Saturday, December 13, 2008

Energy and a Broke Country

When countries go broke they run the printing presses to print more money. In the United States money is not literally being printed, it is created by the Federal Reserve System. The money being used for the economy bail out is being created. Not a dollar of it was lying in the all too empty coffers of the US treasury when the crisis broke. I will not point the finger of blame at anyone, least of all one of my Dallas neighbors. Lets just say that some very bad decisions have been made during the last few years.

It is not just the government that is broke. The whole country is broke. Businesses are going under. Not just mom and pop on main street, but businesses that are national institutions. The Chicago Tribune has just gone down in enormous debt. General Motors has run out of money, and will not last till the end of the year without rescue. The banking system would have completely collapsed by now, were it not for a massive intervention by the government. The crisis could have been very easily worse that the collapse that triggered the great depression, and it may yet be.

Individuals are broke too. The crisis began because a lot of people in the United States were too broke to pay their mortgages. Who would have believed that the international financial order could be brought down by some bad Main Street loans in the US. It was! When workers begin to loose their jobs, the loose their ability to pay their debts, and as the job loss increases, more and more bad debt piles up, until the system begins to crash.

Historians say that the Great Depression did not end until the start of World War II, when war time spending made the factories hum again. But the Government started World War II with very little debt. Today the Government is deep in debt.

In this catastrophic financial situation we face an energy crisis of enormous proportions. First we are going to soon begin to run out of oil. That has been predictable for a long time. Secondly burning fossil fuels produces huge amounts of CO2, which will force climate change on us. Even if it didn't there are pressing reasons for eliminating coal fired generation of electricity. There are significant health and environmental consequences of burning coal. People who live near coal fired power plants have significantly more health problems than people in other areas do. Coal related health care costs effects local residents, employeers and insurance companies. In addition the price of coal is rising. Coal exacts indirect tolls on the economy Therefore there are compelling arguments for the replacement of coal in electrical generation quite asside from the possibility of climate change.

It is also the case that many coal fired power plants are old and reaching the end of their useful life, and will have to be replaced. Thus the expense of replacing coal fired power plants cannot be avoided. The only question then is what technology to use. As I have noted the country is broke, and power plants have to be built as cheaply as possible.

Current estimates of the future costs of nuclear power plants indicate very high capitol costs, but the same cost inflation factors that will effect the cost of nuclear plants will also inflate the cost of renewables including solar and wind generating systems, probably to a greater extent. The cost of base equivalent power with solar and wind is very expensive, and future costs are likely to rise with inflation rather than drop as renewable advocates assume. It seems unlikely that a virtually bankrupt country like the United States will be able to afford the expensive fixes offered to thenational generating system, by either reneables or conventional nuclear power any time soon.

I have argued in the past that LFTR technology has a very significant potential to lower the capital costs of nuclear power plants. Mass production of transportable reactors will lower nuclear manufacturing costs. Innovative siting approachs such as under water or underground siting, and recycling old coal fired power facilities can also lower costs. Small transportable reactors can be wildly dispursed. Small LFTRs can be clustered, creating the equivalent of a large coal or nuclear power plant, but with greater thermal efficiency. Not only would LFTRs provide a low cost alternative to expensive renewables base load power, but they would provide a very superior and less expensive alternative to current old fashion and expensive Light Water Reactors.

LFTRs produce little to almost no nuclear waste. They have many attractive safety features, and pose no danger to the public. LFTRs are also recognized by the International Atomic Energy Agency as proliferation resistant. And the fuel for LFTRs cost almost nothing. Thorium is the basis for the LFTR fuel cycle. At present enough wasted thorium sits above ground in mine tailings, to power the American economy for hundreds of year. There is enough easily recoverable thorium in the crust of the earth, to provide the human economy with all its energy needs for millions of years. Thus LFTRs constitute a sustainable energy source.

Thus not do LFTRs answer all of the traditonal objections to nuclear power, but they will do it at a far lower cost than traditional Light Water Reactors, and renewable power systems.

