Comments on: Why I Still Support Nuclear Energy, Even after Fukushima, WSJ, April 23 & 24, 2011

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Part III – Nuclear Energy

Based on excerpts from the Book (Draft) We Can Give our Grandchildren a Better World

To recap, Part I covered why we will need new, better sources of energy.  Standard of living and Gross Domestic Product are directly related to energy production. Part II looked at several sources and potential sources of energy, short-term to long-term.  This final segment will discuss why nuclear is still a good gamble, and why we might choose to “pass”.

Highlights from William Tucker’s subject article, WSJ April 23 & 24, 2011: He starts with a question, “Why do we have to mess with this nuclear stuff in the first place?”   Then replies, “The answer is that there are no better alternatives available. … A coal plant must be fed by a 100-car freight train arriving every 30 hours.  A nuclear reactor is refueled by a fleet of six trucks arriving once every two years.  There are 283 coal mines in West Virginia and 449 in Kentucky.  There are 45 uranium mines in the entire world.”   The reader is invited to review the subject article for the balance of Tucker’s discussion.  My thoughts and opinions follow.

As discussed in Part II, future potential energy breakthroughs include super batteries, fuel cells, and even artificial photosynthesis.  It is important to emphasize potential future inventions.  The devil is always in the details going from theory and bench-scale to practical application of technology.  If we are going to bet our Grandchildren’s future we need to put most of our short-term money on “sure things” while funding basic science, research, and development to sprout and grow the seeds of future innovation.  Part II also discussed existing technologies like photovoltaics and windmills that can be employed today to help solve our energy challenges. Let me reemphasize “help solve” our energy challenges.  Neither can be relied on as “the answer.” (See chart on electricity production US.)  They are both intermittent, and location dependent, and both would require major increases in fabrication & construction capabilities.  Another non-CO2 solution is conservation, using the energy we have more carefully and continuing to develop and build more efficient machines and lighting.  Good idea, but too limited in application and capacity to be more than part of the solution.  We can build more coal and natural gas fired generating stations.  However these create green house gas – CO2.  So recapping available technology, we can provide some of the electricity needs with non-combustion sources, but not on the scale to meet the major part of our energy needs.  For the balance of our needs – reliable, constant, large-scale electricity production we can burn something, and create greenhouse gas.   OR   We can turn to the other proven technology – Nuclear.

People, especially those emotionally opposed to nuclear power, ask “Why should we choose ‘risky’ nuclear energy over one of the ‘safe’ energy sources?  That’s the wrong question.  That’s a black and white question whose answer would be obvious.  The real question is a gray question and real answer is a gray answer.  The correct question is, “What are the risks of all of the various options, including the do-nothing option?” And, “Which risks are we willing to take?”  To put it in the context of this blog, “Which bet do we want to make on our Grandchildren’s future?”   Let me restate each of these options (and supporters) for emphasis.  We are consciously betting our Grandchildren’s future.  The “depend solely on conservation and efficiency option” is a bet that the ultra-green groups like.  The “hope that scientists and engineers will invent an Edison’s light bulb game changing technology” is a bet that politicians like.  The “build more coal and/or natural gas fired generators” is a bet that Wall Street likes.   The problem with all of these bets is that they are all bad bets (too risky) if we bet too much on any single one of them.  Would we go to Vegas, walk up to the first roulette table we find and put our entire vacation bundle on a single spin of the wheel?  OK, maybe that example is a bit extreme.   Here are more comparable bets.  Would we / have we, put our savings/investment funds in a single place?  Have we put all of our money in a savings account, where every year it loses a little value to inflation?  Would we put all of our money in the stock of single company? If that company fails, our savings are gone.  Did we invest it all in gold or silver, gambling that they will continue to increase over the years?  Or maybe we are extremely bold and invested the entire sum in commodities, say corn futures?  Probably not.   Each of these can be a good way to invest some money (good bets) depending on our situation, if they are part of a portfolio. Wise investors spread their investments.  We need multiple bets on energy sources for our Grandchildren.

Nuclear is a good bet for the short to mid-term (10 to 30 years) solution.  We have the technology.  Americans invented it, developed it, taught the rest of the world, and then surrendered our technological lead (much as we did our manufacturing lead).  If we don’t recover our preeminence before all of our nuclear scientists, engineers, and construction crafts retire, we’ll be buying our reactors from foreigners.  So more of our money can leave the US.

Some may say, “I care about the environment; I can’t support creating nuclear waste.”   My answer: “I support nuclear power because I want to protect the environment AND provide for the physical needs of our grand children.”  I support nuclear power as an interim solution while new technologies are being developed.  Just for the record, I’m the one in the family that sorts out the recyclables and takes them to the recycling center; turns off the unneeded lights, uses minimum water to shower, brush teeth etc.  No applause, we all should do these things; just saying I put in practice efforts to care for our environment.

