One nice new feature we’ve got here on scienceblogs is the Editor’s Picks feature, found on the front page. While browsing it this weekend, I was drawn to this provocative article. In it, Benjamin Cohen writes of his interview with Rebecca Solnit, who says the following when asked about nuclear power as a viable solution to our energy concerns:
Well, the first problem is that they still think like big science–that there is “the answer.” In fact, there are hundreds of little answers that don’t include nuclear, including scaling back our consumption and travel and building better and using a lot of the elegant new engineering to do everything more efficiently and actually doing something about all the renewable energy sources that are out there–maybe having a new renewable/sustainable energy project like the Manhattan Project or race to the moon if they want some big-science action. A lot of what people are trying to hang on to when they embrace nukes is the opportunity to do things pretty much the way they’ve always done them: sloppily, wastefully. Nukes are the last best chance of not changing. Or so they think. My friend Chip Ward–a brilliant, uproarious writer and antinuclear/environmental activist in Utah–points out that, presuming we’re looking for “the answer,” nuclear power isn’t it. It takes insane amounts of carbon-producing endeavor to mine and refine the uranium ore, build the power plants, and if we started tomorrow they wouldn’t be online anywhere soon enough to make a difference in the narrow window we’ve got. So even in carbon-emissions terms and the race to stop screwing up the climate, they’re not the answer.
Now, there are two very major points here that I disagree with, and I’ll get to those in a second. First, the praise. She brings up the issue that any non-renewable energy source is not “the answer” to our energy problems, and this is true. We won’t have coal, oil, natural gas, or radioactive elements forever. Unless we can eventually use some abundant, renewable resource to meet our energy needs, we’re going to drain the Earth of all the Carbon we managed to store in it over the aeons, and shove it back into the atmosphere. And we’ve talked about what that does, and it’s pretty scary. So no, until we can figure out how to balance our energy consumption with our renewable energy generation, we’re going to keep digging ourselves into a hole. The deeper we go, the more and more impossible it may become to get out of it. And that’s a point that cannot be overemphasized.
But decrying nuclear power while promoting anti-nuclear activism? Do you have any idea how superior in every way nuclear power is to, say, coal power? No, nuclear power isn’t the final answer, because it draws on a limited resource. But let’s run through how beneficial it would be for all of us if we simply switched all of the coal power industry into the nuclear power industry. (Ben has arguments against it, Matt Springer has arguments for it.) I’m going to make the arguments from the perspective of the United States of America, since those numbers are most easily available, but remember that the USA produces only about 20-25% of the world’s carbon emissions and power.
From the Union of Concerned Scientists: a typical coal power plant is 500 MegaWatts, and burns 1.4 million tons of coal per year (which becomes 3.7 million tons of CO2). There are about 600 of these in our country, and that produces 54% of our electricity. Leaving aside that burning coal produces sulphur dioxide (which causes acid rain), nitrous oxide (causes smog and ozone), carbon monoxide, lead, arsenic, and mercury, simply running these coal plants puts well over 2 billion tons of Carbon Dioxide into the air every year. And that doesn’t include the costs — both environmental and human — of mining the coal. All-in-all, coal power plants produce each kilowatt-hour at a cost of 755 grams of CO2.
Now let’s come over to the nuclear side. The Oxford Research Group, a partisan (pro-wind and solar, anti-nuclear) non-governmental organization (i.e., think tank), has done the research digging up the dirt on nuclear. They point out while the running of the plants themselves is carbon-free, there are hidden carbon costs in the mining and refining of the Uranium ore, as well as in the containment and disposal of radioactive waste (mostly in the form of tritiated water). But their findings — which give a large range for the carbon outputs dependent on many factors — show that nuclear plants produce each kilowatt-hour at a net cost of 10 to 150 grams of CO2. Which means, at worst, replacing all the coal plants with nuclear power plants will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 80%.
So yes, it isn’t the answer, but it’s such a tremendous positive step that the only reasons not to switch to nuclear (which we can do currently on large scales) while we figure out how to do solar and wind more efficiently are wholly fear-based. Which brings me to the second thing I take offense at: the use of big science as a derogatory term. You can pretty much take anything that’s neutral-to-good — business, pharmaceuticals, science — and immediately make people think that some large, mindless entity is out to get them by putting the word “big” in front of it. I’m not enough of an expert to write about big business or big pharma, but big science?
Where would we be without science, and all of the improvements to our quality of life that have resulted from our investments in this enterprise? So, you wouldn’t have the internet. Or cellphones. Or computers. We can all live more simply, right? We all lived without these 20 years ago. Oh, wait, we’d also have to give up television, telephones, automobiles, mass transit, electricity, running water, heat, refrigeration and air conditioning. Well, Ethan, you are going a little overboard here, don’t you think? I mean, if we were going to live that simply, we might as well all just go back to living on farms and growing our own food. Which we can do, thanks to the very first scientific developments about ten to twelve thousand years ago: crop cultivation and agriculture. Seems like I’m making a very simple argument here: science and the scientific endeavor has resulted in practically all of the overall improvements to our quality of life.
My point in making this argument? Science — the process of understanding how things in this world work — is the greatest thing I believe we can invest in. New techniques and technologies that improve our quality of life arise from science, but that’s always going to be true. They are simply a by-product of the scientific endeavor that we get for free. The fact that someone can even form the phrase “big science” without a hint of irony tells me that — perhaps for the first time ever — we’re starting to invest enough of our resources in the improvement of our lives that there’s tremendous reason for optimism in this world.
Science is the process by which we learn. It’s how we know that nuclear power will be a huge improvement over coal (because we’ve scientifically quantified it), and how we know that solar and wind will someday be even cleaner sources of energy when they become viable. It’s why we have life expectancies in the 70s and 80s now. It’s why I can write this and gather all of this information from the comfort of my own home. It’s why most of us don’t often have to worry about going cold or hungry. And I could think of no better use of our resources than in making “big science” (all 0.4% of our GDP, by the way) even bigger.
So work on promoting solar and wind, because they’re crucial to our long-term success with this planet. But if you pick on nuclear power and science in general, I’m going to do my best to rise to their defense, because the good that comes from both of them far outstrips the small negatives that they bring with them.