i changed my mind on nuclear power

Until this recent catastrophe in Japan (it’s awful, please consider helping out), I was very pro nuclear-power. I’ve never been afraid of technology, and I was raised in France, where 80% of electricity comes from nuclear power and there has been no serious safety problem with it. Plus, nuclear power can be green. And with newer technology, it can be made passively safe, where even if everything fails, a meltdown cannot occur (unlike the Japanese reactors, unfortunately.)

So the recent crisis has changed my mind. I don’t think we can afford the risk of nuclear power. I’m not a nuclear power expert, and I would welcome counter-arguments. But I am fairly well versed in thinking about risk and risk mitigation. Three things now worry me greatly about nuclear power:

  • Dramatic outcomes: in case of dramatic failure, the outcome could be disastrous on a scale that’s difficult to comprehend. You think the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was bad (and it was)? Try decades or centuries of life-killing radioactivity. Imagine a meltdown that could contaminate large, heavily populated areas. The damage could be enormous. Yes, the probability is very, very low. But as we are seeing today in Japan, it’s far from zero, and if they had not reacted as well as they did, the result could be indeed as bad as I describe here. (To folks I work with on voting technology: isn’t this what we worry about regarding Internet voting for public office? That the outcome of an attack would be dramatically bad, not matter how low the likelihood?)
  • Storing nuclear waste: a friend on Facebook said “if Romans had used nuclear power, we would still be guarding their nuclear dump sites.” Think about that for a second. That’s just breathtaking. Are we ready to impose on our descendents 1000 years from now? We can barely figure out broad swaths of history from that long ago, let alone instructions on how to safeguard nuclear materials. Maybe it can be done. But it seems incredibly arrogant of us to assume that it’s okay to impose this burden on the next hundred generations.
  • Regulation (or lack thereof): this is my most pragmatic point, and it applies mostly to the US. We can’t even get our act together in this country to agree on requiring relief wells for deep-water oil drilling. Do we really think we can get our act together to regulate a nuclear industry to be truly safe? It looks like even Japan couldn’t quite do it, and they’re far more open to government safety regulation than we are.

So, I’m open to others’ arguments. But right now, I’m thinking nuclear power is not such a great idea.






11 responses to “i changed my mind on nuclear power”

  1. Luis Avatar

    * Try decades or centuries of life-killing drought.
    * If Romans had emitted as much CO2 as we do, we would still be suffering an elevated climate temperature because of it.
    * There appears to be an actual safety culture in nuclear- yes, they botched this one, but lots and lots of thought went into it, it took a massively traumatic two-fold catastrophe to get to this point, and by all accounts new designs (remember that these reactors are 40 years old) are designed to avoid this type of accident. In other words, the industry has a culture that mostly tries to get it right. In contrast, the Co2 industry’s position on regulation is “fuck Bangladesh, Miami and all the places we get oil from, who gives a shit about them anyway?”

    Obviously, the correct answer is (c), massive reduction in energy use and increased investment in clean renewables, but that’s not feasible right now, even if there was the political willpower to do it. Given the devils we’ve got, having the next empire guarding one pocket of waste in the deep NM desert seems a lot better than having the entire planet 6 degrees celsius warmer.

  2. theharmonyguy Avatar

    1. Yes, there is a very, very remote possibility of dramatic failure, and I think that comes down to a risk assessment question. Personally, I would say that with Japan faring relatively well (from what I understand, no long-term radioactive material has leaked into the environment, and most short-term leaks were fairly small) for almost a week after the combination of one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history and a 30-foot tsunami hit equipment that does not have many of the improved safety designs and systems available today, the risks are still low enough with modern reactors – especially since many safeguards not only help prevent a meltdown, but severely limit damage to people and the environment if a meltdown does actually occur. While I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of a catastrophic failure, I do think China Syndrome and Chernobyl have clouded people’s ideas of risks from a modern nuclear reactor.

    2. My understanding is that other options exist, such as reusing most of the fuel or alternative reactor designs that produce less waste. With the latter, I think the controversy surrounding nuclear energy has likely prevented further R&D with such options.

