“They’d have over 300 engineers where here you only see maybe 30,” said the forty plus year veteran of the power industry comparing a nuclear power plant to the coal-fired plant I was visiting. I asked him why there are so many. Isn’t the plant automated much like this one I wanted to know? “To fill out all the forms,” he answered. He felt that all the regulations were a big part of why we don’t have more nuclear power. I can’t speak to how many bureaucratic forms engineers were filling out but I can see why many of them might be necessary.
Nuclear power isn’t without risk to be sure, but neither is coal, oil, or as environmentalists recently complained [more here], wind power. Somehow public misinformation about the dangers of nuclear power, perhaps combined with overwhelming legislation has doomed this relatively clean energy source in the U.S.
Here are some things most of us don’t think about when we consider our choices for power. Oil is used to generate electricity. Well, it was used to generate electricity when it was less than $30 a barrel. Burning oil to turn generators produces relatively little pollution (surprisingly!) but it does release plenty of green house gases. Environmental regulations in the U.S. drove many utilities to build new power plants that could burn oil and, in a pinch, coal and the majority of these are either idle or burning coal exclusively right now because oil is just too expensive. The story for natural gas is about the same.
The U.S. has been described as the Saudi Arabia of coal. It’s true. We have tons of the stuff, more than any other nation and while it’s frequently high in sulfur (which produces smog causing pollutants such as SOx) equipment exists to minimize this problem. The U.S. consumed over a billion short tons of coal in 2003. A single, average sized, coal fired power plant consumes about one train load of coal per day. We’ve all waited for a typical 105 car coal train to cross in front of us on the road. One whole train goes into a power plant full and leaves empty every single day! All that coal is burnt up each day and turned into two things: ash and CO2. Ash is frequently used in cement production or, as often as not, simply dumped near the coal plant. CO2 meanwhile is released into the atmosphere. Coal is responsible for 53% of the U.S. 3.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. and for about 4.4 billion pounds of CO2 will be released into the air for 2005. (More, you say, than we even consumed in coal? different years. See this link for loads of info.)
Hydro-electric can hardly be considered environmentally friendly these days when we consider the damage to the landscape, destroyed fisheries and rivers that many dams of caused. Fact is, there aren’t really many more places for us to dam up these days and while Lake Powell is a load of fun for many people it was also an environmental disaster for the area.
Renewables? I mentioned wind-power above but there’s also geo-thermal, wave power and solar power. Currently renewable make up less than 1% of the U.S. power consumption. Probably the biggest reason for this is that it’s expensive! According to a Stirling Energy Systems “Photovoltaic technology is generally not abundant enough or cost-effective enough to meet any large scale demands.” Other solar energy is in the 10¢ per KW range. Coal meanwhile is in the 2 – 5¢ range. Of course we’re not paying for the environmental impact of coal–yet!
I used to drive by San Onofre nuclear power plant in southern California quite frequently. The power plant has been in operation for 38 years but they do not have an agreement to transport nuclear waste off site. Where do they put it? Essentially in the basement. It’s a special basement, surrounded by 2 inches of stainless steel and several feet of reinforced concrete, but it’s still the basement. 38 years and they have all of their waste on site. How is this possible? Because nuclear power plants produce about 1 cubic foot of waste per year. Oh, it’s nasty stuff, no doubt about it, but there just isn’t very much of it. The plant itself is hardened so that a 747 could fly right into it without damaging it. (You can question that if you want, but it was designed with this in mind at least.)
A long list of accidents at nuclear power plants would be dwarfed by the same listing at coal-plants but virtually none of these released nuclear material into the broader environment. The worst nuclear accident in the U.S. was three-mile island. This human-error was contained but that part of the plant was destroyed. Meanwhile, coal-fired power plants release literally billions of tons of CO2 into the environment (and a sizable amount of nuclear isotopes as well just because they’re naturally occurring in the coal) ever year.
The U.S. is 18th in nuclear power generation. With all this power being generated world-wide by nuclear power (16% of the world’s power) you’d think we’d be hearing about accidents every day.
Nuclear power has risks and I don’t need to write a treatise on this subject here. But other power sources are simply too expensive (today) or obviously risky to our environment and yet we continue to use them.
Our choice is clear. We must continue to invest in alternative energy sources and carefully consider their advantages and disadvantages before assuming we have the end-all solution. In the mean time we should reconsider nuclear power in the U.S. and start investing new plants now. Well, that’s not true, we do have another choice–turn off the lights and move back into caves.