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 Many contemporary environmentalists labor under severely outdated conceptions of nuclear power.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.

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7 Responses to “TIME FOR AN UPDATE”

  1. Michael Says:

    One issue I've seen is that getting the nuclear industry up and running would require massive subsidies and given its track record, the money is simply better spent elsewhere. There is a remarkable amount of low-hanging fruit when it comes to improving energy efficiency that it's a much better investment. As an aside, in Washington, the history of the failed Satsop plant is one of such staggering engineering and fiscal incompetence that I don't know if a plant could ever get sited in this state. One other factor on the environmental cost side of the ledger is the water required for cooling additional plants takes a big toll on rivers (or coastal waters). That said, the option is at least worth sober deliberation.

  2. Matthew Says:

    No, no – I think you've got it right in the second paragraph. Magic wands are the way to go! We have a vast, untapped reservoir of magicians with potentially unlimited energy-generating potential. Let's hook Daniel Radcliffe up to a generator (or have him run on a hamster wheel?) and see what happens.

    Or if you don't like that, why not make an attempt to employ the vast, untapped reservoir of potential energy stored in America's collective (literal) bosom. See: http://www.slate.com/id/2193827/

  3. BK Says:

    I thought we were just going to fire all of the waste into the Sun using rockets???

    Having lived in parts of northern Wisconsin for a good deal of my life, I recall the folks who would come out against the ELF antennas in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest… ultimately 500 people were arrested in what the right would probably call ecco-terrorism because many feel there are substnatial negaitive ecological and health impacts from the ELF facilities.

    I can't help but think the reaction to an increased reliance on nuclear power plants – something many more people are aware of – would be huge. If the Democrats ever came out in favor they would risk losing a tremendous amount of the enviro-left and if the GOP came out in support they would risk losing money from oil, coal and the current utility industry.

    Maybe nuclear is the best solution to the energy crisis we won't see because of a broken political system…

  4. BK Says:

    Ed –

    Please, please, please take some time to FJM the recent David Brooks column on Obama from today's NYT.


  5. grendelkhan Says:

    The government already does subsidize nuclear power; they provide an insurance backstop in case of catastrophe, because otherwise the insurance would be infeasible–which means that none of those designs should have ever been built. (You'd think that, given that the worst accident in American nuclear generation history didn't noticeably harm anyone outside the plant, that it wouldn't be required. But I'm not an actuary.) The government also provides for long-term nuclear waste storage, which, if borne directly by the generating companies, would make nuclear power infeasible. (To be fair, reactor research is done by the DOE, and it's certainly not cheap.)

    As for newer (Generation IV) designs, it's certainly possible to have reactors which are both passively safe and free of long-lived radioactive waste. I mention the Integral Fast Reactor because a prototype was actually built and tested. (The "Experimental Breeder Reactor II".)

    Summarizing briefly: Safety was tested by shutting off all control systems; the reactor shut itself down. Safety was tested by disabling the cooling loop, causing the core to overheat; the reactor shut itself down with no intervention required. Reprocessing is performed on-site, and uses far more of the fuel than current designs do (it's a breeder reactor). Because the coolant runs at atmospheric pressures and is not corrosive, radioactive corrosion products from the pipes are not an issue. High-level radioactive waste is estimated at roughly one ton per year per gigawatt, and needs to be sequestered for two hundred years, not tens of thousands. The plant can make use of "spent" fuel from current types of reactors.

    Plants of a similar type (the "sodium-cooled fast reactor") are part of the Generation IV project… which should start going online around 2030, which is absolutely ridiculous. If the IFR program hadn't been cancelled, we'd have this type of reactor now.

    To be absolutely clear: I think it's grotesquely irresponsible to build thermal-neutron reactors at this point, as they create long-lived waste products; it's grotesquely irresponsible to build non-passively-safe reactors, as there's no real need to, since better designs are available; and it's grotesquely irresponsible to build non-breeder reactors, since it wastes fuel.

    "Should we build nuclear plants?" isn't a simple question. We shouldn't build reactors that produce long-term waste or which have the potential to "fail deadly", as you put it; furthermore, plants that fit those criteria should be replaced with better designs as soon as feasibly possible, and their long-term waste processed. Public understanding of these issues is nearly nil–who hears about the waste disposal problems inherent to PBRs?–and the two sides of the issue will doubtless be defined as "absolutely no nukes ever" and "build the same kind of nuke plants we've had for the last fifty years", neither of which can lead to much of a sane outcome.

    In any case, a solution to our energy problems that isn't a desperate stopgap will involve a combination of wind power where it's feasible, solar power where it's feasible (there's a project in California involving Stirling engines rather than photovoltaic cells set to deliver 1.75 GW once it's complete), hydroelectric where it's feasible, conservation to bring down demand to levels that can actually be serviced by non-carbon emitting sources, and IFR-type nuclear power for base load generation.

    Of course, the actual result is probably going to be a ton more pressurized-water reactors on top of existing coal plants, with the true costs of waste disposal and safety hidden for decades to come. Sometimes I despair.

  6. supad Says:

    Just read 'Power to Save The World' by Gwyneth Cravens, which will answer the questions 2 & 3 admirably. And it's a riveting, poetic read.

  7. beau Says:

    hamster wheel! hamster wheel!