As horrific as the events of this weekend have been in Japan, the world still waits to see what will happen in Japan’s overheating nuclear reactors as a result of the earthquake damage.  This week’s joint post by jmb275 and Hawkgrrrl is about a topic we’d already been tossing around that has suddenly come front and center in the world:  nuclear power.

Just a few quick facts to get us started.  Nuclear fission produces 11% of the world’s energy, and it does it without burning fossil fuels which create pollutants, so it’s considered a “clean” form of energy.  It is also very efficient, producing a high amount of energy from a relatively low amount of material (uranium).  Nuclear power is reliable and produces only a small amount of waste, BUT the waste it produces is extremely dangerous, and we don’t really know what to do with it other than bury it for thousands of years waiting for it to stop being radioactive.  It is also reliable and efficient as mentioned, but if there is a major disaster, it is a huge problem (think Chernobyl) which is why most of the cost of nuclear power is in creating safety measures (shut down mechanisms and sensors as well as backup cooling systems that render the plant unrecoverable if used).  And, it’s not renewable.  When the world’s uranium is depleted, no more energy source.  So, the real question is:  how much risk is too much to get clean, reliable energy?

jmb275:  Having worked at LLNL (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, I have a bit of insight into this. This is a pretty important topic, with or without a disaster like the one underway in Japan.  (*LLNL is a laboratory that among other things advances energy security in the U.S.).

hawkgrrrl:  I’m a product of association with Three Mile Island.  My dad worked there during construction (on the good reactor, I hasten to add) and later supervised the cleanup.  No, he did not glow in the dark, har har, as I was asked repeatedly through high school.  As this article points out, those who lived through TMI and the subsequent clean up are less worried because they’ve experienced how containment and decontamination work, and enough time has passed to see that side effects were minimal, except to the nuclear power industry itself through the subsequent panic.  Of course, Chernobyl, seven years later, didn’t exactly instill confidence, but it points to one of the key contrasts in nuclear power:  a country committed to safety, regulation, and expertise, and one that was crippled by poor infrastructure, a lack of safety mechanisms, and unskilled, apathetic employees.  I’m sorry, but Homer Simpson would never actually get a job in a nuclear power plant in the U.S., and certainly not in Japan.

jmb275: What’s happening in Japan right now is one of the reasons why I’m not a real huge fan of nuclear fission power and why I think we need to continue investing in nuclear fusion research.

hawkgrrrl:  Some of the hysteria over nuclear power is an anti-technology fear. If people can’t understand how it works, it must be bad. I know you don’t fall into that camp, but I think it worth mentioning. I also get pissed off when school teachers are talking to kids about pollution and they show a drawing of nuclear cooling towers with clouds above them and want the kids to circle the things in the picture that are pollution.  Steam is not pollution, people!  The quality of teachers in the US is so low any more.
jmb275:  That’s just funny!

hawkgrrrl:  Aside from the potential for disaster, the obvious downside of nuclear power is nuclear waste, which is a huge problem – and the fact that Utah seems so willing to store nuclear waste is something that always made me extremely nervous when I lived there.

jmb275:  Yeah, I’m not a fan of the waste at all. For this reason, I’m actually not very pro nuclear fission. But I’m very pro nuclear fusion. I’m a huge fan of putting money into fusion research.  A combination fission/fusion reactor would almost be a perpetual motion machine. It would feed itself and burn its waste to 99.9% efficiency.

hawkgrrrlAgreed, but right now it still sounds like something out of Atlas Shrugged.  Since everyone in the scientific field would agree that fusion is the silver bullet, why do you think we don’t achieve it?  Is it because the money is controlled politically by oil interests?  Or because there is a brain drain in research fields?

jmb275:  Our dependence on oil is absurd, and we are technologically much more capable.  I also am very much in favor of research money being spent on wind and solar energy as well. 

hawkgrrrlDon’t forget hydro-electric.  There are clean energy options out there, and yet so much of the world is still relying on dirty energy like burning fossil fuels.  While nuclear power has high risks, it is vastly superior to the ongoing low grade risks of coal and oil and other dirty forms of energy that are constant pollutants and killers but nobody bats an eye over them.

  jmb275:  I’m not so sure. According to what metric is it “vastly superior”? It certainly produces much more energy per mass of fuel than those alternatives, but I think the downsides are much more significant. 

hawkgrrrl:  It’s similar to the fear of flying among those who don’t think twice about getting in a car. Per passenger, risk of driving is greater than the risk of flying, but flying deaths happen en masse (as do nuclear disasters vs the higher instances of early on-set cancer deaths surrounding coal plants). 

