Tucker’s Terrestrialism and the Technology of Modernity
“The release of energy from splitting a uranium atom turns out to be 2 million times greater than breaking the carbon-hydrogen bond in coal, oil or wood. Compared to all the forms of energy ever employed by humanity, nuclear power is off the scale. Wind has less than 1/10th the energy density of wood, wood half the density of coal, and coal half the density of octane. Altogether they differ by a factor of about 50. Nuclear has 2 million times the energy density of gasoline. It is hard to fathom this in light of our previous experience. Yet our energy future largely depends on grasping the significance of this differential. “
- William Tucker, excerpted from his lecture, Understanding E=MC2
William Tucker has powerfully explained how the future of technologically advanced civilizations depends upon a sophisticated ability to convert the highest energy densities into increasingly denser power performance, and in the process compacting the time and space necessary to do productive work.
In fact, Tucker wrote an excellent book about this, Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Energy Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey. In light of the excerpt from that book recently posted at Master Resource, I thought readers of this forum might find my review from two years ago (see below) of interest, particularly if they have not yet read Tucker’s book.
The Primacy of Energy Density
Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel has demonstrated that the trend in energy usage continues along a decarbonizing trajectory. Improvements in technology combined with a communal desire to live longer and more healthfully have spurred this phenomenon. Given a choice, who wants to live in a town where thousands of chimneys cast off carbon by-products like sulfuric smoke and soot? Civilization will continue decarbonizing apace, whether this aligns with climate change alarmism, or not.
Connected to Ausubel’s idea is Vaclav Smil’s credible proposition that there is a fundamental societal chain reaction cascade involved with discovering energy densities, which then produce greater power densities, each generation of which leads to even greater energy/power densities, in ways similar to that described by Moore’s Law.
For the last 150 years, we have briskly moved beyond wood and wind, fire and horses to harness the energy within the electro-magnetic force that, among other things, generates electricity, which development continues and will become crucially important as science hones in on advancing the potential of nanotechnologies and the capacity of quantum computing, making our digital world seem quaint.
But to really get at energy densities that will empower planetary and interplanetary work, which is what the future will demand, we’ll require the energy of the greatest force we know, the strong nuclear force, the one that binds together the nucleus of atoms.
Of course, this initiative is well on its way, beginning with Einstein and Bohr more than a hundred years ago, continuing through the Manhattan Project, and made manifest contemporaneously by many nuclear power stations for the production of electricity, here and abroad. But…
There are those who think nuclear power, with its vast density, is far too dangerous for the likes of mortals to use responsibly, similar to how the Greek gods felt about giving humanity fire. This has resulted in tightly bounding the Prometheus of nuclear technology in chains of such onerous regulation that the cost of the technology, in time and dollars, has, de facto, become prohibitive. It has also produced a quavering political atmosphere in the US that prompted President Jimmy Carter to outlaw the reprocessing of nuclear waste material, leading both to large stockpiles of the stuff that would otherwise not exist and recurrent political finger pointing about where and how to store it.
The nuclear industry does itself no favors when it nonsensically insists, for reasons of cupidity and political correctness, that renewables like wind are respectable players in the energy marketplace. For this idea gives succor to those who so dislike nuclear they would substitute wind for it, as is now the case with Angela Merkel’s Germany—a palpably bizarre outcome, where the German Colossus now seeks to be powered by the mythic giants of Spain’s greatest work of fiction, at a conservative cost of trillions of euros.
Recent events have only added to nuclear’s woes. New techniques for extracting Marcellus shale deposits have substantially reduced the cost of natural gas, leading to prices as low as $3 MMBtu. Many economists believe such a price leaves nuclear uncompetitive as a baseload source of power for electricity—despite having a national capacity factor approaching 95%.
And then there’s the Fukushima debacle. Although there are many who think the Fukushima nuclear event was a grand success story for the technology, because…
—Despite enduring one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, eventuating in one of the worst tsunamis ever to hit Japan; despite decades of administrative dimwittery by Japanese nuclear bureaucrats; despite efforts by melodramatic media reports and fear mongering politicians; despite loopy projections from a medical journal that tied over 14,000 U.S. deaths to the Fukushima reactor (talk about bad science)—the Japanese Government, after screening over 160,000 people in the general population through March 2011 for radiation exposure, found no cases that affected overall health. None.
Virtually all the nearly 16,000 confirmed Japanese deaths were caused by the earthquake and tsunami. The Fukushima plant itself was antiquated and in need of upgrades—but no one wanted to spend the money. Still, radiation levels from the incident may prove not at all deleterious for people who were evacuated from the affected region and who wish to return.
