Nuclear vs Solar and Wind. Which Is Better? Should We Pursue Both?

The following email exchange has been zipping through the electrons here at Control. The commenter and the responders all raise good points. I thought I'd open the subject up for further responses.

The exchange began with the following response to Béla Lipták's comments in the Feedback section "Readers Discuss Safety Issues."

This is from Al Rogers.

I was dismayed to read Béla Lipták's reply to a letter in your October 2009 edition of Control magazine in which the writer questioned if the pursuit of nuclear energy was "inhuman."

Mr. Lipták’s reply was inappropriate and extremist. His remarks disqualify him as an impartial voice on the future of nuclear energy and discredit his recent series of articles on the subject. Further they trivialize the truly inhuman acts of history. It is one thing to debate its merits in a rational, scientific way, and quite another to resort to fear mongering. As the editor, I must ask why you published his reply, and what qualifies him and your editorial staff to substantiate such a claim? Have you considered the harm caused by publishing these remarks by an otherwise respected contributor to your magazine?

My professional career has spanned more than 30 years. During this time I have witnessed the unrelenting decline in the industrial capacity of the U.S. I reside in the Delaware River Valley, and as an automation engineer I have worked with many clients in industrial manufacturing. My many commutes up and down the old industrial corridor between Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia metropolitan area remind me of the industrial blight left in the wake of our 40-year experiment with the post-industrial society. As I rode on the pot-hole laden roads and observed the general dilapidation inside the Sunoco Philadelphia refinery complex off Passyunk Avenue this past Friday, I was further reminded that less than 2 miles away sits the shiny new sports complex sponsored by Citizens Bank and Lincoln Financial, our monuments to the bread and circus of Ancient Rome. It is indeed a microcosm of this failed experiment.

After 40 years of de-industrialization, chronic trade deficits have burdened the U.S. with $5 trillion in international liabilities. The U.S. finds itself in the disgraceful position of relying on the savings of poorer nations to bolster its standard of living. It would have been cheaper to keep the manufacturing jobs in the U.S., pay higher labor and capital costs, and invest in productivity improvements to drive down these costs, rather than find the cheapest spot in the world to exploit labor. Much or our trade deficit is the consequence of our appetite for foreign oil. We pay lip service to energy independence, yet lack the will to pursue the only viable choice for our future energy needs.

Of course, we cannot easily import electricity, so we must choose forms of energy which gives us the most potential in increased labor and capital productivity, and thus, a lower future cost of production. The U.S. and the world will have enormous demand for increased electricity and hydrogen capacity if we are truly serious in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. To bring the present world population up to a level of 3.5 kilowatts of electrical generation capacity per capita, as presently consumed in the U.S., will require approximately 15,000 gigawatts of new capacity. This does not include additional electrical generation required to replace fossil fuel consumption for transportation and projected world-wide demand for water desalination.

Industrial economies have evolved from energy sources of lesser energy density to greater (solar to wind to wood to water to coal to petroleum to nuclear fission) for the obvious reason that the potential labor and capital cost per unit of energy produced will be driven downward. A fuel is potentially more affordable if its energy density is greater.

As I've written before to your magazine, an equivalent weight of enriched fissile uranium (4% enriched, once-though cycle) has 2.2 million times the energy content of petroleum and 3.0 million times the energy content of coal. Using Generation IV helium-cooled reactors will increase this ratio by a factor of 60 and improve upon safety, while mitigating waste and proliferation. Perfecting fast breeder reactors will yield near limitless nuclear fuel reserves. How can a retrograde investment in pre-industrial solar and wind technologies be worth pursuing? Neither wind nor solar can provide a reliable base load of electricity. How can they be seriously considered?

Besides, there's a more important reason to invest in nuclear fission- it's a natural progression to nuclear fusion. We need to develop a nuclear energy culture, so that R&D in high-temperature physics will lead to the breakthroughs needed for affordable production of hydrogen, electricity and mineral reduction--a crash program on a larger scale than the Kennedy Space Program is urgently required.

Contrary to Mr. Liptak's prediction, in one thousand years historians will be wondering why the world squandered resources on the folly of wind and solar in the 21st century while nuclear fission, commercially available for power generation since 1960, was temporarily forsaken.

Sincerely yours,
Al Rogers, P.E.
Project Manager
Applied Control Engineering, Inc.
www.ace-net.com
Email: rogersja@ace-net.com

Here is Béla Lipták's response:

Facts are stubborn (as Galileo Galillei and many others have proved throughout history). It is a fact that Uranium 235 is exhaustible. It is a fact that inexhaustible breeder reactors operate with fuel that is directly useable to build "dirty” nuclear bombs, and I hope that it is also a fact that nuclear fusion ended at Hiroshima. It is also a fact that there is not a single, permanent storage facility for high-concentration nuclear waste anywhere in the world and because of the unpredictability of earthquakes, etc., there never will be.

It is also a fact that 5% of the Sahara can meet the total energy need of mankind if we use the inexhaustible and free energy source of the sun. It is also a fact that this energy can be safely stored and transported in hydrogen, (just like LNG) as using hydrogen fuel in space exploration made this technology safe.

I also believe that each of my 1,000 MW solar-hydrogen power plants will have the same positive impact on global warming as would the planting of 10,000 acres of rain forests, while costing less than building the same size nuclear or "clean fossil” power plant. What is also a fact is that what I believe matters little! On the other hand, the facts obtained by building my solar-hydrogen demonstration plant will matter a lot because they will close the type of debates that you are reading here and thereby will end the age of mankind's experimentation with exhaustible and unsafe energy sources.

Today, we still live in the "Energy Middle Ages” and the financial interest of fossil and nuclear energy corporations is to keep us there, to maintain the status quo. This means the continued wasting of our resources on delaying the inevitable, spending trillions on energy wars, on building more nuclear reactors, on deep-sea drilling, on oil recovery from shale/sand and on carbon sequestration. Yet, just as in the Middle ages, this "Energy Dark Age"will also be followed by a Renaissance of an inexhaustible, free and clean energy economy. If not, humankind might just follow the dinosaurs.

Béla Lipták
liptakbela@aol.com

PS: For my detailed design of the world's first solar-hydrogen power plant, see my book titled Post-Oil Energy Technology.

And our Editor in Chief, Walt Boyes, weighs in.

Dear Mr. Rogers,

Thank you for your email letter, which I will be publishing in Feedback in the January issue. I have asked Mr. Lipták if he wishes to respond.

I have known and worked with Béla Lipták for a long time. His opinions are strongly held, and quite defensible. He is neither a demagogue nor an extremist (except in the case of Hungarian liberty) and his engineering work has been impeccable for over five decades.

We permit Béla to air his opinions in his column, and we are very willing to air other opinions, such as yours. There are at least two sides to every issue, and in this case, it seems like there are at least 64.

Personally, I believe that we should be building fission reactors like beavers, because the coal plants up the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers are plainly killing the Great North Woods with acid precipitation from their stack gas emissions, and coal can be used to make chemistry instead of burned to make power. AND we should be building wind and solar power plants just as quickly. Distributed locally sourced power, from whatever source is, I believe, the way to independence from foreign oil, and then they can all go hang.

I am also aware of what MIT has under the city of Cambridge...a working small-scale fusion reactor, which is being scaled up right now in the South of France by ITER.

As an editor, my job is not to air my opinions (except on one specific page, of course) but to make sure that all sides of a debate are represented fairly.

Thanks for your comments.

Now it's your turn.

This was originally posted in "The Process Automation Usability Project." See the responses we got there and contribute with your own here.

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