Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Nuclear energy - is it worth it?

I'm sure all of you are aware of the growing risks of the situation in Japan following the horrific earthquake and tsunami. All eyes are now on Japan's nuclear reactors and the potential not just for localized radiation leakage, but on something much more alarming if their containment is breached.

Living on the west coast and, in particular, the Pacific NW, where we are right in the path of any large amount of radiation leakage certainly makes me think about the risks of nuclear power.

Having grown up living near Hanford, it's certainly something that occasionally crosses my mind but it's not something I think about much. The vast majority of our local energy comes from clean energy sources - hydroelectric and wind - and we are extraordinarily lucky in that regard.

I've never been a fan of nuclear energy and this event just reinforces for me that the dangers far outweigh any good they produce. The highly hazardous waste alone is sufficient to rethink nuclear energy as a long-term viable energy policy and the obvious risk of damage from natural events just isn't worth the cost to human health and the environment.

With the recent push toward reintroducing more nuclear energy as an option to get off of petroleum based fuel, the happenings in Japan should certainly make us all pause.

What do you think of what's going on? Are you scared? Do you feel threatened? And, how has it changed your opinion of nuclear energy, if at all?

Photo: Getty Images


Rebecca said...

Definitive NO! It is not worth it. AS my DH pointed out... if a solar array or wind towers went down in an earthquake, the impact would be... that they would fall down. Power would be shut off. That's it.

Diane said...

There is so much hyperbole on both sides, I wish I had more information. Solar and wind energy has so many benefits, but the "catch" rate of usable energy is still too low for mass use. The technology continues to improve, but how long will it take for it to really come into its own?

The only clear thing to me is that the current amount of carbon dioxide burning is unsustainable.

lemontree said...

There are newer, safer methods of getting energy from nuclear power, using both fusion and fission to gain power. There is no radioactive waste to these plants and no harm of meltdown. The problem is we aren't allowed to build these kinds of plants because of all the opposition to nuclear power. Instead of replacing the old, unsafe power plants with new, safe plants, we keep using the old technology and the old plants. Nuclear power does not scare me, it's the old reactors that scare me.

Able-Bodied Girl said...

Absolutely worth it.

With connections I'd rather not mention, I do live close to a nuclear plant and have loved ones working there. The US nuclear industry is the SAFEST in the world precisely BECAUSE of your fears. They know they hold a tenuous position in people's minds and they do their upmost to keep that trust by going above and beyond safety protocols and lending a helping hand to any nuclear facility that has need, whether or not they are a "competitor". In the US, these companies do not compete; they know the fate of one is the fate of them all. They work together to solve problems, share information that helps provide additional safety, and always have their community's in the forefront of their minds.
I have followed closely both sides, and I believe fully that folks in the nuclear industry know just how important and crutial their work is to both the safety of their regions and to providing resonably-priced and high-yielding energy that does not suck up natural resources.
There are also other affiliated companies that work every day to produce safer means of producing nuclear energy, who feel the same way you do: that's it's not safe enough.

That being said, yes, I'd love to see us rely only on wind, sun, tides, and other natural forces. But until governments and corporations get off their asses and find a way to make them attainable, great ideas like this one: as posted by Sharon last year, won't get off the ground. Until then, nuclear provides a good alternative.

Jimmy Erickson said...

The fact that their reactors got hit with the largest earthquake on record and there wasn't an immediate meltdown seems like a good sign to me. They are managing the situation, and it's likely that nobody will be hurt.

And as has been said, many of our nuclear reactors operate on decades old technology, newer ones would produce almost no waste and be orders of magnitude safer.

People tend to forget the number of people who die every year from coal/oil fuel sources, nuclear may not be perfect, but it's better than many of the alternatives.

Bucky said...

@lemontree -- we don't currently get any nuclear power from fusion reactors. To my knowledge, all of the fission reactors we have produce radioactive waste. I would be interested in learning something new if you have other information.

One of my problems with nuclear energy is that people consider it to be "clean" energy. Nuclear energy actually has a fairly large carbon footprint. It takes a lot of energy to mine and refine the many tons of earth required to produce nuclear material(along with serious environmental damage). More carbon-based energy still to process the nuclear material into usable fuel rods.

And of course the question of what to do with the radioactive waste?

All-in-all, Nuclear energy is a dirty fuel. Not as bad as coal, perhaps, but not "clean" either.

