Nuclear power is a gift from nature. It can be harnessed cleanly and safely but an accident of history got us started down a path that is dangerous and unnecessarily complicated. Today's nuclear power plants were adapted from reactor designs originally intended for production of plutonium for bombs. In the 1950's this plutonium output was considered a bonus, but today it has become an out-of-control nightmare.
With 22,000 nuclear bombs already assembled, the last thing we need is more power plants that crank out more and more tons of plutonium and nuclear waste.
Uranium and thorium are distributed in the rocks of the earth. Their radioactive decay produces so much heat that it makes the core of the earth hotter than the surface of the sun! (about 6,000 °C). This heat rises to the surface unevenly with molten rock actually reaching the surface in volcanoes. In fact, 99.9% of the earth's volume is hot enough to boil water!
Boil water? Wait a minute! That's what nuclear power is all about! The reason we go to all that trouble digging up and crushing rocks and refining out the uranium is simply to boil water to drive steam turbines. Why not skip all that effort and danger and just use the hot rocks of the earth to boil water directly? It works! And it's called geothermal power.
Geothermal power plants cleanly and safely harness the nuclear power of uranium, thorium and potassium in the ground by using the heat they produce by natural decay. To harness that heat we need only drill through the earth's crust and send water down to the hot rocks below. When the cold water hits the hot rocks, it creates a network of fractures, which allow the water to travel horizontally to a second hole, where steam is allowed to escape and drive a turbine generator. The spent steam is condensed and recycled back down to the hot rocks again, making the water consumption insignificant.
Geothermal power plants harness the power of the atom while leaving the nuclear elements safely sequestered in the earth. Once a geothermal plant is built, there are no fuel costs so production cost is actually less than that for a coal or nuclear plant. The main cost of geothermal is the initial cost of drilling the wells.
In many parts of the world geothermal power is already cheaper than coal or nuclear. The gap is widening daily because coal and uranium fuel costs are skyrocketing. Geothermal is already profitably generating about 10 gigawatts (GW) of clean power. It produces 26% of the total power in Iceland and the Philippines and 5% in California. About 4 GW of new projects are underway in the U.S. in 13 states.
In many parts of the world drilling costs are excessive today because the hot rocks are 2-5 miles below the surface. Google recently invested US $11 million in new deep drilling technology, which can drill through hard rock 5x faster than current methods. If this development succeeds, geothermal power will be practical virtually anywhere. As fuel costs skyrocket, existing oil drilling technology is becoming competitive at greater and greater depths. Drilling was just completed on the first 5 km deep commercial power plant in Australia, which will ultimately produce 500 megawatts (MW) at a price of only US $0.06 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The U.S. has spent over $70 billion trying to make nuclear reactor-based power safe but a solution is nowhere in sight. What we need today is a Manhattan Project for developing deep, hard rock drilling and EGS geothermal technology. Political maneuvering actually reduced the geothermal development budget to zero last year in spite of a positive MIT report on the potential of EGS geothermal! If we can just solve the political problem, the technological problems will be easy.
In the meantime, the planned "nuclear renaissance" has crashed and burned. If you haven't kept up, here are some links to very recent developments:
All current nuclear plant construction in the world is running years late and billions over budget. The NRC (nuclear regulatory commission) has delayed approval on all plants under construction in the U.S. indefinitely because of needed design changes. 2012 is the earliest possible delivery date for the prototype plant so other new plants can't be built for at least a decade. The French prototype being built in Norway is a similar disaster.
Our existing nuclear power plants produce 75 tonnes of plutonium every year. French and English attempts to solve the waste problem by recycling fuel have failed miserably. The U.S. plan to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is now 10 years behind schedule and expected to cost US $96 billion. Because of the schedule slippage, an additional US $11 billion in lawsuits is expected before it can begin operation.
Bailout potential: The US government guarantees to limit industry liabilities in case of an accident to US $10 billion. A reactor meltdown could require a government bailout worse than the Wall Street disaster. Government risk guarantees for private profits is a fool's bargain.
Half a century ago we made a wrong turn when we began using plutonium production equipment to generate our power. We have been flogging this dead horse for decades now and it's time to wake up to the simple and safe way to harness nuclear power. We should redirect the money currently being spent to revive fueled atomic power to EGS geothermal development. In just a few years we could be building significant amounts of clean, safe, dependable EGS geothermal power plants.
Thomas R. Blakeslee is president of The Clearlight Foundation, a non-profit organization that invests in renewable energy and other socially useful companies and issues cash grants to individuals who are working effectively for change.