Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Nuclear Energy Future Is No Future

It is easier to denature plutonium than it is to denature the evil spirit of man.
Albert Einstein, “The Real Problem Is in the Hearts of Men,”
The New York Times Magazine, June 23, 1946

Cerenkov Radiation: The characteristic blue glow is common when nuclear fuel rods are placed in a pool of water, which is where spent fuel rods are initially placed for a period of about 10 years. This photo shows the eerie blue glow surrounding the underwater core of the Reed Research Reactor, Reed College, Oregon.  I have viewed this effect first-hand, decades ago, at one of the nuclear sites I visited.
Photo Credit: United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission; 2007
Source: Wikipedia

An opinion piece, by David Biello, in Scientific American posits the importance of nuclear energy as a viable and safe fuel source for all of humanity. That it is possible or probable is not as important a consideration as whether nuclear energy in any form (fission or fusion) is the preferable choice. I think the answer is clear.

In “The World Really Could Go Nuclear” (September 14, 2015), Biello writes:
In just two decades Sweden went from burning oil for generating electricity to fissioning uranium. And if the world as a whole were to follow that example, all fossil fuel–fired power plants could be replaced with nuclear facilities in a little over 30 years. That's the conclusion of a new nuclear grand plan published May 13 inPLoS One. Such a switch would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nearly achieving much-ballyhooed global goals to combat climate change. Even swelling electricity demands, concentrated in developing nations, could be met. All that's missing is the wealth, will and wherewithal to build hundreds of fission-based reactors, largely due to concerns about safety and cost.
"If we are serious about tackling emissionsand climate change, no climate-neutral source should be ignored," argues Staffan Qvist, a physicist at Uppsala University, who led the effort to develop this nuclear plan. "The mantra 'nuclear can't be done quickly enough to tackle climate change' is one of the most pervasive in the debate today and mostly just taken as true, while the data prove the exact opposite."
The data Qvist and his co-author Barry Brook, an ecologist and computer modeler at the University of Tasmania, relied on comes from two countries in Europe: Sweden and France. The Swedes began research to build nuclear reactors in 1962 in a bid to wean the country off burning oil for power as well as to protect rivers from hydroelectric dams. By 1972, the first boiling water reactor at Oskarshamn began to host fission and churn out electricity. The cost was roughly $1,400 per kilowatt of electric capacity (in 2005 dollars), which is cheap compared to the $7,000 per kilowatt of electric capacity of two new advanced nuclear reactors being built in the U.S. right now. By 1986, with the addition of 11 more reactors, half of Sweden's electricity came from nuclear power and carbon dioxide emissions per Swede had dropped by 75 percent compared to the peak in 1970.
That carbon dioxide levels would drop is not surprising, but results from a scientific fact. Burning uranium, a fissionable material, does not produce greenhouse gases in the same way as fossil fuels. But as much as this nuclear solution would reduce the build-up of greenhouse gases—an idea to counter the effects of climate change—it would lead to much great problems for humans and our planet, perhaps insurmountable ones. I was surprised that the article did not mention the potential problems of a nuclear society,

There are many, so let’s start at the beginning with the front end of the process. Mining uranium does contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Equally important, uranium mining itself poses a number of known health and environmental risks. For example, there are the uranium mines at Eliot Lake in northern Ontario, which operated from the 1950s to the 1990s. Although no longer operational, the deleterious effects of uranium mining are still continuing and doing harm to humans, animals and nature. I, for one, would never visit Eliot Lake.

Then there are the fail-safe systems. The safety and environmental concerns posed by human, system and computer errors are serious and cannot be easily ignored, let alone contained should an malfunction or error occur. There have been 33 recorded nuclear incidents since 1952, of which Fukushima in Japan (2011), Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986), and Three Mile Island in the United States (1979) are the most well-known, Even with the best fail-safe systems, mistakes happen.  You can be assured they will happen in the future; statistics will validate this point.

There is always the possibility of political actors, terrorists and other ill-intentioned entities turning low-grade uranium into weapons-grade material. This is what India did in 1974 when it detonated its first atomic test for what it deemed “peaceful purposes.” It was built using plutonium from a research reactor that Canada donated in 1956; plutonium can be extracted and refined from nuclear waste. Human civilization can’t always be confident that all parties and nations will act as India did. The best way to reduce such threats is to remove the temptation for evil. Building more nuclear power plants actually increases such threats.

Then there is the huge problem of the long-term storage of more than 250,000 tonnes of nuclear waste worldwide. In Canada the plan calls for storing 2.4 million spent fuel rods 680 metres (2,230 feet) below ground in sedimentary shale and limestone rock formations; these are called DGRs, or Deep Geologic Repositories. The cost: $24 billion to store 48,000-tonnes of nuclear waste . It is exactly what it sounds like: storing nuclear fuel waste fuel deep in the Canadian Shield.

I have heard about this idea for at least 30 years, and it might be another 30 before a government decides to go ahead with it, if such a decision is ever made at all. It will, undoubtedly, cost much more and not be as safe as its proponents say it is. Who can guarantee geological stability for hundreds of thousands of years? It is important to note that nuclear waste, one of which is Pu 239, has a half-life of 24,100 years, which means that it is harmful for 250,000 years. (Nearly all plutonium is man-made.)

Each of the facts is sufficient to make one wonder of the wisdom of using nuclear energy; when combined, it would seem foolish to even consider its viability. Nuclear energy is a less-than-ideal choice. I think that humanity can do better with renewable and alternative energy sources and finding ways to do more with less, which includes energy conservation. Even France, a nation that has for decades relied on nuclear plants to supply its energy requirements, has recently decided to reduce the percentage of power produced by nuclear plants and increase the percentage produced by renewable energy sources. It seems that not only France, but the world is now ready for renewables.

As it ought to be when faced with certain choices. In my case, my cautious choice follows a certain path, built with some first-hand knowledge and experience. When I was an engineering student, a mere youngster, I worked one summer at a nuclear research facility in Chalk River, Ontario (see “My Summer At A Nuclear Research Facility”). I was then, and for a few years afterward, a proponent of nuclear energy, an acolyte of the nuclear-power industry. What can I say? I did’t know any better.

My youthful enthusiasm, however, was soon replaced by varying experiences and knowledge that changed my view to the current one. I can say with utmost sincerity and rationality that a nuclear energy future is not a good one.

For more, go to [ScientAmer]