 jmb275:  I think I understand what you’re getting at with your analogy. You’re really alluding to the fear of risk based on unsupported statistics. However, I don’t think the analogy holds, and I think it’s because you underestimate the risk. In the car vs. airplane comparison, we’re comparing apples to apples, that is the risk of death (primarily). But in the coal/oil vs. nuclear fission comparison, I don’t know of any deaths directly attributable to the harmful effects of pollution, or global warming (perhaps coal mining could be included here, but I think that’s a stretch). OTOH, there are many many deaths attributable to nuclear reactor disasters, and that’s really only the beginning of the trouble with nuclear fission.

 hawkgrrrl:   I’m amazed more people don’t talk about the health risks of dirty energy like coal vs. clean energy like nuclear power.  Coal is a proven cause of black lung disease in the coal mining industry, and studies show that people who live near coal plants die younger and more often than those who do not.  That’s a significant health risk for those who breathe in pollutants from dirty energy.  One study attributes 24,000 annual deaths in the U.S. to particulate matter from coal, and coal has also been linked to selenium and mercury water supply contamination.  While a nuclear meltdown is greater in impact in a single event, the chronic impacts of coal are at least as bad and more insidious because they are so often overlooked.

 jmb275:  I think you are drastically underestimating the risks of nuclear fission and its accompanying waste. So even if disasters happen infrequently, the effects of a disaster effect millions of people for years to come, not to mention the (unknown) effects of, and lack of a clear long term solution for dealing with the waste. The incident in Japan last week underscores the problem. No amount of engineering safety mechanisms, or rules and regulations, etc. can prevent unforeseen natural disasters that might further cause a nuclear disaster.

Although the most popular disaster, Chernobyl, is no doubt a huge disaster, with ridiculous aftermath of pollution, mutation, and other horrible ills, there was an equally horrible disaster in a place called Mayak, Russia (actually in my mission which may explain why I’m so weird 😉 ).  On 29 Sept 1957 a cooling system failed for a tank storing tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste. From this first instance (don’t worry, there’s two more) 200 died of radiation poisoning, and 470,000 were exposed to radiation (whose effects are unclear but included many cases of people’s skin sloughing off). The next incident had to do with the dumping of nuclear waste into Lake Karachay since 1951. This obviously poisoned all the wildlife, vegetation, water, soil, etc. The next major incident, in 1967 after Lake Karachay dried up, was a vicious wind storm that blew radioactive dust all over Siberia irradiating 500,000 people with 185 petabecquerels of radiation. In 1978 – 1986 the lake was finally filled with 10,000 hollow concrete blocks. The result of all this? Well, as missionaries we weren’t allowed to drink the water, eat any locally grown vegetation, eat any fish, or any locally grown meats. The whole area is a giant radioactive pit. In fact, according to a report from the Worldwatch Institute on nuclear waste, Lake Karachay is the most polluted place on earth. From Wikipedia: “The lake accumulated some 4.44 exabecquerels (EBq) of radioactivity,[3] including 3.6 EBq of Caesium-137 and 0.74 EBq of Strontium-90.[1] For comparison, the Chernobyl disaster released from 5 to 12 EBq of radioactivity, but this radiation is not concentrated in one location.”
The problem is that radioactive waste has a very very slow half life. It takes thousands of years for some nuclear waste to diminish. Currently, our technique for dealing with this is to store it in special containers, for a really long time. Or perhaps bury it. This means a few very important things IMHO. When there IS a disaster, not only are the effects devastating initially, but they last for years and years and years with unquantifiable and even unknown effects. The science regarding the long term effects of radiation (even cell phone radiation) are not well understood. So right now, if there’s an accident, we expose people to something that can effect them, their children, their children’s children, the environment for many many years, etc. etc. Even if there is no accident, we store this nasty stuff in containers that we hope won’t ever have a problem. Or, perhaps we try to bury it in Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
hawkgrrrl:  You can’t start out talking about safety protocols and regulation and then give an example from Russia.  Russia is certainly the worst case scenario, but there’s a big difference between the conscientiousness of an apathetic Vodka-soaked button pusher in cold war Russia and a highly educated, dedicated Japanese employee who is willing to resign over minor mistakes.  Japan is responsible and well-regulated.  They have done their part.  It’s nature that has screwed things up there.  And I’d like to see real activism targeted against dirty energy, especially in emerging countries, not just nukes.  But that’s easy to say when I’m not fighting for toilet paper in earthquake-ravaged Tokyo.
While I certainly agree that the waste and the potential for disaster is a big risk, fusion is still science fiction.  In the meantime, I would not decommission nuclear reactors that are operating safely and in a regulated and secure environment until safer alternatives can be explored and built.  I would certainly not be keen to see more nuclear reactors built in areas that are politically or geologically unstable.
jmb275:  I think the real question is not if but when with fusion.  These issues are important, and people need to know the facts.
hawkgrrrl:  Once again we see that our life experiences have led us to the conclusions we’ve drawn.

Readers, what do you think?  No more nukes?  Or better regulation while alternatives are explored?  Why do you think fusion has yet to be achieved?  Discuss.