ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Solar's Alright

But Nukes Do It All Night

Finally, some sanity and rational discussion on energy. From Wired Magazine:

Former 'No Nukes' Protester: Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Power
By John Borland Email 12.07.07 | 12:00 AM

The only way to rescue our plug-hungry planet from catastrophic global warming is to embrace nuclear power, and fast.

That's the argument of Gwyneth Cravens, a novelist, journalist and former nuke protester. Her new book, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, is a passionate plea to understand, instead of fear, atomic power. In her book, Cravens is guided Dante-like through the entire life cycle of nuclear power -- from mining to production to waste disposal -- by one of the world's foremost experts on risk assessment and nuclear waste.

Her conclusion? Every day spent burning coal for power translates into damaged lungs and ecosystem destruction. If the world wants to keep plugging in big-screen TVs and iPods, it needs a steady source of power. Wind and solar can't produce the "base-load" (or everyday) steady supply needed, and the only realistic -- and safe -- alternative is nuclear.

Wired News talked with Cravens on the phone from her home in New York.

Wired News: You don't argue that nuclear power is entirely safe, but that it's vastly better than coal and fossil fuels. Do we have to choose between them?

Gwyneth Cravens: I used to think we surely could do better. We could have more wind farms and solar. But I then learned about base-load energy, and that there are three forms of it: fossil fuels, hydro and nuclear. In the United States, we're maxed out on hydro. That leaves fossil fuels and nuclear power, and most of the fossil fuel burned is coal.

Wow! Someone finally recognizes that we'd have to blanket the entire country with wind and solar farms to power a hair dryer.
In the U.S., 24,000 people a year die from coal pollution. Hundreds of thousands more people suffer from lung and heart disease directly attributable to coal pollution.

WN: That's opposed to a minuscule number of people who have been directly harmed by nuclear power?

Cravens: It's zero in the United States. Of course there is the occasional industrial accident amongst the workers. But over the lifetime cycle of nuclear power, if you go cradle-to-grave with uranium, the total carbon emissions are about those of wind power.

WN: You have an interesting statistic comparing the waste levels produced by individuals over a lifetime.

Cravens: A family in four in France, where they reprocess nuclear fuel, would produce only enough waste to fit in a coffee cup over a whole lifetime. A lifetime of getting all your electricity from coal-fired plants would make a single person's share of solid waste (in the United States) 68 tons, which would require six 12-ton railroad cars to haul away. Your share of CO2 would be 77 tons.

WN: What about clean coal plants, and carbon-sequestration technologies? Aren't they a practical alternative?

Cravens: At this point, no. There's one prototype in Colorado that the government is trying to sponsor. From a practical point of view, I think nuclear plants could be up and running and replacing fossil-fuel plants sooner than we get clean coal.

WN: People still fear Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. You say neither of these catastrophic events was as harmful as widely believed.

Cravens: Chernobyl's reactor had no containment building. If they had had that reactor in a containment dome, we wouldn't be talking about it the way we are. But there was a radioactive release, and people were affected. So far about 60 people have died, most of them -- almost all of them -- from immediate exposure when they were fighting the fire in the reactor, and the emergency workers. Nine children, unfortunately, developed thyroid cancer that was not treated.

We had a Chernobyl in the United States, it was called Three Mile Island. But you have to look at risk and benefit, and you have to do comparisons. Three Mile Island really scared people, partly because it was so badly bungled by nuclear industry and regulatory commissions. The psychological effects were real, but in a dozen independent studies, no health effects have been found as a result of the Three Mile Island event.

Radiation was never a risk at Three Mile Island. People in New Mexico, every day of their lives, get from nature maybe 100 or 300 times more exposure than citizens around Three Mile Island got during that event.

WN: Along with engineering failures -- the lack of a containment building is stunning -- Chernobyl and Three Mile Island both stemmed from what in retrospect were very stupid operator decisions. Can we ever avoid that kind of human error?

Cravens: The nuclear navy has operated more than 250 reactors since the 1950s, and they have never had an incident involving a release from a reactor. This is because (naval nuclear chief Adm. Hyman) Rickover ensured that every individual was considered accountable.

When Three Mile Island happened, and there was a commission held to investigate why it happened, Rickover basically said you need to do things the way we do in the nuclear navy. The nuclear utilities and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission took that advice to heart.

If you just leave a reactor alone, it will shut itself down. If a reactor doesn't have enough water, it will shut itself down. Humans probably do make mistakes, but they have tried to make these reactors as human-proof as possible, and I think everyone has learned from Three Mile Island.

WN: Waste, both transporting it and storing it, remains extraordinarily controversial. Some will remain radioactive for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. You say you're not worried. Why not?

Cravens: First of all, it's small in volume. Uranium is dense, so the waste is dense. The waste from one average reactor, the spent fuel, per year could fit in the back of a standard pickup truck. This small volume of nuclear waste is always shielded, always isolated, transported in thick casks. Radiation is stopped by a few inches of steel and concrete and water and so on.

WN: But people still worry about having it stored next to them. Critics say Yucca Mountain (the planned nuclear-waste facility in Nevada) isn't safe enough.

Cravens: I'm quite satisfied about Yucca Mountain. They have worked not only on putting it deep inside the mountain, a thousand feet below the top of the mountain, and a thousand feet above the water table; they are putting it inside steel casks. It's just really going to remain where it is. They've calculated out the risks.

It's good to see that facts can trump the incoherence of the No Nukes crowd. Let's just hope that there are enough brain cells in the Green movement to recognize that it's time to move on expanding nuclear energy in the US. I doubt many of them would be willing to look and investigate the facts regarding nuclear energy the way that Cravens did.

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler