15 October 2008

Right and Wrong on Energy

Yes, we are in a short-term (a few years) financial crisis. The slowdown in the housing market created a shockwave in the credit markets due to the securitization of too many bad loans, which had been pushed on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by the Clinton Administration, which wanted to extend the opportunity of home ownership to classes of Americans who were previously underrepresented among homeowners, in itself a laudable goal, even if the approach is proving to be self-defeating. The following Bush Administration was distracted by need to pump up the economy with cheap money (low interest rates) after the slump following the 9/11 attacks. This accelerated the run-up in housing prices, which was stopped only when the average American family could no longer afford to buy the average American home. In other words, both parties get the blame on this one.

But we face a long-term financial crisis caused by our inability to produce our own energy. Again, we turn to the Clinton Administration, which cancelled the Integral Fast Reactor. The IFR is able to take almost any fissionable material as its initial fuel, including natural (unenriched) uranium, spent nuclear fuel, and weapons grade uranium or plutonium. Whatever the fuel, it burns it up leaving only short-lived "fission fragments" that decay within days to a few decades. The long-lived radioisotopes like plutonium are simply burned up to create energy. And the IFR is passively safe (meaning without the intervention of electronics or active systems). In the case of a loss of coolant accident (LOCA) the IFR simply shuts down and uses natural conduction and convection to reject its waste heat. In hindsight, it's hard to believe that the Clinton Administration cancelled the IFR and that the Bush Administration did not revive it.

To be fair, the IFR is not a panacea for the world. Given non-plutonium fuel, it first breeds plutonium, which it then burns up. IFR proponents claim that since the bred fuel contains really hot (radioactively and thermally) fission fragments, the bred fuel would be "self-protecting." However, I think a nation-state sufficiently determined to extract the plutonium before it gets consumed could build robots that could handle that fuel.

Now there is another concept that could generate similar amounts of clean, safe energy - LIFE, or Laser Ignition Fusion Fission Energy. The idea is to use lasers to implode a pellet of deuterium/tritium (isotopes of hydrogen) fuel, causing it to undergo fusion, which yields helium and neutrons. The neutrons irradiate a blanket of fissionable fuel (the same fuels as IFR) which breed up to plutonium, which then burns up to provide energy.

Both concepts drastically reduce the need for burial of waste in a facility like Yucca Mountain. Both offer the possibility of completely destroying excess nuclear weapons material. Both could produce huge amounts of energy without the possibility of nuclear meltdowns. It's time to pursue them, together with the technologies that will enable ground transportation to operate on either the electric power these reactors could produce, or the hydrogen that the electricity could be used to make.

We need to stop sending $7B to countries hostile to our interests to buy petroleum, only to burn it up and dump the excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And new reactor technologies like IFR and LIFE are the way to do it.

The difference between Obama and McCain is that nuclear power is a minor component of Obama's plan. It is a centerpiece of McCain's plan. In that Obama is wrong and McCain is right. There is just no way to concentrate the energy of non-nuclear sources enough to provide the power that America and the world will need in the long term. (Not because we haven't invented the ways to concentrate them - it is thermodynamically impossible to do so, for reasons similar to why it is impossible to build a perpetual motion machine.)

The world knows this. The rest of the developed countries in the world have built or will build safe, clean nuclear power plants, whether we do or not. If we do not, we will fall behind economically, making future generations of Americans ever poorer with respect to the rest of the world. We will no longer be able to champion the advance of liberal democracy, and will have to rely on the good will of others. As you look at the others around the world, this prospect should not inspire your confidence.

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