Like many people, I’ve had a gut reaction against nuclear power based on a number of factors: (1) there’s no proven safe way to dispose of wastes from nuclear fission that will remain toxic for thousands of years (however there has been some positive progress recently); (2) nuclear power plants can be a step in developing nuclear weapons; (3) the plants are very expensive; and (4) accidents happen, like in the Fukushima, Japan, meltdown a year ago. But doing this blog and talking with people has convinced me that proceeding with existing energy strategies, primarily based on burning hydrocarbons, will inevitably lead to disaster. Electric power from nuclear fission, and eventually from nuclear fusion, seems the best hope to avoid catastrophic climate change and a forced, severe reduction of humankind’s energy consumption.
I have taken much of this post’s science and factual assertions, without using footnotes, from James Lovelock’s chapter, “Sources of Energy,” in his book “The Revenge of Gaia” and from the article “Why We Still Need Nuclear Power” by Ernest Moniz, an MIT professor of physics. In earlier posts I have discussed Lovelock’s case that burning fossil fuels over the past century or so has changed climate and natural systems in ways that, if present consumption levels continue, threaten civilization.
Lovelock does a scorched earth tour through fossil fuels, solar, wind and other “renewable” sources of energy and then tells us that nuclear power is the least-bad way to generate the reliable and secure supply of electricity we need. Fact chains pop up like this: It’s true that natural gas, which is basically methane, the simplest of the hydrocarbons, produces the same energy output as coal with only half coal’s carbon dioxide release. One problem is that some natural gas leaks into the air without combustion, such as when we light gas stoves. The unburned methane goes into our atmosphere, where it is 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. If only two per cent of the methane we use escapes into the air, the net greenhouse effect is the same as burning coal. Lovelock similarly disposes of wind power, bio fuels, wave and tidal, and other alternative energy approaches as incomplete and with drawbacks.
Nuclear fission of uranium produces a million times more power than burning an equal weight of oil or gas. Lovelock is a physician as well as an environmental scientist and argues that much public resistance to nuclear power derives from fears of cancer. The doctor shows that cancer is a natural and expected product of human biology; the oxygen processes that power our bodies produce wastes that, irregularly and over uncertain amounts of time, lead to cancer even without insults to the body like high radiation or strange chemicals. Still, dread of cancer-causing radiation grips us and discourages use of nuclear energy which has a very low greenhouse gas price tag. We opt instead to continue burning massive amounts of carbon, and that may change the whole world beyond our comfort points.
Professor Moniz believes that the safety and capital cost challenges of nuclear power will be shrunk by an emerging class of small modular reactors whose parts can be built in factory assembly lines and put together on site. Moniz also asserts that permanent disposal of nuclear wastes should be deferred, with nuclear wastes stored for a century or so in dry casts at a small number of sites. Both scientists look forward to the day when it will be feasible to use the radiation from existing nuclear waste to generate more clean energy.
Bottom line, there’s no free lunch, and any course we take to preserve anything close to the consumption levels we now enjoy will have high costs.