Category Archives: Clean Energy

The Thor Approach to National Security

Thorium 90In recent weeks we’ve been hearing more about the BP oil spill than national security, but Jon Stewart injected into the national consciousness a reminder that the spill and national security are deeply related.  In a Daily Show segment, he looked at the bright side of the oil spill, noting that in 2006 oil dependence “only entangled us in two simultaneous wars, but now its gotten us into two wars and a giant spill.  That’s the push we needed” to do something about oil dependence.

Stewart has good company in stressing the national security implications of oil.  Former CIA director James Woolsey has been a leader in pointing out that eight of the top nine oil exporters are dictatorships, and people living under dictatorship have been instrumental in the rise of Al Qaeda.

But identifying that oil has a big effect on national security is the easy part.  The hard part is finding a solution that doesn’t create other problems.  Iran, for example, shares our concern about oil dependence, but their solution is an ominous nuclear energy program that has given us one of our other major national security problems.

So, when President Obama spoke about the BP oil spill, the stakes for national security were high.  The president, who promised in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders“, seemed to foreshadow that he had an answer.  He mentioned that his Secretary of Energy won a Nobel Prize in Physics.  He dismissed doubts as to whether we would prevail by noting that “The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon”.  One could imagine a 2010 version of JFK’s announcement of the moon program.

What came to mind for me was nuclear reactors based on the element thorium.  When the president said “we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there” I wasn’t discouraged; I’m not sure either that thorium reactors will work.  But there was no lightning bolt from Thor and no mention of thorium.  But the president did say that he’s “happy to look at other ideas and approaches”, and several bills are going through Congress to make a major effort to develop thorium reactors.

Thorium is a radioactive element with some ideal properties as a nuclear fuel.  It is plentiful, produces little waste, and reportedly “it would be virtually impossible for the byproducts of a thorium reactor to be used by terrorists or anyone else to make nuclear weapons”.  Our nuclear energy efforts turned away from thorium decades ago because “Hyman Rickover, de facto head of the US nuclear program, wanted the plutonium from uranium-powered nuclear plants to make bombs”.

Thorium is the path not taken.  It was too clean for an era in which we wanted more bombs.  The world is very different today.

If thorium reactors do provide nuclear energy that is safe, clean and inexpensive, we can wean ourselves from oil.  The Iranian people, who overwhelmingly back their government’s efforts to modernize through nuclear energy, could be offered the choice to join the new thorium effort, or have their government unmasked as seeking a bomb.

Thorium reactors are an engineering project with an uncertain result, just like the moon project decades ago.  But a serious effort in this direction, coupled with an offer to share technology with others, will send two important messages.  One message will be to people in countries like Iran, saying that we will help them enter the future that they say they desire.  The second message will be to oil producers, warning those who hold back oil that its value may be undercut by our efforts to “wield technology’s wonders”.

Posted: 21 Jun 2010

Atomic Age Redux: Bring Back the Nuclear Cargo Ship

Nuclear Ship Savannah

Nuclear Ship Savannah

This is the first time that I’m talking about this subject sober. Generally it comes up when I get into an impassioned explanation after a few glasses of wine, a nice dinner, in well, ahem “permissive” company. You see, despite my cover as a staid businesswoman, I have a secret passion. And that passion is for nuclear-powered cargo ships.

I have not only tortured my friends, relatives, and long-suffering husband, but I’ve written many letters to my elected representatives. I’ve so far received numerous courteous responses on the importance of energy reform, and in one notable case, thanking me for my interest in animal testing  (thanks George Allen!)

Before I go further, let me take a step back and explain. I was researching the architecture of cargo ships (let’s not get into why) and I discovered NS Savannah, one of four nuclear-powered cargo ships ever built (only one, Russian-built, is still in operation). It turns out that they were incredibly time and energy-efficient and safe, but far too costly for widespread production. Cargo ships in general are enormously expensive, and many fleets use old ships and perform minimal maintenance instead of purchasing newer vessels (as any West Wing fan well knows).

Until very recently, nuclear power, in addition to being wildly unpopular in the United States, was just unfeasible economically. However, since the project was abandoned by our government, the world has changed, and there are three key reasons to adopt them (among other, less significant ones):

1)      Homeland Security

2)      Environmental Impact

3)      Economic Potential

1) Homeland Security

America owns very little of its civilian shipping. This means that goods shipped to American soil, used by Americans are transported there, by and large, on vessels owned by foreign nations with crews made up of non-Americans.

These tons upon tons of freight are transported through customs, into American ports and toward American consumers with only the smallest percentage adequately inspected for potential risk. Explosives, biological agents, and other threats are difficult to defend against with our limited level of scrutiny, due not to the inefficiency of inspectors, but the sheer volume of containers.

The largest container ships can hold 15,200 containers. Any attempt at an effective search of these is complicated not just by the number, but also the logistics of the tightly packed cargo. Verifying the entire contents against the manifest is a sheer impossibility—and now multiply that by thousands of ships each day. Given the small amount of explosive or biological agent necessary to cause wholesale destruction, it is a situation worse than searching for a needle in a haystack, it would be like seeking a specific microbe on that needle.

