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August 05, 2008

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but he is an honorable man.
for all they all, all honorable men.

crap.

fie on my typo. fie on't. ah fie.

Most people spend more time deciding what HD TV to buy, than Congress would spend on debating a 'comprehensive energy' bill Congress would be asked to pass if you rushed them back into session.

One would think--at least briefly, anyway--that the Dems could make hay of this. "hey folks, this is how we got buffaloed into passing the Patriot Bill, and the Senior Citizen Prescription Plan (remember the Donut you Seniors grappled with?), the huge tax cuts, FISA, and the many, many more too numerous to mention. And then we found the surprises in the bills that we passed, often absent hearings. This kind of action is part of the reason we are in the mess we're in now. And here is the GOP and President Bush trying to Bogart us one last time'. One would think that message might resonate. If we had articulate speakers to deliver the message. Alas...

"let's get this energy crisis solved"

I agree, and I agree we should start constructing new standardized nuclear power plants, like the French, as part of the package, but it's utterly obvious that drilling for oil won't do anything to solve the energy crisis, that it can't possibly, so I'd find a proposition that we have a large package of measures to dramatically change the way America gets and uses energy to be absolutely necessary to any remotely credible call to "solve" the energy crisis, and it would be nice if Senator McCain would at least sign on to that, let alone help lead the way.

How about we start here and here?

I agree we should start constructing new standardized nuclear power plants, like the French

This raises a few questions in my mind:

Why exactly should we do that?

How exactly should we go about constructing standardized plants like the French? We are...ummm...not the French. Would you have us create a new bureaucracy devoted to designing and operating nuclear power plants?

Why do you think there would be political support for effectively nationalizing part of the energy sector?

If nuclear power really is carbon free, why do we need legislation specific to at all rather than a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system? Is it your belief that the vast subsidies we continue to give to nuclear power plan operators remain insufficient?

Perhaps it's obvious, but this should be an Obama campaign ad by, oh, I don't know, tomorrow.

Then again, we're talking about Democrats here.

*sigh*


"Dingbat kabuki" is what Brad DeLong calls it.

Open question to the people older than me. Why is opposition to nuclear power so entrenched in the Baby Boomer generation? I understand the potential dangers and I realize that Three Mile Island made an impression, but I don't 'get' why we shouldn't build plants with appropriate safeguards.

If there is support for building, but only with appropriate safeguards, please tell me, because I'd love to be wrong about this. If that's the case, though, what kind of protections are we expecting?

Given the absolutely embarassing series of "harmless accidents" in French nuclear reactors lately, I'd be not as enthusiastic about adopting their stuff (apart from anything French being political anathema to certain parts of the right and my lack of trust in real world US handling of reactors of any kind).
Since this not the topic of this thread, I won't step into a discussion of other rational/technical/practical problems with nuclear power.

MeDrewNotYou, no system is safer than the people running it and humans have always found a way to mishandle even the safest system with catastrophic results. Many prominent accidents with reactors (chemical and nuclear) were caused by people knowingly ignoring safety regulations and occasionally even actively disabling security systems. The famous last words here are "we'll look at the leak after the tea break"(that was Bhopal), "What could possibly go wrong?", "We will lose too much money, if we follow the procedure and shut the system down.", "Why wait for the expert? Switch it on!"...
I will not tust any US reactor unless the CEO of the company, the designer and the head of the human resources department are chained to it permanently ;-)

Why is opposition to nuclear power so entrenched in the Baby Boomer generation? I understand the potential dangers and I realize that Three Mile Island made an impression, but I don't 'get' why we shouldn't build plants with appropriate safeguards.

I look at this from a different perspective: if it weren't for the baby-boomers, we would have far less interest in nuclear power. The boomers grew up surrounded by promises of limitless energy that would be available any day now thanks to nuclear power. They also grew up with the possibility of a nuclear winter that would eliminate most life on earth. I suspect that the realization that nuclear technology might eliminate our species forced many boomers to develop excessively warm feelings to nuclear power in order to compensate. Nuclear technology is a power to great to ever give up, so we must cling to it, even though doing so might destroy everyone on earth...that makes us look like monsters unless we can find amazing peaceful uses for nuclear technology...lo and behold! Nuclear power is totally awesome!

