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May 3, 2005

Nukular Energy

-- by Dave Johnson

I was thinking about global warming and nuclear energy again today.

One of the problems with nuclear energy is disposal of the fuel after it is used because it's radioactive. But think about this: when we burn carbon-based fuels we are just dumping the by-products into the air. That is the reason we have global warming, as well as I-don't-know-how-many deaths from resulting respiratory and other illnesses. So the problem of disposing of used fuel rods really should be placed in the context of what we are already doing and the disastrous results.

I think we have to do whatever we can to stop putting carbon into the air. Replacing the emissions from cars and coal-or-oil-burning power plants with the fear that used fuel rods might somehow escape their containers 10,000 years from now seems like a fair trade-off. We can spend that time finding out where to put the fuel rods instead of putting carbon and pollutants into the air. And a lot of people would literally breathe a whole lot easier if we stopped dumping car and power plant exhaust into the air as well. And there's that whole war and terrorism problem that comes form the need for oil and the things people do to get it...

Also, I don't think there is a risk of meltdown or other escaping contamination anymore, because of new reactor designs.

That said, I don't believe that it is possible to safely build and operate nuclear power plants in the U.S. under the supervision and policies of the current government. I don't think it can be safely done as a for-profit private-sector enterprise and we know that this administration would cut corners on safety and regulations even if it wasn't for-profit.

Update - A reader sent a few links to bloggers and articles on this:

Matt Yglesias and Mark Kleiman's thoughts on nuclear energy


Stewart Brand and other environmentalists give nuclear a second look

Grist and its readers debate nuclear energy

Posted by Dave Johnson at May 3, 2005 7:28 PM

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Comments

You're exactly right. Nuclear energy is indeed the most practical way out of the carbon trap. And we can't trust any of our current elites with its administration.

The French seem to do a good job with it. Maybe we can subcontract?

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at May 3, 2005 7:53 PM

Well, we are not going to win *every* election. The EEOC and FDA and so on are still extant even through Reagan/Bush I/Bush II admins. I agree that nuclear power is a way to get out of our oil problems, but disagree that we have to have Democrats in power before we can consider it.

Japan and France use nuclear power for a huge amount of their power supply, and India and China are both investing heavily in it. It's not an immature technology.

Posted by: asf at May 3, 2005 7:57 PM

Also, I don't think there is a risk of meltdown or other escaping contamination anymore, because of new reactor designs.

One of the reasons Chernobyl's plant had its catastrophic failure was that the engineers running Soviet nuclear plants considered them to be so safe that big accidents could never happen. When the reactor (literally) blew up during a safety test, the plant's chief engineer refused to believe the accounts he was being given that the main reactor had exploded and was in flames, and hours after the accident was still ensconced in the control room trying to get the no-longer-existing-on-account-of-the-explosion shutdown systems to work.

Reactors are big and very complicated systems. Beware of thinking that they can't have a catastrophic failure.

Leaving aside the possibility of meltdown, bear in mind that spent fuel rods stay very very toxic for very very long. If the ancient egyptian pharaohs had had a reactor, the waste from it would still be highly toxic. When we use nuclear power, we are creating a safety hazard that will last many times longer than humans have had civilization. Can we really burden that many generations to come with the task of dealing with our nuclear crap?

Posted by: jimBOB at May 3, 2005 10:19 PM

I can't agree with you on this one. So long as nuclear plants are designed by humans and placed on planet Earth, there is a risk of a nuclear accident. The worst aspect is, we can't rely on our noble leaders to tell us the truth about accidents. Did you hear anything about the Detroit situation? We didn't hear anything about the leaks at Brookhaven until long after they'd polluted the water supply.


It only takes one accident to kill an awful lot of people. Considering the terrorist threat, we should be shutting down nuclear plants, not building more of them. We haven't done a damned thing to protect them.

Posted by: MJ at May 4, 2005 6:59 AM

A recent edition of Technology Review, MIT's Alumni magazine, proposed a temporary solution to the nuclear waste problem: leave it up to future generations to figure out more permanent solutions, because they'll hopefully have better technology. The short version is that we deliver the nuclear waste to regions in Navada (and elsewhere) that are still contaminated from the nuclear testing of the fifties.

I think we should try all possibilities -- in particular, solar power. With luck, we might actually get nuclear fusion to work. Hydrogen is problematic in that the nearest natural source of (elemental) hydrogen is the sun's surface. (The second nearest source is Jupiter.) On earth, hydrogen has to be manufactured, and that takes energy.

There is one final issue: competence. We can't do anything right as long as incompetence continues to hold sway and we can't get rid of it. The Bush Administration is the most incompetent that we've had in a long time. The account of the chief engineer disbelieving reports from his subordinates is an example of incompetence.

Posted by: John H. Morrison at May 4, 2005 11:57 AM

You might be interested to know that Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and tech pioneer, who's thoughts are included in your May3, 2005 blog, has endorsed “Rad Decision,” a techno-thriller novel about the American nuclear power industry. Written by a longtime nuclear engineer, it providea an entertaining and accurate portrait of a nuclear power plant and how an accident might be handled. “Rad Decision” is currently running as a serial at RadDecision.blogspot.com, at no cost to readers.

“I'd like to see RAD DECISION widely read.” - - Stewart Brand.

All sides of the nuclear power debate will find items to like, and dislike, within Rad Decision. I’m not sure myself what the future of nuclear energy should be. What I am sure of is that we will make better decisions if we understand what nuclear energy is right now.

Posted by: James Aach at October 27, 2005 3:56 PM

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