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Nuclear Energy: Let's Not Repeat Our Mistakes

1/20/2010 3:32:45 PM

Tags: nuclear energy, oil crisis, oil prices, energy efficiency, green transportation, electric cars

Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station 

In the 1970s, America was immersed in an oil crisis. Domestic production had peaked and the severe restrictions on supply imposed by OPEC in 1973 (aimed at forcing us to be more frugal) and the Iranian Oil Embargo in 1979 drove prices through the roof. Oil shot up from $3 per barrel to $34 per barrel.

Americans waited angrily in long lines at the gas pump while inflation reached double digits! Our economy took a serious nose dive. One of America’s brilliant responses to the energy crisis was to build nuclear power plants. I say brilliant, but, of course, that’s tongue in cheek. Building new nuclear power plants to solve the oil crisis was like running out of margarine, then running to the store to buy a dozen eggs. We needed oil stupid, not electricity.

After spending billions on new nuclear plants, America slowly woke up to the folly. Many nuclear power plants went belly up during construction, and lots of people who’d invested in bonds to support the construction of these ill-conceived plants lost a fortune.

I’m afraid we’re doing much the same today. During the Bush Administration, pronuclear interests began using the high price of oil (our newest energy crisis) to justify the construction of new nuclear power plants, and they continue to do so. Their work is paying off!

As in the 1970s and early 1980s, we don’t just need more energy, we need replacements for oil and transportation fuels derived from petroleum. The most economically and environmentally sustainable solution though, I think, is to drive more efficiently, lower speed limits on Interstate highways, to drive much more efficient vehicles, and to walk, bike, or ride the bus or light rail. We should also develop sound, sustainable transportation fuels like biodiesel and ethanol to help meet our needs.

Building new nuclear plants isn’t going to solve the oil crisis. Even if we suddenly converted to electric cars to meet many of our transportation needs, we wouldn’t need new nuclear plants. Studies show that we can easily charge our electric cars at night when demand for electricity from current sources is low. Thus, current electrical generating capacity could very likely meet the new demand. In addition, as the accompanying graphic illustrates, very little oil is currently used to generate electricity.

Electricity Graph 

Frankly, my friends, the nuclear frenzy seems like a devious form of subterfuge by business interests who want to build monstrously expensive power plants and make billions in profit at the expense of our ignorance and cultural stupidity — our penchant for buying eggs when, in fact, what we really need is a few tubs of margarine.

 


Above: Unit 1 of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. Chiras notes that building new nuclear plants isn’t going to solve the problem of high oil prices. Photo courtesy of ROWENS27/FLICKR. Graph courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review 2008.


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wobs_1
2/4/2010 10:56:37 AM
Continued: ….of fuel will have little effect on the low cost of nuclear energy. Which brings us onto to: “We've got to realize that nuclear electricity is the most expensive form of conventionally produced electricity in the world. Nuclear Power plants cost upwards of $6 billion -- five or six times more than coal.” So is that why the French have some of the cheapest electricity in Europe? Just because the capital cost of building a nuclear plant is high does not mean the cost of running one is high. They chuck out huge amounts of energy for very little fuel, and run as a business (like they do in France) rather than a research facility (as some in the US and UK have), they to can be run economically. More cheaply than coal or wind. “And let's not forget that we haven't found a way to safely store the high-level radioactive waste yet. So why embark on a strategy that is going to produce more high-level waste that remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years.” This is out of date. The waste issue has been solved. An international multi-disciplinary team has inspected the Swiss approach to the question, and their efforts have been found to be up to the task of long term disposal of HLW (using deep stable solid rock storage). But lets go back and look at why your statement is incorrect. Spent nuclear fuel can (and should) be reprocessed. The residues, and the fuel that can no longer be reprocessed must be disposed of, but its radioactivity will drop below the level of the uranium ore with less than 500 years. This is easily engineered to be safe, and encased in glass (as many do), and these small quantities will not escape into the environment. Even if it did (which it can’t), it would take thousands of years to reach any groundwater, let alone aquatic life as it’s so far underground. Even the US has been trying out salt mines to store it, as they self repair to prevent escape into the environment (the UK uses salt mines for certain hazardo

