March 23, 2007

On Second Thought, Nuclear Looks Pretty Green

With all of the concern over greenhouse gases and global warming hysteria rising, some environmentalists have taken a second look at a technology they helped abandon years ago. Nuclear power has begun gathering momentum as a green alternative to coal and oil, although the front-line environmental organizations have not yet budged:

"No Nukes" was once a familiar rallying cry for environmentalists opposed to nuclear power and all its scary risks.

With global warming a rising concern, some environmentalists are rethinking nuclear power because it emits zero greenhouse gases.

"You can't just write nuclear off," says Judi Greenwald, director of innovative solutions with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, an environmental research and advocacy group. "I think everybody feels you have to at least look again" at nuclear power. ...

Besides Pew, at least three leading environmental organizations — Union of Concerned Scientists, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Environmental Defense — say they are willing to consider nuclear power as part of a long-term solution to global warming.

Bill Chameides, chief scientist for Environmental Defense, says his group's position "has evolved."

"Global warming is the environmental issue of our generation," he says. "Clearly to solve this problem we need to have all technologies on the table. Therefore, nuclear energy … needs to be considered."

Hysteria produces some strange side effects, but this one sounds more beneficial than most. In fact, this is really the result of two hysterias meeting -- global warming and nuclear power -- and the result should test both in a way that neither have had to suffer yet. If global warming truly threatens the planet, and its main component is man-made, then nuclear power and its drawbacks pale into insignificance. If the threat of nuclear power is as bad as its opponents make out -- even though it has not yet caused a death in the US in decades of use -- then global warming has to be overblown.

In truth, though, both hysterias are overblown, and neither really have to do with saving the planet. Both have to do with allowing environmentalists to do what the Left has wanted for decades, which is to place restrictions on private property and free enterprise. Global warming especially is nothing more than a Trojan horse, used to effect the same kinds of top-down governmental control over the uses of resources that we have seen with endangered-species laws and the like.

Nuclear power has proven itself more reliable, less damaging to the environment, and safer than coal for creating energy. Dozens of miners die every year retrieving coal to produce our electricity, but no one has died from operating a nuclear power plant in the US. The worst accident we had, Three Mile Island in 1979, killed no one and resulted in only a short, small release of radioactivity outside the plant. Although older plants have operated for decades since then, the US has not built another reactor since Three Mile Island, just as we have not built an oil refinery since before that.

We have to start getting realistic about our energy needs. We need to start tapping our own oil resources for national security purposes as well as economic health; we send far too much of our money outside the US for oil. We need to expand our refining capability to meet the expanding needs of our population, at least in the short term. If environmentalists believe these to be dangerous, then they need to allow for the use of nuclear power as a replacement for coal, at least.


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Comments (16)

Posted by stackja1945 [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 6:22 AM

Why not just have people stop breathing? Then no CO2? Save all the O2. Cut down the population and save energy.
The Left would like the Right to go first.

Posted by TWood [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 7:11 AM

The US is a partner in the first commercial nuclear fusion project - the ITER

At a cost of about $12 billion, this investment pales beside the current cost of the Iraq war, now approaching, what, $600 billion? Long term, maybe $1-2 trillion including veteran health care?

Cheney and his secret cabal of energy advisors made a decision about where to invest our blood and treasure in order to secure our energy future. I think we've bet on the wrong horse.

Posted by TomB [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 7:12 AM

Modern environmentalism morphed from just a popular movement (I am strongly supporting) to a fanatic religion, at par with Wanabi Islam (and we all should have big problem with it).
But we don't have any moral right to produce DEADLY waste to last for 500 generations!

Posted by Mark [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 7:27 AM

Your average coal plant releases more radiation into the environment than does your average nuclear power plant.

(Uranium is weakly (very weakly) disolvable in water. When water bearing uranium flows through coal, the structure of the coal naturally traps the disolved uranium.)

I've read that there is more nuclear energy (from the trapped uranium) in a ton of coal, than there is chemical energy.

Fly ash is radioactive waste is more radioactive than many items already classified as radioactive waste.

Posted by Mark [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 7:33 AM

fusion power is 50 years off. And has been for 50 years.

Do you really think that we can speed up research by throwing more dollars at it?

The Iraq war on the other hand is paying massive dividends for the US already.

What waste? The left over fuel should be recycled. Instead the environmentalists forced the US to abandon all attempts to reuse spent nuclear fuel. During the Carter adminstration. (Is there anything that he did right?)
Secondly, you are being extremely shortsighted by looking at only the imagined downside, with looking at the real upside. By using nuclear fuel, we bequeth to our children a world that is richer and healthier than it would have otherwise been. Even a 1% improvement in the rate of economic growth will mean that in 500 generations, they will live in a world that is ten or twenty times richer than it would have been. That's plenty of resources to deal with a problem that doesn't exist anyway, with money left over to make their lives vastly richer.

