Monday, July 21, 2008

Nuclear Power

Though I supported it at the time, I now realize how foolish was the decision to shut down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. That realization began a long journey of education around environmental issues, specifically those connected to the American River Parkway and virtually all environmental issues do—in some way or another—connect to a river and watershed providing most of our water, a significant amount of power, and a deep well of recreation.

As other Americans become more educated around environmental issues surrounding energy generation, we are coming to realize what those folks in Europe and most of the rest of the world have realized for generations, nuclear power is perhaps the best source of power generation ever developed by human beings, and that is a very good thing.

This excellent overview article is about that changing of minds and how it needs to accelerate.

An excerpt.

“If we are now going to choose nuclear power as a way to resolve both our concerns about global warming and our looming energy shortfalls, we are first going to have to engage in a national debate about whether or not we accept the technology. To begin this discussion, I suggest redefining what we call nuclear power as "terrestrial energy."

“Every fuel used in human history -- firewood, coal, oil, wind and water -- has been derived from the sun. But terrestrial energy is different.

“Terrestrial energy is the heat at the earth's core that raises its temperature to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the surface of the sun. Remarkably, this heat derives largely from a single source -- the radioactive breakdown of uranium and thorium. The energy released in the breakdown of these two elements is enough to melt iron, stoke volcanoes and float the earth's continents like giant barges on its molten core.

“Geothermal plants are a way of tapping this heat. They are generally located near fumaroles and geysers, where groundwater meets hot spots in the earth's crust. If we dig down far enough, however, we will encounter more than enough heat to boil water. Engineers are now talking about drilling down 10 miles (the deepest oil wells are only five miles) to tap this energy.

“Here's a better idea: Bring the source of this heat -- the uranium -- to the surface, put it in a carefully controlled environment, and accelerate its breakdown a bit to raise temperatures to around 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and use it to boil water. That's what we do in a nuclear reactor.

“Because the public first became aware of nuclear energy through warfare, reactors have always been thought of as "silent bombs." But nuclear plants cannot explode. The fissionable isotope of uranium must be enriched to 90% to create a weapon. In a reactor it is only 3%. You could not blow up a nuclear reactor if you tried.”