Should Nuclear Energy Be in the Mix of Preferred Energy Sources?

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Nuclear energy is like religion or politics. Almost no one, it seems, can separate their biases and emotional attachments from an objective assessment of the worth of this energy source. And yes, I count myself among the non-objective.

The disaster that continues to unfold in Japan since last Friday has put a renewed focus on nuclear power generation. The earthquake and tsunami double whammy that hit Japan's nuclear plants has caused explosions, partial meltdowns, and some release of radioactive materials. (The Christian Science Monitor has put together a concise timeline of events in this nuclear crisis.)

Naturally, the anti-nuclear folks are pointing to the problems and saying this is further proof that we need to shut down the nukes. Meanwhile, the other side is pumping out defense after defense of the nuclear industry, explaining why there's no need to panic and extolling the virtues of nuclear energy.

Until recently, I was in the first camp, adamantly opposed to nuclear power for several reasons. I participated in demonstrations against nuclear power and weapons and even went to an anti-nuclear conference in Washington, DC in 1991. (That was also the first time I got to hear Amory Lovins, one of my early energy efficiency heroes.) Chief among the reasons I opposed this technology are:

  • Dangers of radioactive materials getting into the environment
  • Expense
  • Plants or waste attracting terrorists
  • Radioactive waste hanging around for a long, long time

My opposition began to soften around 2006, after spending a lot of time studying, writing about, and attending conferences on peak oil. When I began to understand the magnitude of the problem of dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and the inability of renewable energy sources to make up the difference, I was forced to take a new look at nuclear energy. It's difficult (for me anyway) to hold two opposing beliefs simultaneously, you see.

Once we cross the peak of global oil production, if we haven't already, the gap between projected demand and current energy supplies will grow. To fill that gap, our number one option is going to be energy conservation. The end of growth will almost certainly be a factor in helping us achieve that as well.

If we're to avoid economic and social collapse, however, we've got to do everything we can. Steve Andrews, one of the founders of ASPO-USA and whom I first heard speak at the 2004 RESNET conference, likes to say there's no silver bullet for peak oil. Instead, we have to attack the problem with silver BBs.

When you look at the issue that way and see how severe the consequences could be for failing to act, nuclear energy isn't such a bad option. Yes, it still has the problems I listed above, but collapse is so much worse that nuclear energy seems like it must be part of the mix.

Of course, it's only a stopgap measure because if the world jumps on the nuclear bandwagon, peak uranium isn't far down the road. We just need nuclear energy to get us to the point where we've figured out how to have a steady-state economy and power it with renewable energy.

The big question many are asking now, though, is if the nuclear problems in Japan right now are so serious that we should put the brakes on the nuclear revival. What's happening in Japan is interesting because Japan is one of the most safety-minded countries in the world. Their reactors have plenty of redundancy built in, and their disaster planning naturally included preparing for earthquakes and tsunamis.

Somehow, they didn't foresee the particular chain of events that transpired and now are scrambling to keep the radioactivity contained as well as they can. When the backups of backup systems fail, you know you've got a problem. In an editorial called Japan’s nuclear power plant crisis: Some context, Matthew Bunn stated:

This reinforces the view that whenever someone says there is less than a one-in-a-million chance of a complex system failing, there is more than a one-in-a-million chance they have made unjustified assumptions in their estimate.

Although serious nuclear incidents are rare, when they happen they can be catastrophic and widespread. The Japanese incident shouldn't be as bad as Chernobyl, but it's still enough to make me take another look at my newfound acceptance of nuclear energy. I see myself not as a nuclear advocate, however, but an energy realist, and I believe we need to weigh all the information before us to make an intelligent choice.

I don't like nuclear energy, with its radioactivity, expense, and potential for disaster. I also am not a fan of mountaintop removal to get coal, the release of mercury into the atmosphere during the burning of coal, or acid rain. Unfortunately, we're in a bit of a bind with this energy transition we're going through this century and we have to make choices that, as with government elections, often boil down to the lesser of the available evils.

In the end, I still think using nuclear energy will be necessary. We need to learn our lessons from Japan, as we did with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and move forward with as much caution as possible.

 

Nuclear plant photo by Paul J Everett from flickr.com, used under Creative Commons license. This photo shows a cooling tower at a US plant, not one of the affected plants in Japan.

Comments

Sean @ SLS Construction / AlaGBS

I am actually impressed at how well all 53 reactors held up - sure they planned for an earthquake, but an 8.9 /9 followed up by a 30' wall of water just shows how well constructed they were.  
 
