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I sent John Busby's 7th August article to a friend who understands more about nuclear power than I do. His reaction was that 'Mr Busby is not conversant with the concept of pebble bed reactors'.  I would like to ask Mr Busby how he views that technology and whether he would care to tackle it in an article for the uninitiated like myself?

Kind regards, Paddy Imhof



The problem is that mining of uranium is running down, whatever form of reactor is envisaged.

See Die Welt which reports the imminent closure of some of the French reactors due to fuel shortages. 

The thorium alternative and fast breeders are dependent on vast development programmes which with the rapid and progressive failure of the nuclear industry will never be funded.

As far as the pebble bed reactor is concerned it depends on the integrity of the pebbles and as these contain graphite this is likely to lead to the demise of this technology.

The seven UK AGR's are likely to close prematurely as the graphite moderator blocks are disintegrating due to the irradiation which causes structural breakdown. Also there is an overheating due to the Wigner Energy effect which leaves a residual heat in the graphite. 

The gas-cooled fast reactor is also an unlikely candidate for funding for this reason as it relies on graphite moderation.

The nuclear lobby in desperation is arguing that uranium can be extracted from the earth's crust and seawater and looks to fast breeders to generate ever more plutonium. All of which is fantasy.

We do not have to wait too long for some of the lights to go out in France, which will hopefully lead to a reality check!
Kind regards, John Busby

Singing the nation electric, Part 1: Fuels and Electrical Use Print E-mail
By Jon Rynn   

Active ImageLet’s assume that we will eventually live in a world without fossil fuels, that is, without petroleum, coal, or natural gas. Will we all starve to death or devolve into roving bands of barbarians? If business as usual continues indefinitely, those outcomes are definitely possible, but let us further assume that reason will prevail and we all agree to restructure society so that it could get along without fossil fuels. What would we need to do?

The first task would be to finish the electrification of society that was temporarily postponed by the discovery of large amounts of petroleum within the crust of our planet. Since most electricity is currently generated from fossil fuel-based utility plants, that means that we will need some other way to generate electricity. But we also need to address the last question before we get on with the job of total electrification: why not use some other source of fuel for our energy needs, such as biofuels?

Wikipedia defines a fuel as “any material that is capable of releasing energy when its chemical or physical structure is altered. Fuel releases its energy either through chemical means, such as combustion, or nuclear means, such as nuclear fission or nuclear fusion”. Webster’s definition is a little more succinct, “a material used to produce heat or power by burning”, or “a material from which atomic energy can be liberated especially in a reactor”. Leaving aside nuclear fuel, then, we need something that can be burned. Wood was the main fuel before coal, to be followed by petroleum and natural gas.

People blithely assume that some new technology will pop up from somewhere to save us from the disappearance of fossil fuels, because “we’ve always invented something new”. No we haven’t. Particularly in America, the entire suburban structure of the country is based on a nineteenth century anachronism.

Burn, baby, burn

Austin Gas & Coal Co Burning is the main way in which a fuel yields useful energy. But here lies a big problem. First of all, burning things is bad for the air, the water, and the soil. All kinds of harmful pollutants are released, especially in the case of coal; and then there are the carbon dioxide emissions.

Second, and less well-understood, burning can result in huge losses of energy; in other words, burning is an inefficient process. When the first coal-burning plants were used by Thomas Edison to produce electricity, he was able to use only about 4% of the energy from the coal, but much of the rest of the energy was captured as heat, and since the power plants were in New York City, much of the waste heat was used. The consolidation of utilities led to much more efficient generation of electricity by coal-fired plants, up to 30%, but the use of the waste heat virtually disappeared, because the plants were now located outside the cities. Now, fully 67% of the energy from coal plants is wasted, because burning things generates more energy in the form of heat than in the form that we want.[1] 

Third, and following from the first two, burning fuel in transportation equipment like cars, planes, and trains is incredibly inefficient because most of the energy escapes—again, in the waste of heat[2]—and the ensuing pollution significantly increases the hidden cost of such burning. At least in the case of cars and trucks, this burning is the result of relying on something called the internal combustion engine.

