Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Nuclear Energy Debate, part 2

Palo Verde Nuclear Plant in Arizona, by George deLange

In the summer of 2004, James Lovelock dropped a bomb in the green community in the UK and elsewhere. Alarmed about the seriousness of the damage inflicted to his beloved 'gaia', and pressed by the urgency for the need for change, he announced that the only safe and viable manner to provide energy without the accompanying high levels of CO2 was nuclear energy:

"What makes global warming so serious and so urgent is that the great Earth system, Gaia, is trapped in a vicious circle of positive feedback. Extra heat from any source, whether from greenhouse gases, the disappearance of Arctic ice or the Amazon forest, is amplified, and its effects are more than additive. It is almost as if we had lit a fire to keep warm, and failed to notice, as we piled on fuel, that the fire was out of control and the furniture had ignited. When that happens, little time is left to put out the fire before it consumes the house. Global warming, like a fire, is accelerating and almost no time is left to act.""So what should we do?...(But) with six billion, and growing, few options remain; we can not continue drawing energy from fossil fuels and there is no chance that the renewables, wind, tide and water power can provide enough energy and in time. If we had 50 years or more we might make these our main sources. But we do not have 50 years; the Earth is already so disabled by the insidious poison of greenhouse gases that even if we stop all fossil fuel burning immediately, the consequences of what we have already done will last for 1,000 years. Every year that we continue burning carbon makes it worse for our descendants and for civilisation.">"...We have stayed in ignorance for many reasons; important among them is the denial of climate change in the US where governments have failed to give their climate scientists the support they needed. The Green lobbies, which should have given priority to global warming, seem more concerned about threats to people than with threats to the Earth, not noticing that we are part of the Earth and wholly dependent upon its well being. It may take a disaster worse than last summer's European deaths to wake us up.

Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen. If we fail to concentrate our minds on the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner, as did more than 20,000 unfortunates from overheating in Europe last summer."
Read the rest of his comment in the Independent.
He's not the only green to consider nuclear energy the only viable solution. Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace has this to say:
"In the early 1970s when I helped found Greenpeace, I believed that nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust, as did most of my compatriots. That's the conviction that inspired Greenpeace's first voyage up the spectacular rocky northwest coast to protest the testing of U.S. hydrogen bombs in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Thirty years on, my views have changed, and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change. Look at it this way: More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions -- or nearly 10 percent of global emissions -- of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power. And these days it can do so safely."
"Today, there are 103 nuclear reactors quietly delivering just 20 percent of America's electricity. Eighty percent of the people living within 10 miles of these plants approve of them (that's not including the nuclear workers). Although I don't live near a nuclear plant, I am now squarely in their camp.

And I am not alone among seasoned environmental activists in changing my mind on this subject. British atmospheric scientist James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory, believes that nuclear energy is the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change. Stewart Brand, founder of the "Whole Earth Catalog," says the environmental movement must embrace nuclear energy to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. On occasion, such opinions have been met with excommunication from the anti-nuclear priesthood: The late British Bishop Hugh Montefiore, founder and director of Friends of the Earth, was forced to resign from the group's board after he wrote a pro-nuclear article in a church newsletter."

Read his article "Going Nuclear, a green makes the case" in full.

The interesting part of doing the research is the backlash towards especially Patrick Moore that I found online. Consider this:
Eco-Traitor by Drake Bennet. As a poli sci person, I have to say that all the negative sites I've seen on Moore's position, makes it seem like a big campaign angry at the 'defection' of one of its champions. Laden with editorial venom is unfortunately not conducive for a real debate. I myself do not have a position in this debate, but I do understand from reading the material of the pro-nuclear energy greens that they consider themselves pragmatic.

Let me list some Pros and Cons.

Pro Nuclear Energy:
Supporters of Nuclear Energy, SONE
The Clean and Safe Energy Coalition
The Third Way, a progressive think tank
James Lovelock
Patrick Moore
Stewart Brand
the late Bishop Hugh Montefiore

Against Nuclear Energy:
Friends of the Earth who have a big article on radioactive wastes and the nuclear energy partnership
Greenpeace read their article on a french nuclear plant construction shut down.
Public Citizen

Since I am not paid by ANYONE, I will attempt to put the pro and con arguments together this week. With plenty of things to do as we're entering the last phase of school and the neighbourhood swimteam starting up in a week, I hope to have it done this week. If not, it'll have to be next weekend. Until that time, do your own research, read the opposite opinion of your own view so you're familiar with the counter arguments. Try to stay detached and unemotional and sift out the editorial venom. Unfortunately, even if I agree with someone, that totally takes away from an objective discussion.


Gary said...

This is going to be one of the big debates of our time. I'm very skeptical of anyone proposing nuclear energy, even respected environmental thinkers. I understand the rationale, but I think they underplay the risks.

I've read too much about Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and our own lovely Pickering plant in Canada to believe it can be managed well. We'll have meltdowns and they will have a big impact.

It's linked to weapons systems, whether we like it or not.

It's managed by government bureaucracies.

But I'm listening!

James Aach said...

FYI: Stewart Brand has also endorsed my insider novel of nuclear power, Rad Decision, as an lay person's guide to the topic. Unfortunately few of those in the media - or the "experts" they turn to - have any practical experience in nuclear, and whether pro- or con-, some of the reports seem rather silly to those on the inside. Unlike military matters - where we have lots of insight due to our many veterans - nuclear is somewhat of a closed world to outsider.

