Friday, November 13, 2009

Nuclear power is the future (for now)

I’ve recently taken to reading David Frum’s blog, simply because I’ve been looking for places to read serious conservative thought which doesn’t involve screaming or insane comparisons of health care reform to Nazi death camps.  My old conservative magazine of choice, National Review, has been overtaken by the ideologues, I fear, and Bill Buckley is dead.  The Weekly Standard is not a serious choice, either.  Frum, on the other hand, seems willing to acknowledge the fact that good government sometimes means bending on one’s principles, since there is no “one size fits all” set of ideas.  I’m also willing to make that concession.  The Democrats seem to be showing how limited their toolbox really is, and at the risk of being bitten, I’d like to re-engage American conservatives in a serious discussion.


I’ll start with something at once controversial and non-partisan: nuclear power.


Frum writes:

The big cost in wind and solar is not the turbine or the solar panel. The prices of turbine and panels could fall to zero, and still wind and solar would cost much more than coal or nuclear. Electricity cannot be stored and it is expensive to move. Cheap power is power that flows at predictable levels and is generated near to its users.

A modern nuclear reactor can generate about 1300 megawatts of electricity. A single nuclear plant with two or three reactors can generate enough power to sustain a fair-sized city – and can be sited as close to the population center as politics permits, so long as there is a body of water nearby for reactor cooling.

A modern wind turbine generates at most 2 megawatts. To equal a single reactor you’d need 650 turbines – probably many more, since they are so unreliable. Now think of the cost of the land assembly to support this vast array of machines. Next – think about the wiring required to connect them to a grid. Finally – think of the cost of moving that power across the country, because wind blows strongest in places like west Texas and the Dakotas, about as far as you can get from the nation’s big consumer markets. It’s the wiring that makes wind so costly, and that cost is not going to be reduced anytime soon by technological improvements.

Solar of course confronts this problem in even more radical form. The basic solar panel we’ve all seen emits only about 120 watts. You’d need acres of them to equal even the output of a wind turbine. And again, the sun shines brightest where people don’t live.

Frum makes a few points I hadn’t previously considered, but while electricity cannot be stored as such, there are ways to store other forms of potential energy which can be easily converted into electricity.  However, Frum is correct that such technology does not yet exist and as such our beloved renewable energy sources (which are wonderful, don’t get me wrong) cannot yet replace the amount of energy which coal currently produces.  Nuclear can.


It emits no greenhouse gases, and it produces less radioactive waste than coal plants.




Don’t take my word for it:


Over the past few decades, however, a series of studies has called these stereotypes into question. Among the surprising conclusions: the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. * [See Editor's Note at end of page 2]


At issue is coal's content of uranium and thorium, both radioactive elements. They occur in such trace amounts in natural, or "whole," coal that they aren't a problem. But when coal is burned into fly ash, uranium and thorium are concentrated at up to 10 times their original levels.


Fly ash uranium sometimes leaches into the soil and water surrounding a coal plant, affecting cropland and, in turn, food. People living within a "stack shadow"—the area within a half- to one-mile (0.8- to 1.6-kilometer) radius of a coal plant's smokestacks—might then ingest small amounts of radiation. Fly ash is also disposed of in landfills and abandoned mines and quarries, posing a potential risk to people living around those areas.


In short, replacing coal plants with nuclear plants would reduce the amount of radioactive waste current being introduced into our environment.  Disposal is also at issue: it is much easier to dispose and contain the small amounts of radioactive waste from a nuclear plant than it is to contain all the fly ash from a coal plant.  Trying to contain all of that would be a logistical nightmare.


Nuclear energy is by no means a perfect solution, but it is one which would buy us more time to come up with something better.


Matthew Yglesias’s take largely revolves around the ideological inconsistencies inherent to conservatives backing nuclear power, due to the large government subsidies needed to stand up nuclear power on a large scale:


What I find especially odd about it is that it’s so at odds with American conservatives’ ardor for the free market. You see this mismatch in a small sense in that their nuclear agenda in congress consists basically of asking for subsidies. But in a larger sense the issue is that the big example one can find of a country living the nuclear dream is . . . France. And it’s not just an irony or a funny coincidence, nuclear power in France is deeply tied to the genuinely socialistic (i.e., not just high taxes and a generous welfare state) aspects of the French economy.


Which is all well and good, but I’m less interested in whether or not an idea is ideologically consistent than I am in whether or not it will work.  Yglesias’s blog stems from a New Republic article written by Brad Plumer:


The debate over nukes has long exacerbated the deadlock over climate policy. Of the handful of Republicans who think global warming is a serious problem--like Alexander--most refuse to address it unless nuclear power gets a starring role. But many Democrats and green groups are loath to lavish even more money on an industry that has received countless subsidies to date--including $18.5 billion in federal loan guarantees in 2005--yet still struggles to procure financing for new plants, to say nothing of concerns about safety and waste disposal. John McCain has chalked up his refusal to support the very cap-and-trade policies he once championed to "left-wing environmentalist organizations that are not allowing us to move forward with nuclear power."


