Pro-Nuke Greens

Provocative piece in the current issue of Wired on how small swaths of the traditionally staunchly anti-nuclear Green movement are starting to go pro-nuke. My earliest awakening of any socio-political thought whatsoever occurred while protesting the construction and launch of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in the early 80s with Mom and Dad. But now:

Some of the world’s most thoughtful greens have discovered the logic of nuclear power, including Gaia theorist James Lovelock, Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, and Britain’s Bishop Hugh Montefiore, a longtime board member of Friends of the Earth.

The “green” arguments in favor of nuclear power are not airtight, but the Wired piece does make a pretty compelling case. Not because nuclear power has become as safe as solar or wind, but because the current hydrocarbon-based situation is so dire.

Burning hydrocarbons is a luxury that a planet with 6 billion energy-hungry souls can’t afford. There’s only one sane, practical alternative: nuclear power.

Not to mention the sheer scale of global energy requirements — to generate the kind of power with solar or wind that can be obtained from a single nuke requires enormous masses of land. Space requirements relative to power sources to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity:

Nuke: .33 sq. miles
Solar: 60 sq. miles
Wind: 300 sq. miles
Biomass: 1,000 sq. miles

So, yes — if we had put all of the effort and funding over the years into solar that we’ve put into nukes, solar power generation today would be cheaper and more efficient than it is. But I somehow don’t think we would have put that much of a dent in the space requirement problem.

I think I’d be willing to reconsider my stance on nuclear power if we had adequate answers to long-term waste storage problems. Unfortunately, the article pretty much glosses those, focusing instead on the possibilities of recycling spent fuel (which are promising). But until the storage problem is really nailed, there is a problem of conscience. We call the ancient Egyptians “ancient” and they were doing their thing just 5,000 years ago. 100,000 years+ is an almost inconceivably long period of time. It is almost impossible to image us not coming up with a good storage answer somewhere in that span. But it is also unconscionable to start laying this stuff in the ground before we’ve figured it out. It’s our problem, not our childrens’.

Music: William Parker Violin Trio :: Scrapbook

14 Replies to “Pro-Nuke Greens”

  1. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

    Hence, if we had needed solar power, it would be more efficient today. But like you said, not enough so to feed the world’s energy needs.

    But there’s been no need to examine nuclear waste disposal on a large scale because no new nuclear plants have been commissioned here in the US since TMI.

    In odd coincidence, today the ESA succesfully launched the Ariane 5 ECA. It has unprecedented lift capabilities.

    My plan? Work on space lift mechanisms to make them nigh failsafe. As a precaution in case of vehicle failure, build lift vehicles with high payload survivability. Then launch that nuclear waste at the sun.

  2. An interesting nuclear generation technology that may address some concerns about safety is something called a Pebble Bed Reactor. The primary advantage of this is that it’s designed to be inherently safe. The reactors are also smaller & much less expensive that traditional designs, and the waste tends to be less hazardous. There was also an article in Wired last year about this called Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom.

    I agree with the concerns of the “pro-nuke” Greens about the hazards of burning hydrocarbons for power generation. In addition to the horrid environmental impact, it irks me to be sending billions of dollars to places like Saudi Arabia so they can fund Wahabbist mullahs and the like…

  3. PBS frontline had a pretty good special a while back (didn’t see it just visited the website), called, “Nuclear Reaction: why do Americans fear nuclear power.”

    The main piece that caught my eye was, “Why the French like Nuclear Energy.”

    Any move towards nuclear power here would have to study what the French have done, are doing and problems they are having — specifically with waste.

    Lots of other good tidbits on the site, too. Such as cultural differences and standardization of design.

    Thanks for the article, I plan on reading it and then sending it to a friend over at the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability to see what he has to say.

    If he says anything of interest I’ll double dip here.

  4. Count me a pro-nuke Green.

    In national forests, we use a principle of concentrating the damage. We clear trails and improve or pave them, and then require everyone to stay on the trail, leaving most of the forest untouched.

    It’s a similar situation with nuke power, which is much more “dense” energy-wise and waste-wise. Even with the waste storage difficulty you are limiting the damage and not spreading it across the entire society in the form of health care costs, the necessity of coddling ugly regimes, the need to embrace imperial means for petroleum ends, the environmental impact, etc.