The book is available free online, and also now in paperback at online retailers. See the website homepage for reviews.

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand

Rod Adams said...


Allow me to introduce myself. As the founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. I consider myself to be an atomic entrepreneur. I started off as one of those government employees entrusted with managing nuclear power - I was trained in Rickover's Navy Nuclear Power Program and served as the Engineer Officer of the USS Von Steuben.

I am also a father of two grown daughters (aside for Ingrid - they both were members of the community swim team for years and I served as the starter for four wonderful summers.) Like many people who care about the environment, I have a vested interest in providing as clean and comfortable a world for them and their future children as I know how.

Chernobyl was a tragedy, but it was far less deadly than many fossil fuel related accidents that no one remembers except for the people in the areas where they occurred. The UN study conducted more than 15 years after the accident concluded that there have been less than 50 deaths. In comparison, do a search on the web for "china natural gas disaster 2003" or for "coal mine accident".

We know a lot more about reactor design and operation now than we did when we designed and built the current generation of nuclear power plants, but that is not surprising - the basic technology is still very new in historical terms. Even with that newness, the safety record for the industry is remarkable, especially on a per unit energy produced basis.

I look forward to constructive discussion and information sharing. With the future of the world at stake - from a variety of threats - there is no reason to dismiss out of hand a natural process that has demonstrated the ability to address a number of the dangers.

Emission free power is only one of the several advantages that fission displays over combustion, its main competitor and the source of funds for many of its professional detractors.

DV8 2XL said...

"I've read too much about Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and our own lovely Pickering plant in Canada"

Oh please.

I challenge this commenter to show how Pickering can be mentioned in the same breath as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Anonymous said...

How can TMI be mentioned in the same breath as Chernobyl?

The TMI accident caused zero deaths and had no public health impact. Western nuclear power (including Pickering) has had no measurable impact on public health over its entire ~40 year history. Credible estimates of the total eventual effect from Chernobyl range from ~100 to ~10,000 premature deaths. The maximum consequences from any conceivable Western plant accident/attack event would be far smaller.

By contrast (to nuclear), fossil power plants cause ~25,000 deaths every single year in the US alone (hundreds of thousands worldwide). That is, an annual death toll that is orders of magnitude larger than that which would result from any worst-case nuclear accident event. Fossil plants are also the leading single cause of global warming, whereas nuclear has a negligible impact. It is also true that building more nuclear plants in places like the US or Canada will have absolutely no impact on weapons proliferation.

The risks of nuclear (e.g., accidents, waste, proliferation, etc..) have been massively overplayed, not underplayed. Nuclear's essentially perfect safety record over the past 30-40 years is testament enough to our ability to manage the plants.

Jim Hopf

DV8 2XL said...

Jim - I stand corrected ;)

lindsaylobe said...

There is a lot of technical exchanges on information, but the basic justification for nuclear is the time factor. Alternatives energy supplies simply wont be developed in sufficient time to offset the increases in particle density over the next decade to say 55o per million and beyond for more than 2 degrees of warming, before we reach states of no return. Nuclear could replace coal producing power plants within 20years and make significant inroads within 10. It operates successfully already.

Uranium by the way is also present in coal. Releases from coal combustion have radioactive materials, uranium and thorium. Radioactive elements are in coal ash and the exhausts from coal combustion contain fissionable fuels. They are available to those interested in accumulating material for nuclear weapons.

Best wishes

Ingrid said...

I all of the sudden had a 'bright' idea last night; we've had nuclear energy for a while in various countries with no catastrophic incidences. I know the issue for a lot of anti nuclear people is the waste, but as you said, at the moment, it does seem like the only viable way to reduce/counter/keep in check the CO2 effect.
As always, thanks for your contribution. I wish I had a more clear understanding of the process as a whole because I have not studied it and the little bit of reading this week in between being 'da mom' does not make for very much knowledge at all!

Anonymous said...

I think the front door to understanding the politics is understanding that uranium is astronomically abundant and cheap.

How abundant? There is a scenic route to understanding this that takes in the Alberta tar patch, where a million barrels of oil is netted each day from sand that is six percent tar. Getting the tar out and upgrading it to oil is ver yprofitable in money terms, but only a little profitable energetically: the actual, gross rate of extraction of tar, plus some natural gas, is in the range from 1.25 to 1.5 million barrel-equivalents per day, with the 0.25-to-0.5 million extra barrels per day being consumed in the extraction process.

How much uranium does a rock have to contain for today's reactors to be able to get the same heat out of it, if the uranium is extracted and fed to them, as the tar sands people get from the tar sands? 0.0004 percent.

That, as it turns out, makes it an ordinary rock. From nuclear engineers' point of view, it is as if every continent were paved with oilsands tens of miles thick.

Richer ores are now-a-days used because they exist, but if, thousands of years hence, they no longer do, reactors like today's will still have many thousands of years of fuel left, even if they are many times more numerous than they are today.

... and because the ores now being mined are so rich, they replace oil at pennies on the dollar. From oil suppliers' and oil taxers' point of view, today's nuclear power industry is depriving them of billions of dollars every week.

--- G. R. L. Cowan, former hydrogen-energy fan
Oxygen expands around boron fire, car goes

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