wobs_1
2/4/2010 10:34:42 AM
"A lot of people think that because nuclear power plants don't produce carbon dioxide, it is a perfect answer. We have to develop an energy strategy based on more than that?" It also doesn't emit a whole host of pollutants into the atmosphere unlike coal, including sulphur, uranium, particulates.... "Do we have the Uranium-235 to fuel nuclear power plants? From everything I've read, we're near the peak of uranium production " Put it this way- when nuclear power initially took off, there was a surge in prospecting for uranium. When demand fell off due to politics (and not much else), there was no need to look for more, as the mines that were developed had decades of uranium left. Now demand is set to increase, more prospecting will be carried, and just like every other resource that's dug ouut of the ground, we'll find it. Even if we struggle to find new reserves, we have alternatives, such as reprocessing (the US hasn't for decades), weapons (can you think of a better use for them), certain types of coal ash (see weapons). And of course, the refinement process could get much more efficient, as they have managed to use laser rather than centrifuge. Coupled with the more efficient designs (see previous comment), the consumption of uranium is not a direct correlation with the increase in the number of new reactors built. Also, of course, the cost of uranium is only a small fraction of the cost of nuclear energy, so an increase in cost.....

John Adams_2
2/2/2010 1:25:13 PM
The argument that "Nuclear power can help reduce our dependence on foreign oil” actually IS valid. Seventy percent of our petroleum use is for transportation. As I said in an earlier post, we do like to talk up electric cars around here. The large-scale use of these vehicles would reduce our need for foreign oil. The catch is that we will need more electricity to charge up all of those batteries. So where will we get our power? What is available today? Coal : 49% Natural Gas: 21% Nuclear: 20% Everything else combined: 10% Since “everyone” hates coal, we’ll need something. Nuclear could fill that void – but it ain’t gonna be cheap.

Dan Chiras
2/2/2010 1:03:16 PM
I have studied nuclear energy for the better part of 30 years and write extensively about nuclear energy in my college texts, Environmental Science and Natural Resource Conservation. What I have learned over the years is that nuclear is terrible substitute for coal. A lot of people think that because nuclear power plants don't produce carbon dioxide, it is a perfect answer. We have to develop an energy strategy based on more than that? Do we have the Uranium-235 to fuel nuclear power plants? From everything I've read, we're near the peak of uranium production -- the same dilemma we find ourselves facing with oil. What this means is that we've mined and consumed massive amounts of uranium but we're near the peak of production. It's only going to get more expensive from this point forward. We've got to realize that nuclear electricity is the most expensive form of conventionally produced electricity in the world. Nuclear Power plants cost upwards of $6 billion -- five or six times more than coal. And let's not forget that we haven't found a way to safely store the high-level radioactive waste yet. So why embark on a strategy that is going to produce more high-level waste that remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years. And lets not forget that waste storage, if we ever crack this nut, is going to cost us a fortune, too.

Dan Chiras
2/2/2010 12:56:58 PM
Hi Guys, I can see I sparked a lot of interest and have generated some well-intentioned responses. The most-recent noted that "no one is saying that nuclear power will help rid our dependence on oil" (I'm paraphrasing) is dead wrong. Over the past years, especially during the Bush administration, nuclear was repeatedly touted as a savior that would reduce our dependence on foreign oil. I have seen this assertion in print many times and have heard many a government representative make this claim.

wobs_1
2/2/2010 11:03:19 AM
"Building new nuclear plants isn’t going to solve the oil crisis"... Is a strawman argument. No one is saying it will, so why bring it up? When a group of people who are opposed to something feel the need to use such weak arguments (and many other misleading statements), we know their position has no value. We need nuclear to replace coal. Coal is that stuff that emits huge quantities of CO2, and a whole coctail of other nasties including uranium. Elctricity demand is set to rise no matter how many efficiency measures we take, and renewables are too intermittent to replace coal, so safe clean nukes are the way forward. modern plants are safer, more efficient, and use less uranium than older designs. GenIII and GenIV reactors are the way forward, and we have no shortage of uranium (despite what some would like to believe).

