The Ultimate Alternative Energy

Contrary to the common misconception, we have no energy shortage. In fact, we have more energy available than we could ever use. If not for the anti-nuclear movement, the funders of terrorism would not be awash with petrodollars and our economy would be significantly stronger. Unfortunately, rock musicians and actors had more influence on energy policies than scientists like Petr Beckmann, whom I was lucky to have as a friend.

Dr. Beckmann was a Czech refugee from Nazism who spent much of his career in America promoting nuclear power. Until he died, Beckmann was treated as some sort of demon by the environmental movement. No longer.

Today, even green leaders are admitting the folly of rejecting this cheap, clean and safe (when compared rationally with other energy sources) technology. If there were justice, Beckmann would have statues erected in his honor.

The green turnaround on nuclear power is particularly relevant now. President-elect Obama has picked several global warming activists to serve as top officials. The most important is Harvard physicist John Holdren. As presidential science adviser, he could have a significant impact on energy policy. His career, in fact, has focused on climate change, next-generation nuclear energy and nuclear disarmament.

From the perspective of an investor, what does this mean? Among other things, it could rapidly accelerate the transition from the current generation of nuclear power plants to the next. I would, incidentally, never invest in a technology simply because it has political support. Ethanol, for example, had lots of it. It was never a good idea, though, and is finally being recognized as such.

Nuclear power as we know it today is obsolete. Current light water reactors use uranium-235. This fuel is not only expensive, but its byproducts create problems. They are difficult politically to handle and can be used to create nuclear weapons.

Those byproducts are, ironically, the reason we initially adopted uranium-235. America needed the materials for nuclear weapons. Power plants using uranium-235 provided them. Regulators, naturally, favored the technology despite the fact that there were superior fuels – especially thorium.

Thorium is not only far more abundant than uranium-235, but thorium reactors do not produce waste materials useful in nuclear weapons. In fact, the wastes are far less hazardous and much cheaper to deal with. Thorium reactors are safer in general to operate, producing little radioactive threat outside their shielding. They cannot, in fact, experience a catastrophic meltdown.

This is a much bigger deal than it appears on the surface. Fuel costs, though much lower for thorium, don’t play much of a role in total nuclear power costs. In his book The Nuclear Energy Option, Bernard Cohen estimates that safety measures to counter meltdowns account for about 75% of current plant costs. As thorium plants can’t melt down, energy costs would be significantly lower.

Additionally, thorium reactors can be almost any size. Prototypes have been made small enough for military aircraft. This makes them economically viable in developing countries without the additional cost of large-scale electrical infrastructure. Thorium reactors would also be easier to sell internationally because they cannot be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.

The shift to thorium would facilitate economic, environmental and nonproliferation causes. So why are we still building plants that burn uranium-235? This is one of the hazards of government involvement in the sciences. Once grants and regulatory attitudes that favor a technology are in place, they are huge barriers to competitors.

A free market would favor thorium over uranium anyway. Coincidentally, Obama’s administration could significantly reduce barriers to thorium energy production. I’m looking hard now at several ways to take advantage of this development.

There is one potential wrench in these works, though. It’s nuclear fusion, and it could change everything. The fuel for fusion is essentially free, so the cost of power generation is a matter of capital costs and maintenance. I’ve been a skeptic about the economics of fusion, but that has begun to change. It appears that early research grants may have derailed and forced out more promising and cheaper fusion technologies than those favored by various governments’ research efforts.

For transformational profits,

Patrick Cox
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning