Friday, March 25, 2011

Why I do not Support the Production of Electricity using Nuclear Power

I've been opposed to the generation of electricity by nuclear power as long as I can remember knowing about it. In the early 1970's I read "The Closing Circle" by Dr. Barry Commoner who used the laws of physics to argue, convincingly I thought, that using a controlled nuclear reaction to produce heat of thousands of degrees to boil water to turn a steam turbine makes absolutely no sense. The ongoing catastrophes in the Japanese nuclear power industry underscore these concerns.

I just left France, where 58 nuclear reactors generate almost all of the country's electricity (we did see a few wind turbines outside of St. Remy du Provence), and overall, about 30 percent of electricity in the European Union countries is generated this way. France and other countries are solid or semi-solid supporters of nuclear power, while others, like Austria, Greece and Ireland (which, according to the airplane digital map we are now flying over) ban the use of nuclear for power generation. German Chancellor Merkel is pushing for nuclear "stress tests" of all existing commercial reactors (source: International Herald Tribune March 24, 2011).

In Japan, the earthquake and tsunami resulted in extensive damage to some nuclear power plants, resulting in unconfined explosions, partial meltdowns, and releases of radioactivity. Facility operators are struggling to gain control of runaway reactors after suffering failures of critical systems as well as backup systems, including backup electrical generators. The magnitude of the earthquake and resulting tsunamis exceeded the design and safety standards of the nuclear power plants (see Footnote 1).

As my friend Bob recently said, the recent experience in Japan is not a wakeup call for us in the Pacific Northwest, it's a final warning. And the rest of the world also needs to heed this final warning.

Here's why I think nuclear power generation is wrong:
1. It is an inherently dangerous technology that requires many more complicated controls to avoid a disastrous accident, compared to any other energy generating facility;
2. The results of an accident at a nuclear power plant have much more serious and long-term consequences, in terms of human health and environmental impacts, than any other type of facility. (To be clear, other types of generation facilities, such as coal and oil burners, emit pollutants, and a major explosion would release much more, some of which are persistent in the environment. However, I think these pale in the face of radioactive particles.)
3. Nuclear waste has always been problematic, and as yet, after many decades of generation, there is not a long-term storage solution. "This is not a problem" the industry tells us; "a solution will be found soon." And so, most spent fuel rods are kept in pools of water - temporary storage - at the nuclear power plants. This is one of the major problems at at least one of the Japanese nuclear facilities affected by the recent earthquake events, the temporary storage facilities have been damaged, and the operators are still desperately pouring sea water on them to try to keep them from exploding.

Put all of the above together, and the rationale for building nuclear power plants defies simple logic. Quite simply, nuclear power is simply too complicated and too dangerous. It's not that the risk is too high, it's that the consequences of an accident are too high. And we can't ever forgetas my friend Scott always said, "Nature is a hangin' judge."

There are those, including many of our leaders, who have recently come around to a position of considering the nuclear energy option as part of our energy mix. A large part of this discussion is fueled by the politics of reducing our import, here in the U.S., of foreign oil (see footnote 1). This is clearly, in my opinion, a wrong conclusion and not really the issue. The issue is not the source of our electrical energy, but our unquenchable demand for it. We expect to be able to suck as much electricity out of the wall outlets as we want, all the time, to fuel our ever-increasing pile of electronic machines and gadgets.

It's way beyond time for us as a society to think about how much we consume, and what the consequences of that consumption are. I'm sitting on an airplane writing on an iPad, and when my power is low, I want - no, I demand as if it is a Constitutional right - that there is an electrical outlet I can plug into. When I've completed this post, I'll send it off into the cloud of the Internet, where it will exist for the rest of time (or perhaps as long as there are humans) on a multitude of computer servers sitting in huge, power-sucking server facilities so that all of you readers can open it when ever and where ever you want.

Guess what folks? As long as we have this attitude, we'll have to continue to develop more electricity generating facilities, and this will include nukes. Face it, nuclear power is big business, and big business always comes out on top.


1. In the engineering world, things are designed based on certain design criteria. For example, a storm water facility might be designed for what is known as a 20-year, 24-hour storm event, and any event larger than that simply overflows or bypasses the facility. There are design criteria for buildings and bridges based on a specific size of seismic event, and the structure is not expected to withstand an event larger than the design event.
2. What few people realize, and as I've discussed in previous posts, most of our "foreign" oil comes to us from Canada.

- posted from the fisheyepad

Location:high above the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and the USA

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Very good post, Paul. I have always been concerned about where we are going to store nuclear waste, which needs to be contained for thousands of years. But I like your point about our endless consumption and expectation of endless consumption.