A Hypothetical Conversation

I was day dreaming (or maybe I nodded off) I had the following conversation with a USU environmental science major, just after he got off his slack line. Don’t let the dreds, chacos, and granola distract you. This guy is serious.

me: Why do you prefer wind and solar to just about any other source of energy?

hipster: Because they are free, don’t you know?

me: You mean free, like the binding energy of certain metallic elements?

hipster: What is binding energy?

me: It is the energy that can be extracted from thorium and uranium through fission?

hipster: You mean nuclear? That stuff is bad!

me: It’s just as free as wind and solar energy.

hipster: No it isn’t. You have to have a totally expensive reactor that produces all kinds of waste and radioactivity that is the most toxic thing in the universe.

me: Don’t you have to have solar panels and wind turbines to collect solar and wind power? Do you know how solar cells are made? Don’t you think hydrofluoric acid is toxic?

hipster: Yeah, but solar panels don’t cost that much, especially if we build enough to power the whole US and Elon Musk said we will have batteries to store power so we can use our laptops at night. And what does hydrofluoric acid have to do with solar panels?

me: Hydrofluoric acid is used in the production of solar cells and can eat through your skin and won’t stop until it gets to the bone and combines with the calcium in your bones.

hipster: Really, through your skin?

me: Yes. And how much would it cost to power the entire US with wind and solar?

hipster: Bernie Sanders said we could pay for it with just the windfall profit taxes on big oil companies.

me: How much would that be in dollars?

hipster: Really when you consider the good of the planet, it’s not that much.

me: In dollars, please.

hipster: Only about 1 or 2 times our GDP, according to Mark Jacobson. We studied his plan for wind and solar power for Utah in my Enviro Sci 201 class.

me: Dollars?

hipster: 10 trillion dollars, give or take

me: Choke!

hipster: yeah, it’s really not that much when you think about it. We totally have to do it to prevent climate change.

me: Why do we have to prevent climate change? Is the climate now at some optimum?

hipster: Because people are damaging the planet. We are a virus on this planet.

me: I am not a virus.

hipster: Humanity is not natural. We are using too many resources, especially in the West. Our lifestyles are not sustainable.

me: Finally there is something we agree about. Your lifestyle is not sustainable. Your mom and dad still paying for you tuition and room and board?

hipster: Yeah, but I totally just got a job at the ARC in the climbing gym.

me: How long have you been at USU?

hipster: This is my 4th year.

me: So are you graduating soon?

hipster: Yeah, I just have 2 years left.

me: Back to the planet. How is humanity not part of nature? There is only one world and we are part of it.

hipster: Population growth is putting pressures on the habitats of many endangered species. People are taking too much from the other species which are stressed and endangered.

me: Please stay on topic. How are people not natural?

hipster: They are not natural because they build freeways and shopping malls.

me: Don’t birds build nests and foxes build dens? How is a house less natural than those?

hipster: You’re old, man. You don’t get it. Humanity is not natural. They are a virus.

me: You mean you are a virus?

hipster: No, people in the West who use air conditioning and drive SUVs.

me: Didn’t I see you pull up in a Subaru?

hipster: That belongs to my parents.

me: Do you use the AC in the car?

hipster: Only when I come back from the whole foods market with my organic soy latte and tofu, dude!

me: What’s wrong with driving SUVs?

hipster: It’s just like putting a knife into the belly of Mother Earth.

me: How so?

hipster: It took 30 million years to form the oil you burn in one tank of gas for your SUV.

me: That’s part of the reason why I’m promoting nuclear power. I would like for all humanity to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, which is only possible by access to affordable energy.

hipster: But the nuclear waste problem has never been solved and nuclear power is something we don’t need because we can power the whole earth with wind and solar power.

me: How much will that cost? And how is that possible?

hipster: Bernie Sanders said we could pay for it with just the windfall profit taxes on big oil companies.

me: You said that before. Wasn’t that for just the US? Give or take $10 trillion dollars?

hipster: Mark Jacobson has built a model showing how the whole world can be powered by just wind and solar with some pumped hydro for baseload power and at night. I heard that in one of my classes.

me: Focus, how much in dollars?

hipster: My class hasn’t got that far yet. I think we will be discussing that right after we study how CO2 is causing ocean acidification.

me: Did you know that nuclear reactors do not emit CO2?

hipster: I told you we don’t need them, man! And what about the unsolved problem of nuclear waste?

me: Nuclear reactors produce power day and night and when the wind doesn’t blow. Of course we need them. The supposedly unsolved problem of nuclear waste is a red herring.

hipster: What do you mean red herring?

me: I mean that there are many ways to deal with the very relatively small amount of waste produced by nuclear reactors, especially thorium reactors.

hipster: But they told me in my Enviro Sci 303 class that the nuclear waste problem can never be solved.

me: Thorium molten salt reactors produce less waste than any other form of energy production including solar and wind and they produce prodigious amounts of energy, day and night. Waste from molten salt reactors can be separated and sold for industrial uses. The pounds of radioactive material remaining from one large reactor from each year’s production becomes less radioactive each day. What to do with that is a very solvable engineering problem.

hipster: Well, Elon Musk, you know the guy who makes the Tesla cars and SpaceX, is building a gigafactory to make batteries that you can install in your garage. The battery is charged during the day with solar panels so I can have lights and recharge my iphone at night, so we don’t need nuclear, which is too expensive anyway.

me: What about hot water and heating? It gets pretty cold in Logan in the Winter.