The positive case for nuclear power seems sufficiently weak that I doubt it would have compelled the vast expense. Nuclear power has never been price competitive with...well, anything, especially if you factor in the subsidies.

To more directly answer your question, I think the experience of the baby boomer generation has (correctly IMHO) led most of them to conclude that our governing institutions aren't really good enough to handle technology that can screw things up as far in the future as modern fissile reactors. I mean, we elected George Bush as President. The institutions we've built, while much better than many others, seem unable to deal honestly with mistakes. Unfortunately, if you screw up a nuclear reactor, you might contaminate a large area for millenia...I'm willing to accept letting our political process screw up the lives of citizens today, but I blanche at the thought of screwing up the lives of the next thousand generations.

Why is opposition to nuclear power so entrenched in the Baby Boomer generation?

We boomers were pretty much raised to have a complex about all things atomic: it was both the apocalyptic threat (for which we were offered "duck and cover!" as our defense, which most of us eventually took to mean, as the poster said, "kiss your @ss goodbye") and the smiling face of our shiny clean future. (See this movie to get the full dissociative effect.) It was a very fraught sort of bull$hit to grow up with, and I would not be surprised if it left a mark.

Or, what Turb said.

MeDrewNotYou

Nuclear plants produce radioactive waste that is deadly for tens of thousands of years. So far, no one has been able to come up with a safe way of handling and storing this waste, although everyone agrees that it belongs anywhere except "my back yard."

When I was a kid, we boomers were told that nuclear energy would be so cheap to produce that they wouldn't even both to meter it. We were told it would be safe and that turned out to be a lie too.

We saw incident after incident of chemical waste dumped into drinking water or buried in leaking caskets.

Maybe that's why I'd rather see development of wind and other renewable resources.

Would you have us create a new bureaucracy devoted to designing and operating nuclear power plants?

Theoretically, we already have the bureaucracy, called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

As to the problem Boomers have with nuclear plants, I point you not only to TMI and Chernobyl, but to Karen Silkwood as well. Then there's the tendency of power companies in California to build directly over the active fault lines. Add to that the immense amount of heat released (usually through water) and the spent rods, and we just see more downside than up.

Plus uranium is not a renewable resource.

Theoretically, we already have the bureaucracy, called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC exists, it is true. However, the NRC does not design nuclear power plants and the NRC does not operate nuclear power plants. Both of those capabilities are difficult and challenging for any organization to master.

I mean, NASA also exists and given its experience with nuclear power for long haul planetary exploration, one might say that NASA is such a bureaucracy, but that wouldn't really make sense.

Energy is easy, we just have to think big and commit resources. The much-derided alternative energy sources will work fine once we have:
a) As much physical plant in them as we do in oil drilling and refinery; and
b) Better power storage and transport methods.

Part (a) needs absolutely no new technology, just more of what we already know how to do. A lot more. Moored dirigible wind turbines all over the Appalachians and the Rockies. Pave Nevada with solar collectors (okay, you can leave the Grand Canyon and the reservations alone. Pave the rest. Take non-Navajo Arizona while you're at it. Resettle the population to Montana and Idaho. (I exaggerate a little, you have to leave some room for sand or you change the albedo and warp the weather patterns you need. Details.)) Or skip the small stuff and just plunk a solar collector the size of Belgium at each Lagrange point (probably takes too long to do first, but we'll want it eventually). There is tons of power out there, and we know how to get it. Peak oil makes it cost-effective to bother.

Part (b) comes in three flavors: better grids for piping energy cross-country (no new tech); better batteries for vehicles, for laying in a surplus, and for transporting power from Point A to Point B wherever we can't lay wire (one of my favorite tinfoil-hat rumors is that GM or Shell or someone is already sitting on the patent for a really efficient power storage cell. No idea if that one has any reality to it.); and better space-to-earth power beaming from the Lagrange solar collectors (This is the same issue Reagan's "Star Wars" plan foundered on: you have to hold the beam steady through atmospheric interference, including interference caused by the beam itself; but we have better computers & programs now, and we can make the receiver cup much bigger than a missile). None of these are trivial, but we can have them in the next 20 years or less if we work at it.

