Millions of different people around the world anxiously watch the heroic efforts of Japanese firefighters, soldiers and Tepco employees to prevent multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Store clerks, biochemists, presidents, ballet dancers, janitors, lawyers… all of us ask ourselves different questions about this near-catastrophic event and our questions depend on who we are and how we are educated.
You may have noticed that experts are generally not very good at answering them. That’s the problem with experts. A genius locked inside an ivory tower has a hard time giving directions to a traveller passing by.
If so, perhaps we should reduce the number of questions and focus on the essentials. Let’s make it simpler for experts!
So here are two questions about nuclear energy which probably summarize all the others:
* - Is there anything fundamentally wrong with this technology?
* - Is there – fundamentally- an alternative?
The answer to the first question is simple: today, yes. A technology based on extremely dangerous processes that can’t be mastered in case of an accident is fundamentally flawed.
To answer the second question we need to realize that nobody actually produces energy. We merely collect it and convert it from other, pre-existing types of energies. This is true for all power plants on earth, including nuclear power plants which harness nuclear fission and... green plants which carry out photosynthesis.
Come to think about is, at a very basic level, nuclear power and photosynthesis are both very similar and the very opposite of each other.
The similarity has to do with the direct conversion of matter into energy. In nuclear power plants, matter (heavy atoms) disappears to yield immediate energy as heat. In photosynthesis, matter (light photons) also disappears to yield stored energy in the form of chemical bonds (food and fuel). Both processes are thus physical: they directly convert physical particles into something we can use.
The similarity stops here. Everything else is the opposite, for example:
- Nuclear power generates ionizing radiation - a lethal byproduct- and toxic waste we can’t eliminate. Photosynthesis generates oxygen – a vital byproduct – and matter which we eliminate all the time to remain alive.
- Nuclear fission is fundamentally inefficient: the fission of Uranium 235 yields less than 0.1% energy relative to the theoretical potential ( i.e. E=mc2). Photosynthesis is fundamentally efficient: a photon (at the right energy level) is converted to chemical energy with an efficiency approaching 100%.
- Building and maintaining a nuclear power plant is expensive. Building and maintaining a green plant is inexpensive, if not free.
- On a somewhat more philosophical level, nuclear energy is an attempt to harness a piece of the big bang or a piece of the sun (in a metallic box), not necessarily a very wise thing to do. In contrast, photosynthesis has evolved over millions of years to harness a piece of the big bang to benefit all living creatures on earth. Plants may be the wisest of all of us!
Comparisons like the ones above would be futile if photosynthesis did not hold the promise of the ultimate solution to the “energy crisis”, capable of replacing nuclear energy, with style!
Again, at a very fundamental level, it is all quite simple: to build sugars from carbon dioxide, the plant photosynthetic apparatus generates a flow of electrons, which is the very purpose of a nuclear power plant.
But what if sugars were to be prevented from being built in a photosynthetic apparatus? Photosynthesis would simply generate electricity!
This is not science fiction: biological photovoltaics or biological photosynthetic solar cells are being invented, actively researched and prototyped at several prestigious research institutions*.
But is this enough? I think not. I think massive efforts worldwide should be undertaken now to transform artificial photosynthesis - a somewhat esoteric scientific curiosity – into a mainstream electricity-generating technology.
Time is short. Fossil fuels are not sustainable, any way you look at it. The sooner we can get rid of current nuclear power plant technologies, the better.
We need an alternative. And it may be growing right in front of us.
* See for example:
Stanford Scientists Harvest Electricity From Algae Photosynthesis
Artificial Photosynthesis Achieved with Nanotechnology
Bioelectricity Promises More 'Miles Per Acre' Than Ethanol