Friday, March 5, 2010

Alternatives to nuclear power for slowing climate change

Despite a big push for nuclear power in the US and elsewhere as an answer to the woes of climate change, there remain serious issues that make it a solution of last resort, unless and until these issues can be addressed.  The reason nuclear is brought up is that wind and solar, though very good potential sources of energy, have the problem of being intermittent, and nuclear power plants have almost continuous operation with no greenhouse gas emissions.  The current electric power system requires about 35-40% of the power, termed baseload, to be provided by a steadily available source of energy, mostly burning coal in the US.  This book and website, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free, outlines how to reduce greenhouse gases and provide baseload without the use of nuclear energy.

The US can achieve large reductions in greenhouse gases, not to mention energy costs, from conservation measures.  Geothermal energy, from hot rock and water below the Earth's surface, is a source of steady power, has a long track record, doesn't generate greenhouse gases, and is being rapidly developed.  It's also becoming more economical with tax incentives and stimulus money.  Although geothermal plants have a high up-front cost, the cost of energy generated from them is less than for coal, as outlined in this Scientific American piece.  Other potential solutions to the problem of solar and wind being intermittent include using hydrogen fuel cells to store the energy these sources generate, and pumping water uphill when solar and wind are available and generating power by sending it downhill when they aren't.

Nuclear power still has all the issues that it had in the 1970's and early 1980's:  no long-term solution to the problem of waste, very large cost of building plants, and safety issues with operating the plants and  mining uranium.  Also, though nuclear plants don't generate CO2 during operation, mining and processing uranium with current methods does generate greenhouse gases.  Some sources point to fast neutron reactors, which potentially solve the problem of waste by producing more fuel from depleted fuel, as the wave of the future.  However this article points to serious problems with these reactors which have resulted in the closure of most of them since their introduction in the 1950's.

With the track record of geothermal, new methods of storing energy from solar and wind, conservation, and new sources of energy being developed, I think we should be very cautious about pursuing a technology which has the potential to release significant amounts of radioactivity for millenia.  What do you think?
Stay cool,

1 comment:

  1. I haven't changed my opinion since I went to protest at Seabrook--30 years ago? It makes me sad that we as a culture lack the collective will to make the small beneficial changes that would save us. I will be dead, but I weep for my unborn grandchildren.