As I perused the net for new material to talk about with you, I found a stark contrast of the type that makes for good article fodder.
This week, the US State Department published an article by James Lake, associate laboratory director for nuclear programs at the Idaho National Laboratory, titled The Renaissance of Nuclear Energy, while the Sierra Club published an article by Carl Pope, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, titled Ways & Means: Fantasy Nuclear: “Make a wish and hope for the best” as energy policy.
Needless to say, I have far more grounds for agreement with Mr. Lake than I do with Mr. Pope. Here is why I think Mr. Pope is dead wrong. (I think I will leave for another time a comment about why I think Mr. Lake makes some terrific points in his article. For now, I will simply recommend that you read it.)
In his column, Carl Pope provides a number of assertions about nuclear power and the nuclear power industry. According to Mr. Pope:
- Reactors only boil water
- Spent fuel can be used to make a dirty bomb
- Reactor operators are not required to provide protection against a rocket propelled grenade
- The nuclear industry talk about energy supply security is only a marketing ploy
- Nuclear proponents “ignore proliferation and terrorism altogether”
- Nuclear accidents can “easily happen”
- Companies rash enough to actually build a new plant will inevitably have their credit rating downgraded
- “As many as 15” new reactors are being talked about
- “Nuclear power does not emit carbon dioxide” (heck, I guess he is not TOTALLY ignorant)
- We can get the same results “faster and more safely” by DEVELOPING “hybrid trucks, more efficient gas turbines and biofuels”
- “For half of the money we are likely to spend in Iraq, we could retrofit the entire auto industry for high efficiency vehicles.”
- If we avoid building new nuclear power plants, we would avoid confrontations like the one brewing in Iran. (Granted, that is not exactly what he said, but that is how I interpreted his final comment which was actually “Just think what we could do with the money we’d spend on a similar confrontation with Iran–a confrontation that may come thanks to the deadly contradictions of the actual nuclear world.”)
Such a long list of incorrect assertions in such a short (700 word) column. Where do I start?
First of all, Mr. Pope, reactors can do far more than boil water – they can also heat a gas, an activity that they have been doing pretty consistently for more than 60 years. This characteristic makes it quite possible for them to be used as the heat source for a gas turbine engine and as an important part of process heat supply for industrial applications.
Besides that inaccuracy, I also have a problem with dismissing what reactors do as “just boiling water”. Steam has been an incredibly useful working fluid for more than 150 years; it is what transferred the power from fossil fuels to industrial machines and electrical generators for about 100 years before fission was discovered. The quantity of coal, oil and gas that has been burned to “just boil water” in our industrial history is staggering as is the wealth accumulated by the purveyors of those fuels.
Nuclear reactors are amazing devices that use a relatively tiny quantity of heavy metal in simple, corrosion resistant tubes to reliably produce useful energy without emitting any noxious gases at all. It is not just about CO2; unlike the other ways that people “boil water” to make useful steam, reactors do not emit SOx, NOx, fly ash, mercury, methane, or other trace gas contaminants. They are clean enough to run inside sealed submarines.
If only Mr. Pope’s fantasy energy sources – wind and solar power – could “just boil water” in massive quantities for 24 hours per day, 7 days per week for months at a time, they would be far more useful. Instead, the two sources together account for quite a bit less than 1% of the US electricity supply and none of its industrial or transportation fuels. These sources are nothing new, they have been known for as long as humans have been on earth, while fission has proven its value quickly. There are still plenty of people on this earth who remember times when no human had even contemplated a sustainable fission reaction.
“Dirty bombs” are fantasy weapons invented by anti-nuclear activists. If you find a terrorist group talking about them, you can be assured that they are simply parroting what they have heard. I am confident that they have no earthly idea how to actually make such a device without causing everyone involved in the manufacturing process to get very sick before the bomb can ever be delivered. Even if the fantasy device (none actually exist) were to be built and delivered, its actual effects would be about the same as any other explosive device – deadly in a small area, indeterminate long term effects from trace products.
