Part II: How Has the Debate Shifted? Has the Media Missed the Change?
Most media coverage is still focused on the old “pros verses cons” of nuclear power. But as we said earlier, we believe that old debate is largely irrelevant in the minds of most thought leaders. As people re-consider nuclear power, they are thinking about the issues from a completely different perspective.
Let’s look at this new paradigm and attempt to re-frame the nuclear debate in terms that better match what people are thinking today.Global Warming vs. Nuclear Waste
Old Debate: Do we have a solution for nuclear waste?
New Debate: Is waste from fossil fuels is a much bigger problem? If so then maybe nuclear waste isn’t such a bad alternative.
Over past few years, global warming has become the premiere environmental issue. Al Gore has made tremendous progress educating the public about its dangers, culminating in a movie called “An Inconvenient Truth” – playing at a cinema near you!
But the very success of the Global Warming campaign is what drives people to take a second look at nuclear power. In theory, carbon dioxide emissions are creating enormous systemic changes in the ecosystem. Flooding, acidic ocean water, die-off of species, reversal of the Atlantic current…all these point to massive, widespread, and devastating changes, which are predicted to impoverish or displace millions of people.
Compared to this, nuclear waste starts to look like a minor problem. For example:•
Although nuclear waste is extraordinarily dangerous (everyone admits that), a very tiny amount of it can substitute for relatively huge amounts of carbon waste. One barrel of nuclear waste prevents millions of barrels of carbon waste.•
Carbon waste has a unique problem: it is always immediately spewed into the atmosphere…it is “polluting the commons.” On the other hand, nuclear waste is never spewed into the global environment. It is retained by the original nation which produced it. It is almost impossible to ship. So nuclear waste does not “pollute the commons.” By definition , nuclear waste forces the society who create it to be responsible for it. From this perspective, the argument could be made that nuclear waste is the more environmentally responsible choice, compared to carbon waste.•
Yes, nuclear waste is a potential risk, but that’s still an “if”. If
the barrels leak. If
terrorists manage to bypass rings of military protection. If
the barren wastes of Nevada suddenly become desirable real estate. Many unlikely things would need to happen, in order for nuclear waste to become a major disaster. On the other hand, carbon waste is causing a disaster, right now, on a global scale.•
Many environmentalists have supported carbon dioxide sequestration, a technology which aims to pump these millions of tons of carbon waste into the ground or deep ocean. But this highlights the problem: how can people complain about “no solution” for nuclear waste, when there is clearly “no solution” for carbon waste either? And the huge volume of carbon waste makes it a much more difficult waste problem to solve.
What’s worse, a few barrels of nuclear waste stored somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert, which “might” leak and poison a very small local area…
Millions of tons of carbon dioxide and coal smoke spewed into the atmosphere, which is already causing massive worldwide destruction?
Renewables Vs. The French SuccessOld Debate: We should try to convert to mostly renewable sources.New Debate: France converted 75% of their electrical grid to nuclear power in a few decades. Why don’t we do the same thing?
For decades society has discouraged nuclear power and encouraged conservation, solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. There have been big government subsidies, tax credits (especially in California) and investment in dozens of new technology startups and research programs.
These efforts have produced promising results, but nowhere near the promises made by supporters of the technology. Decades later, the slow growth of renewables has left a gap, filled by burning ever more millions of tons of coal every year. As we’ll describe later in this paper, the state of California has met the vast majority of it’s electric need with natural gas and is planning to meet much of it’s future needs with coal.
Electrical demand is skyrocketing, and it shows no signs of slacking off. If we subtract “old style” renewables like hydropower, geothermal, and trash burning, which are largely tapped out, the actual contribution of wind and solar and tidal power are still a few percent or less of demand.
When debating nuclear power, opponents say “yes, but nuclear power couldn’t meet the need either”. However, every major government knows this argument is false. The nuclear industry is quite capable of building astronomical numbers of additional capacity, outstripping wind and solar power by a huge magnitude.
