Skip to main content

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.

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?

Popular posts from this blog

Knowing What You’ve Got Before It’s Gone in Nuclear Energy

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior director of policy analysis and strategic planning at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

Nuclear energy is by far the largest source of carbon prevention in the United States, but this is a rough time to be in the business of selling electricity due to cheap natural gas and a flood of subsidized renewable energy. Some nuclear plants have closed prematurely, and others likely will follow.
In recent weeks, Exelon and the Omaha Public Power District said that they might close the Clinton, Quad Cities and Fort Calhoun nuclear reactors. As Joni Mitchell’s famous song says, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
More than 100 energy and policy experts will gather in a U.S. Senate meeting room on May 19 to talk about how to improve the viability of existing nuclear plants. The event will be webcast, and a link will be available here.
Unlike other energy sources, nuclear power plants get no specia…

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…