Saturday, November 22, 2014

Nuclear Debate Redux

If you were not there for the Pride and Purpose Debate, you missed a great experience.

The debate question was, "Should Nuclear Energy Be Expanded to Create a More Sustainable Future?"

You can watch the full debate here.

The debate was fascinating.  The two sides made very compelling points and I was surprised by how much my thoughts changed around the issue while watching the arguments.  I felt drawn to each side as the speakers made their points.  The teams had compelling arguments why nuclear energy either should be expanded or should not be expanded.

Paul Wilson, a spokesperson for the American Nuclear Society and a Professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison spoke eloquently about the need to move quickly off of carbon.  He stated quite clearly and effectively that nuclear is one of the most efficient and reliable sources of energy that could move us away from carbon-based fuels.

Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear power plant advocate and whistleblower about the safety of nuclear facilities, spoke about the high costs of nuclear and the challenges of ramping up nuclear power to meet the needs for a low-carbon future.  He argued that our energy demands could be met with a very rapid ramp up of renewable energy sources like wind and solar.  I was impressed by his experience and his personal journey in the nuclear industry.

Mr. Gundersen's counterpart, Heide Hutner, the Director of Sustainability Studies at Stony Brook University spoke about the risks associated with nuclear and gave several strong arguments about the dangers of nuclear energy based on health, waste, and local disasters.  She added a human dimension to the issues of nuclear energy production that resonated in the audience.

J Bret Bennington spoke about the need to do something, whether advancing nuclear or renewable energy, to get us off of carbon-based fuels.  We have released millions of years of carbon accumulation in geologic reserves in just 300 years.  As he argued that we need to get off of carbon before it is too late.  As a paleontologist, he has seen evidence of extinctions in the geologic record associated with major changes in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Usually those changes occur over hundreds of thousands of years.  We are making these changes in a few hundred years.  This has never been seen in the history of our planet.

Each of the debaters did a great job in making their points.  Indeed, it was a refreshing experience to see opposite sides of an issue engage each other in potential compromises and solutions to a real-world problem.  While I do not think the debaters themselves were moved in any particular direction by the opposition, I do feel that the audience was impacted by the discourse.  Indeed, I had students talk to me after to tell me that they learned a great deal from the discussion and that their own position moved--some one way, some the other.

To me, the real winner of the debate was the issue of global climate change.  If you are a doubter on this issue, please see the discussion from Dr. Bennington on climate change between 33:48 and 42:27.  It's one of the best outlines of the issue I have ever seen from a geologic perspective.  Those of us trained in geology fully understand what is happening right now with our atmosphere and we have been ringing the clarion call for action for years.  Society has not listened.

So now, we are faced with a real dilemma.  Do we continue with things as they are and move toward a highly altered and unstable environment that will likely lead to significant social and economic upheaval or do we move very rapidly to a carbon-free future?

All of the debaters felt that we needed to move away from carbon.  There was, thankfully, no disagreement there.  However, the question is whether in our quest for a low carbon future we include nuclear energy in our portfolio.

Here's the reality.

By many estimates we have less than 50 years to get off of carbon before things start going very very bad with the geologic systems on our planet.  Right now, the rates of renewable energy installation and nuclear energy power plant construction are not going to get us to the point that we need to be at in order to prevent disaster.  We need to very quickly increase renewable or nuclear energy production--or both.

If not, we, or at least the next generation, will receive a big wake up call.

In Long Island, our sustainability plan seeks to double renewable energy by 2035.  Given that our current renewable energy production is 3%, this is very very modest and hardly a goal to get us to the point we need to be at to prevent problems--particularly since other areas of the world have goals of attaining 100% renewables or plans for significant reductions in carbon-based energy through a combination of nuclear and renewables.

What are our options for a low-carbon future?  What are the options in your community?  Renewables or nuclear?  Those are our only choices.

