Wednesday, November 05, 2008

For Love of Radiation

To call me a fan of nuclear power would be an understatement, but I find that most people have hideous misconceptions on both sides of the debate. Talking about "green power" is difficult when people on both sides don't have a clue what they're talking about!

To me, the biggest misconception that anti-nuclear people have is that nuclear power is unsafe. I won't go into detail, but it's not. It's completely safe.

My side is misinformed, too. We seem to think it's economical. It's not. Virtually every other form of power - green or otherwise - is roughly equivalent or cheaper. It's not really nuclear power's fault, but WHY it's true is irrelevant: nuclear power is expensive.

I like nuclear power, primarily because it's a very pretty process, using the untapped energy in the depth of the atom to power whole cities. It just feels more efficient, more scifi. I think a lot of people feel the same way. It's a beautiful solution that never came into its own.

To some extent, I blame the fact that nuclear power isn't the best solution on Jane Fonda. Panicky responses to nuclear power have let it linger behind other options as fewer dollars to go research and refinement of the technique.

But the truth is the truth, regardless of how pretty I think nuclear power is. It's just not the best alternative.

The best alternative is solar, although I won't argue against as much use of other green methods as is plausible.

Although solar panel production produces lots of heavy metal runoff and scads of CO2, it is a scalable solution whose technology is advancing rapidly. I don't think it's too much to assume that there will be a "solar panel paint" by 2040. Unlike wind power, it's useful in both places where we ARE and places where we AREN'T, and it isn't noisy.

However, that's really answering the wrong question. The question isn't "what's the best green energy source?". The question is "how rapidly will our energy requirements drop once we start thinking in those terms?".

New monitors use a fraction of the electricity of old CRTs. There's a breed of low-energy computer processor already on the way, and more in development. Many of us use energy efficient lighting, and it's already a generation and a half out of date.

I don't expect us to "solve the energy crisis" by producing more energy of any sort. I expect us to "solve the energy crisis" by building a computer that uses ten watts of power and an air conditioner that uses twelve.

Yes? No? I'd like to hear your opinion, so long as it isn't a fanatical support or hate of nuclear power. That's not the point of the post.


GregT said...

Regarding the safety of nuclear power - is it not a risk/consequence balance? That the chances of an accident at a nuclear facility may be tiny, but the consequences if one occurs are continental in scope, as compared to the still troubling but infinitely less worrying consequences of failures in traditional power sources?

Also, and I don't pretend to understand where the science is up to on this, but we're still not very good at disposing of the waste products of nuclear power generation, are we? And those wastes are, again, exponentially more troubling than those associated with other power sources?

Craig Perko said...

Well, every day we drive cars that burn gasoline. The chance that the gas tank will break open or a fire will break out is very small, but isn't it still troubling?

Of course not: the gasoline tank of a car is built such that not only is protected from everything, but it's also built such that leaks or failures will not end up endangering the driver's life.

The answer is the same, only the scale is different: a modern nuclear power plant is built such that the "gasoline" can never catastrophically fail, even if the facility is hit by a bomb. The "gasoline" of a nuclear facility is much more dangerous than that of a car, but on the other hand, a car only costs a few thousand dollars.

The problem with radioactive waste is a tricky one, not because radioactive waste is tricky, but because of the politics involved.

First off, radioactive waste is not significantly more dangerous than many other hazardous materials we never bother being worried about, such as the heavy metal runoff from manufacturing solar cells. It's only of more concern because everyone's been trained to think it's of more concern.

Second off, we're creating a lot more nuclear waste of a lot nastier sort than we actually have to. We could be using our fuel much more efficiently (and, as a side effect, producing less, shorter-halflife waste), but in order to do so, our fuel would be "weapons grade" for a while. Which is a political nightmare.

In the end, nuclear power is simply so tied up in its political and cultural stigma that it can't escape, even if we DID suddenly decide to start turning to nuclear power.

DmL said...

Ha, thanks for that, I never really thought about it, but the billions of batteries we throw away are much more dangerous than the (almost universally carefully handled) bi-products of a nuclear plant. Even when a plant does go up, the danger lies mostly in backwards third-world governments ignoring warning signs or trying to cover it up rather than acting quickly and openly.

Craig Perko said...

I agree but, as I said, nuclear power just isn't cost effective...

Chill said...

I personally more concerned with the effect of nuclear plants on the ecosystem, mainly water use. Everything I've seen about nuclear power plants effect is concerned with the waste, which I think is problem solved enough. However everything that I've seen so far, about nuclear has not answer the water use problem, both the reactor sucking in huge amounts of water and more importantly, the water discharged.

Craig Perko said...

The waste water complaint is, as I've said before, crap. While some old-school reactors contaminate a lot of water, most modern reactors do NOT contaminate their water supply. Instead, they separate that water supply from their core by using ANOTHER water system, which is closed. IE, that water is radioactive, but it isn't leaving the reactor.

In addition, decontaminating radioactive water is a known process.

This means that the only real problem with radioactive water comes from plants that are THIRTY YEARS OLD. Even those are leaking SO LITTLE that the amount of radioactive material released is actually less than locals are allowed to dump LEGALLY.

Unfortunately, the point is moot. Regardless of how much I like to defend nuclear power, it's not cost effective.