John Adams_2
1/30/2010 12:06:29 PM
Now... wait. We talk a lot about Electric cars around here. Now these things are cool because the help us use less foreign (and domestic) oil, and oil, as I have been told for four decades is both bad and due run out in a decade. SO if we are going to move towards electric transportation we need electricity. We don't like coal; it emits all kinds of pollutants when burned. We can't damn any more rivers for hydro power. Grid Solar is always a few years off. Wind farms could help, but I don't think they can be enough. So what's left? What are we going to power these electric vehicles with? I'm not really a nuke fan, but I really don't see very many options. Now here is what we need to do: 1 - Figure out what mode of transportation/energy production we are going to use in the next decade. 2 - Use our many (and mighty) brains to figure out how to do it, rather than why we should not do "X". 3 - Have "Green-Tea" parties everywhere so those idiots we hired to represent us in Washington will get off their lazy butts and HELP people with good ideas (the LAST thing we need is for the GOVERNMENT to handle this; they'll just throw money at the problem and smile for the cameras) Michigander - I agree on the Fuel v Food argument. I'd rather eat. Terry Redfern - we can use silicone-based lubes and recycled plastics in place of petrol products.

CamperDan_2
1/30/2010 8:58:09 AM
Of course we should move forward to find alternative energies.Why would we ask science to remain static? But to dismiss nuclear energy out of hand is a chicken little philosophy I will not embrace.Environmental zealots and Hollywood Lefties were able to scare and bully the American public,in the 1970's and 80's to reject the best possible answer to our energy needs. Until America is willing to abandon this childish, unsubstantiated and illogical fear of nuclear power we will remain the patsies of the Middle East oil producers. If France, is able to derive 80% of residential and commercial energy needs from nuclear power plants, then is way past time for the United States to get aboard.

terry redfearn_1
1/23/2010 9:46:10 AM
from terry sorry for a few typo mistakes on spelling just got into bifcoals at age 43 still not use to them;for first comment; as to not needing new energy plants coal and nuclear fission plants have a 40 year life cycle without extensions most coals after 40 years are put on standbye peaker plants converted to gas; nuclear power plants have a max of 20 to 30 year extension life then have to shut down for good due to reactor core plates life cycle;coal plants put out more background radiation then a nuclear power plant nuclear power plants in usa and western europe have contaimne tbuilding to hold everything in there are zero % green house emiting; coal plants are 2 parts black powder for a fuel source release radon gas to atmosphere from coal and soemtimes water systems and dont have contaiment building also solor the byproducts for making panels is contamination windmills kill protected birds at times by sucking them in on airflow drag ;Dan now which system do you prefer thanks terry

terry redfearn_1
1/23/2010 8:06:33 AM
the author on nuclear power comments mean well but are not totally correct i work in the nuclear power plant indiustry as well as other currently usa has to import power from candain nuclear power plants; as to the oil crisis there is some eveidence that was a rigged deal;i agree on making enviorment as clean as possible cuurently coal plants are putting co2 bag houses on that capture co2 which in turn can be put in stripper oil wells to get the oil locked in sand out so it cna be used; as to electric cars even if usa and rest of world was to get rid of combustion fuel system cars you still need oil to lubricate chasis ;axles transmissions; you need oil to make nylon and plastics; ; 1 of the reasons nuclear power cost more upfront it cost 3 times as much due ot paperowrk requirments by the usa federal goverment ; coal plants gas etc do not require in depth paperwork like nuclear power ; reason why we have a used fuel storage problem i asked thta question when i first started as was informed that president jimmy carter used exective order making it so that usa could not take the fuel at that time and rebreed it to usable fuel and usa had to come up with national dump site even though we had breeder plants built here; i belive the problem we have here in usa is people have allowed the goverment get to big and common sense thrown out thanks

Michigander
1/22/2010 1:03:31 PM
Good argument, however the scope of utilizing nuclear energy is not to solve the oil "crisis." The issue seems to be aimed at addressing the shortage of electrical energy. The use of coal-fired generating plants adds environmental concerns because of emissions. Using ethanol as a vehicle fuel, or fuel additive, provides the Solomonic decision to stop eating corn and rather divert it to a fuel or additive.(more profit) Not necessarily a good idea. Maybe an interim solution is to utilize the resources we already have as we encourage the rapid development of alternative energy sources and alternative transportation modes. But never fear, our government has this issue well in hand. Remember, we establised the Energy Commission to correct our dependence on foreign oil 30 years ago!

Pat Miketinac
1/20/2010 9:21:14 PM
Here in central Florida, we are already being billed monthly for 2 nuclear plants that are supposed to be built years from now, no output for at least 10 years. If nukes are such a great idea, why can't they get financing on the open market? Meanwhile, cost estimates continue to skyrocket here. I wonder if I can get my money back if I move in ten years.







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