The easy availability of electricity is one of the great benefits of modern life.
Its widespread use has, perhaps more than anything else, shaped how we live. Flip the switch and the lights come on; push a button and the garage door opens.
Electricity, of course, is a form of energy. Energy is inherent in all of nature and, in the sense of usable power, is the foundation upon which all human societies are built. The more energy a society produces and consumes, the more developed and complex it typically becomes.
The great sweep of human history can be seen as the ever-increasing ability of human beings to produce and utilize ever-larger quantities of energy.
Modern society owes its complexity and richness to the enormous quantity of energy it produces and uses, including electricity.
Electric power is produced from the energy found in fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas; from sunlight, wind, falling water, heat in the earth; and, of course, nuclear power, the energy locked in atoms of uranium and plutonium.
While electricity is the same regardless of how we get it, more and more we are beginning to recognize that the source of that energy matters a great deal. Some sources are better than others—better for our health, better for the economy, and better for the planet.
Fifty percent of the electricity produced worldwide comes from burning coal; China gets 75 percent of its electricity from coal and the U.S. gets 44 percent.
Worldwide, 8 percent of electricity comes from oil and 20 percent from natural gas, with hydroelectric contributing 15 percent, wind about 1 percent, and solar (rooftop) less than 1 percent. Nuclear contributes about 17 percent globally.
The burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity, especially coal and oil, has substantial negative impacts on human health and a nation’s economy.
The mortality rate worldwide for generating electricity through burning coal is 170,000 deaths per trillion kilowatt hours of electricity. The rate in China is 280,000 due to their low health and safety standards.
The United States mortality rate is 15,000 — a lower figure because of stricter regulation throughout the production cycle from coal mine to smokestack.
According to James Conka, writing in Forbes in 2012, of all the means of producing electric power, including wind and rooftop solar, nuclear has the lowest mortality rate per trillion kilowatt hours of electricity—90 for nuclear versus 150 for wind, 440 for rooftop solar, and 1,400 for hydroelectric.
Recent research at NASA, reported in the latest issue of Environmental Science and Technology, suggests an estimated 1.84 million deaths have been prevented over the past 40 years through the use of nuclear power as opposed to burning fossil fuel.
Three hundred seventy times more people die when equivalent amounts of electricity are obtained from fossil fuels as opposed to nuclear.
It is anticipated nuclear power use worldwide between now and 2050 will result in from 420,000 to 7 million fewer deaths than if the same amount of electricity was produced using fossil fuels, depending on the fossil fuel type.
These figures are quite surprising considering what critics of nuclear power would have us believe — that nuclear power is the boogeyman incarnate.
Visualize how anti-nuclear activists embraced each other at news that Southern California Edison was going to permanently shut down the twin reactors at San Onofre, located midway between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Those reactors provided power for 1.4 million homes. Were those happy folks aware that replacement power for those reactors will come from fossil fuels and lead to unnecessary illness and deaths of fellow Americans? Of course not. Beliefs are funny things — you don’t have to know anything to believe something. I strongly believe the moon is made of green cheese! Nothing you can say will change my mind.
As of January 2013, the average cost of electricity in the United States was 9.66 cents per kilowatt hour. It is estimated that the negative health impacts of burning fossil fuels for power generation in the U.S. add an average of 14 to 35 cents per kilowatt hour to the retail cost of electricity — as much as $886.5 billion per year, or 6 percent of the GDP, according to figures in Forbes Magazine April 2013.
Such impacts include premature death, work days lost, and direct costs to the healthcare system due to emissions. These figures do not include the health effects of extraction and transportation of fossil fuels or impacts on climate change, other waste products, and water-borne pollutants.
The growing body of research on the negative impacts of the burning of fossil fuels to produce electric power shines light on a very large hidden tax on all Americans; indeed, on people around the world. Moreover, much of this tax will inevitably be transferred to future generations.
The planet as we have known it is being transformed through the burning of fossil fuels. In a review of a new book on failures in design in engineering projects in the New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben suggests that the last 10,000 years have been a period of “benign climate stability” that saw, even helped give rise to, human civilization.
Humans, he says, have played a major role in raising the global temperature by about one degree. That doesn’t sound like much, but the fact is, warmer air holds more water vapor.
That one degree temperature increase means the atmosphere now holds 4 percent more moisture than before, which, among other things, leads to stronger and more destructive storms and floods.
Around the world, much infrastructure will have to be redesigned and rebuilt to accommodate these changes—another example of a hidden tax on us all. McKibben indicates that last year the federal government spent more money “repairing the damage from extreme weather than it did on education.”
McKibben states, “We can anticipate four or five degrees [warmer] as the century wears on. Each increment adds new energy to the system, and at the upper boundaries, engineering as we’ve known it becomes very nearly impossible. If the atmosphere is 8 percent wetter instead of 4 percent, what kind of bridges do we build? Where do we put roads so they’re not washed away?”
In the meantime, too many of Nevada’s leaders, not to mention the nation’s, seem to be asleep at the wheel. The world is rapidly changing. In my view, there is good reason to believe we may be drawing closer to a significant tipping point in history. The energy path we are now on is not sustainable.
Looking down the road, what do Nevada’s leaders expect residents of the rural counties to do? How are they to earn a living in a changing world? For that matter, what do they expect large numbers of Las Vegas residents to do? Where are the ideas? Where is the can-do spirit of our frontier heritage? The future of humanity lies in science, technology, and engineering. Let’s get moving on that.
Nuclear power offers a rich future. Yucca Mountain was and remains the perfect platform upon which Nevada can begin to build a future in science, technology, and engineering.
The Nevada Test Site (aka NNSS) is an ideal place to grow the best nuclear research program in the world. It is an ideal place to construct nuclear reactors to supply clean — and I emphasize clean! — electricity for distribution throughout the West.
Nevada has within its reach the opportunity to become a world center for science, technology, and engineering research.
Given effective political leadership, such a center could enable us to play a big part in leaving future generations a world not shot to hell with damage.