As for worrying about radiation leaks from an operating facility, I think you should look at your own house first. The chances are greater that you are going to be exposed to more radon from there, then you ever will be from a reactor.

Gary Kahanak

I, too, am an energy realist, or a pragmatic environmentalist. In a perfect world, we could all have tiny carbon footprints, and drive cars with shiny solar power shells. That world is a fantasy. We are pushing 7 billion people, soon to be 9 billion, and climate disruption is upon us. Wind and solar currently provide 0.4% of global energy demand. If we put any stock at all in evidence-based analysis such as the International Panel on Climate Change, or James Hansen, the NASA climatologist, we will know that the world really needs to be net zero carbon NOW. Obviously, that's a pipe dream, too, but we do need to move fast. 
 
There are over a billion people now with no access to power, other than burning sticks and dung. As a matter of social and environmental justice, these people have a right to power. While conservation and efficiency are appropriate responses for developed nations such as the U.S., at the same time the world desperately needs massive amounts of new near-zero carbon baseload capacity to 1) take all coal-burning plants off-line within 20 years, 2) meet the expected doubling or tripling of global energy demand by 2050 (that figure assumes aggressive conservation and efficiency), 3) meet the additional demand for capacity posed by the electrification of transportation systems, and by the expected tremendous amount of power needed for desalination, resulting from drought, larger population and shrinking glaciers. 
 
Is nuclear power perfectly without risk? Of course not. On the other hand, for the last 50 years nuclear power has proven to have the lowest mortality rate per unit power produced of ANY other power source. So now we're talking about perception of risk, something humans do very poorly. The way I see it, fossil fuels are a planet-killer. It is happening now, without doubt. Direct mortality effects from air pollution alone are estimated at about one million deaths per year worldwide. The nuclear power industry has caused zero deaths in the U.S. in 50 years. Nuclear power, as with everything else, has its risks, but we must put them into perspective. 
 
Lastly, the Japan nuclear facility is 40-year old technology that has performed admirably well in the circumstances. What is being billed as a major nuclear catastrophe will end up having no more than local consequences.  
 
New nuclear technologies exist with passive inherent safety features, and with a closed fuel cycle that essentially eliminates the nuclear waste and proliferation issues. See www.bravenewclimate.com for more information (a science-based, non-industry funded site). Nuclear Power---Yes, Please!

Allison Bailes

Sean
 
Yes, they have held up well. At least, so far. We'll see what happens in the coming days as they continue to try to keep the reactors cool. When you're using helicopters to dump water on an overheating reactor, though, you know things have gotten a bit out of control. Now we just have to hope and pray that the containment structures will hold and prevent a catastrophic release of radioactive material.  
 
In normally operating reactors, the risks, in my opinion, are acceptable, at least when put in the broader context. The mining, fuel processing, waste disposal, and extreme events can certainly create some serious problems, although radon is not really an issue with reactors. It's all the other radioactive stuff that can be.

Allison Bailes

Gary
 
All good points! I happen to think peak oil trumps climate change and may have a bigger impact this century, but we'll just have to see how things play out. Clearly we have problems with energy and population. We need to attack them every way we can.

John Poole

Allison, Sean, and Gary: You guys all make very well-reasoned points. The thing that screams out at me while reading both the article and comments (esp. Gary's comment) is, while conservation and clean sources are essential, what do you do to reduce demand? Demand seems to be driven by population growth first, and then lifestyle choices second. I'm not in favor of enforced controls or limits on either (via legislation, etc.). But I really don't see what can be done, long term, to slow the rate of demand, and view that as a real roadblock toward achieving clean, sustainable energy & a steady state economy.

Allison Bailes

John
 
You've hit upon the fundamental problem - population growth. That's the driving force behind most of our other problems, so at some point we have to deal with it. If we don't, Nature will.  
 
I don't know what the best answer is, but we have to address the idea of growth because growth is not sustainable. We keep pushing off doing anything about it to the indefinite future, but it clearly cannot continue indefinitely.  
 
At what point does the light bulb go on and people realize this? When we're up to one person per square mile? The number 9 billion is thrown out a lot as if it's a kind of natural stopping point, but is it? It's just a matter of simple arithmetic.

Gary Kahanak

@Allison, I agree, peak oil is a wild card. The immediate concern is not actually running out. Rather, when the price spikes, it's the economic downturn that will limit the world's ability to respond effectively. All the more reason to quickly electrify our transportation systems with big increases in non-fossil fuel baseload. 
 
