Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Nuclear Swords into Plowshares

As has become abundantly clear over the past few years there are no "good" solutions to the energy crisis. Clean coal has been revealed to be anything but. Tar sands rip up the landscape, create huge pools of contaminated water and tailings and have a low net energy yield. Corn and other plant-derived ethanol consumes resources needed for crops and doesn't yield much net energy. Oil and gas remain the most economic choices, but suffer from variable availability, price uncertainty and declining reserves.

In addition, all of these fossil fuels contribute to the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Efforts to sequester the waste gases are not available and many proposals lack scientific rigor.

Wind, wave and solar will become increasingly important, but it is unlikely that they will provide enough of a solution to meet demand. At this point I usually argue for cutting down on demand by re-framing the consuming societies so that they are not so wasteful.

I think that there is another alternative that we should consider - nuclear power. The world has enormous stocks of highly refined Uranium and Plutonium which could be reprocessed and used as fuel for nuclear power stations. In addition existing spent fuel can be reprocessed and provide fresh fuel. In addition there is the possibility of building more breeder reactors to provide further supplies.

There are several objections to nuclear power. The ones about control of nuclear material are based upon unfounded fears. The risk of "proliferation" because there is fuel in a reactor is irrational. The world handles huge amounts of radioactive material every day for use in medical and industrial applications. Radiation from Cobalt is more deadly that that from Uranium fuel rods, yet adequate controls keep the number of incidents to a handful each year.

There are new generations of nuclear power plant designs which avoid the problems of the past. Several of these are currently in use and several others being considered for new plants. Part of the problem with nuclear plants has been poor citing decisions, poor planning for storage of spent fuel, and a lack of community involvement. If a plan to build huge solar arrays, far from population centers in the US desert, can be considered then so can citing nuclear plants in similar locations.

One of the big issues has to do with funding new nuclear plants. Some studies claim that if total costs are included they are not economical. The latest number being bandied around is in the range of $0.20 per kilowatt hour, about ten times what the industry claims. For the sake of argument, let's assume that this true.

This cost is only excessive when compared against flawed analysis of alternatives. The two biggest costs that are ignored when calculating the cost of fossil fuel plants are the value of the non-replaceable fuel and the cost of the emissions on the health of the planet. At some point such costs become unacceptable and only those processes which avoid them are a viable choice. We don't put a price on depletion and pollution because we can't, not because they don't have a cost.

I propose we decommission all nuclear weapons over time and use the nuclear material for power generation - the swords into plowshares of the title. In addition I propose that all aspects of nuclear power generation be run by government agencies set up specifically for this purpose. In the US the TVA has provided power to an under-served region for many decades. The government undertook this because a private solution was unworkable.

As the recent disaster with a TVA coal-fired plant shows, even government agencies can become complacent and sloppy. The solution to weak supervision is better monitoring, not condemning government administration. The number of disasters associated with private power generation shows that who owns the plant is no indication of safety or good management.

I don't like nuclear power, I think the risks are minimized, but I think this is because private firms need to make a profit from something which cannot compete economically with fossil fuel. Eliminating the profit motive and the need to cut corners can help ensure that plants are built and run safely. If it costs more, it costs more. It's better than seeing our coastlines underwater in a few decades.

Nuclear power won't be a permanent solution, that's where my usual push for reforming our social systems so they aren't based upon excessive consumption and consumerism. However, if done wisely, it can provide a bridge to a new system and allow time for alternative technologies to be developed. I'm still hopeful that some sort of controlled fusion can be made to work, but we need to get there from here and burning more oil is not the way to do it.

When faced with only unpleasant choices one still has to chose. Even doing nothing is a choice, a fact that those who want to minimize the climate threat seem not to realize. I'm not trying to rehash all the debates on nuclear power from technological or economic views, these seem never to end and how you feel about the issues seems more to be based upon personal prejudices than on the available information.

I'm arguing for nuclear power as a moral issue. We need to get rid of nuclear weapons, a moral choice. We need to reduce greenhouse gasses, a moral choice. We need to leave a habitable planet for future generations, a moral choice. For too long decisions have been based upon economic arguments. Since when did money become the measure rather than morality?
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