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.
While I agree with you that using "big science" as a derogatory argument is not valid, I'd counter that using the benefits of "science in general" as a support for nuclear power is equally flawed. The syllogism: "Science has brought us good things, nuclear power is part of science, so nuclear power must be good" is a fallacy.
I also disagree with your statement "the only reasons not to switch to nuclear ... are wholly fear-based." I can give you a few reasons to consider. We don't know how to dispose of the wastes safely, and in fact we don't really even have a scientific consensus on the long-term environmental impact of the wastes, and we don't know how to keep the technology out of the hands of terrorists and madmen. Solutions to the waste problem that involve recycling make the madman problem worse. Perhaps my concerns about high-grade nuclear material in the hands of N Korea or Iran are fear-based concerns, but I think it's a rational fear to have.
Great post! One question though: I may be misunderstanding something here, but how can a power plant burn 1.7 million tons of coal to produce 3.7 million tons of CO2? Isn't that a lot more coming out than is going in?
David, we know how to deal with the waste, at least in theory. The radioactive water has a half-life of about 12 years, and so takes around 1000 years to go back to acceptable levels. But in terms of an environmental impact, what coal does is far less manageable than what nuclear does.
Geoffrey, carbon dioxide is a much heavier molecule than a simple carbon atom. That's why the amount of CO2 produced is so much more than the amount of carbon burned; we are turning coal and oxygen into carbon dioxide.
Nuclear power is a business. Business can make a mess out of good science. America's power business has shown in the past to not always have the self discipline to treat nuclear power with the respect it deserves as a non-forgiving technology. So the "fear" is justifiable.
The technology and the science are there for nuclear power. But is the business ethic up to managing the risk?
If France can do it, then the rest of the West can too.
I am for replacing the heavy pollution of coal plants with nuclear.
Against nuclear power, even as a temporary solution, speaks that these are huge investments for decades. If we have cheap solar in 10 years the nukes still have to run decades to pay off their costs and can not be just switched off. Plus the way to make solar cheaper is mass production â every billion spent on a nuke is a billion not used to bring about cheaper mass produced solar power plants.
Solar and wind depend on the existence of the sun, and that is not renewable at all.
Nuclear is, in fact, more renewable than solar or wind because we can extract fuel from off planet even after the sun dies and the unsustainable biosphere is eliminated by the cosmos.
Nuclear power is a dinosaur of energy production along with every other form of fuel-consuming electricity generators â marked for extinction. While NP may emit considerably lower CO2 then other fuel-consuming energy production, it still produces more then wind, solar, wave, and geothermal. The infrastructure and administrative needs should not be ignored either. NP is on the high end for both. Top this off with the problems associated with nuclear waste (1,000 years poses an almost unsolvable problem -- human history does not bode well for any viable option)and NP is no longer a viable option as a source of electricity. The public, both worldwide and in the USA, would be far better served if billions of research dollars were spent in renewable, non-polluting resources. Geothermal power production alone is much safer, has a far less detrimental effect on the environment, is considerably cheaper, and is in almost all ways superior to nuclear power.
Yea, but if Obama can't even talk to school kids without the right wing going nuts, trying to have the same government oversight and corporate accountability the French have will be impossible in America.
Solar power is not as easy as you think. The satellite industry taps out the high efficiency solar cell production capability of the nation at a few 10s of KWatts per year at a cost of several 100s of millions of dollars per year, and they do not last for ever.
Wind uses up too much real estate.
Nuke probably IS the answer, but as a society paranoid of anything that remotely smells like socialism, it will be really hard to do. Like an alcoholic, our consumer society is probably going to have to crash and burn before we are ready to truly make the changes we need to make.
Well put Ethan - and as much as we complain about not enough funding for science, there are places which spend even less on science.
"...will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 80%" Well, that's the energy generation industry anyway. Transportation pumps out a slightly smaller amount than power plants at the moment so there's another big problem to look at.
I'd also like to point out that going back to a "simple life" as people like to say, isn't as cutesy and quaint as it sounds. Even the Amish depend a lot on modern technology. Not to mention that the global population simply cannot be sustained without modern technology - no water, no food, no heating. In the bad old days we'd heat places by cutting down a few trees each year, letting the wood weather to remove some of the resins, then burning the stuff. Kiss the cities goodbye - they cannot exist. Nor will we have the dental, optical, and medical care we've got today. Other countries have shown that even without terribly advanced technology (iron age implements are all that's necessary) humans can overpopulate areas - so unless we get the global population to steadily decline, humans are so screwed.
Nuclear won't replace coal.
Over half our existing nuclear plants will shut down by 2040 at the end of their 60-year lifetimes. And the remaining plants will steadily shut down after that as their licenses expire. And that's optimistic, assuming the plants don't have to shut down early due to failures.