hipster: Yeah, you can run the heater with the batteries, too.

me: You mean the fan on the furnace? Do you know how many solar panels and batteries it would take to actually heat your house?

hipster: Just a solar panel or two. Tiny houses are totally sustainable. I’m going to buy when after I graduate.

me: Where do you live now?

hipster: In my parents’ basement. But I am totally getting an apartment cause I just got a job at the ARC.

me: How many solar panels and batteries would it take to heat your parents’ basement?

hipster: We learned in class that we just need to turn down the thermostat in the winter and we could easily heat our homes with solar panels.

me: Turn it down to what?

hipster: Like 68 degrees, dude. I can totally do that.

me: How many solar panels and batteries would it take to heat the basement with the temp set to 68, then? What about the famous Cache Valley inversions? How many panels then?

hipster: Just a couple.

me: Why don’t you try that and let me know how it works out for you.

hipster: Totally, dude! I gotta get back to my slack line. My buddies are calling me.

me: Poor fool!

awake me: Did anyone see me drool?




Lessons I’ve Learned from Fukushima

Lessons I have learned from Fukushima.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the Pacific coast of Japan and also caused a tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people.  The earthquake was the strongest every recorded to have hit Japan. The tsunami also set in motion a chain of events that destroyed 3 nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi.

You can read here, here, and here for reliable information about the situation.

I could spend a lot of time telling you about the fact that no one has died from the small amount of radiation released or how the evacuation of people living around Fukushima was unnecessary, and how even now the evacuees have not returned, even though the small amount of radiation is even smaller after five years and getting smaller every day and is not harmful, but what would be the point?

This is all 99.9999999% of the people would hear if I tried to tell them why nuclear is still the best and cleanest form of energy extraction, Fukushima blah, blah , blah, blah…………

That is the first lesson I have learned from Fukushima.

The second lesson I have learned from Fukushima is to design and build a reactor that will can cool itself passively without any human intervention until it reaches a cold state. Molten salt reactors can do this.

The third lesson I have learned from Fukushima goes along with the second item; if the reactors are designed to cool passively (without any operator intervention) in the event of a station blackout, they will not be the 1000 MW colossus we are used to seeing. They will be smaller and can be buried. Think out of sight, out of mind. Bury the reactors! If the neighbors don’t even know they are there, awesome!

The fourth lesson is about evacuations. Don’t ever do them. Design and build reactors that don’t use water for the primary or secondary heat transfer loops that can turn to steam on a bad day and necessitate massive containment structures and where the blistering hot zirconium can disassociate water into hydrogen and oxygen and cause explosions that are amazingly bad PR for all things nuclear.  These events are like honey to flies for the media. It doesn’t matter what the truth is about it being a chemical explosion. All Jane and Joe lunchbucket see is an explosion at a nuclear power plant.

If the fuel is thorium in a molten salt, it can’t melt down. It is already melted! The reactor runs at near ambient pressure not at 3,000 psi, like in a light water reactor. If there is a leak in the primary loop, the molten salt leaks out and solidifies! It does not flash into a gas that requires a massive containment building that has to withstand elevated pressure. A 20 x 20 foot concrete containment structure would be sufficient to permanently separate the radioactive fuel from the environment. Thus, an evacuation plan is never necessary and should not be required by regulations.

I learned some other things about Fukushima that I have not been able to turn into lessons. They are to irrational to cognitively process.

For example, there are about 200 million gallons of water that have been decontaminated and stored at Fukushima.  There is no regulatory method to deal with them.  The water has been filtered to remove all radioactive material except tritium, which being an isotope of hydrogen cannot be separated chemically from the rest of the water. The tritiated water is only weakly radioactive and should be dumped into the Pacific Ocean, but alas there is not a snowball’s chance of that happening.

Fear of all things radioactive and nuclear has destroyed the fishing industry in Fukushima, even though every fish caught is scanned for radioactivity and discarded if it is above a very small level. Maybe Fukushima should send all of its catch to Peru to make cebiche.


A Modest Proposal

I read today that Japan has imported a cool $200 billion worth of fossil fuels to replace the electricity that would have been generated by nuclear power plants had they not all been shut down after the earthquake and tidal wave that ended the reactors at Fukushima. Two hundred billion dollars! Now somebody (or lots of somebodys) made some profit on that. The $200 billion is above and beyond what Japan normally imports to meet their energy demands. That is truly astounding.

Talk about rubbing salt in an open wound. The loss of life and massive destruction was not the end of the disaster. The government of Japan consciously choose to enact policies that added an additional price tag of $200 billion to the catastrophe.

This got me to thinking about the phobias of all things nuclear. Do you think that the folks importing $200 billion of fossil fuels might have a slight interest in continuing to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about nuclear safety?

Therein lies my proposal. I think that a potential way to overcome the fear of nuclear is for a molten salt reactor company to chose a city of about 20,000 people and offer a reactor to them for some cut rate, something approaching free. Or maybe the entire electrical output of the reactor, for say 4.5 cent/kWh for a period of 10 years.

The city would help with the siting of the nuclear power plant (NPP) in exchange for cheap electricity. Then, over the course of years, other cities could see how reliable, affordable, green, clean, nuclear power could benefit them, too.

Not all cities are blessed with Pacific breezes and perpetually mild weather where a few solar panels will power some led lights and recharge an iPhone.

There are plenty of cities with harsh weather that are also economically depressed that might accept some good fortune. Perhaps the demonstration of a molten salt reactor using thorium might convince some that nuclear is the way to go.