Physical Economic Case Study: Costs of the Failure to Go Nuclear – Part 2

There is no such thing as an infinitely sustainable steady state for an economic process. To exist an economy must continually generate and implement scientific and technological progress. Without this progress an economy will become entropic, drawing down resource supplies and requiring an increasing physical cost to society to produce and provide the capital goods needed by society. Perhaps one of the clearest examples is the failure of the US economy to fully embrace the revolutionary transition to nuclear power. 

Here is part two of a brief, two-part investigation (part one can be found here).


In part one we saw that the failure of the United States to follow a driver program to fully develop the potential of nuclear fission power (as defined by John Kennedy's AEC head Glenn Seaborg) has resulted in a lower national economic energy flux density, and a higher rate of use of a lower-order resource base (coal). This comparison gains greater significance when we place it in the context of the historical growth of the national economic energy flux-density of the United States. 

Measuring total energy use in per capita terms will be taken as a rough, first-order indication of national economic energy flux density (a more rigorous examination would include additional considerations, including population density, among other factors). From 1776 to 1962 we clearly saw that the increasing power per capita is associated with transitions to new energy sources, characterized by higher energy densities (see Figure 1).


Figure 1


Figure 1 – Total primary energy use per capita in the United States, from 1775 to 1962. Population values are from the US census, and energy values from the US Energy Information Administration's “Annual Energy Review 2011.” Original energy values are given in BTUs (or equivalent) per year, and have been converted into watts per capita by this author. 


Dry wood provides 18,000 joules of energy per gram of fuel, and was the primary thermal energy source for a rapidly growing US economy and population for the first century of our existence as a nation. By the time of the 1876 centennial celebration a new energy source, coal, was well on its way to becoming the primary thermal energy source powering the nation. Containing 27,000 joules per gram, coal provides 50% more energy per mass over wood.

As coal provided a better quality power source for new industrial and transportation technologies which transformed the nation, we saw a natural transition from a lower to a higher-order energy source, with the per capita wood use steadily declining, and per capita coal use rising – not merely replacing the level provided by wood, but bringing the total per captia metric to a higher level (from over 3,000 watts to over 6,000 watts).

The next wave of increase was associated with the development of petroleum – providing 46,000 joules per gram, 70% more energy per weight than coal. While the economic degeneration of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s are clearly evident in Figure 1, Franklin Roosevelt's recovery revived the life of growth, and by 1962 the national economic energy flux density was well over 8,000 watts per capita – with wood use having fallen to negligible levels, and coal use in a steady decline.

As discussed in Part 1, by 1962 the next step was clear and well understood: the great leap from chemical reactions to nuclear reactions – with fission power leading the way.

As a class of reactions, the nuclear processes of the fissioning (splitting) of heavy elements, the fusing (combining) of light elements, the total mass to energy conversion of matter-antimatter reactions, and the energy release from low-energy nuclear reactions are all hundreds of thousands to millions of times more energetic (per mass) than any/all chemical reactions. But this is not simply more energy, it is an entire new domain of physical chemistry. Completely new states of matter and new types of reactions becomes possible – which were completely impossible in the prior domain of non-nuclear chemistry (no matter what energy levels were used). For an excellent overview of the qualitative nature of these transitions see the 21st Century special report, Physical Chemistry: The Continuing Gifts of Prometheus and a 2014 article by my collaborator, Liona, “Fusion: Basic Economics.”

In the 1960s fission was the starting entry into a nuclear economy. We can examine what Seaborg's nuclear fission driver program would have looked like in this larger historical context of national power per capita (see Figure 2).

As with prior transitions, the nuclear fission driver program would have brought about the decline in use of the earlier resource base. By the turn of the century per capita coal was to be in decline, and nuclear fission was to provide a substantial fraction of the total energy use.


Figure 2


Figure 2 – Total primary energy use per capita in the United States; actual values from 1775 to 1962, and projected values from 1963 to 2010, as given by AEC head Glenn Seaborg's report to President Kennedy, “Civilian Nuclear Power: A Report to the President • 1962.” The listed energy density for fission (82 billion joules per gram) corresponds to the use of uranium in a breeder reactor (breeder reactors can use the majority of the potential fuel). Typical light water reactors will only use a few percent of the potential fuel (for an effective energy density of 3.7 billion joules per gram – less then the potential limits, but still far greater than chemical reactions). 


