Old Wine in New Bottles: Can Nuclear Power Pull Us Out of Global Climate Change?

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

We wrote recently about how the Fukushima disaster seems to have slipped from our collective ADD-addled memory. We also wondered whether global climate change was best characterized as a calamity, a catastrophe, or a cataclysm.

Without a doubt, Fukushima has cast a pall over the nuclear industry around the world. A number of countries are taking a long hard look at the risks involved in nuclear energy production, Germany, which produces 20% of its electricity via nuclear energy, is vowing to eliminate its nuclear program within a decade and replace it with renewable energy, a task Chancellor Angela Merkel describes as Herculean.

But even in the midst of all the hand wringing over the risks of nuclear energy, support for our old friend the atom continues grow, and in some surprising places. Those over a certain age may remember Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalogue, the combination Bible /Sears Catalogue of the 60s counter culture. From his old haunts of Sausalito, Brand is now proselytizing nuclear power as the best (or at least the least-worse) remedy for a carbon-choked planet.  Originally a staunch opponent of nuclear power, he feared we would be handing off the problem of nuclear waste to future generations, a solution that struck him as “poor civilizational behavior.” But he now believes nuclear energy is the most promising path towards a carbon emissions-free future.

Brand is hardly alone in perceiving that nuclear power might still offer a future of comparatively clean carbon-free energy. Nuclear reactors might still produce radioactive waste and pose grave environmental risks – look no further than Fukushima if you doubt that. But the relative (and relatively local) risks nuclear reactors pose may pale in comparison to the cumulative effects of burning oil, coal, and natural gas. It can even be argued that nuclear power is more economical than alternative energy sources, such as wind energy, despite its long history of dramatic cost overruns and the ever escalating costs of storing spent fuel.

Existing reactors are still largely based on old technology, much of it developed in the early years of the nuclear era. The Three Mile Island or Chernobyl model – a massive, water cooled centralised system using massive fuel cores date to the ‘50s and ‘60s. Newer technologies are out there, waiting to be tested and deployed. So-called Generation IV reactors , among them the Pebble Bed Reactor are designed to avoid the dangers posed by traditional generators. The federal government is aggressively funneling money towards next generation reactors.

In announcing the grant of millions for nuclear energy research, energy secretary Steven Chu stated”As a zero-carbon energy source, nuclear power must be part of our energy mix as we work toward energy independence and meeting the challenge of global warming.”

In Knowledge Mosaic’s own back yard, a consortium of utilities and nuclear reactor designers are proposing construction of small-scale nuclear reactors to meet future demands for carbon-free power.

Nuclear power has a nasty reputation. Some of it is doubtless fall out from the nuclear era’s unholy birth at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The disasters at the plants in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have only cemented public distrust of all things nuclear. But in an ironic twist, nuclear energy may prove to be the last best hope for weaning us away from carbon based energy. That is the argument made in the new documentary Pandora’s Promise.

The film argues that in the face of massive climate change, nuclear energy is really the only game in town. Brand, who features prominently in the movie, notes that the ill effects of the Fukushima disaster are still largely localized, and the area around Chernobyl isn’t the apocalyptic moonscape many feared it would be. The premise of Promise is that the least-bad alternative may be a very good alternative indeed. Wherever you land on the nuclear spectrum – vehemently opposed or staunchly in favor – the movie is worth taking in. It’s a profoundly thought provoking shot across the climate change bow, and a challenge to ideologues on both sides of the divide.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Jeff S on July 30, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    I have not seen convincing evidence that Fukushima, or nuclear power, necessarily “pose grave environmental risks”. While it’s true that some radioactive material was released by the plant, and some radioactive water may still even now be leaking into the ocean,it’s not clear that that “contamination” has actually harmed anyone or anything, or ever will. If that radioactive “pollution” doesn’t hurt anyone or anything, how can that be a “grave risk”?

    Reply

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