I’m not suggesting that American ships and crews would completely solve this issue, but the lax international guidelines on crew hiring, and maintenance for ships creates a significant security hole for terrorists to slip through. How much damage could be done if a single container processed through New York’s harbor was carrying a biological agent? What would be the economic repercussions if the contents of a ship were to disable the port in Portland or Boston?

2) Environmental Impact

I think that it’s clear to most that our dependency on fossil fuels, and specifically on oil, is unsustainable. We are stuck between two hard choices, one is to risk the significant adverse effects involved in deep-sea or Alaskan drilling, and the other is to pay enormous sums of money to Arab nations, putting us at their economic and industrial mercy.

Nuclear power is remarkably clean, it is also efficient, and fast.  Nuclear-powered ships cross the ocean in half or even a third of the time of conventional vessels, do not require the vast amount of oil (or transport of oil) of traditional ships, and in the event of crash, the environmental impact, instead of oil spills, is limited to used nuclear cores, around which sufficient safety measures have already been constructed for extant nuclear-powered ships.

3) Economic Potential

And now what makes this plan palatable in the current climate. Shipyards in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia have been grinding to a halt for the last 20 years, and the same scene is repeated all over the country. Industrial jobs in ship-building, as well as other types of industrial manufacture s are disappearing as consumers require fewer products, and buy cheaper ones from abroad.

Here America has a clear advantage, nuclear-powered civilian ships have only been produced by four nations: Russia (one cargo ship, and some icebreakers), Japan (one ship, never used to carry cargo), Germany (one, later refitted for diesel) and the U.S. (our friend the Savannah).

We build nuclear-powered ships for the navy—aircraft carriers and submarines spring to mind—so the technology is currently in use, and available. What would be necessary is a re-fit of factories, currently lying fallow, and design firms,  creating jobs for Americans in not just manufacturing, but research and development, two more sustainable fields.

I could go on, and on (and I have), but it seems clear that nuclear-powered cargo ships are worth exploring. Certainly worth some of the TARP money, which is currently propping up enfeebled banks.  They could create new industry, reduce our environmental impact, and help safeguard our shores.

photo: voa.marad.dot.gov

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Standing at a Crossroads: Climate Change and the National Security Threat

On December 4th, 2007, I stood among a crowd of uniformed US Army officers, and watched as my fellow West Virginian and West Point classmate Ben Tiffner was lowered into the ground at Arlington National Cemetery. Ben was killed in action a month earlier, in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on his Humvee in Iraq. As my friends and I left the cemetery, we reflected on Ben’s life as well as on the lives of too many other soldiers who gave the last full measure of devotion for our great Nation.

If you haven’t been to see one of our national cemeteries, you need to. The endless rows of white headstones open up into a new section, constantly growing, devoted to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in today’s War on Terror. Remembering my own time in Iraq leading an infantry mortar platoon, and the dangers we struggled through, I know our military fights a long, difficult war. And due to our addiction to cheap fossil fuels, the long war is going to get longer. This is why I choose to fight a better fight, here at home, for cheap, clean energy independence. Our national security depends on it. The lives of soldiers such as Ben’s depend on it. And the lives of our children depend on it. For these reasons we, the people need the US Congress to pass strong energy and national security legislation this year.

To be sure, I know the American economy is today powered predominately by fossil fuels. I also know that many people dispute the truthfulness behind the science of climate change.  However, I do not write this as a climate scientist.   I write today based on my own experience as a United States soldier. On the battlefield, a soldier doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for 100% certainty before acting. Too often, waiting for certainty results in bad situations getting progressively worse and soldiers dying unnecessarily. We must act when we are sure enough, and the benefits of action outweigh the costs of inaction.

Climate change offers us a similar situation. Despite the dressing down the IPCC has received for sloppily handling some of its business, the reality is that the problems that have been raised do not appear to be systemic, and do not diminish the power of the thousands of scientific papers that support the consensus view.  In fact, the world’s top scientific minds agree with 95% certainty that climate change is going to drastically alter the way we live, and that much of climate change is man-made. I’d take that bet any day of the week, especially when my soldiers’ lives are on the line.

Which takes me back to my main point. Assume dry parts of the world dry up even more, and wars over precious drinking water become even more prevalent. Slight sea level increases force the coastal populations of the world’s poorest regions to flee as climate refugees. Instability opens up more holes for extremists preaching anti-American terror to step in and take control. Who is going to have to respond to these threats? China? India? No! We will: American fighting men and women. It is the American soldier who will bear the brunt of inaction. And that will cost us dearly.

We stand at a crossroads. We can choose to do nothing, and be confident that other brave Americans such as Ben Tiffner will see their way into our most hallowed of grounds, all because we could not summon the courage to act when needed. Or, we can make an investment in our future today, and reap the benefits for decades to come.

The time for investment is now. The US Senate is set to soon begin consideration of a new bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman (I-CT), and Graham (R-SC) that can and will offer just the added incentives we need to avert the worst of climate change. And just as importantly, it is going to keep our fighting men and women safer, and our great Nation more secure. We cannot let these benefits pass us by.

Over the course of several posts, I plan on providing more detail on the nature of the security threat we are facing, what our military and defense apparatus is already doing to deal with the threat, and how we as a nation can adapt and overcome this great challenge of our time.

Photo: nestorgalina