Hopefully, the debate and my posts on nuclear energy this week provided some frame of reference for future decisions as we try to address the global problem of climate change.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Introduction to Pride and Purpose Debaters on Nuclear Energy

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As I mentioned in Saturday's post, today, Hofstra University will host a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here is what has been written and what can be expected in the coming days:

Sunday:  What is nuclear energy and how is it produced in power plants?

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Tuesday:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.
Wednesday:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.

Today:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

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Well, the debate day has arrived!  The debate will be held today at 4:30 in the Cultural Center Theater on the beautiful Hofstra campus. 

For those of you not on campus, you can watch the debate live here:  Hofstra.edu/ccdebates 

Let me introduce the debaters:

Arnie Gundersen is a nuclear engineer who worked in the nuclear industry.  He is now a critic of the nuclear energy industry.  He is the chief engineer for Fairewinds Energy Education.  You can see this organization's site here.  

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Paul Wilson is a Professor of Engineering Physics as the University of Wisconsin.  He is a world expert on nuclear physics and engineering.  He is also a spokesperson for the American Nuclear Society.  You can see his bio here.

Heidi Hutner is the Director of Sustainability Studies at Stony Brook University.  She has written extensively on environmental issues including nuclear energy.  You can see her bio here.

J Bret Bennington is a Professor of Geology, Environment, and Sustainability.  As a broadly trained earth and environmental scientist, he has written on a number of earth science issues.  You can see his bio here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Cons of Nuclear Energy Expansion

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As I mentioned in Saturday's post, this coming Thursday, Hofstra will host a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here is what has been written and what can be expected in the coming days:

Sunday:  What is nuclear energy and how is it produced in power plants?

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Today:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.

Today:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.

Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

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Yesterday, I reviewed the pros of nuclear energy expansion and today I move to the cons.  The arguments against expanded nuclear fall largely within three main areas:  safety, waste, cost, and viable alternatives.  I will review each of these.

1.  Safety.  There is no doubt that there is strong concern about the safety of nuclear energy after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster that was caused by a Tsunami brought on by a major 9.0 earthquake that devastated parts of Japan in March of 2011.  The power plant released tremendous amounts of radiation during a several week period.  Clean up of the site is still problematic and many areas remain contaminated. There is also great concern over long-term contamination of groundwater.

The Fukushima disaster illustrated that nuclear power plants can pose a risk to surrounding communities.  Obviously, not all areas are prone to 8.0 earthquakes and tsunamis, but the other major nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, was most likely caused by human error.  The expansion of nuclear energy would put more areas at risk.

2.  Waste.  Nuclear waste is a vexing problem.  Some nuclear waste stays radioactive for thousands of
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years.  What do we do with it?  It is essentially a poison that can cause great harm to individuals upon short or long-term exposure (depending on the material).  In the United States, we had a plan to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain in Nevada.  However, for a number of reasons, that site was deemed inappropriate.  At the present time, waste from nuclear power plants is stored at the power plants themselves since there is nowhere for it to go.  The waste continues to increase and it must be monitored and guarded.  If nuclear energy were to expand, the waste issue would increase.

3.  Costs.  Nuclear power plants are among the most expensive power plants to be built.  The challenge with building them is that most of the major costs of operating a power plant are at the front end of construction.  Indeed, about 70% of the costs of producing energy over the lifespan of a nuclear power plant are in the initial construction and design.  To expand nuclear would utilize tremendous capital costs that could be used to improve and expand renewable power generation.

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4.  Viable Alternatives.  One of the most striking arguments against expanding nuclear for a carbon-free future is that there are many alternatives that could be explored.  Wind, solar, tide, and wave energy power plants all exist and could be expanded greatly with appropriate investment.  Plus, by improving energy efficiency of homes and electronics we could greatly reduce the need for electricity.

Americans have not been strongly in favor of nuclear power for quite some time.  We have not built a new nuclear power plant since the 1990s.   The anti-nuclear movement in the United States is very strong and vocal.  Plus, we have abundant fossil fuel resources that make nuclear seem like a distant necessity.  However, the challenges of global climate change are making many reevaluate the potential for nuclear energy in our current era.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Pros of Nuclear Energy Expansion for a Sustainable Future

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As I mentioned in Saturday's post, this coming Thursday, Hofstra will host a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here is what has been written and what can be expected in the coming days:

Sunday:  What is nuclear energy and how is it produced in power plants?