How to free up the resources to do all this is a legislative issue, but with that much money at the end of the process, there's some way to finance it.

Most people spend more time deciding what HD TV to buy, than Congress would spend on debating a 'comprehensive energy' bill Congress would be asked to pass if you rushed them back into session.

Most people spend more time deciding what HDTV to buy than they do deciding which Congress person to elect.


Most people spend more time deciding what HDTV to buy than they do deciding which Congress person to elect.

I know I would. Deciding which Congress-critter to vote for is pretty easy.

In the primary, there's usually 3 Dems running. I look at policy statements and past accomplishments to pick the one that meets my criteria best.

In the general, I can eliminate the Libertarian (ick-pooie), American Independent and, usually, the Natural Law and Republican Party nominees. That just leaves the Dem, the Green and the Peace & Freedom Parties. If my Democratic choice is a good one, like Boxer, that's an easy pick. If not, like Feinstein, I'll see which of the other two is less whacky (some of the Greens and P&F nominees have been fairly moon-batty in my opinion).

With HDTV, I have all sorts of obscure and confusing technical terms that I have to unsderstand to get the best value for my money. I'm going to have to do a fair bit of research to find which TV represents that best value.

Now if you compared buying an HDTV to voting on Propositions, there I'd have to agree with you.

That energy beaming sounds like a giant accident waiting to happen, Trilobite, not to mention a handy new weapon. The technology isn't anywhere close to realization, is it?

As a Democrat who will vote for Barack Obama, I will give credit where credit is due:

And even though he sounds like a crazed lunatic half the time talking about offshore drilling, John McCain has obviously struck a chord emphasizing offshore drilling with the public.

Seems like he has finally found a winning issue.

I guess that's how you explain Obama's cave-in on offshore drilling, saying he would support it as part of a "compromise."

As an Obama voter, that doesn't disturb me -- I think he should have supported it in the first place -- but it is interesting that he is no longer The Holier Than Thou candidate. He can change his position faster than the rest of 'em -- can you say, "FISA?."

What disturbs me about Sen. Obama is his desire to open the Strategic Oil Reserve to offer us working folks some relief from high gas prices.

Yet this is the same man who laughed at Sen. Clinton's proposal of a gas-tax holiday for the summer; something I would rather have seen done than tapping the Strategic Oil Reserves - something, it seems, should be done in dire circumstances.

Sen. Obama at least seems to be fighting back with vigor this week after McCain rattled his campaign's cage last week.

Having been a supporter of Hillary Clinton during the primaries, and proud of it, I'm just starting to wonder how principled the man I hope will be president is.

Turbulence: Is is really true that nuclear power is more expensive than other forms of energy production? I know that coal is cheap since there is so much of it in the US, but there are also increasing environmental standards that make it more expensive. That same reasoning holds true for all fossil fuels. The plus for nuclear energy is that it makes a lot of energy with very little fuel. The negatives are the necessary strict safety standards (almost certainly the reason for much of the cost) and the problem of fuel disposal.

That isn't to say that increased research can't come up with better ways of doing nuclear. A professor at Texas A&M designed a "thorium-cycle" reactor. Thorium isn't naturally fissile, so there is no possibility of a run away reaction, the reaction is mediated by lead, not graphite or heavy water, so melt down isn't possible (there's never enough heat at one time that the lead can't dissipate), and there are no long lasting radioactive wastes. It's a lot harder than the uranium-cycle since it needs a proton beam to maintain the reaction - but it's possible and it has net positive energy production.

All this is to say that there are a lot of poorly explored options available to help with our energy problems, and cutting out nuclear power as a possible option isn't really a good idea.

Just in case you haven't taken a look and are interested:

The post "The One" developed into a good discussion on offshore drilling mid-thread between me, russell, ocsteve, and john thullen, among others.

I guess that's how you explain Obama's cave-in on offshore drilling, saying he would support it as part of a "compromise."

what's wrong with compromise ?

IMO, we've had quite enough of presidents who think "my way or the highway" is a good way to govern.