Here in the U.S., the nation’s largest electricity grid, the PJM, has used nuclear power for nearly 40 percent of its electricity for many decades, without incident, or even much threat of incident. The US Navy’s nuclear fleet is the envy of the world.
Nonetheless, a climate of fear and new extraction techniques for energy densities appropriate for most contemporary power demand, leading to cheaper competitive fuels, will keep nuclear advances at bay for a time, at least in large parts of the West and certainly in the US.
This situation won’t last. At the time I wrote my review of Tucker’s book, natural gas was relatively expensive, for a variety of reasons, some of it even related to the market. Shale gas is a game changer today. Nonetheless, in the longer term, I don’t think it will appreciably modify the ultimate lure of nuclear, given its vast energy density, so many times greater than oil.
Moreover, it’s unclear how long natural gas prices will remain at these present low levels. And it’s uncertain how long the supply will last. Perhaps another generation or so. Perhaps another century. It will eventually be depleted.
The mining of energy density is what produces greater power density machines, as was the case for coal, gas, and oil. This tandem will cascade very rapidly in the future, creating new expectations for power that can only be met by increasingly higher power density machines, which can only be fueled by increasingly higher density energies, etc.
As Tucker explains, the highest energy densities are found in an atomic nucleus via the strong force. Solar derivatives like fossil fuels and hydro will likely continue to provide the bulk of our power density needs for several generations to come. However, although the energy densities here complement the energy densities from various chemical reactions (rockets to the moon, for example), they still pale beside those of the strong force.
Breakthroughs for safer deployment of nuclear power will not be long in coming, though, whether they’ll be in the form of enhanced thorium reactors, which would do away with uranium or plutonium, or smaller, modular “micro” nuclear plants delivering about a third of the installed capacity of current units working at scale. There are already many designs for improved fast breeder reactors. Tucker provides a sampling of the possibilities. Both China and India remain committed to a nuclear future and continue to invest in research and development that may soon lead to safer fission processes.
If past is prologue, what the world of the future will want is greater prosperity enabled by the highest power densities. To obtain that prosperity, culture will fabricate responsive and increasingly interactive machines powered by high-energy concentrates. Sooner than later, technology will cross a threshold of expectations that only nuclear power can meet, accelerating at warp speed the ability to do more work in less time in smaller spaces. More power means greater productivity.
Which means more clothing, food, and shelter for the entire world. It also means future Mona Lisas created by people now mired in bone-crushing poverty, as well as the exploration for Martian water. And more time to sip new blends of lunar coffees while discussing Zeno’s Paradox.
Award-winning journalist Bill Tucker begins this important book with a fair-minded review of the evidence that human activity is contributing to the greenhouse effect implicated in accelerating the warming of the earth. He concludes that, while the science remains provisional and somewhat equivocal, annually dumping 30 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere is likely to have some impact on climate—enough for reasonable people to be sufficiently alarmed about the practice to want it stopped, or substantially reduced. How to achieve this goal effectively while enhancing, even extending, technology that preserves the energy requirements of modernity is the subject of the book.
Energy enables modern society by heating our homes and businesses, providing for vast transportation systems, and producing electricity. Transportation, mostly in the form of automobiles, produces over 30% of our nation’s CO2 emissions. Consumption of electricity accounts for 39% of all energy use in the United States, which includes nearly a third of the energy produced for heating and a tiny fraction now involved in transportation. However, because more than 70% of the power for electricity comes from the burning of fossil fuels, with 50% from coal alone (20% from natural gas, 2.5% from petroleum), electricity production emits 36% of all the greenhouse gasses humans dump into the atmosphere, with coal-fired plants contributing 30% of the total.
Only two of the five conventional power sources, hydro and nuclear, produce “clean” power, emitting no CO2. As Tucker documents, though, hydro, perhaps the most effective of all power sources and still generating 7% of the nation’s electricity power, has already developed most of the best hydro sites while fomenting significant environmental damage, with each dam typically degrading hundreds of miles of sensitive watershed habitat.
The Sierra Club has opposed hydro for most of its existence because of this reason, with its founder, John Muir, fulminating about the aesthetic loss to his valley when the redoubtable Hetch Hetchy Dam was built nearly a hundred years ago. Nuclear plants, which provide 20% of the nation’s electricity, also produce at high levels without polluting the environment, but fears about radioactivity and the storage of waste material, not to mention the possibility that nuclear materials may be diverted for terrorist purposes, have given the industry such a problematic reputation that no new nuclear facilities have been built in the country for nearly thirty years.
