Future’s Past Technology
Whatever your previous thoughts or conclusions on nuclear power, please attempt to suspend them until you finish reading this post. The assumption that all nuclear power is the same is illogical and has prevented us from transitioning to a fossil fuel free world. Innovation is rapid, as an example: 40 years ago, computers were the size of rooms, and they had a fraction of the computing power that our smartphones have today. Humans are clever and can invent ways of doing things that vastly improve on previous ideas. This paragraph is summarized from James Hansen’s book “Storms of My Grandchildren.” James Hansen seems like an honest man who is concerned about our future as a species and has followed the scientific method to avoid bias and to find the best solutions to navigate the current global situation as smoothly as possible.
Here goes:1 4th Generation Nuclear power is an entirely different type of technology than 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation. Most of the plants in use today are 2nd generation, and the plants currently being proposed by industry are 3rd generation. The difference between 2nd and 3rd generation is that there are extra safety precautions built in so that in the case of a potential meltdown, 3rd generation will shut down harmlessly without human intervention. Similar to 2nd generation, 3rd generation still only extracts 1% of the energy potential from the original Uranium, most of the energy becomes waste that is radioactive for 10,000 years, which is terribly inefficient and helps to explain why there is so much opposition to nuclear power. In stark contrast, 4th generation is a fast reactor, which means the neutrons can move at higher speeds, allowing this technology to turn radioactive waste into energy.
4th generation nuclear power extracts 99% of the energy potential from uranium or from nuclear waste and turns it into energy, the remaining waste is only radioactive for a couple hundred years and it can be vitrified (turned into a glasslike substance) which makes it easy to store and transport. Also, the waste from 4th generation cannot be used in a nuclear bomb, because it is so much more effective at extracting the energy potential of the uranium. 4th generation was first conceived by Enrico Fermi, who was one of the most celebrated physicists of the 20th century. The politicians understood the implications of this technology, and in 1970, in his address to congress, Nixon referred to 4th generation nuclear power when he said “our best hope today for meeting the nation’s growing demand for economical clean energy lies with the fast breeder reactor, the highest priority of the energy program should be a commitment to complete the successful demonstration of the liquid metal fast breeder reactor.” Using only the waste created in the United States by the production of nuclear energy and weapons, we have enough energy to power our country for over 1,000 years.
In 1994, physicists at the Argonne Institute had tested all of the necessary components to build a demonstration 4th generation nuclear power plant, so they let the politicians know that they were ready. Clinton and Gore’s administration terminated the program and in his 1994 State of the Union Address, Clinton announced “we will terminate unnecessary programs in advanced reactor development”. Although this decision was confusing for quite some time, with more research into Clinton and Gore’s affiliations with powerful special interests, it began to make perfect sense. Scientists at the Argonne institute were instructed to not only stop future research, but also to dismantle the project, and they somehow got the impression that they should not talk about it. We could have a nuclear power renaissance in the United States starting with 3rd generation, which are ready now. We should only build these power plants if 4th generation proves to be what the Argonne scientists believed it would be, because without 4th generation, we will simply be creating more nuclear waste that is radioactive for 10,000 years. 4th generation also addresses the issue of costly and energy intensive uranium mining because it would be using the waste from 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation to create energy. Imagine simultaneously getting rid of radioactive waste, while powering civilization with a carbon free energy source. We could decarbonize our economies and we would have enough energy to desalinate sea water for household use and agriculture, which will become increasingly important as aquifers run dry in the near future. As of 2015, a NASA climate scientist said that California has 1 more year of water before we start experiencing insurmountable shortages.
- Hanson, J. Storms of my Grandchildren (Ch. 10 ~ 21:25) [Bloomsbury USA, 2010]. [Narrated by John Allen Nelson]. Tantor Audio, 2009 [Audible].