    As for the storage issue — you do NOT want to put it in tectonically active environments near desirable metal and stone deposits (as the Bush admin wants to do at Yucca Mtn in Nevada). Instead you drill a 15,000-foot hole in the dead center of the continent — North Dakota, say. This is tectonically dead and hasn’t moved in more than a hundred million years. Make sure the site is not above the Oglalla Aquifer or near other groundwater sources or major population centers.

    Geologists will thank you for the big hole, as they’ll be able to study the bedrock of the craton (not something they usually have access to except as ground-up glacial remnants). Dump the waste down the hole, fill with salt, lead, etc. Post area with as many signs of danger as you can think of (“Mr Yuk” comes to mind). Go to bed and sleep well knowing any catastrophe from this waste storage facility will be less severe than the aggregate damage of fossil fuels.

  5. Count me as one who agrees with both you, Scot, and griff. Although I would go a step further than griff and say come up with a solution under the leadership of a government that sees the problem with possibly labelling themselves as “faith-based” instead of “reality-based”.

  6. Benefits
    Biomass:
    Low-tech to implement, Portable (for Diesel Cars), Recycles Waste, Surplus easily Stored.
    Wind Power:
    Cheap to implement, No Environmental impact, Renewable.
    Solar:
    Small Footprint, No Environmental impact (besides by-products of production of Solar Cells), Renewable.
    Nuclear:
    Tiny Footprint for production (Resource collection is another story).

    Downsides;
    Biomass:
    Large Footprint.
    Wind Power:
    (Allegedly) Noisy. (Allegedly) Kills Birds (Yeah, Right)
    Solar:
    High Maintenance. Waste from Production of Facilities may be hazardous.
    Nuclear:
    Very High Maintenance. Waste from Preparation of Resources is Extremely Hazardous. Waste from Production of Energy is Extremely Hazardous. Huge Environmental Impact with Aquisition of Resources. Huge Environmental Impact with Disposal of Waste.

    In Summary, these Greenies who like the Idea of Nuclear Energy are as Hypocritical as the Anti-Logging Greenies who leave disposable non-biodegradable Nappies (Diapers) in the Bush around their Campsites, and the Anti-Mining Greenies who want Refined Ingots of Metal transferred by Rail, rather than Molten Metal transferred by Insulated Pipeline.

    They fail to see the damage that a Uranium Mine does to the Environment, because it isn’t in their Back-Yard. They fail to see the damage caused by Nuclear “Accidents” and “Testing” in places like Maralinga, Muaroa Atoll or Chernobyl.
    A Better option is to use Less Energy.

  7. Finding Nuke power as a solution due to the dire needs of today, is as bogus as it can get. Solar power and Wind power will not work at scaled levels for various reasons, mostly due to the tarnished landscaping that will occur when said technology fails and needs replacing and replenishement. Nuke is unacceptable for the obvious reasons, it is nasty stuff. What we need is localized movements to solve the problem, put up your own genny and maintain it, getting off the nipple of da man, and becoming more independent rather than more dependent. Nukes, Scaled Solar/Wind do not liberate, only at the home can true energy independence be realized by capturing what fall on your ground/head and rooftop and converting it to useful/focused energy needs.

  8. Daniel, you seem to discard certain facts that contradict your established views. Fact-goggling, if you will.

    Wind Power: (Allegedly) Noisy. (Allegedly) Kills Birds (Yeah, Right)

    Wind farms DO kill birds. Period. Much progress has been made in increasing visibility and changing placement to reduce these deaths, but they do happen. Can I say, “Chernobyl allegedly killed a couple people. Yeah, right.”? No, because I’d be ignoring facts.

    Another fact you ignore is that uranium is not the only fuel source for nuclear reactors. Thorium can also be used, and thorium occurs much, MUCH more frequently in nature, and does not require the intense kind of mining uranium does.

    I fail to see the correlation between Chernobyl and Western nuclear reactors. There are huge differences:

    1). Chernobyl had no containment structure

    2). Chernobyl operated at a dangerously high positive void coefficient

    3). Huge parts of Chernobyl’s operations were unknown to plant staff because of “state security”

    4). When the Chernobyl accident occurred when the plant was running a dangerous test *other Chernobyl operators* had refused to do

    In the West our nuclear reactors have containment structures. Indeed, the accident at TMI also cause the destruction of the reactor, and the damage was not even close to what happened at Chernobyl. Because of the containment structure.

