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Is nuclear the only way forward?

By John Ridd - posted Tuesday, 15 January 2013


Irrespective of personal conviction in regards to the reality of Anthropogenic Global Warming it is unarguable that energy production and associated matters are major political, economic, social and environmental issues.

Two books that influenced me over the last year are Thorium, energy cheaper than coal by Robert Hargraves and Radiation and Reason, the Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear by Wade Allison. Both Hargraves and Allison are physicists, both are convinced that AGW constitutes a major threat to the world and both conclude that the major use of some form of nuclear energy is essential. However they emphasise different aspects of energy production as a consequence of their different specialisations.

Allison was originally a nuclear physicist but later moved into the medical applications of physics. He examines the ideas of risk, knowledge and confidence; the atomic nucleus and the fact that most nuclei are stable; and then moves to ionising radiation, its measurement and natural radiation.

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In the central chapters 5, 6 and 7, he uses hard data from Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl events and nuclear medicine to demonstrate inter alia that any radiation 'dose' below 100 millisieverts (mSv) is not injurious to humans, and that doses are not cumulative. The sample sizes are very large and the data have good accuracy; consequently his conclusions are convincing.

Knowledge of cell and DNA behaviour is used to explain the ways in which the humans (and other living things) have multiple defence mechanisms against damage, whether caused by chemical attack (oxidation) or by ionising radiation. That prevents low doses 'accumulating'.

The back cover of the book says, in part:

  • 'A clear and positive scientific account of the effect of radiation on life that brings good news for the future of mankind'
  • 'For more than half a century the view that radiation represents an extreme hazard has been accepted. This book challenges that view by facing the scientific questions "how dangerous is ionising radiation?" and "why are we so worried about radiation?"'
  • 'The first question is answered in accessible language for the general reader and related directly to modern scientific evidence and understanding. Briefly radiation isabout a thousand times less hazardous than is suggested by current safety standards'. (My emphasis)

Allison bases all his work on measured quantities. Units used are defined and errors are small. All science should be like that. Robert Hargraves in Thorium energy cheaper than coal is an example of work that is numbers based. Not just what happens but also how much.

Hargraves is an expert on energy policy. His detailed knowledge is encyclopaedic and almost daunting; inevitably he approaches the energy issue differently from Allison. Allison's approach is biological/medical; Hargraves is concerned with methods of energy production and the costs of energy for each method.

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In addition to concerns about AGW, Hargraves also worries about air pollution per se and rising population. He talks of 'an unsustainable world'. His basic thesis is that most countries cannot afford to stop using coal power stations and that they will not stop – unless a cheaper alternative is available; hence the title of the book. Furthermore he contends that birth rates will not drop until some level of prosperity is achieved. His graph of GDP per capita against number of children per woman for a large number of countries is entirely convincing.

Hargraves starts by dealing with 'energy and civilisation'. He argues that the availability of energy is strongly linked to historic rises in living standards. But he asserts that present levels of energy production, let alone further increases, are unsustainable using current methods. He examines every imaginable method of production and develops a cost for each of them in cents per kilowatt hour (the 'unit' that your electricity meter measures). Examples are:

  • 'Energy cheaper than coal must be < 5.6 cents/kwh'.
  • 'Electricity cheaper than natural gas must be < 4.8 cents/kWh'
  • 'Electricity cheaper than that from wind must be < 18 cents/kWh'
  • 'Energy cheaper than from solar must be < 24 cents/kWh'.
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About the Author

John Ridd taught and lectured in maths and physics in UK, Nigeria and Queensland. He co-authored a series of maths textbooks and after retirement worked for and was awarded a PhD, the topic being 'participation in rigorous maths and science.'

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