Last week, a friend of mine Michael (Astronomy.FM) asked people to convince him that we should abandon nuclear power in the wake of the Japan crisis in the discussion of this opinion article: http://primarysources.newsvine.com/_news/2011/03/31/6385429-crowd-sourcing-a-nuclear-worst-case-scenario-are-we-all-fukushimad
There were a couple of responses, one of which directly dealt with the question taking the stance that we should get out, posted by TheView FromHere.
I'll support the pro-nuclear side just to make things interesting and I'm posting this as a separate form as not to hi-jack that article with a fairly long response.
Since 1945, nuclear energy has had this stigma about it. People saw what nuclear weapons can do and how destructive it can be and like so many things in life, first impressions are usually the ones that stick and overwhelm. This is definitely a major part of the problem. Secondly, nuclear physics are above most people's head and they simply cannot understand it or it's implications, but unfortunately everyone seems to have an opinion about it and worse yet, think that those opinions actually have "weight/worth".
To have a rational discussion on the merits of nuclear energy production you first need to contain these 2 biases and put them off to the side. The first is relatively easy. You can easily dismiss the whole nuke plant blowing up ala atomic bomb as no operational plant nor future gen reactors will ever contain the conditions necessary for a exponentially growing fission reaction like a bomb, even with a full core meltdown.
The second, seems to be a very hard part, but in all actuality should be easier. I would put it to you this way: Would you ask a lay person on their opinion on wing design of an airplane? Or what about scramjet designs? Orbital mechanics? What about how to use lithography in the production of computer chips? How to merge General Relativity with quantum mechanics? A common argument used is that it's a matter of public safety and therefore people should have the right to be heard. And to be fair, up to a point I agree with it, but only to a point. But what if building codes in LA and San Francisco were done by popular opinion? Building to withstand earthquakes definitely falls under public safety but should we listen to the discord of everyone living there giving input, or should we let those who study and are trained in this area handle it? How about that wing design? I'd hate to be on the newest jumbo liner only to find out that the interior bracing was designed by a junior high dropout that cannot do simple arithmetic who's only experience with building planes was folding paper airplanes.
But telling people they don't matter just seems to rub most of them the wrong way which is too bad since they tend to just talk louder about the things they don't know anything about. There's been a ton of fearmongering going about lately by people and I ask that you put it into context that at least on the 'vine, nearly all of them just do not have the knowledge about this subject to competently post about it (and that's on both sides of the argument). That's not to say that you need to be a nuclear engineer/physicist, but you should be able to follow a more detailed look at reactor design and understand the decay/fission process and at least the basic equations behind them.
So, where I'm coming from. Like TheView in the previous article, I'll put the disclaimer that I'm not a scientist also. The caveat is that I have a love for the sciences and took a wide range of college science courses including upper level chem and physics classes. Throughout my courses, I was exposed to more than just a passing mention of radioactive decay and the fission/fusion process (pun intended).
This is meant as a brief summary though at times it may be a bit more detailed. A more thorough explanation can easily be ten times the length of what I post here with a true, well prepared argument being even longer.
First, a quick correction of TheView's original comment. The breakdown of energy sources for all BTU's is roughly 37% petroleum, 25% natural gas, 21% coal, 9% nuclear, and 8% renewables. For the production of electricity alone, it's 45% coal, 23% natural gas, 20% nuclear, 7% hydro, 5% all the rest. This distinction does matter when looking towards the future as currently only 38% of energy production is used to created electricity.
For this discussion, I see two questions need to be answered. First, do we actually need nuclear energy to meet the energy demands of our country? Secondly, is it relatively safe? I would put forth that one 'no' to either question is enough for the debate. However, the second needs the clarification that all energy production is hazardous to a point, so nuclear needs to be compared to other sources of energy.
