The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'nuclear power'
After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there have been predictable calls for nuclear power to be phased out, now. (For example, the German government, which for all its strengths seems to be more amenable to woolly thinking than most in Europe (they also fund homeopathy, for example), has announced that it is cancelling plans to refurbish nuclear plants.) In contrast, George Monbiot (a journalist known for his solid leftist credentials and strident support of environmental causes) writes that the way the Fukushima disaster unfolded reconsider his opposition to nuclear power:
A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
Some greens have wildly exaggerated the dangers of radioactive pollution. For a clearer view, look at the graphic published by xkcd.com. It shows that the average total dose from the Three Mile Island disaster for someone living within 10 miles of the plant was one 625th of the maximum yearly amount permitted for US radiation workers. This, in turn, is half of the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to an increased cancer risk, which, in its turn, is one 80th of an invariably fatal exposure. I'm not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective.Once one gets over the innately human emotional bias of assigning greater weight to spectacular events (for example, people intuitively consider flying to be more dangerous than driving, because, despite the number of fatalities from road accidents being orders of magnitude higher than from air crashes, the latter are far more spectacular and newsworthy), Monbiot argues, nuclear (at least with modern, passively cooled reactors immune to the sorts of meltdowns that are possible with 1970s-vintage reactors like Fukushima) are the lesser evil compared to fossil fuels, in terms of the environmental impact of generating electricity. Meanwhile, renewables come with their own problems:
At high latitudes like ours, most small-scale ambient power production is a dead loss. Generating solar power in the UK involves a spectacular waste of scarce resources. It's hopelessly inefficient and poorly matched to the pattern of demand. Wind power in populated areas is largely worthless. This is partly because we have built our settlements in sheltered places; partly because turbulence caused by the buildings interferes with the airflow and chews up the mechanism. Micro-hydropower might work for a farmhouse in Wales, but it's not much use in Birmingham.
And how do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways – not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels? The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment at which you fall out of love with local energy production. A national (or, better still, international) grid is the essential prerequisite for a largely renewable energy supply.And as for deep-green pipe-dreams of getting rid of electricity altogether and going back to a bucolic agrarian lifestyle, the problem with this is that the ecological footprint of going without electricity would be far more destructive than that of our current infrastructure:
The damming and weiring of British rivers for watermills was small-scale, renewable, picturesque and devastating. By blocking the rivers and silting up the spawning beds, they helped bring to an end the gigantic runs of migratory fish that were once among our great natural spectacles and which fed much of Britain – wiping out sturgeon, lampreys and shad, as well as most sea trout and salmon.
Before coal became widely available, wood was used not just for heating homes but also for industrial processes: if half the land surface of Britain had been covered with woodland, Wrigley shows, we could have made 1.25m tonnes of bar iron a year (a fraction of current consumption) and nothing else. Even with a much lower population than today's, manufactured goods in the land-based economy were the preserve of the elite. Deep green energy production – decentralised, based on the products of the land – is far more damaging to humanity than nuclear meltdown.So, short of advocating human extinction for ecological reasons, the only option is technological progress; of improving the technologies of energy generation to make it more efficient. And, in the foreseeable future, this will include either nuclear power or fossil fuels.
Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace and former anti-nuclear activist, has changed his mind about nuclear energy, and now argues that mass adoption of nuclear power may be our only hope of averting catastrophic global warming:
Here's why: Wind and solar power have their place, but because they are intermittent and unpredictable they simply can't replace big baseload plants such as coal, nuclear and hydroelectric. Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is too expensive already, and its price is too volatile to risk building big baseload plants. Given that hydroelectric resources are built pretty much to capacity, nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It's that simple.Moore then goes through the most common objections to nuclear power and offers refutations for each one:
Nuclear plants are not safe. Although Three Mile Island was a success story, the accident at Chernobyl, 20 years ago this month, was not. But Chernobyl was an accident waiting to happen. This early model of Soviet reactor had no containment vessel, was an inherently bad design and its operators literally blew it up. The multi-agency U.N. Chernobyl Forum reported last year that 56 deaths could be directly attributed to the accident, most of those from radiation or burns suffered while fighting the fire. Tragic as those deaths were, they pale in comparison to the more than 5,000 coal-mining deaths that occur worldwide every year. No one has died of a radiation-related accident in the history of the U.S. civilian nuclear reactor program. (And although hundreds of uranium mine workers did die from radiation exposure underground in the early years of that industry, that problem was long ago corrected.)
Nuclear waste will be dangerous for thousands of years. Within 40 years, used fuel has less than one-thousandth of the radioactivity it had when it was removed from the reactor. And it is incorrect to call it waste, because 95 percent of the potential energy is still contained in the used fuel after the first cycle. Now that the United States has removed the ban on recycling used fuel, it will be possible to use that energy and to greatly reduce the amount of waste that needs treatment and disposal. Last month, Japan joined France, Britain and Russia in the nuclear-fuel-recycling business. The United States will not be far behind.
Nuclear reactors are vulnerable to terrorist attack. The six-feet-thick reinforced concrete containment vessel protects the contents from the outside as well as the inside. And even if a jumbo jet did crash into a reactor and breach the containment, the reactor would not explode. There are many types of facilities that are far more vulnerable, including liquid natural gas plants, chemical plants and numerous political targets.
The amazing story of childhood prodigy David Hahn, who built a nuclear reactor in his garden shed at age 15.
Of his exposure to radioactivity he says, "I don't believe I took more than five years off my life."