Friday, May 15, 2009

Whither the Nuclear Renaissance?

I have heard mixed opinions from the Obama administration in regards to nuclear energy. Energy secretary Steven Chu seems to have a cautiously positive opinion of nuclear power. At the same time it seems the stimulus bill passed in February had the loan guarantees for nuclear construction written out of it while spending billions of dollars on "renewables" even though renewable energy sources by their very nature are both expensive and unreliable. I am left wondering what Obama really plans to do about nuclear power.

He at least acknowledged it during his campaign but when he said in needed to be "safer" it made me think that he was uninformed about how safe nuclear power really is. Very few industries in the world have safety records that could compare to nuclear energy in terms of the lack deaths or injuries in the years since nuclear energy was first developed. The two infamous incidents, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are frequently referenced by wide-eyed activists but the Chernobyl reactor did not have a containment dome that could have prevented the entire disaster as all new reactors across the world have now. At Three Mile Island, human error and lack of maintenance combined lead to a very serious malfunction, yet the safety systems built into the design of Three Mile Island prevented anybody from being injured or killed by the incident. To drive the point home even further, I have never heard of a single incident of somebody being injured or killed by spent fuel. Yet despite all of this, an embarrassingly large segment of the world population is eager to listen when activists paint the nuclear industry as being a modern day "Frankenstein's monster" poisoning the land and the nearby people with a mysterious force called radiation. Much of the public's imagination (Often fueled by science fiction B movies) has taken to thinking of radiation as being something that causes spontaneous and severe mutations such as animals growing to several hundred times their normal size or sprouting extra limbs. The more "informed" merely think that a nuclear power plant by its very nature will somehow cause the nearby populace to fall ill and be struck down by maladies such as cancer and radiation sickness.

Also, on the face of it, the idea seems rather absurd as to why Steven Chu seems unwilling to consider the MSR designs for Gen IV funding because of proliferation fears. The proliferation risk of an MSR design is quite low because the entire reactor would have to be shut down in order to divert the produced U233 into weapons production. The U233 will be contaminated with U232 and U234 that decay producing hard gamma radiation and terrorists working in a hastily constructed garage or cave would be hard pressed to steal enough for a bomb without instantly dying of radiation poisoning. There is also the question about how a terrorist would manage to steal liquid U233 from the molten core of the MSR which is surrounded by a massive field of radiation especially since you would have to shut down the MSR and reroute the plumbing of the reactor for such an operation. With that being said and done, it would be a lot easier to raid a radiology clinic for nuclear material.

Finally, the appointment of Gregory Jaczko as the new Chairman of the NRC has me concerned. Part of the problem of constructing new nuclear facilities is the inefficient and often nonsensical approval process that a power company must go through in order to obtain an operating license. I have heard some reports that Jaczko is in agreement with some anti-nuclear environmentalists groups and that he voted against renewing the operating license for the Oyster Creek reactor in New Jersey as well as collaborating with Rep. Ed Markey (D) for imposing more stringent regulations on classifying spent fuel when the nuclear industry is already choking on overregulation in general.

This is not to say that previous presidential administrations have been any more open minded in regards to promoting nuclear energy. The Bush administration amidst many of its other problems paid lip service to nuclear power while simply allowing it to languish during its pursuit of fossil fuel energy in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. In fact, a large part of presidential candidate McCain's energy policy during his campaign was the promotion of "clean coal" of which there is no such thing. Opposition to nuclear power sadly seems to be a bi-partisan phenomenon in the US.

Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic here. I would like to get a discussion going as to what my readers think we might expect in regards to nuclear energy under this administration. Are nuclear energy promotion efforts really being noticed, or are they just a minority in the void of the internet that is too willing to pat itself on the back as coal and natural gas take center stage in the future as they have in the past?


DV8 2XL said...

I have come to the conclusion, based on observing the field for the past two years, that pronuclear forces can be very effective getting the message out by taking some very simple steps.