Do we need nuclear power? For this I'm assuming that we do not want to increase fossil fuel based energy production, in fact, we should be decreasing our reliance upon it as it is a dwindling resource. And here is where that above distinction comes into play. Electricity only accounts for 38% of all energy production. If we are to cut down on fossil fuel usage, it means bringing in quite a bit more demand for electricity to offset other types of usage. Such examples would be to change from natural gas/fuel oil heating to electric, using more plug in vehicles, some industrial applications that requires heat (say chemical production), among other things. You could easily increase electric demand by 50-70%. Do we need to at this point? Well not at this point however it's not renewable and at some point we will be forced to switch.
Let's start with current electrical production. For 2009, the US produced 3814 billion kilowatt hours (lets abbreviate it bkwh) for the electrical power sector and 139 bkwh for the commercial/industrial sector. We will disregard the commercial/industrial as it tends to be specialized and it's too hard to separate what needs fossil fuel for production, and what can be generated from other sources.
From the renewable standpoint, how can we able to add to the current production and also start replacing fossil fuels. There's not too much more we can do from a hydro standpoint, most of the best locations are taken already and with the remaining good locations to place dams, there is are environmental considerations which override construction, such as flooding communities upstream. I've seen sources that say we are nearly tapped out to others that say we can increase it threefold. It's probably somewhere in the middle but even at 3x, at most, hydro will only account for 21% of current production. So if we are cutting fossil fuel and nuclear we will need to come up with the other 79% of current production.
How about solar/PV? We will start with photovoltaic. Currently the best panel for energy density is made from SunPower at 17.26 PTC watts/sq ft or 27878 kw/sq mile. Let's say throughout the year you average 12hrs/day of decent sunlight to work with, you will have (334,541 kwhr/sqmi)/day. So how much to meet 79% of current electrical demand? ((3814 bkwhr/yr)*79%) / (((334541 kwhr/sqmi)/day)*365day/yr)) = 24675 sq miles which represents .65% of the total US area, or nearly the entire states of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut combined.
And this is being very very optimistic since the 17.26 watts/sq ft is under optimal practical conditions (meaning good sunlight and taking inefficiencies/loss into account). This is good for southwestern states but you need to distribute them throughout the nation otherwise transmission loss from the SW to say NYC would be tremendous. So if we are looking more at an average of 15 watts, you will need another 4000 sq mi or Delaware and Rhode Island. But it gets worse because you need to store energy for nighttime use which adds quite a bit more inefficiency and you can tack on even more states. One last thing, most other manufactures produce densities between 11 and 13 PTC watts/sq ft. SunPower could never produce the needed panels needed and therefore these other panels will have to be used also. An area the size of Ohio or even Pennsylvania is now a more reasonable estimate
So PV as a solution is unreasonable, solar plants are regional at best, mostly for the SW US given the area and conditions needed for them. How much could we reasonable expect solar/PV to contribute? I'm willing to go out on a limb and say we could get to 15-20% between adding panels to every building/house that can reasonably have it, creating PV farms, and building additional solar plants.
Wind power, this is tricky. You have to keep in mind that you need a minimum amount of guaranteed production when addressing national energy needs and wind just doesn't fit that. I know that there is strong support for it to be a mainstay but you can't count on it and that's a huge problem. US consumption won't change based on whether or not wind is present, therefore regardless of how much it produces, there needs to be other reliable resources that can be used to make up the difference should there be no wind and at that point, why bother. It's energy density is lower than PV. It's great supplemental power but that's all it will be regulated to. Currently wind accounts for 1.7%, don't expect it to go over 10-15% at the most.
Tidal, wave, and ocean current. Tidal and current are reliable and can be thought of as a stable energy source. Wave, like wind is not guaranteed. However, all three have an energy density greater that wind or solar by a significant margin. I apologize, but I haven't been able to find good solid figures for this type of power. Currently it's lower than .1%, but how much I cannot tell. I personally think this is a excellent source of power given it's density. The problem however, is the environment as these can be incredibly invasive to the ecosystem where they are built in various places. So there may be a limited amount of places to set up such systems. Another problem is the salt water itself since it's corrosive. There could be a high enough maintenance cost associated with it where it may not be economical on a large scale. But there is the potential for it to provide a substantial amount of power.
