Going Nuclear
A memo to John McCain.


Dear Senator McCain:

You don’t know me but I just published a book entitled Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Long Energy Odyssey. I think it would be helpful to your campaign. I called your staff a couple of times to try to get someone interested, but of course this is the middle of an election and it’s too long to read now anyway.

So here’s a briefing.

I heard you speak about nuclear power in a previous debate and I think you’ve got Senator Obama cornered on this one. He says he’s for nuclear power and against Yucca Mountain, but that’s a giveaway. Nuclear opponents have long seen Yucca Mountain as the place to strangle nuclear power. California and several other states even have laws saying no new reactors can be built before Yucca is completed. So you only have to scratch him a bit to find he’s not going anywhere with it.

But this isn’t just about energy. Our whole economy is at stake. If we’re ever to free ourselves from foreign energy supplies and turn this country into a productive society again, it’s going to have to be by pushing through to the next era of human progress — the age of nuclear power.

So here goes.

Let’s begin by understanding that the scale of the energy stored at the nucleus of the atom is so great — so completely unlike anything in human history — that people are having a hard time understanding it. Everybody thinks of the atom in terms of a big, big bomb. But that’s the wrong approach. You have to think of it as a small, small amount of matter producing almost unimaginable amounts of energy. That’s what makes uranium so easy on the environment — because it takes only a very small quantity of material to produce statewide levels of electrical power.

Let’s look at some numbers. Fossil fuels, as you know, are a concentrated form of solar energy. Plants capture sunlight and use it to create long hydrocarbons. When these plants or algae are fossilized over millions and millions of years they become oil, coal and gas. In the process, the energy is concentrated. Coal has about twice the energy density of wood and oil and natural gas are about double the density of coal.

Sunlight and wind and so-called “renewables” are even more dilute than wood, by a factor of about 10 to 50. When you’re thinking in terms of industrial quantities, the amount of sunlight falling on any square yard of earth is miniscule — about enough to power one 100-watt light bulb. That means collecting solar energy consumes huge amounts of land. If we covered every building in the country with solar panels, we could probably get enough electricity to supply our indoor (about 8 percent of our consumption) — and that only in the daytime. The solar thermal plants being considered in Florida and California — where they used mirrors to concentrate sunlight to boil water — will cover a hundred or more square miles to match one coal or nuclear plant. We’re building these things because the federal and state governments are providing huge tax subsidies and many states are even mandating that utilities buy the power. But once the size and expense of these projects becomes clear, a lot of people are going to start to object.

The same goes for wind farms, which will also cover hundreds of square miles with 65-story structures. The problem with wind is that it is totally unpredictable and very difficult to integrate onto an electrical grid. At least solar electricity is there when you need it — on hot sunny days when everyone turns on the air conditioning. Wind comes and goes at it pleases but tends to blow hardest when it’s not needed — at night and during the spring and fall. Biofuels, another form of “alternate energy,” ran into trouble last winder when people suddenly became aware of the huge amounts of land they consume. We’re now fomenting 30 percent of the corn crop and replacing only 3 percent of our oil — plus pushing up world food prices. The U.N. is calling biofuels a “crime against humanity.” Supporters talk about “cellulose ethanol” but it’s never been done and they’ve been trying for almost a hundred years.

Now let’s look at nuclear. Remember, when we talked about the energy density of fossil fuels and renewables we talked in factors of 2 thru 50. Do you know what the density factor is for uranium? It’s 2 million. A pound of uranium gives you 2 million times as much energy as a pound of coal. That means you can run a whole city for a week with a lump of uranium you can hold in one hand. In fact a 110-car “unit train” of coal has more energy in the uranium traces in the coal than in the coal itself.

Let’s see what this means in practice. The average 1,000-megawatt coal plant must be fed by a unit train arriving at the plant every day. Such trains now leave Cheyenne, Wyoming every 12 minutes carrying coal from the Powder River Basin to power plants from Nevada to Arkansas. More than half the nation’s rail freight is now coal. In fact, it’s straining the whole infrastructure and we may have to build new rail lines before long.