I've been meaning to write something on this topic for a while now, and with the recent passing of the 30th anniversary of the Three Mile Island disaster (and by "disaster," I mean "hyped-up accident which claimed no victims, other than the rationality of millions of Americans"), it seems a good time. Frankly, I've had it with anti-nuclear reactionaries. As I shall explain, if they realize their agenda of imposed energy scarcity, they're going to kill not thousands, not millions, but billions of people. Frankly, a bunch of spoiled, well-fed, air-conditioned white westerners running around drumming up discontent and irrational fear over nuclear power is
damn near a crime against humanity.
Now, these types can be classified into basically two groups: the ignorant fools, and the elitist ecofascists who use the environment as cover for their agenda, which is "depopulation" and de-development, amounting to nothing less than the systematic extermination of the world's poor through induced starvation. While the former may be laboring under the Malthusian delusion, they don't realize the consequences of their conditioned belief in the necessity of culling the human "herd." If you'd like to know what those consequences are, read on. If you'd instead rather remain in a state of blissful and willful ignorance, you know where the back button is.
A primer on energy, power, and mechanical work...
The most important principle as far as energy is concerned is not energy as measured in joules or calories, but power - specific power. Wind and solar as energy sources have a lower specific power, or energy flux density, than fossil fuels. As far as presently available technologies go, nuclear fission has - by far - the highest specific power/energy flux density. If you don't get what I'm talking about, here are the definitions:
Work: The amount of energy transferred by a force acting through a distance. Expressed in joules, it can be calculated as force times the displacement of a given object (W = F * d). In terms of physical economy, the more physical work that can be done without human labor input, the more "stuff" that can be produced.
Power: The ability to do work, or work divided by time. Power is expressed mathematically as P = W/t, and is measured in watts.
Specific Power: Power applied per unit of mass, volume, or area - P/m2, P/m3, or P/kg.
Growth in real economic output is attained, and can only be attained, by increasing the specific power of an economy. This can be done by increasing the amount of power available, or by increasing the efficiency of physical capital, such that a given amount of power can be applied over a smaller physical mass, area, or volume.
However, while enhanced efficiency can compensate for declining power input, it cannot under any circumstances produce an increase in overall specific power if power input is declining. In other words, if the amount of power producers have to work with is on the decline, when considering the whole economy, producers will, without exception, produce less stuff. Total product might not fall to a level commensurate with a decline in power, but it will fall nonetheless.
Thus, those advocating for a transition to a lower specific power source of energy are, knowingly or not, advocating for a decline in economic output, and therefore also in living standards (more on that later). Of course, if we're talking about strictly oil vs. alternatives, it may well be economical to use a lower specific power source, as we're sending so much of the product of oil-power inputs overseas.
Yet, it's nonetheless a false dilemma, as we already possess a source of power that has far greater specific power than oil in both physical and effective terms. That source, as I mentioned previously, is nuclear fission. Wasting our time and resources trying to devise ways to power up our civilization with wind or solar power is pointless, as we already have such a source that is more than able to do the job, and at a far lower cost, if only we'd stop senselessly restricting it.
The inconvenient math of the "clean energy" scam...
It's often said that one is entitled to one's own opinion, but not one's own facts. Well, the facts - and the math - don't even come close to adding up for so-called "clean" or "renewable" energy. I'm going to focus primarily on wind here, as it's the most used source of "renewable" power, as well as the most viable - or more accurately, the least un-viable. For solar, suffice it to say that the picture is much worse.
Presently, total global power demand stands at about 16 terawatts. Looking ahead 50 years, let us assume that average living standards will rise at about 3% annually (remember, that means a commensurate rise in specific power is necessary). To be charitable, let us further assume that despite a population that is expected to increase by about 40%, efficiency gains will enable us to achieve each marginal gain in specific power without a fully need for a corresponding increase in power input. In other words, to be nice, I'm assuming power demand increases only with rises in average living standards, but not population. That means we'll need at least 65 TW of power in 50 years' time.
So, being extremely charitable to the "clean energy only" Luddites, I'll assume that - after adjusting for intermittency, storage, shut-downs during storms, long-distance transmission, and so on - we can get a full megawatt out of each industry-standard 3 MW turbine. How many wind turbines will that take? Let's see:
~65,000,000,000,000 W / ~1,000,000 W = ~65,000,000
To provide for all of humanity's energy needs using wind power, we'd need about 65 million 3 MW wind turbines - and that's leaving an awfully lot of people still awfully poor.
