Posted by: Claudio Carbone | 17 March 2011

The free energy dream

Barak Obama just like Silvio Berlusconi: our future is tinted with the yellow and black shades of the radiation warning sign.
Nuclear power is not an option, is a tangible necessity.
Meanwhile Oettinger (EU Energy Commisioner) aknowledges that in no short time countries could get rid of nuclear plants, but that a nuclear free future should maybe be pursued (http://af.reuters.com/article/eritreaNews/idAFLDE72E04O20110315).

Meanwhile people everywhere is scared, dreadfull thoughts are voiced aloud in bars and buses, friends chat about the future of energy. The clarity with which we deeply know that things can’t continue this way much longer, improves every day. Every event from the smallest to these days’ biggest, makes things clearer: the planet is not just rock, it is alive in ways we still have to understand.

The sooner we learn to live with this knowledge, that we are not alone in that we have a planet to care for, the more we can save of our own lives from now till forever. One of the things most people fail to realize is the deep intertwinement between their actions and their future. Perspective is more and more distorted to look like there is never a future to think about, the future is now and all you have to think about is the next five minutes.

But the life we all live does never stop reminding us of our errors and our delusions: bus and train connections, expiration dates, reservations, shedules. Our lives constantly deal with the future, but our rationale refuses to take it into consideration. It’s a change of perspective, of education, of conscience.

From the “me and now” to the “we and then”.

People can’t continue burning trees to charge their shiny Ipads, while cranking the AC to the max, while drinking an ice cold beer, while it’s summer in the desert. It’s plainly stupid.

Just because we can is not a justification in itself, no matter what you’re led to believe.
Those trees you’re burning have a meaning in your life, you actively refuse to comprehend:

  • they harbor animals of many kinds
  • they shelter the land from the sun, allowing for flora and fauna below to prosper
  • they keep the land together preventing slides, erosion and dehydration
  • they recycle air

You’re giving up four things for just one: electricity. Are you sure you can live without those four?
What if you live in a rident little valley, below these beautiful snowy mountains, a peacefull little town.
What if you take away those trees, and some snow detaches and starts falling? It starts rolling down, more snow gives way and it quickly becomes an avalanche. It roars and thunders down the crests. When will it stop? Where will it stop!
Maybe up in the mountains, or maybe below your once peacefull little town. How many of these episodes have already happened?

A nuclear power plant has a maximum theoretical efficency of 50% due to its inherent thermal nature: the carnot cycle used in every thermal plant (gas, oil, biomass, nuclear) can’t exceed this efficency because of all the losses in the circuits. No matter what heat generating means you adopt.

So a nuclear plant suffers from the same low efficency of every other thermal plant.
Then it’s lifetime is given: it can’t be recycled, it can only be expansively decommissioned, that’s to say that its materials are treated to lower the emissions and stored indefinetly somewhere until someone in the centuries ahead will know what to do with them.

Most probably the plant will just be sealed and let be like a monument.
So a nuclear plant is no more efficient then an average plant, it can’t be recycled or improved during time.
But fossil fuel will end sometime. Uranium will too.

Image property of Wikimedia foundation

Uranium Market in 2007 - Wikipedia

 

More: as clearly seen in the picture, apart from Canada and Australia, almost half of the Uranium market belongs to unstable and unreliable countries. This essentially means problems: gas supplies accross the EU are already in russian hands and this has spawned many debates and rebutes from both sides. What will happen if a majority of the energy production would depend on the supply of just one fuel from a pletora of unstable countries?

So a nuclear plant is not efficient, it’s doomed to an inextensible lifespan and an eternity of decay, and it depends on a fuel not so broadily available. And the byproducts and residue problem I still haven’t even mentioned!

Why not talk about the quantity of water it needs? Reactors absolutely MUST be cooled, they don’t have other means of cooling, they are sealed. That’s why plants can only be built near huge reservoirs, either lakes, seas or very big rivers.

Then you’ve built this huge plant, and you dream of using a few fuel rods, and thus power most of the country for years. What if a meteor falls near the plant? What if a crazy man crashes onto it? What if an airplan engine brakes loose and falls on it? Not to speak of earthquakes. Or just plain accidents, they happen all the time every where: what if a safety system fails?

Risks are matters for engineers during design, lawyers and politicians during approval, insurers during building and operation.
But risks are a matter for everyday people when consequences means killing thousands if not millions.
If a suicide bomber ever hit a gas plant it could jeopardize it to the extent of blowing it up. It could lead to fires, deaths, power grid failure. But if a minor accident happened to a nuclear plant, even during a “simple” operation as loading fuel is usually considered, contamination could reach hundreds of kilometers, animals, trees, grass, land, everything in its range. From a fly to a big whale.
To fill the tanks of a gas plant it takes many trucks, some hours and a couple average skilled man.
To fill a reactor core, special trucks with crews of trained technicians to control radiation, transport the fuel rods. These are remotely loaded into mechanical systems that slowly take them into the reactor building. The reactor core is then opened (after active reaction has ceased) and over the course of weeks the spent rods are taken out and the new ones are put in their place. All of this with the reactor seal open. The seal is reestablished once the fueling procedure has completed.

Does it sound simple? Does it sound error proof?
We’ve been using fossil fuel for a century and a half, we’ve had accidents of many kinds, some disasters like sank tankers and big oil leaks. In just 60 years of nuclear power we already have had three severe accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima.
And 26 incidents in all are reported and accounted in this article from Wikipedia:

https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/List_of_civilian_nuclear_accidents

We are not prepared to deal with the long term effects of widespread nuclear usage. We are boys toying around with something way bigger then us, that has already exploded in our hands. Maybe it hans’t hurt enough. Still…

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