Acton Institute Powerblog

There is No Perfect Fuel

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When it comes to energy policy, there is no perfect fuel. But in these debates, as elsewhere, the imaginary perfect fuel cannot become the enemy of the good.

And for the first time in recent memory, this means that nuclear energy, by all accounts a good alternative for the scale of demand we face, might be getting a seat at the table. Coal, which still provides more than half of the energy for the American grid, is cheap and plentiful, but environmentally and politically costly. And according to Popular Mechanics, it can only be “cleaned” up so much. That leaves a huge gap for other sources to fill.

As James B. Meigs writes,

Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur–dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.

The rest of the piece goes on to argue how we’re really talking about “cleaner” coal, rather than “clean” coal. Remember that debate over whether it was appropriate to call sex with various forms of birth control “safe” or “safer”? We might well see a similar shift in language about coal from “clean” to “cleaner.”

But what about so-called “alternative” energy sources, like geothermal, wind, and solar? Well, as John Whitehead over at the Environmental Economics blog concludes, “…potential supplies of wind and solar don’t appear to be large enough to completely replace oil and coal in the foreseeable future. If that is the purpose, then no, alternative energy can not effectively replace fossil fuels.”

So for the foreseeable future what we’re looking at in terms of the sources of our energy, in the face of growing global demand, is a mélange; coal, oil, natural gas, and yes, wind and solar, all have their place. But so does nuclear, and that’s one of the positive takeaways from President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he commended “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”

The challenging for existing energy firms will be to adjust to providing the right sources in this mixture. One way to do this is to be cognizant of the alternatives and their relative costs and benefits. ExxonMobil’s “Energy Outlook” released at the end of last year predicted that the growth of some of the newer sources, like wind and solar, would grow faster than some of the conventional sources, like oil and coal.

This means that a focus on innovation and efficiency will move some surprising players to fill the demand for cleaner energy, and the vision of increasingly transient reliance on fossil fuels might indeed come to pass.

As I wrote in 2006, “The human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Yes, there is a perfect fuel: uranium and thorium. I have worked in nuclear energy for more than 30 years. I have been on a submarine that could traverse the ocean depths, surfacing only for food and toilet paper, all thanks to a 158 MWth nuclear reactor. I have worked in 1000 MWe nuclear power plants that emit zero CO2 and zero particulates, and whose spent fuel of some 30 years of operation fits inside five or six dry storage casks, completely sequestered from the environment and ready for reprocessing to be used in the next generation fast neutron burner.

    With nuclear energy we can make our own liquid fuels or produce hydrogen to replace imported oil. With nuclear energy we can obviate the need for coal fired power plants whose emissions kill 30000 annually from lung disease in the US alone. With fast neutron burners we can consume all the long lived actinides in spent nuclear fuel, making Yucca Mountain or any other long term geologic repository a moot point. By using fast breeder reactors, we have enough uranium and thorium in Earth’s crust to fuel nine billion people with a level of energy consumption equal to that of the average American for one million years.

    Consider this: The energy in one uranium fuel pellet—the size of the tip of your little finger—is the equivalent of 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil. If you used only uranium or thorium for energy and added up all the energy you use in a lifetime, it would be the size of a 12 ounce can of soda. But if you did the same with coal or oil or gas, it would hudreds of tons of refuse dumped willy-nilly into the air and water and ground.

    BTW, did you know that coal fired power plants that supply 50% of US electricity emit more radioactivity in the form of uranium, thorium and radium occurring naturally in coal than any nuke plant releases? Indeed, Con Ed in the 1960s wanted to build a coal fired power plant next to its Indian Point nuclear facility but couldn’t because the radioactive emissions of the coal plant would swamp the radiation detectors in the nuke plant. I know – I worked at Indian Point for 18 years and I was the radiation monitoring system engineer for unit 3, and the two 1000 MW pressurized water reactors (units 2 and 3, 1 is decommissioned) produce almost as much electricity as the US portion of Niagara Falls!

