What is Nuclear? is an information sharing effort recently started by a group of young nuclear engineers. It is a well designed site with some real science and engineering expertise in the background. Not only are the writers smart, but they have some interesting personal histories – Natallia, for example, was a child living in Belarus during the time of the Chernobyl accident.
They recently posted a point – counterpoint response to a post by Co-Op America – an organization that is proud of its contributions to the fight against new coal fired power plants that is also working hard to halt the development of new nuclear power plants.
You can find Co-Op America’s original post here under the rather contradictory title of Climate Action: Economic Action to Stop Global Warming. Ten Strikes Against Nuclear Power. What is Nuclear?’s response to that list is available at Point – Counterpoint; Our response to Co-op America’s Ten Strikes Against Nuclear Power.
I like the responses. One aspect of the discussion that I am going to try to develop into a post on its own is the notion of speed of response. This is a topic that finds its way into a lot of discussions about whether or not to pursue new nuclear plants as a partial response to the enormous problems of energy security, air pollution, water pollution, hazardous mining, growing transportation infrastructure requirements of fossil fuels, land use problems, competition between food and fuel, and global climate change.
The basic concept from the people who are reflexively opposed to nuclear power is that it would take too long to build enough new plants to make much of a difference and even if we could the costs would be too high. Of course, they are not trying to find any ways to build the plants more rapidly, or to reduce their cost. Solutions are not as easy as saying no.
A fundamental part of the argument given by many, including Co-op America, is to wildly exaggerate the number of new plants needed to begin moving the needle in the right direction. Though the world’s 440 nuclear power plants currently supply about 7-8% of the world’s primary energy needs, Co-op America blithely states that we would need to build 17,000 new plants in order to make much difference. For my simple mind, a much more accurate prediction would be to simply ratio the existing plant number to the world’s energy demand – if 440 plants provide 7% then 6300 plants with the same average size would provide 100% of the world’s primary energy, reducing the human contribution of greenhouse gases to nearly zero.
That may sound like a lot of plants, but it is not a number that is completely outside of the realm of possibility in a world that produces as many buildings, factories and manufactured goods as we do today. It is a far cry from 17,000 and it would certainly make more than a nominal difference in the world’s human emissions of pollution.
At least some of the new nuclear plants built in the coming years will be quite a bit smaller and more numerous than today’s plants, but there will also be a number of large, central station plants in the mix. I recognize that fossil fuel consumption is not going to disappear anytime in the next century or two – it has a number of advantages in certain applications that will not be overcome without technologies that I cannot see on the horizon yet. That’s okay with me – the use of steel in construction did not end the lumber industry and the use of microchips has not eliminated pencils and paper.
Wow – that post went off topic. Go back to the top and go read What is Nuclear?’s point – counterpoint if you have not already done so.