Monday, May 16, 2005

Nuclear Power

An interesting article in yesterday's NY Times, Old Foes Soften to New Reactors. I suppose when the president of the U.S. goes out of the way to push something as being a solution to the country's energy crisis you can expect to see more attention being given to it. It does seem, though, that in the case of nuclear energy a number of concerns have reached a nexus at which the whole nuclear issue is being looked at in a very different light.

If you're going to read the first article, it only makes sense to read the article by Matthew Weld of the Times which ran 7 days ago, When Comes to Replacing Oil Imports, Nuclear Is No Easy Option, Experts Say [be warned, I think the Times content is only free for up to a week after it runs, so after today it may not be available for free]. Bush's contention that nuclear energy allows us to move away from oil is either mis-stated or otherwise disingenuous (I'm sure our president would never mislead us, so it must be the former). Wald informs us that last year we used about 600K barrels of oil a day for electricity production, while our overall daily consumption of oil was 20.5 million gallons. That's somewhere around 3% of our total oil consumption. The following graphic from the Florida and Light company shows that oil contributes a little over 3% to overall electricity production:

[Note: The EIA is the Energy Information Association, a part of the U.S. Dept. of Energy]

So Bush is ostensibly pushing nukes because this will reduce our need for oil to produce electricity, but then this only represents 3% of what we use. I don't know about you but this makes zero sense to me. If we improved the fuel efficiency of our vehicles by 5% across the board wouldn't that save far more fuel, and reduce vice increase deleterious by-products? Hmmmmmm ... I'm puzzled, but I find that this is not unusual when I ponder the inclinations and declarations of G.W.

That said, environmentalists are not looking at nukes to reduce our oil consumption, they know better. What makes them appealing is that they have zero carbon emissions, which means they'd be able to replace coal AND oil, with the emphasis more on the coal-fired plants inasmuch as they make up the majority fossil-fuel source of energy in the U.S. Given G.W's regard, or lack of regard for global warming it would not due for him to make an argument for going nuke to help reduce global warming, but it doesn't stop him from making this argument speciously with regard to oil. You have to love the way this administration works and thinks, and how it must in its heart honestly believe we're all pretty stupid.

The problem with nuclear power plants come down to three things:

1. They're very complex (if we were to get into a more refined definition of this I'd say that they're highly interactive, i.e. many components intersect and are dependent on each other, and tightly coupled, i.e. when something goes bad in one place it's very often rapidly deleterious somewhere else, resulting in potentially catastrophic situations that may be impossible to avert --- the sort of situation for catastrophes that can lead to tens of thousands of deaths and billions in property damages have to be weighed every carefully) and highly dependent on humans doing the right thing when the right thing needs to be done. It would seem that we have had a handle on the complexity, to wit we've only had two big nuclear accidents, at Three Mile Island and at Chernobyl, but this is an industry where safety is not stringently regulated (compare it to the airlines and how safety is overseen there and you'd be amazed at the difference) and where minor accidents occur quite frequently. An argument can be made that we've just been lucky so far, but then the luck in this case has been running for over 25 years in this country so ... who knows?

2. Nuclear energy in a direct comparison to the cost of burning fossil fuel is not a cheaper alternative. Now how you work on the books on this seems to be a matter of where you're coming from as the nuclear industry will tell you that nuclear power is cheaper. But when you factor in that we haven't built a nuke plant in this country in decades, that such plants have always had cost overruns associated with them, the possible economic ramifications of an accident, and ultimately what's to be done with nuclear waste, it's hard to make a strong case that nuclear power is all that cheap. That said, with the price of fuel going up that may well change.

3. You still have the issue of what to do with waste.

We have 103 nuke power plants in this country now, most of them are old and we're getting to the point where even if we don't want to build nukes to combat carbon emissions we have to figure out what we're going to do to replace what energy production we now have. The main argument against nukes is #3. With advance designed nukes there are passive safety features that can be built into the plants that should dramatically reduce the possibility of catastrophic accidents. The cost of nuke power will likely go down as the cost of fossil fuel goes up. But there's still no definitive solution to the nuclear waste problem, and until that's figured out we're definitely putting the cart in front of the horse.

Now that said, I find it interesting that previous steadfast anti-nuke environmentalists are now seriously considering them even with the problem of what to do with the nuclear waste these things generate. Can they seriously believe that reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere trumps any consideration of what to do with the nuclear waste? I personally find that hard to believe, and I've yet to see anything that in anyway supports this. But the fact is that the wind is blowing in the right direction for the nuclear industry at this point, and you can expect to see more and more to be said about this in the coming weeks and months. Something to give some serious consideration to.


Anonymous Josh Canel said...

That #3 problem has always been the BIG one for me. Maybe I haven't investigated the issue close enough, but waste that lasts thousands of years doesn't sound appealing. Of course, neither does an irreversible climate change.

Solar and wind would seem to be the way to go, but as renewable resources, there isn't an energy source lobby pushing for it. If only cities like San Diego (i.e. sunny and clear) were able to cash in on their weather.

5:38 PM  
Blogger James said...

#3 for nuclear reactors is just like #2 for humans --- you have to figure out where to put it after you've made it. We have figured out how to deal with #2, thank God as there's no way to stop making it, but we're nowhere near agreed as to where #3 should go and even if we did how we'd go about getting it there safely is also a hell of a problem.

Solar and wind do have lobbys, especially here in New England where there's a big move to set up a wind farm in Narragansett Bay, a move which is being strongly opposed by the denizens of Nantucket and Hyannis Port --- it's interesting to watch the Kennedy's indulge hypocrisy with their own version of "not in my backyard". There are problems with both forms of energy, not the least being that they're still not able to generage huge amounts of electricity such that they can replace significant amounts of fossil fuel generated electricity. That may change over time, and we shouldn't not invest in this now. We shall see where it all goes.

7:35 PM  

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