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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Time to Say Goodbye to Nuclear Energy

I tend to be an outspoken optimist about technology.  I love almost everything about the Internet, want faster trains and planes, and think genetic engineering could be the greatest boon to human nutrition since we started planting vegetables.    I think we will never understand our role in the cosmos until a substantial part of our civilization gets off this planet and out into the solar system and planets around other stars.

But after Three Mile Island in 1979, I concluded that nuclear power was just too dangerous to warrant using as a mainstream energy source.  I was struck back then by a headline in the New York Daily News - "Thousands Flee N-Zone".   I love science fiction, but that was one movie I did not want to be in.

Chernobyl in 1986 only confirmed this.  It doesn't matter what the reasons for the accidents are.   Accidents will happen.  We're fallible and so are our technologies.  And the consequences of accidents with nuclear energy are just too high.   Radiation released and its destructive consequences stay around for a very long time.

And now the same may be happening at a nuclear plant in Japan.   It was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.   Its cooling system was broken.  Current reports say the ceiling of the plant has collapsed, which could lead to a complete meltdown, in turn releasing large amounts of dangerous radiation.

With prices of oil soaring all over, it's especially difficult to give up an alternate source.  But it's time to give up on nuclear energy.    The world should do everything it can to help Japan in its awful time of need, and then see to it that its own energy sources no longer include nuclear.


8-min podcast discussion of this blog post

9 comments:

Scott M. Sandridge said...

I agree. Just like with oil, nuclear energy is outdated anyhow. Some people like to complain about wind and solar energy, but if you take wind and solar as part of a whole and include other energy types like hydrogen, geothermal, and wave energy (and we already have the technology to harness those forms of energy) we could power the whole planet in perpetuity without polluting the planet.

Writer said...

Especially bad if plants are in environmentally sensitive areas or on subduction zones like the island of Japan.

Or in the hands of incompetent governments like Chernobyl. I lived in a city for most of my adult life with two gigantic plants outside the city.

Toronto and the Pickering nuclear facility and the Bruce peninsula facility.

I had a frined who had a summer job at the Bruce facility, She said the job was so slack she spent most of it snoozing in a broom closet.That's high tech automation for you. The world on auto-pilot.

I knew a nuclear physicist who left the Pickering facility for a job trading on Bay Street (Canada's Wall street).He said he thought nuclear science was a good background for his trading job because of round the clock vigilance and
facility with numbers and the science of things.

Scientists are taking over people like it or not and leaving the planet won't help you to escape it either.

Paul Levinson said...

Thanks for the comments, Scott and Writer.

I'm not as pessimistic as you, Writer, about science and scientists in general - just about one particular application, which the three of us here agree makes no sense.

As for the rest, I don't as if science is taking over my life in slightest. I'm free to eat whatever food I like, ranging from being grown in my backyard to being bought at a farmer's market to a supermarket if that's what I want. I'm free to use the web or not. Etc.

M.P. Andonee said...

Paul, I am going to have to disagree with the comments in your post here and the two previous commenters with a few caveats:
1. I tend to be a liberal in many of my beliefs (green energy and all that!). But I am conservative in many others.
2. I guess I am a libertarian in many ways also. (Yeah, I know, hard to peg).
3. I have worked at Nuclear Power Plants JUST LIKE Fukushima (BWR type reactors) for about 3+ years.
So, yes, I have a bias in supporting nuclear power. It is safe. That does not mean, that a 40 year old plant is as safe as one that can be build today. It also does not mean that there is any excuse for human beings not being able to design for an Earthquake up to 9.0 magnitude or even 10.0. If it's conceivable, then you should build for it. Maybe nuclear power is not the long term answer, but the economics are so attractive. The Energy Conversion and energy efficiency of the process itself make them too attractive. Do we leave them in the equation, or we limit ourselves to energy conversion processes such as wind and solar that are at less than 10% efficiency? How far away is nuclear fusion? We keep hearing 10-20 years, but it's always 10-20 years away! Finally, keep in mind that things such as clean coal, leave behind unburned fuel that has to be disposed, and material in the stack that has to be disposed off. It's not as clean as you think!

In the end, everything is a trade-off. We can eliminate over 30% of electricity generating capacity tomorrow and we will get ourselves into a bigger problem with the replacement technologies. Every answer has its own potential problems. Even the manufacture of some type of solar cells produces toxic materials (there is promising newer bio-cell type of solar cell -- did you watch a recent Nova on PBS? -- it was featured there -- it mimics an actual tree-leaf).

Lets not be prisoners of the moment.

Paul Levinson said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, MP.

I agree completely that there is no such as a perfect and perfectly safe source of energy, and all options have tradeoffs.

But my point about nuclear fission is the damage when things go wrong can be so horrendous that it should be taken off the table of options.

David said...

Like nuclear power plants we should abandon GMO technology as well. Its not about about improving nutritional benefits but pesticide resistance. Once we started crossing natural genetic barriers, inserting genes from bacteria into corn for example, we enter into a world of corporate profits versus human health. This is a disaster already happening but is yet to be recognized. Radioactivity will degrade even if it takes a few hundred thousand years, genetically modified organisms will be with us forever, already being spread throughout the biosphere with unknown consequences. We really don't want to messing with Mother Nature.

Robert K. Blechman said...

For those interested, here is a link to a map and listing of all nuclear power plants in the US.

http://www.nrc.gov/info-finder/reactor/

I know that techtonic plates off the East Coast don't match those off the cost of Japan, but imagine how a similar catastrophic event would affect those living in the Northeast.

nim-bus said...

I will repost my comment here where it can be seen on the topic.

Here is my point. I agree that this current technology of HOT reactors is VERY dangerous.

There is a new type of reactor known as a mini nuke or pebble bed reactor. It requires only air cooling and can NOT melt down. The fuel at the start is less radioactive than the waste fuel of current reactors and it goes down from there. There is very little of it. They are encased in cement and buried so they are already safely secured for radiation leakage. No water to leak out either. You can not make bombs from this low level material. It is a warm reaction. Of course more of them are needed to produce the same power. For this you would need more space to make mini nuke farms that would be safe. The material once used is much easier to process than the big nukes. France currently processes all their waste from the big nukes. To me this type of nuke IS the future. Is there some danger of a small amount of leakage over a small very limited area... maybe. Still I think you have just as much danger from a nuclear sub, satellite, or medical test machine such as are widely used in hospitals.

Why are we throwing out the baby with the bath water?

Paul Levinson said...

Thanks, nim-bus. Here is my response:

The problem I have with nuclear fission energy, as I indicated, is what can happen when things go very wrong. Since even a radically safer kind of reaction cannot be 100% perfect - no technology ever is - I'm still in favor of leaving nuclear, in favor of energy sources which don't carry the long-lasting dangers of nuclear contamination.

As for uses of isotopes in medicine, I'd favor their production by non-fission methods (cyclotron). Satellites and subs would also be better off not relying on fission. Satellites would a good place to develop solar, and subs would be safer if they ran on hydrocarbon (until a safer non-fission fuel was developed).

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