Active ImageOnly specialists in technological history would know what an internal combustion engine is if it were not for petroleum. The only reason such an incredibly inefficient device could be used on such a wide scale is because it is uniquely adapted, like some superspecialized organism in some freaky part of an isolated ecosystem, to the extraordinary energy potential of oil. The internal combustion engine is the brother of the external combustion engine, or as it is better known, the steam engine. The steam engine is long gone, and so, too, should have been the internal combustion engine. The diesel-electric and electric train and the jet are much newer technologies—the airplane is a newer technology. The internal combustion engine was invented before the electricity-generating electric turbine. It is a very old technology, completely unsuited to a post-fossil-fuel world.

People should keep this in mind when they blithely assume that some new technology will pop up from somewhere to save us from the disappearance of fossil fuels, because “we’ve always invented something new”. No we haven’t. Particularly in America, the entire suburban structure of the country is based on a nineteenth century anachronism.

Oh biofuels, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

The emerging elite consensus is that biofuels can be used as a replacement fuel for peroleum. There are many reasons this will not work in the long run. The best article I have found is called “Peak Soil”.[3] There are two additional reasons, besides the problem that there isn’t enough land:

  • the energy returned to energy invested is too low,
  • ethanol is corrosive, and a few others.

First, the reason fossil fuels have so much energy is not because they have trapped solar energy. The energy from fossil fuels comes from the Earth’s energy, that is, geological forces that cooked the plant life under great pressure for millions of years, and so biofuels can’t possibly get anywhere near the same energy potential as fossil fuels The energy coming from the Earth’s crust and mantle are inherited from the Earth’s formation billions of years ago, and as important as the Sun is, the Earth can proudly claim ownership of its own energy sources. Fossil fuels are not really plant-derived fuels, they are Earth-derived fuels, and people should not think that there is any link between the two.

Plants use solar energy to suck the carbon out of the atmosphere, the hydrogen out of the water, and put them together to form a hydrocarbon. If anything, plants make the situation worse, energy-wise, because they proceed to attach the hydrocarbons to other structures in the plant, thus making the hydrogen more difficult to use. Hydrogen and oxygen are the main actors of the combustion process; the carbon is a convenient place to attach hydrogen. That is why oil is better than coal, because it is basically composed only of carbon and hydrogen; oil is derived from algae, which don’t process the hydrocarbons as much as the more developed plants that make up coal. In effect, the Earth’s geological forces undid the “damage” that the plants did using solar energy, by purifying the plant matter back into carbon and hydrogen.

The result of all this is that the energy returned on energy invested, or eroei, for biofuels is either bad or awful, and basically can’t sustain anything as inefficient as an internal combustion engine, on a national or global scale.

Active ImageAnother way to look at it is this: it takes plant-eating animals 16 hours a day of munching on plants to extract enough energy to survive, while large carnivores like lions only need meat once a day, at most. That’s why humans evolved to eat meat; if they had to eat only plants, like our relatives the gorillas, we’d be munching all the time, with no time left over for making things. Plants are a poor source of energy.

Out, out, damn fuels!

Second, and a point that others have made, biofuel production threatens the biosphere of the planet. There is a mass extinction looming, being driven by the destruction of ecosystems, in particular forests and grasslands and water systems. The issue of mass extinction is starting to coalesce among scientists,[4] but the general problem of habitat destruction, or more ominously ecosystem destruction, could be even worse. To simplify the problem as much as possible: even without global warming, at the rate we are going we are heading toward a Desert Earth, because most of the soil and water that can grow plants is being destroyed.

Active Image Now let’s look at corn ethanol production, which is the most egregious example of biofuels. One consequence has been that as soybeans are taken out of production in the U.S. to grow more corn for ethanol, the soybeans are instead produced in Brazil, which then cuts down more rain forest to grow the soybeans. So even when a tropical country is not accelerating deforestation to grow biofuels—by increasing biofuel production—somewhere the forests (or grasslands) are being cut down somewhere else to make up for the shortfall created by the biofuel production. In a final bit of irony (or tragedy), by cutting down rainforests in Indonesia to grow palm plants for palm oil, Indonesia has become the biggest emitter of carbon after China and the U.S. because of the fires and rotting from the deforestation.

Historically, deforestation occurred in order to make room for

  1. agriculture,
  2. to use wood as a material, and
  3. to use it as a fuel.