However, as was discussed in Part 1, reality was quite different.

As the zero-growth, green, anti-nuclear policies took hold progress stopped. As seen in Figure 3, national economic energy flux-density flatlined and began to collapse. The 1970s saw the onset of a depression (on scale of 1930s), followed not by Franklin Roosevelt style growth, but a slow trickle up – which never even reached the pre-crash level – followed by a further, accelerating decline (see Figure 3).

The cumulative impact of the much-hyped sources of green energy – wind, solar, and geothermal (classified in the graphic as “renewable”) – are barely discernible.  


Figure 3


 Figure 3 – Total primary energy use per capita in the United States from 1775 to 2010. 


We can examine some of these characteristics more clearly when focusing on electricity production alone (rather than total primary energy). The Seaborg nuclear program was to have nuclear fission become the primary source of electricity, with coal and all other sources of electrical power to level off and be in decline by the turn of the century (see Figure 4).

National electricity use per capita was to be nearly 8,000 watts per capita by 2010. 


Figure 4 


Figure 4 – Total electricity use per capita in the United States; actual values from 1953 to 1962, with and projected values from 1963 to 2010, as given by AEC head Glenn Seaborg's report to President Kennedy, “Civilian Nuclear Power: A Report to the President • 1962.”


Again, the reality – brought about by the green paradigm – was quite different. Total national electricity per capita flat-lined around the turn of the century at about 4,500 watts per capita, and has been in a slow decline ever since. Even with these much lower total levels (4,500 watts per capita instead of 8,000), the stagnation in nuclear fission power has led to an increasing use of coal – with per capita coal use (for electricity) 35% higher than was to be expected under a nuclear driver program (as discussed in Part 1). (see Figure 5)


Figure 5


Figure 5 – Total electricity use per capita in the United States from 1953 to 2010.


This is characteristic of a physical economic process of attrition. The zero-growth policies of the green movement stopped what should have been a natural transition into the full-scale implementation of a nuclear economy, starting with fission power, and proceeding into the next stage: fusion power.

Instead, the failure to progress to this higher stage has required an acceleration in the use of lower-order power sources, coal (as discussed here) and also shale oil and gas deposits accessed with hydraulic fracturing (as discussed by Liona last year, "Fracking: Economics of Extinction").

Today, because of over 40 years of this zero-growth program, we have to accelerate the development of even higher order levels of national economic energy flux-density in order to make up for lost time and overcome the effects of attrition. Today this means the rapid development of fusion power, as a life or death priority for the US economy. 

Showing 4 reactions

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  • David Mc Nitt
    commented 2016-06-06 20:26:47 -0400
    Thorium can also be used in a nuclear fission reactor. Los Alamos ran one for 10 years. China is now engineering and building some.
    Highlights of Thorium reactors:
    Less costly fuel: Uranium is about as abundant as platinum, Thorium is plentiful as lead. It is used straight, no need for costly concentration and forming into ceramic pellets.
    Uranium reactors can only get 0.5% of the potential energy, Thorium gets 90.0%
    Fuel is no longer radioactive after use.
    Self limiting, when a thorium reactor gets hot the reaction shuts down.
    Runs at lower pressure.
    Can “burn” up waste from other types of reactors.
    The only down side is that nuclear bombs can’t be made with Thorium reactors.
  • Хроники Афтершок
    commented 2015-09-09 06:00:32 -0400
    Hi from Russia!
    We’ve translated your excellent article and included there –
    One important remark. When you discuss attrition / degradation of low-order energy source, you forget another source – imported energy!
    Actually USA have been replaced “real” energy by “barbarian” economy energy – i.e. when energy / resources deficit has been replaced by robbery & various poncy schemes.
    If you exclude imported energy from figure 3 you will see much more impressive and realistic picture.
  • Bryan Barajas
    commented 2015-09-07 19:40:32 -0400
    The Genocide of the “Green Movement.”
  • Benjamin Deniston
    published this page in Science 2015-09-03 12:44:56 -0400

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