Skip to comments.Going nuclear can be 'green'
Posted on 04/25/2006 9:55:53 PM PDT by Coleus
In the early 1970s when I helped found Greenpeace, I believed nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust, as did most of my compatriots. That's the conviction that inspired Greenpeace's first voyage up the spectacular rocky northwest coast to protest the testing of U.S. hydrogen bombs in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Thirty years on, my views have changed, and the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views, too, because nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.
Look at it this way: More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions -- or nearly 10 percent of global emissions -- of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power. And these days it can do so safely.
I say that guardedly, of course, just days after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that his country had enriched uranium. "The nuclear technology is only for the purpose of peace and nothing else," he said. But there is widespread speculation that, even though the process is ostensibly dedicated to producing electricity, it is in fact a cover for building nuclear weapons. And although I don't want to underestimate the very real dangers of nuclear technology in the hands of rogue states, we cannot simply ban every technology that is dangerous. That was the all-or-nothing mentality at the height of the Cold War, when anything nuclear seemed to spell doom for humanity and the environment.
In 1979, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon produced a frisson of fear with their starring roles in "The China Syndrome," a fictional evocation of nuclear disaster in which a reactor meltdown threatens a city's survival. Less than two weeks after the blockbuster film opened, a reactor core meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant sent shivers of anguish throughout the country. What nobody noticed at the time, though, was that Three Mile Island was in fact a success story: The concrete containment structure did just what it was designed to do -- prevent radiation from escaping into the environment.
And although the reactor itself was crippled, there was no injury or death among nuclear workers or nearby residents. Three Mile Island was the only serious accident in the history of nuclear energy generation in the United States, but it was enough to scare us away from further developing the technology: There hasn't been a nuclear plant ordered up since then. Today, there are 103 nuclear reactors quietly delivering just 20 percent of America's electricity. Eighty percent of the people living within 10 miles of these plants approve of them (that's not including the nuclear workers). Although I don't live near a nuclear plant, I am now squarely in their camp.
And I am not alone among seasoned environmental activists in changing my mind on this subject. British atmospheric scientist James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory, believes that nuclear energy is the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change. Stewart Brand, founder of the "Whole Earth Catalog," says the environmental movement must embrace nuclear energy to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. On occasion, such opinions have been met with excommunication from the anti-nuclear priesthood: The late British Bishop Hugh Montefiore, founder and director of Friends of the Earth, was forced to resign from the group's board after he wrote a pro-nuclear article in a church newsletter.
There are signs of a new willingness to listen, though, even among the staunchest anti-nuclear campaigners. When I attended the Kyoto climate meeting in Montreal last December, I spoke to a packed house on the question of a sustainable energy future. I argued that the only way to reduce fossil fuel emissions from electrical production is through an aggressive program of renewable energy sources (hydroelectric, geothermal heat pumps, wind, etc.) plus nuclear. The Greenpeace spokesperson was first at the mike for the question period, and I expected a tongue-lashing. Instead, he began by saying he agreed with much of what I said -- not the nuclear bit, of course, but there was a clear feeling that all options must be explored.
Here's why: Wind and solar power have their place, but because they are intermittent and unpredictable they simply can't replace big baseload plants such as coal, nuclear and hydroelectric. Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is too expensive already, and its price is too volatile to risk building big baseload plants. Given that hydroelectric resources are built pretty much to capacity, nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It's that simple. That's not to say that there aren't real problems -- as well as various myths -- associated with nuclear energy. Each deserves careful consideration:
The multi-agency U.N. Chernobyl Forum reported last year that 56 deaths could be directly attributed to the accident, most of those from radiation or burns suffered while fighting the fire. Tragic as those deaths were, they pale in comparison to the more than 5,000 coal-mining deaths that occur worldwide every year. No one has died of a radiation-related accident in the history of the U.S. civilian nuclear reactor program. (And although hundreds of uranium mine workers did die from radiation exposure underground in the early years of that industry, that problem was long ago corrected.)
And it is incorrect to call it waste, because 95 percent of the potential energy is still contained in the used fuel after the first cycle. Now that the United States has removed the ban on recycling used fuel, it will be possible to use that energy and to greatly reduce the amount of waste that needs treatment and disposal. Last month, Japan joined France, Britain and Russia in the nuclear-fuel-recycling business. The United States will not be far behind.
Over the past 20 years, one of the simplest tools -- the machete -- has been used to kill more than a million people in Africa, far more than were killed in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings combined. What are car bombs made of? Diesel oil, fertilizer and cars. If we banned everything that can be used to kill people, we would never have harnessed fire. The only practical approach to the issue of nuclear weapons proliferation is to put it higher on the international agenda and to use diplomacy and, where necessary, force to prevent countries or terrorists from using nuclear materials for destructive ends. And new technologies such as the reprocessing system recently introduced in Japan (in which the plutonium is never separated from the uranium) can make it much more difficult for terrorists or rogue states to use civilian materials to manufacture weapons.
