Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Super Solutions, the Economy, and the Energy Crisis

Many of us are familiar with a variety of social problems, whether it’s the obesity epidemic, the debt crisis, the energy crisis, the failing economy and high unemployment, the disparity of wealth, or a myriad of other ailments that one might attribute to our general condition. It is an incredibly frustrating time to be politically aware, because we’re all tempted to suggest something that must be done to fix our broken system, yet whatever happens, nothing seems to get repaired. It seems that the more desperate we are, the more conviction we have for whatever we think must be done, until...that point where we are so fed up, we support the most extreme measures.

We are captured by our own experience of reality, so much so that it becomes almost impossible to see our way out of it, and why would we? What worse incomprehensible insanity might lurk on the other side of that fence? Looking over it occasionally reveals enough confusion to discourage any contemplation of conversion, so we rest somewhat uncomfortably back into the familiar. Maybe we’ll display just a bit more fervor to strengthen our team, because bliss surely lies beyond victory.

But the mob is not a genius with a deep grasp of subtlety, but an obtusely frustrated and destructive cancer that must be avoided at all costs. Our general condition is one of preoccupation with the banality of everyday life: trying to pass a class, win a game, find a mate, raise a kid, hold a job, stay warm, alive, and sane, and eat in peace. For those of us who have escaped these distractions, we remove ourselves from the masses, spying from a distance the turmoil that engulfs those who live.

Our journey here has been a long one, where reality is continually obscured by mountains of inconsequential associations. Science is clarity in this precarious landscape, a morass of hard-won generalizations, which occasionally filter down to the masses in some, often distorted, form. If one can imagine the archetypal prodigy who trains his entire life to become a master, one can glimpse the theoretical scientist, those elite thinkers who carefully assemble models of reality, so that we might all benefit. Those ubiquitous hand-held computers are the inevitable result of a fundamental physical insight that is scarcely a hundred years old.

This rather recent method of thinking has had some serious consequences. We have been granted extraordinary and unprecedented perception of our condition. This “Fall from Eden” is widely regarded with horror, while the child-like quality of innocence is raised to the level of virtue. This celebration of naïveté presents a bit of a problem when discussing what goes on in the world; reality is rarely “family-orientated”. Furthermore, the habitual avoidance of mature and disturbing topics fails to train would-be decision makers with ambiguity, tragedy, and absurdity, resulting in an unchallenged “fairy tale” dogma. As this is the normal state of affairs, it is up to the scientific community to resolve the inevitable political problems that have arisen due to the failure of our social systems to adequately provide for the needs of the populace.

Peak Oil and Global Warming have produced the most serious challenge to Civilization yet, forcing us to completely reimagine our energy system for sustainability. The difficulty of this task is such that a great opposition to Science has developed, and now we have two unworkable plans for our future. One involves continued investment in depleting carbon-producing fossil fuels as our returns decrease, that not even the Bakken Formation can reverse. The other promotes “farming” for energy on an unbelievable scale through the use of renewable techniques, primarily solar and wind. Either way, energy will continue to grow in cost, carbon output will increase, and much of what we’ve struggled to build will be lost. This is the decline of net energy.

As energy is the fundamental input to all economic activity, our return on investment determines what kind of diversity we will have. The energy density of nuclear remains the only sensible source to power our society, but current technology leaves much to be desired. Fortunately, we can do far better. Decades ago, scientists wishing to improve upon conventional approaches to nuclear managed to develop a prototype reactor using a liquid-based fuel that demonstrated clear advantages in terms of safety, scalability, flexibility, cost, reliability, and efficiency. Though the program was terminated back in the early 70’s, this approach remains the most promising way to power our economy: the fuel (thorium) is very abundant, the high temperatures of operation eliminate the need for water cooling, the liquid-fuel configuration avoids any possibility of meltdown, it operates at atmospheric pressure dramatically reducing the need for containment, the efficiency of the energy conversion massively reduces the waste produced, and the excess neutrons allows for designs that effectively turn current waste into fuel. With this approach we can synthesize carbon-neutral or carbon-free fuels and fertilizers significantly cheaper than what the market provides today. Water shortages can be compensated for by cheap desalination. And finally, we can affordably sequester a century’s worth of accumulated atmospheric carbon, reducing the risk of climate-related damage to our communities. The drawbacks to this technology pale in comparison to its advantages, and I will not bother listing them here.

Joining the Thorium Race for the development of Green Nuclear is the Super Solution to the Economic Crisis. By doing this, we can unite the public in hopeful activity that will have major positive benefits within a generation. It remains the only way to quickly replace traditional fossil fuel power plants with something uncategorically superior. We will witness a new era powered by ultra cheap energy- this is the promise of nuclear finally realized.

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