01 February 2008

Just Say No to Nukes

There is a lot of talk in the debates about climate change about the need to drastically diminsh our reliance on fossil fuels. (by 'our' and 'we' here I mean the U.S., since for the moment at least we are the energy hogs.) This should be - and sometimes is - a major issue in foreign policy debates too. And then typically we get a chorus of voices insisting that this entails relying instead on nuclear power. Indeed, just the other evening W pulled this quick one during his 'State of the Union' oration. It is the sort of "gotcha" moment right wingers would relish insofar as it would allow them to tell those pesky environmentalists they cannot really have it both ways. For the right wingers this amounts to a no-lose scenario in which we either get to do nothing or to dump further millions of dollars into the coffers of the nuke industry.

Actually, the proper response of those who worry seriously about climate change should be "not so fast!" (See this post with a link to Rebecca Solnit's version of that retort.) The first, obvious thing would be the itsey-bitsey matter of waste from the nukes. Just because we want to minize our carbon footprints does not mean we should therefore blithely cease worrying about irradiating the planet. But let's set that difficulty aside. What the greenish among us need is some sense that there is an alternative to the pro-nuke chorus. And on that score things may not be nearly as dire as we fear. This week one of my students pointed out this report in Scientific American regarding the very real prospects of relying on solar power to both decrease our carbon footprint and avoid nukes. (Thanks Eugene!)

I am not saying that this "Solar Grand Plan" is flawless; far from it. But it surely shifts the burden of argument in a dramatic fashion. This sort of plan would avoid the clear - and probably insoluable - problem of waste disposal that comes with any increased reliance on nukes. And it would drammatically reduce our massive carbon footprint. So, it seems as though it provides a nice place to start a sensible discussion. My initial complaints are that the S.A. proposal treats as "barren" large expanses of Western desert that we actually ought to value. And it outlines a very centralized model of energy production. Neither of those qualms should resonate with the pro-nuke right who generally love centralized (read easily controlable, capital intensive) solutions and don't give a rats ass about landscape. Perhaps this is a "gotcha" moment after all. From the left the hard questions is whether there are ways to decentralize solar energy production on this scale without tearing up the landscape. My bet is that there are. But even if there weren't centralized solar would beat the daylights out of centralized nukes.

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Blogger David Bradish said...

Neither of those qualms should resonate with the pro-nuke right who generally love centralized (read easily controlable, capital intensive) solutions and don't give a rats ass about landscape.

How did you come up with the claim that the nuclear industry doesn't care about the landscape or environment? If you go to page 9 in this PDF link you will find how each nuclear company has contributed to improving the environment and landscape around the plants.

But even if there weren't centralized solar would beat the daylights out of centralized nukes.

Could you expand what you mean by "daylights"? Nuclear plants right now contribute 20% of the U.S.' electricity. Solar right now provides one-tenth of 1%. If solar were to replace nuclear's generation, an area the size of New Jersey would have to be covered in solar panels.

02 February, 2008 10:13  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for your comment.

Second quesiton first. Daylights = same amount of power without deadly side-effects (read nucelar waste). Seems pretty clear to me.

First question second. You're kidding, right? You expect that I will be impressed because the industry produces glossy propaganda proclaiming how environmentally concerned it is? I am glad you have a sense of humor.

I am not all that worried about the landscaping around nukes. Sod and shrubs are is waaayyy to the right of the decimal point. Let's talk landscape. The nuke near here (fortunately I am not directly downwind and am able to by energy from non-nuke sources) is very near a tiny lakshore town. The plant dominates the landscape in a way that no structure for many, many mmiles does. That it is surrounded by well-manicured shrubs is irrelevant (and simply PR). Building that plant where it is showed disdain for the landscape.

Now my turn. I write my blog for free. Who pays you? Are you the "team member" from your blog on call this weekend to reply immediately to any any industry comment no matter how obscure the source? Don't you understand that this sort of vigilance creates the appearance that just maybe,despite the gloosy brochures, the industry is not entirely trustworthy? Just a thought.

02 February, 2008 11:49  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

P.S. Some back-of-the-envelope numbers. If, as you say, nukes now account for 20% of US energy production, and we (as I understand it) currently have about 100 nukes on-line, in order to make the same amount of difference as the SA proposal (meaning not additional but replacement energy) we would have to build approximately 300 new nukes. Where do you plan to put these? I doubt you are planning on locating two or three along the Potomac.

So, yes, something like the SA proposal will require investment and construction. But so would any increased reliance on nukes.

And, sicne we are on the topic of environmental degradation, we might talk about uranium mining and the processes of taking the mineral from 'raw' state to useable for energy production. Mines are always a nice addition to any landscape.

02 February, 2008 12:23  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

It is my understanding that the French have been researching, for the last two decades, various ways of storing nuclear waste in a way that does not harm the environment. I'm not sure if they've made any significant progress on that front but their country has benefited significantly from energy independence. They even export electricity to other European states. Currently, nuclear energy is the only viable solution to oil. Solar, wind, and other alternative methods are totally impractical. Solnit's article acknowledges this point in a roundabout way by saying that nuclear energy is "about retaining the big infrastructure of centralized power production and, often, the habits of obscene consumption that rely on big power." I guess she wants us to live in little anarchist villages?

02 February, 2008 15:15  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


First, Nukes are dangerous both in terms of the extraction of fuel from ground to power and in terms of disposal. So, judgements about practicality need to include that.

Seocnd, my guess is that France is a tiny economy compared to the US re: energy consumption.

Third, nukes have been subsidized forever .... so whatever practicality you ascribe to them depends on that too.

Finally, the proposal in Scientific American suggests that solar hardly is impractical in absolute terms; I would add tht it hardly is impratical in relative terms either e.g., of the sheer number of nukes it would be necessary to construct (and that process is fraught with dangers of cost and corner cutting).

02 February, 2008 15:28  

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