Thursday, January 28, 2010

No Nukes is Good Nukes

There’s a big push lately to revive the corpse of nuclear power, especially using global warming as an rationale since no CO2 is emitted in the production of electricity. There are lots of reasons why that is a terrible mistake.

While it’s true that no CO2 is produced at the end of the cycle, a tremendous amount is emitted in the construction of the plants; they are massive edifices. Containment vessels are typically one foot – 30cm - of steel surrounded by 12 feet of concrete. Copious amounts of energy are used in the construction of cooling towers.

The mining and refining of uranium also requires large amounts of energy and is toxic to miners and everybody involved in the process. It’s also a non-renewable resource. A large increase in uranium extraction will see it depleted in a couple of decades.

No country in world has yet created a permanent facility for the disposal of radioactive waste. The huge cost of locating and constructing permanent waste repositories is not included as part of plant cost. A US repository is twenty years behind schedule even after tens of billions of dollars expended in the search. And assuming one is built, who will pay the cost of maintaining those facilities thousands of years in the future?

Most waste is stored in temporary cooling ponds at the plants themselves. Temporary in this case can also be thought of as not very secure and therefore a great target for terrorists.

One simple reason why no nuclear plant has been ordered in the US since 1973 is that no investor in their right mind would ever commit a dollar of their own money for a nuclear project. The only way any new plant can be built is if loans are 100% guaranteed by the government; Congress is now trying to slip in $50 billion in such guarantees. One problem for investors is the extreme length of time it takes to bring one on line; in the states about 10 years. Since they now cost about $10 billion to construct, it would take some really deep pockets to invest billions now without a return for a decade.

And how is it that Congress is so quick to subsidize nukes and fossil fuels but can never commit more than a pittance for renewables? In the pockets of industry maybe? Money invested in wind power brings a return in a year or two. Except for those few people who are offended by the presence of windmills marring their scenic views and those living in close proximity who are bothered by the low hum they emit, windmills are totally benign. Yes the wind is intermittent, but if you have a large number of installations scattered around a large area, say the US, there will always be some producing power and evening out the load.

No plant would ever have been built in the US if Congress had not exempted nuclear plants from carrying full liability insurance coverage. No matter how much damage might be caused by a meltdown, the operators are shielded from full liability. It’s the community that pays. And don’t buy the hype that nobody died from Three Mile Island; the incidence of cancers in that area is far above the norm.

We hear how France, which gets 80% of its power from nukes has a cookie-cutter, boiler-plate design which is cheap and speedily constructed. Finland bought that line and ordered one which is now years behind schedule and double over budget.

In my mind the most frightening aspect of the nuclear push is where new plants are being built; in countries like India, China, Vietnam. These are third world countries that haven’t begun to get their social trip together.

India can’t figure out how to provide toilets for more than half of its people so even in Mumbai, the country’s financial center and richest city, you see people shitting on the sidewalk, so how’s it going to properly maintain nukes? Chinese dairies are still adulterating their milk with melamine, a toxic industrial chemical, a year after a major scandal that killed several children and sickened hundreds of thousands. Whose going to enforce safety standards in a place where environmental campaigners are considered enemies of the state? If any country produces shoddier goods than China it has to be Vietnam; how can they be trusted with an industry in which mistakes can impact the entire world?

Don’t get me wrong, all three are great countries destined to take their rightful place in the modern world; they just aren’t ready for an industrial process that involves such an inherent, fundamental danger.

Add it up, that’s the future of nuclear power… and it ain’t pretty.

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