El Gaucho said...

I actually wrote a blog post about this same topic earlier today. While I can't disagree with Able-Bodied Girl that nuclear plants here in the US aren't the safest in the world, it's easy to assume that the folks in Japan thought the same way about their nuclear power plants before this disaster.

It's because of the unpredictable variables like natural disasters that nuclear power will NEVER be a completely safe option, no matter how hard we try or how much we want it to be safe. If an earthquake destroys a solar power plant or a wind farm, what happens? There is destruction, but not land that is uninhabitable for 10,000 years.

Preston said...

Not only is nuclear dangerous, it is impractical in the long run. We have maybe 30-50 years of uranium supplies left, and alternatives such as thorium are still not commercially viable and may never be. We are going to have to learn to live with less energy than we have been used to.

Gayle said...

Honestly, no I don't feel threatened, I might be more concerned on the West Coast but I live in the middle of the country. And while I'm not totally opposed to or for nuclear energy, I cannot in good conscience criticize their choices while they go through this time. Later when the autopsy is done and the crisis is over maybe, but not now.

Tanya said...

I've always thought that nuclear power and the potential for earthquakes made for a bad combination. Or anything where waste management is measured in a timespan more than a century. I'd like to see more focus on conservation, efficiency, and small-scale locally generated power.

Sharon said...

I think the central point about nuclear is its incredibly high cost and high frontloading of fossil energies for eventual comparatively low return. Honestly, we can't afford the nuclear buildout - which just got vastly more expensive (and it was unaffordable before) because now you have to build to category 5 hurricane specs and 9.1 earthquake specs, and all climate related projected specs. It is simply inviable on any scale. I don't bother having a strong opinion on nuclear because it just isn't going to happen.

Sparkless said...

I think that until they can deal safely with nuclear waste they should stop with the nuclear plants. Until they can convert nuclear waste into a safe substance all nuclear power plants should be shut down.
I also think putting nuclear power plants in an earthquake and tusnami zone is incredibly irresponsible and just plain stupid!

Risa said...

The containers that have, according to Tepco, stood up to huge explosions, the second of which threw bus-sized chunks of concrete over 1,000 feet, are so difficult to make that I hear there's only one outfit (it's in Japan) that makes them,... and it does so one at a time, and it takes months. I'm not convinced nuclear is a buildable option, on that basis alone. So I suspect the loan guarantees of being yet another financial shell game. Folks, we're finding out we are all poor. Every option discussed assumes a level of personal consumption for billions that just ain't gonna be there that much longer.

So I don't vote either way. I try to learn how to live with as little of the grid as possible. If I lived alone I would be off the grid entirely, even at my age.

Chris said...

I agree with Tanya, "I'd like to see more focus on conservation, efficiency, and small-scale locally generated power."

Nuclear fusion is the panacea that everyone is after, and there are no operational fusion reactors anywhere in the world at this time (an experimental one in southern France is due online after 2018).

The vast quantities of nuclear waste remain hazardous for THOUSANDS of years. Even fusion reactors generate HIGHLY radioactive waste which remains dangerous for 50-100 years.

Uranium is a finite resource, much like the oil needed to extract it. Once the high-grade ore in Saskatchewan runs out it'll be economically unfeasible to extract the rest.

As Preston said, "We are going to have to learn to live with less energy than we have been used to."

And, by the way, the word is pronounced NU-CLE-AR, not nuc-u-lar.

Brenna @ Almost All The Truth said...

I am also on the West Coast and am not really scared. Maybe I should be, but I don't want to spend my time worrying about something I have no control over. Maybe I should start sticking some iodine though. ;)

I was always against nuclear energy, but have lost track of where the technology is. If there is in fact, cleaner and safer ways to get energy from nuclear power without the radioactive waste, then I would be interested in learning more.

As it stands, I agree that a focus on conservation and efficiency would be best all around.

Wendy said...

Total thumbs down .... So, what? We get some electric lights and fluffy towels, but at what cost? The risk far exceeds any possible benefit. I have to agree with Preston here - we need to learn to live with less - small community or personal power generation systems would eliminate the need for "grid" power.

Half Acre Homestead said...

