Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Global Warming Worries Drive Atomic Renaissance

Sitting in the belly of the beast - Dominion's 2,000-megawatt Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford, Connecticut - the company's chief nuclear officer, Dave Christian, seems an unlikely environmentalist. But he says concern about climate change is what got him involved in the peaceful pursuit of the atom in the first place. ...

The case for Dominion as a friend of the Earth is based on a few simple facts: It generates 45 percent of Connecticut's electricity and 30 percent of Virginia's without taking a huge toll in smokestack-emitted global warming gas. In fact, there are no smokestacks, because (aside from the occasional release of radioactive material) the only thing nuclear power plants vent is steam. What's more, in contrast to the modest current capacity of wind and solar power, nukes can produce very large amounts of electricity - enough to counter global warming by taking highly polluting coal-burning plants offline even as electricity demand increases. ...

Nuclear power has already won some powerful allies in the environmental community. Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense says, "We should all keep an open mind about nuclear power." Jared Diamond, best-selling author of Collapse, says, "To deal with our energy problems we need everything available to us, including nuclear power," which should be "done carefully, like they do in France, where there have been no accidents." To which Stewart Brand, another apostate green who founded The Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Review, adds, "The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power." James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory about the planet's self-regulating systems, has called for, to quote The Independent, "a massive and immediate expansion of nuclear power." Actor Paul Newman visited New York's Indian Point plant and praised its climate role. In many cases, these environmentalists see nuclear as only a temporary fix....

To get the public to accept a major expansion of nuclear power, the industry will have to convince Americans terrified by the specter of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and intentional terrorism-related sabotage. ...

Meanwhile, plans to relocate America's nuclear plant waste to a secure federal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada are slowly inching forward. The facility is designed to house 77,000 tons of nuclear waste, including the 50,000 tons already waiting for storage at reactor sites in dozens of states. The project director, Edward Sproat, said that a 2017 start date is now unlikely, and that the waste facility may never be built without increased Congressional funding.

The current plan is to transport the waste to Yucca Mountain, stored in reinforced casks, by truck and rail through 43 states. The watchdog group Public Citizen says this plan would put the waste "within half a mile of 50 million people." And it adds that "more waste would be shipped in the first year alone than has been shipped in the U.S. in the past three decades."

These facts led an increasingly skeptical Atlanta Constitution to write, "[W]orldwide, it would take some 2,000 new nuclear power plants, at a cost of over $1 trillion, to make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions. Those plants would require a new Yucca Mountain-sized repository every few years to store the tidal wave of highly radioactive nuclear waste. With no answer to its radioactive nuclear waste, it is clear that nuclear energy will not be the answer to global warming." ...

In his book Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change (IEER Press), Brice Smith admits that, when compared to fossil fuels, nuclear power emits far lower levels of greenhouse gases, even when mining, enrichment and fuel fabrication are taken into account. But to effectively challenge the global warming problem, he says, a new reactor would have to come online somewhere in the world every 15 days on average between 2010 and 2050. Even with this growth, he calculates that the proportion of electricity coming from nuclear sources would grow only slightly, from 16 to 20 percent over the period.

This is a debate we are going to have to confront. In addition to the obvious issues of plant operational safety and our ongoing failure to resolve "the fuel cycle" (what do we do with all the radioactive gunk produced by the process, and how do we safely transport it to burial), security issues (nuclear facilities make such a delicious terrorist target) pose an ongoing challenge of enormous magnitude.

But the production alternatives suck.
Note that electric cars, even if they are not killed yet again, need an ultimate source of electricity.
Coal is hardly an optimal answer, although economically (as we now--improperly--measure things) currently most favorably positioned, here and in rapidly growing economies like China and India. What a looming disaster, both in traditional pollution terms (possibly subject to some amelioration with new technologies) and its (huge) contribution to global warming.
Conservation (including, but not limited, to higher efficiency technologies), of course, offers the greatest potential, if we are willing to pay its costs.

1 comment:

James Aach said...

Absolutely, conservation should be the first, second and third priorities of any energy policy. The cheapest, safest energy is that which you don't use.

FYI: Stewart Brand has also been kind enough to endorse my thriller novel of nuclear power, which is based on my twenty years in the US nuclear industry and is designed to provide a good overview of the topic for a lay person. I cover the good AND the bad. It is available free online at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com and also in paperback via online retailers.

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