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Today:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.

Wednesday:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.

Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.



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Several sustainability experts, particularly those heavily focused on trying to save the world from catastrophic climate change as a result of greenhouse gas pollution, have come to the conclusion that rapidly increasing nuclear energy production is one of the few ways that we can quickly reduce greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels to stave off disaster.

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Here is their argument in a nutshell:

1.  The world is currently utilizing tremendous amounts of carbon-based fuels.  Even with the growth of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, the use of carbon fuels is going to continue.  

2.  Renewables are not increasing at the rate needed to prevent global climate change based on existing models.  For example, even with the recent climate deal between the US and China, the decreases of greenhouse gases are modest and not sufficient to truly solve the climate change problem.  Renewable energy sources like wind and solar have a much larger footprint than nuclear power plants and thus have a greater opportunity to disrupt existing ecosystems.

3.  Nuclear energy is the only energy source that we can quickly ramp up to meet the demand for steady reliable energy in today's modern energy-intensive world.

This is a compelling argument, particularly given the fact that new technology provides opportunities to eliminate or reduce nuclear waste and improve safety of nuclear reactors.  We haven't completed the building of a new reactor since 1996, almost the pre-Internet age.  While some argue that we only have enough nuclear fuel for the next 100 years or so, new efficiency innovations in nuclear reactor technology suggest that this current amount of fuel could last for at least 1000 years and perhaps much longer.

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Proponents of nuclear also suggest that nuclear is far safer than most other conventional fuel sources like coal and oil.  We've all heard of the mining disasters and refinery explosions.  While there have been two well-known disasters (Fukushima and Chernobyl), they have not been as damaging as fossil fuel extraction and processing.  We've all seen what happened with Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

To some, nuclear energy is already a green energy source.  The Brookings Institute, in their 2011 green jobs report, listed work in the nuclear field as a green job.

Of course, there are many who completely disagree with this argument.  Tomorrow, I will explore the cons of nuclear energy expansion.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Global Production of Nuclear Energy

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As I mentioned in Saturday's post, this coming Thursday, Hofstra will host a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here is what has been written and what can be expected in the coming days:

Sunday:  What is nuclear energy and how is it produced in power plants?

Today:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Tuesday:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.

Wednesday:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.

Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

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Today's post is all about the amount and distribution of nuclear power produced around the world.

Globally, about 13% of all electricity is produced by nuclear power plants.  In the United States, this amounts to 20% of our electrical generation.

The list below, ranks the top ten producers of nuclear energy by gross electrical output in GW:

United States 99.1
France 63.1
Japan 42.4
Russia 23.6
South Korea 20.7
China 18.0
Canada 13.5
Ukraine 13.1
Germany 12.1
Sweden 9.5

Given this list, it is clear that the US, France, and Japan are the largest producers of nuclear energy in the world.  Their total production is significantly higher than the production of all other countries on this list.  Indeed, the US produced 10 times the total nuclear energy produced by Sweden.

The importance of the nuclear energy to the total electricity consumed by a nation can be examined by looking at the overall percentage of nuclear energy used in the nation's electricity budget.  

The list below ranks the top ten countries listed above by the percent of nuclear used in their overall electricity production:

France 73%
Ukraine 44%
Sweden 43%
South Korea 28%
United States 20%
Russia 18%
Japan 17%
Canada 16%
Germany 15%
China 2%

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It should be noted that some of the smaller energy consumers, like Hungary and Slovakia get about half of their electricity from nuclear energy and would be higher than Ukraine on this list.  

What is fascinating about this list is that there are some countries, particularly France, that get very large percentages of their electricity from nuclear energy, while some of the other big producers, like Canada and the United States, have a more diversified energy profile.  

