The Relative Comment

soothing waves of relativity

The pesky, lingering problems of nuclear power.

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Relative to: Nuclear Power, in Japan and the US.

Here is today’s NYTimes discussing the problems of nuclear power in America and Japan:
Until this weekend, President Obama, mainstream environmental groups and large numbers of Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed that nuclear power offered a steady energy source and part of the solution to climate change, even as they disagreed on virtually every other aspect of energy policy. Mr. Obama is seeking tens of billions of dollars in government insurance for new nuclear construction, and the nuclear industry in the United States, all but paralyzed for decades after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, was poised for a comeback.
Now, that is all in question as the world watches the unfolding crisis in Japan’s nuclear reactors and the widespread terror it has spawned.

Advocates of nuclear power in the United States have, in the last 10 years, been staging a successful image reformation for their energy source of choice. A pro-nuclear President Obama has found support in congress and around the country for nuclear development, and states, including Minnesota, have been setting the stage for new nuclear production.  A week ago, new nuclear was viable and probable in the US, though several decades at least from producing electricity.

And yet, in the wake of the Japan earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing nuclear power woes, nuclear advocates are finding themselves set back in the United States. So. How much weight should a natural disaster on an island nation 8,000 miles away be given in the energy policy debates here? Probably not much. Minnesota, for example, doesn’t have (m)any earthquakes or tsunamis, and hasn’t had serious problems with our existing nuclear plants. Such correlations do not make for sound, logical energy policy making (not something the US has in general, btw). Japan is not the US, and the problems with nuclear that are currently underway are not representative of the problems new nuclear in the United States might face. This is true.

Still, it is important, now, as Japan faces very real nuclear threats, that the US reconsiders, and steps away from nuclear energy as a serious piece of the solution pie of America’s energy crisis.

True, nuclear is cleaner than coal, and the numbers say it is much safer. There can be no denying this. Right? Lots of smart people, environmentalists and energy experts and democrats and republicans, support nuclear power for the future. New nuclear development, new plants and reactors can help us solve the climate crisis, it is argued. But at the earliest, when could new nuclear plants replace electricity provided by coal burning power plants? 20 years? 30 years? If climate change is the threat scientists say it is (not really up for debate), then this is too slow to have the impact needed. We need to burn less coal now, not burn more coal for 30 years, then use nuclear in addition to coal.

Instead, there are many clean safe options–wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, a virtual portfolio of renewables– for our energy dependence. These solutions are still scoffed at by many as impractical, or simply impossible when it comes to fulfilling American energy needs. Renewables may not be as high-powered or produce as much electricity from a single plant, but the idea of single-stroke energy solutions is outdated, and the downsides offered by renewable energy pale in comparison to nuclear.

Why not nuclear, then? Well, it’s true, things don’t often go wrong with nuclear. But the downside when things do is unparalleled. I think, as a nation, we partially understand this. One need only look at the difficulty of finding waste deposit sites. But we had better make sure that we understand all the risks, are willing to deal with those risks should an accident occur, and are patient enough to pay billions now and wait decades to get a new reactor online. All while not destroying the climate in the meantime by burning coal.

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Written by Christopher ZF

March 14, 2011 at 11:05

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