@John, I agree, demand is tough to control; it is unrealistic to expect conservation alone to save the world. In the case of the multitudes in dire poverty, we have no right to prevent their access to power. Indeed, it has been shown that giving the "bottom billion" access to power is perhaps the best way to control increases in population. So, I say let's assume global energy demand will increase, and let's meet that demand with a massive roll-out of standardized, modular, factory-produced, passive safety, closed fuel cycle 4th-generation nuclear reactors. It's realistic, and it's feasible. The alternatives are not pretty, or are just wishful thinking. 
 
BTW, I appreciate the opportunity to have a dialogue on this topic. If we can't noodle this one out, nothing else really matters.

Allison Bailes

Gary
 
We seem to be on the 'bumpy plateau' of global oil production now, and you hit on one of the biggest changes we're going to see this century - the electrification of transportation. That's why we need nuclear energy. That's why it's so important to make our homes and other buildings more energy efficient. 
 
In addition to giving the 'bottom billion' access to power, another key to solving the population problem is raising the level of education. Educated people with more access to power have lower rates of reproduction.

Gary Kahanak

Bingo! Couldn't have said it better myself, Allison. With transportation electrification and water desalination, we could be looking at global electricity demand five to six times today's levels by 2050. If developed nations don't buckle down on building energy efficiency, that demand will be even higher. Lots of work out there....let's get it done!

alex

completely agree with Allison on his statement on growth (that is population growth). It seems as whatever the topic might be, all conclusions lead to the fact that demand is led by increased number of people on this planet. To tackle this problem though is a very sensitive undertake and we all may agree that nature is the only one that could indeed have a say w/o creating more debate on why or how. But back to the nuclear energy, I do believe that, despite all these accidents and quick adverse reaction from those opposing it, it will continue to be a viable, sustainable and future option for affordable source of energy. There are more pros than cons in my opinion, particularly in our century, to guide our efforts and attention around this type of energy and learn from how could we improve on aking sure accidents like those do not happen again. 
 
 
 
Thanks for the opportunity to participate.

Dave

My comments are in response to the talk of population control. Do I think the world can sustain 50 billion people? Not likely. My only concern is that discussion on population control must eventually lead to who decides and what criteria are given. People are not kind. They are power hungry and selfish. I am concerned that reducing the term, "population control," to an antiseptic, emotionless term dilutes the fact that we are discussing how and when people may reproduce.  
 
As it relates to energy demand, population growth is a monster but I think we should be focused on innovation and education.  
 
When I saw that solar array at Sandra National Labs in my youth, it convinced me of the special place we have in history. That place is to lead us back full circle to living in harmony with our environment. Not in direct opposition to it.  
 
Every little contribution we each make and every innovation that comes from our efforts gets us that much closer.  
 
Imagine what change we could make if we convinced the Chinese people to embrace conservation? 
 
Oh and as a child of a nuclear energy worker, I grew up within a hundred miles of three mile island. I got to tour the 2nd reactor at Limerick. Walked right thru the core area where if you did it today, you'd be dead.  
 
Nuclear power is a crazy answer to our problems.  

Allison Bailes

Alex
 
Yep, population is the driving force. Dr. Albert Bartlett put it best in his famous and oft-given talk, Arithmetic, Population, and Energy
 
 
Dave
 
If you don't think the planet can sustain 50 billion people, what's your number? How do you propose that we stop before we get there if we don't have a plan? Yes, it's certainly not easy to do, and there's all kinds of ways that it can be done badly, but plan we must. If not, we risk more war, famine, disease, and all the other ways Nature will control the population if we don't. I encourage you to watch the videos by Dr. Bartlett.

ed burns

Great discussion.. excellent points all round.. 
As for myself, I am curios why folks would all get so uppity about nuclear power when we all sit and bathe in a sea of EM radiation from PC's Plasma TV's Cellphones, Electricity transmission lines, wireless networks, X-Ray machines etc etc etc etc The measurable impact of all this EM radiation is far more than the average Joe would ever be exposed to from Nuclear Power Generation 
Until we reach the point where truly green technologies become economic at Utility Scale, we are going to have to feed our energy addiction with something. And Nuclear is going to have to be a piece, whether we like it or not. 
At least toxic by products are highly visible 7 concentrated, unlike the diffused toxic by products of most other energy generation processes, including “green” energy 
For a tiny % all the energy that gets wasted here everyday, we could put spent fuel rods into Saturn V’s and fire them at the sun, which in case you didn’t know was one big nuclear reactor.. end of problem 
Ed