Monday, November 3, 2008

Pros and Cons: Nuclear Power

Some people hail nuclear power as the answer to all of our energy problems - others think it will cause the destruction of the earth. McCain fully endorses this source of energy, while Obama has now seemed to reluctantly accept it. What are the real facts and real dangers?

Pros

1. Compared to coal and oil, nuclear energy produces a negligible amount of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases.

2. Nuclear power plants can be built almost anywhere in our country, unlike oil which is mostly imported.

3. It's cheaper to obtain. More people can afford to have and use energy, hopefully giving a boost to our economy.

4. The waste produced is small and compact.

5. There has not been an accident since Chernobyl in the 1980s.

Cons

1. There is no safe way to dispose of radioactive waste. The material takes thousands of years to break down and outlasts the steel containers it is put into, meaning it could contaminate its surroundings.

2. Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste dumpster, is not only a sacred Native American land, but is also on top of a earthquake fault line.

3. Nuclear power plants produce thermal pollution - they require an incredible amount of water to cool down the interior. The water is then let out back into a body of water. The warmed water is harmful to marine wildlife. I have read that one power plant requires the same amount of water as the city of Chicago in one day.

4. Disasters and near melt-downs have occurred in the past.

5. Using more radioactive material could make it easier for terrorists to get a hold of dangerous substances.

6. No one wants to live near a power plant. When they are built, the people who cannot afford to move away are the ones disproportionately harmed.

7. The unknown. Do we really know all the effects and consequences?

So, do the pros outweigh the cons? Are the benefits worth the risks? I'm more well-versed on the cons of nuclear power, so if anyone has any opinions, please comment. What are your thoughts?

This image is from Current Word.

12 comments:

Red Craig said...

Thanks for inviting comment.

I think you're getting information from political groups who have a particular agenda and present inaccurate information.

Let me first point out that nuclear-energy waste has never caused harm to anyone. If you were to make a list of all the things that have harmed people the list would be very long, in fact many thousands of pages long. And nowhere on that list would be nuclear energy waste. Presently the world faces a threat to its continued habitability greater than any it's faced since the last ice age. Yet political activists oppose one of the most important solutions available to us because of some imagined fear that isn't even on the list.

Yucca Mountain is the unfortunate result of a very bad decision made thirty years ago not to recycle spent fuel. Nonetheless, the danger it poses is vastly exaggerated by nuclear opponents. The storage rooms are being strengthened structurally to meet the most severe geologic events. The plans are presently under review; if any vulnerabilities are found the plans will be sent back for revision. Once the plans are approved the safety of the deposited spent fuel will become the very least of the environmental concerns we face.

No, the use of cooling water isn't harmful. The operation of plants is reviewed by a large number of regulatory agencies, including professional biologists. If the agencies find that the warming would be harmful, the plant owners are required to install mitigating equipment, such as cooling towers or cooling ponds.

Only one plant has ever done harm to any member of the public. That was a Soviet monstrosity which had literally no safety features. It was made of graphite, a flammable material, and covered by a sheet-metal shed to keep the rain off. Western reactors are made of steel and are built below ground and are encased in layers of steel and concrete. The Chernobyl reactor had instability built into it and at the time of the accident its emergency shutdown system and its emergency core cooling system were both disabled. No one in the world is planning to build that type of reactor in the future. In contrast, the accident at Three Mile Island destroyed the reactor but didn't harm anyone. No one was injured or made ill by that accident. The difference was the layers of safety.

Of all the things terrorists can do, stealing nuclear materials is the most difficult and the least threatening. There are many substances which are easier to obtain and vastly more dangerous.

There are many things people choose not to live near: freeways, airports, coal-fired power plants, wind farms, chemical refineries, gasoline filling stations, waste-water treatment plants, hog farms, dairy farms, etc., etc., etc. But surveys of people living near nuclear power plants show a high level of acceptance. The plants are safe, clean, and quiet and don't add much traffic. They bring in good jobs and pay taxes.

Here's what we do know: Nuclear plants in the US (and everywhere except the Soviet Union) have a perfect safety record. Their environmental record is as good as that for any other energy source, with no exceptions. They produce 70% of the non-CO2 electricity. They and hydroelectric dams are the only non-fossil energy sources that can provide energy full-time. To reduce CO2 emissions to an acceptable level will take all the renewable energy we can manage, all the nuclear plants we can build, and more conservation than anyone wants.

