Friday, May 09, 2008

Food, Daily Needs & Nuclear Power

What is the stupidest thing ever conceived and consistently executed by mankind ? Arguably, it is burning fossil fuels for getting energy. Oil, coal or natural gas release paltry amounts of energy as they burn with Oxygen in the atmosphere. These minerals are otherwise useful for making fertilizers, plastics and several valuable things. But as they get burned for energy, these mineral reserves get depleted at an enormous pace, and will vanish completely within 200 years ! The costs of energy rise exponentially, and so do the costs of everything (everything uses energy for production and for transport). As oil and coal reserves go downhill, so does the purchasing power of people. People will starve and governments will tumble.

The only people that get richer are those who control access to the tap. There are 23 countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy !

But above all, fossil fuels are one of the dirtiest ways to derive our energy. Combustion of oil or coal releases thousands of waste products directly into our fragile atmosphere. Most of them are poisonous and a few of them are even radioactive. They are tremendously affecting the thin layer of atmosphere that sorrounds us - these effects range from global warming to acid rain. As a result, millions of people are dying and millions of plant and animal species are going extinct.

Why do we continue with this insanity ?

A green world run on nuclear energy

Let me present you an alternative scenario. We use solar energy to cater to about 30% of our energy needs, that is as much as it makes economical and ecological sense. For the rest of our energy needs, we construct nuclear power reactors which utilize Uranium and Thorium reserves. A new design called the breeder reactor, though slightly more costly to build, makes 100 times more efficient use of the nuclear fuel. Energy equivalent to a gallon of petrol will be produced as cheaply as 0.5 cents (6 paise for a litre of petrol in Indian terms). The electricity production will be entirely clean; the radioactive waste of the entire world for one year will fit into a small room. We convert this waste into glass, seal it in multiple layers and store it deeply in the rocks. We construct an elaborate railway network, and heavily discourage road transport. We replace gas-guzzling cars in the cities with noiseless electric vehicles. We run those indispensable road vehicles of the countryside using biofuels, and later shift to Hydrogen. In terms of safety and cleanliness, this economy will be million times more efficient.

In principle, this nuclear-fission based economy will be sustainable for several million years. But within a few hundred years, science will inevitably discover newer, more efficient ways of producing energy.

In this series of posts (tagged nuclear), my objective is to untangle a few strands from the cobweb of doubt and fear which sorround nuclear energy. Many people have legitimate concerns about nuclear, and I treat them with respect. My intention is to add some more information and perspective into this debate.

" What's at stake ? "

Opposition to nuclear energy is costing us the battle with coal and oil. This opposition is fuelled discretely by oil and coal company bosses, who might infiltrate green environmental groups with their spies ! Solar energy cannot fight coal and oil by itself, and it is not just good people who are aware of this. A shift away from oil based economy will hurt certain people, and they will do their best to prevent this shift from happening.

The US dollar is tied to the oil prices, and a falling dollar is accentuated by an immediate rise in oil prices. These oil prices drive the prices of food and daily needs everywhere around the world, as is happening right now. Whenever there is talk of investing in clean energy options, the oil prices are strategically reduced. The very next moment, they are rised again. A lot of FUD is spread over all kinds of alternative energies, including nuclear. Unconsciously, several environmental groups become party to this strategy. Breaking from the vicious oil economy through nuclear power is vital to ensuring the security of food and daily needs in poor countries.

If the primary concern with oil is inflation, that with coal is pollution. The statistics are alarming. China is building 10 times more coal plants than nuclear plants. A similar story repeats throughout the world. The filth dumped by coal into the atmosphere affects the world in entirety. This is why it is important to encourage clean energy production, particularly in developing countries such as India.

