What future have nukes got?

As you presumably know by now, the earthquake in Japan damaged a series of nuclear reactors at the Fukujima Daiichi plant. Due to damage from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, safety systems failed and the reactors could not be shut down the way they were supposed. Hydrogen gas built up and several buildings surrounding the reactor cores have exploded, though the reactor cores themselves seem to be holding up (there is some reporting now that the core of one reactor may have been breached, but it’s still unconfirmed whether that’s true, or how extensive the breach might be if so). It’s a rapidly developing situation, and could get very bad without warning.

This is bad and certainly cause for concern, though not for alarm. Local citizens seem to be evacuating calmly and safely, and workers at the facility are doing all they can to contain the situation.

Stepping back from the immediate drama of the fight to prevent a full nuclear meltdown, the crisis comes at a critical moment in political debates about the role of nuclear power in the global energy economy, and especially whether the US should encourage new nuclear development. It might seem like small potatoes while workers are still risking their lives to control the damaged reactors, but American politics and policy are topics we as bloggers can influence, while events in Fukujima are not.

Chris Mooney surveys the scene and suggests that this crisis will be a good measure of whether liberals are science deniers:

When I and others demonstrated, during the George W. Bush years, that political conservatives had grown very strongly anti-science, we often heard what I would call the “nuclear counterargument.” The point was made that, hey, during the 1960s and 1970s, it was the political left that attacked science illegitimately–particularly around nuclear power….

A centerpoint of this “nuclear counterargument” was that the left used fears of reactor meltdowns and the escape of radiation to unjustifiably scare the public. And if that’s true, then this is certainly the ideal moment for such misuse of science to occur again. So the question is, will it?

It’s almost like a natural experiment in the politicization of science. …

So here’s the question: Will leading environmentalists, elected Democrats, and other influentials on the other side of the aisle be caught engaging in similar abuses in the unfolding nuclear debate? Will they say things provably incorrect, in the service of trying to tank nuclear power?

Or are liberals and conservatives today truly different when it comes to handling scientific information, no matter what their core political impulses may be?

I, for one, am betting on the latter outcome. Just read comments at my blog: It’s a bunch of old lefties saying how they’ve come around about nuclear power and how they’re willing to credit the benefits as well as the costs. Or just look at Matthew Yglesias: A good liberal who has just written, “I do think it’s worth speaking up for a nuclear industry a bit. The question is safe compared to what?“…

I’m happy to be proved wrong, of course–but I’m betting that the “nuclear counterargument,” even if it may validly describe the political left during the 1970s, has little or no bearing on the politics of science in the present.

And the evidence seems to back the conclusion that liberals will handle things differently. In addition to Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum is pointing out that its high cost – not safety – is the main thing holding nuclear power back, and that the cost is only high because fossil fuel prices don’t incorporate all their costs to society. Josh Marshall points out that, while nuclear accidents are clearly pretty worrisome, fossil fuels create catastrophic damage in their accidents (Exxon Valdez, BP, coal mine collapses), but also when they are used perfectly (global warming, asthma, acid rain, lead pollution, cancer).

A growing number of global warming activists have been saying for years that we cannot rule nuclear energy out as part of a carbon-free energy system. Wind, solar, geothermal, and other energy sources have tremendous potential, but nuclear has a lot of advantages in terms of reliability and consistency. The others will surely catch up, but they aren’t quite there yet, and to keep atmospheric greenhouse gases at safe levels, we need to use all available technologies. (Nuclear is probably also better than the others in terms of providing a consistent stream of energy to the grid, while the others will tend to fluctuate more, making them less useful for baseload at the moment.) A reminder of the risks possible from nuclear power may cool some people’s enthusiasm for nuclear (as there was a decline in enthusiasm for offshore oil drilling last summer), but I expect we’ll see it rebound.

Of course, the “everything has problems” angle can go too far. The National Journal’s Julia Edwards tries, for instance, to balance the long-term radiation risks from a nuclear core meltdown against …¬†“killings of thousands of birds” by wind farms. She doesn’t mention that researchers are finding better ways to prevent those deaths, nor that residual radiation from a nuclear meltdown at Fukujima won’t be good for birds or sea life in the area. I don’t think anyone, even the birds, would have a hard time with that choice.