The demise of British forests led to the greater use of coal, thus helping lead to the Industrial Revolution. Today, forests are still being destroyed for the same three reasons, but with more people around, the destruction is proceeding apace. While the destruction based on energy use has been restricted to poor people, mostly for cooking, the hysteria that may arise in the developed world from dwindling oil supplies could lead to redoubled efforts to exploit every available nook and cranny on the planet.

Active Image Even if the developed world was so colossally inhumane as to let most of the planet eat cake while everyone’s farmland was being used to fuel automobiles, the internal combustion engine would still eventually be tossed into the dustbin of history. All plants depend on soil, and the soils of the world have been mined of their value and not been allowed to recover. Without fossil fuels to create fertilizers and pesticides, the return on biofuel plants would decline even further, and if the soils run out, then by definition, we have a desert, and no biofuels either.

King CONG is dead

Again, assuming that nuclear fuels have many of the same problems as other fuels, then it is reasonable to argue that coal, oil, nukes, and gas (King CONG, to use Harvey Wasserman’s phrase), and, in fact, all fuels, are doomed. We need to create a fuel-free society.

As it so happens, much of 19th century science and much of 20th century technological development was focused on the development of a different source of energy: electricity. Electricity has a number of advantages.

  1. First, unlike fuel, it doesn’t burn.
  2. Second, it has several uses: to move things, particularly motors; for communications and information technology; for heating and cooling; and for lighting.
  3. Third, there are a large number of sustainable ways to generate electricity, from using magnets as in wind or water turbine electrical generation, or photovoltaic transfer, as in solar panels, or using heat sources, as in geothermal sources.

In short, everything fossil fuels do electricity can do better.

Actually, there is one thing that fuels are better constructed for: storage. However, there are many creative solutions being offered for this problem, the most straightforward being to pump water to a higher elevation and use it as hydropower when needed.[5] And hydrogen can be used for storage, although for any other reason one can think of, hydrogen will not save fuels from extinction.

Unfortunately, at the present time, not only is most electricity generated from fossil fuels, but if we wanted to convert the biggest user of petroleum, transportation equipment, from fuel use, the demand for electricity would go up, as would occur if we replaced the natural gas used for cooking, heating, and cooling. In a following article, I will suggest  how fossil fuels could be augmented with renewable technology. First, we need to understand how electricity is currently used, so that we can understand how to restructure society so that we can either use less electricity or generate it sustainably.

By the numbers

Active Image

The first thing to know about electricity use is that the numbers are staggering, and that it can be difficult to keep track of magnitudes. Let’s start with one basic statistic: electricity use for the United States for one year. This is usually stated in kilowatt hours, or one thousand watts used in one hour. While one thousand might sound like a lot, it is an infinitesimal amount compared to total national usage. In order to talk about how much electricity various sectors of the economy consume, it is necessary to talk in units of a billion kilowatt hours. In fact, currently the U.S. economy uses about 4,000 billion kilowatt hours per year. We could instead just say that the U.S. uses 4 Petawatts. But then when we discussed other parts of the economy, we would have to get into terawatts, gigawatts, and megawatts. So to avoid the trouble of translating in your head, I will stick to billion kilowatt hours as the basic unit of electricity use.

Electricity use in the U.S. can be divided into three broad sectors: Household, commercial, and industrial. Transportation will eventually become a fourth, but it currently is 98% the province of petroleum. Using 2002 data, manufacturing used 27.3% of electricity, commercial buildings used 30.5%, and households 35%, out of a total of 3,625 billion kilowatt hours used in 2002.[6]


Industrial usage breaks down this way (all percentages are relative to the entire electrical output): 

 Active Image

Notice that machinery and electronics (including electrical equipment) uses only 2.1% of electricity; even the construction of transportation equipment uses only 1.4%, indicating that even if all automobile and airplane construction was transformed to create trains, the electrical output would not need to be significantly increased. The industrial core of the U.S., what are called the “engineering industries”, therefore consume only 3.5% of electrical output. Even if we assume that a fully reindustrialized American economy would require a doubling of engineering industries, this would still only bring electrical use to about 7% of current use.

