Friday, July 7, 2023

We Already Possess the Cure for Poverty and Climate Change.

During the recent power outages and denial of interweb service, I took up reading a book I picked up a while back on a subject I have always had questions: The Case for Nukes: How We Can Beat Global Warming and Create a Free, Open, and Magnificent Future by Robert Zubrin (Polaris Books 2023). It's a very thoughtful argument that debunks the toxic falsehoods that have been spread to dissuade us from using it by the ignorant, the fearful, and the fanatical from returning to the use of Nuclear power as a remedy to our festering Twenty First Century problems. Here's a quick synopsis of what I culled from his book.

In a very literal sense, energy technologies have molded humanity. The invention of cooking with fire by those small brained Homo Habilis dudes cut the metabolic energy needed to digest meat, making it safer to consume and allowing the primates to eat more small animals or their enemies. Evolution directed some of these surplus calories to their brains, enabling the hungry organ to grow in size and ability, leading to the industrious little guys, Homo Erectus, the forerunner us, the Bozo Sapien.

Over the millennia, humans learned to harness fire to smoke meats, craft pottery, bend metal, and more, forming much of the material basis of the pre-fossil fuel world. Wood power (or what is now called “biomass”) was such a good deal that parts of Europe started running out of forests in the 1700s. Britain was the first nation to innovate itself out of this dilemma, which they did by burning coal.

Mastering coal and other fossil fuels prevented energy scarcity, but also led to an unforeseen revolution in human life. Synthetic fertilizer, electricity, cars, plastics, smart phones, x-rays, ChatGPT—nearly all elements of modern life—exist because of fossil fuels. Today billions of people enjoy a prosperity that would be unimaginable to their ancestors.

This history of energy begins The Case for Nukes. Robert Zubrin, an American aerospace engineer of three decades tells the history of energy to set the stage for one of his core arguments, that humanity should use more energy. Over 700 million people languish in extreme poverty today and billions have not reached a standard of living equivalent to that of a developed country.

In contrast, radical environmentalists urge people to use less energy, which they believe is necessary to avert climate and ecological apocalypse. Zubrin contends that slashing energy use would be so harmful as to be borderline genocidal, but he does recognizes that the environmental harms of fossil fuels are unsustainable. Thus he endorses nuclear energy, asserting that only atomic energy can lift all people out of poverty while conserving the environment.

Zubrin makes a strong case that nuclear plants are safe. Unlike what the fear-mongers say, nuclear reactors cannot explode like atomic bombs; it is impossible thanks to the laws of physics. A nuclear reactor contains only low-enriched fuel and cannot create fast neutrons, and thus cannot produce the devastation of an atomic weapon. To quell radiation fears, Zubrin notes that nuclear reactors actually reduce the amount of radiation that enters the atmosphere. One 1000 MW natural gas plant releases more radiation every month than the entire Three Mile Island nuclear accident, one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.

Nuclear waste is a non-issue. Nuclear waste has never hurt anyone and there is very little of it. The nuclear waste issue also reveals the duplicity of the anti-nuclear movement. Civilian nuclear waste can be safely stored in geologically stable rock formations, a solution already implemented by the US military for its nuclear program. 

Zubin also goes into detail the problem with cost overruns. Simply put, the US federal government has strangled the American nuclear industry with an oppressive regulatory regime. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sometimes alters regulations mid-construction, forcing crews to reconfigure already completed systems.

Being what the internet would call a “nuke bro,” Zubrin argues that fashionable solar and wind projects cannot meet humanity’s energy needs; however, his review of these technologies is too brief given their political success and general popularity.

Regardless, The Case for Nukes is a persuasive and engaging look at an indispensable technology. Philosophically, The Case for Nukes falls firmly within the ecomodernist tradition, a school of thought that sees advancing technology and human prosperity as necessary to preserve an ecologically vibrant planet.

I say let's start smashing some fucking atoms and keep the lights on. How bout you?

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