In the November 23, 2009 issue of the Washington Post, there is an article titled Nuclear Power Regains Support that describes how some established Environmental groups and individuals have decided that nuclear power can be part of a set of tools that will enable a transition away from fossil fuels. A major reason given for what many believe is a surprising shift in politics is a sense of urgency about slowing down the emission of greenhouse gases from burning massive quantities of hydrocarbons. The waste products that are being dumped into the atmosphere are causing measurable changes in the global atmospheric chemistry.
The article details how Steven Tindale, a man who once led a group of Greenpeace activists at a protest of a UK nuclear power plant on the shores of the North Sea, has left the organization and now supports the expansion of nuclear energy as part of Great Britain’s plan to combat climate change.
“It really is a question about the greater evil — nuclear waste or climate change,” Tindale said. “But there is no contest anymore. Climate change is the bigger threat, and nuclear is part of the answer.”
There are other groups who have determined that their best path currently is to focus their efforts on fighting fossil fuels and supporting alternatives like wind and solar without expending their efforts in fighting against nuclear energy. They recognize that certain provisions in climate change legislation will probably result in the construction of a number of new nuclear power plants and they have decided to accept that result without weighing in on one side or the other.
But Steve Cochran, director of the National Climate Campaign at the Environmental Defense Fund — a group that opposed new nuclear plants in the United States as recently as 2005 — also described a new and evolving “pragmatic” approach coming from environmental camps. “I guess you could call it ‘grudging acceptance,’ ” he said.
“If we are really serious about dealing with climate change, we are going to have to be willing to look at a range of options and not just rule things off the table,” he said. “We may not like it, but that’s the way it is.”
That position, observers say, marks a significant departure. “Because of global warming, most of the big groups have become less active on their nuclear campaign, and almost all of us are taking another look at our internal policies,” said Mike Childs, head of climate change issues for Friends of the Earth in Britain. “We’ve decided not to officially endorse it, in part because we feel the nuclear lobby is already strong enough. But we are also no longer focusing our energies on opposing it.”
My analysis of the strength of the technical advantages of nuclear energy is that anyone who is not actively opposed to nuclear energy development is effectively FOR nuclear energy. (If you are not against us, you are for us.) That is especially true when the group that has made the shift has been working so hard against the technology for so many years. Think about a massive tug of war – if some of the people on the other side simply let go and stand up, the rope moves rather rapidly in your direction. That is, of course, assuming that your side does not stop pulling.
The article highlighted the cost of new nuclear facilities as the one remaining sticking point for some of the people who are still fighting. The funny thing about that issue is that it is one where fighting an inevitable development simply increases the cost. In a town that is going to host a facility – where the facility has strong support already, there is a credible group of companies building the facility and there is sufficient financial backing – expeditious project completion is the best way to keep costs under control. If someone adamantly opposes the project because they are sure that the plant is going to result in an increased monthly power bill, the worst response would be to put roadblocks in the way of the plant. Time is money and delays will add cost – that can be proven with plenty of examples and statistics. If any of the opposition to Shoreham, for example, came from Long Island residents worried mostly about costs, they have been paying the bills for 20 years without receiving any power at all from the plant.
A situation where cost is the last real remaining issue for a new facility is one where problem solving engineers and project managers have a reasonably good track record. So far, the engineers and managers responsible for new nuclear power plants designs have not had a chance to demonstrate that their refinements have made a significant difference in construction costs. I want to be careful about how I say this, but anyone who has ever worked in a nuclear plant can attest to dozens, if not hundreds of policies and processes that result in more expenditures than what would be required in order to operate reliably and safely. As is the case in any effective cost reduction effort, the key is steady focus and incremental steps.
Unfortunately, nuclear energy is still a business where talking much about cost can be politically hazardous. Most nukes have grown up in a business where they have been told that “cost is no object” and where they can run into trouble with their regulators if they question the cost of complying with even quite silly rules that have no impact on safety.
There is an example happening right now with the response to the very minor airborne radiation incident at Three Mile Island Unit One. Despite the fact that the effects were routine levels of exposure, the contamination has all been cleaned up and the root cause is pretty obvious to anyone who understands how cutting and grinding works, the NRC is dispatching dozens of investigators to the plant. The company will have to devote hundreds of man-hours to the process of a formal investigation, they will lose production for several more days, and they will produce reams of paper to be stored on shelves.
Our word for such an occurrence when I was on a sub was “flap”. This kind of thing can happen when there are people who believe that perfection is possible in any human endeavor – when something very tiny goes wrong in a system they flop and twitch until they get tired. At the end of the “flap” process the only real change is that one party has less money and many others have earned some per diem, captured some overtime, sold some replacement power, or earned some additional consulting fees. It is not surprising that there is more cost than there should be associated with building and operating nuclear facilities, but there is plenty of room for ratcheting down those costs as all of the participants involved recognize what is safe, what is not and how to react when safety is not threatened.
For now, I am encouraged by an attitude of grudging acceptance from formerly resolute opponents and excited by the opportunity to demonstrate that nuclear technology has significant room for cost improvement if that is the last remaining hurdle. The progress that nuclear plant operators in the US and many other countries have made in terms of increasing the value of their existing plants through better production without significantly increased cost gives me reason for optimism that we can apply similar process and design improvements to the task of building new plants and actually reducing the unnecessary costs associated with operating them.
Of course, like most people, I hope that the skills I plan to bring to the table are not those that will someday be considered to be unnecessary costs. I fully understand why radiation protection experts – for example – might be worried about keeping their jobs as people realize just how many of them are redundant.