BedtimeForBenzo, temporarily opening the reserve to lower prices is hardly the same as the gas tax holiday. Losing gas tax revenue would damage the highways fund, while not saving the consumer any significant amount of money. Yes, the shortterm policy compromises made by Obama are not ideal - but winning elections generally requires a measure of realism about what the public believes or wants to believe. I doubt that Obama is happy about having to do this, but you can't let yourself be outbid for the rockhead vote in election year. Them's the breaks.

Bedtime, I can't understand how you can believe that Clinton, the woman who was willing to compromise on flag burning and flip-flopped plenty on issues like NAFTA, would have been any more "principled" at this point in the campaign.

Please consider abandoning the Republican memes like "Holier Than Thou" that you apparently picked up during the primary. It's time to move on.

Cleek,

I agree: We need more compromise, it seems, everywhere.

I just thought it was worth noting that offshore drilling is one domestic issue where McCain seems to be driving the agenda.

Morzer,

I'm not sure if either is a good idea -- the gas-tax holiday or tapping the Strategic Oil Reserves.

Rather than campaigning on any Big Ideas -- maybe these guys need a sitdown w/ one T. Boone Pickens -- they are engaging in typical tit-for-tat politics.

I suppose I expected more from Sen. Obama.

Is is really true that nuclear power is more expensive than other forms of energy production?

Yes. The capital costs are simply enormous and while the operating cost is relatively low, the end of life decommissioning costs are very high. Typically, those costs get passed to the taxpayer. Note also that there is currently no serious plan for disposing of nuclear waste. I'm sure that'll be fixed any day now though. I mean, we've only known about this problem for what, half a century? I really think that if we can't get our act together enough to come up with a sane disposal strategy after half a century, we have no business dealing with large scale nuclear technology.

I know that coal is cheap since there is so much of it in the US, but there are also increasing environmental standards that make it more expensive.

Coal is cheap and plentiful. While air pollution control technologies certainly add to the price of coal power plants, the differential cost is quite small. The real problem with coal is that there is no way to reduce carbon emissions. Currently technology allows us to rather cheaply eliminate just about every other nasty emission product that a coal fired plant produces.

The plus for nuclear energy is that it makes a lot of energy with very little fuel.

Nuclear power requires more fuel than you might expect, and there's the rub. While Uranium is extraordinarily plentiful, high density deposits of Uranium are quite scarce. This matters because Uranium is never found by itself; it is always embedded with other rock. Uranium extraction typically involves smashing extremely hard rocks (think granite) into tiny pieces repeatedly and then using nightmarish chemicals to coerce bits of Uranium from the rest of your toxic brew. If you have high Uranium density in the rock, you can do this messy process while expending less energy than you'll eventually get from the processed Uranium fuel. Remember: pulverizing tons of granite requires a tremendous amount of energy. However, much of the Uranium on earth is in low density deposits which are not energy efficient to extract and process. The question isn't one of money: no matter how prices change, most of the Uranium on earth just isn't suitable for energy extraction.

The negatives are the necessary strict safety standards (almost certainly the reason for much of the cost) and the problem of fuel disposal.

Half a century. No plan. This does not inspire me with confidence.

I think you understate the problem by talking about "strict safety standards". Before TMI, we certified reactors as safe. In fact, the public was repeatedly assured that these reactors were extremely safe. What happened at TMI? We got into a situation where there was literally no correct action that operators could take. These operators were confronted with contradictory information every step of the way such that there was no action they could take while remaining confident it would be correct. Now I'm told that newer designs have fixed all those problems and I think...bullsh*t. The fundamental reactor architecture has not changed appreciably.

That isn't to say that increased research can't come up with better ways of doing nuclear. A professor at Texas A&M designed a "thorium-cycle" reactor. Thorium isn't naturally fissile, so there is no possibility of a run away reaction, the reaction is mediated by lead, not graphite or heavy water, so melt down isn't possible (there's never enough heat at one time that the lead can't dissipate), and there are no long lasting radioactive wastes. It's a lot harder than the uranium-cycle since it needs a proton beam to maintain the reaction - but it's possible and it has net positive energy production.

Really? He did? Wow. I designed a sad sock cycle reactor: it produces nearly limitless quantities of electricity based on the anguished screams of orphans and piles of lost socks.

