Tuesday, March 04, 2008

An Imagined Conversation

I recently found this article at Orion Magazine that begins with the following premise:
Chances are good, gentle reader, that you are going to have to sit next to someone in the coming year who will assert that nuclear power is the solution to climate change. What will you tell them? There’s so much to say. You could be sitting next to someone who hasn’t really considered the evidence yet. Or you could be sitting next to scientist and Gaia theorist James Lovelock, a supporter of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy™, which quotes him saying, “We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear—the one safe, available, energy source—now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.”
Well, I certainly don't think that her imagined discussion with James Lovelock would go quite as she imagines it. But I couldn't help but imagine what I would say in such a conversation. So here goes:
If you sit next to Lovelock, you might start by mentioning that half the farms in this country had windmills before Marie Curie figured out anything about radiation or Lise Meitner surmised that atoms could be split. Wind power is not visionary in the sense of experimental. Neither is solar, which is already widely used. Nor are nukes safe, and they take far too long to build to be considered readily available. Yet Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, has jumped on the nuclear bandwagon, and so has Greenpeace founding member turned PR flack Patrick Moore. So you must be prepared.
Response: "Do you know how long people have been burning dried dung for fuel and fertilizing their fields with human waste? Just because something has been around for eons doesn't mean it's a good- or even acceptable- means of doing something."
Of course the first problem is that nuclear power is often nothing more than a way to avoid changing anything. A bicycle is a better answer to a Chevrolet Suburban than a Prius is, and so is a train, or your feet, or staying home, or a mix of all those things. Nuclear power plants, like coal-burning power plants, are about retaining the big infrastructure of centralized power production and, often, the habits of obscene consumption that rely on big power. But this may be too complicated to get into while your proradiation interlocutor suggests that letting a thousand nuclear power plants bloom would solve everything.
Response: "You do understand the qualitative dissimilarity between a Chevy Suburban and a bicycle, don't you? Unlike some people, I do not see fit to judge the worthiness of other peoples' actions. I do, however, think that they should be held accountable for the externalities generated by their behavior- environmental included. And this is a reason to be in favor of nuclear energy- it can provide enough for everyone while containing its externalities."

Instead, you may be able to derail the conversation by asking whether they’d like to have a nuclear power plant or waste repository in their backyard, which mostly they would rather not, though they’d happily have it in your backyard. This is why the populous regions of the eastern U.S. keep trying to dump their nuclear garbage in the less-populous regions of the West. My friend Chip Ward (from nuclear-waste-threatened Utah) reports, “To make a difference in global climate change, we would have to immediately build as many nuclear power plants as we already have in the U.S. (about 100) and at least as many as 2,000 worldwide.” Chip goes on to say that “Wall Street won’t invest in nuclear power because it is too risky. . . . The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island taught investment bankers how a two-billion-dollar investment can turn into a billion-dollar clean-up in under two hours.” So we, the people, would have to foot the bill.
Response: "Actually, I wouldn't mind having a nuclear power plant or waste dump in my backyard at all. In fact, since I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I regard that as an absolutely normal state of affairs- although our facilities are really for the much nastier processes associated with nuclear weapons manufacture. I even wrote a letter to my congressman asking that he advocate the construction of commercial nuclear fuel management facilities in Oak Ridge- it's a logical place to put them, and it'd be a boon to the local economy. And as for the investment thing, that's changing fast as Wall Street starts waking up to global warming."
Nuclear power proponents like to picture a bunch of clean plants humming away like beehives across the landscape. Yet when it comes to the mining of uranium, which mostly takes place on indigenous lands from northern Canada to central Australia, you need to picture fossil-fuel-intensive carbon-emitting vehicles, and lots of them—big disgusting diesel-belching ones. But that’s the least of it. The Navajo are fighting right now to prevent uranium mining from resuming on their land, which was severely contaminated by the postwar uranium boom of the 1940s and 1950s. The miners got lung cancer. The children in the area got birth defects and a 1,500 percent increase in ovarian and testicular cancer. And the slag heaps and contaminated pools that were left behind will be radioactive for millennia.
Response: "If you compare the CO2 emissions from all that earth-moving equipment and add it up, you'll find that nuclear compares favorably with solar and wind. And uranium mining has come a long way since 1945. Today they typically use in-situ leaching to extract the uranium- comparatively negligible occupational exposure. And we also have robots, which are used in the most advanced uranium mining operations. If we manage uranium mining operations responsibly they have the potential to provide spectacular amounts of usable energy for minimal environmental and human cost."
If these facts haven’t dissuaded this person sitting next to you, try telling him or her that most mined uranium—about 99.28 percent—is fairly low-radiation uranium-238, which is still a highly toxic heavy metal. To make nuclear fuel, the ore must be “enriched,” an energy-intensive process that increases the .72 percent of highly fissionable, highly radioactive U-235 up to 3 to 5 percent. As Chip points out, four dirty-coal-fired plants were operated in Kentucky just to operate two uranium enrichment plants. What’s left over is a huge quantity of U-238, known as depleted uranium, which the U.S. government classifies as low-level nuclear waste, except when it uses the stuff to make armoring and projectiles that are the source of so much contamination in Iraq from our first war there, and our second.
Response: "Uh, lady, I know that they don't teach you this stuff in school most places. But growing up around the people who invented nuclear technology, you get to learn a thing or two about how radiation actually works. Neither U-235 or U-238 is "highly radioactive." When I think "highly radioactive," I think of stuff like radium and I-131. And just as with uranium mining, enrichment has come a long way. The inefficient gaseous diffusion plants of yore are a thing of the past (I'll miss you, K-25! >sniff<) and today we use modern centrifuge enrichment technology which is vastly more efficient. And that depleted uranium will probably end up keeping someone's lights on someday, one way or another."

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel was supposed to be one alternative to lots and lots of mining forever and forever. The biggest experiment in reprocessing was at Sellafield in Britain. In 2005, after decades of contamination and leaks and general spewing of horrible matter into the ocean, air, and land around the reprocessing plant, Sellafield was shut down because a bigger-than-usual leak of fuel dissolved in nitric acid—some tens of thousands of gallons—was discovered. It contained enough plutonium to make about twenty nuclear bombs. Gentle reader, this has always been one of the prime problems of nuclear energy: the same general processes that produce fuel for power can produce it for bombs. In India. Or Pakistan. Or Iran. The waste from nuclear plants is now the subject of much fretting about terrorists obtaining it for dirty bombs—and with a few hundred thousand tons of high-level waste in the form of spent fuel and a whole lot more low-level waste in the U.S. alone, there’s plenty to go around.

By now the facts should be on your side, but do ask how your neighbor feels about nuclear bombs, just to keep things lively.

Response: "Funny you should ask what I think about nuclear weapons. You see, they're kind of my field of interest- I'm writing a Ph.D. dissertation about contingency planning for nuclear war in the old USSR. Now, an interesting fact- people who study nuclear weapons have been increasingly moving away from the conviction that commercial nuclear fuel cycles are inexcusable proliferation risks. Richard Rhodes, for instance, is a full-blown advocate of nuclear power, and Hans Blix has said that it's possible to build a proliferation-resistant fuel cycle. As for reprocessing, I would like to point once again to the fact that the technology has come a long way. Instead of Sellafield, you should look to Areva's state-of-the-art reprocessing facility in France. As for terrorism, no-one's going to steal spent fuel and fashion it into a dirty bomb. Thanks to the radiation hazard, it kind of guards itself against people without the proper training and equipment. Don't tell any terrorists this, but the easy way to build a dirty bomb is by stealing a radioisotope source from a medical facility. And as to proliferation, if North Korea can build a plutonium production reactor, anyone can. No commercial fuel cycle necessary. The technology has been in the public domain from decades."

The truth is, there may not be enough uranium out there to fuel two thousand more nuclear power plants worldwide. Besides, before a nuke plant goes online, a huge amount of fossil fuel must be expended just to build the thing. Still, the biggest stumbling block, where climate change is concerned, is that it takes a decade or more to construct a nuclear plant, even if the permitting process goes smoothly, which it often does not. So a bunch of nuclear power plants that go online in 2017 at the earliest are not even terribly relevant to turning around our carbon emissions in the next decade—which is the time frame we have before it’s too late.

