Time for my fourth response to the Sept Sci Am issue on Energy’s Future. Today I will be commenting on John M. Deutch’s article “The Nuclear Option”. Again to put things in perspective, we need to think about Princeton’s Carbon Wedges of Inconvenient Truth fame. We are freeing carbon way, way faster than Gaia can trap it and global energy needs are rising at increasing rates. Something has to give.
In fact the problem is SO big, that even renewables and efficiency increases may not be enough. Numerous environmentalists, notably James Lovelock of Gaia Theory fame, have gone on record promoting Nuclear as the only option to prevent almost certain catastrophic climate change. Nuclear technology is here now, emits all but zero carbon, and financing and government institutions are familiar with it so there is no learning curve. Nuclear Energy currently supplies 20% of our energy here in the US-replace that with Coal plants and we are talking carbon emissions from 134 million cars.
For all these reasons and more Deutch proposes a massive ramp up in nuclear power initiatives over the course of the next few decades. How big? Seeing as you’re at your computer I feel it is safe you are sitting down so I spill it. 1440 new plants worldwide. We currently only have 104 on US soil right now, and the entire globe only has 442 (NEI). Jesus. Seeing as its been several decades since a significant safety incident, I will give the NEI a bow on that, but WTF are we going to do with all that waste? One thing about the NEI-you have to credit their sense of humor. Like where they are telling you about the spent nuclear fuel and keep describing it as ‘little ceramic balls the size of your fingertip’-like they are cute or a toy or something. Or when they are describing the 40,000 metric tons of waste that we have accumulated so far in our brief 40 year stink with nuclear power. “It would only cover a football field to a depth of about 5 yards”. And then kill everyone within several dozen miles. For the next 10 million years. I digress…
Ok waste is really, really bad. But it can be dealt with. Well, sort of. It can be dealt with the way that you deal with your cat that died-you can bury it out back and hope that some dog won’t dig it up and no one sees you doing it. But there’s Yucca Mountain right? Sure! And it has been stalled for a decade while all those metric tons of cute ceramic balls sit in above ground storage facilities. 1440 new plants would produce enough waste to fill a Yucca sized facility (assuming we could get it based the NIMBY’s) every 3.5 years. Deutch glosses over this fact. To me it is a deal breaker. Carbon is bad-like some dynamite going off in your neighbor’s garage bad, nuclear waste is bad-like Hiroshima bad. Part of sustainability is to not pass your problems onto future generations-like the Cherokee Seventh Generation philosophy. Waste will be around for my grand kids for the next millionth generation. That is more guilt that I can stomach. Its Wrong.
But snapping my collar and walking away into the Green Future on blind faith and my morals is not going to save the 2 wedges worth of carbon-that 50 billion tons-that Deutch’s 1400 nuclear plants will. Every since reading this magazine I keep repeating the single biggest take away: Global Warming is Huge-a bigger problem than I ever imagined. The time for being high and mighty has passed. Enlightened pragmatism must now reign.
So that is why I, like Lovelock, am now cautiously pro nuclear. Burning fissionable material emits no carbon-and our societies abuse of the Carbon Cycle is the single largest issue facing the world today. That is the pragmatism part. Now for the enlightenment. In the late 70’s we changed the way we deal with nuclear waste in this country. See in the ol’ days we reprocessed the spent fuel to send it back thru another reactor. This by no means makes the end result inert, but we are generating usable energy twice from the original fuel, and in the end have significantly less waste to deal with. Worldwide countries that currently reprocess their waste, like France, have the ability to reprocess over 80,000 tonnes over the next 50 years. That is not enough, but it is a big start.
Restarting nuclear incentives, while raising fees per kWh (currently at .01 cents per kwh-who approved that?!?!) for waste disposal to the point that would both encourage both momentum for reprocessing again in this country, and would make investment in PV and Wind R&D more lucrative. The hole we have dug for ourselves with our carbon addiction is so big, and so deep, that we need to use every tool in our box to dig our way out. Just like in transportation, the green alternatives need time to get online. Time that we may not have. Nuclear energy can buy us that time. Time to educate the citizenry on efficiency. Time to create better ways to generate energy. Time to mend the rifts in the Earth that we have made.
Lovelock’s Gaia Theory states that the Earth acts like an organism in many ways. One of those ways is that she, like ourselves when we get the Flu, will drastically alter her homeostasis until things settle back to normal. I pray we have not pushed Gaia too far.