Now let’s look at commercial buildings:

Commercial buildings

 Active Image

Retail – including malls and the Walmarts of the world – uses more electricity than all machinery construction. And this is just electricity, not the fuel used to cart the goods all over the world. Retail and offices together use one-eighth of all electricity consumption. If we look at the end-use of the electricity use in the commercial sector, we can see what all that electricity is being used for:

 Active Image

Residential Buildings

Now let’s look at household electricity use, and we will see similar categories of end-use:

 Active Image

For all the talk about compact fluorescent lightbulbs, it looks from the data that lighting in commercial establishments is responsible for over twice as much electrical use as in the home! So much for solving global warming by using better light bulbs. For some reason, the plasma screen TV is often singled out as a gluttonous expenditure of electricity, when in fact all home electronics only account for 2.5% of electrical use, including home computers and stereos. Office equipment used by commercial establishments, at 5.5%, are twice as gluttonous as the home.

If we add up all space heating, cooling, ventilation, and water heating across commercial and residential buildings, we arrive at the figure of 26%, without even considering natural gas, which is heavily used for heating. This 26% is eminently reducible by changing the building itself; one estimate is that at least 50% of energy use for heating and cooling could be cut in this way.[7] In addition, home and commercial refrigeration adds 8.6% of electrical use, when there are probably many ways to make these much more efficient.

Electrical sprawl

If you have ever read Walt Whitman’s “I sing the body electric”, a part of his masterpiece “Leaves of grass”, you may be impressed with his celebration of all of the various parts of the human body. I wish I could say the same for the various uses of electricity in the United States (and any other industrial country), but much of it is not a pretty picture. There is much electrical output that could be saved with recycling, outright elimination, retrofitted buildings, and a general restructuring of the economy, but much of electrical use would conceivably remain in any wealthy society.

In my forthcoming articles, I will analyze the use of natural gas and estimate the electricity that would be needed to replace it, as well as the huge problem of replacing our fuel-based transportation system and agricultural system with electrical-based systems. Finally, an attempt will be made to demonstrate that all of our electrical needs in a truly sustainable economy can be met with renewable energy of wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower.

Jon Rynn can be reached at This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it


[1] , page 5

[2]  According to the Wikipedia entry on the internal combustion engine, “Most internal combustion engines waste about 36% of the energy in gasoline as heat lost to the cooling system and another 38% through the exhaust. The rest, about 6%, is lost to friction”, yielding about a 20% mechanical efficiency. If you consider that the occupants of the automobile take up a very small proportion of the total weight of the automobile, then the efficiency moves toward 1%.

[3]  Alice Friedman, “Peak Soil: Why cellulosic ethanol, biofuels are unsustainable and a threat to America”.

[4]  See, for instance,

[5]  Gar Lipow, “Modular Pumped Storage”.

[6]  The following data was calculated in the following way: industrial usage was obtained from Table 11.1 Electricity: Components of Net Demand, 2002, using net demand for electricity, except for plastics. Purchased.

For commercial buildings by activity: at Table C13A. Total Electricity Consumption and Expenditures for All Buildings, 2003, principal building activity, Site, Billion Kwh

By end-use: Table 1. End-Use Consumption for Natural Gas, Electricity, and Fuel Oil, 1999 (Preliminary Estimates), Electricity trillion btu”. I used these figures to determine the percentages of commercial buildings.

For household use: Table US-1. Electricity Consumption by End Use in U.S. Households, 2001

In order to syncronize these three tables, (and the end-use commercial table), I used a nation-wide table, Table 7.2. Retail Sales and Direct Use of Electricity to Ultimate Customers by Sector, by Provider, 1994 through 2005 (Megawatthours), for the year 2002. I added 100 billion kwh for “Other” direct uses, because for some reason earlier years indicate about 100 billion while later years have no estimates. The direct uses table gives a total of 990 billion kwh, which is 26 billion kwh more than the industrial table, above, so I counted the 26 billion as other industrial use. The direct use total for commercial for 2002 was 6% larger than the commercial building data for 2003, because of revisions, so I multiplied all commercial data by 6%. In the same way, I added 11% to household numbers. Since the relative percentages do not change very much from year to year, this gives an approximation of relative sector use of electricity across the entire economy.

[7]  Don Fitz, “When building green ain’t so green”.

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