Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Being open-minded about nuclear energy

Twenty-five thousand gallons a day of thick oil leaking into formerly pristine and productive waters. Thousands of goopy patches encroaching on four Gulf Coast states, threatening more. Birds black with oil. Local fishermen out of work. Cleanup workers struggling with toxic fumes and endangered long-term by exposure to chemical dispersants—which themselves have unknown environmental consequences . President Obama’s announcement that the well won’t be stopped for months. The impact of the environmental catastrophe, an estimated four times worse than the Exxon Valdiz disaster and the horrific results, according to the NY Times, will be felt for years. The bad news is unrelenting. Is it any wonder that people are starting to think favorably again about nuclear energy?

Wellesley College chemistry professor Nancy Kolodny, speaking to a group of alumnae last week, laid out a compelling case. The need is clear. Between now and 2030, the demand for electricity will nearly double. In the United States, we may have 104 nuclear plants, but they meet only a scant 20 percent of our electricity needs. France’s 58 plants generate more than 62 percent of that nation’s needs, and France even exports some nuclear-generated electricity, all clean, all apparently safe.

For 30 years there have been no new applications for nuclear plants in the United States, due largely to fears in the wake of the 1979 partial melt-down of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. People were evacuated, but the damage was more psychological than real, says Kolodny. No radiation leaked; no one was hurt. Since then, reactors have been required to adhere to stricter safety standards, including more stringent training of personnel, who have to be “retrained” every six weeks.

In the last two years, there have been 28 applicants for nuclear plants starting the long licensing process. Are we finally awakening to the potential and the need? China certainly has. Its map is dotted with nuclear power plants under development.

A 2003 study by MIT points out that the United States needs to do a better job at rationalizing the licensingprocess and developing geologically appropriate sites to dispose of spent rods. Of course, if Harry Reid loses his reelection bid, the burial site at Yucca Mountain might become available. Without that, supporters say that, in the interim, we can safely rely, as do the French, on deep pools constructed next to nuclear plants. Over the long haul, some smart scientist is bound to come up with exciting new ways to reprocess the spent fuel.

Start-up costs have been exacerbated by the length of the licensing process, particularly because the model of the 1970’s was to permit many different designs of plants. Uniform and tested designs could make the licensing process more efficient. And up-front costs of any new energy can be considerable. Even the wind-generated energy to be produced by Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound will be more expensive that traditional fossil-based fuels. Add the cost of environmental damage to the seemingly cheaper fossil fuels, and maybe nuclear will begin to look more attractive.

Nuclear isn’t a panacea. We will still need oil and gas for years to come. But we also need solar, wind and bio-mass. We need conservation, energy-efficient cars and appliances and effective mass transit. And we need nuclear in the mix. We are such a resourceful country. I am sure that the problems with nuclear can be solved, if we overcome inertia and are able to educate ourselves and discuss the issue rationally, free of the heavy hand of politics. Hmmmm. Maybe I’ve been breathing in too much polluted air.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below


  1. Hmmmm You are so sure problems with Nuclear power can be solved? Just like the swell job BP did and is doing? Maybe we should ask the people in Chernobyl what they think of your ideas. I for one would never live within the fallout radius of a Nuclear plant, I guess you would?

  2. I reported on nukes like they were the second Satan, then researched the actual risk of nuclear radiation for my first book, RISK. I was stunned to learn that ionizing radiation produced by nuclear energy is a relatively weak carcinogen. And we know from real and painful experience. 582 of 100,000 Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors died of cancer because of radiation exposure from the bombs, which subjected people to off-the-charts more radiation than anything a nuke plant meltdown could cause. Lifetime cancer death toll from Chernobyl is expected to be 4,000, out of several hundred thousand exposed, according to the World Health Organization. Ionizing radiation from nuclear energy IS dangerous, but not nearly as much as most think, and as I thought.
    Compare that to the several thousand deaths PER YEAR, in the U.S. alone, due to particulate pollution from burning fossil fuels. Our excessive fear of nukes, which can be understood through studies of risk perception - discussed in a blog I posted http://bit.ly/blSRed - has produced policy that feels safe but dramatically raises our risk. And notice I haven';t even mentioned climate change.

  3. Sorry, not buying the book or the bs. What about spent fuel, security, temporary solutions etc. People should be relieved that somebody said 4000 expected deaths? Like thats the only problem.
    Evolve from mcmansions and suv's, decrease demand, renewables... These things you might want to focus on to help the situation. Grabbing a sensational topic to make a buck is.......