Look, we've been hearing about these awesome new reactor designs for literally decades. This technology is nowhere near ready to use. It might be usable in 20 years, but it probably won't. I'm sure some prof in Texas has a totally awesome fast breeder reactor design that looks amazing on paper and would make power too cheap to meter if only some of these pesky technical challenges would just go away, but you know what? They won't. We've been through this before.

All this is to say that there are a lot of poorly explored options available to help with our energy problems, and cutting out nuclear power as a possible option isn't really a good idea.

Has someone suggested cutting out nuclear power? I don't think I have. What I've suggested is not giving away more subsidies. If we price carbon through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, then nuclear power will get a defacto subsidy IF it can actually deliver lower greenhouse emissions. I'm skeptical that it can, but I'd be willing to let the market shoot it out. But that's not what McCain and many other nuclear power supporters are talking about. Rather, they're asking for tons of subsidies that would go towards nuclear power regardless of how effectively the technology reduces green house gas emissions or even whether it produces working plants at all. That's not change you can believe in.

KCinDc,

I'm voting for the man, but sometimes I believe he does come across as "holier than thou" -- I'm the only Dem in the world who thinks that way?

Look again at "The One" -- after Charlton Heston parts the Red Sea, you see a close-up of the insigna the Obama camp designed as a faux presidential seal (smartly they quickly abandoned it).

So, they've set themselves up for some of this "he's arrogant" stuff.

And I believe Sen. Obama has flipped a time or two on NAFTA.

He might get my vote, but I ain't genuflecting for the man.

Sorry.

I'm voting for the man, but sometimes I believe he does come across as "holier than thou" -- I'm the only Dem in the world who thinks that way?

I'm pretty sure every human being smart enough to be President occasionally comes across as being holier-than-though.

Look again at "The One" -- after Charlton Heston parts the Red Sea, you see a close-up of the insigna the Obama camp designed as a faux presidential seal (smartly they quickly abandoned it).

Lots of organizations come up with seals all the time. Why am I supposed to care about a seal? Do those actually matter somehow?

So, they've set themselves up for some of this "he's arrogant" stuff.

So, is that the only piece of evidence you're working from? Is there anything else?

And I believe Sen. Obama has flipped a time or two on NAFTA.

OK. What does this have to do with being holier-than-thou? I mean, it is clearly bad, but do you think that every politician who ever changes their position is holier-than-thou because they changed their position? Or did you just toss that one in because it makes Obama look bad even though it isn't really relevant?

He might get my vote, but I ain't genuflecting for the man.

Um, has someone asked you to genuflect for him?

The NRC exists, it is true. However, the NRC does not design nuclear power plants and the NRC does not operate nuclear power plants. Both of those capabilities are difficult and challenging for any organization to master.

Let us also not forget that the NRC is -- how can I put it -- freaking worthless.

Why is opposition to nuclear power so entrenched in the Baby Boomer generation?

One part of it is because no nuclear power plant was ever built in this country for less than twice the initial budget. People will only accept being told their rates will go down, only to have their rates go up, so many times.

Turbulence:
A lot of people do want to cut nuclear power out of the picture. I think Obama has the right notion of keeping the door open to nuclear power while not making it a keystone of his plan. McCain's plan of opening tons of nuclear plants yesterday is irresponsible for all of the reasons you mentioned.

Thanks for all the information you gave, I can see where your skepticism is coming from. I'm fairly young, so I didn't live through the various nuclear catastrophes, so I don't have the same sort of gut skepticism many people who did live through them have. You're probably right that we shouldn't trust those who insist that modern plants are great and won't fail the way old ones do, the same way that we should take with a grain of salt to notion that off-shore drilling is so much safer than it was in the 70s. Both statements are probably a bit true - we probably did learn a little more over the last few decades, but maybe we didn't learn enough to prevent similar disasters in the future.

What I don't get is the nastiness about the thorium-cycle reactor. Yeah, a lot of new technologies don't pan out, but a lot do. The guy doing it is a high energy physics who specializes in the building superconducting particle accelerators - the Tevatron at Fermilab was his brainchild. This project was an experiment at using his expertize in accelerator physics toward practical ends - and as far as any one can tell, the design has merit.