I'm taking this opportunity to learn more about nuclear energy. I realized I know very little, which is kind of sad given that I live a few hours' drive from Hanford Nuclear Reserve, and I used to drive past Trojan Nuclear Power Plant on a regular basis. From what I've read, I am not concerned by the issue in Japan from a personal standpoint, even living on the West Coast. I am making sure that everyone in my family is getting adequate vitamins and minerals right now (if your body has all the non-nuclear versions it can use, it's less likely to uptake irradiated ones if you are exposed.) I am more concerned for the sea around Japan, and the people in the area, and especially the workers in the plant right now. As for in general, I think now is the time for cleaning up and defusing the current situation, and analysis of risk/benefit can come when it's over.

Elizabeth said...

It's such a complicated issue. We have to have energy sources and "green" energy infrastructure just isn't sufficient yet. Obviously nuclear energy can be perilous, but so can coal, and most other types of energy. I don't have the answer, but I have prayers for Japan.

Dmarie said...

Ooh, this hits a nerve! The mom of a nuclear safety engineer who works at a nuclear plant once told me his pager is only to be used for may-be-a-meltdown-type emergencies, and he gets called in a LOT! Put the power plants in the richest regions among the finest homes if they are so safe. The nuclear power option is only considered when concern for costs and jobs trumps concern for lives and the health of our planet. Same goes for coal-power. If we would all learn to use less power (myself included), we wouldn't need to build more plants.

Able-Bodied Girl said...

@Dmarie: what her son might not have told her was all those pager calls were safety checks, making sure everyone actually responds to their pagers when they are supposed to. these safety checks happen quite frequently, as i can attest :)

Diane said...

We need to look at the big energy picture. Relying on big, centralized power plants that use dangerous fossil fuels - or radioactive ones - is a no-win situation. My town is starting a solar coop, focusing on generating more power locally and somewhat offthe grid.

Denise said...

More people die prematurely every year from the ill effects of air pollution, mainly from burning fossil fuels, than have ever died from nuclear power plant incidents. Nuclear energy seemed like a good option for a "bridge fuel" as we transition to renewables. I think it will not be politically feasible now.

Existential Farmer Blog said...

If we put an equivalent level of investment into wind, solar, geo and tidal it would be a no brainer victory for green power. The chevron commercials got one thing right, the future of energy will be a mix, but it doesn't mean nonrenewables have to be in that mix.

Lisa P. said...

I sincerely feel that nuclear technology has never been worth it, not for power nor armanents. If the funding to develope, build, maintain and mitigate risk and detriment were applied to clean alternative energies, no matter how inefficient people may proclaim them to be , I feel that effort would be worth it. I understand the need for energy but nuclear energy will never be worth it.

Anonymous said...

Sharon said it best- nuclear is a non-starter. I don't bother having a strong opinion, because it's not politically feasible, and it takes decades to get a new nuclear power plant online, and so far, there are none in the U.S. being developed. I also am in favor of the micro grid concept. Will electricity be more expensive? Yep, but welcome to the 21st century.

harriet said...

I don't think we can take nuclear off the table..20% of our current energy comes from nuclear power. It's clean, carbon it part of our future? Maybe, maybe not, but but what is clear is we need to move, and move quickly off of our dependence on fossil fuels, and towards a clean economy. This will take a "Manhattan Project" type of commitment - solar, wind, algae, nuclear - government, the private sector and the public, all commited, on board and "paid up"..

Crafty Green Poet said...

I'm against nuclear power for lots of reasons - it's inefficient, has a larger carbon footprint than people generally care to admit, is potentially very dangerous. But then there are huge problems with oil, coal, even large scale renewable sources of energy (industrial sized windfarms potentially destroy landscapes and can kill wildlife, large hydroelectric schemes flood vast areas destroying rainforest or displacing large numbers of people and what happens when the dam bursts?).

Crunchy Chicken said...

Bucky, JanesDaddy and El Gaucho - Yes, yes and yes! Wait, that sounded pornographic.

Jimmy - I think the initial assessment of how well those reactors weathered the earthquake/tsunami were grossly under-reported as we are now seeing.

Preston - Excellent point on the uranium supplies. I didn't know that.

Denise - I'd like to see those statistics. Chernobyl had far reaching health impacts.

As a follow-up, I'm kind of surprised that Obama has been consistently stating that this event in no way affects his support to move forward in building additional nukular reactors in the U.S. Anyone else think this message comes across as short-sighted?

Patrick said...

