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View Diary: A skeptic's view of nuclear energy (by DeAnander) (39 comments)

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    I consider environmentalism to be one of my major political issues, and my support for nuclear power stems directly from that.

    I don't buy in to the idea that "we're killing the Earth".  That's stupid.  The Earth has survived terrible, terrible things in the past.  It's survived massive meteor impacts, rapid climate change, and the transformation of the entire atmosphere into a gas that was poisonous to nearly all life at the time (the so-called oxygen extinction).  There have been points in the past where 99.9% of the Earth's life has been wiped out-- extinction events that make the human-abetted Great Extinction today look miniscule.  But life has survived.

    The Earth can take us or leave us.  The problem is that we're killing ourselves.  Humans have evolved for a very specific environment, and we're just as vulnerable to habitat loss as any other animal.  That's what's so scary about climate change to me.  We have evolved in a comparative island of atmospheric regularity.  The few times that this regularity has been disrupted even a little bit it has caused massive problems, including economic devastation and skyrocketing mortality.  If climate change is even half as bad as the current worst-case scenario then human life may be doomed, and there is no place on Earth you could go to escape it.

    Nuclear waste, by contrast, is a point source issue.  It is a specific outcome of a specific process produced in a specific place.  As such it is FAR cleaner and easier to handle than the output of even "clean" coal plants, which currently make up most of our power supply.  Coal and oil produce tons of negative byproducts, including sulfur dioxide that contributes to acid rain and particulate matter that is carcinogenic.  That bears repeating because it's a common argument against nuclear power: our current power-generating technology causes cancer too.  The difference is that nuclear waste is trapped and controlled, while particulates are just disseminated into the air you breath.  That said, I don't doubt that waste control will be bad for a specific community and a specific ecosystem, although I think the effects can be mitigated.

    Currently, nuclear power is the only efficient energy source we have. That is likely to be true throughout the theoretical "ten year window" we have to prevent climate change.  If that's the case, then our choice is between saving the local ecology around a waste processing site and saving the ecology of the whole world.  Yes it's shitty that we've gotten to this point.  Yes, we should research other technology to keep our dependence on nuclear fuel at a minimum.  But neither of those things changes the reality: nuclear power is our only realistic chance to stop climate change, and the destruction of homo sapiens sapiens only habitat.

    Read James Loewen's "Sundown Towns"!

    by ChicagoDem on Tue May 23, 2006 at 04:11:55 PM PDT

    •  Hmmmm ... (1+ / 0-)
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      ChicagoDem

      I am not sure what I think of nuclear power ... I am of two minds ... thus, take these comments from someone who is neither an advocate or a to the death opponent.

      Currently, nuclear power is the only efficient energy source we have.

      I don't see how one gets to this. If "efficient" solely focuses on power generation, coal / natural gas / oil (last especially for transportation) all merit being called more 'energy efficient'.  And, wind power on large scale is clearly more efficient than new build nuclear power (while having far less impact re global warming).  

      But, re "efficient" -- power is a multi-part equation and we should consider the parts 'neutrally'.  The most efficient 'new power' available for most of the industrialized world is introducing efficiency.  In the US, for example, residential power use could probably be cut by somewhere between 20 to 40% at a lower cost than what it would take to produce new power (especially if there is -- what there should be -- some form of carbon tax).  

      theoretical "ten year window"

      There is virtually no ability through much of the world to go from a thought for a potential nuclear power plant to actual power production within ten years ... the overall world wide power generation situation in 2016 can only be minorly changed by decisions in the near term to go 'heavy nuke'.  Unless every safeguard were thrown out of the US system (AEC hasn't approved a new plant in what ... 30 years ... how many can it approve and how fast ... and are the materials available to build the plants ... and ...???), hard to see many new nuclear power plants on line before late in the next decade.

      theoretical "ten year window" we have to prevent climate change

      Hmmm -- seems to me that we already have climate change.  The dying of frogs ... dying of coral ... changing of environments around the world (warming of Siberia, melting of Greenland's glaciers, reduction of Artic ice, etc ...) ... I don't know how anyone comes to a 'ten-year window' -- but, to me, the question is not 'whether there will be climate change' but 'how bad will climate change be and what will the impact be on the world, nature, 'civilization', and the human race'?

      If the 10 year window is critical, massive conservation and mass introduction of efficiency technologies would have many orders of magnitude of impact as any new nuclear power plant electricity production ...

      Now, I wrote above that I am somewhat agnostic.  I know people who speak with passion (and knowledge) about health impacts (increased cancers) downwind of operating nuclear power plants (with the birth defects dropping radically in the year post plant shutdown) ... And, I am aware of many of the passionate arguments for nuclear power.  Relative to all the positives and risks, I tend to come down that nuclear power -- even with all its evils -- is part of the solution set to provide a bridge to a sustainable, non-GHG energy future.  But, nuclear power is no silver bullet.