There’s also a point to be made here about the importance of international cooperation on energy issues. Part of the reason we know as much as we do about what’s happening at Fukujima is that information has to be reported back to the IAEA. IAEA got the Nobel Peace Prize a few years back for their work preventing nuclear arms proliferation, inspecting sites in Iraq, decommissioning the South African nuclear program, limiting the Iranian nuclear program, and trying to control North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

In addition to that anti-proliferation role, IAEA also has a mission of supporting and even promoting safe nuclear energy production. They provide technical assistance, even helping countries build nuclear reactors. This includes assistance in the design and construction of plants, but also in the design and implementation of regulatory systems to monitor nuclear plants and nuclear fuels, to ensure safe disposal of waste and to guarantee that nuclear plants’ safety system are fully functional.

When Bangladesh decides to build a nuclear plant, the international community is there, ready to help ensure that it is the safest plant possible. When it decides to build another coal or natural gas plant, no one provides that level of assistance, to ensure that coal mines are build to maximum safety, that coal ash (which is often quite radioactive) doesn’t spill catastrophically, or to install scrubbers and other state of the art emissions controls.

The ideal thing would be for a climate treaty which creates a system like the IAEA for carbon-emitting fuels and which incorporates the true costs of such fuels into the price of the energy sold, but in the mean time, there’s plenty to be said for phasing out coal and gas in favor of nuclear energy, with a preference for solar, geothermal, wind, hydroelectric, and other renewable sources as appropriate, and switching to them as they become cheaper and more efficient. The crisis in Japan certainly reminds us of the risks associated with nuclear energy, but we shouldn’t forget the enormous, probably greater, risks associated with continued fossil fuel use.

Updated: Somehow the last part of the last sentence got truncated. Fixed.

Comments

  1. #1 Anthony McCarthy
    March 15, 2011

    It’s not the science I’ve got reservations about, it’s the scientists and engineers working, paid by and at times invested in nuclear utilities, the executives and workers of the utilities, the regulators and the politicians and others who get to build dangerous utility facilities. It’s the track record of dishonesty and wishful thinking in the place of caution and disclosure of all of the information to the public. And, oh, I left out the judges who I don’t trust either, not as a body.

    And then there is the construction industry. You see, I know people who worked on the Seabrook nuclear plant, who have told me stories about the myriad of beer and soft drink bottles incorporated into the concrete containment by construction workers acting like construction workers. And I’ve seldom heard of a construction project that didn’t take liberties and improvise in the face of the unexpected or incomplete instructions.

    When it’s something as potentially dangerous as nuclear power, that’s a lot of reservations to have. It only takes one failure for a disaster to happen.

    And we haven’t gotten to the operation and waste disposal.

    I asked a question that seems to have gone just about entirely unaddressed, this morning.

    http://echidneofthesnakes.blogspot.com/2011_03_13_archive.html#3294845769594330796

    If it wasn’t so important I wouldn’t link to myself. But it is.

  2. #2 Anthony McCarthy
    March 15, 2011

    See Also:

    I consider this bureaucracy about the most arrogant and contemptuous of public interest among federal agencies, as manifest by its… ready distortions of fact so fit the agency’s position, as in the “Executive Summary” of the Rasmussen report on nuclear safety.

    George B. Kistiakowsky

    The article which the quote prefaces still has a lot of relevant information.

    http://tinyurl.com/4otpqn9

  3. #3 Anthony McCarthy
    March 16, 2011

    Aaron Ross, you might be surprised at how many people say that when you say that scientists are merely human, liable to all the corruptions and incompetence of the species. I’ve been experimenting with that for a while now and that’s exactly what they say. A few scientists haven’t taken it well but mostly it’s just the kind of folks who think scientists are first cousins to Spider Man.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    March 16, 2011

    I am a liberal, a scientist, a skeptic, and I don’t like nuclear power because there remain unresolved technical and safety issues. I also recognize that there are a lot of nuke plants out there and very few major or even moderately bad disasters. On the third hand, a coal plant or natural gas plant at Fukushima would not even be an issue … well it would be an issue, but not THIS issue. On the fourth hand, I really hate the idea of the release of fossil carbon causing the oceans to turn too acidic to allow for the earth’s cycleing of CO2 and O2 to continue, or other nasty agw related problems.

    That’s were I stand on this issue: Firmly uncertain. And, when I look at other people telling me that there is a liberal vs conservative point version of the science that is either pro or against, I imagine tap-dancing fairies, because that’s all that can possibly be. This simply is not a simple issue.

