Is nuclear power the solution?

May 8, 2008 | By | 8 Replies More

An enthusiastic conservation effort, coupled with a wide variety of alternative sources of energy, will soften the blow of peak oil, but it might be too little too late.   And it’s incredibly difficult to get people to actually do something serious about conserving energy (see Janisse Ray’s “Altar Call for True Believers” at Orion Magazine).  In my experience, most people don’t give a damn about our long-term energy situation, not even many of the people who preach that hard times might be right around the corner.

Many Americans refuse to consider serious conservation.  It feels like surrender to them.  It’s wimpy and shameful.  I understand this emotion, but if we want to keep using wasteful amounts of energy, we’ll have to find it somewhere.  Many people suggest coal.  Coal is dirty and dangerously toxic, in addition to being a fossil fuel that drives global warning.  We have limited options for generating levels of energy that we’re currently generating.

What other energy source exists in ample supply?  Did someone say “nuclear power”?  We’re seeing more and more people look to nuclear because there is really no where else to go (given that we’re not willing to wean ourselves of the extravagant use of energy).

Here are two viewpoints on the nuclear issue.  The first is from Rebecca Solnit’s article in Orion Magazine, entitled “Reasons Not to Glow.”

[E]very stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is murderously filthy, imparting long-lasting contamination on an epic scale; that a certain degree of radioactive pollution is standard at each of these stages, but the accidents are now so many in number that they have to be factored in as part of the environmental cost; that the plants themselves generate lots of radioactive waste, which we still don’t know what to do with—because the stuff is deadly . . . anywhere . . . and almost forever.

Solnit was reacting to a position now held by James Lovelock, the former anti-nuclear power advocate.  Lovelock’s conversion (and the conversions of other prominent environmentalists) is reported by Gwyneth Cravens, published in Discover Magazine, in an article entitled, “Is Nuclear Energy our Best Hope?” Here’s an excerpt:

Lovelock explained that his decision to endorse nuclear power was motivated by his fear of the consequences of global warming and by reports of increasing fossil-fuel emissions that drive the warming. Jesse Ausubel, head of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, recently echoed Lovelock’s sentiment. “As a green, I care intensely about land-sparing, about leaving land for nature,” he wrote. “To reach the scale at which they would contribute importantly to meeting global energy demand, renewable sources of energy such as wind, water, and biomass cause serious environmental harm. Measuring renewables in watts per square meter, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors.” All of this has led several other prominent environmentalists to publicly favor new nuclear plants.

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Category: American Culture, Energy, global warming, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    I've raised a related issue before on this blog: Whatever Became of Thorium?

    Why is radioactive waste dangerous? Because it is actively giving off energy! Energy that the 1950's reactor designs (optimized to produce plutonium for weapons) cannot convert to a useful form. Right now, we are actually only "burning" 10% of the nuclear fuel, tossing aside the remaining 90% to "smolder" as waste. This waste has to be spread out and diluted to keep it from boiling water, the very thing that it is intended to do in the reactors.

    There are designs for reactors that would consume 90% of the original Uranium (and/or Thorium, and/or waste from other atomic power plants) leaving only 10% as waste. But they would cost more to build. To gain an extra 900% of energy from a given amount of fuel, we'd have to spend an additional 20% up front (about a billion per power plant). Of course, we'd also save 80% on long term storage, and mining and refining costs.

    The main objection to building such a plant is that it hasn't yet been done. Maybe the time has come.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Nuclear appears to be the only solution on the foreseeable horizon that would cut greenhouse gases while also providing the quantity of energy that our species demands. Conservation might help, but we'll go nuclear long, LONG before we, as a species, even begin to consider being more responsible inhabitants of this planet. Unfortunately, we will probably go coal long, long before we go nuclear, the result being we'll likely exterminate (by global warming) a whole lot of other species before we finally do go nuclear. My vote would be to go nuclear sooner rather than later and leave the coal in the ground.

