Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Future of Nuclear Energy

Before we get to the real problems with nuclear power, let's talk about public opinion*.  A well publicized CBS News Poll tells us the following about whether people approve of building new nuclear power plants in the United States**:

2007 - 45% in favor, 47% against, 8% unsure
2008 - 57% in favor, 34% against, 9% unsure
2011 - 43% in favor, 50% against, 7% unsure 

*Polling numbers here come from the invaluable 

**It's also worth noting that people have strong opinions about where these new plants are built.  When the same people were asked whether they approve of new nuclear power plants in their communities, responses are somewhat more reserved:

2007 - 36% in favor, 55% against, 5% unsure
2011 - 35% in favor, 62% against, 3% unsure

Don't read too much into the slight changes between 2007 and 2011 here, as margin of error is a bugbear in these opinion polls.  NIMBY is alive and well, thank you very much.  Just build that nuclear power plant over in the other part of town, thank you.

I include the 2007 numbers because they differ significantly from the more widely cited 2008 numbers.  They are, in fact, much closer the the March, 2011 results.

It would be foolish, however, to just look at polls here, as there's a definite buzz around both traditional and social media about nuclear power, and a general sense that the tide is turning politically and socially against more nuclear power.

There is no indication, however, that any major "mainstream" politician is ready to take up the anti-nuclear power banner, in chief because that would mean angering a lot of energy industry big-wigs who have a lot of say in who gets to spend more money in the next campaign.  That, of course, is a post all on its own, but it bears mentioning here.

Public opinion is our chief concern here.  Obviously the fickle masses are easily moved by sensationalism, and there's little more sensationalist than a natural disaster followed by a nuclear meltdown.  It's no wonder that Americans, in addition to hilariously buying up vast stores of potassium iodide, are feeling less sure about nuclear power.

But are they right-headed in this change of face?  Are the dangers of nuclear power really all that different today than they were a month ago?  Of course not.  Nuclear meltdown has always, and will always be, a non-negligible risk of nuclear power.  It may be exceedingly rare, but even one instance can be devastating.  No matter how safe any particular reactor is, the worst-case scenario for nuclear power is disastrous.  And that is what people are currently rallying behind.

That is takes an actual disaster to remind people of this fact is, of course, the silly part.  We humans have notoriously short memories, and as big a deal as the current situation in Japan seems, it has already lost significant momentum (in the face of a new sensational story in Libya and, of course, the triumphs of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth in March Madness).  It's only a matter of time before everyone settles down and forgets how scared they were of nuclear power in March of 2011.

I would argue, though, that it would be foolish to ignore this opportunity to talk about what nuclear power is and isn't.  Now, I'm no expert, but I know enough about chemistry and physics, and have done enough background research of my own that I feel confident putting a few important considerations forward here.  We've all seen, now, what ill can come of nuclear power gone wrong.  What ill, then, can come of nuclear power gone right?

First of all, what is nuclear power gone right?  There's little question that nuclear power is incredibly more efficient than our beloved combustible fossil fuels power.  It takes, not surprisingly, much less uranium to boil water than it does burning oil, and carbon dioxide doesn't get pumped into the atmosphere along the way.  This, however, is the first troubling thing about nuclear power: nuclear waste.  As more and more of the world's energy comes from nuclear sources, more and more waste gets produced.  What happens to this waste?  We store it in vast pools, both because it's still dangerous (check the "legacy waste" section of this Wikipedia article for a heartwarming story about contamination of an aquifer in Ohio) and because we're dealing with half-lives ranging in the 10,000 to 1,000,000 year range.


So, about 10,000 years ago there were a total of, oh, roughly zero cities in the entire world, as human beings had not yet come up with the idea of "civilization."  Let's not even talk about 1,000,000 years.

The thing is, no one is quite sure what to do with nuclear waste, exactly, and that's not really a concern for nuclear energy companies.  Why think about the future when you can think about the present?  Right now there is no question that we need power and we need it from a source other than fossil fuels.  Nuclear power already has an infrastructure, it's efficient, and it's mostly safe most of the time (except when there's an earthquake, or there's a problem with the waste storage, or if someone manages to steal some of the uranium or plutonium being refined).  And you know what, that's exactly right.  For all intents and purposes, nuclear power is what we need to do because, frankly, we've neglected other, better options* for so long that it will take too long and cost too much to replace our massive energy needs with anything else. 

*Namely solar.  Wind energy has non-negligible and often-overlooked problems beyond how hideous it makes once beautiful hills.  The chief among these is the outrageous cost of the lubricants necessary to make the things actually work.  Not only are those lubricants expensive, and not only do turbines need lots of it, but usually lubricants are, you guessed it, oil based.  Not that they have to be petroleum based, necessarily, but almost all industrial lubricants are.

Here's the real kicker though.  Nuclear energy is not a long-term solution to our problems.  I highly recommend the Azimuth Project for its collected wisdom (contributions come from a variety of scientists in a variety of fields) on general planet saving, but their piece on "Peak Uranium" is particularly important to our discussion here.  The Internet is rife with argumentation about how much uranium there is available for future energy production.  Claims range from 10 years to several billion, so obviously someone is lying for political gain.

The Azimuth article offers a simple thought-experiment, instead.  Assume we replaced all other energy consumption and production with nuclear power.  How long could our current stores of uranium support that level of energy use?  Their answer: 10 years.  70 if you count all potential, but not yet mined, sources.

Now that's not saying that there's only 10 (or 70) years of uranium available.  As we know, we're moving towards a hybrid energy world, where nuclear power plays a small role in the bigger.  But it is informative, no?  As we expand our reliance on nuclear power, we have to remember that it is not a renewable source of energy.  Even if we find more than we currently have found (something many scientists believe is likely, as there have been few large-scale prospecting efforts), and even if we also tap all available thorium and plutonium sources, nuclear energy simply cannot last forever.

Now, recall that much nuclear waste will continue to be a problem for 10,000 years.  Does 70 years worth of power - or even, if we're extra generous and double the uranium available and count thorium as a fuel source and ignore rising and increasingly industrialized and digitized populations, 400 years worth of power - justify 10,000 plus years worth of waste?  Does it not seem that the history will deem us barbaric, wanton, and, above all, extremely stupid for making that trade?

As I mentioned above, this doesn't change that we are going to expand the use of nuclear power in both the United States and around the world, nor should it.  We truthfully don't have many other options.  And that's the point: let's not simply celebrate this "solution" to our energy problems.  The nuclear age is a bitter failure on the part of human civilization to plan ahead, to think reasonably, and to act conscientiously towards its future generations.

In short, the immediate future of nuclear energy is bright, indeed, in spite of wavering public opinion.  The distant future?  That's another story.

1 comment:

  1. This is an issue way, way beyond my abilities to deal with in any competant manner, but Bill Gates gave a TED talk (god I love them) about renewable energy and the potential of nuclear power.

    Nuclear power is still, considering it's age, a nascent technology and can be improved vastly both in waste reduction and power produced. Solar, which obviously will be used more and more, will always be limited even with a very high percent of energy converted to power. A car's sq footage of solar energy is only able to produce a few horsepower at a 100% conversion rate which is impossible anyways. Solar fields will be massive which is bad and will destroy many ecosystems. No power source is all upside.

    Anyways, here's a link to Gates's TED talk. All of his TED talks are really interesting.