Response: "You're right that nuclear power isn't making much of a dent in carbon emissions in ten years. But neither are renewables, and efficiency will probably backfire due to something called Jevons' paradox. Honestly, if James Hansen is right, even adopting a stone-age lifestyle tomorrow won't save us, since the tipping point is already past. Our only hope in that case is geoengineering. Now, I have no problem with geoengineering myself. We can use it to buy time until we can build a fission-based economy, which should only take a few decades."
If you’re not, at this point, chasing your poor formerly pronuclear companion down the hallway, mention that every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle is murderously filthy, imparting long-lasting contamination on an epic scale; that a certain degree of radioactive pollution is standard at each of these stages, but the accidents are now so many in number that they have to be factored in as part of the environmental cost; that the plants themselves generate lots of radioactive waste, which we still don’t know what to do with—because the stuff is deadly . . . anywhere . . . and almost forever. And no, tell them, this nuclear colonialism is not an acceptable sacrifice, since it is not one the power consumers themselves are making. It’s a sacrifice they’re imposing on people far away and others not yet born, a debt they’re racking up at the expense of people they will never meet.
Response: "Ma'am, I've tolerated this nonsense for awhile, but I would like to remind you that I have some familiarity with these issues and I'm not going to be impressed by someone who makes stuff up. "Murderously filthy," my ass. You know, there are actual scientists who study this stuff, and when they've run the numbers they've found that coal power causes vastly greater negative environmental externalities than nuclear, even using epidemiological assumptions that really favor coal. I have no idea where you got that idea about accidents; the technology is safer than ever, and accidents with environmental externalities occur in all spheres of activity- organic farming, photovoltaic manufacture, and so on. As for waste, you've hit upon one of the problems with our current LWR fuel cycle, which was the result of some dubious political decisions back in the 1960s and 1970s. The threat posed by this stuff is exaggerated, but we still have to deal with it, which is why I advocate the development of transmutation reactors to burn up as much of the waste as possible and reduce its volume, while reducing its half-life to a historical period of time. Ultimately, we should pursue a fuel cycle that doesn't have these disadvantages- I think that molten-salt breeder reactors are the most attractive option for this. Excellent safety, proliferation resistance, waste management, and tolerable breeding performance all in one convenient package. And they run on regular old Thorium-232- a highly abundant isotope, while producing a miniscule fraction of the high-level waste as a LWR. Run what waste you do get through a halide reactor, and basically no toxic legacy that will last until time immemorial- and enough cheap, clean energy to lift the whole world out of poverty. Imagine that!"
Sure, you can say nuclear power is somewhat less carbon-intensive than burning fossil fuels for energy; beating your children to death with a club will prevent them from getting hit by a car. Ravaging the Earth by one irreparable means is not a sensible way to prevent it from being destroyed by another. There are alternatives. We should choose them and use them.
Response: "What alternatives are you talking about? If your alternative is "stay home and don't use energy," well, your alternative is destined to be unpopular and won't go anywhere. If you mean renewable energy, I say let the market decide. And that means no more subsidies for anyone. Now, I think nuclear will make it- even the most extravagant estimates of real subsidies for nuclear in the U.S. are far smaller than the amount the industry makes as revenue every year. For reference- the subsidies, which are dwarfed by what the industry pays in taxes, are probably about $2-3 Billion a year. A decent-sized nuclear plant can make well over half a billion in revenue a year- and we have over one hundred of them. Could renewables survive without the mandates, tax credits, and all the other ridiculous rent-seeking schemes that have been foisted upon the American taxpayer and ratepayer? I seriously doubt it. These inefficient, unreliable, and expensive forms of energy just don't have what it takes to power a modern economy- at least, not by themselves. (I think they might be useful someday for conserving thorium.) But without some technological miracles, renewables are the alternative that isn't. And pretending otherwise is driving up energy costs and causing particular hardship for ordinary working Americans. We have an obligation to those who are living now and those who will come after us to build a future that works- and with the technology we now have, nuclear is our best bet for doing so."

9 comments:

Red Craig said...
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Sovietologist said...
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Red Craig said...
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Sovietologist said...
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Red Craig said...
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DV8 2XL said...

The similarities to this 'Imagined Conversation' and the type of advice handed to Fundamentalist Christians on how to spread the 'Good News' and has the same grasp of reality.

Brian said...

Yes, I recall seeing this article some time ago. I thought it was hilarious.

Talk about the blind leading the blind.

And speaking of the blind, did you read the comments section? I can't believe some of the people commenting there actually attached their real names (and even the address to the website of their consulting business) to the ridiculous drivel that they posted there. I guess some people like to wear their ignorance on their sleeve.

Merry said...

Well, I can hardly comment on the previous comments, which have been removed, but the article itself is very interesting. If properly regulated and well understood by all stakeholders, all the elements of the nuclear fuel cycle can be carried forward as safely as possible with less environmental impact than coal or oil. But those "ifs" are pretty big: the utility companies that have run the plants in the U.S. are as profit-motivated as are all corporations, and it is that motivation that leads to lack of safety and accidents, absent strict regulation. So my doubts about nuclear are social, not technical.

Sovietologist said...

Just for the record, I deleted the first five comments at the request of the first poster.