Thursday, April 11, 2013

Not-so-safe Nuclear

I am skeptical of the anti-nuclear crowd as they tend to oppose the principle of the technology instead of looking at it as a real policy option that has real benefits and real costs. Principle should not overrule evidence-based policy and science. There are real safety concerns, especially after Fukushima, but the safety concerns are way overblown for this technology while under-appreciated for the next-best alternative technologies (fossil fuels).

Coal is much dirtier and much more dangerous than Nuclear is, but people do not mind it being in their backyards nearly as much. The carbon dioxide is the least of Big Coal's worries. Big Coal is in real trouble because of the arsenic, mercury, coal ash, and 70 other toxins that are released as pollution of coal power plants that the EPA is cracking down on. Natural gas is much less poisonous compared to coal, but still causes considerable greenhouse emissions - especially when you take the methane leaks into account. Nuclear looks good in comparison - besides that pesky issue of what to do with the waste now that the residents of Nevada are no longer happy burying it in Yucca Mountain.

Homer dealing wih nuclear waste - "hmmm, shall we dump it in the Baltic Sea or West Africa?"
The temporary solution to nuclear waste storage. 

Nuclear is currently the safest, cleanest, and easiest to scale-up of all market-ready energy technologies at the moment. Wind, wave, and solar are gaining ground every year, but they are not quite where they need to be at yet for the country to be dependent on them. Give it 5 years.

This is the conventional wisdom, at least. Heads begin to turn when the former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory B. Jaczko, says that current US nuclear plants are an existential threat:
"The current fleet of operating plants in the US should be phased out because regulators can’t guarantee against an accident causing widespread land contamination."
Jaczko resigned in protest of being overruled on extension permits being granted to "unsafe" reactors. The last nuclear power plant was built in the US in 1977. At the time, the power plants were designed to last for 40 years with the possibility being extended up another 40 years. That means as of 2017, every nuclear power plant in operation will have been extended past its original mandate.

The problem with the design of these Generation II nuclear reactors is that there is not a practical way to cool down the cores on the off-chance of an emergency situation. The cores could go through uncontrollable chain reactions on their own after emergency procedures are begun, which could lead to a meltdown just like in Fukushima.  Newer, smaller reactors (Generations III & IV) are designed in a way to make this an impossibility.

Nuclear is still the safest, cleanest, and easiest to scale-up of all energy technologies, just not the Nuclear technology that is currently in usage. The US needs to replace the current nuclear fleet.

Interesting fact: 56 percent of Ontario's power is generated from three Nuclear Power plants AND it will be more after they are upgraded.

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