Now, the Global Wind Energy Council estimates that there's about 120 GW of currently-installed sticker capacity, with about 27 GW of that installed last year. However, since those only operate about 1/3 of the time, that translates into 40 GW and 9 GW respectively, and excluding the costs of mitigating the intermittent nature of wind power. So:
120,000,000,000 W / 3,000,000 W = 40,000
27,000,000,000 W / 3,000,000 W = 9,000
We currently have the equivalent of around 40,000 3 MW turbines installed, and in 2008, we installed the equivalent of about 9,000 3 MW turbines, meaning a mere .26% of global energy demand is now supplied by wind. That means we'll need to increase our installed capacity 1,250 fold to meet our needs with only wind power. Put in simpler terms, there's no fucking way that's going to happen. Even if, by some miracle, we could produce enough wind turbines to meet demand, there's not nearly enough places to install them.
Solar power could - theoretically - get around the geographic constraints, but it's much less efficient and it delivers far less power. Yet, solar is even dumber than wind, as chlorophyll can deliver a vastly higher specific power than any solar technology we lowly humans could ever possibly contrive. And, since we're both running out of oil in the ground and land on which to grow food, rather than turning our deserts into solar plant complexes, it's far more economical to engage in massive infrastructure development, using desalinated water to green the deserts, growing food for consumption and algae for the liquid fuels we'll still need.
Even putting aside financial concerns, the inexorable conclusion is that the only way to supply our energy needs is with nuclear power. Currently, there are some 436 commercial nuclear reactors in operation worldwide (109 in the US), generating nearly a terawatt of power, some 6.5% of total world energy demand. In stark contrast to wind (as well as solar), supplying our energy needs with nuclear power would be a relatively easy task. In 50 years' time, and (dubiously) assuming no major advances in per-reactor output, we would need only increase our use of nuclear generation by about 60 fold. For instance, we'd need to build about 6,000 or so Westinghouse AP1000 pressurized water reactors - a huge number, but far more realistic a task than building 65 million or so Vestas 3 MW wind turbines.
On the (mostly dubious) safety concerns...
As we all know, the current uranium fuel cycle proliferates enriched uranium, which can be turned into highly-enriched, weapons-grade uranium fairly easily. Despite the hyped-up threat of Iranian nukes proliferated by the Bush Crime Syndicate, this is one of the few valid, if overblown, concerns surrounding renewed investment in nuclear plants. And it's precisely where thorium comes in. While not fissile itself, thorium is slightly radioactive and an absorber of slow-moving neutrons. When a neutron hits the nucleus of a thorium atom, it transmutes into Uranium 233, thus making it "fertile," or a viable nuclear fuel.
Such "Generation IV" nuclear reactors are also tens or even hundreds of times safer than the already uber-safe first- and second-generation reactors in operation in the US. In reality - something the anti-nuke cultists have a bit of a problem accepting some of the time, and by "some of the time," I mean "always" - concerns over the safety of nuclear power are hugely overblown. In fact, by any objective standard, nuclear power is the safest source of energy in existence, bar none. It's not even close, actually.
Coal-fired power kills literally tens of thousands of Americans every year through dangerous extraction processes and by the increased incidences of a whole host of diseases (especially respiratory) through all of the toxic crap burning coal releases. In fact, coal, which contains trace amounts of uranium, has released far more radioactive waste than nuclear! The bottom line is that coal sucks, and as nearly everyone here knows, talk of the mythical "clean coal" is like discussion of an encounter with a "prudish prostitute."
Natural gas and oil are pretty much the same story, though most of the deaths they cause are in extraction, such as drilling and oil rig accidents and malfunctions. Solar, whilst only comprising a tiny fraction of a percent of our overall energy portfolio, causes deaths, primarily in installation, and it also releases various chemical toxins and carcinogens to the environment. Even wind power has caused some 41 worker fatalities in the US alone.
And, notwithstanding the fact that supporters need not show perfection, merely superiority as compared to alternatives, guess how many people have been killed by that oh-so-deadly nuclear power industry? Zero, nada, none. Not a single American has been killed by nuclear power. Not one. Not plant workers, not bystanders, not no one. I can't even compare this immaculate safety record to that of wind power, as doing so would require dividing by zero. Or, I suppose I could say nukes are ∞% safer than wind or natural gas - that would do the trick.
Oh sure, there have been scares, such as the partial meltdown of the #2 TMI reactor. Yet, judging by the reflexive opposition to nuclear power that so many still display, you'd think that the entire town of Harrisburg was wiped off the map (incidentally, the population of Harrisburg is roughly equivalent to the number killed by fossil fuels in a 6 month period), rather than the safety systems performing as designed. That's just it, too - sure human beings make mistakes, sure machines fail; that's why we design nuclear reactors with redundant system on top of redundant system, all encased in a virtually impenetrable steel-reinforced concrete dome. The media may play up every instance of a nuclear engineer walking into work with their fly down as a harbinger of some impending catastrophe, but such coverage is nothing more than the media's whorish, money-grubbing sensationalism. So, if you find irrational fears cropping up, just repeat to yourself: "Exactly zero people have been killed by nuclear power in the US. Exactly zero people have been killed by nuclear power in the US. Exactly zero people have been killed by nuclear power in the US." And so on, until it sinks in.
