Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Atoms for peace

The Greenpeacers were canvassing the neighborhood around my office the other day. I don’t know what prompted me to do so (everyone sells their politics in this neighborhood, and it gets old fast), but I stopped to talk with one of them. As I knew I would, we got into a spirited discussion on the topic of nuclear energy. So, I offer some questions to the reader:
Is nuclear energy bad for the environment? Is it good for the environment? Is nuclear energy sustainable? Are there any other direct replacements for fossil fuels in generating electricity? What should we do with high-level waste? Why does nuclear energy seem to generate so much fear?
As always, responses to any number of these questions are welcome, as are other questions.

Image sources:
Wiki Commons
Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, Division of Public Affairs


Sue said...

Here's a quote from Plan B 3.0 by Lester R. Brown, that is apropos to your questions:
"If we use full-cost pricing -- requiring utilities to absorb the costs of disposing of nuclear wastes, of decommissioning the plant when it is worn out, and insuring the reactors against possible accidents and terrorist attacks -- building nuclear plants in a competitive electricity market is simply not economical.
"Beyond the costs are political questions. If we say that expanding nuclear power is an important part of our energy future, do we mean for all countries or only for some countries? If the latter, who makes the A-list and the B-list of countries? And who enforces the list?"

E. R. Dunhill said...

I agree that people often discount a number of costs related to producing nuclear power, particularly the long-term (thousands of years) responsibility of managing high-level waste. Nuclear energy is also not a sustainable source of energy.
Bearing in mind that it's neither a perfect nor a long-term solution, I think it may be necessary as a stop-gap measure: The only potentially sustainable solution I see for the energy need begins with a fundamental shift in thinking toward resource-conservative lifestyles. We need to get people thinking seriously about unglamorous topics, like where resources come from and what happens to waste. People need to think more in terms of geography and less in terms of brands. We need to dispel the myth that conservation or sustainability are bad for business, or that these are veiled synonyms for acquiescing to poverty. And, people must use this mindset to make choices about where they live, what they do, how they travel, and what they eat. I don’t believe those changes are going to happen before fossil fuels start causing (more) serious problems.
Given that much of our nuclear infrastructure represents sunk-costs, we only compound the high-price of nuclear energy by not safely maximizing our current investment. I think making responsible use of this investment in the intermediate-term makes fiscal sense, and is one of a small number of tenable paths to sustainable energy.
How would you meet the energy demand?

Pat Jenkins said...

erd as we have discussed before any survival is in need of destroying the planet, if you view it use as such. nuclear power as well as other forms of energy are the most efficient and practical forms we have to meet needs. this needs to be accepted!!!

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thank you for commenting.
I'm not sure that usage is necessarily destructive. Many natural processes have gone on without interruption for millions of years. Others have gone on virtually unchanged for centuries. The trick is to mimic those natural processes in our economic processes. This is feasible, and doesn't mean being poor.
Unfortunately, over the last 250 years (and in particular, over the last century), people have moved away from this way of thinking. Those who work in agriculture, and those who hunt still seem to have a strong appreciation for interconnection. But as people become increasingly urbanized and increasingly become consumers of mass-produced things, the understanding of the connections within our closed economic-ecological system has become cloudy.
Until hordes of people re-learn this knowledge, I think we need to make some tough choices about energy (and food and water, for that matter). I think this will involve the temporary use of some un-sustainable technologies and processes.

Sue said...

Conservation is an immediate way to make dramatic improvements in "supply" of energy. Conservation can begin immediately and many aspects of conservation have no up-front costs (doing less of things usually has immediate pay-offs). Other forms of energy savings and conservation take longer and have some up-front costs--whether its something as simple as transitioning to compact flourescents or putting insulation around your waterheater, or complex as home insulation or as expensive as replacing older appliances with more energy efficient ones.

