Monday, March 14, 2011

There Goes the Baby Out with the Bathwater

There are plenty of highly intelligent, eminently reasonable people who advocate nuclear power not just as a viable alternative to our fossil fuel addiction but as the only viable alternative, if we're to step back from the edge of runaway global warming.

Like many of us, at first I was dismissive of this pro-nuclear business.   Many of us have become wrapped up in the "Ban the Bomb/Dr. Strangelove/Three Mile Island/China Syndrome/Chernobyl" matrix of adamant anti-nuclear sentiment.  Yet, as I opened my mind and read a lot more about the nuclear option and corresponded with some nuclear-power proponents such as Australian professor Barry Brook (www.bravenewclimate.com) it became apparent I had a lot to learn.

Nuclear power is about as loaded a topic as can be imagined.  Yet most of us, including the media, fail to grasp the difference between early nuclear technology and today's fourth and fifth generation, "fast" reactors.  I won't go into a sales pitch here but I will toss out a few things you might not have known.

Old technology reactors are trouble.   Not only do they produce enriched nuclear waste (the stuff that can be further processed into "weapon grade" material) they're also enormously inefficient, getting just a fraction of the energy from their fuel rods which thereafter have to be safely buried for thousands of years.  Because old technology reactors are so inefficient there is genuine doubt about how long the world's remaining reserves of uranium would last.

New technology reactors solve many of these problems.   They can consume those "spent" reactor rods that we have to scrap and extract most of the energy from them.   They can likewise consume weapons grade fissile material.  In other words, they can clean up the mess that otherwise isn't going anywhere.   Best of all, they don't create enriched waste that can be processed for nuclear weaponry and, of course, they don't produce a lot of greenhouse gases either.

Despite the considerable promise of fourth and fifth-generation nuclear power, the fiasco in Japan may render it all for naught.   There are many conflicting opinions on the severity of the problem at the Japanese nuclear plants.  We're just going to have to wait to see what happens at the end of the day but, long before then, we're already turning on nuclear power of any variety.   The media may have filled enough empty minds with glowing visions of nuclear Armageddon to kill the nuclear option for all time.   In coming decades we may pay dearly for that.

6 comments:

LeDaro said...

MoS, nuclear power does sound scary. The situation in Japan does not look good. Two buildings which house nuclear reactors have exploded. High level of radiation has been detected 100 miles away on a U.S ship. Japan has very advanced technology and all kinds of safety precautions were there yet we see this looming disaster.

Imagine if similar quake and explosion takes place in Iran where technology may not be that advanced. Solar energy, tidal power may be the better alternative however technology there is at an early stage.

LeDaro said...

Here are some more news.

Swiss suspend nuclear plant replacements approvals.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/14/nuclear-switzerland-idUSWEA833020110314

The Mound of Sound said...

LD, I'm not particularly fond of the nuclear option. The most seismically active nation on the planet should have foreseen the tsunami problem in siting their nuke plants. The earthquakes didn't take them down, it was the tsunami.

I too prefer wind, tidal, solar options but they won't be adequate to replace fossil fuel GHG emissions in time.

Maybe old James Lovelock is right. Screw it. Party hardy while we can and kiss civilization as we've known it goodbye.

GAB said...

I'm not as rabid anti nuke as many greens and I think the problems could be largely sorted out with a swing to thorium reactors that cant be weaponized and don't produce most of the real nasty isotopes with extra long 1/2 lives.

That said this change is not happening any time soon and the existing systems no matter how safe they claim to be are not perfect,and cannot withstand human error, stupidity or malice.

Additionaly all future reactors will have to be so overbuilt in regards to plane bombs and such their costs and carbon footprint for construction will soar.

It will never make financial sense to build nukes that are perfectly safe, perfectly reliable, perfectly defensable, therefore we shouldn't build them.

LMA said...

Human arrogance never ceases to amaze me. Despite oil from the Deepwater Horizon still sitting at the bottom of the GoM, despite radiation leakage from the Japanese reactors, despite CO2 leakage from CCS, we still believe that technology will save us.

We have to use less energy, and from sources that don't involve unleashing forces beyond our control.

The Mound of Sound said...

@GAB - the situation, as I grasp it, is that we have allowed ourselves to get into a situation where we either embrace the basket of fossil fuel alternatives now and simply get on with it or accept serious risk of losing the AGW fight. The only one that seems genuinely scalable at the moment is nuclear. Solar, tidal, wind just aren't there yet.

With the Right fiercely determined to defend fossil fuel to the last drop and the Centre/Left deeply divided into nuclear and anti-nuke camps, the Right wins by default. The Japanese fiasco literally fell into the laps of Big Oil and Big Coal and I'm sure they couldn't be more pleased.

@LMA - arrogance, manifested in denial, is indeed one of our specie's terminal afflictions. I have been shaken by what I have watched over the past few weeks, first with Libya and now with the Japanese disaster.

Libya has shown that, as a supposed community of nations, we are incapable of reacting decisively to thwart a lunatic despot who will soon be in a position to seal off his country and take reprisals on his opponents. Their blood is on our hands.

The Japanese quake/tsunami shows how easily distracted our "single channel" international community is, how readily we become distracted by one thing. It has also revealed how the Centre/Left can become absorbed bitterly arguing over what colour to paint the kitchen as the house goes up in flames.

Until we totally ban the $600-billion annual fossil fuel subsidies, transfer those subsidies to alternative energy initiatives and impose a hefty universal carbon tax, Big Oil and Big Coal will remain fat and sassy.