Since disaster struck at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant on March 11, there's been renewed interest in the safefy of nuclear power. In the United States, the question of safety is focused on an aging fleet of 104 nuclear reactors. Today, nuclear power supplies about 20 percent of America's electricity, but there hasn't been a new nuclear reactor approved in the U.S. since the 1970s.
In China and India, the issue of safety not only falls to the nuclear power plants that are already operational, but to all the new nuclear plants planned and currently under construction. Both countries have plans for massive expansion of nuclear power, in part to offset the escalating demands for electricity that come with both country's soaring populations. But while it might seem that new nuclear reactors would be safer than old ones, that isn't the entire picture.
We spoke with Princeton University nuclear energy analyst M.V. Ramana about the rapid expansion of nuclear power in India and China and what the potential risks of this growth are.
The events at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima have shown us that if there is one thing that everyone knows about nuclear power: accidents happen. Whether they are man-made errors or they are brought on by natural forces, from time to time things can go wrong and when big nuclear accidents happen, they can be scary, devastating and long-lasting.
Why is it that nuclear engineers can't identify all the risks ahead of time to prevent the accidents from happening? We spoke with Princeton University nuclear energy analyst M. V. Ramana to learn about why the general strategy of disaster prevention at nuclear power plants, though effective most of the time, provides the opportunity for accidents to happen that can't necessarily be anticipated.
In the wake of the Fukushima accident, and on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, the debate over whether nuclear power can be safe and economical enough to be a big part of the world's energy future, especially for helping to reduce global warming emissions, is in full swing once again. The danger of a major accident that releases significant amounts of radioactivity is just part of it. Nuclear power plants also generate radioactive waste that has to be disposed of somehow, and the creation and transportation of nuclear fuel raises the risk of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium finding its way into the hands of bomb-makers. On top of this, how much it will cost to build enough power plants to make a dent in global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is uncertain — especially if Fukushima leads to tougher safety regulations.
For decades, though, some nuclear engineers have been pushing an alternate technology that they claim could address these concerns. Called Small Modular Reactors (SMR's), these plants, which have been proposed with a variety of designs, would be inherently cheaper to build and safer to operate than conventional plants, for a variety of reasons — or at least, so their proponents argue. They may be right, but so far the nuclear industry hasn't had enough real-world experience with any of the proposed designs to know how well their performance lives up to their theoretical promise.
Here are some of the ways SMR designs would differ from conventional...
By Gretchen Weber, KQED ClimateWatch
California’s utilities now have their marching orders: to provide one third of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
Now that the "33-by-20" target is a mandate backed by state law, supporters say it will lure more renewable energy investments to California. There's evidence that it already is.
"Last year six thousand megawatts of solar installations were produced by China and one thousand by the United States. Now, are we up for changing that? I think we are."
Supporters say the 33 percent requirement provides a stable market for renewable energy, while critics fear it will mean higher electric bills. A statement from the California Republican Party said:
Governor Brown is pressing ahead as if the pieces of papers he signs magically and automatically result in higher revenues or a better standard of living. The laws of economics, however, overrule Brown’s political laws.
Magical or not, the law has appeared to conjure up federal dollars for the state. Energy Secretary Steven Chu seized the occasion to announce $50 million in federal funding for renewables in California, and nearly $3 billion in loan guarantees for two big projects.
“Thanks to forward looking policies and forward-looking bu...
A couple of weeks ago, the social media networks were buzzing over the announcement of new technology that uses sunlight to split water for energy purposes; the so-called "artificial leaf." It’s a man-made form of photosynthesis, a water-splitting technology that could potentially overcome the big challenges facing solar energy, like its current costliness and inability to provide energy when the sun goes down. MIT chemist Daniel Nocera unveiled the new artificial leaf at a recent American Chemical Society annual meeting, but many of the people commenting on it in the press didn't have the opportunity to see the technology in action.
MIT chemist Daniel Nocera recently unveiled technology he calls the "artificial leaf" that uses sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel. Credit: Andre Doreto/flickr.
As a trained chemist, I wanted to reserve judgment until I could see this invention for myself. Lucky for me, this weekend I had the chance. And I have to say it was pretty impressive.
On Saturday, Nocera gave a lecture in Princeton, N.J. (where Climate Central has one of its offices) as part of a symposium honoring the university’s new chemistry building. The symposium was focused on the big problems the chemistry community should be tackling in the years ahead, and it’s not surprising that three talks, including Nocera’s, were directed at making solar energy more affordable and widely available.
Nocera’s presentation in particular was a show-stopper. He demonstrated via video he can already make a bit of sunlight turn a glass of water (containing a small card made of silicon and a few other materials) into hydrogen an...