Efficiency is just applying our efforts to not waste what is already generated. A kw/hr of efficiency costs 2.7 cents. A steady 24/7 generated kw/hr is 7.4 and peak afternoon evenings over 17 cents.
Preston is right about using less, but it needs to be said that you can be just as warm and comfortable using less.
More importantly, and more wide a vale is that you don't have to send your youth to countries with oil if you use energy smarter.
No current energy source is honestly accounted, so 'worth it' is hard to say unless we get honest about cost. Tens of thousands of US citizens die each year from inhaling toxins from coal burning. That isn't in the price of their electricity.

Lisa said...

I don't feel it's worth it, neither are coal, natural gas, or oil. However nuclear has one of the largest instead effects on life when there is a disaster. Plus there is the waste even if the plant never has an issue.

Thankfully there are no nuclear plants in Oklahoma.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

I have to say, I find this whole discussion very enlightening. I had been under the impression that the environmentalists all loved nuclear energy for being carbon neutral, and wanted all of us to get over our fears. But apparently not. What is ideal and what is plausible, though, are clearly two very different things in energy policy.

Dianna said...

I wish the focus wasn't on what energy we use but instead on how to be more efficient with it so we need less. We can't continue the resource intense lives that Americans live and expect renewable energy will save us because it won't. There are issues even with clean energy. There isn't enough land and it requires energy.

We should focus on living with less, buying things used, designing our communities more densely for walking instead of vehicles. Suburbia was a bad way of designing cities and cities must come up with better future planning. All houses should be south facing and use green technology. One companies waste can be used for other purposes.

There so much we can do to reduce our impact. Reducing is the most important part of the equation. In the US we have 5% of the population and use 25% of the resources. We can do so much better.

Dahlia ChanTang said...

September 11th will mark the 6 month 'anniversary' of the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima incident.

Although the issue has more or less fallen from the news reel, there is still an ongoing crisis; the displaced will never be allowed back home; and the first cases radioactivity-related illnesses in children have begun to appear.

So no, nuclear energy is not an acceptable alternative. It is dirty from its very beginnings in the mine to its end as radioactive waste.

It is neither safe nor carbon-neutral in any way. In fact, the water used to cool down the reactors is radioactive when it dumped back in lakes, rivers and the sea. It is also very hot: in essence, radioactive waste water is heating up our waterways, mimicking the exact process of global warming.

Furthermore, every single nuclear reactor in the world is privately owned. We all know that the main goal of private enterprise is to make money, so are we truly ready to put our health, safety and environment in the hands of private enterprise?

Cutting back on our energy consumption is the only way to go.

Len said...

Japan's crisis definitely has changed my opinion of nuclear energy. Whereas I was a stiff opponent of nuclear energy before, I now realize that we need it in some form.

Stunned? Let me explain.

Both my parents were nuclear physicists. My dad worked at the world's first nuclear power plant. Both of them eventually realized that nuclear energy came at an extraordinary cost - the requirement that all our radioactive materials be contained for far longer than recorded history.

The nuclear age is, by practical definition about 25,000 years long. Regardless of when (or if) we deplete nuclear resouces, we have to maintain a level of technology, civilization and political stability for around 25,000 years before we can safely say we got through it. I am deeply concerned that we cannot do it. History does not support that possibility and I have no reason to believe that technology will change the same basic human conditions that created our past. Only 40 years after the moonshot, we've already lost that particular technology. If we wanted to put a man on the moon again, we would have to re-invent much of what we knew back then. So for 25,000 years, we cannot afford an interruption in our technology due to climate change, disease, war, collapse of empires or what have you because there is an extraordinary amount of radioactive material on this planet and we have to live with all of it or be killed off by it.

While the physics of it is fascinating, I wish we never had nuclear power or nuclear bombs because the stakes are too high regardless of the risks. Yet, as I watched the magnitude of the problem in Japan and realized how under-reported it was, it dawned on me: Here we are, about 65 years into the nuclear age (1/4 of a percent of the way through) and we've had at least three major nuclear disasters already (and I know for sure there have been more). I don't think we can make it the other 99.75% of the way without disasterous worldwide results. I think the odds are greater that we could develop a technology that can neutralize radioactive materials than survive going the way we are, even if we stopped all nuclear power tomorrow.

So, while I am an opponent of the use of nuclear energy for environmental reasons, I think that maintaining and developing the technology is by far our best hope.

Talk about mixed feelings!