Sunday, April 23, 2006

Nuclear Power

I have been pro-nuclear power since reading my first few ecology books back in the 1970s. The world is running out of oil (another thing I've been hearing since the 1970s). Burning coal and oil is directly contributing to global warming, pollution, and political and economic instability.

Nuclear power costs less. It emits no greenhouse gases. If our own uranium reserves aren't sufficient, we can buy uranium from Canada, which is acknowledged as having some of the largest. I'd rather send them our cash than some of the other places it goes.

Some other fun facts: Most coal has traces of uranium in it. So much coal is currently burned yearly that the total radioactive waste release from coal plants is much greater than that from even today's old reactors. And if that's not enough, the uranium that's "thrown away" in this fashion contains more energy than the burned coal trapping it.

I think people's objections to nuclear power amount to fear of catastrophe and fear regarding the waste. So what about those issues?

The world recently passed the 20th anniversary of the terrible accident at Chernobyl. Truly awful. But one bad disaster shouldn't scare people away from one of the many sources of energy we'll have to utilize. Look at the recent coal mine disasters, or look at the coal mines on fire and burning out of control. How many toxic oil spills have there been? Does anyone even pay attention to them anymore?

Safety improves when there are incentives and when it's a priority. Look at the abrupt, substantial changes that happened in airports after 9/11. Many people (myself included) may argue those changes are largely cosmetic and do little more than address the public's fear and perception. But the goal (removing fear) is still accomplished. And to be clear, nuclear power requires real, serious, rigorous safety measures in place. Nobody sane will argue with that.

People continue to be irrational regarding nuclear waste. Much money has been spent on WIPP - the legendary New Mexico nuclear waste repository that has yet to be opened. People say "it's not safe enough" - but it's the safest possible place and design humanity is capable of creating at this time.

And while the irrational people argue about WIPP's inability to absolutely, 100% guarantee safety for 10,000 years, where is the existing waste being stored?

The exact details are considered state secrets. But much of the waste is sitting in rusting drums in military facilities surrounded by little more than chain-link fences or in temporary storage at the originating plants. These temporary facilities are much worse than what WIPP, imperfect as it is, could offer.

We must all realize there are no "permanent solutions" to our energy needs. Our civilization will be playing technological "leapfrog" forever. Put the waste in WIPP for now, and keep working on finding a better solution. Switch to more nuclear power for now, and keep working on improving and developing better, cleaner, and greener sources.

Nuclear power won't solve all of our energy problems. It will create some new problems. And we still have to deal with oil - we can't just give it up overnight. But it's a start. There is no single solution to our energy problems. We have to chip away a little bit at a time.

Inevitably, people resort to the weak strategy of asking me "well, would you want a nuclear power plant in your backyard?" Of course not. I don't want an oil refinery, prison, garbage dump, airport, or strip mall there, either. Nobody does. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have nuclear power. And that doesn't mean that we all shouldn't be prepared to sacrifice a bit for safer, cleaner energy. I should probably start answering them with something like "I'd rather have a nuclear power plant in my backyard than blood on my hands (or someone else's hands)".

The NIMBYs who keep voting against putting wind farms in various places are especially offensive to me. There is no free ride, people.

No comments: