We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Energy Independence: How Much Nuclear Power Do We Need?

Fission and fusion power is the green cake of the future. Solar and geothermal is the icing. Lets make more cake.

The urgency and opportunity has never been greater for the world to engage in a large scale effort to mass produce third and fourth generation nuclear power plants. Only fission and then fusion projects can provide the concentration of energy (bang for your resource buck) needed to effectively power 21st century infrastructure like MagLev trains, desalination plants, and terraforming projects to turn deserts into farmland.

First, the recent nuclear disarmament treaty between Washington and Moscow provides substantial amounts of ready to use highly enriched uranium. Currently, 45% of nuclear power and 10% of total power in United States is already provided by dismantled Soviet warheads. The supply from new and future arsenal cuts (US has recently revealed it has 5,113 warheads overall) will push back peak uranium worries and create a situation where there is a lot more nuclear fuel than power plants to utilize it. Thousands of ready made warhead fuel cores are waiting to be used as we speak.

Second, there are signs that increasing numbers of America's oligarchy are concerned about being humiliated by the Chinese and Russian elites when it comes to making money off nuclear reactors internationally and acquiring corresponding prestige. This is significant in that the luddite rich kid baby boomers, former ivy league hippies, and gravediggers of FDR's infrastructure policies are coming around to the idea of reawakening the nuclear engine of growth in the 50s and 60s. This was noted in Obama's semi acceptance of McCain's nuclear energy proposal during the state of the union speech. The number of new reactors pushed by the administration is inexcusably low now but they can be a political foot in the door towards future construction. Additionally, a key player in the military establishment (General Electric) has used its propaganda arm (NBC) to start a national nuclear energy discussion with the documentary The Nuclear Option right around the time when GE was swinging financial and propaganda support towards Obama's election. National discussion of any serious issue with potential for massive societal uplift and transformation is very rare these days so the mere existence of a widely broadcast pro-nuclear energy documentary is significant (imagine if there were documentaries on NBC that slam federal reserve, military industrial complex, and insufficient taxation of the rich).

Third, the historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has the potential to be "oil's Chernobyl". That is, to psychologically imprint on the youtube generation's mind that pushing Hubbert's peak through shale and offshore is very costly and deadly compared to fission. Nuclear energy serves as an important point of political contact and agreement between young (educated) environmentalists and young conservative nationalists. De Gaulle's nationalistic model of energy independence for France through safe clean mass nuclear power serves as a continuing example to emulate and rally behind. Since Russia recently spurned French nuclear industry (through an alliance with Germany to mass construct nuclear reactors for sale abroad), US has a chance at genuinely constructive and mutually beneficial outreach to Paris.

So how much nuclear energy do we need?

As much as can be made at any given time. The need resembles bullet making in wartime. What people need to remember is that nuclear science does not stand as relatively still as coal/oil burning science. Third and fourth generation reactors stand to be exponentially more powerful (think Richter scale) than their first and second generation cousins. Fission technology is evolving and will continue to produce more and more energy per pound of uranium until new sources of high intensity energy are ready for application (fusion). US would have been energy independent long time ago if construction of newer and newer reactors continued at same pace as in the 50s and 60s.

As of 2006, world's energy production rose to 472 quadrillion Btu from 283 quadrillion Btu in 1980 (66% increase). World's population in same period has grown from 4.5 billion to 6.5 billion (44% increase).

That is pathetic and criminal if one looks at it from perspective of enforcing the UN charter of human rights.

In more than 25 years since third generation nuclear reactor technology became a reality, there has been just 18% growth in how much average energy is available to a human on this planet (73 million Btu per person versus 62 million in 1980). This would obviously be horrifying even without the fact of exponentially disproportionate use of energy by some homo sapien over others. The amount of available energy per person should always be exponentially increasing if humanity is to survive and prosper through terraforming, high tech agricultural/water projects, and space exploration.

Western technological luddites and fear mongers always explain how each person on the planet cannot have the same "way of life" as a middle class Westerner (living in poorly designed suburban sprawl) . The current planetary energy policy (or lack of it) makes that statement not only true but hints at the genocidal implications if it is continued. The problem boils down to:

a) Necessity of people in the southern hemisphere to skip the inefficient suburban residential infrastructure lifestyle step (lifestyle that young westerners are moving away from through migration to urban centers) and go straight into high tech urban living (the way some rural areas of India went from no telephone straight to wireless broadband)
b) Insufficient energy available to world's poorer people to power machines that extract/refine commodities, power machines in utilization of these commodities for construction, power the new construction in order to even have the inefficient suburban infrastructure that they need to skip

Solution to this two part problem lays in mass production of new reactors that are spread over the planet in a way so there is roughly same amount of energy available per human. This average energy amount would be growing annually. Such kind of energy egalitarianism would bring enormous environmental benefits as 2 billion poorest people leapfrog over (instead of repeating) the 20th century residential construction process in the West. Of course, this new energy could be used for suburban construction but if average income Westerners and Asians acquire ability and will to build and maintain high density futuristic cities (that make Portland seem inefficient and provincial), then that becomes the role model lifestyle instead of American style urban sprawl.

The growth in total energy available to humanity should always be accelerating and not be pegged to population growth (such as energy growth 3-4 times the world population's and no more). This would prevent global violence and struggle over commodities by allowing advanced nations to build mass infrastructure for themselves as well as for southern hemisphere simultaneously. Most importantly, with sufficient growth in amount of reactors, oil and coal fueled suburban lifestyle will actually be more expensive in comparison to planned nuclear urbanization. Same way as suburbia powered by burning wood would be ridiculous in comparison to an oil powered city. In the process of moving straight from subsistence living to a concentrated density nuclear city, a lot of environment and human dignity is saved. As of today, urbanization is still happening around the world but only in the horrid slum expansion variety. Poorer countries have plenty of resources to barter in exchange for reactors. There are even small floating reactors being developed now that can be towed to client's ports.

Imagine the possibilities and what people would have done if 1000 modern coal power plants appeared in 1880s America. Similar societal gain is possible with international UN/G20 backed fission/fusion campaign. The entire world would become equally developing since the concept of Western suburban house and an electric car near it would seem ridiculously archaic and inefficient goal to strive towards. With sufficient power, completely reimagined and modular cities of the future are possible that are linked by MagLev trains spanning entire continents. With enough power you can have enclosed organic farms in the most inhospitable of areas. With enough power you can utilize larger and more advanced mechanized forces do extract more resources out of the ground cleanly and better reuse materials harvested from older cities/buildings. Most importantly, more energy production allows power to be basically free for individuals and small light industry businesses.

Fission power today is only 15% of world's energy production but can be rapidly expanded to over 50% with sufficient international cooperation. BRIC countries are already engaged in slowly revving up potential for mass production of third generation reactors. The trick towards entering the 21st century rests on tapping the economies of scale for large capital intensive projects. Each additional reactor will be cheaper than the last as well as the retooling machinery upgrades. The process needs to be international in scope and streamlined the way some weapons manufacturing is during wartime.

Hopefully USA's oligarchy will finally accept reality and necessity of collaborative nuclear power plant construction sooner than expected (as much as they'd hate the side effects of empowerment, improved quality of life, and better infrastructure for the peasants that it'll bring). Geothermal and solar do have their complimentary roles to fission and fusion but as an icing on the cake of macro technological progress.

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