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The nuclear energy option

by Bernard L. Cohen [1924 - ] Five GoldenYak award
1990, Plenum Publishing Corporation, 0306435675

The nuclear option by Bernard L. CohenThis book is out of print. However, it is freely available at the University of Pittsburgh website.
Secondhand printed copies may be available from and

The nuclear energy option is a brilliant summary of risk, particularly in the context of the nuclear industry. I am hard pressed to see how anyone can be adequately briefed on the nuclear industry, and energy in general, without reading this book.

It is a great shame that this book is out of print, but fortunately it is available on the net. Long may it remain so.

This book is so good that, instead of the usual publisher’s and mates’ kind remarks, it is recommended by a whole list of top names in nuclear physics. This is not just another shallow piece cobbled together by a journalist, but is written by a serious expert in the field.

I do not know whether there is any useful substitute for this book, but that hardly matters if you read The nuclear energy option. This because, not only will the facts tend not to change much over short periods of time, but this book also is written with great clarity and good organisation.

Excerpt from Chapter 13, for your amusement :

“In response, I offered to inhale publicly many times as much plutonium as he said was lethal. At the same time, I made several other offers for inhaling or eating plutonium - including to inhale 1,000 particles of plutonium of any size that can be suspended in air, in response to "a single particle . . . will cause cancer, " or to eat as much plutonium as any prominent nuclear critic will eat or drink caffeine. My offers were such as to give me a risk equivalent to that faced by an American soldier in World War II, according to my calculations of plutonium toxicity which followed all generally accepted procedures. These offers were made to all three major TV networks, requesting a few minutes to explain why I was doing it. I feel that I am engaged in a battle for my country's future, and hence should be willing to take as much risk as other soldiers.”

“It is 5,000 times more dangerous to inhale plutonium than to eat it, and eating plutonium is about equal in danger to eating the same quantity of caffeine [...] ”

Of course, plutonium is vastly more radio-active the uranium.

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Solar revolution: the economic transformation of the global energy industry

by Travis Bradford Three and a half GoldenYak award
2006, The MIT Press, 026202604X or 978-0262026048, hbk
$16.47 [] / 16.10 []

Solar revolution by Travis BradfordSolar Revolution is a very interesting book, especially on the costing of photovoltaic systems.

A 2006 publication, with about two hundred pages of substantive text, its first eighty-eight pages are mostly a mediocre review of how we arrived here. This area is very much better covered in Beyond oil and gas: The Methanol Economy, reviewed below. The rest of the book is far more useful, particularly as an analysis of how electricity supply systems may be costed. The second half argues that PV is rapidly becoming competitive with main-line generation and will steadily displace it.

The thesis of the author is that the future lies in distributed energy systems, which will steadily displace centralised provision (large power stations) in a very few decades. My impression is that he is rather overconfident on this point, but this does not detract from the usefulness of the book on costing issues.

Solar Revolution was written before some recent claims of considerable improvements in PV technology.

From p.155 [note: PV = photovoltaic]
“[...] People and organisations that share these values comprise a group of early PV technology adopters that are currently installing PV systems on their locations, including many retail and consumer-product organizations in the United States, such as Whole Foods, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Frito Lay.”

“ [...] in 2005, three of the world's largest lenders - Citigroup, Bank of America and JP Morgan/Chase - instituted environmental reviews of loans on industrial products that were designed to determine the effects these projects have in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental pollutants. These new loan-review policies reflect a growing awareness by lenders that corporate clients that do not adequately consider the potential effects of future environmental legislation and market trends risk a loss of competitiveness and credit worthiness compared to companies that do.”

other reviews on this book - yet again yak herders lead the world

“During the last decade (as Janet Sawin of the Worldwatch Institute has previously described), Japan has heavily subsidized the purchase of rooftop solar panels by home owners. The Japanese authorities began to do this, in part, because they wanted to meet the promises they made on their own soil at the Kyoto conference on global warming, but also, Bradford suggests, because they sensed that the industry could grow if it were encouraged by an initial investment. Within a few years, the subsidy had the desired effect - the volume of demand made both manufacturing and installation much more efficient, driving down the price. Today, the government subsidy has almost entirely disappeared, but demand continues to rise, for the panels now allow homeowners to produce their own power for the same price charged by the country's big utilities. Japan in some ways is a special case - blessed with few domestic energy sources, it has some of the world's most expensive electricity, making solar panels more competitive. On the other hand, it's not particularly sunny in Japan. In any event, Bradford says the Japanese demand for solar power (and now an equally large program in Germany) will be enough to drive the cost of producing solar panels steadily down. Even without huge technological breakthroughs, which he says are tantalizingly near, the current hardware can be made steadily cheaper. He predicts the industry will grow 20 to 30 percent annually for the next forty years, which is akin to what happened with the last silicon-based revolution, the computer chip. No surprise, too, about who will own that industry - almost all the solar panel plants are now in Japan and Germany.