Posted by George [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 7:51 AM

A secret cabal of energy advisers has been telling us that fusion energy is 10 years away for the last 30 years.
Who is deluded?

I welcome fusion power but save the conspiracy theories.

Posted by TomB [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 7:53 AM

If all is fine and dandy with the nuclear stuff. Then why we still have those overflowing poles at the reactor sites and look for places to store waste (Canadian Shield? Nevada Desert Mountains?). And by using the “1% improvement” argument we sound more like mutual fund salesmen. If Three Mile Island and Chernobyl didn’t teach us anything, the third one may. And I repeat: we have no moral right to produce deadly waste for 500 generations. Just think what we would think about ancient Egypt civilization, if we wouldn’t be able to approach the pyramids for the next 6000 years?

Posted by ajacksonian [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 8:01 AM

Actually, fusion via the Polywell concept appears to offer a return on energy over what is put in as compared to the modern view of magnetic containment via the tokamak.

What has happened is the #1 man in nuclear fusion, Raymond Bussard, has re-examined his initial work on fusiion and the concepts involved. He had something I would characterize as a 'Richard Feynman' moment when he did a reworking of the equations for electrostatic confinement and got results that he had not expected. Like when Feynmann postulated that there was plenty of room 'at the small end for engineering' which kicked off the nanotech concept, or his little 'doodles' on particle physics which opened an entire branch and method for examining particles and their interactions, Ray Bussard, 30 and more years on, re-examined his work and found an alternative way to view the actual fusion equations and concept.

What is interesting in this is that it does not rely on the large, bulky tokamak magnet system, but looks towards things that are off-the shelf technology.

This is not cold fusion nor old-style magnetic containment fusion or laser fusion or anything else that we have come to know as standard fusion technology. For $200,000 he thinks he can demonstrate initial energy output from this fusion system. More on this at

Remember, this is the man who *created* the fusion equations and worked to help *design* the first tokamaks. He has had some of the most thorough critics in physics look over his work for decades, and yet missing a simple change in perspective has kept fusion narrowed in on a high-cost, iffy road. And the expenditure he is looking for is less than the US spends on pizza every day. So discounting fusion as '50 years down the road' may prove wrong. Just as using lighter than air vehicles to ascend to orbit is proving out when it was considered impossible. And just as powdered crystalline insulin that can be inhaled was considered to not be possible.

It looks as if old avenues in 20th century science that have been discounted or not thoroughly examined are returning to transform our world. I am very, very glad that some of this was not done earlier, but dismayed that simple things have been overlooked in science that *should* have been thoroughly investigated and run down that have *not* been. Because it is a 'publish or perish' world in which "discoveries" reign, but doing the confirmation negative test on something not shown to be good on the first test rarely gets funding.

Maybe we can even get a cure for the common cold, someday. That I expect before we get responsible politicians, at any rate.

Posted by Mark [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 8:16 AM

The reason why we have trouble finding places to store nuclear waste is two fold.

1) Idiots such as yourself have prevented us from reprocessing the stuff so that it wouldn't need to be stored in the first place.

2) Idiots such as yourself have prevented us from first building, and then opening the storeage facilities that we have built.

Your comment regarding the power of compound interest rates just shows what an incredibly shallow thinker that you are. Do you really think that our children will thank us for impoverishing them? Especially to eliminate an non-existant risk?

What did Three Mile Island teach us?
That we even when the absolute worst goes wrong in a western style reactor, nothing bad happens to the outside world. It also taught us ways to make safer reactors. The type of accident that happened at TMI can't happen in modern designs. FLuid bed and pebble designs are inherently safe. If they lose coolant, they shut down, by themselves. The coolant is required in order to keep the reaction going.

What did we learn from Chernobyl?
That if you take an unstable reactor design, turn off all of the safety equipment, and then deliberately run the reactor in an unstable mode, then bad things happen.
It also taught us why the Western world decided to mandate containment vessels around reactors.
Chernobyl could never have happened in the west for a number of reasons.
1) The type of design used was rejected in the west because it was unsafe. It was cheap, which is why the soviets liked it, but it was inherently unsafe. No reactors of the Chernobyl type have ever been built in the west.
2) Containment vessels are mandated for all reactors in the west. For cost reasons, the soviets decided to do without. A western design containment vessel would have contained the explosion and all of the released radiation.

Now TomB, is there any more ignorant propaganda you want to spew about, or are you just going to keep repeating the same inane statments over and over again, hoping that by repetion you might start making sense?

Posted by TWood [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 8:59 AM

Mark: "Do you really think that we can speed up research by throwing more dollars at it?"

Um, yes. I can't think of a single modern technology that -didn't- advance without money being thrown at it.

"The Iraq war on the other hand is paying massive dividends for the US already."

Such as?