What this means is that countries like France, Ukraine, Sweden, Hungary, and Slovakia are vulnerable to energy problems should issues emerge with nuclear energy. Nations with more diversified energy profiles are able to modify production of energy over time as conditions change. 

However, diversification in some areas is very difficult due to the lack of natural energy resources, lack of funds to import energy, or political challenges (for example, France has banned hydraulic fracturing--fracking--to extract natural gas).  


Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Is Nuclear Energy and How Is It Produced in Power Plants?

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As I mentioned in yesterday's post, this coming Thursday, Hofstra will host a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field argue that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others counter that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here's what to expect:

Today:  What is nuclear energy and how is it produced in power plants?

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Tuesday:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.

Wednesday:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.

Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

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Today's post focuses on the details about how we get nuclear energy from atoms and how nuclear power plants work to produce electricity.

Enrico Fermi developed the first self-sustaining
nuclear chain reaction.  This led to the development
of nuclear power plants.
Image courtesy of the Argonne National Laboratory.
Most of the nuclear power plants in the world work through nuclear fission.  What happens in these reactors, is that a high atomic mass isotope (usually uranium-235) is bombarded with a neutron.  The neutron is absorbed to create a new isotope (usually uranium-236) that is unstable.  The unstable element splits into lighter elements, thereby releasing tremendous amounts of energy.   In a nuclear power plant, this chain reaction can be controlled to produce a steady, reliable source of energy.  However, this same reaction is used to create nuclear weapons in an uncontrolled environment.

What makes nuclear energy so attractive as an energy source is that on a per mass or volume basis, nuclear energy produces millions of times more energy than conventional energy sources.  In other words, a small amount of nuclear fuel goes a very long way.

Most of the fuel used in nuclear reactors is uranium-235.  It is estimated that there are about 100 years of uranium available if used at the present rate and with no new discoveries.  However, it must be noted that uranium-235 is used in older reactors.  New reactors use other fuels or reprocessed uranium.  This new breed of power plants has enough fuel for hundreds of years.

As we will see in tomorrow's post, many countries of the world rely heavily on nuclear energy to produce the majority of their power.  In the United State's we get roughly 20% of our electricity from nuclear power plants.

While nuclear energy may seem like a very high-tech operation, the electrical generation is relatively conventional.  The fission chain reaction is used to produce heat.  This heat is used to boil water to create steam.  The steam is then used to turn a turbine which in turn produces electricity.  In conventional power plants, oil, natural gas, and coal are used as the energy sources.

There are emerging technologies (fusion and fision fusion power plants) that improve the efficiency of nuclear energy and reduce waste.  It must be noted that, at least in the United States, nuclear power plants are not built that often.  The last one was built in 1996.  As we will see tomorrow, many countries are moving forward rapidly to develop conventional fission nuclear power plants and some of the newer technologies.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Nuclear Energy Week on On the Brink

This coming Thursday, Hofstra will host a debate as to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded to create a more sustainable future.  Many in the sustainability field have argued that nuclear energy should be rapidly expanded to get us off of fossil fuels.  Others argue that nuclear energy is too dangerous and costly.

In the coming week, I will have several posts on this issue.  Here's what to expect:

Sunday:  What is nuclear energy and how is it produced in power plants?

Monday:  The distribution of nuclear power plants around the world and the amount of nuclear energy produced.

Tuesday:  The pros of nuclear energy expansion.

Wednesday:  The cons of nuclear energy expansion.

Thursday:  Introduction of the debaters.

Friday:  Debate redux.  My reaction to the debate.

Hofstra hosted very important presidential debates in the past.  Each year, the university also hosts a marquee Pride and Purpose Debate that takes on important issues in our society.  Last year the debate focused on genetically modified (GMO) food.  You can see that debate here.

This year's debate on nuclear energy will be streamed live at 4:30 pm Eastern Time on Thursday.  If you are not in the Long Island area, please turn in to watch!  I'll post a link for the Webcast later this week.

For more information about the debate, please click here.