Arithmetic: A finite planet cannot sustain infinite growth.
PATRICIA REMY – BWXT and its plans to expand its range of operations have been in the news for months now. CARN (Citizens Against Radioactive Neighbourhoods) and others have been picketing regularly outside the BWXT plant and appealing to City Council to intervene. A change in BWXT’s licence would allow the firm to produce pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods from uranium dioxide dust. CARN’s concerns are certainly justified and their activism on behalf of the community’s health admirable
Let’s not forget the more basic question, though. Is nuclear electricity generation, in any form at all, a sustainable option? To repeat the obvious: We find ourselves smack-dab in the middle of a Sixth Extinction. I refer doubters to E. O. Wilson’s book of the same title. He sums it up as HIPPO: habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, [over-] population, and overuse [of literally everything].
And yet, as a whole we are acting as if we can continue on with our present way of life, business-as-usual. We just need better technology and more sustainably acquired energy. E=mc2 seems to be the solution. Energy unlimited. Nuclear energy will easily provide for a projected population of 10-11 billion humans. With no carbon emissions.
Herein lies the great illusion. Sure, the various nuclear chain reactions are carbon free, i.e. do not emit greenhouse gases such as CO2. Capturing nuclear energy is not. Even if the heavy equipment necessary, the fuel required, and the materials needed to build nuclear reactors could be produced with the energy generated by already existing reactors, problems remain. Nuclear waste is toxic, because it continues to emit radioactivity and because it consists of heavy metals. Some of it can be retooled into weapons-grade plutonium and uranium, meaning that sites of nuclear energy capture have to be strictly secured. (Not to mention the further issues implied by weapons’ manufacture and deployment.)
Let’s contemplate for a moment the scenario of widespread light and small modular reactors. (LMR’s and SMR’s). Keep in mind that the solar farm on Lily Lake Rd makes available 10 megawatts of power, which supplies 1500 households, the hydro dams at Trent and on London St 5 megawatts each. SMR’s will be designed to make available 10-300 megawatts. There are at least 35 different draft plans for such reactors. (Google the Tomsk Physical Institute or Wikipedia for a list).
On Dec. 19, 2019 a first SMR went into operation in the Russian town of Pevek on the East Siberian Sea. Nearer to us, NuScale, a nuclear engineering company based in Portland, Oregon, has jumped through the existing bureaucratic hoops, and had, at time of writing, hopes to have a first commercial SMR in operation by autumn of this year. NuScale intends to fabricate SMR modules, which generate 50 MW each. A 12 pack of such modules would make available up to 600 MW, enough to power a city two and a half times the size of Peterborough. The first plant is estimated to cost US$ 3 billion.
Here’s the thing. Energy is not the only consideration. E = mc2 contains an “m”. Energy provides the force needed to transform raw materials into goods for human use. It can smelt metal and drive heavy industry, It can power the production of computers, refrigerators, vehicles, anything, really, which fossil fuels now power. It can supply unimaginable quantities of heat and light. However, even with unlimited energy, the material resources, m, of the Earth are limited. Someday even peak uranium, peak thorium, and peak plutonium will be reached.
But it’s not just a matter of the fuel required for nuclear fission. Unlimited energy for unlimited production will demand and exhaust other resources of the Earth. Even if iron, rubber, silicon, hydrocarbon products, and paper are recycled, the 10 billion Earth-dwellers foreseen for 2050’s and beyond, demanding a standard of living comparable to ours, will gobble them up. 100% waste recovery is impossible. There will be megatons of rubble, nuclear and other, left behind from smelting, manufacturing, and processing.
Space on this planet is limited. Mile high buildings, artificial floating islands, and vertical gardens will not save us. Where will other species live?
The challenge facing humanity is much larger than climate change and an energy crisis.
Business as usual, the global economy, is based on unlimited growth. There is no such thing! The paradigm based on this illusion has become toxic for humanity and other inhabitants of the Earth.
As a species we face a major challenge: It is spiritual: Live within our limits.