Antinuclear forces have been media darlings because they cultivated that status while the nuclear industry circled the wagons and seemed to believe that if they kept their mouths shut this would all blow over or that nobody would notice. Well the threat now IS that nobody will notice nuclear, while we dive headlong into windmills and solar panels that cannot produce a fraction of our energy needs. The public simply has no concept of scale, and in their minds a 50MW wind farm equals a 1500MW reactor.

At the same time there seems to be a growing awareness that nuclear energy is not as evil as it has been made out to be - people are beginning to question the standard shibboleths that they have been served up for the last twenty-five years, and I am beginning to see a real desire to understand the issue where in the past it was reflexively negative. This represents a real opportunity for us and we should try and take advantage of it.

Unfortunately, what is needed is more a flesh-and-blood organization on the ground than anything else, so I believe that the major effort at this time is to recruit people. It doesn't need to be many in any given geographical area. Twenty or thirty people can make a huge impact at a meeting, or at a demonstration. I truly believe that if the pronuclear movement could do that anywhere it needed to, we would have a very powerful tool to get our message out.

The only place I can see this happening is through high schools, collages and universities. These are the only places that there is any hope of generating enough interest. Somehow we have to get leaders in that environment to get the ball rolling. How we are going to recruit these people is the real problem at hand.

Marcel F. Williams said...

A majority of Americans already want more nuclear power plants built. The House Majority Whip, James Clyburn, also wants more nuclear power plants. A majority of Republicans and Independents in the US want more nuclear power plants. And even a plurality of Democrats want more nuclear power plants.

And Obama himself said in April in Europe "We must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change, and to advance peace opportunity for all people."

Its only an extremist-- minority-- that's fanatically against nuclear power. And they will do almost anything to stop it!

Neurovore said...

Yes...I do hear a lot of discussion about nuclear energy but I am not sure it will actually lead into action. Coal is still king and it looks like it will be for the foreseeable future because of the seductively cheap construction and operating costs of a coal powered facility. Unless some attempt is put into place to force coal plants to pay for the external costs of their pollution.

It has been stated many times before that the NRC approval process needs to be streamlined, but to what degree would the NRC allow itself to become deregulated? I have heard that for military applications such as nuclear powered submarines the approval process is as little as two and a half years. Would this be a realistic goal for civilian nuclear power generation? The NRC by its very nature is a bureaucratic organization and many bureaucratic organizations tend to thrive on the very red tape that they create. Based on what I have heard about the NRC, this seems to be the case.

There is one thing that I am rather confused about. How did nuclear energy become so maligned in the eyes of the public compared to coal? Where were the anti-coal protesters during the 1970s and 1980s? It seems strange that the most dangerous form of energy by far has largely escaped the wrath of the public.

I know that Three Mile Island and Chernobyl burned themselves into the psyches of the public but these incidents were minor compared to the damage that coal does to people and the environment on a daily basis. It strikes me as being rather arbitrary on why nuclear power became such a target.

DV8 2XL said...

"There is one thing that I am rather confused about. How did nuclear energy become so maligned in the eyes of the public compared to coal? Where were the anti-coal protesters during the 1970s and 1980s? It seems strange that the most dangerous form of energy by far has largely escaped the wrath of the public."For most of the antinuclear movement’s history they have operated with the specter of nuclear war as a backdrop for their activities, indeed the movement started out as Ban-the-Bomb and only shifted focus after the NPT and SALT agreements came into force. At that point most of the rational elements inside these organizations felt they had won and moved on to other issues, the ones that remained realized that they had to change the mission or find real jobs.

For a long time they were able to leverage the fear of all things nuclear, and the desire of the fossil-fuel industry to keep nuclear energy suppressed, to maintain a status quo. In fact they didn’t need to make much of an effort as Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl had done most of the work for them. What seems to have happened is that the leadership of the movement got complacent. Global warming changed all that. Suddenly the public began to re-examine nuclear power, and the suite of standard arguments that the antinukes had chanted like a doxology for twenty years were challenged and found wanting. They have been scrabbling for a new drum to beat ever since.

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