Global Warming: Is Nuclear Energy the Answer?
Every March 28, I celebrate Three Mile Island day. I was in Baltimore on that day in 1979, less than 100 miles from the nuclear power plant as it teetered on the edge of catastrophic failure, and the anniversary of that day always reminds me of just how close we came to our very own Chernobyl.
In truth, nuclear power fascinates me, even given the risks involved. Could nuclear power be the way -- at least partly -- to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels? And, consequently, could it help in the fight against climate change?
Mark Hertsgaard, author of Nuclear Inc., argues that no, nuclear energy is not the answer. "The truth is that nuclear power is a weakling in combatting global warming," he says. And that's not because of the safety concerns, but rather the economic ones. Construction of plants is subsidized heavily by the government, as it would have to be given the astronomical cost and the decade or so it takes to get each plant running. Another problem, he says, is that nuclear power plants produce only electricity, which is just a third of our energy usage. It doesn't make a dent in bigger pollution problems like automobile exhaust. Energy efficiency, he argues, is far more cost effective and makes a bigger impact in less time.
Aussie blogger John Quiggin also takes note of the high cost of nuclear -- it might be cleaner emissions-wise, but it's still much more expensive than coal or gas. Glen of the Climate Change blog points out that nuclear power production "does release carbon dioxide -- albeit at lower levels than other energy sources." Beyond that, he's surprised nuclear energy is being discussed as a viable option when the waste disposal question has not been adequately resolved.
In The Commons blog Amy Ridenour quotes a letter published in the Financial Times that reads, in part, "Contrary to popular misconceptions, nuclear power is safe, environmentally benign and sustainable for many thousands of years." Nuclear power is safe if done correctly and with the utmost care, and sure, it's definitely sustainable. But environmentally benign?
How is burying highly toxic, radioactive nuclear waste that takes 50 to 1000 years to degrade just by half environmentally benign? A paper published on the City University of New York's Web site explains that "one has to plan storage and protection for the public on a time-scale of thousands of years. We cannot be very confidant [sic] about guaranteeing this protection reliably. ...Isotopes with intermediate half-lives (say from 10 to 100 years), need only be secured on a time-scale of a few hundred years, although they are likely to be more intense."
This article intro in National Geographic offers a glimpse of the scale of the nuclear waste storage problem. (Sorry, a subscription is required to read the whole thing.) For more information on nuclear waste, the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board and the Sierra Club are good starting points.
So what's the solution? Australian columnist Piers Ackerman invites the world to dump it's nuclear waste in his backyard. "Australia could easily store nuclear waste from the rest of the world because it has the space to safely warehouse such material in a stable geological surrounding," he writes, summarizing the argument made by former prime minister Bob Hawke. Furthermore, he says, "As Australia is home to about 40 percent of the world's uranium reserves it even makes some moral sense for Australia to have a role in the safe disposal of nuclear waste."
(Memo to my Australian mother-in-law: Sorry! I promise we'll still come visit you even if your country is turned into one giant Superfund site.)
Alex Scoble, posting in the Computerworld blog back in June, went off topic to wax eloquent about the necessity of nuclear power. His solution to both high oil prices and global warming from the combustion of fossil fuels is to build more nuclear power plants.
In A Musing Environment, Karen Street blogs about a recent poll suggesting that such support for increasing the use of nuclear energy is on the rise. She's dismayed, though, that "2/3 believe that conservation is not as important as developing new energy sources, a misunderstanding that all of us need to confront."
By Emily Messner |
October 4, 2005; 10:37 AM ET
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