Nuclear Power: The True Weight of Water

I’m going to come out again in favor of nuclear energy, if only because we’re so far behind the curve in getting alternative energy up to speed to replace coal and oil that it’s going to take us decades to catch up.
Nuclear Power: The True Weight of Water
Photo:iluvcocacola, Creative Commons, Flickr

Unfortunately, these typical energy sources aren’t going to remain viable for another 20 years while we play catch-up, either as a result of failing infrastructure, declining output, environmental resistance and degradation, or increasingly unstable political climates.

Fact: Coal represents more than half of all the energy produced in the U.S. The U.S. burns more than 95 million tons of coal per year. At about 2 tons of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) per ton of coal, this is 2,154 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year. No wonder our ecology is collapsing, the oceans are not only warming but becoming so acidic that life is perishing. Alternative energy represents less than 7 percent of electricity generation, and has risen only slightly more than one percent since 2002.

Emissions from oil, or petroleum, are even greater, at 2,583 million metric tons, and emissions from natural gas burning have climbed with increased usage to 1,234 million metric tons, for a whopping total of nearly 6 million tons of CO2 emissions per year in the U.S. alone.

Fact: the U.S. gets about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, many of which were built in the 1970’s, before the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island (TMI) negatively impacted most future development. This, in spite of the fact that nothing really happened at TMI, and nothing has happened since. Most people fear nuclear energy because they don’t understand it, and many environmentalists play on this fear to sound authoritative.

Now plans are afoot to close Entergy’s Vermont Yankee plant, which after 36 years of continuous operation, recently experienced the collapse of its cooling tower (no surprise there). In New York legislators also want to close the Indian Point reactor, citing concerns related to 9/11 and potential terrorism. Their real fears are quite different.

In fact, all across America, old-fashioned, hard line environmentalists – who grew up during the Cold War and retain that ground-zero mentality – are pushing against nuclear power. Those of us who preach a new environmentalism use the word sustainability, defined as a system or protocol that allows the current generation to meet its needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Nuclear power fills that bill by providing non-polluting, affordable power. The benefits are many, the drawbacks (aging plants and spent fuel) manageable. Even as a stopgap policy, nuclear energy will allow us to take that next, big step to alternative energy without disrupting the economy.

More recently, environmental and citizen groups have tacked off into attacking nuclear plant’s cooling water systems. One of these groups is Riverkeeper, which in 2007 challenged the EPA’s approach of forgoing the most expensive solution – which would involve closed-cycle cooling systems – and allowing the utility companies themselves to decide how to comply with the Clean Water Act through internal review, analysis and implementation.

Given the power sector’s focus on bottom lines and shareholder profits, this is like allowing the inmates of a prison to write their own rules. Chaos and abuse will ensue. Still, closing nuclear plants to prevent water temperature impacts is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Riverkeeper would better serve its cause by negotiating improvements or focusing on more critical issues, since water temperature variations are the least destructive of the many ways in which rivers can be polluted. Higher water temperatures at the outflow site do affect aquatic populations, but they have few long-term effects downstream. I would rather see warmer water and fewer fish in the vicinity of a nuclear plant than mercury or dioxins all along a river’s flow as a result of manufacturing operations.

My main concern with nuclear generation is typified by the Vermont Yankee cooling tower collapse, which underlies the increasing age (and increasing danger) of nuclear generating plants in the U.S. Just as it’s not possible to keep a car running well for 20 or 30 years, it is not possible to keep a nuclear plant operational for more than a quarter century without increasingly costly and potentially dangerous mechanical failures.

We need to start building nuclear plants now. We need to put pressure on the DOE to license Yucca Mountain for spent fuel storage, or abandon the project as impossible and explore other options. We need to recognize that – even if Peak Oil is an illusion created by speculation, the Chinese ramp down production, and the former availability of Mideast oil has lulled us into a false sense of security leading to reduced domestic production – the energy needs of the U.S. are not going to go away merely because we can’t supply them. Being forced to burn coal because we’re out of options is not a sustainable scenario; carbon sequestration underground is an expensive and unproven technology with possibly disastrous consequences.

We can use existing nuclear generating plants for the next decade, after which newer plants and more widespread use of alternative energy can kick in to “kick” our oil habit, freeing us from both our dependence on foreign oil and a seriously polluted environment.

Getting America’s energy future up to speed will require politicians who can ignore pork-barrel projects and personal interests, and environmentalists less dedicated to outworn rhetoric and self-aggrandizement and more focused on real sustainability. It will require new ideas, and open minds to heed them. For example, with the $7 billion we’ve already spent on Yucca Mountain, we could have built a system of one-use space vehicles and launched the nuclear waste into the sun.

If you have other ideas on how to get rid of spent fuel, please post them.

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any energy company.

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