Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I'll Take Nuclear, Please

Latest fossil fuel disaster, this time quite near my hometown of Oak Ridge:
A wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from a coal plant in central Tennessee broke this week, spilling more than 500 million gallons of waste into the surrounding area.

The sludge, a byproduct of ash from coal combustion, was contained at a retention site at the Tennessee Valley Authority's power plant in Kingston, about 40 miles east of Knoxville, agency officials said.

The retention wall breached early Monday, sending the sludge downhill and damaging 15 homes. All the residents were evacuated, and three homes were deemed uninhabitable, a TVA spokesman told CNN.

The plant sits on a tributary of the Tennessee River called the Clinch River.

"We deeply regret that a retention wall for ash containment at our Kingston Fossil Plant failed, resulting in an ash slide and damage to nearby homes," TVA said in a statement released Tuesday.

TVA spokesman Gil Francis told CNN that up to 400 acres of land had been coated by the sludge, a bigger area than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Could TVA please finish Watts Bar 2 and shutter these decrepit old coal plants? In terms of real environmental consequences, this is bigger than any accident ever experienced by the nuclear power industry in the U.S.--Brown's Ferry, Three Mile Island, any of them.

Furthermore, this is a good example of how "clean coal" can't be expected to be "clean." All the ash will have to be put somewhere--and some will inevitably leak out into the environment, with deleterious effects. But given that "clean coal" primarily exists as a marketing slogan at the moment, it's not really serious competition for new nuclear plants anyway. So make mine nuclear, please. Before your coal plants end up destroying my house and/or killing me.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

An Energy Pick I Can Live With

WashPo's Al Kamen has a new piece on Obama's possible choices for remaining cabinet picks, including that for Energy Secretary. While the names we've been hearing for awhile are repeated, including Google's Dan Reicher (who according to Tom Blees was intimately involved in killing off the IFR in the Clinton Administration). However, Kamen also repeated some Washington buzz I hadn't heard:

There's buzz that the transition folks are also looking hard at some scientific types for the energy job, including Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at Cal-Berkeley. Chu co-chaired a group producing the international study "Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future." He also shared the Nobel Prize for physics, but that was back in 1997.
Who is Steven Chu? From what I gather, this is the guy we want to head Energy. This is what he said about nuclear energy issues back in 2005:

Should fission-based nuclear power plants be made a bigger part of the energy-producing portfolio?

Absolutely. Right now about 20 percent of our power comes from nuclear; there have been no new nuclear plants built since the early '70s. The real rational fears against nuclear power are about the long-term waste problem and [nuclear] proliferation. The technology of separating [used fuel from still-viable fuel] and putting the good stuff back in to the reactor can also be used to make bomb material.

And then there's the waste problem: with future nuclear power plants, we've got to recycle the waste. Why? Because if you take all the waste we have now from our civilian and military nuclear operations, we'd fill up Yucca Mountain. [Yucca Mountain, which sits on federal land in Nevada , is under consideration as a long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.] So we need three or four Yucca Mountains. Well, we don't have three or four Yucca Mountains. The other thing is that storing the fuel at Yucca Mountain is supposed to be safe for 10,000 years. But the current best estimates - and these are really estimates, the Lab's in fact - is that the metal casings [containing the waste] will probably fail on a scale of 5,000 years, plus or minus 2. That's still a long time, and then after that the idea was that the very dense rock, very far away from the water table will contain it, so that by the time it finally leaks down to the water table and gets out the radioactivity will have mostly decayed.

Suppose instead that we can reduce the lifetime of the radioactive waste by a factor of 1,000. So it goes from a couple-hundred-thousand-year problem to a thousand-year problem. At a thousand years, even though that's still a long time, it's in the realm that we can monitor - we don't need Yucca Mountain.

And all of a sudden the risk-benefit equation looks pretty good for nuclear.

Right now, compared to conventional coal, it looks good - what are the lesser of two evils? But if we can reduce the volume and the lifetime of the waste, that would tip it very much against conventional coal.

I like the sound of that! Furthermore, an experienced administrator from one of the national labs is a much better pick than an outsider unfamiliar with what DOE actually does and the byzantine world of internal DOE politics. In my opinion, this is by far the best candidate I've seen mentioned for this position. We should do what we can (however limited) to advance his candidacy.