The 600-plus coal-fired plants emit nearly 2 billion tons of CO2 annually -- the equivalent of the exhaust from about 300 million automobiles. In addition, the Clean Air Council reports that coal plants are responsible for 64 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 26 percent of nitrous oxides and 33 percent of mercury emissions. These pollutants are eroding the health of our environment, producing acid rain, smog, respiratory illness and mercury contamination. Meanwhile, the 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States avoid the release of 700 million tons of CO2 emissions annually -- the equivalent of the exhaust from more than 100 million automobiles.
Imagine if the ratio of coal to nuclear were reversed so that only 20 percent of our electricity was generated from coal and 60 percent from nuclear. This would go a long way toward cleaning the air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Every responsible environmentalist should support a move in that direction. Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, is chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. He and former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman are co-chairs of a new industry-funded initiative, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which supports increased use of nuclear energy.
Oh, he gets it now but back in the 70s the people with a brain got it then, fat lot of good it did us, and now we are stuck with stupid regs that stifle development of alternative energy and oil and natural gas exploration. Greens have runined this planet and are single handedly repsonsible for the mess we are in now.
nukes work better, even cheese eating surrender monkeys know that :)
Oh brother, he's still a pompous ass I see. Lots of people "noticed" that the containment worked, just not the "right" (that is Left) kind of people that he smugly presumed(s) to be the enlightened elite.
So why should we listen to you now seeing as you were wrong then and 25 years behind the curve?
I find it shocking that the US environmental movement ignores the example in Europe, which has a massive nuke capacity with few accidents, save those dim wits in Russia. Jimmy Carter was also a huge proponent of nuke power.
TMI was a long time ago and safety has come a long way since then.
Flying pigs bump
Ive always considered nuclear waste a temporary problem. Humans will figure out how to solve the waste problem someday. Why bury it for the ages? Secure it for future technologies to solve, possibly exploit.
good point, just dangerous to have it 'laying around'
When NASA gets back on track we can shoot the waste into the sun.
envirovermin would protest, even though that would be the ideal recylable bin
oh oh I know the answer. Plastic Surgery in Hollywood. I'm sure Nuclear waste works much better than botox and might just might make your face mutate into something better.
Whoops, might as well stop reading at this point.
"When NASA gets back on track we can shoot the waste into the sun."
Remember the old TV program Space 1999?
They stored it on the moon.
yeah, but you don't hear a lot from the hydrogen lobby about how water vapor is the most potent greenhouse gas known
At the time of the TMI incident, I was working concrete on what I believe was the last nuke plant built in the US, Shearon Harris in New Hill (Raleigh) N. C. I watched dumbfounded as 200,000 idiots fled screaming into the night in Penn. No civilian outside the TMI fence was ever exposed to an amount of radiation equivalent to a single medical X-ray. No doubt, more people died in traffic accidents in the evacuation than suffered the slightest ill-effect from released radiation, since the latter number is zero.
Jimmy Carter, your "huge proponent of nuclear power" helped kill it by making it illegal to reprocess spent fuel rods in America as part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The French, having the good sense to not sign that spectacularly ineffectual bit of nonsense, thank us, they get that business now. We are still trying to bury a rich source of new energy in Yucca Mountain when we ought to be recycling it. If it's hot enough to be dangerous, it is by definition a better source for new fuel than any natural ore on Earth.
The redundancy built into the plant I worked at had to be seen to be believed. New pebble bed reactors would make even a TMI accident impossible, they don't require coolant flow at all. We could be generating at least 50% of electricity by emmission free nuclear power if we had not gone into full-scale recto-cranial inversion over anything nuclear.
Russia and Chernobyl have nothing to do with commercial nuclear power. Chernobyl, and twenty some still operating plants in Russia, are essentially jumped up versions of Enrico Fermi's original graphite pile in Chicago. No containment, great risk of warping the fuel rods to make withdrawing them impossible.
Cannot let this pass: some two hundred Russian volunteers responded to Chernobyl by getting close enough, long enough to put out the graphite fires and start the process of containment. They did this KNOWING their exposure was lethal, but knowing the job had to be done somehow. The survival rate of these hot-zone runners was ZERO! They are too seldom recognized as the true heros they were.
I read a little more, and my suspicions were vindicated when he started talking about Gaia Theory.
got your spidey senses tingling did it ? :)
Jimmy Carter was also a huge proponent of nuke power.
I've been in favor of nuclear power since I was a kid but you just gave me something to consider.
Check out Thorium Power!
You are right on. You might be interested in my webpage on nuclear power at http://RussP.us/nucpower.htm . It features several articles by Bernard L. Cohen. Don't miss it!
This number I just do not believe. The rest of the World has been heaping the lion's share of consumption on the United States for so long, I don't think they even question the numbers anymore. It would be interesting to see some real figures on this.
Since you bring in coal, another item you will not hear in the mainstream. Since natural radioactives are scaterred through the Earth's crust as trace elements, the burning of coal releases into the atmosphere literally several hundred pounds of radionucleotides every day. Nobody gives a damn for the good reason that as dispersed as they are, these traces would take very fine equipment to measure as a change in background radiation.