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It’s Time to Go Nuclear

Breaking liberal ranks, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in last week’s New York Times that Nukes are Green.  He’s right: nuclear power is a green option that it is irresponsible both socially and environmentally for America not to take.

As China and India come charging out of poverty, their newly minted middle classes are doing exactly what we do here in America with our money – buying things like cars, furnaces, and air conditioners which consume energy.  It is a great thing, a wonderful thing, that we’ve gone in two generations from having our mothers remind us of “the starving children in China” when we didn’t finish our peas to worrying that, if we don’t work hard enough, the Chinese will eat our lunch.  But there is no questioning the fact that “they” are consuming “our” energy.

Over the past forty years the price of oil has gone up and down with the vagaries of international politics.  Inflation-adjusted, it has actually gone down once you smooth out the graphs. The latest increase in energy prices is not a spike but a reflection of permanently greater demand relative to supply.  And, the more of the world that escapes poverty, the greater the demand is going to get,

It is an annoyance to those of us who can afford to blog to pay more at the gas pump.  It is a looming disaster in the parts of the developing world that are not developing at the same pace as India and China.  Mary and I were recently in the central Philippines where a generation of painful economic progress is in danger of being completely wiped out by the recent doubling of oil prices.  Here at home, the real burden of higher fuel prices falls disproportionately on those who can least afford to pay.

Yes, we can conserve better.  In fact we are, largely thanks to microelectronics.  We can all drive hybrid cars and perhaps we will.  Wind and solar have their place.  In fact, they would have more “place” if it were not for NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), the same force that stymies a new generation of nuclear power plants in the United States.  But demand for energy is going to keep growing no matter what we do in the US.  One of the corollaries of globalization is that we are NOT the world.

Fortunately, the rest of the world is not indulging its political correctness to the same extent that the US is.  France, not a country I usually want to emulate, generates a huge proportion of its power from a set of one-design nuclear plants with an excellent safety record.  China is nuclear in a big way.  (Certainly there are countries which we wish didn’t have nuclear power plants; but they haven’t stopped building them just because we don’t.) Our nukes, now all aging and obsolete, are a series of one-off designs because of a permitting process that forced engineers to negotiate design one plant at a time with the local opposition.  We are not building new nukes and the old ones will eventually have to be decommissioned.

Clearly we would like to get to a “hydrogen economy” for at least environmental reasons.  But fuel cells need to be charged electrically; they are a storage device for energy, not a source; really just more efficient batteries.  So the hydrogen economy is an electricity economy.  We could – and we are – generating more electricity from coal more cleanly than we used to.  But nuclear power is the only available option if the next generation pulls its cars into a service station to charge up rather than fill up.

There are two problems with nuclear power: safety and waste.  Of course, the same problems exist with fossil power as well.  Many people still die every year from the air pollution generated by burning fossil fuels.  Coal mining is safer than it was but still a hazardous occupation.  Foundering oil tankers aren’t a good thing, either.  Although some of the science of greenhouse gasses and global warming is suspect, it’s a dangerous experiment to keep changing the mix of the atmosphere.

It’s important to look at the risks of the alternatives so that we don’t set an impossibly high safety bar to the use of nuclear power.  One of the most effective tools of Luddites has been to insist on absolute safety.  Once that standard is established, nothing is possible.

Three Mile Island scared us for a while although evidence is pretty good that there were no casualties (except US nuclear power itself).  Chernobyl was clearly a disaster whose dimensions we’re still not sure of.  Bad design compounded by politicized and corrupt management is a dangerous thing, no doubt about it. As the Iron Curtain lifted, we found that much of Eastern Europe is an environmental disaster which still waits to be cleaned up.  I believe that we can design, build and operate nuclear power plants with less death and injury per kilowatt generated than the use of oil, coal, or natural gas.  That’s the criteria we have to use.

