Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Nuclear Option

At least we aren't saying "nukular" any more, but now that the President (and at least we aren't saying Preznit any more either) is seriously annoying yet another category of his supporters, this time by pushing nuclear power, YT is compelled to weigh in if for no other reason than some personal history. As a youth, I was involved in organizing this demonstration, which filled the mall in front of the Capitol with people as far as the eye could see; and this conference. (Until I tried it, I didn't know that you could find scanned newspaper articles from before the Internet era. Now y'know.) I still have one of those frightfully ugly "Nuclear Power? No thanks!" silk screened posters in a storeroom.

What I have to say about all this today is that it's complicated. The main driver of public opposition to nuclear power has always been safety concerns. The Three Mile Island meltdown happened between the conference and the march, IIRC, and it scared the hell out of people, even though as it turned out the amount of radiation that escaped from the site was not really significant. Then the Chernobyl meltdown happened and that certainly was a huge economic and public health disaster. But the truth is that the Chernobyl design had nothing to do with the kinds of reactors that we have here in the U.S., and modern designs would not allow for a repeat of the TMI event.

The safety of nuclear power plant operation is something of an imponderable -- how do you value a high impact, very low probability event? However, we know that coal fired power kills lots and lots of people all the time, from coal miners to people who breathe, not to mention animals, acidifies waterways, deposits mercury in the ocean, and is responsible for a whole lot of CO2 emissions as well.

The more credible objections to developing nuclear power are more complicated. The first you undoubtedly know about. Standard light water reactors, famously, produce spent fuel that is highly radioactive, remains dangerous for thousands of years, can be used by terrorists to make "dirty bombs" and conceivably used to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons. The solutions to these problems, such as they are, have obvious side effects. Nobody wants a permanent spent fuel repository nearby. Whether that's necessarily entirely rational or not, it's a fact. Nobody wants large amounts of high level nuclear waste going by on the highway or railroad. Again, you could invest any arbitrary amount to get to any arbitrarily defined level of safety, but there are still people who wouldn't like it. For security reasons, you'd probably have to keep it a secret when and where the shipments were moving, and you'd need a lot of sullen men with guns guarding everything.

Right now, the way we deal with these problems is by keeping the waste at the power plants where they are generated. It does settle down after a few years and become somewhat less dangerous, but that plutonium hangs around forever by the standards of historical time. And if we keep generating more and more and more of it the whole scenario just gets uglier. Proponents of nuclear power just ask us to weigh these problems against the continued generation of CO2 and the other environmental and social problems associated with fossil fuels. It's not actually insane to argue about that balance, it seems to me. Honorable people may disagree.

(There is a speculative proposal for a new technology, called a "traveling wave" reactor, which produces far less waste over time by effectively burning up the hot isotopes produced by the initial fission reaction, and which can be fueled with unenriched uranium. Bill Gates is a big fan and investor, but we don't know if it will ever work. These reactors use liquid sodium, rather than water, as a moderator, which also gives one pause. But Obama is supporting development of conventional light water reactors right now.)

But then we come to the economics of nuclear power. Nuclear power plants are far more costly to build than conventional power plants -- we're talking many billions of dollars. That means they suck up a lot of investment capital that could go to other uses. In order to pay back their investors, they have to run for a long time, and not be off-line very often for repairs. Another TMI type incident, even if nobody is injured, would be an economic catastrophe. As it turns out, investors aren't willing to go there, which means nuclear power can't move forward without government loan guarantees and insurance subsidies. Obama is proposing to offer precisely that. So where it the outcry from the Cato Institute and the rest of the libertarians and "free market" fundamentalists?

What is more, the truly vast investment needed to build enough nuclear power plants to make a meaningful contribution to our long-term needs would drive out all sorts of other investments we desperately need to make, and wouldn't give us any payback at all for decades, if then. It would concentrate political and economic power in the hands of enormous corporations that could hold their regulators hostage.

And oh yeah -- it would require enormous amounts of fossil fuels to construct all those reactors.

It is these economic, social and political impacts that really concern the more thoughtful foes of nuclear power. Ownership of wind and solar power can be far less centralized, even personal; these sources can be built incrementally; they don't create security issues; when they reach the end of their useful lives they are innocuous and recyclable. On the other hand, realistically, with current technology, they aren't going to make a major contribution to meeting our needs any time soon. For one thing, we don't have an electrical grid infrastructure that can deal with intermittent sources and we don't have a good way of storing power. So a large capital investment is needed for that, although it could be publicly controlled and so less of a political danger.

The fact is there is no easy way out of our problems and not so good solutions may be necessary. That's evidently what the president thinks. How about you?

Update: A commenter links to a Cato writer who is indeed intellectually consistent on this and decries the subsidies. Good on 'em. Now let's see if any more real conservatives show up to make noise publicly along these lines -- most people think Obama is doing this to appease Republicans.


Daniel said...

This is all outside of my area of expertise so what follows is my semi-knowledgeable opinion.

I have read several engineering critiques of the standard LW reactors that were built in the 60s and 70s. A common theme is that economics drove design, i.e. the reactors were too large requiring complex active cooling systems. Designs that downscale the size can be built with passive cooling systems which reduce cost and increase safety. This would seem to be a promising direction and if the gov't is underwriting these reactors we should expect a thorough review of design.

A recent article in Scientific American led me to conclude that current spent fuel rod storage can be adequately maintained on site. Stewart Brand makes a point that we should consider a 100 year window for storage with the expectation that everything about this will change in 100 years.

Wind and solar need baseline firming power. Gas and nuclear are good options for this.

GHG buildup needs to be prevented. Dr. Chu has made the point, persuasively to me anyway, that nuclear is a bridge technology we need to invest in.

I'll also say there should be a global commitment to develop fusion energy by 2200.

Anonymous said...

The responses from Cato are here:


никол said...
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C. Corax said...

You didn't mention uranium mining:


You also didn't mention the leak at VT Yankee Nuke. Don't tell me that story isn't making it out to Boston?! Why would the media ignore a story like this:

I'm effing furious at Obama. It doesn't take a spectacular TMI accident to destroy the environment and to poison our water. It takes an underground leak and a corporation that can lie with impunity.

Cervantes said...

Yes, the Vermont Yankee leak has been much in the news. So far it's very minor -- they're finding tritium in the water, which means that water which has been exposed to radiation is leaking into the ground, but tritium decays quickly and there's no sign of heavy radioactive isotopes getting loose. However, without getting specific about it I did suggest that such problems will occur and definitely challenge the economics and public acceptability of nuclear power. Uranium mining has also caused a lot of environmental problems and in particular harmed miners, but so does coal mining. I'm afraid I have to conclude that coal mining is actually worse because it requires removal of vastly more material and employs thousands of times as many workers.

In other words, I don't like nuclear power but I don't like coal power either. That's the dilemma.

roger said...

we're all gonna glow in the radiant warmth of cheap, clean (relative to coal) electricity. i don't see our demand going down. our political masters will do whatever necessary deliver the power fix. the combination of coal mining destructiveness and coal burning pollution seems right now to outweigh concerns about radiation.

would you rather suffer from breathing poisonous air or from radiation? a modern choice.

Cervantes said...

Yeah Rog, it ain't pretty either way. With a human population of say, 9 million instead of 9 billion, we'd be okay, but I sure don't want to get there the hard way.