, but I am tired of hearing that we have to do it, we have no choice, and there being no discussion of waste. Until we have a 360 degree conversation about it, I am not on board.


@3: Oh my God (says the agnostic). Has anyone else actually READ the .ppt he posted? That is by FAR the most interesting thing on this whole page.

I don't have the chemistry or physics knowledge to comment on the actual veracity of thorium as an energy source, but quick Google and Wikipedia searches seem to suggest that Molten Salt Reactors/Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors are the real deal.

Ken, this information is startling. If you understand more of the nuclear energy situation (as your comment suggests) I'd suggest asking to make a guest post about it. No, I'm not in any way joking.

David Ahlport

Yes, Nuclear power.

However Radioactive Decay (Geothermal), or Fusion (SolarThermal) is the answer.

Instead of digging huge Yucca mountain projects that cost nearly a Trillion dollars, and we would need dozens of them by the end of the century, and then guarding that for all eternity.

How about we just dig a hole, and pour some water down it.

That, or focus the sun's rays to melt molten sodium potassium nitrate salt. Mix in some cold salt and water.

Presto, we got steam, on demand, whenever we want it!


Certainly considering the resource availibility, all the Uranium and Thorium in the world can't even begin to compare to one year's worth of Solar or Geothermal energy.


And if anything, Nuclear power is one of the only power sources which CAN'T deal iwth global warming, due to it's inheriently slow citing+build speed, and the fact that it cannot attract a thin dime of private capital financing.

Not to mention, that it costs orders of magnitude more than baseload geothermal and baseload solarthermal. (Both in $/MW and in Levelized $/MWh costing)



I like Mr. Kaehn's idea (@ 20)!!!

The "boundary problems" would be immense. For example, if only one person in a family of four works and has a job in the category of "safeguarding nuclear power plants," how much of the family's total consumption of natural resources must be counted in computing the price per kilowatt hour?

Still, a relative comparison would be useful as we, as citizens, attempt to make policy decisions.

I'll bet dollars to doughnuts a scientifically valid comparison would show fossil fuels to be the lowest price-per-environmentally-neutral- kilowatt-hour.


Nuclear is like universal healthcare -- a great idea that meets a pressing need but which has terrible marketing (healthcare = "socialized medicine" = lines for doctors and lack of choice). I'm sure at the end of the day, big oil and coal are probably behind the continuing unpopularity of nuclear -- that, and American's profound ignorance about risks and science. Hell, I'd like next to a nuke plant if it weren't for the aesthetics (put me a few miles away, and I'm fine with that).

G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan 'til ~1996

Fission is docile, climate-friendly energy. Only the oil and gas interests oppose it. Unfortunately, these interests include government.


Nuclear energy is really the only issue that pulls me in the direction of John McCain. I wish Barack Obama would explicitly support nuclear energy.

B K Ray

Makes sense to me.


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.