Thus because the United States is broke, it has no option other than to choose the lowest cost post-carbon power system. But it turns out that the lowest cost choice, the LFTR is also the best choice, the choice that will involve the fewest compromises.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The cost of energy is a decisive factor in the wealth of nations. In this epoch of globalization, the means of production will naturally flow to the country with the lowest cost of industry. This cost involves only a few critical variables. Currently, the cost of labor has been a dominant factor in the industrial disbursement equation. This labor cost imbalance has lead to a mass migration of labor intensive production to labor rich nations.

But now the industrial calculus is on the cusp of a kairotic moment. The cost slope of energy is deepening. Soon it will dominate the cost structure of most items. The country that can dominate in the efficient and abundant generation of energy will also dominate in national artisanship. Those losses in labor experienced in our country will gradually slow, stop, and then reverse. The industrial base will revive and flourish. Innovation and productivity will once more rise as the heart of a revitalized nation.

All this is now possible in this time of change if there is the vision to make good choices; to reject the politically expedient, to plot a course that is wise, fearless, and far sighted.

This is a moment when our country is facing a set of challenges greater than any we've seen in generations. Our changing climate is placing our planet in peril. Our economy is in turmoil and our families are struggling with rising costs and falling incomes; with lost jobs and lost homes and lost faith in the American Dream. And for too long, our leaders at all levels have been unwilling or unable to do anything about it. We can no longer tolerate or even survive misinformed energy policy.

Today, the energy threat goes to the very heart of who we are as a nation, and who we will be. Will we be the generation that leaves our children a planet in decline, or a world that is clean, and safe, and thriving? Will we allow ourselves to be held hostage to the whims of tyrants and dictators who control the world's energy? Or will we control our own energy and our own destiny? Will America watch as the clean energy jobs and industries of the future flourish in countries like China, Japan, or Germany? Or will we create them here, in the greatest country on Earth, with the most talented, productive workers in the world?

As Americans, we know the answers to these questions. We know that we cannot sustain a future powered by intermittent and unreliable energy. Not when the rapid growth of countries like China and India mean that we're consuming more of earth’s dwindling resources faster than we ever imagined. We know that we can't sustain this kind of future.
But the truth is, none of these steps will come close to seriously reducing our energy dependence in the long-term. We simply cannot pretend that we can build our way out of this problem based on unreliable wind and solar. We need a much bolder and much bigger set of solutions. We have to make a serious, nationwide commitment to developing new sources of energy and we have to do it right away.

But I know we can do this. We can do this because we are Americans. We do the improbable. We beat great odds. We rally together to meet whatever challenge stands in our way. In the end, we have always picked the right course. That's what we've always done - and it's what we must do now.

Creating a new energy economy isn't just a challenge to meet; it's an opportunity to seize - an opportunity that will create new businesses, new industries, and millions of new jobs; jobs that pay well; jobs that can't be outsourced; good union jobs. For a country that has lost so many and struggled so much in recent years, this is an opportunity to rebuild and revive our economy; to clime back on top, to win again, and to dominate.
We'll find the right ways to use nuclear power and eliminate nuclear waste by using it. And we'll invest in this breakthrough technology that will allow us to move off coal.

This new energy technology has been know for years but never made it out of the lab and onto the market because our priorities were distorted in a dysfunctional nuclear energy business. So we must remove some of this perverted thinking by directing billions in loans and capital to entrepreneurs who are willing to create a new factory centered nuclear energy business and clean energy jobs right here in America.

As we develop these new sources of energy and electricity, we will also need to revolutionize our energy infrastructure so that it can accommodate this new and unlimited source of power, more efficient, and more reliably. That's an investment that will also create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and one that we must and shall make as a nation.

I ask you to draw hope from the improbable progress this nation has made from its very beginning, and look to the future with confidence that we too can meet the great test of our time. I ask you to join a new nuclear generation, a new and vital nuclear dream and in the years to come, to ensure that we will not only control our own energy, but once again control our own destiny, and forge a new and better future for the country that we love.


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