Sunday, November 21, 2004

You Never Miss The Water ...

Part of the problem with what passes for energy policy in this country is that so little real thought has been given to what is liable to happen when the oil runs out.

Not that it actually has to run out for all sorts of interesting things to happen. A large fraction of the world's easily available oil lies under the territory of people who hate our guts. Let's leave aside for the moment the issue of whether or not they have good reasons for doing so. It is sufficient for us to note that they would, in fact, greatly enjoy making balloon animals out of our intestines.

That said, let us make the logical observation that it is probably a poor idea for so much of our energy economy to be dependent on the good will of people who hate us.

But here's the problem: in order to get off of foreign oil, we have to find something that will replace oil watt for watt and erg for erg. There are two realistic answers, one short-term and the other long-term. The ugly truth is that real energy independence is liable to mean embracing something the environmental Left has spent a lot of time demonizing: nuclear power.

Mind you, there's a lot wrong with the nuclear power industry in this country. But I do believe that those problems can be ameliorated, if care is taken in planning and execution.

The first step, task the Navy with the job of designing and certifying ONE land-based nuclear power reactor for civilian power generation. This design will be pre-certified for all of the reasonable environmental conditions to be had in the United States. The Navy has had about a half-century's experience with shipboard nuclear reactors. For the most part, Navy veterans do not glow in the dark. One would assume that (a) the Navy has had a lot of time to perfect their technique and expertise, and (b) that designing and building a reactor that does not have to move around is easier than designing and building one that does.

The second step is to build these all over the place. No new oil-fired plants will be certified, ever. These will take their place. The need is two-fold: first, to replace the generating capacity currently filled by oil-fired plants; second (and probably more importantly) to supply the grid with enough power to juice up electric cars to replace the gasoline-powered cars currently on the road. That's one issue we currently have regarding batteries or fuel cells for automobiles. There just isn't enough generating capacity to support an instant conversion to electric motor technology. But if we start beefing up the grid, the generating capacity will be there by the time the electric cars are there.

As to the issue of radioactive waste ... It's not as much of an issue as some would like you to believe. Short-term waste and long-term waste need to be handled differently. Short-term waste consists of isotopes with short half-lives, which tend to be more energetically radioactive. The best way to handle that sort of stuff is just to keep it far away from population centers, and out of the ground water. After a few years, it becomes like long-term waste. That consists of isotopes with long half-lives, which tend not to be so energetically radioactive. They emit mostly alpha and beta particles, which can be stopped with a quarter-inch of steel. So: grind up the long-term waste, and seal it in glass or ceramic, which will keep it from reacting chemically with any water it comes in contact with. Then, seal it in a steel drum, and store it in a deep hole somewhere.

That's the short-term energy solution. Long-term, you'd like to have something that doesn't generate quite so much nuclear waste. The long-term plan is to devote enough resources to bring Inertial Confinement Fusion technology to practical fruition. The problems involved in doing so are mostly of a technological nature. We don't have to develop any new physics to make it work, just a few bits of new technology here and there. It's an engineering problem, not a science problem; the sort that can be solved just about any time we really care to.

Once that problem's cracked, we're golden. Gasoline, fuel oil, and diesel require access to oil, which has the source problem we started with. On the other hand, to make lithium deuteride -- one possible ICF fuel -- all you need are rocks and water. We got plenty of both.

If we start now, we've got the expertise, knowledge, and resources to think and work our way out of the fix we find ourselves in. The longer we wait, the fewer our options will be, and the nastier those options will get.

Besides, wouldn't it be simply glorious to be able to tell those primitive cretins what we really think, and then be able to tell them to drink their damn oil?

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