"Half a century. No plan."

Plan.

More plans.

A lot of people do want to cut nuclear power out of the picture.

OK. I don't see hordes of such people, but maybe I live in a funny area. Do all of these people that are so eager to cut nuclear power out of the picture have any institutional power? Like, are any of them Senators running important committees? Or are any of them Presidential candidates with a chance of winning? Or among the candidates' close advisers?

I mean, maybe these people really do exist in droves and maybe they also have lots of institutional power. I don't see it, but if you could them out to me, I'd be very grateful. Whoever these mysterious people are, they don't seem to have enough power to clamp down on the current giveaways that the nuclear power industry enjoys every year.

I think Obama has the right notion of keeping the door open to nuclear power while not making it a keystone of his plan. McCain's plan of opening tons of nuclear plants yesterday is irresponsible for all of the reasons you mentioned.

We agree!

Thanks for all the information you gave, I can see where your skepticism is coming from. I'm fairly young, so I didn't live through the various nuclear catastrophes, so I don't have the same sort of gut skepticism many people who did live through them have.

Just FYI, I haven't lived through any of these crises either (except for Chernobyl, but I was too young to understand much at the time).

You're probably right that we shouldn't trust those who insist that modern plants are great and won't fail the way old ones do, the same way that we should take with a grain of salt to notion that off-shore drilling is so much safer than it was in the 70s. Both statements are probably a bit true - we probably did learn a little more over the last few decades, but maybe we didn't learn enough to prevent similar disasters in the future.

I view these as very different questions. It is certainly possible that there are vast quantities of easily accessible oil just off the US' coasts. However, there is no reason to believe that. No oil-industry person I've spoken with believes that to be true. But people that are hurting from gas prices and demanding action don't seem to have the knowledge needed to assess the situation. If we don't know where awesome reserves are off the coast, than we'll use up more oil so that we can discover nothing or pathetic fields with so little oil or such low quality oil as to make it not worth drilling.

On the other hand, defects in the fundamental architecture of water cooled fission reactors don't really go away. You still have a sealed pressure vessel with highly radioactive steam. The problems relating to waste disposal or fuel availability certainly don't go away.

What I don't get is the nastiness about the thorium-cycle reactor. Yeah, a lot of new technologies don't pan out, but a lot do.

Speaking as someone who does technology stuff for a living, this sort of thinking really frustrates me. Most new technologies do not pan out. This is especially true when it comes to energy conversion. Let me ask you something: how much has jet engine efficiency improved over the last 30 years? The answer: some. There have been a bunch of incremental improvements which make modern jet engines better, but not massively so. Thirty years ago, I could fly from the US to europe in maybe ten hours. Now, I can do the same trip in maybe eight hours. I can't do it in one hour. Why is it that new technologies improving jet engine performance haven't panned out over the last thirty years? I mean, this is something that governments around the world would drool over. Since technologies a lot of new technologies do pan out, why haven't any panned out in this area?

The computer revolution has really distorted the general public's ideas of technological progress. Silicone chips can improve dramatically every year but that sort of progress is exceptional and not normal. Our civilization has been very fortunate in tapping the incredibly rich vein of microelectronic devices on silicone substrates. But that vein doesn't go on forever, and there are perilously few veins as rich and accessible. There are none relating to nuclear technology that I can see.

The guy doing it is a high energy physics who specializes in the building superconducting particle accelerators - the Tevatron at Fermilab was his brainchild. This project was an experiment at using his expertize in accelerator physics toward practical ends - and as far as any one can tell, the design has merit.

That's great. So, has he been able to convince a consortium of investors to fund this technology? I mean, the way you describe it, this guy has come up with a way to get nearly limitless energy with no nuclear waste. Surely investors would leap at the opportunity, right? So, where can I send my money?

The truth is that there are no investors because there is no real reason to believe that this technology will ever supply power practically. I'm sure this guy is a brilliant scientist, but brilliant scientists don't generally bring products to market. What they're good at is getting papers published and securing grants. That's a very different skill set than scaling up a technology and making it deployable.

