The Other N-word

Nuclear.

The US public is split nearly 50/50 between those who favor nuclear power and those who don’t. Because of this, nuclear is often a dirty word in the political arena. Nobody wants to lose half their constituency over a marginal issue like nuclear power. Before 1979, the political climate was ripe for the rapid expansion of nuclear power. However, the Three Mile Island accident resulted in the cancellation of most new nuclear plant projects. 30 years later, the public was just starting to warm up to the idea of nuclear as part of the so-called “nuclear renaissance.” Then, in a case of incredibly poor timing, the Fukushima disaster struck.

There is a lot of weird cultural weight attached to the “N-word”, not the least due to an entire generation being psychologically scarred by the perceived overhanging threat of nuclear war. Unfortunately, this snubs one of humanity’s greatest hopes for survival.

Nuclear might not be cost-effective as geothermal, wind, or hydro power. It also isn’t as clean as solar. However, I would argue that neither cost-effectiveness nor cleanliness displaces nuclear from being the best “clean” energy source available. And not only would widespread adoption of nuclear energy entirely solve the climate crisis, it would save humanity from eventual extinction by hastening our spread through the universe.

As I see it, the only other power source that is as scalable as nuclear is solar. Solar, however, loses out on two counts. First, it is really expensive compared to, like, any other power source. Second, the energy density of solar is really, really low. We would need to cover 496,805 square kilometers of area with solar panels to satisfy the world’s projected energy consumption in 2030. While the price of solar power has really come down, that’s also in part due to subsidized research. On the other hand, nuclear has a much higher power density, and despite years of marginalization, is still competitive with current cutting-edge solar power. It is also extremely reliable, with fluctuations in power output virtually non-existent. This is something other forms of renewable energy lack.

If we started investing in nuclear research, we could dramatically lower the costs of nuclear power and satisfy a huge portion of the world’s energy demands. Cheap electricity would hasten the wide-spread use of electric cars (okay, this would probably happen anyways). With combustion cars and both natural gas and coal plants replaced, the influx of greenhouse gases into the environment would be greatly reduced. Cheap, portable reactors would allow developing countries to get on their feet in terms of manufacturing capability. Cheap energy would allow us to implement energy-intensive climate engineering schemes. Advanced nuclear technology would lead to the development of closed-core nuclear rockets, allowing safe, clean, and cheap access to space. Portable reactors would jump-start unmanned planetary exploration, interstellar exploration, human colonization, and asteroid mining.

Of course, none of this will happen. Nuclear is still a dirty word, burdened by the historical and cultural baggage it must drag around. The first step to a better, cleaner future is to get the public to accept nuclear power. As long as we are afraid to say the word, we are holding ourselves back from achieving our full potential.

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Power Down Day

Today was a lot of fun; I got to antagonize environmentalists! In coordination with student groups, my school sponsored a Power Down Day. The school turned off most of the lights in the school and encouraged people to cut back on use of electrical devices. As you can imagine, I immediately began trying to find a flaw with the idea. This is when I recalled a nifty economic theory (widely acceptable although hotly debated) called Jevons Paradox.

In economics, the Jevons paradox is the proposition that a technological advance which increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.
Wikipedia

It was postulated by William Jevons in the 1800s after he observed that increased efficiency in coal-burning technology resulted in more coal usage, rather that less. This can be applied to any current technology, however. Take cars for instance. Although there are a lot of factors I am not taking into account, these are fairly indicative numbers. These graphs represent the Efficiency and the Consumption of fuel by passenger cars since 1960. Please note the scales of the horizontal axises.

Average MPG (image link broken)
Average fuel consumption (image link broken)
Data from infoplease.com.

This is a great illustration of the Jevons Effect. Even though fuel efficiency has been increasing, fuel consumption has increased as well (after the initial leap in car technology). This goes against the first intuition. The same goes for lightbulbs. Lightbulbs used to be rather rare. In the current day, we have numerous lights not only in every room of every building, but also in cars, on pens, even on shoes. Because lights are cheaper, we use them for more things; or everything.

Now, Power Down Day was not flawed in itself. Although you can use Jevons Paradox to argue that initiatives to increase efficiency are actually hurting the environment more than helping, it doesn’t apply to situation where you are just not using power. Using less power doesn’t necessarily decrease energy prices like more efficient electronics would. However, the whole conservationist effort stems from the same force that pushes for more fuel efficient cars and bans on incandescent lightbulbs. For instance, someone thought it would be a good idea to get a bunch of those useless rubber bracelets made with “Power Down Day” on them. It probably took more energy to make 500 of those wristbands than was saved by “powering down”.

The energy saving effort doesn’t actually save much money, despite that being a major argument point. That only works if you stick with the scheme in the long run. In a gymnasium, for example, there are 3 fluorescent bulbs per panel and the panels might be arranged in a 6 by 6 square. Assuming a wattage of 10 Watts per bulb, thats almost a kilowatt. Over the course of a day, that will save somewhere on the order of $2. With a majority of lights extinguished, that number could be brought up to maybe $50 a day. Which is not bad, but if you are going to keep the lights turned out all the time (thus actually making a legitimate amount in energy savings), you could have saved even more money by never installing them in the first place!

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