Those are the big players, so to speak. There are other technologies but together, they may only account up to 10% if fully developed. Here we are talking about geothermal, biomass, bio-diesel, among others.
So where do we stand? Excluding the wild card of tidal/current/wave, you can expect 65-70% of current energy demand. The wild card has the potential of easily making up the remaining 30-35%. You may be tempted to say that nuclear is not needed, but we need to look past the surface. This is strictly for current electrical production, but it has been steadily increasing throughout the years, in fact, we currently produce just over 70% more electricity now than we did 30 years ago. Even if we only have an increase of 50% over the next 30, the above methods come up short on meeting the demand. Also, we have the other 62% of total energy production where a percentage will slowly shift over to electrical power (i.e. furnace to electric heat) due to increasing fossil fuel prices and supply becoming more limited.
Now it becomes very apparent that the above methods will not even come close to meeting future needs with no new techs that will be ready to deploy in any significant way in the foreseeable future. At this point, barring any drastic change in demand or new techs being brought to market on a large scale, nuclear is starting to appear very much as a necessity. I just don't see how you can answer "no" to the first question.
Now to try an quantify the safety aspect. First, lets start with the easy stuff: Millions of people have died world wide in fossil fuel energy production (including mining), hundreds of thousands for hydro, only a handful for wind and solar, none that I know of for ocean generated, and again only a handful for the rest of the techs combined. It is estimated that less than 5,000 deaths have been directly linked to nuclear power (discounting mining as I cannot find figures on that aspect). From this standpoint, nuclear is on the low end of the curve.
Now the hard part, potential safety accidents/disasters. At this point, I'll leave out fossil fuel since nothing else comes close to touching it and that we are also looking to phase out it's use for this discussion. Wind has low risk involved, mostly limited to the workers themselves, only affecting at most several people at any given accident. Most of the misc techs have a little bit higher risk than wind, again mostly limited to the workers, but can range from 1 person, up to around 100 people in a plant setting, for any given accident. For ocean tech, it's a fair amount of risk associated with ocean current and waves (as you are working/diving at depth), low risk for tidal, again mostly limited to workers, and can range from 1 person to a crew of a boat. I would characterize these methods as pretty much as safe as you can get (biomass perhaps being a little bit less due to pollution) since they are mostly low risk and really only affect workers.
Solar, I'd say it's relatively low risk with most accidents only involving workers. However it has the potential for being a more serious situation given that we are talking about production that uses far more toxic industrial chemicals than the above methods. Should there be an explosion at a manufacturing plant, the release of these into the air and surrounding ground can pose a problem for nearby people, especially if it's allowed to seep into the local ground water supply. But this kind of event is very unlikely and you may never see one in your lifetime. Overall I'd put it just slightly behind the previous group, mostly because there has been more workplace deaths.
With hydroelectric, there's been hundreds of thousands of deaths already associated with it. Potential dam breaches can threaten up to tens of thousands or perhaps even 100's of thousands of people depending on the dam in question. Wolf Creek is a good example of a potential hazard. I would say that from a safety point of view, this is far more dangerous than the above methods.
Where does nuclear power fit here? From a standpoint of what has happened, it's in between solar and hydro. But that is leaving it short, so we much look deeper. Here I'll cover a few items, if I leave something out, please add to the discussion.
First, let's look at waste. Here is where lack of knowledge really is a bad thing and here's an example. You have 2 substances A and B that are radioactive, chemically neutral like the noble gases, the decay produces other chemically neutral elements. and the decay produces the exact same type and amount of radiation, the only difference is the A has a half-life of just over one billion years, and B has a half life of say, 50 years, if you were to ask the average person what substance is worse to have around, what do you think they would they say? Invariably, most everyone will say A is far worse because it lasts so long, it just doesn't go away. The problem is that this is completely wrong as B is far, far worse. Take 2 billion atoms of each substance and for arguments sake say the radiation is 1 gamma ray. substance A will produce 1bil gamma rays of radiation over the course of 1 billion years or 1 ray per year on average. B will produce 1bil rays over 50 years, or an average of 20mil rays each year.