“You can see signs of this change already. When I was in Tibet this summer, I repeatedly stumbled across the yak-skin tents of nomadic herders living in some of the most remote (and lofty) valleys in the world. They depended on yak dung, which they burned to cook food and heat their tents, and also often on a small solar panel hanging off one side of the tent, powering a lightbulb and perhaps a radio inside. Every small town had a shop selling solar panels for a price roughly equivalent to that of a single sheep...”
[Quoted from The New Village Green: Living Light, Living Local, Living Large, edited by Stephen Morris]

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Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy

by George A. Olah, Alain Goeppert, and G. K. Surya Prakash
Four GoldenYak award

Wiley-VCH, 2006, hbk, 3527312757,
$32.50 [] / £17.09 []

Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy  by Olanh and PrakashThis book tackles the problems of storage better than any other source I know.

A methanol economy is very close to the optimum procedure for a viable energy future, which I have come to believe in from my own studies, but with less confidence from within my much lesser knowledge of chemistry [1].

Refer to Replacing fossil fuels—the scale of the problem and Replacements for fossil fuels—what can be done about it?

This book has a excellent historical review of the fossil fuel economy, together with a comprehensive summary of the various routes to replacing the present fossil fuel economy with a methanol-carrier economy. The book is slapdash on nuclear power.



from another review: a relevant and rational book on the energy problems - about time

“Any serious energy policy must deal with three critical issues.”

First, economic: The policy must provide an energy resource base sufficient to allow for continued worldwide economic growth for the foreseeable future.”

Second, environmental: The policy must be compatible with the long-term flourishing of life on Earth, including human life and civilization.”

And finally, strategic: The policy must ensure that control of the Earth's energy resources, and thus its future, lies in the hands of free societies committed to human progress, and taken away from tyrannical and terrorism-promoting states.”

George Olah, recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is one of the giants of twentieth-century science, and his coauthors are solid technical men. Together they have written a profoundly important book on energy policy, laying out the basis for a technically achievable approach to all three dimensions of the energy problem.”

There is no shortage of energy experts with grand designs and proposals - from technophile dreams of an unworkable "hydrogen economy," to Malthusian calls for enforced economic limits through conservation, to socialist schemes for creating massive government-subsidized synthetic-fuel industries, to the libertarian faith in the Invisible Hand. Compared to such misguided alternatives, the competence and rationality of The Methanol Economy is refreshing.”








1. Here is a long and detailed explanation (Four GoldenYak award) from someone who does know the chemistry:

“As far as usable fuel is concerned, what we have managed to do is trade seven moles of methane for twenty moles of hydrogen. Seven moles of carbon dioxide have also been produced, exactly as many as would have been produced had we simply used the methane itself as fuel. The seven moles of methane that we used up, however, would have been worth 1435 kilocalories of energy if used directly, while the twenty moles of hydrogen we have produced in exchange for all our trouble are only worth 1320 kilocalories. So for the same amount of carbon dioxide released, less useful energy has been produced.

“The situation is much worse than this, however, because before the hydrogen can be transported anywhere, it needs to be either compressed or liquefied. To liquefy it, it must be refrigerated down to a temperature of 20 K (20 degrees above absolute zero, or -253 degrees Celsius). At these temperatures, the fundamental laws of thermodynamics make refrigerators extremely inefficient. As a result, about 40 percent of the energy in the hydrogen must be spent to liquefy it. This reduces the actual net energy content of our product fuel to 792 kilocalories. In addition, because it is a cryogenic liquid, still more energy could be expected to be lost as the hydrogen boils away during transport and storage.”

And so the problems with the alleged hydrogen economy extend and extend and extend. Reading recommended - it is entertaining!

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