I'm not sure how to explain this to you, but pretty much every design I've ever made has had merit. But most of them don't work. Getting a design with a nifty idea, or even many nifty ideas is easy. Making a new design work is hard. Really really hard. Getting smart people to come up with new meritful designs is the easiest thing in the world. Making those designs usable is close to the hardest thing.

As every physics freshman knows, "energy" is not "consumed" in ordinary processes; it merely changes form. There's chemical potential energy stored in fossil fuels. It turns into heat in the cylinders of your car's engine. Much of that heat goes out the tailpipe; much of it goes out the radiator; a fraction of it becomes kinetic energy of the car -- and ultimately also becomes heat in your brakes, your tires, and eventually the atmosphere. If you burn a gallon of gas in the open air, you heat the atmosphere by exactly the same amount as when you burn it in either your SUV or your Prius. But you transport yourself different distances in the three cases.

Now consider sunlight: the sun warms the oceans; water evaporates; it rains; Lake Mead fills up; Hoover Dam generates electricity; lights burn in Los Angeles, heating the atmosphere. The exact same amount of solar energy is turned into heat whether Hoover Dam is there or not, whether LA is there or not. Viewed as a 'solar collector', by the way, Hoover Dam puts out the same power as the sun provides to Disneyland's parking lot.

What the people who keep such statistics call humanity's 'energy consumption' amounts to one part in 10,000 of the solar energy Earth catches. Even with all of our fossil fuel usage, we only 'consume' 1/10,000th of available solar energy. It's true that the sun's energy powers ALL life on Earth, not just us. But 'all life' includes corn, and the cows that eat the corn. The cows don't 'consume' the sun's energy; they pass it on to us. So there's plenty of 'energy' to go around.

Note that the Earth is radiating energy into space, as well as collecting it from the Sun. In fact, thermodynamic balance requires that the Earth radiate into space exactly as much energy as it collects (plus such energy as it or we release from its internal stores) or else the Earth would be heating up. If, by modifying the atmosphere, we reduce the planet's ability to radiate energy, then we get global warming. But we would modify the atmosphere just as much by burning fossil carbon uselessly in the open air, as by burning it efficiently in Priuses -- we would simply get less mileage out of it.

The point of this whole rant is that sloppy usage muddies the public discourse. People talk about 'energy' when they mean 'fuel', for instance. Our present technology, based on converting fossil carbon into atmospheric CO2, is just that: present technology. We don't have to reduce our standard of living by 'consuming' less 'energy'; there's plenty of 'energy' available, and we don't 'consume' it, anyway.

On a separate note: aside from possibly contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the biggest headache associated with nuclear power is the storage problem. Safeguarding nuclear waste for(essentially)ever does impose risks and costs on future generations. If we expect future generations to be less technically capable than we are, that would be unconscionable.

-- TP

Gary, I don't think Yucca Mountain qualifies as a serious plan. There is currently more nuclear waste in need of disposal right now than can fit inside Yucca Mountain when it is completed. Yucca Mountain isn't even licensed to accept waste yet. Meanwhile, we continue to generate more waste with no facility beyond Yucca under construction. Of course, that analysis assumes that Yucca ever accepts waste: the Senate Majority Leader has already said "Yucca Mountain is dead. It'll never happen." We can't even dispose of our current waste stockpile, let alone the extra waste produced by lots and lots of shiny new nuclear plants.

Linking to a wikipedia article that describes all manner of ways in which one might dispose of nuclear waste is cute but it doesn't qualify as a serious plan either. Of course people have ideas, but ideas don't dispose of waste. When you can point to a plan that actually has funding and a realistic chance of completion and that can plausibly handle both the current waste stockpile and the waste stream from a greatly enhanced set of operating reactors, please let me know.

In the meantime, I'm still interested in hearing your answers to the questions I raised here.

Thanks for the responses. To be clear, I don't see nuclear as a panacea, but until fusion becomes available, its that much less oil to burn.

The point about not trusting the government to be on the ball enough to regulate something that has such potentially long-term effects is well taken. It bothers me, though, that the Republican party is the party of deregulation that also wants to build facilities that probably warrant the most stringent oversight of all.

Coal is cheap and plentiful.

