I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and it seemed that neither of us knew enough to make any claims to understanding nuclear power. So I decided to investigate. This article is the result of that investigation. It is at its most basic level.
Most of us know little about uranium, nuclear power generation and radioactivity. We tend to make emotional and political decisions based on false fears and a lack of knowledge and cite Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and now Fukushima as evidence pointing to a desperate need to halt nuclear generated energy. Most of us read the popular press with its penchant for sensationalism and don’t check out what we are told. That behaviour is interesting in itself – another time, another blog!
I am wont to blog about population overload on planet earth and that inevitably leads to discussions about the effect that overload has on the finite resources of our planet.
Energy is one such resource for which we have a massively escalating need. When you think that it is only since the mid-19th Century that we harnessed the technology to build coal-fired power plants and the global population estimates were about 1.25 billion, our technological and population growth has been exponentially enormous.
150 years on, with an estimated population figure of about 6.85 billion, our energy consumption is outstripping our ability to deal with the by-products produced by the raw materials and their use in energy generation. Most of it is still coal-fired which gives our atmosphere lots of grief and makes our politicians squirm.
So – coal is a problem. We all know that and we all know that massive CO2 emissions are not good. There is lots of coal – it will last for ages as a fossil fuel – it but its waste product Carbon dioxide is very malignant in the quantities our power generation produces and we can’t contain it; it is now a major atmospheric polluting source. The output from renewable energy sources cannot provide enough energy globally for our current and future needs and we have become profligate in our energy use in any case. If we added nuclear fusion to our renewable research grant funding, it may make better sense but science has yet to make fusion a practical proposition, fission is what we have to work with for the nonce.
Nuclear-fired power plants have had bad press and it is difficult to combat strongly held views that are not steeped in an understanding of what nuclear energy actually is. Nuclear-powered energy will have to be part of the global energy mix for enough energy to be provided for our future use. Renewable energy solutions and output will not cut the global mustard on the scale necessary by themselves. So – end of preamble.
There are any number of blogs, articles and books, lectures and wiki articles that elucidate an understanding of radiation for anyone to pursue. Some of them are linked to in this article. But this blog article is not technical at all. It doesn’t address anything except the most basic understanding of what constitutes radiation. And that is essential to any understanding of what we try to talk about when we take a stance (or not) about nuclear power generation. And we do; some of our reaction is knee jerk and that is not smart.
The first thing to realise is that everything decays and in doing so gives off radiation. Some things decay rapidly (from nanoseconds on), others more slowly and some things very slowly (millions of years on). The basic thing to grasp is that decay is everywhere all the time and we are part of it. We also give off radiation as well as absorbing it. This is part of background radiation and is measurable anywhere with radiation detectors.
Background radiation is a fact of life on this or any other planet. The above pie chart puts it in perspective. It also puts the radiation from nuclear power and weapons testing into perspective. That is important. It should make us pause and think about what we think radiation is and what radiation actually is.
Not all radiation is the same. There are three different types of radiation. The penetration of each type is shown below, and penetration is what it is all about. Gamma radiation is the one that penetrates everything except lots of lead or lots more concrete. It is not good for us. But we can shield ourselves from its effects.
The amount of Gamma radiation (together with UV light) absorbed by the skin of those who spend an hour under an artificial tanning sun bed or who spend hours sun baking at the beach on Spanish holidays can have a massively deleterious effect in terms of basal and squamous cell cancers developing. People standing next to a nuclear-powered station run no such risk.
Nuclear power-plant technology is undergoing research all the time and at the moment the pebble-bed reactor technology appears to be the safest and simplest way forward. There could never be another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. We need to be very clear about that. The reactors used at those times are dismantled and not ever being built again. Nuclear technology has moved on by a lot of generations since Chernobyl et al. And the energy generated is CO2 free.
Back to basics. Boiling an electric kettle for making tea draws a high current. Our domestic kettle consumes a maximum of 2,200 watts. Our light bulbs consume 60 watts each. Making tea equates to burning about 35 light bulbs. Some kettles consume 3 kW = 50 light bulbs.
I think about my long held habit of turning off lights when I leave a room. I now have to reassess how much effect I am actually having on energy consumption. Not much. Maybe one less cup of tea a day would be more effective. Then, of course, I can’t help but notice the high-rise office blocks with lights blazing away in the middle of the night. That, to me, is wilful waste.
Street lights are one thing, but lights on every floor of every multi-storeyed office block in every CBD in every city uses a mind boggling amount of energy that could be used elsewhere to better benefit.
So why don’t we petition tiers of government to curtail and penalise businesses (and that includes all tiers of government as well – they are not exempted from energy wastage) that waste energy? Now there’s a question.
Shown below is a famous NASA image that is often called a “satellite photo of earth at night”. It isn’t really a “photo”. Instead it is an image that was compiled using data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. It is a map of the location of permanent lights on Earth’s surface. Each white dot on the map represents the light of a city. Here is the link
The argument that we need to reduce our energy consumption is a non-argument. To have any teeth whatsoever, such a move would require global co-operation and that just won’t be forthcoming. Besides, try telling China they can’t have what you already have. Take a really good look at that NASA map.
And it is us, the householders, who are made to feel guilty and being entreated by wasteful governments to curb our energy usage while they blithely consume far more than any of us could possibly save.
Even if we were to halt all development as of now and develop no more technology needful of energy, our need for energy will only increase as our global population increases. It will never decrease, never, not ever.
So disagreement with what is actually real and what is happening is just no good unless an alternative of global proportions can be postulated. Can it? I would like to hope so, but can’t quite see it yet. Nuclear fusion? Yes, if we last so long and manage to harness it properly. Almost free energy, except for infrastructure maintenance.
But, in any case, we have to update our closely held beliefs that nuclear powered energy is bad, bad, bad and understand that technology is enhancing the methodology and it is quite probably the next really efficient and cheap source of power on a global scale. And we are going to need it.
Bill Gates had a discussion over at W.I.R.E.D. a few days ago. I haven’t a subscription but this link is a sort of transcript. There are lots of comments as well.