Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Updated Fission Cost-Benefit Analysis

About six months ago, I posted my thoughts on the costs and benefits of nuclear power.  Nuclear power is a hot-point among we environmentalists:  some of us are staunchly, utterly opposed, some insist that it can be made reasonably safe and is an important piece of getting us out of this climate change mess.

In the context of the earthquake, tsumai, and corresponding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, it is certainly time to think about this once agian.

In my last post, I posed the question:  "In a cost-benefit analysis between a climate that is definitely warming up and changing even if we still don't know how much, and a remotely possible local but who knows maybe worldwide radiation induced horror, which would I choose?"

And I said I'd choose a warmer climate.

On further investigation I do not think I would choose a warmer climate, because the economic and human cost of billions of climate refugees, more frequent and stronger natural disasters, increased incidence of tropical disease, is clearly going to be more than the human cost of a nuclear disaster.  The human and economic cost of losing all of the land we're predicted to lose to rising seas enough would probably outweigh the cost of a nuclear disaster.   There is no such thing as a perfectly safe situation, the unthinkable happens, and not all contingencies can be planned or engineered for.  But we can learn from the mistakes of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the not-a-mistake-at-all situation in Fukushima.  Large scale disaster is unlikely, while climate disruption of some degree is almost a certainty.

However, I do not think nuclear is good for humanity; we have found that it and fossil fuels alike have consequences that, in a perfect world, are unacceptable for humanity.  Risks to health, environment, and well-being we should not settle for.  One day, we'll have to reckon with the consequences of those risks.

Right now, nobody has a good answer to what to do about nuclear waste.  No matter how safe nuclear power plants are--and there's good reason to think we can get really good at making those safe-- there is still the issue of the extremely hazardous waste they produce, that will be around for thousands of years.   Nobody wants it stored their community, threatening the integrity of their groundwater or their property values--and I don't blame them at all--but the concern is more than just a short-term one.

It seems incredibly naive to think we can isolate and keep that stuff out of the environment or the hands of terrorists for thousands of years.  Looking thousands of years into the future, it's not even a sure bet that the safeguards of a constant and well-governed state will be around to provide the stability that helps mitigate the risk.  We have been running reactors for forty years and we plan to make more and more waste, but we still do not have a solid plan for what to do with it even while a solid plan itself is laughable on the scale of thousands of years.

The upside to this is that we are likely to be able to to keep waste out of the environment for a few hundred years--although I'm not as optimistic about keeping it away from terrorists for that long--and the problems it will cause are left to far future generations, and are of unknown scope and who knows maybe they'll develop the technology to render it all harmless.

Since we've already left future generations a planet with an altered climate, morally I just can't feel good about that.  But we've got to fix this climate problem, morally you could say we owe it to the people alive right who expect to be alive throughout the next century to rapidly counteract greenhouse gas emissions.  Long-term, nuclear is not our answer--but we've already, however unknowingly, crossed the threshold into doing things that have steep and painful consequences with fossil fuels, and we have to deal and we have to act.

The technology for a truly sustainable energy exists and that isn't even counting future innovations, is getting cheaper and is expanding all the time, and ultimately needs to play the largest a role we can get it to play to have a society that can keep going without creating unacceptable risks. There is absolutely no reason to stop short of that goal.  That being said, nuclear provides an impressive amount of energy without producing greenhouse gases, and seems necessary to make a transition out of fossil fuels happen quickly and less painfully in light of the threat of climate change.

But then we need to transition out of that too, and really figure out how to solve the question of waste.

(Clarity note: I am not talking about Bomb-making potential when I refer to terrorists, being aware that most of the waste from the first few generation light water reactors doesn't make weapons-grade materials and that's one of their upsides in the eyes of the government.  However, it has always struck me that concentrated sources of a material that is dangerous to human life if entered into the atmosphere or groundwater would be a desirable sabotage target for the truly evil, and being suicidal wouldn't hurt.)

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