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March 28, 2011


Mike Fischbein


If someone posted on racial politics in America with the same level of knowledge as you have on nuclear power, you would, rightfully, dismiss their comments. On what basis, beyond other popular media articles, do you base your statements?

Bruce A. Jacobs

Mike: The salient fact here is more basic than you admit: The large-scale repercussions of a worst-case scenario nuclear plant disaster are far worse than those for a coal, oil or gas plant. I am no fan of these, either, since their incremental planetary impact is worse than that of a well-functioning nuclear plant. The problem I cited is with an accident. If you think nuclear power is worth that risk, God bless you. I don't. Ultimately, the solution is breaking the current coal/oil/gas/nuclear monopoly with safer and sustainable energy sources.


If you want to look at worst-case accident possibilities, you should be campaigning against hydropower. Failure of a large dam can easily cause hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Note that the cause of Fukushim Daiichi accident (which I assume inspired the original post) -- the recent Tohoku earthquake and tsunami -- also caused the failure of the Fujinuma Dam. I believe there are 12 known dead, with 1800 homes destroyed. That was an irrigation dam, not hydropower, and not very large.

You are correct, though, that the best solution is to look for safer, cleaner energy sources. It's easy to that, though, and a lot harder to actually do a little arithmetic (comparing energy used today vs that available from possible energy sources) and make some specific suggestions. The politics analogy would be "We could all just get along." That's also a good idea, but not worth much for implementation.

The only root energy sources we know how to use today are solar, nuclear fission, and gravitational.

Most solar energy uses described as such use current ambient solar influx. Hydropower is also based on solar influx, with the oceans and lakes acting as energy collectors to evaporate water. Our fossil fuels (petroleum, coal, gas) also are trapped or accumulated solar energy. The fossil fuels represent centuries or millenia of accumulation and clearly cannot be relied upon indefinitely. Using current solar insolation cannot provide current energy needs. How do you feel about solar power satellites? They get around many of the issues of terrestrial solar power, including the limitation of the land area surface of the earth.

Gravitational sources include tidal and some fraction of geothermal power. I don't count hydropower here because it's based on solar influx to increases the gravitational potential energy of the water, some of which we recover.

Nuclear fission sources include the remaining portion of geothermal (spontaneous fission) and, of course, nuclear fission powerplants. I'd rather not get into a fission powerplant debate here; there are many a Google search away. Fission plants certainly do have their disadvantages, but so do all the other sources of which I can think.

The two safest and cleanest ways I know of to provide the large quantities of electric power on which we rely are fission powerplants, where you've already posted your opinion, and solar power satellites, which are yet untested and untried, but are at least designable in current engineering limitations. I am curious about your opinions of SPS systems.

Probably most people could agree that the best source of usable energy would be nuclear fusion. Fusion is what the sun uses, of course, and while a fusion reaction emits a lot of radiation while operating, it doesn't have the decay heat issues of fission plant. Unfortunately, we can't quite design or build controllable fission plants yet.

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