Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Rest of the Story

One of my ongoing pet peeves is how often I see and hear letters to the editor, op-eds, speeches, interviews and even news articles on an issue relating to energy generation, distribution and use that makes bold assertions without any supplying any facts to back them up. Even though I've worked in the energy/nuclear energy sphere for over 30 years, I must confess that 1) I am certainly not an expert on all aspects of all energy sources, and 2) detailed numerical facts that I might have read or heard weeks or months or years ago somehow get lost in the nooks and crannies of my brain. Sometimes, I find I can recall just enough, or can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation with just enough accuracy to convince myself that something is wrong with what I'm reading or hearing, but my rough memories and calculations are barely enough to convince me, let alone to provide to anyone else to refute weak analyses.

If I can't accurately assess all that I read, I often wonder, what hope does the average person have? How does a person who never took years of math and physics and engineering gauge a claim that the nuclear fuel cycle uses more energy than it produces? (Yes, I've heard that one.) How does a person who is not an expert on transmission grids (count me in that group) assess a claim about what is or is not possible with an intermittent energy source like wind power?

In fact, I would extend this question even to energy experts. I am a nuclear engineer by training, but the assessment of the impacts of nuclear power plants requires far more than an understanding of the physical interactions and the heat transfer between the fuel and the coolant. It requires an understanding of biology, medicine and epidemiology to understand claims of health effects of radiation; it requires knowledge of natural resources and how they are discovered, characterized, and mined to figure out if we have sufficient resources and can extract them efficiently; it requires expertise in the environmental effects of the waste heat discharged into bodies of water. And it requires a similar understanding of the other energy sources to be able to assess the pros and cons of each and to develop an approach that best meets the needs of the country and the world with the least impact.

Perhaps my biggest hope for this blog is to try to find and assemble the arguments on all sides of all issues relating to nuclear power and alternative energy technologies. With a nod to the late Paul Harvey, I might call this "The Rest of the Story." As I stated, I'm not the expert on all these matters, but I hope to find and provide links to, or summaries of, arguments on both (or all) sides of each issue. My hope is to find good, quantitative, analytical arguments, both pro and con. In many cases, though, I don't have the definitive arguments on both sides. In those cases, I will present what I can find, and hope that viewers of this blog can help me fill in the missing arguments.

Some of the issues I'd like to tackle include:
• Health effects around nuclear power plants
• Safety of nuclear power plants
• The above question on net energy generation from nuclear power plants (and consequently, of carbon emissions)
• Water use by nuclear power plants
• Limitations of uranium resources
• Proliferation potential of nuclear power plants
• Cost of future nuclear power plants

For some of these issues, it is difficult to find information that is unbiased and reliable. This is particularly true for projections, such as future costs, where reasonable people can disagree on the extent to which past experience is applicable. As I develop some of these topics, I will hope for some inputs from people who have appropriate expertise.

In addition, from time to time, I hope to subject other energy sources to similar analysis. I have already provided an example of an allegation that wind may have potential health effects. Other issues have also been raised, particularly with respect to wind, but also with respect to other "renewable" energy sources. For wind alone, potential topics that I'd like to explore more include:

• Health effects of wind generators (as previously discussed)
• Potential impacts of wind generation on weather "downstream"
• Other environmental effects of wind generators (as bird and bat kills)
• Amount and distribution of wind generation capacity and/or storage capacity necessary to make wind a "baseload" resource
• Potential cost of such a resource
• Costs and other implications of offshore location of windmills
• Implications of widespread wind generation on grid management and technology
• Tracking of ongoing legislation and regulation restricting siting of windmills

Likewise, I hope to explore the issues associated with solar generators (land use, water use, costs, impacts on the grid, and generation of toxic byproducts of semiconductor fabrication are some I have heard about), of "clean coal" (where feasibility of the carbon extraction technology, costs, and potential long-term viability of the sequestration technologies are all important issues), of energy efficiency (how much is possible, what are the downsides--disposing of mercury light bulbs, buildup of radon and other toxic chemicals in well insulated rooms), and of ethanol (potential concerns about impact on food production, climatic effects of soil erosion).

For all of these, I will need outside help even more than on the nuclear topics, so I will be welcoming any experts who can supply credible information.

I will begin in the next week or so with one of the nuclear topics, and will bring up a topic from time to time as I gather the needed information. I will try to bring together the most credible resources I can find.

In the meantime, I hope to continue to cover other topics as well as items come to my attention.

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