Posted in Rants on June 25th, 2008 by Ed

So a pair of astute commenters on the crack/oil post read my mind (hey! you kids! out of my mind!) and raised the question I've been itching to ask: is it time for hippies, environmentalists, and people on the left more generally to reconsider their antipathy toward nuclear power?

Moving from a petroleum to an electricity economy solves one problem but invites another. Sure, let's say that a magic wand is waved and we're all driving electric cars (Chevy's new Volt will be on the market within 2 years). Electricity generation is largely a fossil fuel-dependent process. In the majority of the United States, wind, hydro, and solar power are not options. Burning heathen quantities of coal or natural gas, and thus replacing dependency on one polluting fossil fuel with another, is a poor solution to say the least.

So why not nuclear power? Many contemporary environmentalists labor under severely outdated conceptions of nuclear power. Significant technological advances have been made, largely in resource-poor Japan, over the last two decades. Nonetheless, nuclear power does present troubling issues, some of which are unique and others that are shared by coal-burning plants. Older (Gen I – III) nuclear plants provide the worst of both worlds – serious safety concerns and prodigious generation of radioactive waste. Newer technologies limit these problems. For example, breeder reactors produce useable nuclear fuel as a waste product, and thus theoretically they can produce no waste at all. Pebble-bed reactors incorporate passively safe technologies, meaning that in the event of a failure the result is not runaway criticality but the shutdown of the reaction process. However, each new technology involves a tradeoff: safe pebble bed reactors produce enormous quantities of radioactive graphite waste whereas waste-free breeder reactors are fail-deadly.

Let's boil down the discussion to three issues: fuel, waste, and safety.

1. The nuclear industry in the United States can provide more than enough fissionable material to power an expanded nuclear power industry. Breeder reactors, as noted above, can continually produce fuel and reduce our reliance on mined uranium. Fuel is not an issue.

2. Waste is a problem. What the hell do we do with all this radioactive sludge, most of which has a half-life measured in thousands of years? The default option is deep geological repository, a.k.a. burying the shit in a big hole. This is a poor solution. Other more exotic options (space-based disposal) are hypothesized but not currently economical. Regardless, I think it is worthwhile to ask this question: is the amount of pollution involved in burying drums of nuclear waste more or less detrimental to the environment than the emissions from coal burning plants? I don't have an answer to that.

3. Safety is also a big concern. New technologies have made the process safer but let's not fool ourselves – this is fuckin' dangerous. Ensuring safety requires significant investments in physical security and containment. The Federal government has done the coal power industry enough favors over the years – why not make a public investment in nuclear power safety?

If we're going to get unhooked on oil, something is going to have to replace it. Ideally we'd rely on things like wind- and solar-generated electricity, but realistically those technologies are not (currently) able to solve the problem. Perhaps they will in the future. I'm not convinced that nuclear power is the answer, but I do believe quite strongly that it's time for us to drop the knee-jerk boogeyman reaction to it. This isn't 1969. It might be a solution or it might not. There's only one way to find out, and it doesn't include yelling "Three Mile Island!" every time someone utters the phrase "nuclear power." Given the scope of the energy crisis facing this country, it may be time to set aside our preconceived notions and allow ourselves to utter the N Word.