Magazine | March 9, 2009, Issue

Watts Up

Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey, by William Tucker (Bartleby, 420 pp., $27.50)

Fittingly for a book about nuclear energy, William Tucker’s latest work is a bit like uranium: It contains a vast amount of material, packed tightly into a small space, which, if released into the population at large, could generate substantial energy. Like nuclear energy, it is not without its problems, but they are easily overcome. And it will go down like a nuclear bomb with environmentalists, because it ably demonstrates that their energy arguments are worthless.

Tucker neatly divides energy sources into two types: solar and terrestrial. For virtually all of mankind’s history, we have derived our power from the liberation of solar energy — energy from the sun’s rays that has been captured by plant life. Initially, we used wood, releasing its stored solar energy in the form of fire. More recently, we discovered a much more concentrated form of solar energy in fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. The amount of concentrated solar energy in these fuels is amazing. One gallon of gasoline can propel a 3,000-pound vehicle for about 30 miles, a task that would exhaust large numbers of human beings.

Terrestrial power, on the other hand, derives its energy from the processes going on beneath our feet. Anyone who has been down a deep mineshaft knows how hot it gets down there. This is because we are nearer the areas where large amounts of uranium and thorium (left over from the Earth’s creation from the remnants of a supernova, Tucker suggests) are decaying, releasing heat. By simply taking those elements out of the ground and using them to fuel power stations, just as we have done with coal for so long, we can release an even more concentrated form of energy. The energy binding the elements of that gallon of gasoline together would, if we could tap them, propel that vehicle for 60 million miles — the distance between the Earth and Mars.

Yet we are bypassing this magnificent alternative. In our search for other sources of energy we have again concentrated on solar forms. Wind power is actually the result of differences between the amounts of solar heat gathered in different parts of the atmosphere. Hydroelectric power ultimately derives from the sun’s evaporating water from the oceans, which then returns to the earth as rain, which then seeks a quick return to the oceans. Even biofuels are simply a method of liberating solar energy without going through the concentration process of creating fossil fuels.

This is where, to my mind, the book is most valuable, for in its extensive discussion of the so-called “renewable” fuels, it lays bare the reasons why all the talk of environmentalists about them is just so much hype. Time and again the name of Amory Lovins, the sage of the Rocky Mountain Institute (a prominent sustainable-resources think tank), and his assertions that renewable energy is best come up. Time and again it is shown how one of his pilot programs seems to have enough potential that governments sink our money into it. And time and again Tucker demonstrates how such schemes just will not work at the scale we need them to.

My favorite example involved a Canadian who spent $12,000 installing solar panels to generate 600 watts of electricity for his log cabin (on a sunny day). That’s about two-thirds the consumption of an average American home. As Tucker says, “By practicing Draconian conservation, he has been able to make the system break even. Still, he was forced to think long and hard before buying his daughter an aquarium. The oxygen pump would put too much strain on the system.”

The problem has to do with collection and concentration. Fossil fuels have already done the job of collecting and concentrating large amounts of solar energy for us. Trying to create the sort of electricity we need with wind and solar power requires vast amounts of land to be put to the collection process; the same goes for biofuels to replace gasoline. And — owing to fluctuations in wind, and to cloud cover — these sources simply don’t generate electricity all the time, which is what we need. Trying to do it with “soft power” — lots of small, renewable generators distributed throughout the economy, selling spare power back to the grid — just won’t cut it, either. Lovins, says Tucker, “saw the inefficiencies of cutting butter with a chainsaw. He didn’t see the futility of trying to cut steel with a butter knife.”

#page# Tucker has an excellent case that, if we have to leave fossil fuels behind, we will need to use terrestrial energy — the only other source of already collected and concentrated energy we have. But why do we need to leave fossil fuels behind? This is the weakest part of Tucker’s case, for he accepts that global warming, caused by greenhouse gases, is, if not a crisis, something we have to take seriously. His reasons for saying so are not strong. He dismisses the important objections raised by luminaries such as Profs. Richard Lindzen, Pat Michaels, and Fred Singer rather glibly, as if he had opened the Grist website’s “How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic” and pulled the answers straight from there, rather than considering the questions carefully. Anyone well-read in the subject of climate science, or even climate economics, will find his chapter on global warming paper-thin.

However, it looks as if we are moving into a world where the important scientific questions about global warming have been dispensed with as, dare I say it, inconvenient, and coal as a source of electric power is no longer going to be viable. If that is the case, then we are stuck with a choice between so-called renewables and nuclear. The debate between the two needs to be conducted honestly, and this is where Tucker’s book is invaluable. As well as outlining the problems with renewables, he spends a great deal of time explaining why all the common objections to nuclear power are either cant, outdated, or misunderstandings. Anyone who read my recent NR article (“Nuclear Power?” June 16, 2008) will be familiar with them, but Tucker is able to go into a lot more detail.

In particular, Tucker is quietly devastating when it comes to anyone who advances Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or The China Syndrome as reasons to oppose nuclear power. Chernobyl was almost a worst-case scenario for a nuclear accident — the plant was unshielded, the operators showed an appalling lack of regard for safety, and the response effort was botched — but even so, it produced nowhere near the effects predicted at the time. (There ended up being 60 deaths, moderate numbers of treatable cancers, and no vast radioactive wasteland.) Three Mile Island was probably the worst-case scenario when it comes to a Western nuclear reactor 30 or so years ago — no deaths, no health effects, but a very large cleanup bill. As for the worries generated by The China Syndrome — in which an accident threatened to leave a large area uninhabitable — Three Mile Island itself actually demonstrated that the situation described in the film just wouldn’t happen, because the incident there was almost exactly the one depicted in the movie. And, as Tucker notes, “the handling of nuclear technology has since improved by orders of magnitude.”

After touring many nuclear facilities and ruthlessly debunking the common arguments made about radiation, waste, and nuclear proliferation, Tucker ends with a visit to France, which generates nearly 80 percent of its power in nuclear reactors. France reprocesses huge amounts of ex-Soviet uranium and sells it on to us at a profit. All the waste from the entire history of French nuclear power is stored in one room. It totals ten grams for each French citizen. Those citizens are fully informed of the realities and safety of nuclear power. Why, asks Tucker, can’t we be more like the French?

He actually answers himself, in one respect: He acknowledges that the dirigiste nature of French government allows it to bypass strongly held, if misguided, citizen concerns. He also acknowledges that in the U.S., nuclear power will not — and should not — get the state support the French use to make the industry economical. Yet he provides few answers to the objections of such critics as Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute, who argues that in a truly free society nuclear power will never be economical. This is the second weak point of the book.

His view of the future is that an informed citizenry will prevail. Well, perhaps; but substantial regulatory reform will be needed to disarm the anti-nuclear movement and to reduce unnecessary delays to construction time. Otherwise, we will be stuck with solar power, in its worst forms — and find ourselves trying to cut steel with butter knives.

– Mr. Murray is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the author of The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Don’t Want You to Know About — Because They Helped Cause Them.

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