Energy in the modern age: what’s the real low-hanging fruit?

The modern energy economy developed in two stages. The first stage, Rapid Urban Electrification, which began in the late 1800s, essentially defined the modern urban metropolis. Electricity is what made cities so dramatically preferable to rural areas as places to live. The vast migration from the country to the city began at precisely the time that electricity became available in cities. It would not have happened without electricity.

The second stage, Rapid Global Energization, really began in the mid-1920s but accelerated and achieved astonishing manifestation across the world during and after the Second World War. It essentially transformed the way humans move. The amazing power of liquid petroleum fuels to move vehicles across continents and oceans, and through the air, made the world smaller. By the mid-1950s virtually all of the features that define today’s world were in place: vehicle sales propelled automakers to the forefront of economic players, and Saudi Arabia was the world’s biggest oil producer.

And there was a third, literally earth-shaking, feature of Rapid Global Energization. While it also involved transportation, this other feature mostly dovetailed with Rapid Urban Electrification. This was the advent of nuclear energy.

What a change in the world, from 1850 to 1950. Nothing has ever happened like that in our history. Here in 2012, it is very difficult for us humans to grasp how recently we emerged from medieval darkness and backbreaking toil. We are actually in the very early stage of a historic transformation. The technological features that shape our lives and that we take for granted—things like 24/7 electricity, cars, subways, airplanes, smart phones, and the Internet—are very, very new in our collective history.

Rapid Global Energization, as a historical phase, is still developing. Its two main features remain ubiquitous cheap oil and nuclear energy. Oil brings convenient, cheap energy to the masses, and nuclear energy, while it plays a somewhat lesser role in electricity than oil plays in transportation, will ensure the masses have cheap, clean energy for the foreseeable future. Oil today dominates nearly every aspect of transportation, and its co-located cousin, natural gas, is making major commercial inroads to electric power generation.

And nuclear? Commercial application of nuclear energy, after the requisite research and development in the early post-Second World War years, made truly astonishing gains in the area of power generation during the 1970s. Ontario Hydro, the giant utility that made my province an industrial powerhouse, went, in the space of a single decade, from being a hydro-and-coal company, to one in which nuclear energy made most of its electricity. It was a similar story with many utilities in other countries.

But of all the energy forms that we humans know, nuclear is by far the newest. The phenomenon of fission in uranium was unknown—and literally unimagined—as recently as January 1939. It was discovered and developed in a very short time by physicists and then engineers.

I should make clear that physicists and nuclear engineers are truly impressive people who have achieved truly amazing things. Imagine: they discovered nuclear fission in 1939 and within fifteen years nuclear powered submarines were plying the oceans of the world and nuclear reactors were making commercial electricity. But nuclear physicists and engineers are not like the rest of us. They throw around with easy familiarity arcane terms that to the rest of us might as well be in another language. Most of us have no idea what they are talking about.

And because we humans had achieved our knowledge of uranium fission by way of a massive military effort to create the atomic bomb, which is literally millions of times more powerful than the most powerful bombs we had made up to then, people since the (very recent) beginning of the nuclear age have been frightened of nuclear energy. And they have been, and still are, particularly frightened of the artificial radioactive isotopes that are the products, through various physical mechanisms, of fission.

For these reasons, and because nuclear energy so quickly became a major, if not the dominant, energy source in power grids the world over, the politics of energy development inexorably led to extremely close regulation of the nuclear industry. The media sensation surrounding the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 underlined the general lack of understanding of nuclear processes and materials. Suddenly, though TMI was consequence-free in terms of human and environmental health, the public—and especially utility regulators and the politicians who write the laws governing regulators—became worried. This led to lengthier decisionmaking through the various stages of reactor construction, which drove up the costs of building plants.

The high capital cost of building nuclear plants continues to be the basic factor that drives decisions on how to add or replace generating capacity in most western grids.

Today, natural gas in North America is extremely cheap. We humans are familiar with the risks of using natural gas. It is a combustible fuel, and fire, while still fearful and enormously destructive and deadly when out of control, is familiar to us. We have lived with the risks of fire since time immemorial.

But we have lived with the risks of nuclear radioactivity for only the most recent 60 years. In the elemental ages’ chart, that is but a few seconds of human history. So, though those 60 short years of experience have demonstrated that it is comparatively easy to engineer those risks down to well below those posed by other fuels including natural gas, nuclear energy is still relatively unknown. It still hasn’t resonated in our primal fight-or-flight brain. We still fear what we don’t understand. And because we can’t really fight it, we flee from it.

I believe that that is about to change. The Fukushima plant in Japan, which melted down 4656 days ago, has yet to produce its first casualty. The media sensation provoked such primal fear of the “generally unknown” that the national governments of some countries made panic decisions to abandon nuclear energy. Other governments, like the Netherlands, looked past the hysteria and decided that a long-term nuclear strategy is simple good sense; the Netherlands cabinet in January of this year approved the replacement of that country’s high flux research reactor with a newer model. The reasoning behind that decision was simple. The current research reactor is near the end of its useful life. The Netherlands needs medical isotopes, sees the marvelous opportunities to export isotopes to other countries, and knows nuclear energy is the way of the future.

Other countries with nuclear projects in progress, like Finland, stayed the course. And still others, like the U.S., saw major new reactor construction projects win approval.

The benefits of this technology so far outstrip those of competing technologies that there is simply no comparison. Nevertheless, the fear factor still makes today’s cheap natural gas look like the low-hanging fruit on the electricity vine. It’s not. Nuclear has the power to save the world.

Gwyneth Cravens wrote a book called Power to Save the World. Check it out; it’s in bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it from her website. Gwyneth is a self-confessed former anti-nuke who feared the technology and opposed nuclear plants. Through honest conversations with the people who are experts in the technology, and a hard-headed re-evaluation of her own fondly held beliefs, she arrived at a new appreciation of nuclear energy. Her book is worth reading.

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11 years ago

Very good reasoned article that ought be first reference when the media is out to grab a “nuclear consultant”.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Maury Markowitz
11 years ago

“The vast migration from the country to the city began at precisely the time that electricity became available in cities”

Bologna, it started around 1760, long before that date. And that’s only the current wave, previous waves around 2500 BC, 150 BC, and 1100 AD clearly had nothing to do with plugs.

“But of all the energy forms that we humans know, nuclear is by far the newest”

The modern theory of nuclear energy was first explored in the 1920s and 30s, largely developed by the early 1940s, operated experimentally in 1942, used operationally in 1945, and went into commercial production in 1954. It is an impressive achievement.

However, it is by no means the newest. The physics of PV were first explored by Bardeen in 1947 and not developed fully until the 1960s. The first cell came in 1954, used experimentally in 1958, the first experimental terrestrial power use in the late 1960s, and the first commercial panels in the early 1970s. Other modern forms of power include MHD, direct-fired turbines, wave power and many others.

“This led to lengthier decisionmaking through the various stages of reactor construction, which drove up the costs of building plants.”

Ahhh, this tired old canard.

Even a few seconds of Googling will demonstrate to anyone that the nuclear decline in the US was in full swing before TMI. It’s long death had little to do with public fears, and everything to do with soaring rates of inflation and interest. If you have to borrow billions of dollars at multi-digit rates and hold it for a decade before seeing RIO, no one is going to lend you the money.

As always, I suggest being careful with your sweeping statements. Your batting average on these is close to zero.