It’s natural that the nuclear crisis in Japan is causing people to rethink nuclear power. Frankly, it would be crazy if it didn’t. But the problem with energy choices in general is that it’s actually pretty hard to  change your mind once you’ve chosen a direction.  Nuclear power proves the point.

For most of the commentators, and most of the public, the debate spurred by the Japanese crisis is over whether we should use nuclear power at all, and what can be done to insure that the  reactors themselves are safe.

Yet a crucial element in the crisis at Fukushima Daichi is that it’s  the nuclear waste –the storage containers of spent fuel rods–that’s the source of much of the actual radiation risk.

Right now we’re storing our nuclear waste the same way the Japanese have: at the reactor sites themselves, either in water-filled tanks or in so-called “dry cask” storage containers. That works well enough, at least in the absence of a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.  But no one believes it’s a permanent solution. And most nuclear engineers will tell you that disposing of nuclear waste is actually the most complicated, dangerous problem they face.

So far, however, the American response to any possible permanent solution has been “pass.” The French recycle their spent fuel and reuse it; in fact they also “reprocess” waste for other countries like Germany.  That’s an option the United States passed up decades ago because of concerns about the safety of transporting the fuel and that terrorists might try to get hold of the reprocessed fuel.

There was also the possibility of burying the stuff at the proposed Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada. Not surprisingly, no one in Nevada much cared for the idea, and there’s been scientific debate over whether the site is truly safe enough. President Obama has followed through on his campaign promise to sidetrack the project. There’s also a federal blue-ribbon commission examining the alternatives. So far, however, there’s no consensus for a better idea.

We can buy time – the techniques we’re currently using to store spent fuel will last for decades, provided we don’t face a catastrophe like the one that has hit Japan. But this isn’t a problem that’s measured in decades. It’s measured in millennia. Some forms of nuclear material need to be stored safely for 10,000 years. Just to put that in perspective, 10,000 years ago human beings lived in nomadic tribes that were still learning to domesticate animals.

Most importantly of all, this is a problem we’ll have to deal with even if we never build another nuclear reactor anywhere on the planet. We’ve already got 72,000 tons of spent fuel in the United States alone, and we’ll still have to get rid of it, even if we shut down every reactor in the country tomorrow.

And of course, we’re not going to do that. Nuclear power accounts for about one-fifth of the electricity in the United States overall, and depending on where you live, it could be a lot more than that. Vermont gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear, and reactors provide about half of the electricity in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Illinois and South Carolina. Put another way, nuclear provides 70 percent of the greenhouse-gas free electricity we have – the other major power sources are all fossil fuels. Renewables are a very small part of the mix.

That’s not even counting what’s likely to happen overseas. China and India, both desperate for electricity to fuel their booming economies, are sticking with their commitments to nuclear plans. China alone has 27 reactors building and wants to add 160 more, although is beginning to build some so-called pebble-bed reactors that might be safer. India wants to add 58 reactors to the five it already has. Given the staggering demand for energy worldwide – and the global realization that we have to control carbon emissions – it’s not likely that nuclear power will be taken off the table.

There is no perfect energy source. They’ve all got problems, and for all the promise of wind and solar, right now we can only generate electricity from them when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Since we need electricity all the time, we’ll still back-up power that works 24/7, which right now mostly comes from coal, natural gas or nuclear.

Every energy choice we make resonates throughout society, requiring choices about public infrastructure, economics, technological investment. That’s why changing our energy mix is such a slow process, so much slower than so many people in the environmental movement have hoped.  Coal has been in widespread use for 200 years; petroleum for more than a century; and nuclear power for five decades. Changing our minds about any of these energy sources takes  time, too.

With both nuclear waste and global warming, we may be living with the implications of our choices for a very long time indeed.

Comments

  1. beijingyank
    Beijing
    July 17, 2011, 2:03 pm

    Fukushima melt through will wipe out the Pacific Ocean, and then move on to the rest of oceans in the world.

    Some “cheap power” we got there.

