Green Update–>Second (and More) Thoughts about Nuclear Energy

The Fukushima complex in better days

The Fukushima complex in better days

The unfolding disaster in Japan has put a big damper on what has been called the nuclear renaissance. With fears of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island receding, countries like the U.K., India and China (which has 40 percent of all currently producing nuke plants), steamed ahead. So did the U.S.

Now, the debate begins anew, particularly in Germany, which has just shut down all its pre-1980 nuclear plants. The terrible struggle to control the Fukushima reactors has captured the public’s attention like no Greenpeace demonstration ever could.

But the renaissance was in trouble even beforehand. Besides the continuing safety concerns, issues of cost and the need for government support have put the brakes on nuclear power. Under Presidents Bush and Obama, the U.S. has come on strongly for nuclear. Obama’s new budget “calls for $36 billion in loan guarantees for further nuclear power plant construction.”

But that is never going to fly.

There are too many lessons yet to be learned about Fukushima; and the costs of nuclear construction, which will need to implement new, tighter safety standards, are going to be generally prohibitive. NPR reported:

Three days before the quake struck Japan, John Rowe, the chairman of Exelon Corp., which is the nation’s largest operator of nuclear power plants, had said he would not be investing in any more because they cannot compete with natural gas at current prices.

The EU is considering stress tests for its reactors, and countries like South Africa are beginning to face up to the consequences of over-reliance on nukes. All are discovering that there is no such thing as a non-polluting fuel. Every one has associated costs and risks, as the auto industry has learned in building hybrids and EVs.

What should happen in the U.S.—but probably won’t, given our present economic and political stagnation—is a serious assessment of the energy situation: costs, risks, political and social consequences, safety. And tradeoffs.

Such issues as radioactive waste, which had recently moved somewhat to the background, have re-emerged. The New York Times reports that the pools for cooling spent-fuel rods from the Japanese reactors

which sit on the top level of the reactor buildings and keep spent fuel submerged in water, have lost their cooling systems and the Japanese have been unable to take emergency steps because of the multiplying crises.

Japan nuclear meltdownThe radiation danger, if the pools boil dry, would be worse than that from a meltdown.

We worry about burying waste in a Nevada mountain while reactors are operating with cooling pools on their rooftops. We pat ourselves on the back that traffic deaths are the lowest since 1950, while 33,808 people lost their lives in 2009. Injuries numbered 2.2 million!

The ultimate tradeoff with nuclear is getting (relatively) clean power but paying for it in fear (of a disaster). Nukes may not continue growing everywhere, but in most countries like the U.S., we will make our pact with the devil, as we have with traffic deaths, so that life as we have designed it can go on. The final costs may be beyond counting.

Is possible to reduce the risks and still reap the benefits of nuclear technology?

—jgoods

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5 Comments

  1. @ panayoti
    We face a whole complex of really difficult problems, don’t we? First is getting people to conserve the resources we have. Second is developing technology to get us to a cleaner future. Third is moving Congress to act in our behalf, not the special interests’ behalf. Finally, moving public opinion to demand these changes. Since Washington’s priorities are out of whack with ours, it’s become a zero-sum game.

    What I was suggesting in my earlier reply is the depressing thought that only fear of other disasters like Japan’s will ultimately move the public to demand action. They won’t get political until their jobs, dinner tables, air conditioners and cars are threatened.

  2. @ jgoods
    Agree that “clean coal” is still pie-in-the-sky thinking and I wasn’t advocating that idea. I am saying quite the opposite. I believe that until we get to the mid and long term “solutions” we must bite the bullet and compromise our altruistic goal of a pristine environment for the immediate gratification of cheap and plentiful fuel supplies albeit the consequences will involve necessary pollution penalties. It boils down to stark realities in lieu of promised possibilities. The current administration’s views are anathema to stark reality.

