Global Warming and Nuclear Power
Lots of research says that I will overestimate the risk of events such as a core meltdown in a nuclear power plant. And I'm sure I do. But knowing and allowing for that, or trying, I still can't find a way to endorse a strong movement toward nuclear power. My hesitation to support nuclear power is not very green according to many environmentalists. But are we positive we can't find any other solutions? Should simply resign ourselves to the nuclear power age?:
Going Nuclear A Green Makes the Case, by Patrick Moore, Commentary, Washington Post: In the early 1970s when I helped found Greenpeace, I believed that nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust, as did most of my compatriots. ... Thirty years on, my views have changed, and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from ... catastrophic climate change.
Look at it this way: More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions -- or nearly 10 percent of global emissions -- of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power. And these days it can do so safely.
I say that guardedly, of course, just days after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that his country had enriched uranium. ... And although I don't want to underestimate the very real dangers of nuclear technology in the hands of rogue states, we cannot simply ban every technology that is dangerous. ... In 1979, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon produced a frisson of fear with their starring roles in "The China Syndrome," a fictional evocation of nuclear disaster in which a reactor meltdown threatens a city's survival. Less than two weeks after the blockbuster film opened, a reactor core meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant sent shivers of very real anguish throughout the country.
What nobody noticed at the time, though, was that Three Mile Island was in fact a success story: The concrete containment structure did just what it was designed to do -- prevent radiation from escaping ... And although the reactor itself was crippled, there was no injury or death... Three Mile Island was the only serious accident in the history of nuclear energy generation in the United States, but it was enough to scare us away from further developing the technology: There hasn't been a nuclear plant ordered up since then.
Today, there are 103 nuclear reactors quietly delivering just 20 percent of America's electricity. ... And I am not alone among seasoned environmental activists in changing my mind on this subject. British atmospheric scientist James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory, believes that nuclear energy is the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change. Stewart Brand, founder of the "Whole Earth Catalog," says the environmental movement must embrace nuclear energy... On occasion, such opinions have been met with excommunication from the anti-nuclear priesthood...
There are signs of a new willingness to listen, though, even among the staunchest anti-nuclear campaigners. ... Here's why: Wind and solar power have their place, but because they are intermittent and unpredictable they simply can't replace big baseload plants such as coal, nuclear and hydroelectric. Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is too expensive already, and its price is too volatile to risk building big baseload plants. Given that hydroelectric resources are built pretty much to capacity, nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It's that simple.
That's not to say that there aren't real problems -- as well as various myths -- associated with nuclear energy. Each concern deserves careful consideration:
- Nuclear energy is expensive. It is in fact one of the least expensive energy sources. ... Advances in technology will bring the cost down further in the future.
- Nuclear plants are not safe. Although Three Mile Island was a success story, the accident at Chernobyl, 20 years ago this month, was not. But Chernobyl ... had no containment vessel, was an inherently bad design and its operators literally blew it up. ... 56 deaths could be directly attributed to the accident... Tragic as those deaths were, they pale in comparison to the more than 5,000 coal-mining deaths that occur worldwide every year. ...
- Nuclear waste will be dangerous for thousands of years. Within 40 years, used fuel has less than one-thousandth of the radioactivity it had when it was removed from the reactor. And it is incorrect to call it waste, because 95 percent of the potential energy is still contained in the used fuel after the first cycle. Now that the United States has removed the ban on recycling used fuel, it will be possible to use that energy and to greatly reduce the amount of waste...
- Nuclear reactors are vulnerable to terrorist attack. The six-feet-thick reinforced concrete containment vessel protects the contents from the outside as well as the inside. And even if a jumbo jet did crash into a reactor and breach the containment, the reactor would not explode. There are many types of facilities that are far more vulnerable, including liquid natural gas plants, chemical plants and numerous political targets.
- Nuclear fuel can be diverted to make nuclear weapons. This is the most serious issue associated with nuclear energy and the most difficult to address, as the example of Iran shows. But just because nuclear technology can be put to evil purposes is not an argument to ban its use.
Over the past 20 years, one of the simplest tools -- the machete -- has been used to kill more than a million people in Africa, far more than were killed in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings combined. What are car bombs made of? Diesel oil, fertilizer and cars. If we banned everything that can be used to kill people, we would never have harnessed fire. ...
The 600-plus coal-fired plants emit nearly 2 billion tons of CO2annually -- the equivalent of the exhaust from about 300 million automobiles. ... coal plants are responsible for 64 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 26 percent of nitrous oxides and 33 percent of mercury emissions. These pollutants are eroding the health of our environment, producing acid rain, smog, respiratory illness and mercury contamination.
Meanwhile, the 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States effectively avoid the release of 700 million tons of CO2emissions annually -- the equivalent of the exhaust from more than 100 million automobiles. Imagine if the ratio of coal to nuclear were reversed so that only 20 percent of our electricity was generated from coal and 60 percent from nuclear. This would go a long way toward cleaning the air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Every responsible environmentalist should support a move in that direction.
Posted by Mark Thoma on Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Oil, Technology |
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