Preparing for the Environmental Fight Over Nukes and Coal

In a time of increasing concern for water quality and availability, nuclear power facilities require enormous quantities of water and put back effluent into those nearby water sources. At a time of carbon counting, they also generate considerable carbon emissions through the process of construction and with the life-cycle chain of fuel (uranium) mining, milling, transporting, and disposing. As Americans relearn the breadth of what an environmental issue is, nuclear plants all the while create new social and cultural problems for community stability and autonomy. Coal-fired plants quite obviously produce carbon too and, especially with mountain-top removal sites, destroy community as well as nature, but the option for energy source is not either/or.

i-93af43347bcb4cdd87e2ac9729a6f4f5-Nukes and Coal.jpg

All that was brought to mind when I heard that the Southeast Convergence for Climate Action is working to prepare citizens to take stands against nuclear power and other dirty energy. They met for the past week near Lake Anna here in central Virginia, the site of Dominion Power's North Anna Nuclear Facility. (The lake was created to provide cooling water for the reactors back in the 1960s.) Rather than the caricature pro-nuclear advocates often suggest about those opposing nuclear power -- naive and anti-modern (wait to see if there are replies to this post--you'll find some of them) -- those organizing to consider alternative means of energy production and alternative strategies for reducing energy consumption take a broad view of the environmental issues at hand. They consider the needs and dynamics of current energy uses and the place such energy systems hold in our lifestyles. They also ask how we might meet those needs and shift them to create a better balance with human and non-human environmental health. Perhaps most meaningful is that they consider those issues as irreducibly cultural and natural.

You can hear more about some of them here. Plus, here's a statement from homepage of the SCCA:

Earth-centered, community-based solutions to the climate crisis that foster local autonomy and self-sufficiency. We see corporate led, business friendly "solutions" to the climate crisis as inherently opposed to this vision. We do not accept alternative energy sources that externalize their costs onto human and natural communities in the name of reducing carbon emissions. This includes but is not limited to nuclear power, "clean" coal, large scale ethanol and biofuels, carbon sequestration, trading, or offsets, and large dams. These technologies have social and environmental costs that far outweigh any benefits they provide in regards to fighting climate change. We firmly believe that any conversation on alternative energy must address the issue of consumption. No future form of energy can be considered sustainable without drastic reductions in our energy and resource consumption.

The policy statement above and related radio story resonate with many of the posts we've offered at this blog, so I wanted to make note of the recent week-long camp.

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In a time of increasing concern for water quality and availability, nuclear power facilities require enormous quantities of water and put back effluent into those nearby water sources.

First off, cooling requirements are not unique to nuclear power, but are characteristics of every thermal power source, which is just about all of them - including natural gas, geothermal, and solar thermal.

Secondly, water cooling isn't even necessary, and large commercial nuclear power plants have been built using dry air cooling:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/THTR-300

At a time of carbon counting, they also generate considerable carbon emissions through the process of construction and with the life-cycle chain of fuel (uranium) mining, milling, transporting, and disposing.

I'd wager the most energy-intensive processes are not those you list, but rather (i) isotopic enrichment and (ii) production of bulk structural materials (concrete, steel). Again, (ii) are requirements in common with every energy source in existence. For that matter, the raw materials usage of wind turbines is an order of magnitude greater than nuclear plants:

http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/07/per-peterson-information-on-steel-and…

Of course this is academic, as in either case the CO2 emissions are drastically lower than lifecycle emissions of fossil fuel plants:

http://www.e8.org/upload/Image/Life_cycle_CO2.jpg

http://www.e8.org/index.jsp?numPage=140

Furthermore, there's a hidden assumption here to begin with: that the major part of the energy economy (transportation fuel, industrial processes) is CO2-intensive fossil fuels. This is true in the present. But if we were to transition to low-carbon economy, these CO2 expenditures would vanish, as the raw energy inputs themselves also transition to clean sources.

those organizing to consider alternative means of energy production and alternative strategies for reducing energy consumption take a broad view of the environmental issues at hand.

