Friday, February 19, 2010

Nuclear Energy

President Obama's recent announcement $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for building the nation's first nuclear power plants in over 30 years.

This has caused consternation among many environmentalists, who like many progressives are extremely disappointed in the president. Of course, Obama has been a proponent of nuclear energy for many years, so this isn't that surprising.

An anti-nuclear mantra has dominated environmentalism for a very long time. The 1970s and 1980s saw a mass movement develop against nuclear, culminating in the nearly simultaneous release of the film The China Syndrome and the Three Mile Island near-meltdown in 1979. Three Mile Island crippled the nuclear industry and the Chernobyl disaster drove the final nail in the coffin.

But some environmentalists have pushed for a renewal of nuclear energy for the last decade. Dave Johnson offers a measured approval of nuclear energy here. Because nuclear energy does not emit any climate changing carbon dioxide, we might consider it clean energy. If fighting climate change is our #1 priority, shouldn't we use all the tools we can?

I'm torn on this. There is no single fuel that will replace fossil fuels. We might need a package of wind, solar, hydrogen, biofuel, and nuclear. Taking one fuel away makes our necessary weaning from coal and petroleum all the more difficult. Nuclear doesn't lead to climate change and that's a good thing. If it's safe, it's really quite clean.

But to choose nuclear means a reliance on technology that I not comfortable with. To no small extent, choosing nuclear means you have to make 2 very large assumptions. First, that technology will solve our problems and second, that government oversight will ensure our safety. The second should be a no-brainer.  But the anti-government fantacism that has overwhelmed the U.S. in the last thirty years makes any assurances of proper regulation quite hard to believe. The Republicans will say support limited regulation and claim the free-market will solve the problem. Safety was a big problem in the 1970s and it would likely be an even bigger problem today. One mistake and you have Chernobyl. I believe in government's ability to manage the oversight, but only an activist and well-funded government can do it. Do we have that today? I don't think so.

Even more problematic is our blind faith in technology. Supporting nuclear means we see an unlimited future in technology. If power went down for a long period of time, the reactor core would melt down and you'd have a Chernobyl Plus event. Eventually, 10 years, 100 years, or 1000 years from now, the United States will be no more. Some disaster will strike, war and famine will occur, and social and political instability will undermine our infrastructure. When that happens, as someday it must, each and every nuclear power plant will release massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. This absolutely WILL happen someday.

The question is when. Supporting nuclear energy means that someday, maybe far, far down the road, we are condemning our descendants to radiation poisoning.

The way around this is to assume that we will create the technology to store spent nuclear fuel in a way that will protect our children from harm. Perhaps that capability exists. But technology has to combine with political will to ensure this happens. Where are spent fuel rods going to go? 2010 is the 65th  year of the nuclear age. And the United States still has no comprehensive solution to spent nuclear fuel. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was supposed to be a solution, but widespread opposition and a lack of government funding have doomed that site and I find it unlikely it will ever fully open. People have criticized its location for its proximity to Las Vegas and its unstable fault lines. That may be true, but where should the contaminated waste go? We have to choose to put it somewhere. To this point, NIMBYism has dominated all discussions of this problem.

In the end, it may be that we need nuclear power as part of our strategy to combat climate change. There are other issues, such as the limited supply of uranium in the world, but perhaps it must play a role. However, there are also enormous problems to overcome if we are really going to return to nuclear power. Right now, I'm not seeing serious discussion about these problems. And that's very worrisome.