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No Nukes? Only If You Believe in Magic

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COMMENTARY
By Mike Lemonick

One year ago today, a massive, 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the northeast coast of Japan sent a huge tidal wave, more than 100 feet high at some points, up and over the coastline, killing some 20,000 people and wreaking unimaginable havoc over a wide swath of territory. For most Americans, however, it was the tsunami-triggered meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex that was the really scary part.  

As an indirect result of the disaster, only two of the nation’s 54 plants are now generating power, and the last two are likely to shut down soon. The Japanese, which once got 30% of their electricity from nuclear power, are limping along under severe power cuts, while utilities are ramping up the burning of coal and natural gas to try and make up some of the shortfall.

Which brings me to the subject of magic. The world’s developed nations have come to depend on ample, cheap electricity, and we shudder at the idea of giving it up. Developing countries like China and India aspire to do the same, and who can blame them? In the U.S., at least, we also think we have the unalienable right to drive whenever and wherever and as far as we want.

Rolling blackouts in Japan as a result of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. Credit Kyodo/Reuters.

But we know, too, that there’s a climate crisis going on. Poll after poll has confirmed that a majority of Americans are well aware of climate change. We don’t want it to happen, and we’re happy to do something about it — as long as that something doesn’t involve giving up relatively cheap plentiful electricity and our Constitutional right to drive long distances on relatively cheap, plentiful gas. Oh, and it all has to be safe, of course.

The only way to achieve this is through magic — the wave of a wand, maybe, or a hand reaching into a top hat, or some sort of incantation. Because the truth is that transitioning to an economy based on low-carbon energy is going to be a massive undertaking, especially if we attempt to do it in time to stave off a drastic rise in temperatures by the end of the century.

Steven Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton University have proposed one plausible strategy for getting there, but it’s extraordinarily ambitious, and it involves such suggestions as “use 40,000 square kilometers [more than 15,000 sq. mi.] of solar panels (or 4 million windmills) to produce hydrogen for fuel cell cars” and “eliminate tropical deforestation” and — most relevant for this weekend’s anniversary —  “Add double the current global nuclear capacity to replace coal-based electricity.”

All of this is very easy to say, but very hard to do. With wind and solar, the places where it blows and shines — the blustery Great Plains and the cloudless Southwest — are often very far from the places where most Americans live. With biofuels, you have to truck or pipe the stuff from where it’s made to where it will be consumed.

That means a whole new system of power lines and pipelines, and as my friend and former colleague Elisabeth Rosenthal sagely pointed out in a recent article in the New York Times, people don’t like power lines or pipelines. They love wind farms — as long as they’re somewhere out of sight. The Cape Wind project off the shore of Massachusetts is a perfect example: sure, renewable power is great, as long as it doesn’t spoil the view from my golf course.

Everyone seems to have his or her own favorite magic solution to this conundrum. The folks at Climateprogress.org insist that solar is about to become competitive with more conventional forms of electricity, but I was hearing that as far back as the mid-1990’s. They love wind, too, and about those power lines — not a problem!

Then there are the magic biofuel people. Thanks to “imminent breakthroughs” in labs all over the world, it turns out that fuel made from seaweed . . . or, no, algae . . . or sawdust . . . or agave . . . or one of a dozen other feedstocks are going to save us.

The truth is, that any of the myriad forms of magic proposed so far to keep the climate crisis from getting worse are either unproven or expensive or logistically difficult to implement.

An aerial view captures the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan on March 24, 2011. Credit: Air Photo Service Co. Ltd., Japan.

Or inherently scary. Nuclear power involves big risks, as Fukushima and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have all demonstrated. Anyone who touts it as yet another magic answer to climate change is kidding himself or herself. It’s not cheap and it’s not perfectly safe. But then, neither is coal, which has killed uncounted numbers of people through respiratory disease and mine disasters, and which has ravaged the environment in Appalachia. “Clean coal,” in which carbon has been stripped from plant exhaust and pumped underground only solves part of that problem — and it, like many other magic solutions, is only in the earliest stages of development.

So while nukes have plenty of issues, it might be premature, albeit understandable, to rule them out as part of the climate solution. They have plenty of safety issues, and they’re hellishly expensive to build, but engineers are working on safer, cheaper nuclear plants.

I wish we didn’t have to think about nuclear power as a viable option for the future. Magic would be much nicer.

But I don’t believe in magic.

An earlier version of this story contained an image that may not have been of the Fukushima Daiichi facility. That error has been corrected.

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Comments

By JC (Sioux Falls/SD/57106)
on March 11th, 2012

“As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?”

“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.” From the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow”

Why would someone choose to be vegan? To slow global warming for one! Here are two uplifting videos to help everyone understand why so many people are making this life affirming choice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKr4HZ7ukSE and http://www.veganvideo.org

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By Ben (Northfield, MN)
on March 11th, 2012

I understand and share the sentiment, although as Clarke states “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So I’m still hoping for the magic you so disparage.