I'd like to see a broad view of environmental issues, and I'd like to seem them quantified - with numbers, not adjectives. (using David MacKay's phrase)

By unashamedly ad… (not verified) on 12 Aug 2008 #permalink

BRC,

As someone not engaged with the operational nuts-and-bolts of the debate, I was wondering if you had any insight into the following:

Is there any aspect of this debate (or these debates, if we focus on specific plants or specific forms of production) that deals with the scale and design of these operations? There is a presumption here that alternate sizes or designs of coal or nuclear plants could reduce environmental impacts, but I'm not familiar with that presumption even being examined.

By David Bruggeman (not verified) on 12 Aug 2008 #permalink

I'm glad to see that communities are mobilizing to respond to the popular argument in Climate Change circles that nuclear power is the "environmentally responsible" answer to reducing carbon emissions. There is an eerie silence about this in my part of the world.

On a related note: CBC Radio's show, Ideas, has a three part feature on David Sanborn Scott's new book about how hydrogen is the ANSWER to global climate change. I just caught the middle of the show last night, where Scott - a mechanical engineer by trade - waxes on about how nuclear power has been "absolutely proven to be the safest and cleanest source of energy." The thing that pisses me off about people like Scott is that he feels like his degree in mechanical engineering qualifies him to talk about the health effects of radiation exposure. He talks about the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission as if it is the definitive word on the health effects of radiation exposure, never mind the many, many criticisms of the methodological problems with the study. He also masters the infuriatingly steady tone of the over-confident scientist, which is so intimidating to non-scientists. Never mind the fact that they probably have a lot more common sense than he does.

The link to the three shows is below and I am referring here to the second interview. Tonight, they will be airing a debate between Scott and someone who disagrees with him.

http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/features/hydrogen-solution/index.html

Thanks for that link, Lisa. And Dave, that's a really solid question. My understanding comes through the contexts of economics and political control, so that the efficiencies of scale for nuclear and the demands for political control (for the sake of safety and security and management) make it so that one couldn't feasibly make them any smaller. As for coal, I'm less certain how close a correlation that has to be -- bigger size equaling more viability economically. I'm guessing you already had that sense too, so I'm afraid I'm not helping. Since I don't have a complete enough answer, maybe this is the chance for the blogspace to come through on its promise of building a better community of conversation? Maybe someone who does know will happen along and speak to the question. It's also possible, with my concerns for nuclear power, that I've driven away all the energy researcher readers here who might've addressed this .

We're ignoring an important, if not critical, part of all of this. We're presuming that the current distribution model is the only option. Take that out of the equation and I think the scale questions for economics are reduced.

Granted, this particular link is from the industry (and I've spent most of my life less than 50 miles from reactors):

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf33.html

But I've seen enough from other sources that tell me work is being done on smaller reactors. My sense is the control concerns are probably working against these smaller technologies being successfully implemented. I just wonder if that could possibly be counterproductive for broader energy and environmental concerns.

By David Bruggeman (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

Let me give you a number, then, unashamed nuke booster:

your chart for windpower assumed the average nuclear plant, vintage 1970s, was good for 60 years. Their design lives now are between 30 and 40 and people are working on ways to monitor them less destructively and shore them up so that many can last as long as 60 years. That isn't likely to be the new average operating life. So orders of magnitude, itself a little vague, is probably incorrect.

That is a cherry-picking nuclear booster site you linked to. Why? If you're right, surely you didn't need to go to an advocacy site - you'd go to, e.g., the IAEA or something. That site is not ever going to show you figures that reflect badly on the cult. I imagine if World's Fair only cited Greenpeace on the nuclear power issue, you'd dismiss it, numbers and all. Well, that's how I look at your numbers, really. It's as easy to lie with numbers as with words.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 08 Sep 2009 #permalink

Thanks for that link, Lisa That site is not ever going to show you figures that reflect badly on the cult