    Dr. Teller died rich. He’s laughing in his grave and up for nomination as being the biggest contributing factor for extermination of mankind.

    It’s over people. Learn to live with your coming cancer and your deformed child. The melt through(s) at Fukushima can’t be fixed and it will kill us all eventually.

    Rot in hell Dr. Teller. You lead the all time suck list.

  2. Logan
    April 4, 2011, 9:45 am

    I saw this headline and I cracked my knuckles, set on once more rolling out the Thorium train, but it looks like the gang’s all here! It absolutely pleases the hell out of me that so many people are aware of Thorium.
    Maybe we’ll actually get on the LFTR wagon in my life-time.

  3. Rod Coenen
    April 1, 2011, 7:13 pm

    Thorium is the way to go. There is ample material on the web. Get informed. The race to slow Greenland ice melt is on and there is no more time for delay. The choices are between abandoning worldwide coastal areas in a gradual planned adaptation, or chaotically with enough pain to go around for all. We are being lulled into simplistic answers. CFL light bulbs help but will not keep away the tipping point where we can no longer affect rate of sea rise.

    The most optimistic growth projection in solar-wind-water-conservation-efficiency does not keep pace with global growth in energy demand. We are on a path of increasing, not reducing, greenhouse gases as long as we have a green energy deficit.

    Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs, pronounced lifters) are non political as they can appeal to both left and right in congress. LFTRs are far more attractive to venture capital than controvercial current reactor designs. As soon as your open minded research convinces you that LFTRs should be supported, contact your legislators, the administration, DOE, and EPA to ask for policy and regulation that will stimulate LFTR development.

  4. JRP3
    http://ephase.blogspot.com
    March 31, 2011, 5:51 pm

    It’s really time to look at liquid fluoride thorium reactors.
    http://ephase.blogspot.com/2011/03/plugging-in-to-thorium.html

  5. Robert Steinhaus
    California
    March 31, 2011, 2:32 pm

    We really can build better nuclear.
    It is not necessary to leave mountains of nuclear waste as a legacy to our children’s children.
    Better, safer, and less nuclear waste generating (less than 1/100th the amount) nuclear technology exists – not just as a future potentiality (nuclear fusion) but as technology already prototyped, demonstrated, and proven to work and be safe at one of the nation’s greatest National Laboratories (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) [1].

    Thorium nuclear Fuel Cycle technology is an improved, less polluting, nuclear technology and enjoys following and support as from a significant number of prominent nuclear engineers and technical leaders. Dr. Edward Teller, the founding scientific leader of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, wrote a final paper one month before his death regarding the problems posed by running out of oil and gas supplies and the environmental problems that are due to greenhouse gases wherein he suggested the use of the energy available in the resource Thorium, which is much more plentiful than the conventional nuclear fuel uranium. Dr. Teller’s proposes in his final paper to use Molten Salt Thorium Reactors to achieve energy independence while securing a sustainable abundant source of significantly less polluting nuclear energy [2].

    We could replace all of the coal burning green house gas generating power plants in America producing 45% of the nation’s electricity with one hundred and fifty five 1600 MWe Thorium Molten Salt Reactors and generate less high level nuclear waste than one conventional 1600 MWe Light Water Reactor [3].

    Positive Change should include Changing America’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle to Thorium

    We cannot continue to improve the condition of people throughout the word without use of nuclear power.

    [1] http://bit.ly/90rUDc
    [2] http://bit.ly/cnjjrp
    [3] http://bit.ly/bLqIxB

  6. vengenceofgod
    somewhere on planet earth
    March 28, 2011, 4:42 pm

    Nuclear was something intended for the heavens, like quasers and black holes and sun storms. the fragil earth was not the place to play god. But the genie is out of the bottle and those responsible for the Frankenstein nuclear nightmare they have created, keep playing down the consequences of their dismal failure to get ridof the evidence. The apologists for the apparent wiz-kids who have given us this death sentance is really inexcusable. After we have all been poisoned by the senario of these nuclear meltdowns there will be no one left to congradulate on a job well done. Is it job well done Brownie,?,or a job well done Brown out?