We do have to face up to the waste problem.  Right now most waste from US nukes is stored onsite  because we haven’t followed through on building a repository in Nevada.  Obviously, this onsite storage is a bad idea.  It is not long term containment.  It leave us with lots of locations where terrorists might try to obtain nuclear material.  The site in Nevada is REASONABLY safe (absolute standards aren’t appropriate; consider the alternatives).  Disposing safely of nuclear wastes is the US is a political, not an engineering, problem.

As long as I can remember, people have been saying that the US can’t go on being the world’s largest energy consumer.  Well, they’re right, not because we’re cutting back but because emerging giant economies in countries with huge populations are starting to consume their share.  It’s time for us to stop indulging a politically correct but scientifically absurd opposition to nuclear power.  It’s time for us to be socially and environmentally responsible by generating our fair share of clean energy.

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Comments

Poul

Great post, I see racial self-segregation all the time, and I want to investigate the issue more thoroughly.
I always find something new and interesting every time I come around here - thanks.

Apartmento

Addie,

Where do I buy one of these solar powered cars? I've never seen one at a car dealership. I've seen picture of the ones used in races but they only fit one person. The cockpits of solar powered cars are hot and cramped. An electric car is a possibility. A hybrid one is another. More advanced batteries (eg. hydrogen cells) could be used to store energy in the future.

Addie

You are so full of it. Nuclear power will never be safe. It destroys everything around us! It kills and/or harms people, animals and the enviorment. As you know, our country is the number one polluter in the entire world! That is not good. But we can still help! Chernobyl is STILL leaking and they have to put another concrete barrier around it! THERE IS NO SAFE WAY FOR NUCLEAR PLANTS!!! And how everyone is goinng around saying: "Well, let's us nuclear power plants! It doesen't destroy the ozone layer like burning coal plants do!" Whether you agree with that or not, nuclear power plants doesen't affect the fact that the number once cause by Global Warming is coming from tail pipe emmisons!! And there are so many alternate sources we could use INSTEAD of nuclear power or coal burning. Coal is a non-reuseable recourse. Which means when all the coal is used up, there is no more coal! You cannot make anymore! And your talking about how coal is much better now then it was before! That is a lie. They can clean coal and make it safe. The only bad thing about that is it is too pricy. And the companies don't want to use so much money on it. I mean, it's just peoples lives . . why should they care? Or the oil! President Bush says we have and "addiction" to oil. And he uses that excuse to spike the gas prices up. Well, we wouldn't have an "addiction" if he would stop the flow of oil coming into our countries and made us use ALTERNATE REASOURES. What about solar energy? Or energy made my wind or water? Why aren't we using that? I'll tell you the reason. Because our government are greedy bastards who just want to make more money. The president could force the car companies to produce more cars running on solar energy. But because he is a greedy bastard who only wants money he will not do this. They only want us to do this so they can con more and more money from us. Like they don't have enough to begin with. I bet they only want more money so they can use it to buy nuclear weapons. So, they can drop bombs and cause nuclear bloodbaths. Because they are greedy and don't care about anyone but themselves'. We could use solar energy to power our houses, electronics, and cars. But will the government do this? Of course not, they just want money. And, because of that, we are killing ourselves'. Because we are destroying the ozone layer, and incase you people don't know, the ozone layer protects us from the sun's heat. If there is no ozone layer, there is no protection. Which means we will all die a horrible painful death by burning. The whole world will go into flames. And who is to blame? Us! Yes, us! The damned country is to blame. So, ya, I hope we all feel guilty. Because I bet in the next century if things keep going like they are, there will be no more Earth. So, maybe the next time you go to gas station maybe you can thing about this. And I hope your consciense eats at you until you buy a solar powered car. And! Not to mention that our pollution causes acid rain. This is very dangerous. Acid rain not only hurts us, but hurts architecture, and the enviorment. Did you know that if trees become affected by acid rain it will hurt us all. The trees will die meaning that the wildlife no longer has a habitat or protection, which means we will no longer have food. (Well, animals to eat . . )Lakes may be infected too. Which means the fish will die, or will get sick. The animals will eat the infected fish and get sick and possibly die. The fish can eat other small creatures and get infected. We will eat those fish or other animals infected and we will get sick and most likely die! So, take your nuclear powered plants and shove them up your asses!!!

