February 18, 2010
-- by Dave Johnson
I believe that global warming is the most serious threat humanity faces. So we need to use every possible technology we can to replace energy sources that put greenhouse gases into the air. This includes nuclear energy.
One big problem with nuclear is figuring out what to do with the dangerous radioactive waste. But here's the thing, when we burn coal and oil we're just putting the dangerous waste product into the air and it is destroying the planet. So we can't make the perfect the enemy of the good -- nuclear waste is not destroying the planet and fossil-fuel waste is. We simply have to replace coal and oil as our energy source.
Climate change is an emergency. We need to do everything we can. This means we need to put up every windmill we can, every solar panel we can, every solar power plant, biofuel and geothermal facility that we can. We need to retrofit every building to be energy efficient, switch to electric cars, stop eating meat that is not grass-fed. We need to do research into finding ways to sequester carbon from coal. And we need to build nuclear power plants. What part of "everything we can" did I miss?
Please, let's make this a discussion. Please join the discussion and leave a comment with your thoughts on this.
As we proceed with this, we need to learn some lessons from the past. As we build a new generation of reactors there are some things that need to be clear from the outset.
Make them safe. This means a highly regulated effort, not a free-for-all for profits. Tax dollars are involved, and even if they were not public safety must be the primary focus. Newer reactor designs eliminate Chernobyl-style "meltdown" fears but we need close supervision by government. We need the government "meddling" and "interfering" and "snooping" every step of the way. We, the People need to be sure that every best practice is followed and no corners are cut to make a buck.
Buy American. If we are building nuclear power plants we should regulate that they create American jobs, not offshore in China or anywhere else. There are federal funds guaranteeing loans for these projects and they should specify that we Buy American. Use American –made components, right down to the steel. China's and other country's governments are helping their own economies, let's us help our own economy this time.
There are also safety concerns for Buy American. We need very close inspection of every component and material that is used in these plants. How would we monitor the manufacturing of the components and the quality of the steel if it is done outside the US? Do you remember the faulty welds in the Chinese components that shut down San Francisco's Bay Bridge last year?
Protect the environment. There is also the environmental impact of making steel in China and then shipping it versus making it here -- in our highly productive steel industry. China creates three times the greenhouse emissions when they make steel that our own steel plants create. This is one reason their steel costs less. What is the point of building nuclear to lower greenhouse gas emissions and using greenhouse gas-creating processes?
So I say Yes, Nuclear, and make sure that we use Big Government oversight to keep it safe, create American jobs and mostly to protect the environment.
Posted by Dave Johnson at February 18, 2010 1:06 PM
Stewart Brand's new book The Whole Earth Discipline (2009) points out that nuclear power isn't competing with wind or solar or other alternative technologies but instead competes with coal and, to a lesser extent, oil. All utilities have a "base [power] load" that must be supplied at all times. Because the Sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, these power sources cannot replace this base load. It must be supplied by a power source that is constant, and right now that is coal, oil, and nuclear power.
John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers includes the saga of coal trains that run continuously from Wyoming to an electrical generating plant in Georgia. The amount of coal needed to feed this huge power plant was truly impressive. Brand says that each person's lifetime supply of power could be generated from nuclear fuel about the size of a coke can. Hauling coal across the country seems like a poor substitute.
Brand also says that the solution to waste disposal from nuclear reactors is to continue to store it at the plant. Used reactor fuel decays in a water bath and is then sealed into large metal casks for long-term storage. The nuclear plants have the necessary monitoring and security to keep these radioactive materials on-site until a long-term storage solution is found.
Finally, Brand advocates a Thorium-based reactor that, according to him, uses a nuclear fuel that can't be used for weapons.
Heh, funny one. Destroy the environment with nuclear technology in order to save it.
I understand that we need baseload, but at this point in time the NRC is a watchdog that protects deadly and poorly managed plants from the wrath of People, allowing nuclear plants to poison everyone they can and get away with it for as long as possible. The latest example is the NRC allowing Vermont Yankee to pour tritium and cobalt into the groundwater indefinitely.
Also, the Free Market is solidly against nuclear power, since no private industry will go near it unless the Feds promise 100% taxpayer bailout. And even after the People build, fuel, and dispose of the waste, we even get to pay for the 'decommissioning' costs. The only thing private industry gets out of it is to walk away with all the money for the electricity the plant generated in it's lifetime.
Next, if there were a catastrophic failure of even one plant, hundreds of million Americans would be poisoned within hours. If Indian Point or Vermont Yankee went Chernobyl, just where would we evacuate the city of Boston to? And when the Fed rolls up to your home and orders you to evacuate how much is your home worth? Your insurance company won't pay a dime and the Fed only promises 10% on the dollar, if they deliver anything at all.
Next, the mining of uranium is a filthy, toxic and murderous as it's always been. Whole regions have already been written off as mining companies intentionally kill miners so they won't have to pay retirement benefits and poison their towns to save the expense of mining it 'properly' (which really just means slightly less lethal). No matter how you slice it, mine tailings will leach into the aquifer for centuries.
Next, the toxic waste is a soup of radioactive elements slowly decaying for hundreds of thousands of years. No matter where you store it civilization will have to monitor it for many more times longer than all of recorded history so far. Future generations are already cursing us for our shortsighted folly.
Intentionally poisoning our environment for centuries, simply to boil water, just so we don't have to change our lifestyle one iota now is not a solution.
I am not against modern technology, I am not an 'anti-nuclear luddite'. I am firmly against how this has been managed so far. And what I describe above is how it's been done to date, and these methods are not about to change. So for Obama to hand billions of dollars in nanny-state cash to the nuclear industry under these rules is just as wrong as it was back then.
I've been saying for years, what you have said, Dave, "make sure that we use Big Government oversight to keep it safe, create American jobs".
Given that changing this status quo (where it makes no difference how many people die from horrific cancers or how many acres of land are made mutagenically dangerous) is NOT going to be allowed to happen without an even larger public protest than the ones that stopped the nuclear industry in the first place,
That being a given, what I suggest is this: order the national laboratories to work on learning how to accelerate the decay process.
If we are forced to use nuclear technology to generate electricity, then have the Fed control the entire thing, from beginning to end, NO private contractors at all! There must be multiple oversight agencies at every stage. Environmental regulations can not be ignored, like they are now. All the money collected for electricity goes strictly to paying the enormous costs inherent in this insanely dangerous technology.
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