    Having been through the ringer on nuke plants and having worked for the power industry as a consultant (inclkuding nuclear) I have a very strong distrust for that industry. In recent days my trust for many of my skeptical colleagues and friends who happen to be pro-nuke skeptics has gone totally out the window. They have demonstrated that they have not thought about this issue deeply, and react as a matter of faith and belief not information and reason, and are way too busy screaming at people who have concerns about nuke-related safety that they have to shut up. I’m very, very disappointed.

    I already knew that most anti-nuke factions were strongly knee-jerk.

    The politicized nature of both “sides” of this issue is neither productive or exemplary of good behavior or rational thinking.

    And that includes anybody who is already busy making final comparisons between the nature of the fukushimna disaster and anything else, comparisons designed to either maximize or minimize the nature of the event. There are a lot of people who are going to look like utter fools in a few weeks/months from now.

    “So here’s the question: Will leading environmentalists, elected Democrats, and other influentials on the other side of the aisle be caught engaging in similar abuses in the unfolding nuclear debate? Will they say things provably incorrect, in the service of trying to tank nuclear power?”

    Good question, Chris, but you better start asking this question of pro-nuke people, because they have been carrying out that sort of unsavory and inappropriate jabbering since the crisis was first known about. All the anti-nuke people are doing is pointing to the news as building blow up, catch fire, workers run away, radiation spews out of the facilities, and we keep hearing things like “we don’t really know what’s going on but…”

    Anyway, interesting post.

  5. #5 Jud
    March 17, 2011

    The politicized nature of both “sides” of this issue is neither productive or exemplary of good behavior or rational thinking.

    Yep.

    I saw a TV interview with an (former?) NRC Commissioner a day or two ago where he replied to a question about decommissioning nuclear power plants by saying they could easily get 20 year license extensions. That’s nice, but after the last extension, just what is the plan for cleaning up these suckers? (Which is also a question for those who say spent fuel can be recycled – fine, now what happens when it’s time for the plants using the recycled fuel to be decommissioned?)

    Tough for me to enthusiastically get behind projects to build huge plants that we don’t yet have effective plans for cleaning up after EOL.

  6. #6 Wow
    March 17, 2011

    “I already knew that most anti-nuke factions were strongly knee-jerk.”

    Mind you, all the current topic threads (like this one and the one it’s successor to) seem to assume that anti-nuke factions are *all* strongly knee-jerk.

    Does seem to be a knee-jerk reaction to someone being against nuclear to me.

    The risks of nuclear are not well constrained at the top end.

    The risks of nuclear are compounded by lack of proper oversight of operation.

    The risks of nuclear are hidden by commercial confidence and military secrets.

    And as has been soundly proven in this case in Japan, they continue to lie about what they’ve done to secure the systems, what they’ve got in place to sort problems out and what is actually happening when their lack of actual saftety procedures then becomes a problem.

    Given only their widespread lying over the security that they have in place and what is going on, it really comes down to: why trust them when they say it’s safe when they’ve lied about so much”.

    But maybe this is because I’m just knee-jerking, hmm?

  7. #7 mad the swine
    March 17, 2011

    So how many more Chernobyls and Three Mile Islands do there have to be before the pro-nuke faction realizes that the potential risks of nuclear power are simply too great?

    The BP oil spill was horrendous, but the long-term damage to the ecosystem was fairly low. Oil leaks from the seafloor all the time, and there are natural processes that deal with it. There are no bacteria that eat radiation. If something goes catastrophically wrong at a nuclear power plant, hundreds of square miles become uninhabitable for decades, if not centuries – and if the wind is wrong, fallout could be distributed worldwide. Look up the Australian Radiation Services fallout map if you doubt me. A full meltdown in Japan could poison the entire west coast of North America.

    Chernobyl was not the worst case scenario. Chernobyl was a relatively mild warning about what could happen if we keep trying to use atomic weapons as power sources.

    The people who keep saying ‘nuclear power is safe’ because catastrophic accidents are rare simply do not understand risk management. Nuclear power should not be used – at all – because the worst-case scenario is so terribly destructive to human life and the ecosystem in general that, even if the chance of catastrophe is only one in a million, that tiny possibility is too damaging to risk at all.

  8. #8 mad the swine
    March 17, 2011

    By the way, the Obama administration is now recommending that all American citizens leave Japan – not just Fukujima, but the entire country – due to radiation and fallout risks. But nuclear power is better than oil or coal, right? Call me when entire countries start being wiped out by global climate change.

    … no, wait, don’t. Because even if greenhouse gases were as dangerous as nuclear power, the answer is fewer people and using less power, not replacing one existential threat with another.

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