The 100-Year Gap in Understanding

William Tucker, author of the forthcoming book Terrestrial Energy, blogged here earlier this week about nuclear power. This is his last of three guest posts here on the subject.

When I was in college I took a course on the great political philosophers. Soon I had them all lined up with their respective eras: Hobbes and the 18th-century monarchies, Locke and the American Revolution, Kant and 19th-century nation-states.

Then I chanced to see a timeline of their births and deaths. To my amazement, each had lived 100 years before I had placed him. The lesson seemed plain. It takes about 100 years for ideas to enter history.

It has been the same with nuclear power. The potential of nuclear energy was first formulated in 1905 in Einstein‘s famous equation, E=mc2. Most people know it by now. Mariah Carey even named her latest album after it. But its true significance has not yet been recognized.

E=mc2 says that energy is created out of matter. Chemical energy comes from the transformation of very small amounts of matter in the electron shells, which contain one eighteen-hundredth of the mass of an atom. But most of the atom’s mass is in the nucleus and the energy stored there is two million times greater.

To most people, this has meant “big, big bombs.” But the more important implication is “small, small environmental impact.”

A 1,000-megawatt coal plant is fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day. A nuclear reactor is replenished by a single tractor-trailer bringing new fuel rods once every 18 months. Over the course of a year, the coal plant will release 400,000 tons of sulfur and fly ash. Some of this ends up in landfills, but most escapes into the atmosphere where it kills 30,000 people annually, according to the E.P.A. Then there’s the carbon dioxide — seven millions tons annually from each plant — which is the principle cause of global warming.

By comparison, the “wastes” of nuclear power can once again be contained in a single truck. I recently watched one of these spent fuel assemblies being lifted into the receiving room at France’s nuclear reprocessing center in La Hague. It is an eerie sight — the most radioactive object in the solar system emitting double what you would have received standing at ground zero in Hiroshima. Yet a three-foot wall separated us, and the emissions didn’t even register on our badges. More than 95 percent of the spent fuel rod can be recycled. That is why France is able to store all its “waste” (from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity) beneath the floor of a single room.

It all seems too good to be true. People conjure up all kinds of nightmare scenarios just to compensate. Yet the reality remains: nuclear energy is the most environmentally benign discovery ever made.

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  1. jonathan says:

    Totally agree.

    Small quibble: that Einstein equation states that energy and matter are equivalent or that matter represents a big store of energy, not that energy is “created out of matter.” Energy at some time in the very distant past was compressed into matter, where it remains until it is freed. As you’ve noted, we can burn a piece of coal or some gasoline, which frees some of the energy locked inside, but nuclear processing frees much, much more. Nuclear power processing merely frees more of the energy that exists in matter.

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  2. Charles says:

    There’s been movement in building a nuclear reactor near my hometown in northern Alberta, Canada. It’s sad to see how ignorant most people are about the realities of nuclear power. Over Christmas I spent a half hour just trying to inform my parents about how there can’t be a Chernobyl with modern reactors, and how they are all built to shut down passively in a full failure situation. All for naught though.

    It’ll be a hundred more years before the knee jerk reaction against nuclear power subsides.

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  3. Arlen says:

    How much energy does the nuclear plant in the example create? How many would be required to provide energy for a city? The nation? What is the cost per output of nuclear versus coal? Where does one find a truck-driver willing to tote around that much radioactive material?

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  4. B K Ray says:

    We know we need to do this. Fossil fuels should be quaint already. Just for the sake of an image, threre was a time when two power outlets on one wall of a room was enough. Not anymore and if we really want to proceed on electric cars, we have to start moving into nuclear energy. And we need to be better about it.

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  5. Levi says:

    “Where does one find a truck-driver willing to tote around that much radioactive material?”

    By using incentives.

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  6. Andy says:

    It was put to me by many people that the storage of the wastes was the prohibitive factor and that launching it off into space was cost prohibitive. But now that we are seeing the private sector reinventing and improving rockets while simultaneously bringing down costs, it’s only a matter of time before the argument falls as well. These power plants take quite a bit of time to get running, given the red tape involved. Let’s get started now.

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  7. Jason Brunsell says:

    I would point out that the majority of nuclear waste is not from spent fuel but from decontaminating and getting rid of contaminated equipment, protective equipment, etc. These items are typically low-level, but require much more volume than described in this post. I’m a supporter of nuclear power and would like to see a education campaign from the NRC about the true costs and risks of nuclear power.

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  8. Traciatim says:

    I don’t want to start much of a global warming debate, but the sentence “Then there’s the carbon dioxide . . . which is the principle cause of global warming.”

    It is one possible factor, and maybe not even the primary factor. We’re not really sure yet (unless your a politician trying to gouge with taxes or an actor trying to beg for money).

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