"Breeder reactors can never be built, so nuclear energy is a lost hope"

Answer : Without breeder reactors, the nuclear resources in earth will not last for more than 600 years. And without breeder reactors, there will be enormous amounts of nuclear waste awaiting disposal. But breeder reactors lie at the heart of nuclear hope. This is because these reactors use 60% of the Uranium fuel instead of the 0.3% used in the current light water reactors(LWR). With breeders, nuclear resources will last for several millions of years ! There have been several efforts in the world to construct breeder reactors, but most of these reactors have been abandoned now. Sly anti-nuclear activists look upon this fact as a proof that breeders can never be constructed.

The truth is more intriguing. Firstly, breeder reactors have been successfully demonstrated, and we have 300 reactor-years of experience in operating them worldwide. India has been operating an experimental breeder reactor since 1985 ! Indian nuclear scientists have demonstrated a revolutionary design in 2005 of 'A Thorium Breeder Reactor' that can produce 600 MW of electricity for two years 'with no refuelling and practically no control manoeuvres.' This has been dubbed as the world's safest nuclear reactor. With such highly efficient designs available, why do we not construct breeder reactors ?

As it currently stands, reprocessing spent Uranium in breeder reactors is more expensive than mining fresh Uranium from earth. As long as shallow reserves of Uranium are available (for the next 60 years), breeder reactors will be economically unfavorable.

An MIT interdisciplinary panel has discouraged breeder reactors for not making economical sense currently, but this anti-nuclear activist has quoted this to say that the breeder design itself has been termed infeasible. This type of reporting is extremely dishonest.

Even though breeder reactors are currently uneconomical, we do well to construct them because they are essential for securing our energy's future.

Breeder reactors have also drawn a lot of political ire due to the fact that they produce high grade plutonium, which can potentially be used for bombs. The India-US nuclear deal had been in hot water for a few months due to the perceived US objections against breeder reactors. These objections have later been resolved in the current version of the deal.

The most visible example of a discontinued breeder reactor is the Superphénix reactor in France. The reason it stopped working was because of a missile attack by a radical environment group !

Technically speaking, ther are absolutely no hindrances for constructing breeder reactors. However, there are several political hurdles that need be overcome.

"Reduce consumption and use solar energy. Don't go nuclear."

Answer : No doctor will prescribe the same medicine for obesity and malnutrition. There is a humongous disparity in the consumption levels of the world today. It is true that most of the consumption in Western societies is wasteful and directly harmful to the environment. But nuclear energy is a valuable aide in lifting up the living standards of the developing world. The energy-consumption levels of the third world will have to inevitably rise to obtain decent living standards.

Apart from producing greenhouse gases, we are rapidly depleting mineral and water reserves (Consumerist societies are meat eating. Production of meat consumes 12 times more water than the production of vegetable protein). Some of the clean energy options such as bio-fuels, wind power and hydel power compete with food production for these resources, so they have to be used with care. The depletion of these resources will cause famine and war all over the world. As I have mentioned earlier in my blog, bio-fuels could be a valuable tool in making land profitable in the developed world, thus ending the food subsidies that are enjoyed by big farmers there. Developing countries should look upon bio-fuels more carefully, because they are more pressed for land and water.

Both nuclear and solar energy are valuable towards desalinating water, and averting famine. Along with attempts at reducing consumption, these novel sources of energy will prove priceless in improving the well being of the world.

"Nuclear reactors are unsafe. Nuclear waste is very dangerous."

Answer : The Chernobyl disaster clouds the vision of most nuclear opponents. But what many fail to note is that this faulty Soviet design is no longer currently used in any reactor in the world. We have several thousands of reactor-years of experience in running safe nuclear reactors worldwide. The safety record for this industry has been outstanding. Unlike coal plants, nuclear plants release no harmful products into the atmosphere and all the bi-products are carefully accounted for. Most people are unaware of the fact that coal energy releases far more radioactive substances than nuclear energy, and that all this radioactive waste is dumped directly into the atmosphere. Coal mining remains one of the most hazardous occupations of the world, and claims hundreds of lives every year.

