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Is nuclear power really safe, and is it sustainable?

April 30, 2011

When I was in Germany at the end of March, the anti-nuke demonstrations were in full swing.  In Hamburg I saw hundreds of demonstrators taking to the streets, carrying flags and banners declaring their unwillingness to share the planet with nuclear power plants.  Following the catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, who can blame them for their fears?  This catastrophe is very grave, it’s very real and it will be long lasting.

Germany has 17 nuclear reactors that together produce 25% of the country’s electrical power.  Following the failure of the plant in Japan, Germany has shut down seven of its oldest reactors until they are thoroughly inspected and certified to be safe.  However, under immense pressure from concerned citizens who are willing to pay more for power to eliminate the threat altogether, the country is being forced to study the possibility of shutting down all 17 reactors, permanently.

Is nuclear power safe?  This question will never ever be answered.  There will always be nuke plants running safely — score points for the pro-nuke side.  And there will occasionally be more catastrophes — score points for the anti-nuke side.  So the question will never be definitively answered because nuclear power will work properly, at the very best, only most of the time.

Nevertheless, I believe that the risks to nuclear power can be mitigated when the system is properly designed.  I don’t know who approved the design at Fukushima that called for putting the cooling systems on the beach instead of on higher ground.  But given the fact that Japan sits on a major tectonic fault line and the country has a history of major earth quakes, it seems now to be very foolish to not have considered the possibility of an offshore quake causing a tsunami.  Nevertheless, there are hundreds of nuclear plants running all over the world, and they are running safely.

But one thing bothers me about nuclear power that isn’t usually discussed.  Nuclear power isn’t sustainable power.  Countries will still have to dig into the earth to mine Uranium which will be consumed as it generates heat to produce electric power.  And more mining will have to follow to replace the Uranium that gets used up.  China is building nuclear plants as fast as they can, which means more mining is going to happen.  So it sounds like a higher-tech version of our coal problem to me.  Mining will continue to destroy the environment, and radio active ore will eventually get all used up.  Then what?

I still believe that sustainable energy is the answer in the long term.

Behold the face behind the curtain of “clean coal”

April 28, 2011

In the 2008 US presidential campaign, Senator John McCain made a lot of promises about “clean coal” as a significant solution to the threat of antropogenic climate change.  Like him, there are many today who support this technology believing that it will help clean up the environment while allowing us to continue satisfying our energy needs with a cheap, readily available resource.  But Senator McCain held the curtain tightly closed in front of the casualties created by an industry that profits shamelessly at the expense of our people and our planet.

In just my lifetime, 470 mountains have disappeared from the Appalachian Range as a result of coal mining.  Even more have disappeared from other parts of the world — China is destroying mountains at more than twice the rate we are in the US.  Where do these mountains go?

Up in smoke.  Gone forever.

Clean coal technology requires burning of more coal than traditional coal-fired plants, because additional energy is needed to support the technology.  Some estimates claim that up to 20% more coal is burned to provide the energy necessary to clean it up.  If clean coal technology had been implemented forty years ago, then 564 mountains would have been destroyed in the Appalachians.

There are better ways to produce the energy we need.

Another Mountain Being Destroyed in the Appalachian Range

President Obama seeks to remove subsidies for oil and gas

April 27, 2011

As the 2012 (and beyond) budget discussions begin to heat up, many conservatives are demanding that renewable energy should be made to compete with oil, coal and natural gas without the government subsidies that renewable energy companies currently enjoy.  Today, renewable energy projects can claim a US government tax credit for up to one third of the cost of hardware and installation.  These subsidies represent significant cost savings to renewable energy project developers and investors.  Public grants provided by the Department of Energy amount to many millions of US dollars in taxpayer support for technology development.

But what many people don’t realize is that natural gas exploration companies have enjoyed their own tax incentives for decades.  So have coal mining companies.  So have oil companies.  All of these companies have built their “empires” upon government tax credits for capital expenses, job creation in the industry, and R&D.  In fact, if you look at the massive amount of foreign oil that is bought and sold around the world every day, much of it comes from countries whose governments almost fully subsidize its production.

This week, President Obama stated that there’s little he can do about gas prices reaching $4.00 per gallon in the US, and that we must stop subsidizing fossil fuel producers and step up support for renewable energy projects.  Well, just as removal of subsidies have historically caused renewable energy costs to soar, virtually stopping development, so will removal of subsidies to fossil fuel producers cause their costs to soar.  You know who will have to pay the bill.  The costs always roll down to the consumers.  Stopping subsidies in the form of tax credits will certainly cause gas and heating prices to skyrocket.

Lawmakers will argue on both sides of the issue — conservatives will want to protect government support to fossil fuel producers and liberal environmentalists will want to protect government support to renewable energy producers.  Who will win this debate in the US will be largely decided in November 2012’s election.