The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
By Harry Braun
President Bush deserves credit for focusing on hydrogen energy in his recent State of the Union Address. Many people are understandably confused about the bewildering array of alternative energy sources, and President Bush has correctly focused on hydrogen, which is the only pollution-free combustion fuel that can permanently make the U.S. energy independent of not only imported oil, but of all fossil and nuclear systems.
Instead of a “Clean” Hydrogen Initiative that would involve mass-producing wind and other solar technologies for large-scale hydrogen production, the Bush Administration is focusing on developing the “Dirty” Hydrogen options, which include extending the life of existing nuclear plants and building a new generation of fossil fuel and undeveloped nuclear plants. Such policies will not solve the more fundamental energy problem of being addicted to highly polluting and non-renewable energy sources. While coal is the most abundant fossil fuel in America, if it were to be used on a scale to displace oil and natural gas, the 250-year supply would be exhausted in about 30-years, and the environmental damage from the massive amounts of strip mining would be devastating.
The hydrogen now used in industry to make rocket fuel, gasoline, plastics, semiconductors, and a wide range of other products -- comes from natural gas, whose price has tripled in the last year because supplies are unable to keep up with demand. And there is no end in sight. Virtually every new power plant that has been built in the U.S. in the last decade operates on natural gas, and while it is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, its extraction devastates ranchers land and water resources --not to mention their former quite and rustic lifestyles that now must deal with fleets of 18-wheeler trucks and compressor stations that roar like jet engines 24-hours a day. All of this for a rapidly diminishing supply of natural gas.
Since hydrogen can be made from water with any source of electricity, that means electricity generated from nuclear plants can be used. Indeed, making hydrogen significantly improves the economics of the power plant because all of the off-peak power can be used to make hydrogen. The problem is that this approach results in even more radioactive waste being generated, and increases the chances of a serious accident occurring, which would absolutely and permanently devastate any surrounding community that is downwind.
Radioactive wastes are particularly nasty because they are invisible to our senses, they have been shown be virtually impossible to contain for very long, because they soon make the container radioactive. If water is present, the radioactive isotopes spread even faster, like a drop of red dye placed into water. Radioactive particles indiscriminately attack humans and other animals on a fundamental molecular level. The effect on living tissue is horrific, as the radioactive particles fundamentally destroy the complex molecular structure of living organisms. The passage of such particles leaves the city of the cell in ruins. Their entry hole is small, but their exit hole is spectacular.
While the industry likes to mention the certain wastes that will need to be isolated from the natural environment for 10,000 years, they never mention radioactive isotopes such as Neptunium 237 or Cesium 135, which must be isolated for over 20 million years. And who is responsible for paying for storing these wastes for such incomprehensible amounts of time? It will not be the nuclear industry, but the American taxpayers for thousands of centuries into the future. The nuclear wastes that are now being stored (outside the containment structures) are rapidly filling up the swimming pools that were not intended for long-term storage. This is because no state wants to become the permanent home of a nuclear waste deathcamp – and for good reason.
An even more immediate concern is that the Bush Administration has quietly re-licensed old nuclear plants that would have otherwise been decommissioned. There are important reasons to decommission nuclear plants as soon as possible, because the longer a nuclear plant operates, the more radioactive it becomes. All of the internal components become increasingly radioactive, and after years of operation, significant amounts of corrosion and even radioactive dust accumulates in critical areas of reactor systems where humans are unable to go and service.
According to a confidential report that was leaked to The New York Times (November 20, 2002), the highly secretive nuclear industry’s internal oversight group has warned utilities that “a focus on production over safety had endangered an Ohio reactor and could be a broader problem around the nation.” The corrosion at the Ohio reactor, which was discovered by accident last March, had eaten away 70 pounds of steel, leaving less than an inch before the reactor vessel would have failed. Even the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has raised the issue that deregulation has effectively allowed owners of nuclear power plants to keep reactors when they should have been shut down for maintenance. Given this trend, it is only a question of time before a catastrophe occurs.
If that were not bad enough, the primary fuel for the existing nuclear plants is uranium 235, which, like fossil fuels, is another non-renewable and rapidly diminishing resource. As such, if nuclear power plants were to be used to displace oil and other fossil fuels, thousands of new and unproven plutonium breeder reactors or nuclear fusion reactors would have to be built. It is worth noting that plutonium is an exceedingly difficult and dangerous material to handle. It is one of the most toxic elements known. Plutonium is 35,000 times more lethal than cyanide poison by weight. There is an equivalent of 20 million mortal doses in only 5 grams of plutonium, which is the weight of a 5-cent coin, and it will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.
Given these staggering engineering obstacles, the research and development effort alone would take many decades, and there is no guarantee that such systems would ever work, much less be economically viable, even without factoring in the costs of taking care of the radioactive wastes.
Billions of dollars have been spent on trying to solve the nuclear waste problem over the past 50 years, and yet no acceptable solution has been identified. The waste disposal issue is already reaching a critical stage as existing nuclear plants are all becoming long-term waste storage facilities by default. But to embark on a program that will exponentially increase the nuclear waste problem is more than irresponsible. It represents a crime against humanity that makes the atrocities committed against the Jewish people in World War II pale by comparison. While Hitler’s despicable acts were committed against one generation, the nuclear wastes we are creating will leak and spread for literally thousands of centuries into the future.
It is hard to imagine a more insidious poison to inflict on our descendents over such incomprehensible amounts of time. Given such considerations, allowing the existing nuclear plants to continue their daily operation of toxic waste production, is far more offensive than the Germans who quietly tolerated the daily operation of the death camps.
By contrast, producing wind or solar systems for large-scale hydrogen production have no such long-term risks or technological or environmental unknowns. The mass-production of these benign systems will employ millions of Americans while fundamentally resolving many of the most serious energy and environmental problems. As a result, deploying such systems can provide long-term “prosperity without pollution.”
Harry Braun is Chairman of the Hydrogen Political Action Committee (h2pac.org)and author of the Phoenix Project:Shifting from Oil to Hydrogen.
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