The Magazine

Food Riots Made in the USA

There's a better solution to our energy problems than ethanol. It's called nuclear energy.

Apr 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 31 • By WILLIAM TUCKER
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So it is with all forms of solar energy. Those 30-story windmills produce 1.5 megawatts apiece--about 1/750th the power of a conventional generating station. Getting 1,000 megawatts would require a wind farm 75 miles square. In a January cover story for Scientific American, three leading solar researchers proposed meeting our electrical needs in 2050 by covering southwestern desert with solar collectors. The amount of land required would be 34,000 square miles, about one-quarter of New Mexico.

And that's where biofuels went awry. Nobody ever bothered to calculate how much land they would require.

Like many other "alternate" efforts, biofuels can be traced to soft-energy guru Amory Lovins's famous 1976 essay in Foreign Affairs, "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?" (It is still the most reprinted article in the journal's history, surpassing even George Kennan's 1947 "Mr. X" article proposing the "containment" strategy of the Cold War.) In "The Road Not Taken?" Lovins offered the domestic beer and wine industries as models of how displacing gasoline with homegrown fuels might be practical. Noting that the beer and wine industries already produced 5 percent the liquid of the oil industry, Lovins concluded:

Thus a conversion industry roughly ten to fourteen times the physical scale .  .  . of U.S. cellars and breweries, .  .  . would produce roughly one-third of the present gasohol requirements of the United States. .  .  . The scale of effort required does not seem unreasonable.

Lovins's article and his subsequent book Soft Energy Paths were enormously influential. When he visited the Oval Office in 1978 to advise Jimmy Carter on energy, Lovins found Soft Energy Paths sitting on the president's desk. Carter pushed an ethanol subsidy through Congress in the midst of the 1979 gas shortage, and we were on our way. Ethanol soon became a virtual franchise of Archer Daniels Midland, the powerful agricultural conglomerate, whose scores of distilleries around the Midwest now produce half our supply.

But notice that Lovins never bothered to calculate the amount of land that would be required. That's easy enough to estimate. Using Lovins's own figures, it comes to three times the land area of the United States, including Alaska, to produce one-third of our transportation energy needs in 1976.

Those numbers have barely changed. Writing in the Washington Post in 2006, two former enthusiasts of biofuels, James Jordan and James Powell of Brooklyn's Polytechnic University, noted:

It's difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addition. .  .  . [T]he entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7 percent of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of demand. .  .  . And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.

The extremely dilute nature of solar energy ensures that vast amounts of land will be necessary to capture and store it. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, may be bumping up against supply constraints and are creating environmental effects that will alter the earth's climate in unpredictable ways. So what other possibilities remain?

Some early enthusiasts of photovoltaics thought solar technology would be like computer technology with efficiencies and power doubling every 18 months--in a replay of the exponential growth in computing power first described by Intel founder Gordon Moore and now known as Moore's Law. After all, computer chips and photovoltaic cells are both made of silicon. But it doesn't work that way. Electrons have almost unlimited potential for storing information, but their ability to store energy is limited.

But electrons constitute only 0.001 percent of the mass of an atom. The remaining 99.999 percent is in the nucleus. The nucleus of the atom is the greatest storehouse of energy in the universe. The amount of energy released in the Hiroshima bomb was equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. Yet the amount of matter transformed into energy at Hiroshima was about 3 grams. If we are ever going to access enough energy to run our industrial economy without overwhelming the environment in the process, we are going to have to find it in the nucleus of the atom.

The energy holding together the nucleus of an atom is called "binding energy." When an atom splits in two--which happens occasionally in nature and can be induced in a nuclear reactor--some binding energy is liberated. This energy release is two million times greater than any "chemical" releases that come in, say, an internal combustion engine or a coal-fired electrical generating plant. This 2-million differential explains why a 1,000-megawatt coal plant must be fed by a 110-car train loaded with 16,000 tons of coal arriving every day. Meanwhile a nuclear reactor of the same size is fed by a single flatbed truck that arrives with a new set of fuel rods once every 18 months. The energy stored in the nucleus of the atom is almost incomprehensibly larger than the energy stored in fossil fuels or the kinetic activity of wind, wave, or water.

Atomic energy occurs naturally in the earth with the breakdown of uranium and thorium atoms. It is enough to heat the core of the planet to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit and is the only form of energy that does not come from the sun. We could call it "terrestrial energy," to differentiate it from solar energy.

Terrestrial energy is the answer to all the unpleasant questions raised by solar energy, which is why the nuclear industry in this country is poised for a comeback. Safety elements have been vastly improved, revamped plants are making enormous amounts of money, and the nuclear industry is chafing to start new construction. Although nuclear power cannot directly replace oil, it could become the basis of an expanded electrical grid that would support vehicles running on either electricity or hydrogen. It could end our energy odyssey. In light of last week's food riots and soaring world prices, it can't happen soon enough.

William Tucker's book, Terrestrial Energy, which will be published in August by Bartleby Press, can be previewed at www.terrestrialenergy.org.