Fission is Fun! (But What About Renewable Energy?)

June 6, 2004

An eminent quartet of left-leaning bloggers (Mark A.R. Kleiman, Brad DeLong, Kevin Drum, and Matthew Yglesias) have recently opined that the world should wholeheartedly embrace nuclear fission as a viable option to meet its energy needs without exacerbating the problems of global warming and air pollution.*

Judging from the many comments and trackbacks on these blogs, many are clearly wondering:

1) What’s a reliable source of information on the pros and cons of nuclear fission, both as it’s implemented now and as it might most intelligently be implemented?

2) What about renewable sources of energy? How much of the world’s energy needs could renewables conceviably meet? How much could they feasibly meet in, say, the next 20-40 years?

As a PhD student in the Physics Department of MIT, I’m proud to declare: I am vaguely competent to answer these questions!

As an answer to Question #1, I highly recommend the book Megawatts and Megatons: A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age? by Georges Charpak and Richard L. Garwin, which quite nicely is full-text viewable on through its Search Within the Book feature. (Dr. Charpak is the 1992 Nobel Laureate in Physics. Dr. Garwin is a man who almost assuredly has forgotten more about nuclear physics than most anyone else has ever learned. This includes an interesting controversy over whether he played critical but usually unsung role in working out the actual details necessary to make the first H-bomb**—at the precocious age of 23, no less. In any case, in later life he has been an ardent advocate of arms control and of the careful stewardship of nuclear power.)

As an answer to Question #2:

First of all, the above reference by Charpak and Garwin (specifically Chapter 8) is an excellent reference for this question too.

Second of all, the short answer to the question of how much energy could renewables conceivably produce in the very long term (i.e., the one in which we’re all dead as Keynes would say) and how much could they feasibly produce by, say, somewhere between 2025 to 2045 is as follows:

Conceivably, renewables could produce 4 times more energy annually than the world’s current annual energy consumption! However, a complete move to renewables is generally not thought to be even remotely feasible in the next 20-40 years. Rather, in that time frame it’s plausible to think with significant focused investment by the government, major commercial wind power (i.e., annual production of 1,000 terawatt-hours or about 1/3 of the US’s current annual electricity consumption) could be achieved around 2025 and similarly major commercial solar power could be achieved by around 2045. However, if no special investment is made and we follow a “business-as-usual” scenario, one should estimate that wind and solar energy production circa 2025 and 2045 will be an order of magnitude less.

(References for the answer above as well as the footnotes * and **, which will be in regard, respectively, to…

* : the respiratory health problems from coal power which occuring today in the developing world and are only expected to get worse

**: the controversy of who played what role in the design of the American H-bomb

… will alas have to come later since it’s already 4 AM! Sorry.)


One Response to “Fission is Fun! (But What About Renewable Energy?)”

  1. Should We Go Ahead With Nuclear Power?

    There has been a fair amount of blogbuzz lately, about the subject of nuclear power: not the type of power that comes from having really big bombs, but the type of power that is used to generate electricity…

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