Given that you are exposed to gamma radiation every day you decided to go outside during the day, 1 additional ray each year is negligible. You could play with the substance and it won't matter in the slightest. 20 million additional rays, that's a different matter. The takeaway from this exercise is don't get hung up on half-lives. From a storage view, the longer the better. The exception are half-lives under a year, there you can let it decay and in just a few years there is relatively little waste left. Some of the radioactive isotopes produced as waste have very long half-lives such as 135Cs which has a half-life of about 2.3 million years. So some of the waste is not too dangerous other than from a bio-molecular point of view.
Regardless, did you know you can recycle the waste? Some reactors in the EU do this, in the end there is very little waste left to deal with unlike here in the US. As far as storage goes, as long as it's far below the water table and not in a volcanically active location it's a non-issue. No one has produced any valid mechanism where a catastrophic disaster would produce any observable effects at the surface. If there is an incident, the waste just doesn't magically teleport hundreds of feet up to the water table, much less the surface.
Transport of waste to a storage facility is a concern however as it can release waste into the surrounding environment in an accident. The risk can be managed in proper planning though and compared with the transport of industrial chemicals isn't anymore dangerous to the environment. There's plenty of extremely toxic chemicals being transported between facilities every day. I guess this is just a judgment call. For me, I don't see it being inherently more dangerous than other daily activities. If overall we're fine with those, we should be fine with the transport of nuclear waste.
How about the reactors themselves. Except for a reaction design that never should have been implemented in Chernobyl, Japan and an accident in Pripyat are the only major disasters outside the military (yes there have been incidents including TMI, but there weren't disasters). Even then it took a 9.0 earthquake to generate a 30ft tsunami to take out backup generators to cause Japan's current problems. From a safety record standpoint, this is pretty impressive compared to the amount of electricity produced. Excluding military and Chernobyl, fewer than 70 people have died in the production of electricity, the biggest event being at Pripyat with 53 dying as a result of a steam explosion and subsequent meltdown. In contrast, over 50 people have died in the installation of solar panels by falling off of buildings. I'm excluding Chernobyl because it was such a flawed reactor/plant design with various short cuts taken while building it that the west really has no equivalent to it and also due to operator error, parts of the test reactor 4 was undergoing fell outside established safety margins by a large margin. If the operators simply decided to eat the cost of completely shutting down the reactor when things started to go bad, there would not have been the disaster that happened that day.
That said, we now need to talk about the potential safety issues of nuclear energy. Here we can use Chernobyl as an example of how bad it can be. Current estimates put around 4000-5000 people have died as a direct result, a result of both physical injury and radiation exposure. There has been several thousand cases of cancer which have a high probability of being caused by radiation and toxic exposure with as much as another 6000 expected over time. Some of these are included in the 4k-5k current mortality estimate. Though there was about 4000 cases of thyroid cancer in children and adolescences reported there has been a low death rate due to a high survival rate with treatment (96% past 5 and 92% past 30 in the former Soviet Union).
That was a disaster. Japan is also experiencing a disaster. Both of these vastly eclipse most of the previously discussed methods of production but it also pales in comparison to hydroelectric. One of the largest hydroelectric disasters occurred at Banqiao Dam in the Henan province of China. Here an estimated 171,000 people died as a result, tens or hundreds of thousands injured, and an estimated 10+ million people losing there homes, to say nothing of their businesses. This affected an area of land that no nuclear plant ever could.
Before you cry foul on using a dam failure in China as an example, I will remind you that we are currently using both a Soviet and Japanese disaster as examples too. If I cannot use the Banqiao dam, you cannot use Chernobyl or Fukushima. You will then be forced to use the worse US event which occurred at the National Reactor Testing Station at Idaho Falls in 1961 where SL-1 (an army experimental reactor) suffered a steam explosion and meltdown, killing 3 people. Once you are forced to use that example, more deaths have been associated with solar/PV, wind, and several misc techs than nuclear in the United States and becomes the premier choice for energy production.
