Last week, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, in partnership with Atlanta WAND, hosted a book lecture by Drs. Brice Smith and Arjun Makhijani, who discussed "Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Warming." Readers of this blog already know that I'm much more worried about waking up in Waterworld than I am about radiation (when you work in a toxic lab and hang out in smoky bars, what's a little cesium and iodine between friends?), so I headed down to the bookstore with a healthy degree of skepticism about the anti-nuclear pro-wind la-dee-da I was going to hear. I walked out back on the fence and back to the drawing board, and dagnabbit, I hate that.
Far from being a hysterical knee-jerk reaction against all things fissile, the physicist/nuclear engineer tag-team laid out their case against more nuclear power based on something we can all agree on: cost. Their new book -- drawing in part on (and rather more skeptically than my reading of) the major 2003 study by MIT, "The Future of Nuclear Power, and another major U of Chicago study I can't find right now* -- supposedly concludes that even under optimistic assumptions about downward trends in reactor construction costs, increasing fossil fuel prices, and reasonable carbon emissions taxes on fossil burning plants, the numbers simply aren't there for nuclear energy to be an "obvious" choice. Current arguments against things like wind power and "clean coal" are based on their generation cost of approximately 6 cents/kWh, which can't compete with coal and the reported cost of nuclear electricity around 3 cents/kWh. However, they assert that when you include the entire life cycle cost in an honest analysis, nuke starts pushing up toward the 6 c/kWh level, at which point the other concerns kick in to make more nuclear energy a really bad idea. On top of all that, there's the fact that in order to make a serious dent on carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels -- and to keep up with increasing energy demand at the same time -- we'll have to immediately kick off a building spree on power plants that's just historically unprecedented, and given the fact that the power companies are still dragging their feet**, preposterous.
Those concerns are based on less quantifiable things, like the increased risk of nuclear proliferation: both direct, as in the potential diversion of enriched uranium or extracted plutonium, depending on your fuel cycle selection; and indirect, as in the way any addition to the nuclear technology treasure chest makes it very hard to dissuade other countries from wanting the new gadgetry under the current hole-riddle hypocrisy of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And there is also, of course, the Three Mile Island factor, and despite all of the simulations and probabilistic modeling undertaken by the nuclear industry on a constant basis, the authors fall again on the side of skepticism, and after my brief foray into probabilistic life assessment myself, I can't say I blame them: there are just too many variables that interact in a nonlinear fashion for a risk assessment of something that complex over a time period that long to be anything better than a "good guess."
Even when I asked them if they felt any warmer and fuzzier about potential new reactor designs like the pebble bed modular reactor or the high temperature gas cooled reactor -- helium and graphite moderated cores that are presented as "meltdown-proof" -- Dr. Makhijani pointed out that nobody talks about the other failure mode of graphite reactors: at high enough temperatures (e.g., in the event of cooling failure), the graphite-encased fuel elements can burn. Apparently many of the non-spectacular but still quite messy (and costly) whoopsiedasies of nuclear material release has been the fault of graphite moderated reactors, not light water reactors. Who knew?
Like I said, this wasn't a flowers-in-your-hair love-in against the evil atom, and the good Drs. did not wrap it up with the fiat that nuclear energy must be rejected absolutely and forever; they just think that it makes good business and environmental sense to pursue instead a few other alternatives:
Being the level-headed guys they are, Drs. Brice and Makhijani conceded that, much like the problem of burying all the nuclear waste in a hole in the ground, carbon sequestration -- or "burying" all the carbon dioxide emissions from a gasified coal plant in a hole in the ground, such as those left by sucking out all that delicious oil -- is going to take some doing. And if you're anything like me, your first instinct upon seeing all these warm-fuzzy TV advertisements in which rosy-faced children tell you to check out some industry website to learn about how coal is going to make their future so bright is to turn around, bend over, and grab your ankles. If it's so awesome, why are you selling it so hard? Well, apparently there might be something to the integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant; read for yourself if you're technically inclined.
At this point, I really don't know what the best answer is, but I'm certainly less smug about my transuranics. Anyone want to tilt at windmills?
* At least I don't think I've found it, because the most relevant site brought up by Googling U of Chicago and nuclear power is this one, which actually paints a rather optimistic picture of the cost of nuclear energy. Hmmm.
** Last Thursday, Georgia Power went before the Public Services Commission asking for permission to pass along a $50M cost to the consumer for a "study" on possibly building two new reactors at Plant Vogtle. This is no guarantee that they'll actually build the plants, and they're still trying to get the ratepayers to foot the bill despite the big tax incentives in the president's energy bill to encourage utilities to build new reactors as part of the Nuclear Power 2010 initiative. For decades the government incentives for utilities to go nuclear have been ridiculous examples of corporate welfare -- welfare that I often thought justified, inasmuch as it should be an investment in the common good, but it's never enough for the utilities; every time they say they just need a little help to make the big leap, they ask for more before they put the last handout in their pocket. SACE has more about Georgia Power's latest move in this press release.