Book Reviews from ATOM — 1980

19791981

Number 284, June

Energy and the Future
David A. Hardy
World’s Work Ltd, Kingswood, Surry, 1979
107 pp, £6·50

Most technical books appearing on the market these days are well written but — often — poorly illustrated. It is very satisfying to review a well presented book with excellent colour illustrations, particularly on such an important topic as energy and the future.

David Hardy is a leading space artist and was co–author (with Patrick Moore) of a book, Challenge of the Stars, for which he produced 36 paintings. He has both written and illustrated this new book on energy — a very wide–ranging subject for a mere 107 pages.

The book is written for an intelligent lay–person with appreciable amounts of information that would interest A–level students. However, the high standard of illustration makes it understandable by a much younger audience. Unusually, the book is set out not in chapters but under 50 topic headings all carefully listed on the contents page ; there is also a comprehensive index.

The first half of the book is a basic treatment of thermodynamics, atomic structure, electricity, radiation, nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. All these topics are explained in a simple and precise manner marred only by the factual error on page 49 that the neutron absorbing control rods in an atomic pile are of calcium (instead of cadmium).

The real treatment of energy starts on page 52 with a comprehensive review of fossil fuels including their formation, usage, reserves, and finally North Sea oil and gas. Again, this section is well presented.

There is a short but useful section on the nuclear alternatives including thermal reactors, breeder fast reactors and fusion.

The last 25 pages are a courageous attempt to describe the present position on geothermal energy and on renewable energy sources — solar energy, wave power, wind energy, tidal barriers and biomass ending with a sensible summary of the overall energy position. It is clear that the author has done his researches carefully.

This is a very useful general book on energy which many will be pleased to have on their shelves and which fills a very obvious gap in the market. The high standard of presentation and use of colour is reflected in the comparatively high cost which must limit the total circulation. A paper–back edition with monotone illustration could have a much wider market ; but the energy situation is changing rapidly and all these books need revision every couple of years.

F.J. Stubbs

Commonsense in Nuclear Energy
Professor Sir Fred Hoyle and Geoffrey Hoyle
Heinemann Educational Books
88 pp (paper), £1·95

This is a good little book. As a reviewer, and from my seat as editor of ATOM, I am only saddened to think that it will probably not reach the people it should : the recent emergence of sundry anti–nuclear campaign groupings in Britain augurs a closing of minds to the sorts of argument the Hoyles deploy. To paraphrase Huxley, the great tragedy of the environmentalist movement could be (if only they would let it happen!) the slaying of beautiful hypotheses by ugly facts* — and this book is full of them.

They start with the proposition that historians of the future may well see the discovery of nuclear energy as the most important event of the 20th century. The world population had risen by the end of the 19th century to a level at which energy requirements could no longer be met by what are nowadays called renewable resources — wood grown in forests, wind, and water. Society could only continue by making a raid on fossil fuels, first on coal and then on oil ; the raid was savagely pernicious in that it served to drive up the world’s population to higher levels still, so that the prospect was one of arriving at fuel exhaustion at the very moment when the population attained by far its greatest number in human history.

Nuclear energy changed what had become an apparently hopeless situation within a couple of momentous decades, they write. The following paragraph from their introduction is worth quoting in full.

It is ironic that, whereas people hardly troubled themselves about the previously–threatened disaster, as soon as the seemingly inevitable prospect of an energy collapse was removed people began to worry. Only an immensely powerful technology could have lifted society almost in an instant out of its previous impasse, and it is the nature of every technology to have negative as well as positive implications. Although nuclear bombs and nuclear energy for civil use both came from the same body of new knowledge, there has never been any question of their practical technologies becoming inadvertently mixed. At a political level, however, there is an important way in which the bad and the good really can become intertwined. If the developed nations really do run into a desperate energy shortage, the tensions arising from the lop–sided geographical distribution of dwindling fossil fuels are only too likely to lead to presently–existing bombs being launched on the world. Energy shortage seems a sure prescription for nuclear war.NOTE

So much for the preamble. The rest of the book contains some useful stuff on nuclear technology, but this is far less important to the argument than the evidence the Hoyles present for the hazards inherent in the use of other energy sources, and the myths surrounding them that they destroy. Witness : after recalling the tone of comments made immediately after the Flixborough disaster (It is completely amazing. We cannot understand it.) they note drily that if the chemical industry had traditionally employed a fraction of the care which the nuclear industry has taken from its beginning, the cause of the Flixborough disaster would not have seemed so amazing... [T]he one thing which came intact and safe through the holocaust was a container of radioactive material. Witness : A few months ago with thick snow outside the window, with an icy wind blowing from the Arctic, solar stood absolutely nowhere. Yet one can argue that the energy requirement of society is a mere 1/100 of 1 per cent of the energy of all the sunlight coming through the Earth’s atmosphere to ground level... Snag number one : if solar energy is used to heat domestic hot water, the warm water needed on a cold winter day cannot normally have been heated the same day, or even heated the previous week or month... This means that the warm–water storage tank must retain heat for about six months. It may be possible to acheive this. Yet a tithe of the effort needed for such a project, applied to insulation within the home itself, would cut fuel consumption in a marked degree. They then consider the use of solar energy for electricity production, and conclude that unless solar power stations in space can be developed in the long term, there is no satisfactory high–technology method for adapting solar to the more sophisticated needs of modern society. The problem is not of energy quantity but of energy concentration. To be industrially effetive, an energy source must be compact, which is precisely where nuclear wins and solar fails.

As with solar energy, so with natural gas (nearing exhaustion), and coal. Coal, they note, has always been an inconvenient material ; it has always been dangerous to win out of the ground, and it has always been a source of pollution. Above all, they claim an overwhelming argument against a long–term reliance on coal, in that it is not distributed uniformly over the world. While the USSR and USA might contemplate a long–term reliance, the rest of the industrialised world cannot do so — at any rate without becoming energy–dependent on the USSR and USA. The Hoyles acknowledge that world resources of nuclear fuels are not uniformly distributed either, but they are better distributed than coal ; and by using breeders the need for more than small quantities of nuclear fuel can eventually be avoided.

Ahah, but what about the nuclear waste disposal issue? Here, the Hoyles deploy the arguments the nuclear industry has been trying to get across for some time ; testily, they write : One might think that, in the face of these arguments, the protestors would now desist. They do not desist, however, because their aim is not to make correct scientific statements but to make emotional propaganda. There is almost no end to the imaginary scenarios which a deliberately obstructive critic can invent, and responsible people who understand that an energy crisis is fast approaching must at some point lose patience.

This book is something of a briefcase stuffed with position papers on energy sources, as noted, and rather oddly on the putative disaster in the Urals, breeders and the US Non–Proliferation act, and who is doing the proliferating? (sovereign states, in short, and not very many of them). Even more oddly, perhaps, the book ends by recalling the situation of the railway industry in 1825, psychological very similar to that of the nuclear industry today. That industry survived ; the Hoyles write : We all know that George Stephenson was a hero in his own generation. So too will be the men who make the first commercial breeder reactor in our own generation. Well, maybe. At least we can hope so.

J. Daglish

* T.H. Huxley, Collected Essays : Biogenesis and Abiogenesis : The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

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