The Scientific Consensus (and other things).

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

I drew my conclusion that nuclear energy should be used as part of an environmental and energy strategy from looking over a lot of documents written by scientists who have engaged the question of nuclear energy.  The following is a good summary example of the perspective I believe to be common among knowledgeable scientists:

http://www.ne.doe.gov/pdfFiles/rpt_SustainableEnergyFuture_Aug2008.pdf

This, document, issued at about the time of the 2008 political conventions, is titled  A Sustainable Energy Future:  The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy”

This document was signed by all the heads of the National Labs, including Steven Chu, who went on to become Secretary of Energy in the Obama Administration.  Here is a quote:

“We believe that nuclear energy must play a significant role in our nation’s — and the world’s — electricity portfolio for the next 100+ years. Nuclear energy has great potential for contributing more to our broader energy needs, however. For example, nuclear energy could supplement or even supplant fossil fuels by providing the electricity for electric-powered vehicles, or it could be used to generate hydrogen for vehicles that utilize hydrogen fuel cells. Nuclear energy could also help to generate high-temperature process heat, provide a valuable input for feedstock to chemical production and aid in the production of freshwater from seawater and contaminated surface and groundwater sources.” (end of quote)

I think that much nuclear "waste" or "spent fuel" (pick your word, depending on what side of the debate you are on) is going to eventually be recycled into fuel for advanced nuclear reactors (the technology already exists, and is developing further - - the U.S. may be well situated to engineer a system of nuclear fuel recycling more advanced than that being used in France), medical isotopes, and useful metals.   What we will end up after a few rounds of “recycling, reusing and reducing,” will be less usable, or unusable material that is substantially less radioactive.  That material will decay to background level radiation levels in 500 to 1000 years, a time frame that humans can manage.   Many of us have been in structures about that old.  

Here is what Secretary of Energy Chu said in 2005, probably before he foresaw being in President Obama’s Cabinet:

“Suppose instead that we can reduce the lifetime of the radioactive waste by a factor of 1,000. So it goes from a couple-hundred-thousand-year problem to a thousand-year problem. At a thousand years, even though that's still a long time, it's in the realm that we can monitor - we don't need Yucca Mountain."  (end of quote)

Source: http://berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2005/10/03_chu.shtml

In the event that a geological repository or "dump" has to be identified, we can do that.  Natural nuclear reactors operated in water-saturated zones for millions of years on this planet while life was evolving.  The resulting plutonium has moved only about 10 feet.

Source:  http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/factsheets/doeymp0010.shtml

Here is a quote from the above link:

"Fifteen natural fission reactors have been found in three different ore deposits at the Oklo mine in Gabon, West Africa. These are collectively known as the Oklo Fossil Reactors." * * * "Once the natural reactors burned themselves out, the highly radioactive waste they generated was held in place deep under Oklo by the granite, sandstone, and clays surrounding the reactors’ areas. Plutonium has moved less than 10 feet from where it was formed almost two billion years ago." (end quote)

Geological time and geological formations actually exist.  The uranium isotopes found at Oklo, unsuprisingly, are similar to those in the spent nuclear fuel generated by current nuclear power plants.  Such isotopes can be contained while they lose toxicity - - - the most radioactive isotopes tend to degrade the quickest.  This makes them much different from the permanently toxic substances regularly tossed into landfills and the air.

It’s a complicated world we live in.  No energy source is free of problems.  Even renewables, as they scale up, run into opposition, difficulties and unforeseen consequences, see, e.g:

http://solar.calfinder.com/blog/solar-politics/endangered-desert-tortoise-must-flee-the-advance-of-solar/

or

http://www.windcows.com/INDEX.html

THIS DOES NOT MEAN WE SHOULD NOT DEPLOY RENEWABLES.  I am a long-time renewable energy advocate, with the scars to prove it.  We need to deploy an array of energy technologies that produce the energy that is demanded while minimizing environmental impacts (and yes, crimping demand as much as we reasonably can).  My study led me to conclude that nuclear energy is a proper part of the mix because its potential contribution is huge and its problems are manageable.  The track record of nuclear development shows that both the technology, in terms of design and implementation, and our engineering capability to manage its issues, such as spent fuel, have already improved and will continue to improve.  Unlike some people’s ideas of the technology, the technology itself is not mired in a 1970’s time warp.  

I see no net gain from rejecting the use of nuclear energy technology in our circumstances - - an advanced industrialized democracy that contributes disproportionately to greenhouse emissions.  Ours are the circumstances in which nuclear energy can contribute the most, and in which it is most likely to be well managed.   Managing it well should help us achieve a leadership or co-leadership role with the technology that will help us in dealing with its use in the rest of the world. 

The rest of the world, by the way, is already greatly expanding the use of nuclear energy without regard to what happens in the United States or Wisconsin.  Categorically excluding its use in Wisconsin does not mean that this generation, or the next, will be insulated from engaging whatever issues are posed by nuclear energy.  It just means that we will not get its benefits.  Take a look at advancing carbon concentrations.  We need the benefits.

I see a great net gain from engaging, deploying and further developing nuclear technology.  It gives us a way to displace massive quantities of carbon dioxide.   Careful independent study of life cycle impacts indicates that nuclear’s net greenhouse gas emissions rank around the same as wind energy’s, and less than solar photovoltaic’s.  You can track this down at: http://www.externe.info/ or http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/postpn268.pdf or  (a U.W. Madison paper) http://fti.neep.wisc.edu/pdf/fdm1181.pdf

As far as the Nuclear Energy Institute’s "use" of any of my environmental credentials, it is no different from what anti-nuclear organizations do when they headline "former nuclear industry engineer" or something comparable that when promoting someone who has  "flip-flopped" (xoff’s term) in the other direction (e.g., David Lochbaum).  

Goose, gander, sauce, and all that.  

Last, I think it is noteworthy that the "flippers" that I hear about these days these are carefully thinking environmentalists who are "flopping" in the direction of becoming pro-nuclear. See:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/feb/20/george-monbiot-nuclear-climate

Thanks for the chance to engage on the issue.

Frank J.

 

 

Recent Comments