    3. Again, I’m not an expert either, but my understanding is that the US already has more systems and accountability with their reactors than Japan had with this particular plant. I certainly acknowledge that I could be wrong on that point, though. And I’m guessing Three Mile Island has a significant effect on US policies and systems.

  3. Sarah Avatar

    I kinda feel the same. I was never opposed to nuclear power, but now I am now sure how I feel about it. I heard some Americans saying the Japanese situation wouldn’t happen because the US nuclear power plants have gravity fed water for cooling. While that specific problem may be something they don’t need to worry about, have they accounted for *every* possible scenario? I don’t think it’s possible.

    When the oil spills happened, I remember saying at the time that this is what worries me about nuclear power – nothing is 100% fail-proof, and companies are always trying to cut corners.

    Now those 50-odd power plant workers are most likely not going to survive – at least not long term – while trying to save many, many others.

  4. Ben Adida Avatar

    Luis: if those are the two choice we have, then yeah it’s not quite clear. But are you sure that we have a viable way of safely and quickly transferring to nuclear power to have a measurable effect on our CO2 output? I’m not so sure. I think at best we’re reducing our CO2 output a bit, and given our poor regulatory environment, we’re opening up a risk of tremendous damage.

  5. Ben Adida Avatar

    I think the situation in Japan is not going relatively well anymore. As for regulation/accountability in the US… that would make nuclear power unique, which I suppose is possible, but I’m not convinced…

  6. Joseph Bonneau Avatar
    Joseph Bonneau

    Your arguments sound reasonable, but this is the wrong time to make them. We still have no idea what the situation really is with the Fukushima reactor and how much long-term risk, if any, will arise from this incident. Media reports are still widely varying about the extent of the damage and the leakage. Six months from now when we have a clear picture of what occurred would be an appropriate time to use the incident to update our feelings on nuclear power. I just don’t think making large policy changes soon after an emotional incident is wise.

  7. Steve Armstrong Avatar

    If you’re interested in the topic, I recommend the http://energyfromthorium.com/ blog. Kirk is pretty knowledgable on different risks, and he’s a strong supporter of Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs or “Lifters”). Some of the (possible) benefits of these reactors, if they are researched and built, can be:
    -atmospheric pressure, so no danger of a loss of pressure causing boiling
    -Instead of trying to control a reaction that’s always about to go critical, LFTRs act more like a bonfire, where it’s already burning near it’s hottest, and you just add more fuel when it cools down
    -LFTRs, if all power is lost, and it’s too hot, will just melt through a safety plug and dump the fuel into a giant tank that’s full of neutralizing agent, so no danger of meltdown
    -LFTRs can burn up a large majority of the existing nuclear waste, and the LFTRs own waste is smaller in volume (per Watt generated) than current reactors, and only needs hundreds of years, instead of thousands
    -LFTRs use Thorium, a very very abundant material, especially compared to Uranium

    I’m probably atleast slightly innacurate about some of these claims, but reading the blog should give you some hope about ways the nuclear industry can go from here.

  8. Shabnam Avatar

    rethink, replan our energy production and consumption. we have to link both to find sustainable solutions.
    glad to read you ben!

  9. Luis Avatar

    There is no way to “quickly” move from fossil fuels to nuclear, of course, but if we really wanted to we could generate our base load in this country purely from nuclear in 1-2 decades. The technology is there and reasonably proven- we already get 20% of our electricity from there, and other large industrialized countries (notably France) have proven you can run 75+% of your base load from nuclear. You just have to build the facilities, which is expensive, but not substantially more so than coal/gas (if you actually priced their externalities, which we don’t.) Granted, you have to quintuple the facilities, but that’s much easier to do with reasonably proven technology than to multiply 30-to-50-fold with mostly unproven technology. (Globally, only 3.1% of energy generation is from non-hydro renewables.)

  10. Dan Connolly Avatar

    Ben, while you’re fretting about the _potential_ risks involved with nuclear energy, have you looked at the *actual damage* involved with oil, coal, etc?


  11. Adam Avatar

    With Obama continuing the Bush-era policies of corporatism, no way should we try nuclear power here. When Big Business and Big Government conspire together, as they have for decades, the rest of us lose big time. If and when we return to a free market, then we can start to consider the possibilities of nuclear power.

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