Commentary: The energy we won’t use

In early January, the latest Zumwalt-class destroyer left the dock at Bath Iron Works at…

In early January, the latest Zumwalt-class destroyer left the dock at Bath Iron Works at high tide, gliding down the icy Kennebec River. If you ever get the chance to be at Fort Popham to watch one of these 500-foot-long cruisers push through the narrow channel between the fort and Georgetown across the river, while doing over 20 knots, it is quite a sight.

Before leaving, 12 tanker trucks must amble down narrow Washington Street to load 110,000 gallons of JP5 military fuel onto the destroyers that leave Bath. Whether for sea trials off of New Jersey, or like the Lyndon Johnson’s trip to Pascagoula, Miss., for armament, these fighting vessels will make another stop to fill their 400,000-gallon fuel tanks, likely in Newport, R.I., or elsewhere. Capable of speeds up to 32 knots, these boats consume a lot of fuel.

When submarines leave Kittery Naval Shipyard, no tankers are required. Their fuel is good for 20-30 years, allowing them to operate anywhere they want to travel, limited only by the foodstuffs they can store aboard for the crew. Like their counterparts in the Navy, the floating-city aircraft carriers, these nuclear-powered vessels can operate for months at a time with no need to refuel.

The U.S. Navy has millions of miles, and hundreds of thousands of hours, of documented nuclear-powered vessel records over the last three decades. There has never been a fuel incident with one of these nuclear boats.

In the high plains of Idaho, nestled between Atomic City and the aptly named Craters of the Moon National Monument, is the Western Hemisphere’s largest nuclear power research facility — the Idaho National Laboratory. It doesn’t glow in the night, you don’t evaporate upon driving past, yet INL has built more nuclear plants than anyplace on Earth.

Currently, INL and other labs around the world are working on perfecting small nuclear modular reactors, or SMRs, as realists recognize that weather-dependent green energy will never adequately supply the world’s base-load power needs. In the rush to embrace solar and wind-powered electric systems, while eliminating coal, natural gas and nuclear-supplied firm power (controllable demand supply) various economies (countries) are now suffering huge price spikes as well as the need to reintroduce coal and fossil fuels in order to meet rising energy demand.

SMRs are intended to be localized power sources, even sized to be portable — like in naval ships. With new fuel-rod technologies that help reduce the amount of harmful nuclear waste, plus lower overall production costs, SMRs have the potential to be the greenest, most power-productive, most reliable and most efficient power source that we can readily access and claim to actually be relatively environmentally sound compared against the current products and the vast resources necessary to create them.

There are currently over 400 active nuclear reactors in the world, generating over 10 percent of the total electricity used. While the U.S., Germany and other countries have stridently reduced their nuclear plant capacity, France (over 70 percent of its electricity) and China (over 150 nuclear plants planned by 2035) are among the countries actively promoting nuclear power to meet green emissions goals. Japan is among the countries reassessing their departure from nuclear’s superior performance as an alternative base-load power source.

Thousands of cargo ships are now plying the world’s oceans, delivering goods around the globe — while burning millions of gallons of fossil fuels every day. Industry reports indicate that the cost of moving containers during the two-year COVID pandemic have increased by a factor of nine! (Is that a transitory cost, Joe?) Like our Navy, these boats should be looking at the alternative of nuclear power; it is the only viable option and would make a far larger environmental impact than switching our driving fleet to battery electric vehicles.

Every energy source has pros and cons. New solid-state batteries could potentially erase performance concerns with lithium batteries, but at what future cost? Nuclear fuel waste has a cost, too, yet when life-cycle analysis is factored, nuclear’s clear power output over other options is undeniable.

Wind and solar are feel-good energy, as are battery-electric cars, yet we have not seen the real cost of these power sources as significant grid improvements remain to be realized. For sure, we are looking at decades of continued fossil-fuel use, while nuclear power technologies must be included in the efforts to wean ourselves onto the energy of the future.

Tim Plouff of Otis is retired from a 30-year career in the energy sector. He writes The Ellsworth American’s weekly auto review column.

Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.

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