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