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Thomas Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798) predicts that population growth, spurred by societal improvements, eventually will outstrip natural resources leading to universal famine and the demise of civilization. It reasons that population growth is exponential, while growth of food production is linear. For 200 years, his dire prediction has been forestalled by a parade of technological accomplishments based on cheap, dense fossil energy, that has provided astonishing, albeit unequal advances in man’s comfort, well being and reproductive enthusiasm.
Now, cheap, energy-dense fossil fuels are becoming scarcer. Readily available oil is estimated to last approximately 40 years; natural gas, somewhat longer; and coal reserves, at the projected consumption rate, will last about 150 years. But emissions from burning fossil fuels are thought by many to be the root cause of the current global warming and society, given the chance, would vote against carbon dioxide. Regardless of whether fossil fuel emissions cause climate change, we are running out, and we must seek alternative ways to satisfy energy demand – we again must turn to technology to forestall the Malthusian prediction.
Renewable energy, basically the energy received each day from the sun in the form of sunlight, wind, hydro, waves and photosynthesis by green plants, can be collected on a worldwide basis, most easily over land but also over water. The total collectable energy, perhaps as much as one part in 10,000, assuming theoretical collection efficiencies, will support a population of 9.4 billion people in the year 2050 – but little more. That’s all there is. Intermittency and the woefully diffuse nature of solar energy make the claim of adequate, renewable energy in all its variations, unrealistic – until an enormous energy storage breakthrough, undreamed of now, occurs.
Nuclear energy, mostly from light water reactors that currently provide about 15 percent of the world’s electricity, depends on fisioning a rare isotope of uranium, U-235. The U-235 to fuel light water reactors is estimated to last about 75 years and the debate about recycling spent light water reactor fuel, adds further complication to the longevity estimate. Other objections related to mining, waste disposal, safety and proliferation because of plutonium accumulation, are fixtures of the current technology and will not go away until a much more capable and efficient nuclear technology is adopted so what we now call waste can be burned to produce electricity. Storing or burying does not solve the disposal/proliferation problem – transuranics must, should and can be eliminated. Hence, contemporary nuclear technology is not an option for the long term.
Several other countries are actively pursuing advanced fast neutron reactor technology with the aim of using all the uranium. Thorium, about twice as abundant as uranium in the earth’s crust, can also be used to fuel reactors different from current designs. Using all the uranium and thorium is the only approach that guarantees vastly increased, reliable, energy availability well into the next millennium. The advantages are virtually limitless energy, a comparatively tiny footprint, an enormous increase in a less complicated fuel supply and much less demanding waste disposal. Proliferation worries go away because spent fuel does not accumulate — everything, including contemporary, stored, spent light water reactor fuel, dismantled weapons and transuranics, burns and only short-lived fission products remain.
If anthropogenic global warming is real, compared to the cost of inundation of coastal cities, the cost of advanced nuclear power is peanuts.
With renewable technologies currently being pursued, severe contraction of lifestyle will be unavoidable, and without some curb of population growth, Malthus’ prediction finally is slated to come true sometime after 2050.
To dodge the prediction again, only advanced nuclear technology is capable of providing the enormous and continually expanding amount of energy needed to cushion the impact of population growth and forestall collapse. Without it, reproduction must cease now. If there is a silver lining in this cloud, it is that we know how on both counts.
Don Petersen and Bill Stratton are members of the Los Alamos Education Group.