One thing that tends to be overlooked is that those reactors are second and third generation reactors that were designed over 40 years ago. Newer 3rd+ generation reactors being deployed now are better designed and safer than those in Japan and 4th gen reactors due to start coming out in the next few years take it to a whole new level. There are thorium reactor designs that are extremely safe to operate. I want you to also remember that Fukushima withstood a 9.0 earthquake including several aftershocks over 6.0. It took the beating. Even when the tsunami took out the backup, it still wasn't a done deal. If they somehow could have restored power to the cooling systems within the next couple of days, this would have been a non-issue. We can learn from these events and plan even safer reactors. There are already some that have passive cooling designed into the reactor meaning that it doesn't require electricity to use, gravity fed water cooling is an example.
I know there are arguments regarding stuff like meteorites hitting the reactor or terrorism but these are non-issues and this is why: First meteorites. I'm not sure why this comes up because all you have to do is think about the odds of a meteorite large enough to destroy a reactor/plant, but small enough as to not be the greater threat, hitting a certain specific location on the globe. I'll go out on a limb and say that our chances of dying via supernova of Betelgeuse is greater. I cannot fathom how those people who truly worry about this get out of bed in the morning given the numerous realistic threats of everyday life.
Now to a real threat, terrorism. Terrorists will find a way to kill. It doesn't matter if it's suicide bombing, flying planes into skyscrapers, or by just gunning down people. More people died during 9/11 then the first few months after Chernobyl. More people died in the Oklahoma City bombing that any commercial nuclear accident except Chernobyl. You saw more loss of life in the Virginia Tech shootings than all US deaths due to commercial nuclear accidents. Loss of life due to terrorism will continue with or without nuclear plants. Attacks on these plants most likely will result in less life lost than many other targets that are more easily attacked. The nuclear threat you should be worried about are bombs (be it dirty bombs or actual fission bombs) that are smuggled into the US. Those have the chance of being extremely catastrophic.
As far as how safe nuclear power is in relation to other methods you can easily say that it's more dangerous than most other methods given the potential for catastrophe, but you still need to place it far better than hydroelectric. Keep in mind that both nuclear and hydro are safer choices than fossil fuel energy production.
So where do we stand on question number 2? If we go strictly by the numbers on US soil, nearly all other forms of production as had a greater loss of life associated with it including the coveted safety record of solar/PV and wind. However I'll easily concede that it is a potentially more dangerous as we consider worldwide production in general. That said, it is far safer than hydroelectric and newer reactor designs will be even more safe. Even though it's more of a judgment call, I feel that the answer is "yes, it is a reasonably safe method of electrical power".
One last bit to cover is cost. There are those that say nuclear energy is the golden child, that nothing comes close in cost per kilowatt. This is really really stretching the truth. The Nuclear industry has been heavily subsidized which means that their cost has been relatively low, but it still costs us in the form of taxes. A more realistic view is that it's comparable with coal, which does make it a little cheaper than other methods but not by much at all. We can however, look at France which is pretty much all nuclear. With all the upgrades they've done on older reactors and with newer more efficient ones brought online, their cost per kilowatt is fairly low. When they sell electricity to other EU nations, they are usually selling it at a price lower than what those countries can produce themselves.
At this point I would conclude that we should continue nuclear power development as both questions are answered yes. Just keep in mind that this is not an endorsement to concentrate solely on nuclear energy as I wholeheartedly support the development of alternative energy production. In fact I'm a huge supporter of research into fusion power and also space based energy collection. But I believe that nuclear power should be part of the solution to meet our energy demands for the foreseeable future. Currently there is enough nuclear fuel to completely satisfy our current energy demands for the next few centuries, it shouldn't be wasted without good reason.
As this was in response to a post on another article it is meant for discussion (i just didn't want to leave this kind of post on their article), my only requirements are to be civil, and keep the arguments/comments reasonable (meaning no outrageous unsubstantiated claims). If Mob_Barley shows up, he's required to make at least one funny (that is hopefully on topic) :)