Monday, November 11, 2013

Nuclear Power

The very idea of nuclear power gives some people chills of terror.  For many the words nuclear and radiation elicit an automatic reaction of panic, but be aware that it’s a feeling they may have to get over very soon.

Reasons behind the fear are many and varied.  This NY Times article explains how even a problem as far away as Japan seems scarier to Americans than much less remote and more dangerous threats like smoking, radon, auto accidents or natural disasters.  Radiation is difficult to understand, complex and potentially deadly.  It’s not only associated with bombs and war but it’s also invisible – so you can’t see it coming.  Radiation is uncontrollable – how do you turn it off? – and unfamiliar, unlike burning wood or coal or turning a generator with wind or water.  Finally, nuclear energy and radiation have had terrible PR.  People are influenced by movies and science fiction stories to the point that in a recent survey on perceived risks for 30 activities and technologies, “students and women's group rated nuclear power No. 1. The experts ranked it No. 20.”

Since the UN came out just days ago with a report that the atmospheric CO2 level has reached a record, even higher than expected, this automatic negative reaction will soon meet head on with a great deal of pro-nuclear effort as they look for alternatives to coal generation of electricity.

Popular alternatives, wind and solar, have serious drawbacks.  They have a large geographic footprint, one ecological concern, while people who generally favor the idea, oppose it being set up next door.  These sources are variable, only available when there is sunlight or sufficient wind.  Variability creates more problems than normally expected.  Not only do they require a more reliable source to fill the gaps, but that source must be very flexible as well.  This Economist article tells how the wholesale price of electricity in Germany actually went negative one bright and windy day in June, because of the unusually high supply, which also threatened to overload the grid due to the inability to quickly and efficiently flex their coal, gas and nuclear plants.  In places where utilities are required to buy the solar- and wind-generated electricity first, the variability is built into the system, utilities are losing value and profits, and the money for future investment in the delivery systems, the wires to your house, is drying up.

Given those circumstances and despite real drawbacks, like cost, spent fuel disposal and one recent disaster, nuclear is beginning to look more and more attractive as a non-polluting alternative.  James Hansen, a former NASA official, and one of the early voices warning of climate change, has recently endorsed it and asked key environmentalist to use their influence in favor of more nuclear plants.  Others argue that, despite scary news reports, nuclear power has a very good safety record and has caused less than a dozen deaths from radiation.  They estimate that 1.8 million pollution-related deaths have been prevented by the current use of nuclear power.  They minimize the threat of terrorism and argue that 21st century technology is far superior to that used in any operating plant in the US.  (Many of the latest navy ships are nuclear powered.)

Any decisions like this will have a political component.  The push in favor is building, but advocates with the opposite agenda will also be working to influence public opinion.  Times like this call for strong critical thinking.  Oppose nuclear power, if you are so inclined, based on facts from reliable sources and not on emotion, gut reaction or pseudo-scientific warnings.  It’s critical that we get it right.

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