Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Rational View on Nuclear Power

Like George Monbiot or James Hansen and James Lovelock, I don't think we're going to be able to free ourselves of our fossil fuel addiction without embracing every non-carbon energy source currently available to us.  What that means in the short term is clear - accepting nuclear power.   What that means in the medium and long term remains to be seen.  We're only beginning to explore alternative energy options, many of them still in their infancy, and it is entirely conceivable we may be able to mothball our nuclear energy resources in two or three decades.  I just don't know.  Neither do you.

The nuclear option has clearly left a deep rift in the environmental movement, especially in the wake of Fukushima.   Yet plenty of very knowledgeable voices in the science community - the same community we implore others to accept on global warming - stand behind nuclear power.

If, like me, you're less than scientifically competent on nuclear power technology - and still have an open mind - here's an article I think you'll find helpful:

Take a read and see if it helps answer some of your questions and doubts.


rww said...

The thing about nuclear power is that the likelihood a a catastrophe is very low while the consequences of one are very high.

The Mound of Sound said...

But what are the consequences? Chernobyl is an example of what happens when a government attempts a cover-up, something even the Russians aren't keen to repeat. Fukushima? What are the casualties? None as far as I've heard.

As the article to which I've linked suggests, we're failing to distinguish early-generation nuclear technology as at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima and, in the process, ignoring the enormous improvements realized in 3rd and 4th generation technologies. As I understand it, no one is even suggesting building new 1st or 2nd gen reactors.

So, leaving Chernobyl out of the mix for the obvious reasons, what have been the consequences of nuclear power over the past half century? Bear in mind that there are over 440 nuclear plants now in operation and another 65 under construction.

The Mound of Sound said...

I just looked up casualty figures listed on Wiki. They speak volumes:

"Comparing the historical safety record of civilian nuclear energy with other forms of electrical generation, Ball, Roberts, and Simpson, the IAEA, and the Paul Scherrer Institute found in separate studies that during the period from 1970 to 1992, there were just 39 on-the-job deaths of nuclear power plant workers worldwide, while during the same time period, there were 6,400 on-the-job deaths of coal power plant workers, 1,200 on-the-job deaths of natural gas power plant workers and members of the general public caused by natural gas power plants, and 4,000 deaths of members of the general public caused by hydroelectric power plants.[11][12][13] In particular, coal power plants are estimated to kill 24,000 Americans per year due to lung disease[14] as well as causing 40,000 heart attacks per year[15] in the United States. According to Scientific American, the average coal power plant emits more than 100 times as much radiation per year than a comparatively sized nuclear power plant in the form of toxic coal waste known as fly ash.[16]"

LeDaro said...

Mound, some workers did die at Fukushima. Moreover, nuclear impact is generational and birth defects continue for decades to come. I am not against nuclear power but more safety precautions are needed. Nuclear waste survives for centuries to come and hence need for very safe disposal.

The location of the plant is very crucial too. At Fukushima more damage was done by tsunami than earthquake.

The Mound of Sound said...

You're right, LD. I checked it out and there were three fatalities at Fukushima. Two of the deaths were caused by the Tsunami. The third was a heart attack and no unusual level of radiation was found in the body of that victim.

As for the longevity of nuclear waste I really urge you to again read that article and other information on gen 3 and 4 reactors.

Location does remain critical as you suggest. The irony is that seismically active regions, such as Japan, tend to have the greatest opportunities for geo-thermal energy. We're familiar with Iceland but how many know that the Philippines is the greatest producer of geothermal energy?

susansmith said...

Mound of Sound, I live in Bruce County with a nuclear power plant and have no problems with power generated by nuclear.

Safety standards are extremely high and always a major concern of the company.

The majority of jobs on site are unionized with good pay and benefits.

Thanks for posting the article.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi Jan. Yeah, I knew you had a reactor in the Bruce. A good element of the anti-nuke coalition is rooted in the 60's 'ban the bomb' movement. Then with Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukushima some see nuclear Armageddon as inevitable.

I'd be content to see all nuclear plants mothballed just as soon as we field a viable, carbon-free alternative. There's no sign of such an option within the increasingly narrow window of opportunity we have remaining to ditch fossil fuels.

What I've read of the 3rd and 4th generation reactors and glimpses into what lies in store for the 5th generation technology it sounds as though they'll put to rest the bulk of concerns of those who can just keep an open mind on this.

Dave Trumble said...

The anti nuclear lobby speads misinformation; sometimes to the point of generating hysteria, in hopes of making something stick. Your efforts to drive rational discussion is much appreacited. I have worked in the nuclear industry, the most high regulated in the world, for over 30 years and never felt anything, but confidence.

