A Philosopher's Blog

Going Nuclear

Posted in Environment, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2008

As the price of oil surges upward, nuclear power is being given serious thought once more. Naturally, this is met with optimism by some and worry by others.

The main concerns about nuclear power are obvious. First, there is the risk of an accident. In any debate about nuclear power, one merely has to bring up Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in order to score some easy points. While nuclear accidents are rare, they have the potential to be truly catastrophic. Second, there is the matter of the nuclear waste. While recycling can occur in nuclear power (for example, some US reactors are using material from Russian warheads as fuel), nuclear waste is radioactive and this makes it just about the worst possible waste. Not only is radiation from such waste rather harmful, it tends to remain dangerous for centuries. Hence, storing it in a safe manner is of great concern. Third, there is the concern that nuclear material can be used to create weapons-either nuclear bombs or contamination weapons.

All of these concerns are quite legitimate and need to be dealt with effectively. In some cases, they already have. While Russian nuclear power has been a scary thing, Western plants have an excellent safety record. While the nuclear waste is a serious concern, expensive facilities are being constructed and plans are being discussed. Finally, some claim that plants can be secured to reduce the likelihood that they can become the sources of weapons (for the wrong people, of course).

Nuclear power does have some factors in its favor. First, nuclear power is cheaper than many alternative power sources such as wind , gas, and solar. Of course, there is some debate about this. Second, aside from the nuclear waste, nuclear plants are very clean. Of course, that nuclear waste is still a matter of significant concern. Third, unlike solar and wind power, nuclear power is always available. Fourth, nuclear power is domestic power-it can be generated right here in the United States, thus lessening our dependency on foreign sources of energy.

While people tend to have an emotional reaction to nuclear power, we should consider it as a possible option. After all, it does have a great deal in its favor. But, it also has some serious potential problems-as shown by Chernobyl. The effective loss of an entire city tends to create a lasting impression that is hard to erase with facts and figures about the viability and safety of nuclear energy.

But, looked at logically, provided that the waste and safety problems can be dealt with, going nuclear can be an acceptable option. It can even be a green option (and hopefully not a glowing green one).

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2 Responses

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  1. Geaghan said, on April 27, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Not only is radiation from such waste rather harmful, it tends to remain dangerous for centuries.

    More like millennia. The plutonium-239 in spent fuel remains a biohazard for hundreds of thousands of years. Zirconium-93 has a halflife of 1.53 million years; for iodine-129, it’s 15.7 million years.

    Despite my ambivalence on the subject, I have to agree with this analysis. Nuclear power can be generated safely and the storage problems may be solvable–but at what expense, I wonder. That safest approach would be to deposit the most dangerous waste in subduction zones where it’ll be pulled down into the earth’s mantle over millions of years. But that would be extremely expensive. And the greatest danger may be in shipping the waste to the storage facilities.

    The French, to mention one example, have a safe industry with very high safety standards. I certainly don’t trust corporations on the model of Enron to run our nuclear industry. A much higher level of regulation seems appropriate if we take a private approach to nuclear power.

  2. FRE said, on November 12, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Have those who oppose nuclear energy learned about using thorium instead of uranium for nuclear reactors?

    The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) eliminates the problems associated with uranium reactors. Thorium does not provide an easy path to nuclear weapons. It also solves the nuclear waste problems.

    Before objecting to nuclear power, do your own research on thorium reactors. Do a google search on “thorium reactor.”

    “Renewable” sources of energy are intermittent and cannot provide for the energy requirements of a growing world economy. Those opposing nuclear power will succeed only in prolonging our dependence on destructive fossil fuels.

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