Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Thoughts on Nuclear Power

Due to concern about the reactors in Japan, there has been much talk about the fate of nuclear power in recent days. Is there a future for nuclear power?

I must admit that I am torn on the question. Nuclear power is not safe, at least not the way it is built, used and run by corporate and government entities around the world. But is there a way we could make it safe? In theory, it looks pretty good, but the reality is a little more complicated.

Nuclear power is cheap, until you take a closer look. First, there is the mining of uranium and other related minerals to consider. Then there is the building and maintaining of reactors, and most of us are aware of the shortcuts that have been taken in both of these, particularly in maintenance. I find it unbelievable to hear how the Mox fuels are being used, and how storage of spent fuel is designed close to the reactors. IMO, this is carelessness in the name of profit. This isn't only about Japan. By all accounts, the Japanese are dealing at least as well with this as any other country possibly could at this time.

If we were to incorporate every available safety precaution into the design of reactors, including the storage of spent fuel; and if we were to run the plants on a strict safety policy in which business models of "cost/benefit analysis" and "insurance risks" based purely on probabilities tallied against financial and political motivations were replaced with the calculation of risk to life and health as the only consideration, then perhaps there might be a place for nuclear power. However, the current realities show us that this simply isn't the case, and isn't likely to happen anytime in the near future. Nuclear power is cheap until there are accidents. And the cheapness of this source fails to take in some very real costs--even before disaster strikes. Government subsidies hide some of the costs. Uranium mining is costly in social, economic and especially environmental terms. The actual running of reactors, including maintenance, can become costly, particularly if public and employee safety is prioritized (as it should be). The lifespan of reactors is relatively short, although in many cases has been pushed beyond original design limits, again, due to economic and political concerns.
I have read conflicting reports about cancers and other radiation related illnesses in people living close to nuclear power plants; since I am no expert, I will leave that argument out for the time being. However, there is no doubt that there are safety concerns for the people who live near nuclear disaster zones, and also for the storage of spent fuel.

Spent fuel is often buried deep, however, geological disturbances happen, and are more likely to happen when the "safe" time frame reaches into the realm of tens of thousands of years or more. Moreover, this is costly disposal, and it is only a matter of time before those in charge start taking shortcuts (assuming of course, that that hasn't already happened).

One thing that generally does not enter into the discussion is the idea of  cost/benefit analysis in terms of time. In a best-case scenario, with no further nuclear accidents, leaks, etc., there is still the issue of spent fuel. The half-life of spent fuel, and the resulting large time lag between its use and the time in which it can be safely handled by unprotected people means the problems associated with its radioactivity will exist far into the future and affect many generations. Its useful production time and power is relatively minuscule in comparison.

Several years back some researchers mistakenly thought they had found the modern holy grail: cold fusion. Unfortunately, they were mistaken. Perhaps it is time for a new "X Prize" in energy research. Until then, we would be wise to eliminate our subsidies to dirty energy including fossil fuels and invest instead in renewable energy technology and conservation research and incentives. We can't afford to complacently continue on our current path.