Nuclear ain’t so great
My recent post on petroleum madness attracted a very good segue comment leading to a discussion of nuclear power, so I decided to reproduce it and my response here. I plan to write much more extensively about nuclear power, about why it’s good whilst also being not so great, but for now here’s a short abstract of my stance on nuclear energy, and why. Stay tuned for a follow-up post on this, too.
Anyway, here’s John‘s comment, and then my response:
You sounded intelligent until the last statement of your post. We still need to drill because our country will need to transition not stop cold turkey. The real pillar has to be nuclear, with wind, tides and solar providing increasing power when they become more proven. But as you know your people are really against those as well.
Well, I never claimed to be the sharpest billiard ball in the rack… oh wait…
Actually I’m not anti-nuclear. I know that surprises my environmentalist friends (because I’m an environmentalist, too), but nuclear is a proven technology that provides a substantial energy product from a small package. In grad school I worked in a nuclear geochemistry lab, studying instrumental neutron activation analysis. I guess for that reason nuclear chemistry is very interesting to me, and through knowledge and familiarity I don’t fear it disproportionately. In fact if you take a look at my publication list, you’ll see a few uranium-research papers in there.
That said, although I’m not against nuclear, I think we can’t depend on it as a primary global energy solution. It comes down to two issues with me: supply and efficiency.
The supply of uranium is fairly stable, with nuclear fission being a minority energy player in a few nations today. I think we could use a bit more nuclear, but probably not too much more. Right now, only a handful of nations use a substantial amount of fission power in their energy mix. The demand for U is consistent, as a result. But if everyone in the world started using U for energy, or if the US went whole hog into a fission bender, I don’t think supply could meet demand for very long. There is probably enough ore U still in the ground to feed a minority nuclear share in world power for decades, maybe even a couple of centuries, but probably not much longer.
U isn’t sustainable, and it’s pretty finite. Fission destroys U atoms, and even breeder reactors aren’t perpetual motion machines, they’re just techniques to extend the supply slightly. Unless we start mining the planet Mercury, nuclear doesn’t have much of a long term future as a support to human civilization.
The other issue is efficiency… as in total cost including externalities, versus energy yield. Nuclear has a very high cost, including strip-mining, ore processing and enrichment, plant security, and most of all spent fuel storage. If you choose to reprocess, you get more bang per kg of U, but your costs soar, and you create plutonium – and every gram of Pu is conveniently bomb-ready, no isotopic enrichment required. Radioactive wastes are dangerous but manageable, yet any responsible management of such wastes is very expensive, for a long time. Factoring in all that, wind and solar become much more attractive from a cradle-to-grave utility/cost standpoint.
And don’t even get me started on fusion… 😉