Molly said...

Thanks so much for your informative reply, red craig.

I do agree with many of your points, such as the fact that global warming and other energy/environmental issues are much more urgent issues. I definitely never knew the poor conditions of Chernobyl, so thanks for clearing that up. I'm sure that reactors in the U.S. would have to meet much higher standards and have frequent safety inspections.

However, I'm not quite convinced that the radioactive waste is not harmful. The waste, to many experts, is one of the biggest problems with nuclear power.

Red Craig said...

Molly, no one faults this reservation you're expressing. Nuclear-energy wastes aren't harmless, they just haven't caused harm and the reason is that the quantities are small enough that they can be handled safely.

To put this in perspective, consider: A 1000-MW coal plant generates 300,000 tons of toxic waste per year, not including the filth that is released to the atmosphere. A comparably-sized nuclear plant produces 23 tons per year, enough to partly fill a railroad boxcar. But it gets better. Reprocessing the spent fuel reduces the wastes by 97%. So the same nuclear plant will produce only 0.7 tons per year.

So there are two things going for us. One, the people handling the spent fuel are well aware of its danger. Second, the quantities are small enough that we can afford to pay what it takes to keep it safe. There isn't enough money in the world to keep coal wastes safe. And the reason this matters is that the world won't rely entirely on part-time energy sources. If people can't get the electricity they need from nuclear energy they'll take it from fossil fuels.

Thanks very much for taking the trouble to look into this. None of it is simple and many people just shrug it off.

Molly said...

I really appreciate the time you took to check back on this and write a response. I do agree that nuclear energy can be better than fossil fuels, but what do you think of alternative energy sources such as solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, etc.? If we someday had enough of these sources to use, would you still promote nuclear energy?

Red Craig said...

Molly, I think it's clear we're going to have to use a lot of renewable energy. As much as we can. What limits renewables is that the world won't depend on part-time energy sources. We can do some time-shifting of loads, there's some source-diversity we can take advantage of, and there's a small amount of storage available. But it's hard to see how renewables could ever provide as much as half the electricity we need. That leaves a huge demand that only nuclear can meet.

To minimize global warming will require shifting fossil-fuel applications to electricity, like battery-powered cars or heat pumps in place of furnaces, so electricity demand will go up however much conservation we accomplish. Plus, we're going to need hydrogen and/or synthetic motor fuels, and advanced nuclear plants are the most energy-efficient way there is for producing them.

So yes, we definitely will need to use both renewable energy and nuclear energy.

Molly said...

I definitely agree that as of right now, any alternative energy sources would have to be supplemented with a "main" energy source, and nuclear could very well be it.

Another focus I think we all need in order to have a sustainable future is to try to cut back on our energy needs and mass production. Because nuclear power is cheap, it probably will encourage more industry and manufacturing, so other environmental problems will be worsened.

Red Craig said...

Ah, that's something I can assure you on. Although nuclear costs out cheaper than non-fossil alternatives, electricity rates will definitely go up. Currently, most of the power plants were built more than twenty years ago, and most of the hydro dams were built more than fifty years ago. We're coasting along by taking advantage of the much-cheaper construction of those times. Inflation means new plants will cost more, whether they are nuclear or renewable, or even fossil-fired.

As I mentioned before, converting fossil-fuel applications to electricity will push up the demand for electricity, so of all the things we have to worry about, excess cheap electricity isn't one of them. We can expect to see a lot of pressure to reduce waste and increase efficiency.

Molly said...

Do you work for a nuclear company? Haha, just wondering. You seem extremely knowledgeable on the topic.

Red Craig said...

Hi Molly,

Thanks for asking. About a hundred years ago I did safety analysis on nuclear power plants. I'm retired now and I'm involved in several environmental programs. Global warming is probably the most urgent issue we'll face for a long time and I'm trying to get as much good information out as I can.

There's just an awful lot of misinformation going around. I've put the best info I could find on a web page at http://gwperplexed.niof.org.

Molly said...

Well, I thank you again for your insightful comments, red craig. I have really learned a lot from your information, and will probably have to do some reflecting again on this issue.

It's really great that you are using your skills to try to help the environment and the people with your programs. Best of luck!

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