    Our reactors do not operate with dangerous void coefficients, the specs and capacities are known to workers and we don’t run dangerous tests in the interests of increasing our standing in the Party.

    Is nuclear power without problems? No, it is not. But neither is wind or solar or anything else. And saying “just reduce the amount of energy you use” is naive. The earth’s population is exploding, our energy needs grow every day (no one had their home computers/printers/etc running in 1970). You go and tell China that light bulbs and PCs are OK for the West, but they have to forgo them in the interest of power savings. Have fun.

    The question is what are we going to DO? Ignoring, dismissing and plain getting facts wrong is not going to move us closer to a solution.

    Sometimes you have to do something you don’t want to to get what you desire. And sometimes you have to realign your beliefs given current facts. I think that time has come.

  9. Gilbert, thanks for the Frontline link. The west-coast Frontline office is housed at the J-School, so I’ll hop in and see whether I can borrow a tape. Would love to see that.

    Re: Hurling waste into the sun: Not sure if Grahams was serious about that, but do we know what would happen if we tried that? If the vessel exploded outside the rim of the sun and rained radiation back out into the solar system?

    Chris, interesting idea, the 15,000 foot hole. Do we have the tech to dig such a hole? If our descendants decided it was time to get it out, would they curse us for burying it so deep? And how can we design signage and markers that will last even 5,000 years, let alone 100,00?

    Todd, I think we’re going to start seeing an increased movement toward micro-localized power production — new homes being built totally off the grid. The problem is in getting that solution into/onto every house that’s already been built. It’s just not going to happen, and without that, it’s not a solution :(

    mneptok, though I mostly agree with you, it seems like Daniel was pointing out pros and cons with all power sources. I don’t think he was “fact-goggling” because he didn’t seem to have an agenda to push, really — just elucidating. Although I agree that his last point “Just use less energy” is naive (as much as it is a noble goal and the right thing to do, it’s still naive to think that it represents a tenable solution).

    Yes, wind farms do kill birds, although as I’ve posted here before, we’re starting to discover how to implement them to minimize or almost completely eliminate the problem.

  10. Scot–

    Yes, we have technology to drill 15,000 feet down. It is extremely expensive, of course. Icelandic companies are drilling 4-5km for geothermal energy:

    http://www.os.is/iddp/consortium.shtml

    And US DOE has projects for oil and gas extraction from depths below 10,000 feet:

    http://www.fe.doe.gov/programs/oilgas/drilling/

    Depending on depth, there are problems with heat and intense pressure. The trick would be to select an appropriate depth. Maybe 5,000 feet is more like it. At any rate, the extreme depth would probably prevent descendants from removing the material — which would be the point of the operation!

    There are ways to use less energy, but they are more societal and less individual. In California, 10% of the electricity usage is agricultural — of which 90% is expended pumping water uphill (most of it to Los Angeles). There are obviously more sensible ways to use California’s land than raising cattle or alfafa on irrigated land — which can be done without irrigation in other places.

  11. I wouldn’t even think of considering a nuclear
    alternative if Scot hadn’t suggested it. But as
    I was collecting the Wired piece to read later
    I realized that I’d never have considered buying
    a Mac machine if Scot hadn’t become a convert.
    Granted, the decision was mine, but since it
    the single worst computer mistake I’ve ever made
    I’ll approach pro-nuke arguments with even more
    skepticism than I’d have had instinctively.

  12. downtown – LOL – I can’t *believe* anyone puts that much weight in my fluffernutter. Re: Nukes — hey, I’m not recommending anything, just posting about an eye-opening article, trying to stay intellectually honest, admit that times and technologies change.

    Bummer to hear your Mac experience hasn’t gone well. That’s a very unusual thing to hear – all the switchers I’ve met say things like “I kick myself for waiting this long…” etc. The Mac’s not perfect, but it’s the best OS we got, and the hardware’s pretty clean too…

    Too bad you felt it necessary to post anonymously – what’s that about, anyway?

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