Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Tyranny of Probability

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"I never thought I'd see the day" is a phrase I don't say very often, but it comes close describing what went through my mind after hearing about the hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima I nuclear plant last Saturday. Followed up as that first explosion was by additional explosions, partial meltdowns, and a fire, the situation in Japan has looked pretty grim since the earthquake and tsunami of last Friday. Judging by the media reaction you might think a serious catastrophe is in the making at Fukushima, while a real catastrophe is already unfolding across the Japanese coastline. The talking heads are already speculating in that gleeful way they do how this will affect the prospects for renewed, or at least static, development of nuclear power, and the consensus is nearly unified against the idea.

Knocking the momentum out of the nuclear renaissance, such as there is one, would be an unfortunate and ill-advised way to respond to the Fukushima crisis. It takes power to run a technological civilization. Sure, you can and should take steps to use energy more efficiently and reduce per capita demand for its production, but to deny that we'll need the amount of power we produce today, if not much more, for a long time into the future is to deny the entire history of the industry. The question is not whether human civilization should produce power on an industrial scale for the foreseeable future, it must. The question is best posed as follows: what's the best way to produce the amount of power we need with the least detrimental consequences to the environment?

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With wind turbines producing electricity at a cost competitive with coal, renewable energy is a serious contender for the first time. Wind power can and should be implemented on a large scale wherever practical, and I'm heartened to see the turbine blades whipping through the desert every time I drive through the desert mountains of west Texas and southern California. Renewables alone simply aren't ready to take over all the grid's needs yet, though, and steadier sources will be required for a long time.

Reliable, portable electricity, that doesn't depend on damming the few remaining untouched rivers or tapping into capricious sources of geothermal heat, leaves us with three options that can be implemented on a vast scale. Coal, natural gas, or nuclear?

On price alone, coal is the clear winner, as the market economy of the US and the command economy of China have both selected it as such. But while nuclear power still has a dreadful image in the public eye from accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and recently Fukushima, coal is little feared. This is curious given the coal industry's damage to health and the environment at every stage of production and power generation. Extraction and production destroy mountains, pollute rivers, dump sulfur dioxide and (ironically) uranium into the atmosphere, and are a real danger the miners and users affected by these operations. There are no coal power disasters because every day we mine and burn coal is a disaster unfolding in slow motion. Natural gas plants are, in general, less dirty than their coal-fired counterparts, but their emission still contribute to the stock of man-made greenhouse gases and the supply of natural gas is more limited than that of coal. There must be a better, feasible way.

Nuclear power isn't perfect. It still requires some mining, breeding reactors generates weapons-grade material, nuclear waste must be properly handled, and accidents can happen, despite our engineers' best efforts to prevent them. But there are feasible engineering and regulatory solutions to all these problems, and if embraced on a large scale nuclear power can handle the needs of our society for generations to come while posing the least risk to public health of any viable energy generations option. The accidents, like the one at Fukushima, are unfortunate, and I wish the workers the best in keeping things under control. When the dust settles, though, few, if anyone, in the Japanese public will be harmed, and the nuclear industry should be vindicated for averting the kind of environmental disaster that is business-as-usual for coal.

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