David Nagy

When is this country going to take the lead in developing a sustainable energy policy such as the one described below. Such technology would be the keystone to our future economic security, enviornmental protection and peace in the world. On our current path we will be in continuous conflict with the rest of the world over finite fossil fuels which at the same time threatens our planets atmosphere.


Scientific American

FEATURE ARTICLES
December 2005 issue

ENERGY

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Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste
Fast-neutron reactors could extract much more energy from recycled nuclear fuel, minimize the risks of weapons proliferation and markedly reduce the time nuclear waste must be isolated
By William H. Hannum, Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford
Despite long-standing public concern about the safety of nuclear energy, more and more people are realizing that it may be the most environmentally friendly way to generate large amounts of electricity. Several nations, including Brazil, China, Egypt, Finland, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam, are building or planning nuclear plants. But this global trend has not as yet extended to the U.S., where work on the last such facility began some 30 years ago.

If developed sensibly, nuclear power could be truly sustainable and essentially inexhaustible and could operate without contributing to climate change. In particular, a relatively new form of nuclear technology could overcome the principal drawbacks of current methods--;namely, worries about reactor accidents, the potential for diversion of nuclear fuel into highly destructive weapons, the management of dangerous, long-lived radioactive waste, and the depletion of global reserves of economically available uranium. This nuclear fuel cycle would combine two innovations: pyrometallurgical processing (a high-temperature method of recycling reactor waste into fuel) and advanced fast-neutron reactors capable of burning that fuel. With this approach, the radioactivity from the generated waste could drop to safe levels in a few hundred years, thereby eliminating the need to segregate waste for tens of thousands of years..

James Aach

You might find the following of interest - a book about nuclear energy aimed straight at the general public, and written by an expert (me)

This book provides an entertaining and accurate portrait of the nuclear industry today and how a nuclear accident would be handled. It is called “Rad Decision”, and is currently running as a serial at RadDecision.blogspot.com. There is no cost to readers.

Discussing our energy future will be a lot easier if there is a better understanding of our energy present. My book is a way to cover the key topic of nuclear energy in a painless fashion.

If you like what you see, please pass the word.

James Aach
20+ years in the nuclear industry.

http://RadDecision.blogspot.com

Mike Templeman

Too right.

I looked into the progress with modular nuclear reactors a few years back and was impressed with their safety and efficiency. Definitely a viable solution, particularly when one considers the power loss that comes from long-distance transmission--I read 50% once, but cannot find that cite now.

Charlie Sierra

Duh!!!

This is much more is all laid out in a great new book, "The Bottomless Well."

To create energy we have 3 options:
1) Burn Oil
2) Burn Coal
3) Burn Uranium

Number 3 is a very smart option.

Even the morons in France understand the value of nuclear power, its one of their largest EXPORTS!!!

The real political issue/downside to nuclear would be losing the USD hegemon, and for the time being its too valuable to mess with, so we'll just get more "energy" hot air.

PS. Thank god you didn't go off into the wacko liberal topic of "Peak Oil". woo-yeah.

Michael Parekh

Well-articulated...important to note that both China and India, the US's key economic competitors in this century are focusing on nuclear power as well.

Jeff Bryant

Great post! I did some consulting at a utility company with a mothballed nuke plant. Seems the problem was that nuke plants can only be operated efficiently at one pwer output level, and we tend to build super-sized niuke plants. Many of the commercial nuke industry experts are former US Navy nuke engineers.

Makes my wonder, with all those "city sized" nuke power plants cruising around onboard our Navy ships. Great safety record, too. Why don't we take a standard designed (as you point out) aircraft carrier sized nuke plant and use that as our basis for powering cities or regions?

Seems like we have a gold mine of expertise and proven design right under our noses. Imagine the resource efficiencies if our commercial and military nuke plants were sharing the same basic design, operations, and materials.

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