Elon Musk

It’s been barely a week since I wrote about SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk. But here I am again writing about Mr. Musk. He recently made some claims about renewable energy that must be challenged.

I actually think that nuclear fission, if it’s in location that is not subject to natural disasters like in the case of France, there’s a very high percentage of nuclear, I think that’s actually a good thing. Obviously, you don’t want to have nuclear fission power plants in places that are subject to natural disasters because that obviously can go wrong. I think fission is a good approach.

I agree with Musk that fission is a good thing. However, I am unaware of any place on earth not subject to natural disasters. Is not France subject to natural disasters? Does he really mean earthquakes and tsunamis when he says “natural disasters”? Is this just a cryptic reference to Fukushima?

Fusion is also interesting and it’s exciting to see what’s happening with ITER Project, which is a fusion plant that’s being built in France. I do think fusion is a feasible technology. I think we can definitely make fusion work, but it is a far off technology. So to make fusion at the power plant level work is probably, I don’t know, 30 years away and a lot of effort.

Fusion is a chimera. Six decades and tens of billions of dollars on fusion energy and we are still decades away. Nothing will ever come from ITER. It is just a uber pork project of the EU.

Molten salt reactors using uranium and thorium were demonstrated by Oak Ridge National Labs 50 years ago. They are everything that fusion pretends to be. We need them now.

That’s why at least for now and I think maybe even in the long-term, I’m a proponent of using the big fusion power plant in the sky called the sun. The sun is a giant fusion explosion and it shows up every day. If we have photovoltaics, solar panels, we can capture that fusion energy. It also needs to be stored in a battery so we can use it at night. Then we want to have high power lines to transfer solar energy from one place to another.

Musk is correct about the sun. It delivers astronomical amounts of energy to the earth every day. However, that energy is very diffuse, diurnal and seasonal. And there is no practical way to store that energy on a level to meet the needs of a developed country.

Never mind that Musk owns companies that sell both solar cells and batteries. He has a monetary interest in claiming that both his products can meets society’s needs.

Let’s say if the only thing we had was solar energy—if that was the only power source—if you just took a small section of Spain you could power all of Europe. It’s a very small amount of area that’s actually needed to generate the electricity we need to power civilization. Or in the case of the U.S., like a little corner of Nevada or Utah would power the United States.

Musk says that a little corner of Utah or Nevada could power the US.  This is technically correct, but practically and significantly wrong. As I said before, the sun sends enormous amounts of energy to the earth, but it is spread out, doesn’t come at night and hardly at all in the winter.

Regardless of whether Musk thinks a few hundred square miles of Utah or Nevada is a “little corner” or not, how do we store gigawatt hours of electricity produced in the summer around Las Vegas and deliver them to Maine in January? The solution to that problem is not trivial and is the necessary component to Musk’s vision. And, by the way that component does not exist.

In the end Musk is just repeating the myth that renewables can power our future. They cannot. Not if the future consists of the energy use levels we currently enjoy to heat, cool, and light our homes and power our cars and deliver goods and services for our use.

Mr. Musk has been very successful in business and he is respected by many, especially young adults, but he is wrong about solar energy.


Three Mile Island Revisited

I sometimes find inspiration for posts in diverse locations. This time the inspiration happened to be a photograph of an ultralight plane that I took last July at EAA AirVenture.

Air Instrument system 2The photo is of the engine of an ultralight aircraft; a converted two cylinder VW. In the middle of the photo is the tube for the oil pressure gage coming from the oil gallery on the engine block and running to the pressure gage on the panel (dashboard) of the plane. Notice that the clear tube has oil and air in it. When the engine is started, the oil pump will deliver oil to the gallery, which will compress the air in the tube and probably add more oil to the tube also. The oil pressure gage will correctly display the engine oil pressure even though there is a mix of oil and air in the tube.

Air can be considered a fluid for this discussion and oil is also a fluid. The air will compress, meaning its volume will decrease in proportion to the pressure, while the oil is essentially incompressible. The oil will transmit the pressure applied to it on one end of the tube to the other end of the tube. In this case where there is oil and air in the tube. The bits of oil will get closer together as the air between the oil is compressed.

What does this have to do with Three Mile Island? A lot, actually.

On March 28, 1978 at 4 am, Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit 2 went critical for the first time after it had been completed. It went into commercial production until March 28, 1979 at 4 am when a transient in the system caused an event that eventually lead to the partial meltdown of the core and the complete loss of the unit. Yes, you read that right. Exactly one year to the minute between first criticality and the “accident”.

The transient that started the whole chain of events was blamed on water in the air instrument system that monitored the plant and operated the valves that controlled the entire unit.

Why was there water in the air instrument system? Because someone connected a high pressure water hose to the air instrument system, thereby introducing water into the air system. Who did this? Both official reports of the accident did not determine who.

I have one additional question. Why would water in the air instrument system cause valves to close simultaneously?

As shown in the photo above, two fluids in the oil pressure sensor tube transmit pressure just fine. Though I have no specific knowledge of the air instrument system at TMI 2, I don’t get why some water in the air system makes a lot of valves close simultaneously. (I do get the fact that the aircraft system shown in my photo has no pressure actuated valves and is very simple.)

Why does this matter? Isn’t this ancient history?

I believe that fear is the number one reason that the average Joe or Jane is opposed to nuclear power and by that I mean peaceful, commercial nuclear power – the kind that powers your computer and hair dryer, the kind that Joe six-pack needs if his lifestyle is not to revert to pre-industrial levels.

That fear is learned and comes mostly from public schools and the establishment media, who have their reasons for instilling that fear.  I speak from experience regarding public schools (and the media). I attended them myself and my 5 kids attended them.

Their science books were generally published by National Geographic and were dismissive of nuclear power, usually with words like, nuclear power originally showed great promise, but their waste problem remains unsolved. And besides, with wind, solar, and water power, we don’t need dangerous nuclear power. Or some such nonsense.

The media adds to this anti-nuclear fear constantly (just think of their coverage of Fukushima) and was very guilty in their woeful coverage of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident.

This is why the cause of the transient at TMI Unit 2 matters. Let me end this post with a quote:

On August 3, 1979 in its official report on the event, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission posed sabotage or criminal negligence as one of six possible causes for the Three-Mile Island event. But even after eliminating the other five possible causes, the government refused even to consider the possibility of sabotage seriously.
(Engdahl, F. William, A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order ProgressivePress.com 2012 Pg 210)

If this post was interesting to you, I recommend that you go to Atomic Insights to read more about TMI Unit 2.