Going Nuclear

In tomorrow’s Washington Post, Patrick Moore makes the case for going nuclear.

Basically, the choices for baseload plants [those on most of the time, contrasted to peak load plants, turned on when the air conditioning and electric stoves are being cranked up] are hydroelectric, coal, and nuclear. Hydroelectric power is maxed out [and may decrease due to climate change over the lifetime of power plants being built today].

Moore’s other arguments:

Nuclear power is 2 cent/kWh. Here he is on somewhat shaky ground, because no one knows for sure the cost of new, safer nuclear power, not until after the first two or three plants are built. It is comparable in price to coal and hydroelectric power.

Nuclear power is safe. The Three Mile Island reactor, the most serious western accident, prevented radiation from escaping, though it was destroyed in the process. Chernobyl, which has already killed 56 people, was an accident waiting to happen:

no containment vessel, inherently bad design and its operators literally blew it up.

Meanwhile 5,000 people die annually from coal mining accidents [and many, many more from black lung disease and other hazards of mining].

Nuclear waste is dangerous for a short time; in 40 years 99.9% of the radioactivity is gone. [The fission products, which are the most radioactive, decay rapidly.] The uranium and transuranic portion left behind can and should be used as fuel.

Nuclear reactors are susceptible to attack, but a jumbo jet crashing into a reactor would not breach the containment. Focus first on the liquid natural gas plants, chemical plants, and political targets.

Yes, nuclear fuel can be diverted to evil uses, but so can the machete (which has killed one million Africans over the last 20 years, considerably more than the deaths at Hiroshima/Nagasaki), and diesel oil, fertilizer and cars when combined together to make car bombs. The practical approach to nuclear weapons proliferation is to put it higher on the international agenda, and shift to using newer reprocessing methods that make reprocessed fuel less attractive for bomb making. [This section might be considered confusing. Basically, waste not reprocessed is not really available for bomb making. Reprocessed fuel separates out the fission products, and theoretically a bomb could be made from what's left, though the design has never been tested and it isn't expected to be a very good bomb. All nuclear weapons powers make military grade plutonium, or use highly enriched uranium -- more than 80% U-235. However, it only makes sense that if we are to address nuclear weapons issues, we address them directly, rather than assume that we are addressing them through the proxy of nuclear power. Arguing against nuclear power really doesn't address nuclear weapons, and doesn't assure that we do address nuclear weapons. It does distract people from focusing on weapons, however.]

Meanwhile, the 600+ US coal plants emit nearly 2 billion tons of CO2 each year (the same as 300 million cars), and do lots of other evil nefarious damage, a partial list including sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, and mercury [and tens of thousands of American lives yearly, not counting climate change]. The 103 US nuclear power plants avoid the release of 700 million tons of CO2 each year [they are on average larger than coal plants].

Imagine if the ratio of coal to nuclear were reversed so that only 20 percent of our electricity was generated from coal and 60 percent from nuclear. This would go a long way toward cleaning the air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Every responsible environmentalist should support a move in that direction.

[My supplementary material is in brackets.]

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