  4. Ted, I haven't drunk the Koolaid. I'm saying we need to have it in the mix, with tight regulation,high levels of security and consistency of design. Chernobyl isn't a comparable situation because there was no containment structure and the Soviet government covered up what was going on, including the fire.

  5. Have an open mind about nuclear power, but don't jump into the arms of the nuclear industry just because we have been inundated with crisis stories, day in, day out, from the recent oil platform explosion. Yes, it seems that nuclear energy can be used to generate electricity with a minimum of manageable operational risk, but as Ted mentioned earlier, what about security from terrorism, and what about safe, secure, disposal of spent fuel? France gets the majority of its electric power from nuclear plants, but nowhere do I hear any mention of problems they may have had, and what they are doing with their spent fuel? Just submerging the rods in deep pools next to the plants, incidentally what many US plants do, seems more like a "stick your head in the sand" approach to the problem than a solid solution. All that does is provide widespread sources of atomic material for dirty bombs that need to be secured - forever. I'm not anti nuclear, I just want to hear real solutions for safety issues beyond - don't worry, its pretty safe.

  6. Just remember this: it is never a question of *IF* there will be an environmental disaster when it comes to energy extraction. It is always a question of *WHEN*.

    Accordingly, one must assume that a disaster will occur, and examine what the likely scope of the disaster will be, and what is humanity's ability to deal with the disaster.

    With technologies like solar, for example, there can (and are) failures of solar-based systems all the time. But the scope of the damage is, of course, quite minimal. Usually the worst that can happen is an exploding or leaking battery. And the technology for containment and cleanup is relatively easy to deploy.

    Wind is slightly worse - you can end up with broken or unused turbines spoiling a landscape. With offshore turbines there's a risk of ocean pollution, albeit a relatively minor one. And the ability to clean up the mess is pretty thorough, although the willingness to spend the money to do it is questionable.

    Getting into fossil fuels, you see much greater potential for disaster...as we all have known for decades and have been, shall we say, recently reminded. I don't need to expound any further except to remind people that as the reserves of fossil fuels dwindle we are forced to go to greater extremes to get at them...and accordingly our ability to handle the inevitable environmental disaster is getting exponentially weaker. Deepwater rather starkly shows that.

    Now we come to nuclear. Sure, Three Mile Island was scary but didn't really create too big a mess. But let's not forget about Chernobyl, thank you very much. And let's not forget that there is still no place to store all the spent nuclear fuel that will be lethally dangerous to flora and fauna for tens of THOUSANDS of years. We have virtually no technology to actually deal with a real environmental disaster involving nuclear power plants...the plan is "get everyone out and seal up 50 square miles around it for 500 years."

    Plus the level of corruption in the nuclear power industry makes the oil industry look like pikers. We can't trust ANY of the claims made about safety because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is staffed by the same people who own the power plants...talk about a conflict of interest!

    A lot of people keep saying "we need more energy" like that has has a shred of logic to it. That's simply an unsustainable approach. And I don't mean some hippie crunchy-granola "unsustainable" I mean quite literally...there's no way that approach can work! It's no different than the housing bubble - just like how sooner or later the housing prices had to come down, sooner or later the world will HAVE to learn how to get by with less energy.

    And the funny thing is, reducing the amount of energy used...aka "conservation"...is actually the cheapest, most effective, and least disruptive way to at least postpone the problem by decades. Far more so than extreme fossil fuel recovery or nuclear power.

    For what Obama wants to spend on nukes, we could easily force every car on the road to get 30MPG and put the right insulation under everyone's roof and solar panels on top of them...and get ten times the effect.

  7. with tight regulation,high levels of security and consistency of design.

    Not to be nasty about it, but do you hear yourself? What in God's name makes you think that the NRC, the government, or the nuclear power industry will actually do ANY of that???

  8. I include the following from PaulM's comment about my posting on the blog richardhowe.com.

    ‘Energy: The First Reality,’ Wrote Paul Tsongas
    by PaulM
    Concerning Marjorie’s latest post, here’s what Paul Tsongas wrote about energy in “The Road From Here: Liberalism and Realities in the 1980s,” published in 1981:

    “Oil is a finite, diminishing resource. These six words tell us almost everything. The preservation of America and the world requires that the facts be known and understood by every schoolboy and schoolgirl—and their parents. It’s no easy task. …

    “There is no way out of a nuclear option in the middle term. The fact that it is a controversial source of energy (and potentially uneconomic, due to delays, engineering problems, etc.) does not lessen its practical inevitability. Otherwise, we are back in the oil or coal bind, which is potentially worse. In the face of such a set of Faustian choices, it seems clear that we need a mix of energy sources, and neither nuclear energy nor coal can, or should, be eliminated at this point.”