Posted by philw [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 9:11 AM

1st: Big money spent on Fusion research does not guarantee success. It may be that fusion power is not a viable technology, except for stars.
2nd: I would support Bussard's approach, but then I do not have $250 million.
3rd: The nuclear waste disposal 'problem' is strictly political. Fly over the western US. There are many open spaces. A fenced in area 1Km square guarded by the national guard and iRobot sentries would allow all the country's rad waste for the 21st century to be stacked up above grouns available to any 22nd century recycling technology.
4th: The Goracle and others have zero creds if they do not enthusiastically embrace nuclear as a carbon offset. Their failure to do so reveals them to be simply politically inspired ideologs, not people serious about anthropic climate effects, large or small.

Posted by Greg Brown [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 10:06 AM

quote: Nuclear power has proven itself more reliable, less damaging to the environment, and safer than coal for creating energy. I'm not sure the people of Three Mile Island or Chernobyl would agree with that.

There are two serious problems right now, IMO, with nucear power. The first is, regardless of why, we have no way to dispose of radioactive waste. Fingerpointing, the blame game and all of that simply have to deal with objective facts on the ground: until we have a place to put it, it's crazy to produce more nuclear waste, particularly in the volumes that a massive switch to nuclear power would create.

Second, while the nuclear industry appears to be somewhat safe, there still suffer from a history of accidents. While a catastrophic failure is remote, the downside risk from a nuclear plant dwarfs the worst case scenarios for anything except dams. At the current time there is no political will to address the financial risk of a massive dam failure (and look what we got when a levee failed in New Orleans) and even less to deal with a nuclear accident.

Which brings me to a final point. Quite a few pundits and technical advisors believe it's just a matter of time until terrorists detonate a nuclear weapon on US territory. Park that bomb near a nuclear reactor and we would look at significant contamination over hundreds of thousands of square miles.

If people want us to go nuclear, first we need to address the problems associated with it, instead of letting politicians sell us another boondoggle, passing the costs to subsequent generations.

Posted by Mark [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 10:13 AM


Sometimes throwing more dollars at a problem speeds up research. More often than not it just results in beaurocratic empires being built that get in the way of researchers trying to do real science.

The biggest benefit from the war in Iraq is 10's of thousands of dead terrorists.
Add to that we have a country that used to provide massive support for terrorists, now helping us to kill terrorists.



Please read the above posts. The issues of storage of nuclear waste is a non-issue.

As to parking a nuclear bomb next to a nuclear reactor. The difference in total radiation will be to small for even the most sensitive instrument to measure.
Nuclear reactors have a most a few 10's of pounds of radioactive material in them. Compared to the hundreds of tons of radioactive material created by the nuclear blast, it's like adding an eye dropper of water to a swimming pool

Posted by TomB [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 2:17 PM

You don’t have to blow off your top and try to insult people to be right.
No country (with, or without antinuclear movement) found acceptable way to deal with nuclear waste (reprocessing and all). Radioactive atoms are just that: radioactive atoms and no amount of your optimism will change their decay time. You can hide them wherever, glass blocks, or concrete barrels; they will be there, deadly, probably long after all our countries are gone.
Then there is a little issue of what to do with Three Mile Island, or other decommissioned nuclear plants (there will be a few dozen of these in the next few decades and remember, 10 000 years, 500 generations). If you want to improve lives of our children, maybe it would be nice not to leave them with deadly waste to deal with. Unless you belive that Star Trek, or Alien technology will come to the rescue...

Posted by JCee [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 23, 2007 2:49 PM

Nuclear is definitely the answer.
1) Safety: The new generation of reactors (example pebble bed reactors) can not meltdown. These reactors were tested in China by Western copies with all coolant drained and exposed to the atmosphere for over a week without any meltdown or radioactive contaminants leaking. China was picked because it got around a lot of red tape which probably would have delayed the test by years if allowed at all.

2) Cost: The new reactors are of a modular design. They able to be built mostly in a factory and all parts are interchangeable between reactors of the same basic type. The greatly reducing time of construction and costs.

3) Long term waste storage: Recycle the full for reuse and you eliminate about 98% of the waste the remaining 2% of isotope have are relatively shorter half life and only need storage for about 100-200years.

4) Proliferation: If worried about proliferation two solutions present itself.
A) Set up regional recycling centers 1 per continent under heavy security and monitoring.
B) Switch to Thorium reactors instead of Uranium reactors. The Thorium cycle pollutes the fuel making it incompatible with atomic weapons. Canada has done pretty good work on proving and demonstrating the Thorium cycle reactors.

Posted by Greg Brown [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 24, 2007 7:09 PM

Mark, perhaps nuclear waste is a closed issue to you and others, but the fact remains that the US hasn't permanently disposed any of it's nuclear wastes. Your comment about there being only ten or so pounds of radioactive materials in a nuclear reactor is ludicrous. A 1000 MWe reactor has 25 *tons* of fuel. There a thousands of tons of additional materials in a reactor core as well, and almost all of that is radioactive, not to mention coolant, piping... And that fuel is a long-lived isotope. Try doing some actual research on the topic before you offer opinions.