Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Meltdown of the Nuclear Option

Crystal River Power Plant, Florida
(photo by L.G. Mills http://tinyurl.com/682pd3j) 

One way in which the environmental community is divided is by our favorability for or against nuclear energy. 

Those who are for nuclear energy look to it as a plentiful source of energy that does not emit carbon.  They believe that the only way to sustain our current standard of living in the developed world is to use atomic energy.  They also believe that nuclear power can improve the lives of others throughout the developing world.  Indeed, according to the New York Times, there has been a significant growth in the number of nuclear power plants in places like India and China.

Those who are against nuclear energy believe that the risks are far too great for further development and that existing plants should close.  They are concerned over waste, accidents, and the use of byproducts in weapons.

In recent years, many in the United States started to give nuclear energy a second look.  There are just over 100 operating nuclear power plants in our country.  Most of them were built or planned prior to the mid-1970s.  The viability of the nuclear industry declined after the Three Mile Island power plant discharged radiation in 1979 in Pennsylvania after a partial meltdown.  While nuclear energy provides approximately 20% of our nation’s electricity, it is unlikely that nuclear energy production will increase.

It has been argued that there are new, safer, and smaller nuclear power plants and that the industry is using older technology that could be updated within the context of urban and suburban sustainability.  Due to the lack of interest in new power plants, the nuclear industry has not had an opportunity to explore new power generating techniques using nuclear fuel.

In light of the disaster in Japan, it is doubtful that nuclear energy will see much expansion in the United States.  Indeed, public opinion is likely to move further away from the acceptability of nuclear power. 

I have always wanted nuclear power to work.  I think it was my upbringing in the space age 1960’s and 1970’s.  Yet, I have never liked the big mega-plants.  I always thought that their scale was too hazardous, particularly near populated areas.  Even so, some of the plans that I have seen for small nuclear power plants that can power several hundred homes seem the most plausible future for nuclear power.  The question is whether or not our society will take the risk.

The logician in me looks at the evidence in front of me in Japan, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the science behind the long-term storage of nuclear waste and I hesitate.  Might it not be better to invest in harnessing other energy sources that do not threaten future generations?  Isn’t this one of the key elements of sustainability:  to leave the world sustainable for future generations? 

3 comments:

Kyle Kunnecke said...

what if, instead of large giant plants that could cause incredible harm if/when they meltdown, we were able to develop a tinier version of the power plant - maybe something on the level of solar panels on rooftops? If everything was downsized, and the precautions were such that they were highly unlikely to fail?

(just a thought) :)

Sharon Hoff said...

Aren't there new uses for the spent fuel rods that leave little waste?

Goodden's said...

I think it's important to continue development of nuclear power so that we can continue the learning process and overcome the difficulties. How much safer would nuclear plant designs be today if the industry had been allowed to learn and make modifications over these past 30 years? By freezing development, we essentially froze the learning process.