Sunday, February 08, 2015

Carbon, the atom and slavery

I had an opportunity to watch this video concerning the activist Helen Caldicott, a woman completely consumed with the goal of turning off every nuclear power plant and destroying every nuclear bomb. It was two hours well spent. The video easily debunked every statement that Caldicott ever made about nuclear power and shows that she has no visible grasp on the facts.

But there were a couple of other things that really caught my eye. First is this statistic: the light water uranium reactors we run today consume only 6% of the fuel. Then what is left of the fuel becomes "waste" and that has to be stored someplace where the radiation is shielded for better than 200,000 years. That means that 94% of the fuel is wasted after many months of mining, enrichment and processing.

As I write this, I'm reminded of a story my dad once told me, as a mockery of China. He told a story of a man who visited China to see their jobs program. They were still figuring out what to have people do, so some of them were using shovels to carry dirt from one pile to another and back again. The visitor suggested that, "if you want to create jobs that way, give them spoons instead of shovels."

That is how I see the nuclear industry now. It is as if almost by choice, the nuclear industry has picked the most plausibly inefficient way to build and run power plants and there is an entire industry built up around this inefficiency. Much of that is subsidized by you and me, through tax dollars, and most of us have no say in it.

Here is the other thing that caught my eye, well, my ear:
"Every time mankind learned to access a new source of energy, it has led to profound societal implications. Human beings have had slaves for thousands and thousands of years, and when we learned how to make carbon our slave instead of other human beings, we started to learn how to be civilized people. Thorium has a million times the energy density of the carbon-hydrogen bond. What could that mean for human civilization? Because we're not going to run out of this stuff. We will never run out. It is simply too common." 
That's what Kirk Sorensen says in the video. Sorensen was working at NASA when he discovered literature about a working thorium nuclear reactor. After years of research, he founded Flibe, a company dedicated to commercializing thorium as a source of nuclear power. He knows the physics behind it and he's not the only one who does, and Flibe is not the only US company with the same goal.

I've considered what is possible when we develop a plentiful power source that is cheaper than coal and that will not be exhausted at any time in the foreseeable future. Mankind will be able to build machines for any purpose to do anything so long as there is a power source for it.Thorium is the power source for anything. You can hold your personal lifetime supply of power in the palm of your hand with thorium - don't worry, it won't hurt you.

Here are just a few things that come to mind:

  • We can use that energy to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere to create the same liquid fuels we use in our vehicles, until they can be replaced with electric vehicles. Then when we're all driving electric cars, we can still draw CO2 out of the atmosphere to make other useful compounds until we get back down to below 300ppm like we had before the industrial revolution.
  • We can use that energy to split water to create hydrogen fuel and add that oxygen back to the atmosphere so we can breathe.
  • We can use that energy to desalinate water so that there is a fresh water supply wherever you need it or want it.
  • We can use thorium power plants to burn all the nuclear waste and the nuclear warheads we have built. All of them.
  • We can create a universal recycler - melt down anything into elements, extract the elements and reuse them for something else. Sure beats mining.
  • We can use thorium power as a bridge until we get to nuclear fusion.
This is a reactor that is so safe, so compact, and so versatile, that it could be placed anywhere work needs to be done. With better locations, transmission power losses due to resistance in power lines is reduced to a minimum. These reactors have passive safety, so accidents and terrorism are moot. They generate 1% of the waste as well as valuable isotopes for medical and industrial uses.

Competition in this market is brewing, too. Unfortunately, other countries will have them before we do. Why? The Department of Energy refuses to write regulations that permit the use of thorium as fuel. In 2010, Orrin Hatch wrote a bill to require the DOE to write those regulations, but that bill died in committee, killed by Democrats terrified of going soft on nuclear.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, so what follows is probably at best, speculation. but I believe that the following is very much worth considering.

Over the years, I've read articles that suggested that the wealthiest among us, the super rich, learned some important lessons from the 60s and 70s. What they learned is that it's not a good idea to have a healthy middle class. Why not? A healthy middle class will have the money and the time to protest when the government fails to honor the will of the people.

Giving people a cheap, plentiful and clean source of energy is exactly the wrong thing to do. Oh, we can have solar. But that's not as consistent as a nuclear power plant. We can have wind, but it's not always windy. Every study that's ever been done shows that we need something to carry base load and that's either carbon or nuclear. When Germany killed their nuclear power plants, they ran coal plants to provide the base load they need - that's in the video, too.

Given the enormous economic and ecological costs associated with carbon, carbon is preferred. It keeps the rest of us busy while the super wealthy make their plans for their getaways with steady income derived from carbon industries.

Thorium promises to be cheaper than coal. The technology is proven. But I have the sense that the super wealthy would prefer not to have it around because that would eliminate major distractions and give the middle class the helping hand they need (instead of the middle finger they're getting now). You know, distractions like climate change, war and terrorism in the middle east and the price of gas. If the super wealthy had wanted it here in the United States, the regulations would have been in place by now, and we'd have running thorium power plants already.

The super wealthy pretty much own public policy. They can make Congress do it's bidding. If they really wanted it, they could have it, but they don't so we don't. Perhaps what they prefer is to keep the rest of us as slaves.
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