There is no reason not to continue to use the nuclear facilities we have -- especially given that the costs of decommissioning a plant are very great and there are unsolved problems related to decommissioning. However, creating new nuclear capacity is not a short term or stop-gap solution. The time frame for building a nuclear facility ranges from 4 to 5 years from first concrete pour to power-up (depending upon the specific type of power plant). That does not include the up-front time for locating sites, getting permits, and the inevitable political process involved (NIMBY).

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Wouldn't conservation affect demand rather than supply?

E. R. Dunhill said...

I remain a strong advocate for conservation. However, when compared to the vast and accelerating global energy demand and the massive losses in the transmission and delivery of energy, CFLs (even LEDs) and insulation for hot water pipes and forced-air ducts don't come close to closing the gap. These measures are important as part of a much larger conservation strategy. But, the kind of conservation required for a sustainable economy will be based on a fundamental change in thinking. (I recall that you've written about this.) Even if people came in droves to understand this logic today, change is a source of stress and generates a different cost-structure. Change on this scale takes time, and I'm not sure we've really started yet.
Chris raises an excellent point. Conservation, while a central (perhaps the most important) part of energy policy and use does not generate any energy. We still have to produce energy, even if we’re making less of it.
Ultimately, I feel that the right production solution is mass-localization: Wind farms on top of shopping malls, solar roofs on every home where it's feasible, geothermal heat pumps, pellet stoves, green roofs where appropriate, biodiesel from waste vegetable oil, &c. These would likely have to be supplemented with power plants on a familiar grid. Mass-localization means favoring in-season produce, consuming less processed food, and other dietary changes. This also means favoring local businesses, walking, bicycling, and dressing appropriately to the season. Geography, conservation strategies, needs, and technology would drive what is the right decision in each situation.
The shift from a fossil fuel economy to a sustainable one just isn't on a tenable timetable, when available petroleum capacity and climate change are considered. Nuclear energy isn't the ideal solution. It comes with some serious problems. Every solution does. But, I think nuclear remains a necessary, temporary piece of the puzzle.
How would you prefer to produce energy?

Sue said...

Chris -- that's why "supply" is in quotes. If you reduce demand, existing supply goes further.

ERD -- my preference is for wind and solar power generation of electricity, and mass transportation systems based on electricity. I'm quite aware that there is no way from wind and solar to provide enough electricity to meet current demand, much less future demand. The fact is I do NOT think we can come up with replacement fuels that do not do more harm than good for "civilization" as we know it. I think we (all who survive and many won't) are going to be forced into very different, lower energy using forms of subsistence. It won't be called "conservation" in the future, it will be called survival.

Moreover, I also believe that before we get to that, we are going to have leadership that is going to succumb to using more and more coal because the coal and electricity industries are powerful enough to force this, making all our environmental problems 10 times worse (that's hyperbole not some kind of secret formula), than they are now.

Even if the U.S., scales back on coal, China and India will use more and more of it, and there's quite a constituency in the U.S. that will aid and abett them with U.S. coal. The rest of the country may be in a recession -- but not the coal fields of Kentucky -- coal exports are up, tonnage is up, price per ton is up, employment is up. That of course, also means that mountains are coming "down" (mountain top removal), streams are getting polluted or buried, neighborhoods and communities are being sacrified to strip-mining, etc.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

Sue: Why the doom and gloom?

A real-life example about attitudes from personal experience. A 2-tour this week of 7 cattle operations (all very different) as an educational excursion for a couple of related industry executives revealed the following attitudes about the shape of the cattle industry. Operator 1: "Oh woe is me, the sky is falling." All he could see was the downside created by escalating feed costs. Operator 2: "It doesn't matter what I do, someone else always gets ahead while I just try to survive." All he could see was his personal "powerlessness" in the face of market realities. Operator 3: A veterinarian. "What can we come up with in the way of new technology to offset what we're seeing?" A technical, but forward-looking discussion. Operator 4: "It's bad, but it will be better, and this is what we're doing to make sure we are still in business when it does." They had a bit of a "hunkered-down" mentality but saw an improving future. Operator 5: "I have been beat up to the point that I don't know what the future holds. There's some bright spots but I don't know if I'll survive to get there." He had made some decisions that cost him dearly. He was adjusting his lifestyle to the consequences of those decisions but had experienced enough of a setback that it would be difficult to recover. Operator 6: "I see opportunity everywhere. When everything is in turmoil like it is today, there are plenty of ways to capitalize on it." He was seeing opportunity where his neighbors saw defeat. I know a number of people (most of them are dead and their children benefitted) who accumulated huge fortunes during the depression because of similar attitudes. Operator 7: "It's not great but this is what I see developing." They went on to describe the various global influences on their industry, the likely impact of various actions, and their plan of response.

