politics, USA, world

The Nuclear Dilemma

I’m rather certain that my favorite Republican presidential candidate during the 2000 election cycle was John McCain. I’m also rather certain that he’s my favorite this time too. It’s not that he’s perfect. Far from it. I’m well aware that he’s got flaws, and I’ve certainly taken issue with some of the things he’s said.

Lest we go too far into America’s political realities, let’s get back to nukes. But this is not about Iran, North Korea, or the kind of nuclear technologies that go boom. We’re talking about the significantly less frightening kind that just boil water.

Nuclear technology and environmentalists have never been friends. And so the idea that they’ll suddenly become so is unlikely. But John McCain is right about one thing: environmentalists need nuclear power.

To their credit some have come to this realization. Stewart Brand, who created The Whole Earth Catalogue, which The Economist described as “a path-breaking manual crammed with examples of small-scale technologies to enable individuals to reduce their environmental impact” that still has fans in environmental circles.

But Mr. Brand, like Mr. McCain, has embraced the importance of nuclear power to the greening of America. Also like Mr. McCain (and myself), he fails to see what’s so bad about nuclear power and the requisite waste storage. Again, The Economist:

For years, he held the orthodox environmental view that nukes were evil. He now confesses that this was merely “knee-jerk opposition”, and not a carefully considered opinion. His growing concern about global warming, which he calls “the single most important environmental threat facing mankind”, explains his U-turn in favour of this low-carbon but hugely controversial source of electricity.

The turning point came, he says, when he visited Yucca Mountain, a remote site in the Nevada desert where American officials plan to bury the country’s nuclear waste. … Although greens and other anti-nuclear activists oppose the Yucca Mountain project, Mr Brand says he realised that “we are asking the wrong question” about nuclear power. Rather than asking how spent nuclear fuel can be kept safe for 10,000 to 100,000 years, he says, we should worry about keeping it safe for only 100 years. Because nuclear waste still contains an enormous amount of energy, future generations may be able to harness it as an energy source through tomorrow’s better technologies.

Though I’m not as sanguine as Mr. Brand about the ease with which technology will reharness our spent nuclear fuel, I fail to see how opposition to nuclear power is anything but a knee-jerk reaction. Given the choice between filling even a few hollowed-out mountains with spent nuclear fuel or flooding a number of small island nations and coastal cities into nonexistence I think the choices is obvious.

Surely green power-generation technologies exist, and surely they’re becoming more efficient by the year, but they’re hardly ready to be the sole fuel sources for the world. The most well-known options–wind and solar–are both inefficient and far from dependable. It doesn’t take much to realize that without wind or sun they’d produce no power.

Nuclear power certainly is not a perfect technology, but it’s the most carbon-neutral and dependable option available. Power generation companies in this country and around the world realize this and are working to build bigger, safer, and more productive nuclear power stations (usually near existing ones, to avoid the “not in my backyard” problem). And though the most obvious allies for the power companies push to lower carbon dioxide emission are greens, they’re still the people most likely to step out and oppose it.

The issue of safety with nuclear power stations is still the foremost for most opponents. It’s worth noting, as I have, that compared with coal, nuclear is incredibly safe. The number of deaths related to the Chernobyl disaster is easily dwarfed by the number killed mining coal in China in a single year.

Certainly that doesn’t compare with the estimated zero killed by wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal power plants, but this is again ignoring the issue of viability as dependable producers of electricity.

Nuclear is hardly the ideal choice. Were completely safe and renewable energy a viable option in the next few years, I would readily support it. But it’s not. What’s currently available is the unsavory choice between fossil fuels and nuclear, and between those two nuclear is certainly the safer and more environmentally-friendly option. Until renewable sources of energy are dependable and efficient enough, I think nuclear remains the only acceptable stop-gap for a carbon-concerned environmentalist. The sooner that’s realized, the better.

Standard