Archive for the ‘hydrogen’ Category

Kaku on nuclear

May 18, 2008

Michio Kaku is a well-known physicist who is a primary researcher in string theory and the author of some delightfully engaging books detailing the spectacular predictions of modern physics. NIE nuclear notes has some thoughts on an interview that he gave to The Times of India. While the interview and his answers suffer from the problem of lack of time to say something comprehensive that’s typical of such short interviews, here I briefly focus on his answer to the nuclear energy question:

Q: Would you say nuclear energy is the future?

Going for nuclear energy is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Fusion (based on hydrogen) is clean. But fission (based on uranium) generates tremendous waste. Nature uses fusion; for example, allowing the stars to recycle themselves cleanly. But nature does not use uranium, which is filthy. Nature only uses fusion, the power of the stars.

While what he says is strictly true, there are two issues here: firstly, as some have documented, the Oklo Reactor was a fascinating example of at least one time when nature “used” fission. But more importantly, just because nature does not use something does not mean it’s necessarily bad to do so. Also, nature does not have to tackle the same kinds of complex problems that we humans have created for ourselves, not to mention that nature has billions of years at its leisurely disposal to solve them in its own way. It’s probably a self-evident truth that most of what we do in our artificial world, such as the production of synthetic materials for example, goes “against” nature. Nature does not synthesize many drugs for cancer or nylon. Yet we need such things, sometimes for satisfying our creature comforts, and sometimes for empowering us to lead healthier and longer lives. That’s how we have always lived. To this extent we have been going against nature ever since the dawn of humanity; while some of our actions have been unequivocally bad for both nature and us, there’s no reason to stop considering them as a whole simply because nature does not indulge in them. Further on,

Like nature, we should go on without uranium power. I can think of four reasons to avoid nuclear energy: 1. Risk of proliferation: the technology of commercial nuclear energy is identical to what is required to make an atomic bomb — there is no wall separating the two; 2. Vulnerability to accidents and meltdowns; 3. Radioactive waste disposal; and 4. To make any dent in global warming, we would have to increase our commitment to nuclear energy by 10 to 50 times, which is totally impractical. So there is no necessity to go nuclear.

I have talked about point 1 a couple of times here. Every technology is a mixed blessing and we always have to strive to minimize its negative influence and maximize the positive influence. On the other hand, safeguards against proliferation can be implemented; by having multiple layers of security, by internationally controlling and keeping account of fissile material, and by switching to more proliferation-resistant fuel cycles such as those involving thorium. Potential solutions to proliferation exist, and it would be a little defeatist to simply give up because of proliferation fears without thinking about them.

Point 2 also has been addressed several times before. Many scenarios involving accidents are exaggerated; Chernobyl is now pretty well-known to be an anomaly. Meltdowns can be prevented by having inherently safe reactors with many backup safeguards. Even simulations of terrorist attacks against nuclear power plants don’t result in doomsday situations. And finally we cannot say this enough; comparing the risks from nuclear power plants to risks from widespread climate change, carbon emissions, oil crises and the resulting international political and social disruption makes the former seem like a small price to pay.

Point 3 is of course the favourite beating stick of anti-nuclear activists. Kaku is not an anti-nuclear activist, but he should understand and say that the problem of waste disposal is technically nuanced (which isotopes? what’s their physical state? how long would they pose a hazard? would all of them be equally hazardous? what are the risks exactly?) and has more importantly been turned into a political minefield. Without the damage that has been done to it by political scare-mongering, it would be a challenging technical problem, many solutions for which have been advocated. Yucca Mountain is a sound repository. Again, compare these waste issue to immediate problems stemming from oil consumption and the related political turmoil.

And finally point 4 and beyond…

No nation is going to multiply reactors 10-50 times because of inherent dangers. The marketplace will eventually decide, especially since the cost of solar hydrogen will continue to go down.

Why is it so unimaginable to contemplate increasing nuclear capacity by 10 to 50 times? Just because uninformed governments don’t contemplate it, does that mean the problem is with nuclear? One thing is resoundingly true of course. The marketplace will eventually decide. But market forces are fundamentally driven by public demand and therefore public opinion. Blaming nuclear for not making a dent in market share because of ill-informed public opinion is unfair. The fault is not with nuclear, it’s with lack of cogent dissemination of knowledge and consequent action. There is no reason why softer public opinion compounded with shorter licensing times for reactors should not make nuclear competitive. All we need is to give nuclear a good chance. It’s not like it’s not been around at all.

And finally, I don’t know what to make of the statement, “the cost of solar hydrogen will continue to go down”. The day we get abundant, cheap and safe hydrogen for transportation from abundant and cheap solar power will be the day that I will retract everything I ever said about nuclear power.