Forget about nuclear winter; these days it feels like nuclear spring. Early signs point to a global renaissance in fission power. Twenty-four nuclear power plants are being built abroad. Well-organized U.S. utilities are identifying sites at existing nuclear power plants where new reactors might be built and asking the U.S. Congress to provide generous subsidies to help. And all of this is happening without the kind of groundswell of public opposition to nuclear power witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s.Yes, it's a boom time for opinions about nuclear power. I didn't invest in tech stocks, so I might as well throw in with this bubble while I can.
Nuclear makes up 17% of electrical generation worldwide. But the new nuclear boosters would have you believe that's going to change, and soon. A recent Wired article is probably the best example of nuclear optimism.
That's not nearly enough. We should be shooting to match France, which gets 77 percent of its electricity from nukes. It's past time for a decisive leap out of the hydrocarbon era, time to send King Coal and, soon after, Big Oil shambling off to their well-deserved final resting places - maybe on a nostalgic old steam locomotive.That's the key passage, isn't it? How great would it be if we could do whatever we want without consequence? Of course, given the fatality rates for accidents with hummers it's hard to believe that's even possible.
Besides, wouldn't it be a blast to barrel down the freeway in a hydrogen Hummer with a clean conscience as your copilot? Or not to feel like a planet killer every time you flick on the A/C? That's how the future could be, if only we would get over our fear of the nuclear bogeyman and forge ahead - for real this time - into the atomic age.(emphasis added)
But let's remember the basics about nuclear. Nuclear fission boils water, turns turbines, and makes electricity. In the process, it makes no CO2 (hooray!) but does produce nuclear waste (boo!) How much waste it makes depends on whether or not the fuel is reprocessed. The US stopped reprocessing it's fuel in the 1970s. France reprocesses all of it's fuel, and has much smaller needs for waste disposal.
France is basically the poster child for the nuclear industry these days - almost 80% of France's electricity comes from nuclear, and France's industry is renowned for it's safety and reliability. France exports a large amout of it's nuclear electricity to Germany, making a mockery of Germany's Greens to reduce their nuclear usage.
Of course, France is just about the only country that we can point to with such a positive record. Japan had ambitions similar to France's in the 1980s, until a number of scandals in that country's nuclear industry halted construction. There were fires, worker incompetence, and a number of other problems. The US, Canada, and Russia have all had a long history of problems. For every Chernobyl, there's a less-dramatic Three Mile Island. For every Three Mile Island, there's dozens of near-misses. While France is the exception, the rule of nuclear generation has been a pretty uncertain story.
But with new "Fourth Generation" reactors, there's hope to change all that. New passively safe designs, the nuclear industry hopes to make plants that are safe, cheap, and clean. However, there are some problems here, too. One of the most well-known proposals is the Pebble Bed reactor. It's a promising technology, but it's advocates have to answer a few questions. First off, the "pebbles" in the name are spheres of Uranium encased in graphite. Graphite is flammable, and is indeed the element which burned in the Chernobyl fire. Most PBR proposals involve using helium or another inert gas as an operating gas, so this shouldn't be a problem in normal operation. But nuclear reactors need to be designed for the abnormal times, too. And despite PBR's advocates' claims, PBR is not accident proof. Germany's PBR program was shut down after a 1986 accident caused by a jammed pebble. In any case, PBR reactors will produce more waste, albeit less hazardous waste.
There are other proposed designs, but it's hard to believe that they won't face serious challenges too. And we need to keep in mind that nuclear plants can take years - up to a decade - to build. Given that the energy problems we face are short term, nuclear might not be able to make up the demand we need. All this said, if nuclear were our only option, I'd be in favour of it. Nuclear is CO2-free, and could at the very least be made safe and affordable - though affordable might still mean more expensive than we think. But at the end of the day, even the best nuclear energy is going to produce a waste legacy that will last at least centuries, if not millenia.
Meanwhile, wind power is already cheaper than nuclear. Say that to yourself, again. Wind power is already cheaper than nuclear. Solar power is coming down quickly in price, and companies are already selling modules that are cheaper than nuclear. Another few years - shorter than we can build a single reactor - and rooftop solar panels will be cheaper than nuclear. And there's at least the possibility (if the guys at nanosolar can work their voodoo) that solar can outcompete even nasty old coal.
But both wind and solar have their problems too, which we'll deal with in the next post.