    Take a look at emission numbers below:

    Coal Plant Emmissions: Pounds of Refuse per 1 MWe of Generation
    Carbon Dioxide 2249
    Sulfur Dioxide 13
    Nitrogen Oxides 6

    Oil Plant Emmissions: Pounds of Refuse per 1 MWe of Generation
    Carbon Dioxide 1672
    Sulfur Dioxide 12
    Nitrogen Oxides 4

    Natural Gas Plant Emmissions: Pounds of Refuse per 1 MWe of Generation
    Carbon Dioxide 1135
    Sulfur Dioxide 0.1
    Nitrogen Oxides 1.7

    Nuclear Plant Emmissions: Pounds of Refuse per 1 MWe of Generation
    Carbon Dioxide 0
    Sulfur Dioxide 0
    Nitrogen Oxides 0

    So what’s safer for the lungs?

    BTW, solar and wind are a joke: no wind – no electricity. No sunlight – no electricity. If wind were so darn great, then why are not commercial ships still propelled by sails? Capacity factor of wind and solar never exceeds 30%, but the current capacity factor for an American nuke is more than 92% and its environmental footprint is miniscule compared to the dozens of square miles of landscape that have to be torn up for wind or solar.

    Yes, there is the perfect fuel – two of them in fact: Thorium from which we can breed U-233, and uranium from which we get get U-235 or with which we can breed Pu-239.

    I have worked 30+ years in the nuclear industry. It’s the safest and best industry in the world, and that is exactly why it is opposed by all the right (er, I mean left) thinking people.

    More nukes, less kooks is what I say. I shall have more to say about safety, Chernobyl, TMI, etc., in later posts. Suffice it to point out that not ONE member of the public has been injured or killed as the result of the operation of ANY Western light water reactor. A Chernobyl event cannot happen at a US plant because Chernobyl was an RBMK – a plutonium weapons breeder. It was graphite moderated and light water cooled. It had a positive tmeperature and void co-efficient of reactivity. No US reactor is like that. The laws of physics prevent a Chernobyl event at any light water cooled, light water moderated reactor. As for TMI – when the worst happens to a US reactor, the radioactivity is contained in containment and the public unaffected. Just look at the gas fired power plant explosion in Conneticut earlier this week. Can’t happen at a nuke. Not possible.

    More later – obviously some education is needed here.

  • By the way, I want to make something perfectly clear here. Obamolech is NOT pro-nuke. Yes, he proposed 57 billion in loan promises to the US nuke industry, but he appointed anti-nuke Jackzo as head of the US NRC.

    Remember back in Bush’s days John Roberts was selected for SCOTUS? Harry Reid had a fit about that and said no. But Harry Reid (who opposes the Yucca Mtn repository and is anti-nuke) had as his science advisor Gregory Jackzo. he proposed to Bush that he’d let John Roberts go to SCOTUS is Jackzo became a commissioner in the NRC. Bush agreed, but NEI (Nuclear Energy Institute) wanted balance in the NRC, so they contacted Pete Domenici (a pro-nuke senator) whose science advisor was Peter Lyons, a pro-nuke himself. Domenici offered Lyons as the balance to Jackzo. Then the Obamination of Desolation got elected. The terms of Jackzo and Lyons both ended early in Obamolech’s presidency. Obamolech renewed Jackzo’s term but dismissed Lyons, leaving an open vacancy. Additionally, Obamolech demoted pro-nuke Dale Klien as NRC Chairman and appointed anti-nuke Jackzo.

    Guys, this ain’t rocket science. The Obamination of Desolation opposes nuke power no matter what he says. Why? I can only assume that coal and oil suppliers have him in their back pocket. What’s the biggest threat to coal and oil and gas suppliers? Nukes!

    Oh, here’s a bit of trivia: pick up an ordinary piece of bitumous coal. There’s more energy in the uranium and thorium of the piece of coal then there is in burning the coal. Think about that. Think about how we could cut down on our consumption of coal if we used that as a resource for uranium and thorium instead of burning it by the megaton. And did you know that a nuke operates for 2 years before refueling, and only 1/3 of the core gets refueled at any time? Coal and oil and gas suppliers hate nukes.

  • Hey, Jordan, is there a way you can give me permission to put links in the comment box? I noticed in the past that when I tried to post links, my comment got moderated out, I suspect automatically. I have a whole host of info on this issue, but much of it is waaayyyy too long for a comment box. It’s just better to point people to the links. Thanks! PWP

  • Roger McKinney

    Thanks Paul! Good info!

  • Ken Day

    Thanks Jordan and Paul. Great stuff. I’ve learnt a lot. God bless. Cheers.