The bottom line here is that no energy source is completely devoid of all risks, so we have to choose amongst imperfect alternatives. The facts are that nuclear is not only the most capable source of power, but the safest. Oh - and it's renewable too - betcha didn't know that? That's right, not only do GEN-I and GEN-II reactors create fuel which can be burned in breeder reactors, but the supply of uranium available for extraction from the ocean is constantly replenished by submarine volcanic activity. As a matter of fact, though extraction from seawater is more expensive, there's probably enough to last for as long as the earth is physically habitable. So no, contrary to popular myth, there is no looming "peak uranium."
The ugly reality of the anti-nuclear cult.
As I mentioned previously, failure to engage in large-scale investment in nuclear power in lieu of a fraudulent "green energy" policy, will have significant negative effects to living standards both here and around the world. Actually, that's really about the understatement of the millennium. Optimistically, if the anti-nukers get their way, several billion people will starve to death. Pessimistically, all of human civilization will be destroyed in conflicts arising from the wars fought over the ever-dwindling supply of high-grade fossil fuel resources, and more importantly, over water.
Yes, that's right - while we are running out of oil, what ought to really concern you is the dwindling supply of water; fossil water, to be precise. In the US specifically, the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer is a ticking time bomb, which ignored, will result in a massive plunge in agricultural productivity, and the ensuing humanitarian toll. Folks, this isn't some looming crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, this is right in our backyards. Literally, my backyard is right on top of the Ogallala Aquifer! The story is the same many places in the world. In fact, I dare say that our dependence on fossil water poses a greater threat than just about anything else, save perhaps unmitigated climate change or a nuclear war.
There's only two real solutions for this problem - divert fresh water supplies from far away, creating a new network of artificial lakes, dams, and canals, such as that which was constructed during the New Deal, but is now inadequate to meet demand - or build industrial desalination and distillation facilities on a grand scale, to be powered up by new nuclear plants. At the same time we're building out new nuclear plants and reducing our dependence on oil imports, we can partially offset the costs of necessary pipeline and water management infrastructure by converting parts of our vast but obsolete pre-existing pipeline network for oil and gas to transport desalinated sea water to where it's needed. This is a very serious, extremely urgent physical threat to our safety - it's not something that will just go away on its own if we ignore it.
Needless to say, this dire state of affairs is in the developed world. In the third world, the situation is amplified by many orders of magnitude. All over the developing world, many hundreds of millions of people are at an urgent risk of death by dehydration. All across places like southern Africa and Indonesia, there is no time for anything but a massive effort to develop nuclear-powered desalination facilities. Anything else will mean death by starvation and dehydration on an unprecedented scale. To me, his response (if any) to this issue will be the overriding factor in how I judge President Obama's success or failure. It is absolutely unacceptable - and diplomatically and strategically idiotic - for the United States to allow such a humanitarian catastrophe to unfold just so we may continue to monopolize our technological advantages.
So, you can forget about $4 gas or high electrical bills - if we don't go ahead with investment in nuclear power, the unprecedented holocaust which will ensue will make those things completely trivial in comparison. Now, as for the anti-nuke crowd, many are just ignorant of this; indeed, so to are many supporters. Yet, that's totally immaterial. The simple fact is that those who oppose nuclear power, for whatever reason, are wittingly or unwittingly supporting genocide on an untold scale.
If you didn't know, now you do, and you have no excuse for continued opposition to nuclear power; none that is morally justifiable, anyways. You might be saying "well, can't we just hope that green energy will do the job?" No, no we can't. Go back up to the top and re-read the bit about specific power. The maximum specific power of a given energy source, even operating at maximum possible efficiency, is physically limited by the total power of that source over the area to which it is applied. In other words, no matter how good we get a constructing windmills, we're never going to be able to provide enough energy to support our large and growing population.
I'm not one to pull any punches, and I'm certainly not going to on an issue as consequential as this, so just to be clear: if you don't support nuclear power, you support the genocide of the world's poor, and you're sure as HELL no progressive - you're an anti-humanist, fascist reactionary egging on the systematic slaughter of billions.
I'm fine hearing out dissenting views; in fact, I rather enjoy it. However, on rare occasions, the other position is so untenable, so immoral, and so despicable, that there is no argument. This is one of those occasions. The conclusions I've drawn here have nothing to do with money, politics, ideology, or anything of the sort. They are derived from the immutable laws of physics, and the indisputable reality of present material conditions. There's no denying it, no getting around it; no amount of idealist sophistry will change it. No anti-technology, anti-industry primitivist fantasies cloaked under the veneer of sustainability will justify it. It's nuclear power, or another holocaust times 100.
So, if you've been supportive of the anti-nuclear "movement" in the past, consider that the next time you decide to wave your "No Nukes" sign around at a Greenpeace rally - if you can manage to grow a conscience.