Tuesday, May 24, 2005
Topic of the Day: Nuclear Power
Today's Topic of the Day was inspired by a rather nice email I received almost completely out of the blue. Almost all of the emails I get are related to some post which gets referenced on another political weblog, apparently this person has quite an interest in nuclear power, as do I. I'll discuss his email and his website in the post. So, I revisit the topic.
5/17/05 Topic of the Day on Nuclear Power
The last time I discussed nuclear power, about a week ago, I focused on how nuclear power was the only major power source that met my three criteria of availability, reliability, and safety.
I've put some more thought into it, and gotten some more input. To sum up:
OIL - Oil is the creme of the crop of the bad choices. It isn't highly available, the world's oil supply might only last for another couple of decades. It isn't reliable in that we consume so much we're constantly in need of replenishing our oil supplies, which means we rely on middle eastern politics to make sure we keep getting the oil we need. Oil has, obviously, several environmental concerns as well.
COAL - Coal is one of the better fossil fuels, if there is such a thing. Its supply should last for quite some time, so I wouldn't worry about the availability. If, in the next 100-200 years we cannot overcome our energy problems with renewable sources then we probably deserve to run out of energy. Coal's reliability is also fairly good, it is located in numerous places around the globe. Coal has some significant environment impacts, and the new "clean coal" really isn't a whole lot better.
NATURAL GAS - Everyone seems to see natural gas as some wonderful alternative. This is likely because it's invisible and not dirty like coal and doesn't kill seals like oil spills. However, from what I understand, its supply should last for a while, so availability, especially in the short term, isn't a huge concern. As far as reliability, natural gas' main flaw is that, being a flammable gas, it is quite difficult and very expensive to transport. Oil and coal are much simpler. Safety is also a large concern, as natural gas has a nasty habit creating some disasters.
SOLAR - Solar is almost limitlessly available, but it isn't a very efficient use of space, and thus suffers some reliability issues. Solar is quite safe, unless you fall off your roof installing panels on your house.
WIND - Wind is, similar to solar, in unlimited supply. Unfortunately, only a little of it is available at any given time. I know 2 solar spars provide part of the power for Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, which saves DoD money, but in order to fully power the station it would take almost a dozen considering wind's lack of reliability. Similar to solar, it is completely safe as long as you're careful installing and maintaining it.
OTHER - There are certainly other forms of power that are completely renewable--geothermal energy, for example. But they all fall into the same category with wind and solar. While they are safe and seemingly limitless, they can't generate enough energy to meet our demands.
NUCLEAR - Nuclear energy is quite available. As I said in the previous post, there's enough Uranium in the earth's crust to power the entire planet long into the foreseeable future. Its resources are reliable as well, instead of coming from the middle east, peaceful American allies Canada and Australia are the nation's two biggest producers (the US is 8th, which can likely go up). Safety has always been people's biggest concern. People seem willing to let a couple people die here and there from environmental causes or accidents in coal mines, but are unwilling to take a risk on what they perceive as "the big one". It's actually quite silly, as the materials used in nuclear plants aren't nearly as dense as the material in nuclear bombs, and thus mushroom clouds are quite out of the question. Massive radiation is the worst threat, which under proper conditions, can be controlled.
If you need further convincing on the safety front, my emailer's knowledge of the subject goes far beyond mine:
I like the way that you framed your argument, but wondered why you
ignore the safety issue that exists with oil, coal and gas. Each year,
more than 5,000 coal miners die in China. There are hundreds of deaths
every year in oil fueled fires. A single accident at a natural gas
field on December 23, 2003 killed more than 250 people and injured more
than 9,000 by exposure to toxic fumes.
Even if there was a Chernobyl sized accident every year, nuclear power
would not even come close to those kinds of death figures. Though there
has been a lot of "concern" expressed about nuclear safety, the fact is
that there have been less than 50 people killed in accidents related to
the nuclear power generating systems in the entire commercial history
of the technology...
Editor, Atomic Insights
Check out his website. It's what I call a blog-zine, kind of a combination between a blog and a e-zine. While it looks like he and his company certainly stand to profit from nuclear power, his bias doesn't dumb down the presenting a thorough presentation of the pro-nuclear power facts. It includes a link an article that Rod wrote on how to market nuclear power, which is quite interesting.
On the flip side of the topic, and also a good resource, is the Nuclear Control Institute. Their main push is against "nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism", which I don't think many people could agree with. But they seem to think that ridding nuclear energy from the planet is the only way to prevent it. I respectfully disagree with them, but their site is worth looking at, although for some reason their press releases stopped right before the Iraq war (which they seemed to be in favor of).
Ultimately, if you get nothing out of this post, remember this: totally renewable resources require an ultimate sacrifice. Putting solar panels on your house, driving slower cars, and in general consuming less energy. You're in trouble if you think that will happen anytime soon. So, take your pick as to what resource fulfills our energy needs but has the fewest side-effects on our environment, our safety, and peace. I think when you sit down and reason it out, nuclear power is the best overall solution.