2006/04/16

Nuclear Power - A Fear That We Need To Get Over

An OpEd in today's Washington Post by Patrick Moore, former co-founder of Greenpeace, addresses why we must consider nuclear power for our future energy needs.

I agree with almost everything in this excellent article but want to focus a bit on why nuclear power has been left out of the equation for 30 years. In a word, it boils down to fear--fear that we can't dispose of the waste properly and fear that the plant next door will melt down. But these fears are unfounded, and the United States no longer has the luxury of ignoring nuclear power as a, perhaps the most, viable alternative to fossil fuels. Consider: The US currently generates 20% of it's electricity from nuclear and 60% from coal. Burning the latter releases 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air (10% of global emissions). If that ration were reversed, the United States could meet the Kyoto limits with no further action.

Nuclear waste is also not as serious a problem as most people think. Though the US has shown reluctance to deal with the issue, we do know what to do. First, most spent fuel can be reprocessed and used again as 95% of it's energy is still locked up inside. Second, 40 years after being extracted from a reactor, spent nuclear fuel has only 1/1000 of its original radioactivity.

The only nuclear plant accident to happen in the US, Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island, was completely contained by a reactor design that did exactly what it was supposed to do. Chernobyl, arguably the worst nuclear and environmental disaster in history, was a very different situation. There a criminally faulty plant design contributed to a situation where poorly trained operators practically blew up their own reactor. But even with all of the deaths from Chernobyl the toll doesn't approach the number of people who have died in 170 years of coal mining and doesn't approach the number dioxin related deaths from burning coal and cracking petroleum.

Unfortunately, even if the United States where to begin constructing new nuclear power stations today, it would be 20 years before we'd see a major shift in our power generating mix. That's not a reason to delay. We must not delay! We don't have an alternative, but it's not the only step we should take.

13 Comments:

hmm. i plead ignorance when it comes to nuclear power. it seems it might be a tough sell because nuclear=bad to most people.

interesting article
Too bad the DoD buried Cold Fusion.

Fusion as opposed to Fission I think is a better way to go.

They (several countries) were supposed to be building a giant Tokamak but they have been fighint on where to build it (Japan or France).

It's really too bad because if successful a fusion tokamak could power a large part of the world.

But there in lies the rub...He who controls the Tokamak has considerable political influence over the world...Hence the fighting and stalled projects.

For more info, see Nuclear Fusion: Powering The World by 2015?
This is a subject with which I have a lot of difficulty, but I know I need to reconsider. For one thing, I DO NOT want to live near one, no matter how safe it is. Don't put it near MY house, and you'll get more cooperation out of me. So, I guess the poorest of us will get stuck with it...? Also, I worry about the waste. But you're right about the current approach. It's an important subject to think about and discuss.
I like the solar option myself, but the PV technology needs work. What about tides in the bay? They could be harnessed with deep water turbines.
FYI: Stewart Brand, the founder of "The Whole Earth Catalog" mentioned in Mr. Moore's article, has also endorsed my thriller novel of nuclear power as a way for the lay person to learn the good and the bad of this energy source (plenty of both).

"Rad Decision" is available online at no cost to readers at RadDecision.blogspot.com - - and they seem to like it, judging from the reviews they're leaving at the homepage. There's nothing else like it out there.

Regards,

James Aach
20+ years in the nuclear industry.


"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand.

"Very nice, good pace. The tech was good but not overwhelming." - a reader.

"I started reading Rad Decision because of my interest in nuclear power -- then found I could not put it down! -- another reader.
Are you stark raving mad? Or is it just too much easter chocolate? There are some very serious contenders in the power generating stakes.
The big problem is, US investment groups won't touch alternative energy projects. Wind, bio gas, hydrogen farms etc are well proven, but cabn't go anywhere without financial backing.
BTW: Do you eat chocolate frogs?
Fusion as opposed to Fission I think is a better way to go.

PoliS...Agreed, but depending on whom you're talking to, cost effective fusion power is either 20 years away or 100 years away.

Are you stark raving mad? Or is it just too much easter chocolate?

Cartledge, not mad at all. In fact, I'm a huge proponent of alternative energy sources, as evidenced by the addendum that I wrote to this post. But even massive deployment of wind, solar, hydro, and wave won't deliver the continuous electricity loads required by the US grid. Most experts have predicted that in 30 years time we could deploy enough alternative sources to take on about 15 to 20 percent of our requirments, and I'm all over that. But what about the other 45% that would still be generated with coal? There has got to be an alternative that doesn't dump 1.5 billion tons of CO2 into our atmosphere, and that's nothing compared to what's going to be happening in China in 30 years time. Nuclear is it.

