Tag Archives: nuclear power

Are The Benefits of Nuclear Power Worth the Risks?

Events in Japan have focused many people’s attentions on the risks of nuclear power. While the nuclear accident there hasn’t had the direct human cost of the earthquake and tsunami that started the entire mess, it’s still of great concern for its potential. It’s natural to fear what you can’t see, and many people don’t find enough reassurance in being told that they are not at risk from the radiation that has been released.

The interesting part to me is that so far coal power is far more dangerous to human lives and long term health than nuclear power, at least according to some calculations. Coal powered plants release more radioactivity than a well maintained nuclear power plant. They release more pollutants. Coal mining is a risky business. Yet many people are more comfortable with coal power plants than nuclear power plants.

The trouble is that it’s really difficult to calculate the exact impact on human health (or to the surrounding environment) when it comes to nuclear accidents. Most of the damage won’t be seen for years, and you can’t really tell which damage is caused by it in the long run. This is why estimates vary so widely.

A big part of the problem in my view is also that of long term storage of nuclear waste. Most current nuclear waste will have to be carefully stored for thousands of years. Even if we go to thorium reactors, the waste is hazardous for about 500 years. I’m not so fond of betting on anyone keeping track of any sort of waste that long, never mind keeping it secure. I wonder how the cost of nuclear power really balances out when you consider the long term storage issues.

So Why Support Nuclear Power?

With all that said, I’m not completely against nuclear power, and it’s for one simple reason. Plants are going to be built, I have no doubt about that. I’d rather push for safer plants if they’re going to be built, and keep pushing for other energy sources that don’t have such long term issues.

Truth be told, I’d far rather see us find ways to rely primarily on wind, solar and geothermal energy than on coal or nuclear. But with the opposition that exists to these, plus all the naysayers, it’s going to be a battle to get there. The way things are, there’s going to be a step between relying on coal and going to more renewable energy sources, and I strongly suspect that will be nuclear power. I’d like us to use the safest possible version of such power in that case.

Is nuclear power worth the risk? I certainly hope so, because I have no doubt that the risk will continue to be taken. Let’s hope safety continues to improve.

With All That Went Wrong In Japan, Is It Time to Give Up On Nuclear Power?

The 9.0 earthquake in Japan has been a nightmare for people in that country. Not only are thousands dead or missing,  with massive destruction by both the quake and the tsunami, they have a crisis with a nuclear power plant. Even milk and spinach in the area have been found to be contaminated as a result. Small amounts of radioactive iodine have been found in tap water.

Naturally, this disaster has resulted in many people calling for nuclear power plants to be shut down. I understand why. You can’t see radiation, you can’t tell if it’s effecting you, but it can shorten your life. That’s a scary thing.

That said, as of this writing I haven’t heard anything to make me stress about the radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant. It has plenty of problems, but so far it hasn’t done the worst possible, by a long shot.

I’d love for solar, wind, geothermal and hydro power to take over the power generation we need. That would be wonderful. The only problem is that it won’t happen soon. There are a lot of obstacles in the way, and quite simply people aren’t willing to make that sacrifice, even though we’d be better off once we made it work.

I fully expect nuclear power to be around for a long time to come. That’s why I’d rather focus on making it safer.

For one thing, the radiation from a functioning nuclear power plant is actually less than that coming from a coal power plant. You don’t really think about natural radiation coming from coal, but it does. XKCD made a really interesting radiation chart, and it’s amazing to see what the numbers really are.

With Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima as examples, engineers now know more about the disasters to plan for in a nuclear power plant. Much of it was known before Fukushima, but that plant was old and lacked certain safety features.

The major problem I have with nuclear power is disposal of waste. Spent rods have been a big part of the Fukushima problem, after all. Nuclear waste is hazardous for far too long and is incredibly difficult to dispose of safely. More passive safety features must be in place in all nuclear power plants.

Grist has some interesting points on using thorium in nuclear power plants, stating this is safer than uranium. Some of the people commenting on the article have interesting ideas as well.

I hope that more serious looks will be taken at generating power in safer ways than nuclear or coal, but I’m also realistic enough to know it’s not going to happen that soon. Too many people with too much power over the situation are invested in keeping things the way they are. I think it’s better to fight to make them safer as we continue to work toward using more sustainable technologies to power our country.