Nuclear supplies only a small fraction of our electricity and the fraction goes down as consumption goes up. We will be lucky to keep nuclear power producing at current levels to 2050. We will absolutely not replace coal with nuclear. Don't even think about it.
"we know how to deal with the waste, at least in theory"
only in theory. in practice, wastes are currently stored on-site, which is not a viable long-term solution. if nothing else, it creates numerous terrorist targets around the nation, mostly conveniently near population centers. Yucca mountain, despite assurances from government, turned out to be geologically and hydrologically unstable. There is no viable long-term storage plan at the present time. Recycling fuel will lead to dissemination of technology that will help put weapons in the hands of unstable governments.
"what coal does is far less manageable than what nuclear does" -- I agree with you as far as the operations of power plants goes - coal plants are worse than nuclear plants. But we don't really know the risks associated with long term storage. We don't have a clear understanding of how much radiation may leak from long-term storage (since we haven't even made a long-term storage facility), and we don't have solid biologic models linking radiation exposure to adverse effects.
I have ambiguous feelings on NP. On the pro-side I prefer it to fossil fuel plants and hydroelectric dams. I won't comment FF, but in Brazil (where I live) HP is destroying fluvial ecosystems, it has already drowned acres of rain forests, it threatens fisheries, the economy of the riverine population, and coastal environments. And yet it sold as a clean energy source. Against NP I have the same doubts as others commenter have raised, the nuclear waste, especially considering how things are done here in Brazil, i.e., without the due care.
But I have a question, let's say we develop nuclear fusion, the energy generated would eventually be converted to heat, right? What would this impact of this heat, if any, considering the world's energy usage?
All of any energy generated is eventually converted to heat. That's just thermodynamics....
That nuclear fusion energy would be converted to heat is no different from coal burning energy being converted to heat. In either case, you want to have an efficient system for turning that heat into something harnessable. E.g., in the steam engine, you (perhaps) burn coal to evaporate water, and use the pressure of that evaporated water to turn a mechanical system somewhere, giving you mechanical energy.
Nuclear fusion wouldn't be special in terms of heat production. (It's special right now in that we haven't figured out how to engineer a plant that puts out more energy than you have to put into running a sustainable reaction....)
Re: many of the objections to nuclear fusion above, yeah, it's not going to replace coal because many of the plants we have are going to reach end-of-lifetime, and there aren't more. The *reason* for that is the paranoia we've long held about anything with the name "nuclear" in it. (Wonder why an MRI -- a version of an NMR -- doesn't have N in its acronym?) Yes, dealing with long-term storage of the wastes is an issue, but I think it's pretty clear right now that that issue is not nearly as big as the short- and medium-term problems we have demonstrated that fossil fuels are causing! Let's solve the problems rather than saying "OMG, it's a problem the current thing doesn't have let's ignore that the current thing's known problems are way worse than what this new thing has and just forget it."
Politically, I doubt it will ever happen. It's too contentious, people are too afraid of the N-word, and you can even use the "win all arguments word" ("terrorist") in arguing against nuclear power.
Also, I don't think anybody is proposing nuclear fission as a permanent solution to everything. But it's something that we know how to make work *right now*, and it's been demonstrated to work in enough quantity to supply a country's worth of electrical needs. It could patch us over while we figure out if we can deploy solar energy on that kind of timescale. If we're really certain we're only 10 years out from being able to deploy enough solar energy to power the country, then, yeah, it doesn't make sense to invest in nuclear to buy time. But if we're not very confident that we have a renewable solution in the next 10 years, then we need to think seriously about a "tide us over" solution. (It may even now be too late with the amount of CO2 we've put into the atmosphere; the Earth may self-correct by drastically reducing the human population via climate change....)
Re: the comment above that the sun will eventually go out... er, yeah. We need to take the long view, but I don't think we really need to be worrying about timescales of longer than millenia right now.... You're at least 6 orders of magnitude beyond that.
I'm also curious about where solar-power people think the extra power's going to come from... you know, the power that runs us while it's dark or cloudy. Do they think we're going to build huge capacitor banks that can store enough energy to run entire cities for days on end with only a trickle charge coming in?
In the city I live in (and so does Ethan) it's cloudy for something like 1/3 of the year, there isn't a while lot of geothermal available, and there isn't a whole lot of wind available. What then?
