Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Alan Robock on Geoengineering and Nuclear Power

Alan Robock, one of the co-authors of those nuclear winter studies I just can't stop ranting about, on geoengineering:
Solving global warming is not a difficult technical problem. As Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow detail with their popular wedge model, a combination of several specific actions can stabilize the world’s greenhouse gas emissions—although I disagree with their proposal to use nuclear power as one of their “wedges.” Instead, the crux of addressing global warming is political. The U.S. government gives multibillion- dollar subsidies to the coal, oil, gas, and nuclear industries, and gives little support to alternative energy sources like solar and wind power that could contribute to a solution. Similarly, the federal government is squashing attempts by states to mandate emissions reductions. If global warming is a political problem more than it is a technical problem, it follows that we don’t need geoengineering to solve it.

... how does that follow?

Global warming is a both a political problem and a technical problem. The way I see it, if Hansen's new study is right and we need to get atmospheric CO2 levels down to 350 ppm to avoid catastrophic climate change, we basically have two options:
1. Nuke China
2. Geoengineering

I don't know about you, but I think I'd rather take my chances with (2). Hopefully it can buy enough time to build a fission-based economy.

So what does Robock have against nuclear power?
In light of Edwin Karlow's letter supporting nuclear power (PHYSICS TODAY, February 2006, page 11) and the article "Stronger Future for Nuclear Power" in that same issue (page 19), I would like to remind readers of the many reasons why nuclear power is a bad idea.

Nuclear power is not economically viable. Karlow explains the subsidies that the nuclear power industry needed in the past and pleads for continued subsidies in the future. Contrary to the early promise that nuclear power would be so cheap we would not need electric meters, nuclear power is very expensive. The main reason is that it is so dangerous; expensive safeguards must be attempted.

The risk of a catastrophic accident persists. Nuclear power plants are built and run by humans, who make mistakes and who can be pressured into making decisions that put profit above safety. And the same government that took care of us after Hurricane Katrina will assume responsibility for us after a nuclear accident.

Nuclear power plants are possible terrorist targets. A dedicated attack against a nuclear plant could not be prevented, and the highly radioactive spent fuel is poorly contained in many plants and is particularly open to attack.

The waste disposal problem is not solvable in the near future. The politically chosen Yucca Mountain disposal site is nowhere near opening, precisely because of its geological problems, and because of local opposition. So spent fuel will continue to pile up around the country, producing increasingly dangerous sources of radioactive materials vulnerable to human error, accident, and attack.

Current nuclear plants are being operated unsafely. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is lax in its supervision of those plants. The NRC does not have workable evacuation plans for many power plants, including the Indian Point plant just upwind of New York City and the oldest plant in the country, in Oyster Creek, New Jersey. Fire safety problems have not been addressed. Routine operation of nuclear plants results in planned and unplanned releases of radioactivity, and there is no safe level of radiation exposure. The procedures for extending the life of unsafe reactors do not allow meaningful public input.

The most important reason why nuclear power is a bad idea is that it results in nuclear weapons proliferation. A fuel-processing plant for a standard 1000-MW reactor could produce enough uranium for between 10 and 30 uranium weapons per year. Its waste reprocessing plant could produce enough plutonium for 30 plutonium weapons per year. It is no accident that Iran and Venezuela, nations awash in oil, are pursuing nuclear power. India and Pakistan received nuclear fuel and technical help from other countries to develop nuclear power, and took advantage of this opportunity to make nuclear weapons. And the material can find its way into the hands of terrorists. Even a small nuclear attack or a small war between newly nuclear states would be devastating to humanity. Having invented nuclear weapons, we physicists have a moral responsibility to do everything we can to lower the probability of their use.

I am a climatology professor doing research on global warming. In my opinion, we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate future negative consequences to the climate. But nuclear power is not the answer.

Wow, channeling Helen Caldicott there! It appears that Robock is an old-school anti-nuke of the kind who conflates nuclear weapons and nuclear power and somehow thinks they're both parts of the same immoral coin. But as someone who studies nuclear war for a living and nuclear power as a hobby, I have to say that Robock is poorly informed in both areas. The letter above is replete with the standard refrains of the anti-nuclear movement; pretty much all of them have been debunked repeatedly over the years, including by myself on this blog. I can appreciate his desire to prevent nuclear warfare; but his understanding of the psychology of nuclear states is, in my view, very much out of sync with reality. Not only do I think that he's adding to the climate crisis by dismissing the only viable tool we have for building a non-fossil fuel energy infrastructure, I think he's doing his own minor part to make nuclear war more likely by telling lesser nuclear powers that their arsenals offer more of a deterrent than they actually do. In sum, he's not a particularly good servant of either of his chosen causes.


Luke said...

Can you provide a link to the source of that second quoted passage, about nuclear power?


Sovietologist said...

It was a letter in Physics Today early last year: link

There's also a reply to the criticism it received that actually uses Caldicott's book as a reference: link

Alexandra Prokopenko said...

Yep, that is purely antinuclear rhetoric, easy to recognize. For some reason so far I did not come across someone who would balance both pro- and contra- positions about nuclear power. There are several minuses, but the existence of pluses is hard not to admit.