Wednesday, November 14, 2007

11/14/07 Peak Oil

Last night I watched "Mega Disasters" on The History Channel. From other previews, the show seemed overly dramatic and doom-and-gloomy. That's not really my style. But last night's episode was on a topic of interest to me. It was about "Peak Oil" and the ramifications once we hit the point where global oil supply can't keep up with demand. Right on cue, the program moved onto famine, disease and anarchy as the result of Peak Oil. While I imagine severe recession and an increase in crime aren't out of the question, this show definitely jumps to the worst of all scenarios.

I've mentioned him before, but it bears repeating... Eight years ago, Professor Ruzic warned our Introductory Nuclear Engineering class about the coming of peak oil. At that time, gas was still hovering around $1.00 per gallon. How quickly we forget about cheap gas, eh? He was also a big proponent of nuclear power for our electrical power needs. Most of our electricity needs come from the burning of coal. (Remember this the next time someone gets excited about an electric car and mentions how it's a "clean alternative" to gas. Then go ahead and point to the coal burning smoke stacks in the distance.) In this month's Wired Magazine there's a blurb about a book based on using more nuclear power. It's called "Power to Save the World". Here are a few of my favorite factoids from the Amazon review:

  • 75% of that baseload electricity comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels, mainly coal, and emit carbon dioxide. Toxic waste from coal-fired plants kills 24,000 Americans annually.

  • 20% comes from nuclear plants that use low-enriched uranium as fuel, burn nothing, and emit virtually no CO2. In 50 years of operation, they have caused no deaths to the public.

  • Uranium is more energy-dense than any other fuel. If you got all of your electricity for your lifetime solely from nuclear power, your share of the waste would fit in a single soda can. If you got all your electricity from coal, your share would come to 146 tons: 69 tons of solid waste that would fit into six rail cars and 77 tons of carbon dioxide that would contribute to accelerated global warming.

  • A person living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant receives less radiation from it in a year than you get from eating one banana. Someone working in the U.S. Capitol Building is exposed to more radioactivity than a uranium miner.

  • Spent nuclear fuel is always shielded and isolated from the public. Annual waste from one typical reactor could fit in the bed of a standard pickup. The retired fuel from 50 years of U.S. reactor operation could fit in a single football field; it amounts to 77,000 tons. A large coal-fired plant produces ten times as much solid waste in one day, much of it hazardous to health. We discard 179,000 tons of batteries annually--they contain toxic heavy metals.

  • Nuclear plants offer a clean alternative to fossil-fuel plants. In the U.S. 104 nuclear reactors annually prevent emissions of 682 million tons of CO2. Worldwide, over 400 power reactors reduce CO2 emissions by 2 billion metric tons a year.

If I had to pick one global issue that could significantly affect our lives over the next decade, peak oil would be it. And that's why I mention it every so often. The part that bothers me the most? Unless you live in a self sustaining community (which seems to be the ultimate outcome after the dust settles here), peak oil could disrupt your ability to get the most basic of human needs - water and food. If nobody's transporting food and water to your local grocery store, where would you get your food?

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