Annie said...

I was from the Bruce and know the Reactors to see them.
What I don't like is our government trying to sell Chalk River ..dangerous!

LMA said...

That article is a very tough read, MoS, but seems overly optimistic to me. To say that the situation in Japan is becoming "more manageable by the day", for example, flies in the face of the fact that the molten fuel has eaten thousands of holes in the reactors which are leaking highly radioactive water into storage tanks which are almost full and leaking as well (the oil drum, 26 may). To hope that thousands of tons of radioactive waste can safely be stored in dry casks until Gen IV reactors become operational by 2030 sounds risky, and a terrible legacy to leave for the next generation. I'm afraid my mind is made up on this one. Pollution is pollution and will destroy the atmosphere, soil and oceans and render the planet uninhabitable just as quickly whether it's CO2 or radioactive particles. Our only hope is to power down and stick with renewables.

Oemissions said...

and in the US 47,000 die each year from auto accidents and 2 million are injured

opit said...

Nuclear power is the most politicized rat trap in the world. Even from the get-go there is no recognition that military 'catch 22' thought dominates objective setting and that the issues of groundwater contamination / extraction miner deaths have been buried far more successfully than radioactive waste byproducts/ extraction and concentration ecological changes have in a system which encourages throwaway solutions and cost cutting which routinely exposes the environment to semi eternal peril...regardless of rational assessments of potential danger; so long as there is a 'profit' to be made.
For instance : includes context surrounding

Even the 'Carrying Capacity' eugenics arguments forwarded as necessities of strategic positioning by the superpowers confiscating planetary wealth by economic manipulation ( the British Crown and banking system being the most historically obvious agent to a layman ) ignore the reductions in viable living space such policies cause except as enablers of supply shortage control monopolism to cause death and slavery.

The 'Afghanistan' collection complements the Dec 4 2009 entry outlining the start of the 'climate in contention' file - mostly lost since - about the AGW Hoax as an instrument of foreign policy.
'Foreign Policy' is by this methodology simply 'Continuous War' by the most convenient aggregations of systemic and economic/military/media practices.

The Mound of Sound said...

@LMA. I mentioned the article was for people who can keep an open mind on today's nuclear technology.

"To hope that thousands of tons of radioactive waste can safely be stored in dry casks until Gen IV reactors become operational by 2030 sounds risky." Does it sound any riskier to keep the stuff stored for countless centuries otherwise? Surely logic suggests that if we can begin consuming radioactive waste in 2030, it'll be a very good thing.

It is curious that you're skeptical of this technology but willing to put blind faith in our ability to meet mankind's energy needs through renewables. Are we all to live in caves?

@opit. what can I say? I'm overwhelmed by your comments, some of which refer to information I've not heard. I know of the casualties of uranium mining but I haven't heard anything of recent problems.

LeDaro said...

Mound, you may be interested in this story.

Germany pulls plug on nuclear power

“In Japan, the Tokyo Electric Power Co said two of its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant workers had high levels of radiation in their thyroid glands. The power utility is assessing the level of exposure, according to a company statement issued yesterday.”

LMA said...

I have no blind faith in anything except the fact that the universe will continue to unfold as it has for billions of years with or without our presence.

Given the fact that GHG emissions rose to record levels in 2010 despite the recession, renewables may not save us either since it seems we are hell bent on unlimited growth whatever the cost, even our own survival. There is no guarantee that we will not continue to mine and burn fossil fuels, even if nuclear is developed.

As for living in caves, how about just accepting the fact that electricity won't be available 24/7 to everyone? Throw away our unneeded "labour saving" devices and cut down some of our shocking waste of energy.

Of course it would be nice to recycle our nuclear waste by 2030, but in the meantime how much more will we be accumulating? I think we are just running out of time for nuclear and should deal with the waste we already have, rather than generating more.

The Mound of Sound said...

@LD. I read about that in The Guardian. Merkel is now reinstating a policy of her predecessor after briefly deciding to extend the life of those nuke plants by 12 years.

Germany, meanwhile, proceeds apace with construction of new coal plants.

opit said...

I've been overwhelmed by information overload for quite some time. It was a logical consequence of exploring online sites like Third World Traveler, Care 2 and Current TV newsboards and on and on.
The Energy and Uranium files in the Topical Index link to much of the information you are discussing; with honourable mention to Politics and Poetry at WordPress.
It's time for another catalogue of current blognews : RSS SnapShot! and more.