The ten electricity grids that produce and transmit electricity in the continental US are mandated to provide reliability at affordable cost with high security. Electricity demand is today very predictable, always existing at some basic level, atop of which, as human activity ebbs and flows, mid and peak demand levels occur; each demand cycle also contains continuous demand fluctuations, as people and businesses turn their appliances on and off. Grid operators match power with demand at a better than 99% accuracy, dispatching heavy duty generators like nuclear, large coal, and, where it is abundant, hydro, to engage basic demand (which consists of about 40%-50% of a day’s electricity consumption), then deploying highly reliable but smaller units to meet mid and peak demand periods, as well as rapidly-responsive generators to balance demand flux.
Terrestrial Energy is a marvelously told tale presenting the ineluctable case for expanding the role of electricity to more than 50% of our total energy use, with nuclear as the primary supplier for basic demand, replacing coal—in the process substantially reducing our production of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants. Tucker shows this is no fantasy, since France (and Sweden) has for years harnessed nuclear for this purpose, giving France the second-lowest level of CO2 emissions in Europe (Sweden is first). With clean burning nuclear providing much of our electricity, battery-powered automobiles (assuming significant future improvements in their performance) and other transport can simply be recharged by plugging into the grid, thus also avoiding the CO2 from our present fleet of internal combustion engines.
Tucker not only demonstrates how nuclear facilities achieve stunning performance, given that nuclear energy is two million times more potent than the energy contained in fossil fuels, which are in turn exponentially more powerful than renewable fuels; he also demythologizes the nattering, well-intentioned concerns about their safety. He summons the ghost of Carl Sagan: we’re all “star stuff,” with radioactive heat forged in supernova explosions, then settling over everything, including our own sinew, providing Earth’s internal heat that makes life on earth possible. He shows that radioactivity is as natural as air, and that radiation is merely energy in motion—it’s all around, and coursing through us every second. The issue of concern is one of dosage.
To determine “safe” levels, Tucker examines the effects of the accidents at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, and looks at epidemiological studies in the wake of the nuclear bombing of Japan, providing sober context for understanding, from a scientific perspective, what the health risks for nuclear really are. Even more intriguing, he cites several studies focusing upon hormesis—the idea that chronic low doses of radiation are beneficial, stimulating the immune system. As for “waste” material, Tucker proves the concern is a bagatelle, for nuclear fuel can be almost wholly reprocessed, as France does it.
For those seeking a preview about what the next several years may bring in terms of energy policy, go directly to Chapter 15, “The California Electrical Crisis.” California’s penchant for “renewables” mirrors the interest in those technologies today. Despite over 15,000 huge wind turbines and massive investments in solar technology, “the state found itself in the midst of an electricity shortage in 2000—something no other advanced nation has ever experienced.”
One consequence of more than 25 years of emphasizing renewables and conservation, following that coquettish pied piper of “soft energy,” Amory Lovins, is that Californians now pay among the highest prices for electricity in the nation, getting 41% of their electricity from expensive natural gas, while continuing to increase their carbon emissions. Tucker’s account ought to be the basis of a screenplay for a Monty Python full-length feature, with enough incompetence, venality, and wishful thinking to make the novelist/essayist Tom Wolfe happy.
Even in the United States of Amnesia, it should be enough to provide a lesson in precisely what not to do in the quest for an effective energy policy that drastically reduces CO2.
Tucker could have been clearer about the limitations of today’s mainline “renewables”: wind and solar. Wind especially. For it’s incompatible with demand cycles, typically producing most when demand is least; its relentless skittering destabilizes the grid, making conventional generators work harder to balance it, with thermal consequences that largely subvert any CO2 emissions offsets induced by wind energy; and it produces no effective capacity–prescribed levels of energy on demand–with the consequence that it can never take the place of any reliable conventional generators that do produce effective capacity, including coal. All conventional generators produce their rated capacities, or a desired fraction thereof, when dispatched to do so.
However, no one can be sure of how much wind (or solar) will be available at any future time. Neither wind nor solar can satisfy base or peaking demand, since they’re not dispatchable or dependable.
Any journalist who these days can gracefully weave together an accurate account of the reciprocal nature of the speed of energy (radiation), matter, time, and distance with Huber and Mills’ laws of efficiency deserves the greatest respect. He also makes use of such cultural treasures as Blondie at Tudbury’s and Jubilation T. Cornpone. Terrestrial Energy is an honest, even wise, undertaking in the best tradition of journalism in a democracy, for successful democracy insists upon an informed citizenry. It’s at risk when leaders base policy on hot air and hokum, as the recent California energy history suggests.
Those concerned about a better energy future should recommend this book to all in their circle, presenting it as well to politicians, policy wonks, environmental leaders, and media representatives. Three cheers for Bill Tucker.