CHAPTER 8 – Problems that Need Special Attention

a) Africa, the Beleaguered Continent

To know Africa is to appreciate its complexity. As the famous physiology professor, Jared Diamond, has written, Africa is the sole continent to span both the north and south temperate zones; it is also unique in its human diversity, for one quarter of the world’s languages are spoken only in Africa. These two factors explain a great deal about Africa today. Domesticated plants and animals from the Fertile Crescent in western Asia spread south (into Africa) across climate zones much more slowly than east and west. Thus, pockets of human hunter-gatherers persisted, even as Bantu-speaking African farmers slowly expanded their territory south, between 1,000 B.C.E. and 1,000 A.C.E. This long human presence in Africa has allowed the big animals to adapt and survive today, and it has also encouraged infectious human diseases to thrive, such as malaria, yellow fever, trypanosomiasis and AIDS.

One might well ask, is Africa, or at least its tropical core, doomed eternally to wars, poverty and devastating diseases? One could also ask, why is it that most Westerners who visit Africa return with feelings of optimism and compassion? I think the solution lies in Africa’s children. Our investment in their education would be far less costly than trying to stop ugly wars in the long run, far more compassionate, and crucial for reducing the galloping birth rate in Africa.

b) The Enigma of Nuclear Energy

Recently the world has been rethinking its position on nuclear power. One reason is that the costs of oil and natural gas have shot up dramatically. Another reason is that nuclear fission does not release carbon dioxide, so it has been described as an “environmentally friendly” source of electricity. Skeptics, however, say that it is a poor investment and a worse security risk. Let us examine some crucial facts:

In the past half-century nuclear energy has emerged from behind a wall of military secrecy to become a widely used source of commercial electricity. Despite the high construction costs and special risks, there are now 441 reactors working in 30 nations. Almost half of these reactors are in Europe. While the nuclear share of total electrical output is less than 20% in USA, there are 6 European countries (France, Lithuania, Slovakia, Belgium, Sweden and the Ukraine), in which it exceeds 50%, and many more where it exceeds 30%. Nuclear energy advocates urge the world to increase nuclear power output 10-fold by the end of the century, but few are heeding this advice. Still, because most reactors now in use are over 20 years old at a time of growing concern over the climate change issue, there is a consensus that we should maintain the nuclear share of electrical output at the current level as a “bridge” to future clean energy technologies. Even this proposal upsets many environmentalists, who claim that nuclear power is a false solution, pushed as part of a clever public relations campaign by nuclear industrial interests. Reasons given for this viewpoint are many, but they boil down to two central issues: concerns over the safety and security of storing or reprocessing “spent” isotopes, and fear that we will allow ourselves to be distracted from the need to invest in moderate-scale, renewable energy systems. Let us look into both issues more deeply.

Back in the 1950's decision-makers in USA decided to follow Admiral Rickover's decision to use uranium oxide pellets stacked in zirconium alloy rods in water as the reactor medium. The dangerous by-product, plutonium, was considered an asset back then, for it would contribute to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, a significant opportunity to use molten salts was missed, especially salts of THORIUM, a "fertile" metal of slightly lower atomic weight that could easily be made fissile (able to maintain a chain reaction). Now that a movement of dedicated engineers and physicists have formed an organization to point out the huge advantages of liquid thorium over solid uranium (6), it is difficult to persuade the politicians and utility owners to change the established infrastructure to the much simpler, cheaper and safer unpressurized system that supports the use of liquid thorium (7).

Finally, we return to the problem of our fear of distraction: This has already driven a rift between highly respected environmentalists in the U.K. Purists are determined to direct all of our energies into developing wind and solar energy, fearing that any expansion of nuclear power would sap the former initiatives. Pragmatists doubt that we will have sufficient energy from wind and solar power to satisfy our growing appetite without using nuclear energy for several more decades to fill the potential energy gap. The pragmatists seem to be holding sway in Europe, while the purists dominate the scene in North America. When realistic concerns about nuclear waste disposal are added to hypothetical concerns about nuclear terrorism, there remains little enthusiasm for building new nuclear plants in U.S.A., let alone maintaining the old ones.


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