I’ve long been a fan of nuclear power. I know that’s unfashionable to say. It implies that I either don’t care about the future of the human race or don’t care about the environment. But that’s wrong. I do care and I’m open to debate on the issues, especially if you can show me the science. I’ve been an environmentalist almost my entire life. I’ve supported various environmental groups over the years and am currently a member of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I support the National Park system, nature refuges, clean water regulation, clean air regulation, all those things. I don’t think it’s necessary or justified to trash the earth – our home – in order to build a functioning society. Just the opposite. I believe a clean environment and a healthy ecosystem means a higher quality of life for everyone.
Low environmental impact is one of the primary reasons I support nuclear power. Nuclear power impacts the environment in two primary ways. Mining and waste storage. Both are clearly manageable. Even high level waste can be stored almost indefinitely simply by submerging it in a deep pool of cooled water. Water, earth, stone and concrete are all effective radiation barriers. However, we probably can’t afford to store waste indefinitely, since there is an ongoing cost, however small, for cooling the water and keeping it protected in a secure setting. For truly long term disposal then, there’s Yucca Mountain, a remote, geologically stable site in Nevada that is currently being tunneled and prepared as a waste depository. Yucca Mountain was selected after one of the largest enviromental site studies ever conducted. On the positive side of the impact ledger, nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas causing so much concern around the globe, or any of the other noxious chemical byproducts associated with the burning of fossil fuels (hydrocarbons). In addition, they also have a relatively small ‘footprint’, meaning they don’t take up much space. That can’t be said for solar or wind power systems.
What about the safety issues? What about Chernobyl? That was poor design, pure and simple. The Sovs were repeatedly told their reactor designs and their building designs were unsafe, but the warnings were ignored. They paid the price. Had they simply built concrete containment buildings around all their reactors, something all western reactors have, they would’ve still had a reactor failure but not an environmental disaster. Three Mile Island, for all the media hype and panic that ensued, had essentially no environmental impact. The safety systems worked as planned. What caused the problem was when those systems were manually overridden and shut down. Even then, although the reactor was ruined, only a small amount of radioactive gas was allowed to escape. There’ve been far larger impacts from oil spills, fires, dam failures, or any number of accidents in conventional power systems. As far as I know, not a single person was killed or seriously hurt at TMI. To read the mass media though, you’d have thought the western world was coming to an end. In the mind of the public, however, nuclear power was branded as completely unsafe.
But the times, they are a’changing. According to The Telegraph:
Nuclear power, for so long haunted by the ghosts of Chernobyl, has been making a comeback throughout the rest of the world. Its recovery is being led by countries that do not have historical hang-ups about the dangers of harnessing the power of the atom, and which need reliable sources of electricty to drive their power-hungry industries.
In total, there are 30 nuclear power stations currently under construction around the globe to add to the 438 already in existence. Together they will generate 2610TWh (tera-Watt hours or trillion Watt hours) of power without emitting greenhouse gases. Coal-powered stations generating the same amount of power would spew 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every year.
It also appears that a new generation of reactors is just over the horizon. They may be safer than the existing generation of reactors and also capable of using existing nuclear ‘waste’ for fuel. Italian Nobel Prize winner Carl Rubbia – intellectual heir to Italian Enrico Fermi, who built the world’s first fission reactor at the University of Chicago – is assembling his test reactor near Rome. Acording to The Telegraph:
…the reactor has to be fed with particles from an external source. If the supply of particles is cut off – through a mistake or sabotage – the reactor reverts to its natural state, and switches off.
Dr Kadi said that the new reactor, which is known as an “energy amplifier”, would be able to dispose of waste produced by five conventional reactors, as well as its own. “With this reactor you can put in any type of radioactive waste, as long as you can get it into the right form,” he said. The first live test on the reactor will be conducted soon at the Casaccia Research Centre.
According to the DOE, the US is currently producing 20% of its electricity through nuclear reactors. That’s up from 4.5% as recently as 1973. What keeps us from changing that to 40% or even 80%? Imagine a United States where we produce as much electricty as we could want with almost no environmental impact. What would that mean for our economy and standard of living, much less the environment? It’s within our grasp. All we need is the understanding and the will to do it.