Now, however, that deadlock may be dissolving. In October, John Kerry, the lead sponsor of the Senate cap-and-trade bill, co-authored a New York Times op-ed with Republican Lindsey Graham outlining a possible bipartisan deal that would include offshore drilling and nukes. "Nuclear power needs to be a core component of electricity generation if we are to meet our emission reduction targets," they wrote, endorsing the need to "jettison cumbersome regulations" and help utilities "secure financing for more plants." Graham has hinted that sufficient nuclear incentives could get "at least half a dozen" Republicans on board--allowing a climate bill to squeak through the Senate. As a result, many liberals and environmental groups are gritting their teeth and nervously bracing for a possible compromise. But that raises the question: If Democrats do haggle on nukes, will Republicans actually step up and agree to tackle global warming?


This is a compromise which I support, of course.  There’s a saying about not making the perfect the enemy of the good.  Nuclear power is a good option for now, and it will carry us for a long time while we continue research and development into renewable energy sources.  Environmentalists and Luddites need to recognize that we aren’t going to go back to horse-and-buggy without a steep drop in our population and life expectancies.


Ken said...

I am first happy to see a rational conservative, I am more liberal leaning, but the absence of a conservative peer group is very troubling to me. The present "conservative" movement is nothing less than a tragic political failure within our system at a time when we need rational debate from both sides. The GOP is currently being run by troglodytes, and that is being unkind to primitive cave dwellers.

Second, I couldn't agree more with your (and Frum's) assessment of our need for nuclear power. I do take issue with the parenthetical (for now) in the title. Right now we are running and building Gen III nuclear power plants largely based on 1950's technology. While this as steadily been upgraded, it is terribly inefficient. We need more governmental research dollars spent on bringing Gen IV reactors to market. This will take billions, a small fraction of what the previous administration spent on the Iraq war over another source of energy (and yes, I will hang that around your necks for a good long time, deal with it). The current fleet of reactors only uses 2-3% of its input U235, limited by radiation damage to the pellets. Technologies exists that need to be commercialized with burn up rates greater than 10 times this and there are several that utilize some of the more problematic transuranic isotopes for power generation, fissioning them to short lived species. With the advance of nuclear technologies, fission will power human society for the foreseeable future.

Third, coal. Coal does not only emit Uranium and Thorium into the environment, the legacy of its residence in coal seams for over 200 million years is a build up of Mercury, Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Lead, Copper, and a host of other heavy metal pollutants. Mercury levels in the lakes, rivers and streams of Maine exceed EPA drinking water standards (sorry that the Government steps in and establishes standards, I know, fascist) due to mid-West coal plants, for example. 40% of all Mercury pollution on the planet is due to coal combustion, and the clearance rate is vastly slower than the rate that we are pumping it into the atmosphere. Since this site will be read by conservatives, I will explain, the level is rising with time. The Coal-loving Bush administration estimated that micro-particulate pollutants from coal burning kills 12,000 Americans a year. That is 4 times the number who died on 9/11 (see I can invoke it too!) every year, and not just in 2001. That is 3 times the number of Americans killed in Iraq, but a tiny fraction of the number of Iraqis killed during their liberation, saving them from a fraction of that number Saddam would have killed. Don't start talking about fish and wild life, you won't, this is a conservative blog. There is acid rain and the warming of oceans kills whole reef systems. Okay, I threw in global warming so that I could be discredited and written off. Just like tobacco paid researchers claimed cigarettes were healthy right up to the 1980's, you have your own researchers to tell you what to think. The mean temperature of the Oceans are rising, and we have just burned out 1 trillionth ton of coal this year. What every you do, it is your conservative duty to protect the corporate interest that makes its money burning that stuff. The Markets are always right, the prophet's Friedman and Von Hayek said so and Reagan said that the Government is the problem, right before his budgets gave us the 4.7 trillion dollars in debt we are still paying down and gave birth to Ross Perot's political career. It is no surprise that the Bush II administration aided by the Republican congress gave us another 5 billion. Good luck with civility, I at one point was willing to try, not any more. I don't trust the snake when he says that he is civil and just take one more bit of the apple. You can shave the hair off a leopard, but the spots come back in the same place.

CarbonDate said...

Ken, thanks for reading, and for the comment, but I must correct you on one point: this is not a conservative blog. This entry was about finding common ground with conservatives in order to work toward constructive solutions which serve everybody's interests. If you read back further, you'll find a fairly liberal bend on this blog, but I've grown frustrated with how ineffectual the Democrats have been given their large majorities and how unhelpful the Republicans have been in the actual act of governing. It's up to intellectuals on both sides of the aisle to re-engage in a real discussion to find real solutions.

Check here and here for samples of my particular brand of liberalism.

Actually, I'll do a separate entry on this. Thanks again.

KT said...

On a side note: coal ash is also used as filler/strengthener for concrete blocks in modern is it perhaps closer to many of us than we realize?