Monday, July 21, 2008

Nuclear Energy, Terrestrial Energy: WSJ

Terrestrial EnergyIn the Op-Ed pages of The Wall Street Journal today, William Tucker provides as normalizing an explanation about nuclear energy production as I've seen in the general interest press.

If we are now going to choose nuclear power as a way to resolve both our concerns about global warming and our looming energy shortfalls, we are first going to have to engage in a national debate about whether or not we accept the technology. To begin this discussion, I suggest redefining what we call nuclear power as "terrestrial energy."

Every fuel used in human history -- firewood, coal, oil, wind and water -- has been derived from the sun. But terrestrial energy is different.

Terrestrial energy is the heat at the earth's core that raises its temperature to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the surface of the sun. Remarkably, this heat derives largely from a single source -- the radioactive breakdown of uranium and thorium. The energy released in the breakdown of these two elements is enough to melt iron, stoke volcanoes and float the earth's continents like giant barges on its molten core.

Geothermal plants are a way of tapping this heat. They are generally located near fumaroles and geysers, where groundwater meets hot spots in the earth's crust. If we dig down far enough, however, we will encounter more than enough heat to boil water. Engineers are now talking about drilling down 10 miles (the deepest oil wells are only five miles) to tap this energy.

Here's a better idea: Bring the source of this heat -- the uranium -- to the surface, put it in a carefully controlled environment, and accelerate its breakdown a bit to raise temperatures to around 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and use it to boil water. That's what we do in a nuclear reactor.
The likelihood of "terrestrial energy" catching on as popular phrase? Not very. (BTW, would nuclear fusion be considered extraterrestrial?) That said, Tucker's Op-Ed, Let's Have Some Love for Nuclear Power, is well worth reading.

Extra Bonus: The author has built his own site, Terrestrial Energy.org, to promote his forthcoming book and comes complete with a good-looking and informative slideshow.

12 comments:

Joffan said...

A pretty good op-ed, but I tend to agree that the "terrestrial power" tag is unlike to catch on. Perhaps it's just a little too vague. If the continental motion could be harnessed - now that would be terrestrial power.

Maybe we should call fission "Oklo power".

Perhaps then nuclear fusion would be "jovial power" on the grounds that deuterium fusion is what happens in brown dwarfs and giant planets (ie Jupiter).

Anonymous said...

Jupiter doesn't have enough mass to generate the necessary gravity to cause deuterium fusion to occur.

Joffan said...

There's some variation on that opinion... Jupiter certainly doesn't fuse like a star but there may be a trickle of deuterium fusion.

Luke said...

Certainly solar energy would be "extraterrestrial power" - but fusion of terrestrial materials, like deuterium, on earth would still be "terrestrial power".

Jupiter has enough mass to cause deuterium fusion to occur. If a gas planet the size and mass of Jupiter was made of deuterium, then it would 'ignite' nuclear fusion, and it would be a star.

The reason that is not the case, however, is that it is not made of enriched deuterium. Out there in the cosmos, there is no mechanism of deuterium enrichment - all the deuterium is evenly distributed, diluted amongst the vast quantities of hydrogen.

I don't know anything about it, but I suppose it's plausible that there could be a very small rate of DD fusion events inside the heart of the planet.

Joseph said...

I suppose tidal power would be lunar energy.

Joffan said...

I'm willing to avoid the argument by proposing "superjovial power" as the name for fusion.

;-)

ondrej said...

nuclear - supernova power

Rod Adams said...

Can anyone help me understand if Martin Herdon's georeactor theory hangs together?

It sure makes sense to me that fission in the center of the earth is far more likely than fusion in the center of Jupiter.

Of course, what do I know - I am just an English major pretending to know something about physics and thermodynamics.

Charles Barton said...

There is already an alternative brand, "Thorium Power", or "Thorium Energy". Those of us who see the many advantages of the thorium fuel cycle, are, in effect, promoting the thorium brand.

Anonymous said...

Rod, you were a submarine nuclear engineer. No one can contest your knowledge of things nuclear.

Now as for politics, history, Iran, the Dem-onaics and so on - that's a different matter.

Charles Barton said...

anonymous, most of us in the nuclear camp are a little strange. Rod is one of us. Don't mess with him, ya hear.

Finrod said...

Bah! I still like my suggestion of 'archaeonic power' for power derived from nuclear interaction (of either the fission or fusion ilk), although possibly only because it was me who thought of it...

As for the georeactor theory, I chanced to listen to the Atomic Show episode where Martin Herdon was given his say, and a question occurs to me: If the suggestion that protostars have their fusion process initiated by fission reactions in their cores, what mechanism was responsible for initiating fusion in the first generation of stars to form in the universe, before heavy nuclei formed in supernova explosions could possibly have existed?