Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nuclear Power Now?

August 1945.  America uses the horrifying and horrible power of atomic bombs in nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Today we struggle with our attitudes toward the use of nuclear power for domestic, peaceful purposes.  We could attribute this unease to some sort of collective squeamishness related to those days in 1945 but my informal survey reveals far less moral concern lurking behind our reticence.  The possibility of meltdown and the long-term safety of waste disposal top the list of considerations with, "We'll just wind up paying a fortune for nuclear power, too" close behind.

Given the cost of construction, containment, waste disposal, and operations it's naive to argue that nuclear power will wind up being a bargain in the long run.  There's just no way to guaranty it.  Then again, should monetary benefits be the test?  What if a switch to nuclear power sources would make a significant positive difference in Global Climate Change?  What if a a switch would put us ahead in terms of our carbon footprint -- that distressing number we can each calculate on sites like EarthLab -- by causing less damage to the environment in the long run?

Unfortunately, that's another question without a solid answer.  Any nuclear waste disposal schemes have to remain effective for generations.  They have to withstand damage by seismic events while ensuring there is no leakage.  It won't do us any good to reduce our carbon imprint while poisoning our groundwater and soil.  Given the current level of technology, can we safely and effectively dispose of nuclear waste for all time?  How about for the time it will take to develop and test more effective methods?  Is that a gamble worth taking?

And what about a nuclear accident?  Today we can build reactors with passive safety features.  Features that use the laws of physics to slow nuclear reactions in the event of a problem -- without the need for immediate human intervention.  These smart facilities don't rely upon effective communication, proper operating procedures, or human cooperation to keep things under control in the event of a malfunction.  Is that enough?

As recently as twenty or thirty years ago -- the days of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island -- the state of technology gave us reason to pause.  Are our concerns warranted today?  Will nuclear power be more expensive in the long run?  Will we have difficulty disposing of the waste effectively?  Are nuclear accidents with severe implications a forgone conclusion?  Is it time for America to embrace the use of nuclear power?

Please weigh in with your thoughts.


Red Craig said...

Thanks for inviting comment.

Mainly you are writing here about your concerns over waste. First, consider that nuclear-energy wastes have never caused harm to anyone or anything, so while the subject deserves attention there's no cause for despair. The wastes will not need to stay buried for thousands of years because they are much too valuable. Reprocessing the wastes separates out the valuable uranium and transuranic actinides to use as fuel. The remaining wastes are only 3% of what was there before and lose their toxicity in much less time. [chart] Many geologic places, such as caves or abandoned mines, could store those wastes safely. Besides that, proven technology exists to irradiate the wastes into other, shorter-lived materials.[source] To deal with the wastes this way doesn't require any technological breakthroughs, just a political decision.

In contrast, coal wastes are many times more dangerous and stay toxic forever. In fact, they don't lose any of their toxicity except for a negligible part of their radioactivity. Why don't people post blogs about how burning coal is unthinkable?

To put this in perspective, consider: A 1000-MW coal plant generates 300,000 metric tonnes of toxic waste per year, not including the filth that is released to the atmosphere. A comparably-sized nuclear plant produces 23 tonnes per year, enough to partly fill a railroad boxcar. Can you see that 23 tonnes is much less than 300,000 tonnes? But it gets better. Reprocessing the spent fuel reduces the wastes by 97%. So the same nuclear plant will produce only 0.7 tonnes per year.

There's been a lot of loose talk about costs. The French and Japanese have been building nuclear plants right along and for them nuclear energy has been cheaper even then coal. In the US, coal is so cheap nuclear seems expensive in comparison. But coal pollution kills literally thousands of Americans every month [source]. If coal-burning utilities had to meet reasonable clean-air standards or to pay for the damage they caused, nuclear would be much cheaper. By the way, none of the renewable-energy sources promoted by nuclear opponents are any cheaper, and they have the unsatisfactory feature of being unavailable much of the time.

No, nuclear accidents with severe implications are not a forgone conclusion. The reactor at Chernobyl was inherently unsafe and didn't have the layers of safety that make western reactors safe. Indeed, the Chernobyl reactor had no layers of safety. It was made of graphite, a flammable material, and covered by a sheet-metal shed to keep the rain off. Western reactors are made of steel and are built below ground and are encased in layers of steel and concrete. The Chernobyl reactor had instability built into it and at the time of the accident its only emergency shutdown system and its only emergency core cooling system were both disabled. In contrast, the accident at Three Mile Island destroyed the reactor but didn't harm anyone. No one was injured or made ill by that accident. The difference was the layers of safety.

But besides all that, the Three Mile Island accident gave valuable information to reactor designers. Any accidents that occur in the future will be even less serious than that one.

Consider what nuclear gets us:

(1) An electricity source that doesn’t depend on wind or sunlight or the limited amount of energy storage available, and emits virtually no greenhouse gases. It could reduce CO2 emissions by 40%.

(2) An energy-efficient way to produce hydrogen, which could be used directly in automobiles and trucks or added to biofuels to make their production higher by a factor of three. Presently, transportation accounts for about 33% of CO2 emissions; all of that could be eliminated through conservation, electrification, and alternate fuels.

(3) A huge reduction in air pollution, lowered trade deficits, and freedom from Middle-East involvements.

The simple truth is that we won't shut down all the homes and businesses when there isn't enough wind and sunlight to power them. We won't make people stay in their cold, dark houses. If nuclear energy isn't developed in a major way, the world will keep burning fossil fuels. Within fifty years nearly all the world's people will live in severe hardship and the natural environment will have been irreversibly altered.

Gina Hagler said...

Thanks for your post! I appreciate the opportunity to start a discussion on this topic on our blog.