Monday, February 15, 2010

our energy rich future

The importance of numbers, from John McCarthy's sustainability of human progress site

The fission of an atom of uranium liberates about 10 million times as much energy as does the combustion of an atom of carbon from coal. I fear that to many people, the impression made by saying 10 million is about the same as if I had said 10 thousand or 10 billion.

One cannot understand policy issues without taking numbers seriously. If the number were 10 thousand, we probably could not afford nuclear energy. If the number were 10 billion, there would be no need for a significant uranium mining industry, and the waste problem would be trivial.
In another part of his site McCarthy quotes figures from Bernard Cohen demonstrating that nuclear energy can supply human needs for billions of years into the future. Although there is no reference to Bartlett type exponential growth here (which is not maintained in real life indefinitely, anyway) the calculations do demonstrate that there is no scientific reason to fear an energy deprived future.

1 comment:

DavidRowe said...

Hi Bill,

Bartlett doesn't claim exponential growth continues forever. His central message is that when exponential growth meets natural limits there will be a crash. Therefore it is crazy to design-in exponential growth as our current economies do.

Another message from Bartlett is that the crash can happen very quickly, before we realise what is happening.

Theoretically there are many energy sources available, we have the science and the technology and infrastructure can be developed.

The problem is in the transition - for example currently there are no plans to move off fossil fuels, and many of the technological pieces are missing (e.g. you can't truck food interstate using nuclear energy directly - an electric train network needs to be developed).

- David