      9/11/05, Day 1469, A count worth keeping? Or, Osama Bin Forgotten?

      by besieged by bush on Tue May 23, 2006 at 08:32:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Good discussion (1+ / 0-)
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        besieged by bush

        I totally agree that nuclear power is no silver bullet.  My position is that it is an essential component to a responsible energy policy.  In my opinion, a "responsible" policy is one that does the following: a) takes avoidance of climate change as a major goal, b) providing enough energy that it remains politically feasible.  Even the most efficient energy plan is useless unless it makes it off paper.  Ideally, a good plan would include enough support for renewable energy that we could keep investment in nuclear technology at a minimum -- but I think that our most important priority as a society right now is to reduce carbon emissions as much and as fast as possible.

        You're right that I was incorrect in saying that it was the only efficient fuel source we have.  I was hurrying and got sloppy.  What I mean is that it's the only efficient non-fossil fuel energy source we have.  Your point about wind is interesting though -- can it really compete with nuclear energy on a dollars/MW-hr basis?

        The source for the "10 year" prediction is the International Climate Change Taskforce.  Here is a BBC summary, and here is the actual report.

        I agree with this:

        If the 10 year window is critical, massive conservation and mass introduction of efficiency technologies would have many orders of magnitude of impact as any new nuclear power plant electricity production ...

        But I'm not optimistic about the probability of it happening.  The political will is missing, and the Republicans will fight an utter scorched earth campaign to keep us from doing anything to hurt energy industry profits.  This is bigger than politics, but it's going to have to take place within the scope of American politics.  I'm more confident in getting Congressional support for new nuke plants than for a set of tough new conservation laws.

        Now, I wrote above that I am somewhat agnostic.  I know people who speak with passion (and knowledge) about health impacts (increased cancers) downwind of operating nuclear power plants (with the birth defects dropping radically in the year post plant shutdown)

        Nuclear power has been used safely in Europe for years.  It is incredibly popular as a cheap power source, which explains why developing countries like India are clamoring for new nuclear plants.  The overwhelming burden of evidence shows that a properly maintained, regulated nuclear power plant is very safe -- of course, the regulation is a problem of policy, not technology.  

        One interesting study I'd like to see-- and I don't think it's been done-- would be comparing the health risks of nuclear plants with coal and oil power.  People tend to be wary of nuclear plants largely because of residual Hiroshima/Nagasaki memories and the experiences of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.  But the bombs were weapons, and shouldn't be used to vilify the underlying technology, any more than WWI submarine warfare should vilify electric batteries.    The other two were industrial accidents, and industrial accidents involving hazardous chemicals nearly always have major risks.  Yet we allow tons of hazardous chemicals to be created, process, and circulated throughout the nation provided they have strong controls.  I'm not convinced that nuclear waste should be in a separate category.  But that's why I'd like to see some research on it.

        Read James Loewen's "Sundown Towns"!

        by ChicagoDem on Tue May 23, 2006 at 10:34:57 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Mea culpa as I don't have time to (0+ / 0-)

          respond fully ...

          1.  Wind is clearly competitive, especially if one 'full costs' nuclear power (insurance, other infrastructure (gov't security, inspections, monitoring, etc), waste disposal).  While nuclear power advocates tense at the name, Amory Lovins (check out Rocky Mountain Institute) has some numbers arguing this (at the extreme side).  Basically, 'total cost', there is perhaps a 5-7 cents/kwh advantage to wind over nuclear power.
          1.  Efficiency technologies offer tremendous business opportunities -- even for energy companies.  But, for example, what if there were federal regs & funding to drive less efficient vehicles out of the fleet -- that would mean more new cars sold each year.  Or, how about major efforts to put in insulation / etc ... It would be exchanging one cost (raw fuel) for another (manufactured efficiency) for a couple decades. A boom to business -- plus, the energy companies are not going to starve as fuel prices are unlikely to drop.  As well, there is 'decoupling', which provides utilities a profit path whether or not power usage goes up or down -- with requirements to foster new energy efficiencies as part of their license.  Works well in California, which has per capita electricty use about 60% of the US average (e.g., including Californians) -- and which has held basically steady for several decades while there has been 30+% growth nationwide.

          And, I agree with your last section.  There are more risks associated with nuclear power plants than your note suggests (based on what I have seen in briefings by medical experts) but there are some serious questions about 'what is lowest damage/lowest cost'.  Well sited windmills will kill some birds -- some -- but far (FAR) fewer than would be unhealthy, killed, etc from coal pollution.  E.g., need to total analysis and place things in context of overall risk structure.

          Now, there are many who believe in distributed, renewable power (Jeremy Rivkin along with Amory Lovins -- for example) who make eloquent cases against nuclear power.  Not stating that they "are right" but they are strong siren songs ...

          But, as per your note, political reality might make new nuclear power plants one of the favored ways of new generation with lowered GHG emissions.

          9/11/05, Day 1469, A count worth keeping? Or, Osama Bin Forgotten?

          by besieged by bush on Wed May 24, 2006 at 03:21:42 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

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