Energy security is a real issue that has been the source of much human conflict for more than 100 years. People need the benefits that energy can provide so much that they enrich the suppliers enough to make control of fuel sources worth fighting about. In my less than humble opinion, the nuclear industry has not placed enough emphasis on the fact that nuclear fuel can be stockpiled for decades, leading to a situation where the junkie can tell his pusher to go away and stop bothering him.
Nuclear accidents are certainly possible. Nuclear engineers and operators spend an inordinate portion of their time thinking and talking about accident response and prevention and have implemented countless procedural and training mitigations and design decisions that have made accidents quite rare indeed. Not only are they rare, but the consequences if they do happen have been reduced considerably by the defense in depth approach taken. In other words, I challenge the assertion that they happen “easily”.
At Three Mile Island, plenty of equipment failed and operators and regulators made a series of errors, but the final consequence was that essentially all of the radioactive material was retained in a controlled location and there were NO health effects to workers or the general public outside of the stress caused by ignorance on the part of the government officials and media.
Anyone who believes that it will be fast, easy or cheap to combat global climate change by converting the entire fleet of US vehicles to one that is significantly more fuel efficient is definitely in fantasy land. There are a couple of hundred million cars and trucks in this country. Even if we were to make massive improvements in fuel economy, those cars and trucks only produce about 15% of the greenhouse gas emissions right now. More than 50% of the country’s GHG emissions come directly from nuclear power’s current competitors – coal, oil and gas in electrical generating plants.
Finally, it is absolutely absurd to imply that avoiding a program to build new nuclear power plants would have any positive effect on a confrontation with Iran. As I have expressed a number of times on this blog, I think Iran has a right to develop a complete nuclear industry. Not only that, I believe that they have adequate motivation to do so without any assumption that they are interested in using nuclear weapons. They have a very young and growing population with significant domestic energy needs that are currently supplied by burning valuable oil and gas.
leaders KNOW that their fossil wealth is temporary and that there is such a thing as oil depletion. Their scientists already have the knowledge and the financial resources that they need in order to make their plans a reality. There is little that the rest of the world can or should do to stop that progress. (As an aside, Mr. Pope also asserted that the Iranians learned about nuclear matters from a rogue scientist named A. Q. Khan from Pakistan. Apparently he is unaware of the fact that thousands of Iranians were educated in American engineering institutions during the period before 1979 or that the US actively supported Iranian nuclear technology developments while the country was ruled by the Shah.)
I strongly believe that it is time for a whole lot of nuclear power plant construction and operation all over the world. The currently developed countries can lead the way, but they should not erect unreasonable barriers that prevent developing nations from also sharing in the earth’s atomic bounty. As far as I can tell, there is plenty of uranium and thorium to go around so there will be less need than ever to fight about energy resources. Mr. Pope – please make the effort to understand just how misinformed you are. Your position with regard to nuclear power developments is dangerous to the world’s long term security.
Postscript (added 7-8-2006 at 1100 EDT)
A reader pointed out that I neglected to address the following comment in Mr. Pope’s column – “And no one has yet solved the problem of how to safely dispose of radioactive waste.”
Perhaps my most in depth expanation of my attitude towards this statement can be found in an article that I wrote several years ago titled Yucca Mountain:Right Answer; Wrong Question. You can also find a number of different articles on this blog and on the Atomic Insights web site by searching on the terms “waste” or “recycle”.
If the criteria is that “waste” must be “disposed” of, there really is no agreed upon solution to the problem. However, the materials that are left over after reactor operation are often rare materials with unique physical properties that can be used in a number of already invented ways and some that have yet to be considered.
The materials are not waste and they do not need permanent disposition in order to ensure safety. We know how to safely store the material and protect anyone from harm associated with handling it. The record speaks for itself – we have been handling commercial nuclear reactor byproducts for more than 50 years without causing a single documented injury or death from the activity. Even windmills and solar panels cannot brag of a similar workplace safety record.