Saturday, April 24, 2010

About that praise for nuclear energy…

Wow! I got three responses to my posting on nuclear energy! I don't think I've ever gotten so many on one post. I'll respond to a few of the points that were mentioned.

Anonymous asked why we aren't already installing solar panels on top of most buildings.

The simple answer is: money. And the reason why there isn't enough money: politics. There are various power companies and state governments who are working out ways to finance solar panels. I think one of the programs works like this -- the customer takes out a loan through the power company to install the panels. The loan is paid back through the difference between the size of the old electricity payment and what the customer is now actually using. Sounds like a fine idea to me.

My concern with solar is would we be able to cover enough buildings fast enough to make a difference in a climate crisis?

My friend and debate partner lists three objections to nuclear power.

1. NIMBY, big time.

For those not up on their acronyms, this means Not In My Back Yard.

I agree. In the same way I wouldn't want to be next door to a wind farm (I hear they're noisy). Michigan is debating how close to put turbines to scenic areas. Is it good enough to put turbines in Lake Michigan six miles from the coast? I also wouldn't want to be next door to a coal plant. But I'm sure we can find a place for a nuclear power plant the same way we can find a place for wind turbines.

2) No progress for decades in nuclear waste management. Nevada site in use in my lifetime? I doubt it.

This concern was also mentioned by my third responder.

I've heard there is at least a little bit of progress on waste management -- not in the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, but in processing the spent rods into more fuel, or at least less waste. It may not be an ultimate solution, but it is progress.

And my big concern:

3) Security risks. What would be the consequences of terrorists flying a jumbo jet into the concrete enclosure of a nuclear power plant's reactor? I can't be sure, but I'm guessing major damage, very likely a breach and lots of collateral debris-driven damage inside the shell. Radiation leaks. And the power plant offline for a sustained period, perhaps forever. At least, we should be asking these questions and demanding real answers. This is potentially among the worst-case and therefore most tempting targets for terrorism. There is no meaningful defense, unless you believe (as I do not) that we will never again see planes hijacked and used as missiles.

The same hit on a conventional power plant (of any kind) would also be catastrophic and take the plant out, but it would not turn the area into Chernobyl.

The nuclear industry loves to assure us it is all soooooo safe. I don't believe them for a minute.

If it is such a great target, why haven't they? I'm quite aware that is a rhetorical question that won't get us very far.

Perhaps another way to look at it (and I won't claim to be right) -- The purpose of terrorism is to instill terror. What instills more terror, striking a building in the middle of a city or striking a reactor where few people live? I think it would be the building. For the same reason the underwear bomber didn't attempt detonation until near the city of Detroit where there would be lots of witnesses of a plane falling from the sky.

But you are right. Security is a risk. Then it becomes a discussion of whether the risk of a terror attack outweighs the risk of a climate crisis. Whether we'll get a useful discussion of security risk is another matter.


  1. Nuclear power plants have always been designed to withstand a direct hit from a jumbo jet. This requirement was in effect long before terrorists dreamed up the idea of using airplanes as weapons.

    A nuclear plant's containment building is constructed of concrete reinforced with 3" steel rebar. These buildings do not budge.

  2. I just saw this, the "nimby defeating wind turbine," and thought you might be interested.

  3. Huh, that anonymous post was me. I'm not sure why it did't take my name.