Coal is not cheap. It comes at great price to human life, when "tunnel" mined (I don't know the correct expression for this) or great cost to the environment when strip-mined. Those costs are rarely borne by the industry, which makes coal look much cheaper than it really is.

To be clear, I don't see nuclear as a panacea, but until fusion becomes available, its that much less oil to burn.

I don't really get this. Nuclear power plants don't run automobiles, they provide electricity. Very very little of our electricity is generated by burning oil. If we added lots more nuclear power plants, we could displace some coal or natural gas fired plants, and there would be clear benefits to doing so (starting with lower CO2 emissions), but it wouldn't radically affect the availability of oil.

The point about not trusting the government to be on the ball enough to regulate something that has such potentially long-term effects is well taken. It bothers me, though, that the Republican party is the party of deregulation that also wants to build facilities that probably warrant the most stringent oversight of all.

Eh, I'm not sure the Republican party is really interested in building nuclear power plants per se. I think the party as an institution (as opposed to its members) wants to send lots of cash to Bechtel and GE and they also want to give the finger to environmentalists and liberals in general. There are lots of alternative ways to accomplish those goals.

I get the sense that for many Republican politicians, nuclear power advocacy is a substitute for serious thinking about energy policy. They have a storyline that goes "once we had this totally awesome perfect energy source but then the liberals came in and imposed all these regulations and ruined it but if only we could overthrow their tyranny, life would be awesome once more" and they stick to it. As long as they keep repeating that mantra, they don't have to look into any mess issues like waste disposal or return on investment for our subsidies or total system costs or greenhouse gases or system reliability.

Look at it this way: Republicans have controlled the executive branch more than Democrats but we haven't built any new nuclear power plants in the last thirty years. In practice, Republican support for nuclear power hasn't translated into new nuclear plants.

Does anyone know what percent of oil (US, world, crude, whatever) goes into plastic vs fuel? It can't be an insignificant amount. What's being done to wean the US (and the world) off our reliance on fossil fuels for a critical part of our lives?

Nuclear power plants don't run automobiles, they provide electricity. Very very little of our electricity is generated by burning oil.
I'm not really familiar with how much electricity comes from oil as opposed to coal, natural gas, hydro, etc, but I would say that cutting oil power (and other big CO2 emitters) is something to consider. My thought behind more nuclear was more of a long term transition away from oil in general: hydrogen cars, renewable feedstocks for plastics, stuff like that.

Eh, I'm not sure the Republican party is really interested in building nuclear power plants per se. ... I get the sense that for many Republican politicians, nuclear power advocacy is a substitute for serious thinking about energy policy.
Having heard that, it seems a lot more likely than McCain wanting nukes because he's concerned about Big Oil's grip. Thanks for making me a little more cynical. ^.^

I should clarify. In my first paragraph, I want to emphasize the cuts in CO2, regardless of source.

And let me add another question to Jeff's. Are non-oil-based plastics feasible? That is, can we make it strong/durable/malleable/whatever enough to do the job?

"As every physics freshman knows, 'energy' is not 'consumed' in ordinary processes; it merely changes form."

It's all about friction, isn't it?

It's all about friction, isn't it?

and the Right Hand Rule. can't forget that.

KCinDC, depends which scientist you ask and what you mean by "close to realization." We can shoot missiles out of the sky -- very unreliably. So the actual transfer is easy, it's the aiming that's hard. How hard, I don't know. But it's a lot easier to hit a large stationary target than a small moving one.

It is a potential danger, like any large power source. We should certainly minimize the risk of accident by placing receivers in isolated areas where a miss won't matter any more than the average oil derrick or coal mine fire. But we shouldn't even build the thing without at least as many failsafes as, say, a good nuclear plant. If you can then keep maintenance levels anywhere better than, say, Chernobyl's, you're fine. Nuclear power plants and fossil fuels, in contrast, produce deadly byproducts when they're working correctly.

Hijacking is unlikely, tho -- how do the hijackers get up there without being noticed? As for deliberate use as a weapon by a government, heck, any advanced space technology is a weapon (see the Niven/Pournelle novel "Footfall" for an illustration of how true command of space would make all other military technology irrelevant). So far, treaties have held.

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