I read that Japan is inaugurating a research program to launch a space based solar satellite which will generate one gigawatt. Estimated to cost 21 billion..that's like 7 cash for clunkers programs, it will be expensive, but of course it's not intended to do more than be a demonstration but a pretty serious one to be sure, but the costs will come down as they gain proficiency and find economies of scale. Why is it so many who are adamant about reducing the impacts of power generation here on earth so blithely unaware that the there is vast amounts of power for our next phase in technology is waiting for serius efforts. We know how to do this and we koww also that proficiency in space engineering will yield also access to the asteroids and could make the need for terrestrian mining all but end. It is our future if we want it but I never hear about how compact flourescent lightbulbs and windmills are going to get us up there. Where's the outcry over being anti-science when it comes to our approach to serious space developement and not just that hi-tech dog and pony show we've been conducting for the last 30 years? I suspect other nations like China and India will be leaders here as we worry abut trippin over our shoelaces.
Ethan, while I agree with you that the derogatory use of the term "big science" detracts from the main issue. However, I have to strongly disagree your praise of nuclear power as a solution to our energy needs. Like most environmentalists, I am not in favor of building any new nuclear power plants and hope that in time we can phase out the ones we already have. Mining and processing the uranium ore are processes that use a great deal of energy themselves and only serve to strip the Earth of its non-renewable resources while increasing CO2 emissions from the transport. Moreover, the radioactive waste must be stored in questionable facilities that our great grandchildren will have to struggle with cleaning up. I think we have a moral obligation not to kick the can down the road to them like that.
Sure, nuclear's cleaner than coal, but so is everything else! Like the quote from Rebecca says, the real solution is multifaceted. First, we must reduce our energy consumption by making systems more efficient and changing our lifestyles to be less wasteful. Secondly, we need to get away from centralizing power generation exclusively and adopt more decentralized power generation from renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal, etc. This is not something for the far future. We don't need a nuclear bandaid to hold us over until someday when we can rely more on renewable energy. The time is now! The technology is here now. Nuclear fission is a thing of the past. It may have uses to power spacecraft or planetary bases, but here on Earth, we just don't need it anymore.
Siegel: "radioactive water has a half-life of about 6 years, and so takes around 1000 years to go back to acceptable levels":
I'm not sure what you mean by "radioactive water"; deuterium is stable and tritium has a half-life just over 12 years.
A substance having a 6-year half-life would, after 1000 years, have reduced its radioactivity to less than one part in 10^50. For comparison, the Earth only has about 10^50 atoms, so your "radioactive water" is down to about one atom on Earth... assuming you started with an Earth-mass of it!
Can you maybe explain what you meant a bit more clearly?
Regarding the article itself: if nuclear power were simply a matter of sensible engineering, it would cost a sixth or less of what it does and every major city would have a couple of turnkey pebble-bed reactors. Unfortunately people get all sorts of emotional muck stirred up, and politicians get involved, and before you know it you've got an eight-ring circus going.
At the moment, nuclear energy - sensibly done - is a much better idea than coal. If we also built a fractional number of breeder reactors, we could both greatly expand our available fuel and get rid of most of the waste products. However, judging by the current US furor over health-care, the odds of anything being sensibly done are minimal.
I think what it boils down to is, everyone has a gut-level understanding of a lump of burning coal - hey, it's like a camp-fire! I love camp-fires. Very few people have a gut-level reaction to uranium except, Hiroshima! Death! Mutants! Eeek!
Anyone remember the bad old days when a few physicists got together and invented the TRIGA reactor for nuclear research and medical isotope generation? The good folks at our bombs labs (sorry, they're called "National Laboratories" these days) are working on small power reactors which can be used in 3rd world nations without much worry about safety or "repurposing" of radioactive material. There's no escaping nuclear radiation - it's everywhere in our environment. With very few exceptions, people receive thousands of times more radiation exposure from their environment than from any nuclear plants, and yet people are terrified of the nuclear reactors and like to associate them with the nuclear bombs. The French aren't complaining about their reactors.
Brian and others,
Despite this post, I am not a big, hand-waving fan of nuclear power. My point in writing this -- and I don't know how successful I've been -- is to remind all of you that carbon emissions is not a moral, ethical, or ideological problem at this point. It is a math problem. What solution will give us the fewest amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere over both the long- and short-term. That was why I did the research to give you the numbers; nuclear power is a huge upgrade over coal. Not in the same way natural gas is, either. This is a far superior option. While I would love to see wind and solar replace everything, the cost is far too great right now and everyone knows it. (To switch the US to solar power would cost an estimated 7 trillion dollars right now!) Nuclear may wind up saving us hundreds of billions of tons in CO2, however, and for that it's worth considering, even if you find it distasteful.
Hugh, thank you! You caught my mistake of writing the half-life of tritium as 6 years instead of 12. With 1000 years gone by, tritium should be down to one part in 10^25, which is more like it. I am editing the "6" to a "12" in my post to reflect that.