  3. Commonsense says:

    Murderously filthy? We still don’t know what to do with the waste? These qualitative statements are either never quantified explicitly, or never compared across other power sources. Let’s look at this from another angle: mining uranium is less invasive than standard mining practices (e.g., strip mining), and uranium is one of the most abundant elements on earth (thorium is three times as abundant). Less than 5% of the nuclear fuel element is radioactive; the other 95%+ is just the uranium that was mined. There are ways to deal with the waste – it can be buried or reused. Neither of these are technical problems. And as far as the radioactivity is concerned, it could be seen as an advantage – if a fuel element begins to leak, it can be detected long before it becomes a problem; and because it is radioactive, by definition it has a half life and will decay away. It’s true that some of the elements in the fuel have extremely long half lives, but even they will eventually decay away.

    Let’s put this in perspective: We could take all of the spent nuclear fuel that was generated for the last 40 years from the 104 nuclear plants in the US, and it would cover one football field at a height of six feet. This sounds like a lot, but compare this to one coal plant, where the ash field alone covers several football fields tens of feet high, it releases millions of tons of gases in a single year (carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, and nitrous oxides), actually emits more radiation than a nuclear plant, and requires a mile-long train of coal per day to keep it running. Current solar panel technology uses vast quantities of arsenic in the fabrication process, which is toxic forever (no half life).

    Am I saying that nuclear is the only way to go? No. We should definitely keep adding renewables – solar, wind, etc. But nuclear also needs to be in the mix. It is reliable and safe, contrary to what the opponents think or say. A typical nuclear power plant produces electricity 95% of the time (compared to 33% for wind), and the nuclear industry is one of safest industries to work in. Also consider that a single nuclear power plant can produce enough electricity for almost 1 million households.

    A wise man once said, “There aint no free lunch.” There is a price for every energy source whether it be in efficiency, availability, or total life cycle. And when you forget the politics, crunch the numbers, and look at the facts, nuclear doesn’t look so bad.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Commonsense? "Uranium is one of the most abundant elements on earth"? Actually, it is rare in both the universe and in the crust. Uranium is about one part per million of the crust by mass, compared to magnesium at about 2 percent (Multiple sources) It is one of the more abundant radioactive elements because of its long half-life. But most of it is spread out unrecoverably thin, as in the small crystals in igneous rocks used for dating strata. Current estimates show a total of about 5 million tons or Uranium can be eventually economically extracted, with about 7 times as much available in ores that are not currently viable, but future technologies might make them affordable.

    Note: Compare to 1,500 million tons of iron mined and refined every year with no limit in sight.

    All Uranium is radioactive. But the majority of it (U<sup>238</sup>) has a long half life and only slowly gives off alpha particles. Those particles are stopped by a couple of inches of air, or a fraction of a millimeter of paint or cloth. But this "useless" bulk can be converted into more fissionable isotopes in an appropriate reactor. It is wasted as bullets.

  5. Jim Baerg says:

    Dan:

    If you want to use thorium as an energy source, you should look at the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, which is one variant of Molten Salt Reactors.

    See http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/
    and the connected discussion forum.

  6. davea0511 says:

    >(given that we’re not willing to wean ourselves of the extravagant use of energy)

    Nail on the head, buddy. You can talk conservation until you're blue in the face, and it won't make any difference. We need a LOT of energy, and we need it NOW, and we need it CHEAP, and we need it CLEAN.

    Note that until we figure out how to make clean renewable energy cheaper and easier than coal for China and developing countries to use, AGW will continue at an alarming rate regardless what the rest of the word does. That's the main reason conservation will never make much difference on its own.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    One concept that is almost always dismissed where energy is concered is the application of intermediate technology as opposed to high-tech or low-tech. Several years ago there was research into the "slow-cooker" reactor, a small, completely sealed nuclear powered electric generator that could power a small town for about 8 years using radioactive fuel that was not "hot" enough for the conventional reactors.

    The tecnhology was an offshoot of a prototype nuclear battery for used in deep space probes and worked by collection of beta particles, resulting in a simple system with no mechanicl parts (in theory anyway). the "Slow Cooker" name came from the appearance of the early designs, which looked like giant crock-pots.

    The US shelved the concept in favor of more centralized applications, but I suspect that the technology was further researched in the former USSR, and they may have actually deployed several units to remote locations.

  8. Dan Klarmann says:

    Those slow cookers would be a good use for much of the "waste" that the U.S. presently buries until its energy level drops. But the regulatory hurdles for allowing "newcular waste" to be stored (used in a reactor) near population centers are forbidding. Never mind that the waste is already being stored there now, wasted, as we wait for a long term storage facility to finish clearing its decades of regulatory hurdles.

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