Thursday, March 24, 2011

Further Reasons to Be Hesitant About Nuclear Power

As you can tell, I am quite ambivalent about nuclear power.  On the one hand, I think more widespread use of nuclear energy is better than continuing to burn coal. On the other hand, I think nuclear is a foolish stopgap measure--it has it's own problems and is not where humanity needs to end our quest for the energy alternative to carbon. 

After last night's post, I started thinking even more, and I want to articulate several against nuclear power that I cannot handily ignore.  While the accusations of just being misinformed about the risk and thus afraid and alarmist are often leveled against nuclear power opponents, I don't find that to be true about all of them.  Sure, nuclear power can be scary and that is bound to rally strong opposition, but many of the intelligent people I know who oppose it do so for reasons more sophisticated than how scary it is.  I think they have decent arguments, which I will sum up below:

1.) As I address last night, we still have not decided what to do with the waste, which is a problem on a timescale we may not be equipped to deal with.  Sitting in cooling ponds on reactor sites is not a permanent solution--but you know, I really don't want it buried near me, either.  As I mentioned, this problem is probably more relevant to future generations than it is people currently alive, but there is an ethical problem with creating such a concerning problem and dumping it on future generations--perhaps mitigated by future technology that can solve the problem better than we can now.

2.) Nuclear is too expensive--more expensive by far than the conventional coal or natural gas plants, and more expensive than renewable energy--certainly more expensive than renewable energy could and will be as technology gets cheaper and if politicians stopped dismissing it's potential. Why waste time on such a costly and risky fix?

Perhaps that argument is weak sauce when compared to the benefits of lots of non-greenhouse-gas energy.

The other argument is philosophical:

3.) Nuclear power is just a distraction.  This is essentially the argument I tried to make earlier--although I argue that it is unfortunately a necessary one.  However, some of my colleagues are bold enough to say that since the time for an energy paradigm shift is nigh, let's do it right the first time.  Don't do something you know creates another unacceptable problem when you know what the real solution is, and that solution is renewable energy, most likely mixed with a more sustainable use of fossil fuels.  If we wait until a convenient "later" to switch from nuclear to renewable energy, later may never come, or will come only after a host of problems with steep human and economic costs forces us to switch.  At worst, a focus on nuclear energy will overshadow and thus further hinder development of renewable energy.

There is considerable debate over whether renewable energy, whether in current or future form, can really power some/most/all of our energy needs.  My experience with it leads me to believe that with not-so-distant future innovation, yes, it will be sufficient by itself, but with current technology, there is plenty of potential but the distribution and storage of energy has to change dramatically for us to really assess how much of our society we can power with it. If we focus on renewable energy, we will make those changes out of necessity.  If we focus on nuclear instead, we won't, because nuclear already fits into the "central production location creating power as is demanded" paradigm, and renewable energy, which doesn't work that way, will stay on the margins.  We could argue that we need nuclear to get to the carbon emissions reductions we desperately need to get to--or we could argue that necessity is the mother of invention and without relying on nuclear, necessity will drive us to skip the intermediate step and throw ourselves directly into the most sustainable solution that technology has given us so far, which is renewable energy.

I am swayed by that argument, because not only do I "believe" in the ideal of renewable energy but also of the imperative to use it--I see it in my work. Solar farms are not just a happy fuzzy butterflies pipe dream, my region is seeing ever larger and more powerful solar arrays being commissioned every month. It's a case of "perfect" verses "good," a phrase an environmental engineer I know uses to describe the balance he walks between pushing his company for sustainable solutions and doing what makes sense to continue to have manufacturing and the resultant jobs stay in the United States and be profitable.

Letting a drive for perfection get in the way of taking incremental steps, of choosing to do what is at least better than doing nothing, is a bad idea, especially if insisting on perfection only gets in the way of taking any steps at all.  But so, too, is getting complacent with marginal improvements, and not using will and vision to pursue the alternative that has the most benefits and the lowest cost, just because getting there is not an easy task.


  1. I think your hesitation toward nuclear energy is valid, but there are some things to consider.

    1. Nuclear waste can be recycled. Japan and France use nuclear reactors to produce a significant percentage of their energy and they have only a fraction of the waste because as much as 95% to 99% of it can be recycled. Many would argue that there is a national security risk to recycling fuel, but, again, Japan and France have been doing it for several decades with no problems.

    2. Nuclear reactors generate a tremendous amount of energy and they are available now. I don't buy the argument that they aren't safe. The reactors in Japan were hit by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a Tsunami with no Chernobyl like explosions or major releases of radiation. Was some radiation released? Sure, but compare the effects of that radiation to the BP oil spill or your standard coal mine. Not to mention the impact natural gas extraction has on the water supply.

    3. Leaning more heavily on nuclear reactors does not mean we can't dramatically increase our use of the alternative energy sources you describe. The fact of the matter is that they are not being implemented fast enough or on a large enough scale to mitigate our consumption of coal and other fossil fuels. Increasing the number of nuclear reactors would do that and profitably.

    4. Speaking of profits, cost is not really an argument against them either. Nuclear plants are profitable and companies all over the country are chopping at the bit to build them. What's more, increasing the number of plants in the country will be good for the job market and the economy as I believe it will drive down the cost of energy.

    To conclude, I am not an opponent of alternative energy sources. I think we as a nation need to adopt the policy that we will consume the energy that we use. Nuclear reactors have risk, don't get me wrong, but I don't understand why those risks are so much more damning than the risks of oil extraction, natural gas extraction, and coal mining. I would argue that the risk to public health and the environment of oil/natural gas/coal far, far, far out way the risks of nuclear plants and I know there are nations full of people that both agree with me and are reaping the benefits of cheaper, cleaner energy. It seems like there is a battle taking place between supporters of nuclear and supporters of other alternative energies and I'm not really sure why. All I know is the providers of coal, oil, and natural gas are the ones that are winning and public health and the environment are losing.

  2. Sorry it took me so long to get back to this--if you're still there! Thank you for your comments--I was trying less to argue a side definitively as I was to articulate what the arguments actually are. To your points:

    1.) Yes, it can be recycled, and the US govn't doesn't currently allow us to go that way because of the whole bomb thing. I suspect that we do have the science to make that a moot point--we can and possibly have figured out a reactor that can make re-processible fuel without also making bomb material. If we can do that, that would definitely sway some folks toward nuclear technology, because reprocessing takes away the really really long half-life waste.

    2.)Your point about disasters from OTHER energy sources: oil spills, mountaintop removal, etc, is a really important one, one I thought about but failed to bring up in my posts. I agree that those disasters have generally been worse in scale and going to nuclear would have the very happy side benefit of making those sorts of things less common.

    The one reason I would posit that a nuclear disaster could still be more damning than those disasters is that nuclear radiation lasts such a long time. The all-out-destruction from oil or coal disasters is much worse, but will start being restored by ecosystems themselves within a few generations. Whereby nuclear waste is going to be around for thousands of years...but aside from catching on fire and spreading, I doubt that even so the destruction from an accident with waste would be worse--it would just be with is for a much longer time. Still, environmental disaster is environmental disaster.

    3.) You're right, but they could be, with the right policies. In North Carolina, solar capacity is growing by 900% each year. Is there any reason why nuclear and renewable friendly policies could not co-exist? I don't know, honestly.

    4.) Nobody wants to insure them, so when something goes wrong, the taxpayer ensures them--and that's a crappy setup. Still, I'm not an expert on nuclear financing, so I'm inclined to agree that cost is not really a big issue.