The Nuclear Power Dilemma

Why Nuclear Power when there are more
safe and efficient processes?

Clearly because the features/benefits
ratio has been sold (or successfully lobbied) to those who make the decisions.
Let’s look at them for a moment:

  • Ever-growing and always underestimated costs
  •  Questionable safety
  •  Old and un-advanced technology
  •  Site-location protests worldwide 
  •  Cost per kilowatt hour dependent upon changing market
  •  Short, 40 year life-cycle
  •  Massive maintenance costs 
  • An end product fuel-rods disposal issue the world has
    yet to solve
  •  Uranium-dependent, a scarce and expensive diminishing

  • Not coal, oil or natural gas dependent 
  • Therefore, a cleaner environment

Sounds like a highly dubious tradeoff to me, at a time when technology offers so many better options. As my engineer-brother
once said dryly, “it’s a hell of a dangerous way to boil water,” which indeed
it is. When these things go wrong, as at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and
Fukushima, the results are socially disastrous. The French are world leaders in
the development of nuclear power generation and yet the French Atomic Energy
Commission has concluded that technical innovation cannot eliminate the risk of
human errors in nuclear plant operation.
An interdisciplinary
team from MIT have estimated that given the expected growth of nuclear power
from 2005–2055, at least four serious nuclear power accidents would be expected
in that period
(Wikipedia). Four more
serious accidents in the next 50 years? For me (and perhaps for you) that’s an
unacceptable existential risk.
And by the way, got a place for those spent fuel rods?
Nope, but we’re working on it,” is
the answer to a question that was originally asked some seventy years ago. Old processes with old technology and the old
burning questions still unanswered, when we are in a new century, with new
opportunities and a new challenge.
In the more safe and efficient processes area, solar and wind are getting
the press coverage (both optimistic and pessimistic), while tide and geothermal
are less mentioned, but have great potential. We’re creeping forward on the
former and largely ignoring the latter—at a time when technology is available
and the clock moves inevitably forward on environmental apocalypse.
Spain is at the forefront of Gemasolar Thermosolar
development, with a fascinating project in operation that removes the obstacle
of solar ‘going down’ during the night. A molten salt heat storage system is at
the heart of this concentrated solar technology and focused it is, aiming
computer programmed mirrors at a single spot on the ‘salt tower’ to produce
intense heat. Pretty much what we all did as kids, focusing our magnifying
glasses at a spot on a leaf to set it burning. Who knew that would become a source
of electricity.
Traditional electric generators are steam-driven, the
nuclear type as well, hence my brother’s remark about dangerous ways to boil
water. Gemasolar, located within the city limits of Fuentes de Andalucía in the
province of Seville, Spain is the first commercial solar plant with a central
tower receiver and molten salt heat storage technology.
It cost approximately half a billion dollars and
successfully powers the equivalent of 27,500 homes and its storage system
allows it to produce electricity for fifteen hours without sunlight, at night
or on cloudy days. It’s been doing this since 2011 and tweaks along the way
make it increasingly efficient.
A solution? Obviously, not entirely, but
a powerful advance over passive solar and one to be watched and emulated. One
should keep in mind that Gemasolar is a ‘pilot plant’ and its costs reflect
that. They will certainly come down remarkably steeply as the production of
such plants expands. They are very applicable to industrial parks, outlying
locations surrounding major cities and totally powering small cities throughout
the world.
It was interesting to me that Gemsolar was located
within the city limits of Fuentes de Andalucía. How comfortable would you be with a nuclear plant inside your city limits? How comfortable can
any of us be, so long as nuclear extends its reach across the planet?
Wouldn’t it be lovely if Big Oil
reinvented itself as Big Power and got their collective shoulder behind the
wheel of renewable energy? Wouldn’t it be lovely if they gradually abandoned
their questionable resources in Saudi, Iraq, the North Sea and the poisonous
Tar Sands of Canada, as they put their expertise and finances behind something
that might diminish both the sources of war and environmental extinction?
Wouldn’t it be lovely if politics got out of the way and demanded it?
As the (annotated) My
Fair Lady
lyrics go;
All I want is
a room somewhere
Far away from
the cold night air
With one
enormous chair
Oh, wouldn’t
it be loverly?
Lots of chocolate
for me to eat,
Lots of solar
makin’ lots of heat.
Warm face,
warm hands, warm feet
Oh, wouldn’t
it be loverly?
Indeed, it would be loverly.

If you’ve time and interest in reading a
longer piece from the International New
York Times
, check out
Sun and Wind Alter Global Landscape, Leaving Utilities

2 thoughts on “The Nuclear Power Dilemma

  1. Back in the late 1960's and 70's there was hope that a fusion reactor could be developed which would eliminate the problems with fission reactors but it never came to fruition. Thorium based reactors are feasible but they don't breed plutonium used in nuclear weapons so the U.S. abandoned the research and continued to develop uranium fueled reactors. From Wikipedia:

    "Weinberg realized that you could use thorium in an entirely new kind of reactor, one that would have zero risk of meltdown. . . . his team built a working reactor . . . . and he spent the rest of his 18-year tenure trying to make thorium the heart of the nation’s atomic power effort. He failed. Uranium reactors had already been established, and Hyman Rickover, de facto head of the US nuclear program, wanted the plutonium from uranium-powered nuclear plants to make bombs. Increasingly shunted aside, Weinberg was finally forced out in 1973.[12]"

    1. So Alex, although thorium may well have zero risk of meltdown, it's extraction sounds both expensive and environmentally unfriendly:

      Wikipedia: Thorium is extracted mostly from monazite: thorium diphosphate (Th(PO4)2) is reacted with nitric acid, and the produced thorium nitrate treated with tributyl phosphate. Rare-earth impurities are separated by increasing the pH in sulfate solution.

      Pretty complicated stuff compared to concentrated sunlight and liquid salt.

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