An odd thing happened the other day. The name “Hansen” and “nuclear” appeared in the same article and it was on a fairly positive note. The “Hansen” is James Hansen, who has been one of the most vocal AGW theorists since the late 1980s. “Nuclear” comes into play because it has been estimated (by Hansen and Pushker Kharecha) that the use of nuclear power has saved 1.84 million lives because these power plants do not produce much air pollution, whereas coal-fired power plants do. Thus, it is unfortunate that nuclear power has not been pursued more in the U.S. over the last few decades. No new nuclear plants have been built. Hardly any new nuclear technology has entered the marketplace. We could have more AND safer nuclear power here in the U.S. leading to cleaner air and potentially a lot less carbon dioxide emissions if it were not for the Three Mile Island accident and subsequent efforts to eliminate nuclear power. The devastation from Chernobyl and potential future problems from Fukushima do not help either. Then there is the little thing about storing the waste….
The benefits of nuclear power are not as widely touted as the potential downsides, even to this day, but that has not stopped progress. U.S. nuclear power plants are Cold War relics but in other countries, nuclear is a still viable option and new reactors have been built. Small and safer nuclear power plants are being designed and at least four are on schedule to go online in the U.S. by the 2016/2017 timeline. The not so good news is that the new power plants, while being safer and more efficient, will still produce normal radioactive waste. Storing the waste is still a problem. Thorium nuclear plants could be better on many levels – including waste that degrades on much shorter time scales - but the only place thorium reactors are planned on being tested are in India. Something that might make traditional nuclear power plants a little more attractive is the use of molten salts instead of water for cooling. This practice/design could cut the cost of nuclear power in half.
Given the risks associated with nuclear power, even the smaller risks with newer designs, some countries like France and Germany are backing away from nuclear. Japan shut down all of their nuclear plants after the earthquake and tsunami but are considering firing them back up due to the difficulty of generating power from other sources. If there is a renaissance in nuclear power coming our way it will probably have to come from China, the U.S., or a different non-traditional nuclear power producing country.
I am on the fence regarding nuclear power. I know the risks are substantial, but so are the benefits. If the U.S. ended up building more traditional nuclear plants and perhaps even some thorium plants in the future, our carbon emissions would likely continue to go down, in contrast to all the predictions that they would soar. Less pollution (except for the waste) is a big plus. However, I am still a bigger fan of solar power because the risks are lower and the benefits are just as good. We have millions of rooftops just waiting to be used for this purpose.
Have a nice Friday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
This post was written by jloew on April 5, 2013