Nuclear waste is carefully monitored and stored in a confined environment. The risk of contamination of this radioactive waste with air or water is miniscule. The levels of radioactivity fall drastically with time, and after 600 years, this waste will be no more radioactive than naturally occuring Uranium in the earth's crust !

Politics is all about taking calculated risks. The risks of not using Nuclear (reverting to coal and oil, ruining the environment, letting millions of people starve) far outweigh the risks of running nuclear reactors or storing nuclear waste.

"Nuclear reactors are expensive to build. Nuclear Power is very expensive."

Answer : It is true that nuclear reactors are more expensive to build than coal plants. But, if environmental costs are taken into account, nuclear plants quickly rise to be much cheaper. In the USA, there have been several re-legislations for improving nuclear safety, which required the removal and reconstruction of nuclear reactors. These made the costs of construction to spiral out of control. Thus, nuclear power industry had a political death in the US. In other countries, several nuclear power reactors have been built to operate on profit. France currently obtains 80% of its electricity needs through nuclear power. The produced electricity is the cheapest in Europe. Now that we have designs of very safe reactors available to us, scale-economics come to play in the construction process. Nuclear plants of today are already cost-competitive with coal plants.

Clean energy is expensive in the first stage of construction - whether it be nuclear or solar power. But we cannot afford to build coal plants for the reason of meagre short term profits. The long-term costs far outweigh any such benifits.

"Let's encourage solar energy, because nuclear can be evil"

Answer : The energy in sun's rays is so dilute that we need to have a really large receptacle to capture a reasonable amount. We cannot cover up the surface of earth with solar panels to derive all the energy that we need. We would need land for agriculture, forests, housing and so on. Solar energy is renewable and clean. But alas, the current technology cannot provide us sufficient solar energy for completely replacing oil and coal. We can nourish warm hopes for a future based on solar energy, just as we can nourish warm hopes for a future based on nuclear fusion. But failure to act in the current moment has enormous costs due to continued dependency on oil and coal.

Being a tropical country, India should use solar energy for all the potential that it has to offer. It can be used for water purification, and for airconditioning during the summer time. Nice pocket applications such as these are easier to be conceived and deployed. We need real efforts in this direction.

Wind, tidal and hydel power are basically solar energy in disguise. Each of these energies have their costs and limitations. For example, hydel power projects inundate large swathes of forests and agricultural land. Each of these media need to be used in moderation, and energy production should be diversified. But there is only one hope for putting an end to the evil fossil fuel monster, and that is nuclear energy. In this epic battle, all the other modes of energy production will serve as sidekicks to nuclear.

"Nuclear energy means nuclear bombs"

Answer : A knife can be used for making dinner.

Nuclear power generation has one of the least established links for making nuclear bombs. All the bombs that have been made till now, have been made without a nuclear reactor being built for power generation. The very first nuclear bomb had been made in the Los Alamos laboratory of USA during the 2nd world war, before a nuclear power reactor was even ever conceived. It is true that a power reactor can be used for producing fissile material, but this method remains the most expensive and ineffective way of building a nuclear bomb. There are cheaper and quicker ways of making bombs, which are easier to conceal. No sane person would choose to build a power reactor for making bombs.

The only country to have used Plutonium from a (research) power reactor to build an explosive device was India, in the Smiling Buddha test of 1974. But this has to be looked upon as a wary reaction of India towards official recognition of China as a nuclear power in 1968 after the bitter war which happened in 1962.

Nuclear proliferation and bombs are scary, so we expect the international law to place proper safeguards against them. But there exist practically none today. The IAEA inspects the longwinding procedure of nuclear power generation in each country, for possible loopholes. It leaves all the other channels of building nuclear bombs royally open. We desperately need methods for preventing nuclear proliferation, and for rapidly diminishing the bombs already existing in the world. Carping against nuclear power is an idiocy that we can hardly entertain in the current moment.