Although the Japan nuclear disaster occurred in March, I’ve purposely refrained from writing anything about it before I had a chance to observe just how bad it was, and what the world reaction was going to be. Indeed, the situation is a worst-case scenario – a melted core affecting three reactors and radiation leaking into the ocean. Options are quickly converging on a Chernobyl-style solution of encasing the entire thing in concrete and letting is sit until a better solution can be planned out properly. Michio Kaku’s now-famous quote sounds bombastic (“Bury it!”), but in reality, this is the safest solution – for now.
Let me make this clear – I am not a hippie. Yes, I am interested in green technology, but I also support nuclear power. Why? Because I am a realist that understands the need for a clean base-load power source now. The vast number of people obsessed with green technology haven’t the slightest understanding of the physics involved in the nuclear process, nor do they understand the gigantic-ness of the power production challenges that lay ahead. Someone else said it better than me:
“If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you, and that understanding empowers you”. – Neil Degrasse Tyson
Those who understand the issues, the engineering challenges, and the costs are usually more hesitant of dismissing the value of nuclear power. Nothing now delivers so much for so little space. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m saying it’s unwise.
The Uncomfortable Facts:
The first fact is this – The United States uses a lot of energy – and it’s not going to stop or get smaller. Here are the numbers for energy capacity in 2009 (Summertime capacity in Megawatts)
- Fossil fuels: 781,218
- Nuclear: 101,004
- Renewable: 238,979 with Hydro; 160,461 without Hydro
(source: eia.gov, Existing Capacity by Energy Source (2009))
Of all the fossil fuels available to us, coal makes up the bulk of the energy produced in this country. On the renewable side, hydro power counts for a significant portion, but many environmentalists oppose hydro power due to its negative environmental impacts (I agree, for the most part).
Secondly, coal and oil have high energy density, and they need to be replaced with something that can deliver at least as much energy in an ‘on-demand’ fashion. A utility needs to maintain certain level of base-load energy, which is the minimum amount of energy that a utility must be able to make available at a given time. Solar and wind fluctuate, and there is simply no good way to store the amount of energy needed, nor is it very economical to transmit this energy across vast distances where it could be useful due to resistance in the power lines.
Even Angela Merkel (German Chancellor, and, oh yeah – a physical chemist) has recently stated that Germany’s decision to simply shut down all nuclear power plants in Germany might not be the best idea. In a more recent article, her statements were more blunt, and she proves my point exactly:
“If we want to quickly get out of nuclear power and into renewable energy, we need fossil-fuel power plants”…“At least 10, more likely 20, additional gigawatts have to be built in the next 10 years,” – Angela Merkel
20 Gigawatts – just for Germany. Let’s put this into perspective – assuming the newest 7 MW wind turbines become commercially available (and economically viable), it would take 2857 of them littering the countryside and running at maximum capacity.
People are Strange
And then there is the other problem – getting people to change. A first-year class in microeconomics will tell you that most people tend to respond to incentives – and that’s it. The only way to incentivize them is to offer them a carrot, or a stick – either make it cheaper than going the dirty route by achieving enough market penetration of the greener options, or have government penalize the public or corporations for choosing the dirty fuel. A combination of both is probably necessary to push most Americans over the tipping point.
This sort of talk makes me a heretic among those in the alternative energy community, People like to point to the disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima as evidence that all nuclear power is a terrible idea. The arguments I have heard fail to bring to the table any realistic alternatives. The solutions range from reduced power consumption as a result of a public awareness campaign, to an astronomical amount of wind and solar farms all over the country. I’m not sure they understand what country we live in, but that sort of idealism doesn’t really go over too well here. Not everyone is going to start installing solar panels on their roofs out of their conscience to ‘save the planet’.
Anti-nuclear activists of the 1970s exasperated the situation at 3-mile island and unwittingly played a hand in creating even more dirty power by making the very idea of nuclear energy distasteful to the public. This resulted in the U.S. abandoning plans for new reactors. With an increase in power demand in the 1980s and 1990s, markets were pushed towards dirty, filthy coal and oil. Some of the negative externalities of this national move towards this kind of fuel have been:
- Increased demand for fossil-based energy caused an increase in coal extraction, and led to an increase in coal slurry ponds – an environmental nightmare.
- Higher dependence on middle eastern countries for oil – (read: reduced national security).
- Large, sociopathic energy companies pushed towards moronically-dangerous methods of acquiring energy, such as deep water drilling, hydraulic fracturing, tar sand mining, and a coal strip-mining process known as mountaintop removal mining.
- More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
- Increased acidification of the oceans, which in turn accelerated the destruction of coral reefs and generally made for a more challenging environment for marine life.
- Increased cancer rates.
- Increased cost for all fossil fuels, including gasoline/petrol.
Mission accomplished, hippies – thanks a lot.
The Fukushima Quadfecta: Bad Engineering, Bad Location, a 9.0 Earthquake, and a Tsunami
One of the big problems with these reactors has been a lack of good engineering design. The Fukushima plant is a system of four G.E. Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs), which were designed in the 1960s by GE. and were first recommended for discontinuation as early as 1972. Newer (Generation III) designs incorporate numerous passive safety features – they have gravity-fed water cooling systems that don’t require electricity to function, they produce more power using less land, use less piping, and fewer valves and pumps (read: less to go wrong). Detractors of some of the new reactors have voiced their concerns, however keep in mind, the opinions were bought and paid for by anti-nuclear non-profits groups. I personally think some of the concerns are valid, and the NRC probably did the right thing asking for more data from Westinghouse.
Poor judgment in the chosen locations also led to the Fukushima disaster. It’s my opinion that the Fukushima reactors were located on the wrong side of the country. Japan is narrow – they should have been located facing the Sea of Japan, where, presumably, a Tsunami wave would never get big enough to cause problems. The other option would have been to build a very-large sea wall around the reactor, which is exactly what saved a Japanese town. Although the area was damaged by the earthquake, automatic systems at the Fukushima reactor activated per the plan. The problem was that about an hour after the earthquake, a 33-foot tsunami hit the station, disabling all 13 emergency diesel generators which were located almost as high as the tsunami itself. Leaders need to find a way to put plants where they are going to safely deliver the most public good, and not where it’s most politically expedient.
Ultimately, the fuel of the future is still nuclear – but it will be fusion power. The joke of course is that over the past half-century it’s always been ‘only 20 years away’, but the trajectory of this research can be seen with much more clarity now, and I reasonably predict that fusion power will be a reality before the end of the 21st century. This of course will set off a new gold rush to the moon, but that’s an entirely different discussion. For the foreseeable future, the most viable approach will be a combination of nuclear, solar, hydro, and wind. I see solar and wind playing a significant role in the overall grid; however I believe in a gradual reduction of nuclear over the course of this century as reliable sources of renewable base-load power go online – We need to get away from fossil fuels, and this hysteria over nuclear is driving us further towards such sources.
Environmentalists should be looking at the long-term picture – we actually need to ramp up with nuclear until the truly green sources are more readily available. Such sources that I believe are achievable before the 22nd century include space-based solar, large-scale geothermal, and large-scale ocean current power – each of which probably has its own detractors. I do consider myself an environmentalist, because I am looking far beyond the immediate future – and getting us away from filthy fossil fuels as soon as possible is the first step.