    I agree that special interest lobbies are a formidable variable in moving the current situation from the status-quo but from my perspective the revolution in public opinion won’t happen because of the ignorant public. Most Americans are ignorant not because of the lack of intelligence, but rather a conscious choice of not wanting to get involved in understanding the political process. Political “will” is influenced mightily by fear of not getting elected again by a frustrated or motivated public and in that case, I heartily agree that the special interests will triumph. So how can we motivate the public which is preoccupied by just trying to make ends meet, educating their children and fearful of losing their jobs??

  3. @ tgriffith
    @ panayoti
    Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful comments.

    I too believed nuclear might be the answer, and maybe it still can work, but only with very careful safeguards (as we and the world have learned), which unfortunately means more government control, something the Japanese have not pursued. We still don’t know why their cooling systems were so poorly designed for emergency backup.

    Señor Panayoti: No sensible person believes that windmills and solar are the answer to our short-term problems, but we have got to push for them, as there aren’t any better solutions on the long-term horizon. Using “fossil fuels for our immediate energy needs,” as you suggest, is of course what we’re doing. But you confuse the immediate need with the mid-term and long-term needs, and we have got to have an energy policy to get us to respond to those. Or we will end up cooking, like uncovered uranium fuel rods.

    The idea of developing clean-coal technology is much more far-fetched and expensive than rectifying the problems with nuclear, in my opinion. CNG, on the other hand, is plentiful and all we need is an infrastructure to convey and disseminate it.

    We can’t get there because of the political situation, not the ignorant public. The status-quo, special-interest energy lobby will take hostages and execute them before they permit alternative energy sources to come forward in any meaningful way. The only way I see that situation changing is by a kind of revolution in public opinion.

    And who is going to lead that? Mr. Obama certainly isn’t in the vanguard, and so it will be disasters like that in Japan, and others to follow, that may finally move Congress to act. Though don’t bet on it.

  4. I believe what we’re learning here is that there are down sides to everything as well as the associated costs and risks mentioned above. As a former unabashed advocate of nuclear energy, I am shocked at the short cuts and avoidance of regular inspections by the industry. Just yesterday reports surfaced that at least 25 of our plant are, and have been, leaking radiation for years and yet the operators are requesting further extensions of their licenses for an addition 25 years of operation. These plants have finite life cycles and learning that these operators want to extend their lives for another 25 years is shocking and totally irresponsible.

    We’ve complained for decades about a coherent energy policy. Carter urged action here 35 years ago and we’ve still done nothing. Our politicians are to blame and philosophic dogma is the culprit. Yet we keep electing these clowns year after year. Now we have a do-nothing President who refuses to acknowledge that there are safer and cheaper alternatives out there, but with the support of the tree huggers, the EPA, the energy department and an ignorant public, he steadfastly refuse to utilize or support coal and gas because of overblown concerns about carbon emissions and the melting of glaciers. Huh??

    I tire of the myth that windmills and solar are the answer. The only reason that these are discussed is because of the inordinate amount of government subsidies that they receive. The same can be said about the use of hybrid and EVs. These are money losers for the average driver but because of the massive subsidies involved, we are told they are good for the environment and will rescue us from the dreaded “oil dependence” on the dreaded Middle East. So even here we have ssociated costs and risks.

    Look, I want clean air and clean water too, but a simple cost-benefit analysis would clearly show that it is cheaper and safer to use fossil fuels for our immediate energy needs rather than relying on heavily subsidized pie-in-the-sky schemes that simply can not provide us an immediate solution to our energy dependent economy. They account for less than 3% of our energy needs yet if you listen to the media, they will be our saviors. When I alluded to an “ignorant public” I mean to say that they simply don’t know, not that they are stupid. Until the public understands the associated costs and risk thesis, we are doomed to fail for an energy policy that will serve us well into the future.

  5. Well said, jgoods. That’s some thought-provoking stuff. The situation in Japan is terrible, and I’m not sure if the use of nuclear power is worth the risks. We’ll see how this unfolds…

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