The latest EIA Monthly Energy Review shows that renewables have just passed nuclear for primary energy production. For the first three months of 2011, nuclear produced 2.125 quadrillion BTUs (quads) of power while renewables produced 2.245. Renewable production was up 15 percent compared to the first quarter of 2010. Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves what is the future of nuclear power?
As fires and floods threaten nuclear facilities in the U.S., it seems that we may have underestimated the dangers of nuclear power. Also, sunspot activity will be peaking soon. A solar flare like the one that happened in 1921, could cause massive blackouts by melting windings on major distribution transformers. They could take years to replace. Backup generator systems on U.S. nuclear plants are only designed to handle eight hour blackouts.
Clearly, we have underestimated the safety problems of our nuclear plants. Germany and Italy have already voted to phase out nuclear power but the U.S. continues to pump billions of research dollars into failed projects with optimistic delivery estimates of one or two decades.
How did this happen? The nuclear industry is closely connected to the “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned us about. Today’s reactors are derived from designs that were intended to make plutonium for the atom bomb. Alvin Weinberg, who invented those reactors, felt that they were too dangerous so he designed a safer, cleaner reactor using thorium fuel and molten salt. In 1969 he had a working prototype but politics prevailed and he was fired and the project killed. One of the major reasons was that the thorium reactor didn’t make usable bomb plutonium. The breeder reactor design that won the battle ended in failure after several dangerous accidents and a six-times cost overrun. It did provide many jobs, though, in the Senate majority leader’s district. China is now developing Weinberg’s thorium reactor.
Our other big hope for future power is nuclear fusion, which duplicates the reaction on the sun and hydrogen bombs. This grandiose plan is still 20 years from production, just as it was back in 1951 when the project was started. They are still trying to achieve break-even power output. The program has so far succeeded only in funneling tens of billions of taxpayer dollars into major defense contractors and corrupting some of our best research facilities. The richest, most powerful physicists and universities are essentially owned by the nuclear complex.
The result has been that practical ideas for clean, safe nuclear power on a human scale have been sabotaged by the “big science” nuclear influence. Perhaps the worst example was the fraudulent rejection of Fleishman and Pons 1989 “cold fusion” announcement. MIT actually altered data in their failure to replicate the experiment to keep alive their millions of dollars of hot fusion contracts. If this hadn’t happened, we would have probably had practical, clean, small-scale nuclear power 10 years ago. Too bad. We needed it.
The news media must also take much of the blame as they have quietly ignored all of the successful cold fusion replications over the past 22 years, leaving most people (including me till recently) with the impression that cold fusion was an unfortunate fraud. If the press had done their job, we could probably have avoided our current climate and environmental disasters.
Low energy nuclear reactions (LENR) can be clean, safe and sustainable but it will take some work. The first step is to break down the denial in the physics community, the press and government agencies. It is embarrassing how simple and sustainable things can be if we just stop trying to duplicate the sun in a power plant and use instead some of the low energy nuclear reactions that have been happening around us all along.
Many of the elements on earth today were transmuted from other elements by lightning strikes over millions of years. Simple sparking experiments can demonstrate those same transmutations and they don’t leave dangerous radioactive waste. The physicists have denied real physical effects just because they didn’t fit into the theoretical framework they had developed. That framework clearly needs to be expanded to accommodate reality.
Lucikly, Italy has a more friendly climate for LENR. Andrea Rossi has engineered a one-megawatt reactor using powdered nickel and hydrogen. It will be sold in the United States by Ampenergo, which is a spinoff of Leonardo Technologies Inc.
Our energy policy has been hijacked by powerful interests, groupthink and denial. It is time rethink the wrong turns of the past and get busy creating a new world of clean, safe energy that is not based on bombs. We need distributed, human scale energy that satisfies our needs yet doesn’t leave future generations with an environmental nightmare. Nuclear power on a safe, human scale should be a big part of that solution.