The proof? Simple. France converted their entire electrical grid to non-carbon emitting in a mere 25 years. They did this by building over 50 nuclear reactors, mass-production style. These reactors have been humming away for years, and the French have been quietly enjoying the cleanest air and lowest rates in Europe. Indeed, they export a great deal of the electricity that provides stability to the electrical grid when the wind turbines in Denmark and Spain stop turning.
Any national government can say: “If France can convert their grid, why can’t we?”
The US and Britain know that their nuclear industries are capable of similar feats. The nuclear industry in the US was on track to build hundreds more reactors, before the slowdown stopped them. This is why leaders are re-considering nuclear power. They know it works, and can be delivered in mass quantities. On the other hand, wind and solar, while promising, have been much slower than promised.
The prudent choice is to do both. Why take chances?Iran, Pakistan, and ProliferationOld debate: nuclear plants create plutonium, which can be used for bombs.New debate: nuclear plants reduce oil imports, so overseas dictators have less money to buy bombs on the black market .
Proliferation has been the most dangerous consequence of nuclear power. In the past, the argument has been that more nuclear reactors create greater danger of nuclear weapons.
However, that argument is now being superseded by a less black-and-white, more mature view. For example in the past decade both North Korea and Pakistan obtained nuclear weapons. An recent article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine gave a harrowing picture of the black market, and gray market suppliers, that provided the means to build these bombs.
What becomes clear is that these bombs can be created independent of the commercial nuclear power industry. The materials and expertise can be purchased from Russia or China, or other nuclear nations—for a price.
With the current standoff between the US and Iran, in which Iran proclaims its right to build nuclear weapons, the primary issue is oil money. The US and the world is so dependant on the oil exports from or adjacent to Iran, that this gives Iran a “chokehold” on the world, and uncounted billions of dollars, to use as leverage.
All over the world, dictators and hostile nations are enjoying the power that comes with 70 dollar per barrel oil. They can use that money, and that power, to seek nuclear weapons, in addition to repressing their own people.
How can that oil price be reduced? How can every nation have energy security – which is in this age equivalent to military and economic security?
Answer: More nuclear power, less dependence on foreign energy imports.The Reverse-Cherynobyl effect
Old argument: What about the risk of accidents, like Chernobyl?New argument: Despite Chernobyl, the Ukrainians are building more nuclear reactors. What do they know that we don’t?
On the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, perhaps the most under-reported story was that the Ukraine is building new nuclear reactors. The Ukraine government announced intention for additional nuclear reactors, to supplement their existing sites.
The Ukrainians have personally experienced the worst-case accident, and yet they appear to be turning back to nuclear power. They will still debate, and may yet reduce or change their plans, but still: after 10 years of nuclear freeze, they are re-considering nuclear power. Why?•
They don’t want to freeze. They are dependant on Russia for gas imports. Russia has already halted energy shipments for political reasons and clearly is willing to do so again. This threatened energy embargo is a weapon that threatens the Ukrainians security and their freedom.•
Nuclear power has risks, but all
industrial processes have risks. Thousands of people were killed in Bhopal, India, in a pesticide plant disaster, yet the world has not banned the manufacture of pesticides. Every year there are coal mining accidents, yet coal mining is not banned. Oil refineries can explode. Hydroelectric dams collapse.•
Modern reactors are infinitely safer. The Ukrainians recognize that the Chernobyl reactor disaster was a very old, poorly designed and run reactor. It was the equivalent of a Model-T car. Modern reactors are infinitely better, infinitely safer, and have an incredible safety record. The Ukraine can look intelligently at risks and say “well, in the past we had a problem, but in the future we can see it’s a safe route.”Conclusion
We haven’t tried to describe every possible argument pro and con. There are many other places to see that debate. Opponents of nuclear power are unlikely to be convinced by these arguments. We simply want to show how the argument has changed, and is continuing to evolve, and this is why nuclear power is getting a second look from many.