You Don’t Have to Talk Turkey Today!

Image result for thanksgiving dinner fight

By Mike Cronin

Are you dreading Thanksgiving dinner for fear conversation will turn to politics and/or ideology and lead to acrimony?  Perhaps we can steer the conversation in interesting yet non-acrimonious directions. Here are some prompts:

Whether we are liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans, or centrist moderates, or fringe Libertarians or Greens, maybe we can all at least agree that we live in the best time in human history, and in the best location on the planet. For example:

Absolute poverty has been reduced by more than half world-wide. More than half of the world’s 7 billion-plus people are now in the middle class.

Thanks to technology, the average American today has a more luxurious life than the elites of 100 years ago. Our biggest health problems are caused by abundance, not scarcity!

The part of North America we call the United States has more navigable waterways than the rest of the world combined. Much of these waterways overlay the central US – the largest contiguous piece of arable land on the planet.  Thus, our country has had a wealth-generation engine built in almost from the start: a vast region of agricultural and industrial productivity with an integral low-cost transportation network.

Generally speaking, we live under the rule of law, the highest of which is expressly designed to protect our inherent rights.  We certainly have differences of opinion, and we often object to what our elected representatives and other “thought leaders” do and say – yet we can still have the debate. When the traditional fora for doing so, such as college campuses and media panel shows, stop offering balanced debate space, new structures, such as the “Intellectual Dark Web,” rise to replace them.  We have a system and culture that, paraphrasing Milton Friedman, makes it possible for people who hate each other to do business and live in the same proximity without killing each other. (Yes, it happens sometimes anyways, but it’s not the rule, and it’s not tolerated).

We draw closer and closer to the day a fusion reactor finally puts out more energy than it consumes.  At that point, the single greatest barrier to the problem of providing clean, cheap energy will be conquered.  Until that day, we have enough resources, including now-profitable shale oil, to be energy-independent – in fact, we will very soon be a net exporter of energy.

Illegal immigration is a hot topic, but legal immigration is one of America’s “secret weapons.” While many of the world’s leading economies experience declining birth rates and aging populations as wealth rises and the middle class grows, a continuous stream of immigrants to our shores help to pad our birth rates and refresh our talent pools.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Nuclear Power, Shaving Cream, and Magnets

By Mike Cronin

Q: How is the nuclear power industry like shaving cream?

A: We’ll get to the answer in a moment, but a little background is in order. According to the video above, the “energy density” from nuclear fission (splitting atoms of heavy radioactive elements, like uranium and plutonium) is a million times greater than from chemical reactions, such as occur with conventional explosives or burning fossil fuels.  A nuclear reactor perhaps the size of your thumb could power your car. Yet there is a huge fear factor with nuclear power because nuclear fission is also the same energy source in atomic weapons, and because of incidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

We needn’t be so fearful.  Check out these facts:

The nuclear energy industry is safer than the coal industry. As of Februray 2013, no one had died due to radiation poisoning from Fukushima.  In fact, despite the deaths that occurred at Chernobyl, the nuclear power industry is the safest of all of the major power generating industries in terms of deaths per terawatt hour generated.  Here’s the breakdown (retrieved from http://www.theenergycollective.com/willem-post/191326/deaths-nuclear-energy-compared-other-causes ):

Energy Source Mortality Rates; Deaths/yr/TWh

Coal – world average, 161

Coal – China, 278

Coal – USA, 15

Oil – 36

Natural Gas – 4

Biofuel/Biomass – 12

Peat – 12

Solar/rooftop – 0.44-0.83

Wind – 0.15

Hydro – world, 0.10

Hydro – world*, 1.4

Nuclear – 0.04

That’s right: even solar and wind energy are more hazardous to workers than nuclear power.

So if nuclear power is safer and more energy-dense than any of these other forms of power, why aren’t we using more of it, and burning less fossil fuels? Cost, mainly.  Because nuclear power scares people, and because a reactor safety failure can lead to radioactive contamination, the industry is heavily regulated and plants are very expensive to build. (By the way, the coal industry releases far more radioactivity into the atmosphere than the nuclear industry!)

But some of that problem is due to the business model followed by the industry.  Power plant reactors are designed to use radioactive uranium or plutonium isotopes in their cores. Very little of the uranium that occurs naturally in the earth is of the required isotope.  The necessary isotope can be made by “enriching” regular uranium through various processes, all of which lead to a very expensive (on par with gold or platinum in price per ounce) final product.  Plutonium doesn’t even occur in nature, but it can be man-made, or “bred,” in nuclear reactors using enriched uranium…for about the same price per ounce.  Both enriched uranium and plutonium can be made “weapons grade” and used to make the cores of atomic bombs. In fact, the weapon industry, inaugurated by the Manhattan Project, gave rise to the power industry as we know it today.

So how is the nuclear power industry like the shaving industry?  Some time ago, Gillette came upon the idea of selling razor handles cheaply, at or below cost, or even giving them away, and charging prices with high profit margins for shaving consumables (disposable blades, creams, and gels).  A perpetual profit engine was born.

Nuclear power companies often work the same way.  They might build a power plant for a utility for little or no profit, but then reap a profit stream via the consumables (enriched uranium and plutonium) end of the business.

There is another business model that might make nuclear power much more palatable to the average customer, if the corporations in the industry could be convinced it would be as profitable.  It involves using a much more widely available radioactive material to generate the fission reaction: thorium. In this model, the thorium would be mixed with fluoride and circulated in the reactor as a molten salt.  The acronym the industry uses for such a system is LFTR (“lifter”). The benefits are worth considering:

Thorium is far more plentiful and far cheaper to obtain than uranium or plutonium

The reactor can’t “runaway” and “melt down” through its own containment – the fuel is already molten, but it’s at ~700 degrees, not the thousands of degrees needed to melt through steel and concrete

The fuel can be used much more efficiently (there would be far less radioactive waste)

A power plant that used it would not be cheap, but it wouldn’t need to cost any more than a standard nuclear plant

The reactor operates at ambient pressures, which means the plant doesn’t need expensive pressure containment “vessels,” such as the ones that failed at Fukushima

There is increasing debate about using the LFTR model in the nuclear power generation industry.  It may or may not be a better system, but to have a chance at replacing the current standard, proponents will have to convince the industry that they can make as much or more profit from LFTR than they can with traditional reactors.  They may get two boosts from unexpected quarters: magnets and China.

Not just any magnets, but strong, rare-earth magnets made from a metal element called neodymium. Neodymium magnets are used in such applications as microphones, speakers, and computer hard drives.  Where thorium may be plentiful and cheap (compared to the desired uranium isotope), neodymium is relatively scarce and expensive…but it is often found in the same geological areas (in other words, a thorium mine might produce some significant quantities of neodymium as well, according to an extended version of the video above). China currently has a corner on the world market for neodymium, and China, and a few other countries, are looking into building LFTR nuclear plants.   Switching the US nuclear power generating paradigm from uranium to thorium might not generate the same kind of profitable consumables stream, but obtaining the neodymium might make up for the loss – and break China’s near-monopoly on neodymium to boot.