Nuclear energy is getting a lot of press lately. Most of it good. It was inevitable given the rising price of oil, that nuclear proponents would finally have their place in the sun. Here's some of my thoughts on this issue, for anyone who might give a fiddlers for the opinions of one lone maths freak.
The main reason nuclear energy is being pushed so much lately is because of the rising price of oil. Nuclear proponents are now being listened to by those looking around for alternate sources of energy. It actually has very little to do with the safety, cost and/or enviornmental impact issues. The nuclear situation hasn't changed a whole lot in the last five years, or inded the last fifty.
The arguments for nuclear energy are in fact, exactly the same ones that were put forward in the fifties. Namely a cheaper, cleaner, more efficient form of energy. There is a large degree of truth to all these arguments, and possibly more so now than when nuclear reactors were first proposed.
So the big question here is, if nuclear power is so great, then why haven't we switched to it in the meantime?
The most important reason for the lack of switch is, or rather was, cheap oil. Oil burning generators were quite simply too cheap to pass up. But now, with the rising cost of oil, this has changed.
Another reason for our relative lack of nuclear plants is essentially their bad public reputation, not all of which is unjustified. The reasons for this bad rep are varied.
First, is the connection in the public mind between nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. This connection is made ever more concrete with TV shows and movies having plotlines where reactors are essentially turned into nuclear bombs by terrorists and the like.
But hollywood fantasy aside, this link in the public mind is justified to a some degree. The radioactive byproducts of commerical nuclear reactors are in fact key components in nuclear armaments; plutonium being the chief amoung these. With an increase in nuclear reactors, there will be an inevitable increase in the raw material for nuclear weapons so to speak. And so with the proliferation of nuclear power, it is not beyond reason to conjecture nuclear weapons proliferation as well.
The second reason for public mistrust of nuclear power is the radiation factor. Radiation and radiation poisioning are unknown factors for most of the human population. Again this situation is not helped by hollywood dramatisations of the effects of radiation. In some cases, outright fantasy scenarios of nuclear "fallout" involving mutated monsters roaming a desertified landscape prey on the public mind.
Still, again there is some justification in the public being cautious on this issue. Radioactive substances are dangerous substance and should not be treated lightly. Some might argue that this is no more so the case with radiation than with other harmful chemical and biological substances. However, unlike most chemical and biological agents, radioactive substances have an irritatingly long "half life", which increases significantly the duration of any contamination by comparision to a chemical spill.
If we take the recent Harbin Benzene spill in China as an example. This chemical spill has affected millions and caused considerable enviormental damage; fish kills etc. However, to a greater or lesser extent, most of the benzene will wash away or break down into less harmful chemicals. But could the same be said of the spill contained radioactive material?
Radioactive material dumped within the watershed of a major river like the Mississippi or the Rhine is something the public should be wary of. To a greater or lesser degree than a chemical spill, or indeed, the dumping of fumes into the atmosphere? Time will tell on this one.
Arguably the biggest reason for public skepticism for nuclear power is the track record of the nuclear industry. Chernobyl was, and remains, the biggest argument against nuclear energy. 300,000 people were displaced, a city and its hinterland was essentially written off of the books, and the on going medical and social problems currently affect millions. No accident at an oil or gas plant, no matter how severe, can come close to the level of destruction wrought by Chernobyl. The Harbin benzene spill, despite its severity, pales in comparision. Harbin is not a write off.
On a more day to day basis, the nuclear industry does have numerous blemishes. Three Mile Island being the most infamous. More serious and ongoing is a somewhat cavalier attitude towards the radioativity, with highly radioative cooling ponds existing outside many reactors, as well as incidents at Sellafield, where actual material was simply dumped into the ponds, and close to 30kg of plutonium have literally gone missing. The nuclear industry is run by human beings, who, for whatever reason, do not always run things as they should be run.
Still, it seems unfair to tarnish the entire industry with one brush. The majority of nuclear plants seem to have been run without incident. But as the amount of nuclear plansts increases, and if regulations become lax to accommidate them, any leaks or loose ends in the industry's procedures will become more apparent. The industry has a chance to grow now, but it may end up shooting itself in the foot if things go awry.
The last reason for public mistrust involves the disposal of nuclear material. And this is arguably the biggest of all the headaches associated with nuclear energy. Techniques may have improved, and the argument against the polluting nature of coal and oil fumes are put forward, but essentially the solution to nuclear waste material is to throw it in a big concrete lined hole and hope it will go away. The industry likes to think otherwise, as all polluters do, the coal and oil burners, the garbage disposal companies etc.. .
To be sure these disposal drums may be sophisticated, but the public still misturst the whole business. It is the low tech back end to the illustriously high tech nuclear industry. The wonders of nuclear energy, almost mystical in their abilities to the public, are brought back down to earth by the images of drums of material being dumped into a pit, to sit there for a hundred years not to become non-radioactive, but only "as" radioactive as natural uranium. Joe public might not know the ins and outs of radioactive decay, but he knows dumping when he sees it.
But again is this an issue? Especially compared to oil and coal etc... ? It certainly will be if these disposal drums are not constructed to the highest standards. Again, a leaking drum in the water supply of a major city would be a disaster. Arguably more so from a public relations rather than a health perspective. Not that health effects might not be significant. As nuclear power increases, and waste material increases, the nuclear industry would do best to go out of its way to ensure that dumping remains shiny clean nuclear's dirty little secret, otherwise the whole industry will be set back all over again.
Nuclear power has benefits, but it has some drawbacks as well, like most things. Unfortunately, some of the drawbacks of nuclear power are very serious indeed, and it will take real and sustained efforts to ensure that nuclear remains safe as well as cheap. My biggest worry is that cheap will win the day, and the only driver of safety and professionalism in the nuclear industry, like in any other, will be a serious accident or disaster. It is a sad fact that people must often be killed before industry is made to take things seriously.