Those opposing to nuclear power will cite two reasons: 1) too dangerous and 2) no solution for the nuclear waste.

Response: 1) Until Fukushima there had been NO significant accidents causing radiation hazards to the public in forty years of commercial nuclear power.  Three-Mile Island was a financial disaster, but not a health disaster. The population around the reactor received, and continues to receive, far more exposure from natural sources, jet air travel, and medical diagnostics than from the reactor. While we will have to wait for the final chapter(s) on Fukushima, the preliminary report from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) is that the failed reactors have not created a significant health hazard.

2) The nuclear waste “problem” is strictly a political artifact.  The technology on how to safely dispose of the waste has been developed.  The political question of where to put it has not been resolved. (It was resolved, the facility is called Yucca Mountain, but politics has intervened once more to “un-solve” this issue.)

Brief digression “Where to put the nuclear waste?” is a stereotypical example of what I call a “dandruff shampoo or deodorant commercial” issue.  This is an issue where the politician first creates the concern, “You don’t realize it but:  you have flakes, you might smell bad, you…” and then offers a solution to the non-problem, “I can sell you the product / save you from…”  More than one politician has pulled a troubled campaign out of the fire by saving his/her constituents from the nuclear boogie man, most recently Senator Harry Reid.

Realistically none of us wants any waste dump, including nuclear waste (or an asphalt plant, or a fertilizer factory, or a chicken farm, or a lot of other necessary facilities) in our back yard.  However, for the good of all we expect our elected officials, and they do a fairly good job, to establish laws so that waste repositories, factories, etc., can be sited in locations and per standards such that human health, the environment, and pleasent neighborhoods are protected while providing places to conduct business.  They could do the same for nuclear waste.

The pluses for nuclear power are: NO Greenhouse gasses, they run 24-7-365, rain or shine, night or day, wind or no wind, AND with relatively small amounts of waste products.

So why might we choose to pass on nuclear power?  The June, 2011 Scientific American includes two pieces on Nuclear power.  In the opinion piece, Coming Clean on Nuclear Power, they propose the following: The industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission need to be more transparent about problems at facilities in order to gain the public’s trust.  The NRC needs to be particularly critical of where reactors are sited with respect to population centers and potential need for evacuation (a lesson from Fukushima).  [Note: there is a potential Catch 22 here.  The greatest need for electrical power is in our biggest cities.  The power sources need to be sited relatively close to the need (population centers) due to transmission constraints.   However, from the emergency planning perspective, it is best to site reactors as far from the population centers as possible.]  We need to strike a proper balance.

The second item is an article by Adam Piore, Planning for the Black Swan.  This article briefly discusses the technology of the newest, Generation III, reactors which are designed with emergency cooling that does not require human intervention or power, just gravity.  It also discusses the need to include economics in the design, which leads to the question of how safe is safe enough.  Piore poses a further question, what if designers and regulators have a failure of imagination and overlook a potential accident or threat, especially one that has never happened.  He finishes his article recognizing that nuclear power produces 20% of electricity in the US and 0% of the CO2.   “Pollution from just two northeastern coal-fired plants was linked to tens of thousands of asthma attacks, hundreds of thousands of episodes of upper respiratory illnesses and 70 deaths annually, according to a study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force.”  Can we afford not to embrace nuclear power?

The May 23, 2011, Forbes includes an article by Todd Woody, Nuclear Reaction. Woody discusses an interview with David Crane of NRG (electricity wholesaler with $9 Billion in sales annually).  NRG announced in mid-April that it would halt investment and planning for the country’s first nuclear plant since 1990. Per Crane, “… nuclear at best is an extremely uphill putt on the most difficult green in Augusta…”  Crane went on to say that NRG was presently generating 40% of its power from natural gas which is cheap and abundant.  His concern is over-dependence on a single fuel source. [Note: Not mentioned were concerns of water supply contamination by hydraulic fracturing of natural gas bearing formations that are beginning to emerge].  Therefore NRG is investing in solar energy for future business reasons.

Business makes its bets according to the bottom line. It will not generally make bets that are overly risky. Investors expect a return, generally in the short-term.  Collectively we need to be thinking in terms of decades not just the balance sheet next year and the year after. We need to be making bets that will pay off for our Grandchildren, not leave them short and with few options.

Let me present one more allegory and then close.  There’s a time to discus, a time to decide, and a time to execute.  Imagine we are all on a giant row boat in the middle of the ocean.  It is time to decide which energy source(s) we are going to use to move forward, and then stroke together.  The decide nothing/ do nothing option is akin to floating where we are and getting nowhere.  If we are not going to support a revival of nuclear power, then we need to decide what we are going to support as our energy path to the future.  And if we are going to support nuclear, then we may have to throw the nay-sayers off the boat if they refuse to stroke in unison.  No matter what the decision, we need to stroke together to move the boat efficiently for our Grandchildren’s sake.

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