Sunday, March 25, 2012

ALL Power is Really Nuclear Power

Well Almost anyway.  We are getting closer to fusion nuclear power (current nuclear plants use fission).  Fusion has been the holy grail of nuclear scientists for many years because it may turn out to be much safer.  On March 15th scientists at Lawrence Livermore fired the world's most powerful laser, a key milestone on the way to fusion. thanks to the new achievement, a prototype nuclear fusion power plant could be operating within a decade, speculated study leader Siegfried Glenzer.  Unfortunately the fuel pellets they currently use are very expensive, but there is room for hope.

One point I like to make when people wax philosophical about "green energy" is that all power we generate now is highly inefficient in terms of real estate used and energy released compared to nuclear.  In fact most of our energy production is really just releasing trapped nuclear power (with only 2 possible exceptions I can think of).  If you think about it, most types of  energy production today is a sort of  "nuclear battery" - releasing energy previously generated by a nuclear reaction.  For example, when you burn a log on a campfire you are releasing trapped nuclear power from the sun (which is a fusion reaction) that grew the tree in the first place. The same is true for solar, oil, bio fuels, coal, wind, natural gas and pretty much everything else.  So when you start thinking about it, almost all energy is just a form trapped nuclear that originally (or currently) came from the sun.

Why not stop messing around with low energy high CO2 techniques and go straight to the source?  The objections have to do with safety and waste products.  Even with conventional reactors these issues are capable of being dealt with.  For example, if we invested in a few breeder reactors we could greatly reduce the amount of nuclear waste by cross feeding the two reactor types (water cooled and sodium cooled).  But now we're getting closer to a  fusion reaction .  Nuclear fusion doesn't produce long-lasting nuclear waste, and fusion could potentially be used to chemically neutralize radioactive pollutants and has been proposed as a cure to our nuclear waste problem

Oh... the two exceptions I mentioned above that may not be a trapped form of nuclear power?  Geothermal and tidal.  And... even geothermal (heat from the core of the earth) arguably has a radioactive component to it.

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