BTW...chocolate flies for me! :-) [smack]
I don't know. Makes me nervous, I have to admit. We came close to having one here in the seventies. I mean it was being built and everything. Ultimately the project was aborted when people took a serious look at the fact you cannot evacuate Long Island. No way, no how.

On the other hand, I did think that there wasn't any solution to the nuclear waste problem and that seems not to be the case. That's an important consideration. I still wouldn't want to live near one, even if there was a way out.
"Wind, bio gas, hydrogen farms etc are well proven, but cabn't go anywhere without financial backing."

And NONE of them, even combined, will come anywhere close to supplying US energy needs because A) we're such a huge economy, even if Red China owns it all now and B) we are serious energy pigs. My main problem with nuclear power is putting in the hands of for-profit utility companies. In Texas, those bastards just got the law changed so they can, literally, allow the poor and elderly to die from lack of air conditioning without having to lift a finger to help them. They are, in the immortal words of the late, great Mickey Leland, "Evil mother f*ckers!"
"we're such a huge economy" George and co will take care of that problem.
In reality it is 'huge energy consumers'.

While I agree with the basics arguments of my chocolate fly eating friend, I quiver at the thought of such awesome power in the hands of incompetent corporations.

But hey! At best I've shot my half life long ago. Decay is well underway and I doubt I will ever see the consequences of the probable distaters.
I'm thinking next time I might come back as Jeramiah...
Depleted Uranium: The US Government has over 1.1 BILLION pounds of this stuff.The DU decay chain includes hazardous radioactive thorium, radium, radon and lead.

Ramsey Clark as drafted an International appeal to Ban the use of DU weapons. If anyone would like to read they why's and wherefor's the link is here:
http://www.iacenter.org/depleted/appeal.htm

And to quote from an article on nuclear waste:"High Level Waste(HLW) is highly radioactive material from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. HLW includes spent nuclear fuel, liquid waste, and solid waste derived from the liquid. HLW contains elements that decay slowly and remain radioactive for hundreds or thousands of years. HLW must be handled by remote-control from behind protective shielding to protect workers." So..if you can only handle it behind protective shielding..its gotta be pretty nasty stuff in my POV.
Dusty, High-level waste is produced from the process of chemically seperating out uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel specifically for the purpose of producing nuclear weapons, since they require a tremendous amount of "enrichment" (increasing the purity and concentration of the fuel).

Reprocessing for use as fuel for nuclear power generation, as I understand it, is re-enrichment without the chemical process and only to a "low-level" 4% or so unlike the 90% required for a nuclear weapon. The reason enrichment was banned in the first place was to address nuclear weapons proliferation.

Could someone more knowledge than I comment? I might be wrong about whether there is a HLW byproduct of fuel-to-fuel reprocessing.
HLW arises mainly from reprocessing: A fuel rod placed in a PWR reactor will last, on average, around 3 years, with approximately 1/3 of the fuel being changed every 24 months. This is because, over time, the creation of fission fragments (FF), which are typically radioactive neutron absorbers, begins to compete with the 235U for the neutrons, and it becomes uneconomic to burn the fuel rod further. In addition to this, 239Pu is often found in the spent nuclear fuel (SNF) when it is removed from the reactor core. Tthese SNF rods are now high in radioactive fission fragments and very hot due to the continuing fission process, although the rate of fission is somewhat slowed. The rods are then moved into storage in a large cooling pond until sufficiently cooled, usually after 6-12 months, to allow remote handling. In countries where nuclear fuel is reprocessed (notably Britain and France) the rods are taken from the cooling pond and dissolved in highly concentrated nitric acid, after which the usable fissile uranium and plutonium are extracted. The extracted materials are used to create new fuel rods known as mixed oxide, or MOX fuel, which is the aim of the reprocessing cycle.Unfortunately, this process leaves behind a highly concentrated, radioactive solution, referred to as Highly Active Liquor (HAL).The HAL is subsequently calcined, mixed with borosilicate glass to give a high level waste (HLW), which is vitrified and moved to an above ground store. This is referred to as temporary storage, although the canisters may remain in storage for 50 years or more. The process of enriching the U or Pu to create nuclear weapons/further reactor fuel is a separate process taking place on the recovered or mined uranium.
The waste will be at 1/1000 of its radioactivity after 40 years in storage, and will also be in a solid form, which despite the shielding is relatively safe as there are no radioactive gases or liquids involved. It is also worth bearng in mind that In terms of power output, the energy produced from a store of 3000 tonnes of fissile material can produce over 1 million MW power. When compared to a fossil fuel reactor, this is three orders of magnitude larger output per tonne of fuel.

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