I apologize for the lengthy description, but it illustrates the various attitudes that people have toward various issues and life in general. We become what we think. What obsesses you drives your behavior. Your behavior usually determines your outcome. I prefer the attitudes of Operators 3, 6 and 7. Number 4 will get through the current turmoil. 1,2 and 5 probably will be doing something else within a few years.

Let's focus on solutions to the energy problem. In the interim we utilize what we have (coal, oil, nuclear). Over the long-term let's develope something better (things we don't even know about yet and technologies under development). Let's use wisely what we have today (wise use implies conservation -- not preservation. If you leave the coal in the hills it does no one any good. If you leave the oil under ANWR it does no one any good).

E. R. Dunhill said...

I appreciate where you're coming from. And I agree with you that coal is a serious problem. More generally, I agree with you that there a plenty of serious problems, many of which are likely going to get worse before they get better. (I'll also sing an "amen" on the subject of public transportation.)
I think that given the scope and magnitude of the energy demand, there's going to be trouble with every possible solution. That's why we need to pick the solutions with the side-effects we can manage most successfully. I won't beat the mass-localization/conservation horse any further, nor my reasons for looking at nuclear power as a means to get from here to there. But, I do believe that these offer a tenable path to the effective and efficient use of energy resources.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I agree that problems and solutions are largely what people make of them. I believe that entrepreneurs are a huge piece of the sustainability puzzle. And since I haven't written the words, "mass-localization" or "conservation" in nearly 30 seconds, there they are- entrepreneurs will be able to leverage these for both financial well-being and environmental benefit.
Oil is perhaps a discussion for another time. So should be coal, but for personal reasons, it's difficult for me to let the issue of coal go without a few words:
While coal does no one any good while it remains buried, it also does no harm. I've seen communities, farms, and families devastated by coal mining. Coal fouls the water and pollutes the air. Coal is filthy, expensive to "clean", and is difficult if not impossible to mine without large human and ecological impacts. Ecological impacts of this sort quickly become human impacts and can linger for decades. The use of coal does more harm than good, and can be particularly hard on the rural poor.

Chris McClure aka Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: I think your anti-coal arguments could be applied to many fuel sources -- including nuclear. Ask most Navajo what they think of uranium mining.

What price are we willing to pay for energy? Not everyone can afford the luxury of paying more for their energy. When the cost of heating a home gets too high we will see a resurgence of wood-burning fireplaces and axes in the national forests.

On a lighter note. Maybe we should all conserve energy by taking only one bath per month. It should be in a large washtub and the whole family should use the same water. I don't think society's effette tastes want to go back to that. But think of the energy that would be saved! We also could wear the same clothes until they finally disintegrated from filth and sweat. Our ancestors did that. Coal helped to change that condition.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I agree that my ire over coal could just as easily be someone else's vexation over some other form of energy. In the apples-to-oranges comparisson of energy pros and cons, I content that coal is a net loss. It's a fuel in which many high costs are uncontrolled and externalized.
Briefly, I think biomass as a source of heat has some merit. I recently was in a meeting with an architect who heats his home (and domestic hot water) with a pellet stove. He burns silage-grade corn kernels when prices are low, and fuel pellets made from waste sawdust when corn prices are higher. For certain applications, it's not a bad solution.