Monday, March 16, 2009

Nuclear Power: Technical Assets and Political Liabilities

With the coming of the new U. S. presidential administration, we as a country have a rare chance to debate and decide on a new course in energy policy: specifically, where we will get our electricity during the remainder of the twenty-first century. For a number of reasons ranging from geopolitical issues to fear of global warming, many people want to get away from burning fossil fuels. Technically, one of the most promising and accessible ways to do that is to build more nuclear plants. But politically, doing that will be an uphill battle.

France seems to be one of the models that the new administration is using as an example of how to run things. It turns out that France generates over three-fourths of its electricity from nuclear power, and they have beaten us out of the gate in the race to start building new plants. The French have never had a major nuclear accident on the order of Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, and they are the only country in the world that successfully reprocesses nuclear fuel on a commercial basis (think recycling for nuclear waste). Reprocessing and a variety of yet-to-be-commercialized techniques such as fast breeder reactors promise to reduce or eliminate the need for storing large amounts of nuclear waste. While it is true that such promises have yet to be delivered and so far, nuclear waste is stored on site at many plants, good engineering and planning is capable of dealing safely with that problem too. Unfortunately, the budget proposed by the Obama Administration eliminates funding for continuing the development of the best project the U. S. has sponsored for dealing coherently with nuclear waste, namely the Yucca Mountain program.

So why don't we follow France's example and go nuclear in a big way? I can think of at least two reasons, both of them mainly political rather than technical: fear of nuclear anything and competition from renewable energy.

A small, vocal minority in the U. S. has dedicated their lives, it seems, to the proposition that all nuclear technology must be banished from the face of the earth forever. I agree with them that if we could wave a magic wand somehow and make it impossible to build nuclear weapons forever, the world would probably be a better place. (Human cussedness being what it is, I'm not sure, but on balance I think it would be.) But to this minority, nuclear power and nuclear waste are just as evil and just as deserving to be eradicated. A larger number of people are influenced by these minority views and hold a deep, almost instinctive revulsion for nuclear technology, especially if a new nuclear plant is proposed in their neighborhood (where "neighborhood" often means anywhere within one's state or region). Technical people can talk themselves blue in the face about how non-rational this fear is, but in a democracy, the fears of millions of voters can and should make a difference. Nuclear power has had a mainly bad press in the U. S. and many other parts of the world for decades, and that fact cannot be ignored in any efforts to go nuclear with our power systems.

The flip side of that coin is the popularity that green anything enjoys these days (I'm writing this on St. Patrick's Day, incidentally, but the Irish green isn't the kind I'm talking about). You can tell by the almost desperate way companies claim they're going green with products and services that if you can label yourself green, you get a publicity boost almost regardless of whether you can back up the claim. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power benefit immensely from this green buzz. And that is good to the extent that we can use them as an auxiliary energy source. But the problem with most renewable sources that remain to be exploited (that eliminates hydropower, for example, in most places) is that they depend on the fickleness of their natural drivers. Wind blows sometimes and doesn't sometimes. The sun never comes out at night and has problems coming out on cloudy days. And since it's not practical to store electric energy in large quantities (although this issue could be addressed if we wanted to), wind and solar sources are best used for what is called "peak load," which is the times when everybody has turned on their air conditioners on a hot summer day, and the utility companies are desperately scrambling to squeeze every last kilowatt out of their generators. At times like those, it's great to have arrays of solar panels you can call on, and for every solar-powered kilowatt you get during a peak-load period, that's one less kilowatt you have to generate with coal or oil.

But to go completely renewable is impractical. Solar arrays take up huge amounts of real estate and are very expensive. Some estimates I've read say that to supply even the majority of U. S. electric power with solar, you'd have to cover most of New Mexico with solar panels, and that deals only with the daytime. Wind energy is equally problematic as a source of what is called "base-load" power that you can rely on 24 hours a day, which is most of what electric utilities need to keep going. And that doesn't even address the problem of how to get the energy from where it would be generated (mainly in low-population rural areas) to where it would be used (mainly cities).

Most of these technical issues never come up in political discussions of the future of energy policy. If we go with the inclinations of the average voter, we'd get all our power from wind and solar and none from nuclear or fossil fuels. That's fine if you happen to be an off-the-grid type living by yourself in the wilds of Montana, but we simply can't run our cities and industries and homes that way, unless we tear them all down and redesign them to use about 25% or less of the power they now use.

In Europe there is a small building boom in nearly zero-power-consumption homes. It turns out that by using vast quantities of insulation, air-based heat exchangers that take up a large part of the basement (assuming you have a basement), and by approaching the shape of a sphere, you can build a (small) residence of a few hundred square feet that uses almost no energy for heating or cooling. Somehow I don't think we're all going to enjoy living in tiny insulated igloos in the future. But if we simply go with how the majority feels about energy and we ignore the technical realities, we might end up that way.

Sources: A good article on France's reprocessing facilities was carried by IEEE Spectrum in their February 2007 online edition at The statistic about France's nuclear power as a percentage of all power was obtained from an International Herald Tribune article at

No comments:

Post a Comment