I think that we dropped the ball on nuclear at the very beginning. Correct me if I'm wrong, but in the early 50's the government funded 3 research teams to engineer a design for a nuclear powerhouse. Edwin Teller was heading one team. He wanted to design a reactor that would have a built-in fail-safe. If the reactor started to run away( Three Mile Island & Chernobyl)it would shut itself down. The team that designed the water cooled reactor came in first, so their powerhouse was built & the others lost their funding. I know that there have been improvements & modifications over the years but it still a water cooled reactor with no fail-safe. How short sighted was that.
No , i don't like nuclear power.
The risks of accidents might be small , but the consequences are devastating. What if you have a serious accident whith the waste , it's not something you just clean up. And you need to store it safely for longer than recorded history.
And if it's supposed to be a solution you can't limit it to countries like France, UK and USA. You have to let all nations run their own reactors .... do you like that thought ?
I sure do not !
Proliferation is a major concern that should not be taken lightly , and environmental impact far into the future another.
In my opinion the only sane solution is to reduce our need for energy - better buildings , and electric cars charged by renewables. And using ALL the available renewable sources we know - throwing TONS of money at research.
The risks of accidents might be small , but the consequences are devastating. What if you have a serious accident whith the waste , it's not something you just clean up.
You're right -- we'll just have to stick with coal.
And you need to store it safely for longer than recorded history.
Which parts of it?
I have a problem with people selectively using arguments and not equally criticizing all proposals. Are solar panels and wind turbines grown on trees surrounded by daisies? The manufacturing process for a solar cell involves a very hot furnace for a considerable amount of time, while the metal for wind turbines is mainly either aluminum which getting from bauxite isn't a trick while all the really good deposits for iron have been used. Now we are left with big mining projects as well as smelting. Then there are the little components small components using rare elements etc.. These are not carbon free, especially not on the scale needed to entirely replace our powergrid. Plus there is the ecological deadweight of having to also make batteries to store that unreliable power. The proposed geosynchronous satellite option won't work at night, but you should have already known that. Don't get me wrong these are great technologies, that we should passionately pursue, but for powering our big industry they just won't cut it. Wouldn't it be amazing if we had the nuke plants running the solar panel furnaces and bauxite refineries!
Furthermore, We can further get around a lot of the waste issues by using thorium graphite reactors as well as smarter fuel cycles. Yes, storing what's left is tricky and a work in progress, but the pink elephant is that carbon sequestration is at-least an order of magnitude harder. Try asking your grandkids whether they want to keep a shielded warehouse secure or pull out 3.7 million tons of CO2 from a single coal power-plant. Maybe that tritium that we pass on will become priceless and pay off our national debt once fusion kicks off. If we are being 100% speculative we should include positive scenarioes as well as negative.
Likewise, terrorism as mentioned can be used to shoot down anything. Biology is racing ahead what if they get a hold of that to make some crazy viruses? Or what if they blow up a hydroelectric dam. etc. What about anything? The deal with terrorism is that if they make you terrified they win. Using them to shoot down one of the best options we have makes them win from the comfort of their own warm and cozy little caves. All I ask here is that you apply a bit of introspection and scrutinize your own proposals with the pressure that you put on nuclear.
What would be the cost of replacing the generating capacity of the coal plants in the US with nuclear power plants to achieve the 80% reduction you mention?
What would be the cost of replacing the generating capacity of the coal plants in the US with nuclear power plants to achieve the 80% reduction you mention?
expensive as all hell. what are the environmental costs of keeping those coal burners running?
i see Australians seriously proposing switching their entire nation to renewable energy sources, and i don't know whether they're hopeless idealists to roll my eyes at, or whether i ought to be severely, irreparably envious of Australia. because as a USian, i can tell you nothing vaguely of that sort will happen over here. no way, nohow. for us, it's coal or nukes --- and we'll be lucky if we get nukes, because big coal is a very real bogeyman here.
MUST limit human population. The atmosphere isn't the only thing that is in trouble due to human over population. Without population control the best we can do is stomp out sparks while we ignore the raging fire.
Another thing that would help a great deal would be to short circuit the capitalist business model, it is opposed to making products that have long term usefulness. That fact adds lots of CO2.
You approvingly cite the Union of Concerned Scientist's critique of coal, but you left out UCS's serious reservations about building a new fleet of nuclear reactors. UCS does not support doing that for a number of reasons, including the nuclear industry's failure to adequately address its safety, security and waste disposal deficiencies. On top of those problems is the astronomical cost of building a new reactor -- now estimated around $9 billion -- and the time it takes to construct one. There are faster, cheaper and safer alternatives, namely efficiency and renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass. Until the nuclear industry solves its considerable problems, we shouldn't be building more reactors.