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While preparing to take the SAT (many moons ago) I learned a trick I would like share (again). When faced with list of possible answers that each seem correct on first glance, “all of the above” is almost NEVER the right answer. It is as true with regard to choosing an energy path today as it was during my days as a student. The best choice of our available options is a system in which nuclear fission heat sources play an ever increasing role.

Creating a multiple choice test is no easy task; the authors work very hard to compose the choices so that they can be legitimate measures of critical reading skills, prior knowledge and mathematics ability. For all of the criticism leveled against the genre of standardized testing, well-constructed tests do a reasonably good job of simulating real life decision making – within the admitted constraints of limited time and the requirement of being easy to score quickly and consistently.

Making choices from a menu of options is an everyday occurrence for both individuals and groups. Even countries and collections of countries sometimes have to make such decisions. One of the most important decisions facing all developed societies today involves choosing between several possible energy supply paths. The laziest and possibly worst answer is “all of the above”, but for a variety of reasons, it seems to be one that has attracted a large amount of popular support.

Back in the days of enforced quiet in the SAT testing rooms, it was possible to carefully study each choice and recognize how the chosen phrases separated the right answer from other answers that might have been correct had they included a slightly different combination of words. None of the answers on those tests were being promoted by vested interests who had access to the best loudspeakers or most skilled marketers that money can buy.

The stakes associated with selecting the right answers on the SAT were low in comparison to the trillions of dollars worth of wealth and power associated with the world’s energy markets. As just a tiny measure of the importance of the choices that will be made during the energy discussion, I highly recommend reading Fossil Fuel Industry Ads Dominate TV Campaign. (Thanks for sharing that link, Gwyneth.)

I suppose it is a little optimistic to think that our elected officials will take the time required or ignore the golden opportunities presented by keeping all of the well-promoted options open. It is completely idealistic to think that the advertiser-supported mainstream media will risk offending any of its customers by helping people critically evaluate the menu of energy path options to select the best path.

Aside: Just in case you need a reminder, mainstream media customers are the companies and groups that pay for advertising in order to reach the media’s product – which is you, the readers and viewers. (You can learn more about this truth by listening to the “media assassins” John C. Dvorak and Adam Curry on the No Agenda podcast.) End Aside.

The only way I can see to make correct choices for our energy path is to find a way to convince an ever growing number of people to turn off their televisions, ignore the purchased politicians, and do some deep critical thinking supported with some real numbers. Once they have been through the exercise and discovered the truth about nuclear energy in comparison with its alternatives, they need to use all of the independent media tools at their disposal to promote the fact that an energy path with a strong and growing component of nuclear fission energy is the best of all possible choices.

An energy system built on a strong foundation of nuclear fission heat sources is not the easiest path, it is not the most promoted path, and it is not the path that will provide the quickest return on investment. That is okay, the same things can be said about deciding at age 6 to be the next Michael Phelps, or determining at age 14 that you are called to be a neurosurgeon, or determining that you are tired of leading a country where half of your population is starving because of an ill conceived “Cultural Revolution.”

Here are some objective measures of effectiveness in which fission dominates the competition:

  • Energy density – 2 million times as much per unit mass as oil
  • Emissions – clean enough to operate inside a sealed submarine
  • Abundance – fission fuel sources are essentially inexhaustible
  • Reliability – average capacity factor for US fleet has been near 90% for past ten years. The FitzPatrick nuclear power station just completed a 700 consecutive day operating run in between refueling shutdowns.
  • Operating cost – Average total O&M for nuclear 47% less than “cheap” coal in US (2.19 cents/kw-hr versus 3.23 cents/kw-hr for coal – 2011 from table available at U.S. Electricity Production Costs and Components (1995-2011).
  • Available choices – light water, heavy water, liquid metal, helium, nitrogen, supercritical CO2, Rankine cycle steam, Brayton cycle gas, oxide fuel, metal fuel liquid fuel, zircalloy, stainless steel, SiC, burners, converters, breeders, uranium, thorium, plutonium, above ground, under ground, underwater.

“All of the above” is a lazy, incorrect choice when it comes to energy. It is impossible to overemphasize how important that choice is for the future prosperity and sustainability of human technological society. Can we struggle forward without nuclear? Sure, but how long can we last and why would we want to try?

One last, sort of related point here. Reuters recently published a story titled Nuclear power champions Japan and France turn away that deserves to be read by critical thinkers. I want you to go and read that article carefully, especially close attention to the following section:

But some analysts say that Japan and France are well placed to deal with the results of their decisions.

“Regulators (in Japan and France) are not being irresponsible because with gas generation there is a credible alternative,” Luis Uriza, of consultancy Bain & Company said.

“Japan is already one of the world’s biggest gas importers and is experienced in the market, and France has many options, including imports from the North Sea, Russia, Africa and the Middle East or even to develop its own large shale gas reserves.”

Uriza said export capacity improvements in the global gas sector made the political moves in Japan, France and Germany possible.

“The gas industry made a lot of progress in terms of new export capacities in the past years, so this is good news for new producers in Australia, North America, the Middle East and East Africa,” he said.

In other words, that advisor from an investment firm thinks it is okay for France and Japan to turn away from their nuclear power stations, which employ hundreds of thousands of well trained citizens and burn cheap, emission free fuel. He thinks that move is okay because both countries can replace the electricity produced by those nuclear plants with electricity produced by burning expensively imported natural gas – probably produced by companies with a financial relationship with his employer. That is an argument that makes no sense at all for anyone other than the oil and gas companies and their friends in finance, politics and the media.

PS – It might be worth pointing out that I did reasonably well on multiple choice tests. Without ever attending any practice sessions or taking the test more than once, I was a National Merit Scholar. I credit the love of reading passed on by my parents along with the advantage of having an engineer for a father and an English teacher for a mother.

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