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By Ceal Smith (Crestone, CO 81131)
on March 11th, 2012

Why do nuclear and giant industrial solar/wind proponents ALWAYS stress increasing demand for energy while ignoring the 60% efficiency dividend?  Because they need justification for their outlandish and environmentally undermining ideas.  No, Mr. Lemonick, warmer, friendlier nukes are not what we need.  We need to get down to work on cutting massive energy waste and inefficiencies.  Then its a no-brainer to utilize the diverse point of use renewable resources to fill in the rest.  Think: meaner, leaner new energy paradigm and cast your spells on the old consumption-driven way of thinking.

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By Bill Woods (California)
on March 11th, 2012

“An aerial view captures the meltdown of the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor in Japan.”

I don’t know what that picture is, but it doesn’t look at all like the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Note the absence of the breakwaters and the presence of a river behind the place.

http://maps.google.com/maps?q=fukushima+daiichi+nuclear+plant&hl=en&ll=37.421708,141.032696&spn=0.041649,0.054502&sll=37.421708,141.032696&sspn=0.041649,0.054502&t=h&radius=1.79&hq=fukushima+daiichi+nuclear+plant&z=14

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By Andrew
on March 11th, 2012

Bill,

Thanks for pointing out the possible error, we replaced the image and noted the correction.

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By Philip S. Wenz (Corvallis, Oregon 97333)
on March 11th, 2012

Part of this comment was cross posted in the NY Times’s Dot Earth comment section.

Enough sunlight hits the earth in one hour to power human civilization for a year. Are we saying that humans aren’t clever enough to harness this limitless energy source? If we can build nuclear power plants and send men to the moon, we should be able to figure out what green plants figured out three billion years ago.

The future of energy production lies in technologies like concentrated solar power (CSP) ”” focusing the sun’s rays to heat up a liquid-filled tube to make steam that drives an electric turbine. The “base load” problem (the need for power when the sun goes down) is solved by storing enough heat in molten salts to drive the turbines through the night ”” and then some.

One such plant (Gemasolar) is operating in Spain, and another (SolarReserve), under construction in Nevada, will power 67,000 homes.

There is no magical thinking in this. The technology is straight-forward, the environmental impact minimal. All that’s holding us back from switching to renewables is the status-quo lobbyists in Washington.


We don’t need nuclear or coal. We need to get our renewable act together.

www.ecotecture.com

 

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By Kenton (Tulsa)
on March 12th, 2012

Something that always comes to mind when discussing energy usage, is that of what is consuming all of this energy? More often than not I will read articles on the pros and cons of coal, wind, solar, nuclear, and bio-fuels for energy sources. What I rarely see in these articles though, and in my opinion is the root cause for the energy issues we have, as a society we are continuing to consume electricity at a fast rate. Converting every coal plant in the world to solar, wind or what have you, does not equal a reduction in electricity usage. Education on reducing our consumption is just as important if not more important than the technology used to produce the electricity.

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By john h
on March 13th, 2012

“inherently scary. Nuclear power involves big risks, as Fukushima and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have all demonstrated. Anyone who touts it as yet another magic answer to climate change is kidding himself or herself. It’s not cheap and it’s not perfectly safe. But then, neither is coal


So “it’s not coal” is about the best you can say for nukes. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Like saying the baby sitter isn’t perfect, but at least he isn’t a mass murderer (yet).

At this point, massive disruptions from GW and probably economic disruptions will put all systems at risk. As we have seen, nuclear plants do not hold up well under extreme conditions. Given the vagaries of history and the ‘interesting’ times we are entering, it is completely predictable that every single nuclear plant now on the planet will go through some kind of Fukushima event (or worse) at some point.

The prudent thing to do is to step firmly away from this lethal mess, as Japan and Europe are now doing. Most electricity is wasted one way or the other, or used on frivolities. We can cut way back and actually improve our lifestyles. On average, people in the US use twice the energy the average European does and about four times that of the average Latin American. But these groups regularly show higher levels of happiness and satisfaction with their lives.

So we are taking great risks with our lives, the lives of our children, and the habitability of vast swaths of our country for no real advantages to the quality of our lives.

This is the real reality. It is time to grow up and stop acting like spoiled teenagers who desire everything they see without any wisdom about what actually brings contentment.

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By Michael Moon (Chicago, IL 60613)
on March 15th, 2012

Hulapai Valley Solar was canceled when they lost their cooling water.  This happened in Arizona, where water issues are very important to the residents.  The plant was just as described above, concentrated solar with heat storage to run the turbines continuously.  It was to have cost 2.1 billion dollars and provide 340 megawatts.  My poor brother-in-law managed the project, had to go find other work.  In actuality this is just as expensive as any nuke plant.  New nukes for 1000 megawatts are around 8 billion dollars these days.

The water usage would have been about the same as a big housing development, so this was killed because it is new.  Made no sense…

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By Byron Smith (Edinburgh)
on March 23rd, 2012

I’m with Ceal and Kenton. Massive infrastructure changes are no doubt required, but at the heart of any strategy has to be a change of culture in how we consume energy (and all other materials, since they all embody energy in their production).

You highlight the expectations of the developed world that any response to climate change has to be effective, cheap, safe and not impact our way of life. This, as you rightly point out, is magical thinking. The article suggests that we need to be ready to compromise on cheap and safe. I suggest we must also compromise on “will not affect our way of life”. Because if we compromise on “effective”, then most of our other discussions are moot.

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on April 6th, 2012

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on April 17th, 2012

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