As we struggle to develop a fossil fuel free economy, many thoughtful analysts look to nuclear power and think that there may be an off-the-shelf technology we can use to prevent climate change. Given the latest pair of nuclear waste leaks, it's time to look somewhere else. Someday there may be a form of nuclear power that does not create a highly toxic waste and can't be used to make weapons; but that day has not yet arrived. The latest aftershock of the Fukushima nuclear disaster hit over the past several days, reminding us of the risks of nuclear power. As Martin Fackler reported recently in the New York Times:
Tens of thousands of gallons of radioactive water leaked from a large underground storage pool at Japan's crippled nuclear plant, and thousands more gallons could seep out before the faulty pool can be emptied, the plant's operator said Saturday. About 120 tons, or almost 32,000 gallons, of highly contaminated water appeared to have breached the inner protective lining of the pool at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, said the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company. It was unclear how much of the water had made it through two additional layers of lining to reach soil, but radiation levels outside the pool have risen, a sign that some water is getting out, said the company, known as Tepco.
As the late Barry Commoner once observed: "nuclear power is a hell of a complicated way to boil water." There are simpler ways to make the steam needed to generate electricity. Nuclear power is a very intricate, centralized, capital- intensive technology that creates a waste that remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are only the most visible examples of the problems with nuclear power. In addition to the problems at nuclear power plants, we have seen greater difficulties with nuclear waste. The latest example of failed nuclear technology is taking place at Hanford, Washington and was recently reported by Matthew Wald in the New York Times.
A treatment plant that the Energy Department is counting on to stabilize the radioactive waste at the nation's largest environmental cleanup project, at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, has design problems that could lead to chemical explosions, inadvertent nuclear reactions and mechanical breakdowns, a federal advisory panel warned on Tuesday.
The plant has been under construction for over two decades, and has cost over $12 billion to date. The nuclear repository built at Yucca Mountain, Nevada cost over $10 billion and will probably never open.
The problem with nuclear power is that we do not know how to manage it effectively, and the risks of mismanagement are irreversible. Our general approach to the use of new technology has always been to use it first and ask questions later. Unlike the way we regulate drugs, we do not follow the precautionary principle when introducing a new method of production. Before we introduce a new drug we test it on animals and eventually on people to learn its main effects and side effects. That is how we adhere to the precautionary principle. When we introduce new technology for production, we are all like the canary they used to lower down in a cage to test for gas in a coal mine. If the canary came back alive, there was no gas and you could send the miners down. If the canary came back dead, that means there's gas in the mine and it's too dangerous to work. When it comes to nuclear power, we are all canaries lowered into the mine.
Our arrogance as a species convinces us that we can somehow deal with the impacts of the toxics we have developed and introduced into the environment. Sometimes we can, and in some cases we have learned how to manage the technologies we have developed. Nuclear power is not one of those technologies. While we have a reasonable safety record on power generation, we have had little success with nuclear waste.
The problem with nuclear technology is that it was developed to be the first weapon of mass destruction. In the 1950's there was an effort to change the image of nuclear technology- with the "atoms for peace" program pushed by President Eisenhower. This was a well-intentioned, but failed effort to try to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. Unfortunately the original goal of nuclear technology was to build in destruction and toxicity. Widespread radiation made the weapon more fearsome and effective. But the same element of the technology that made nuclear an awesome weapon, also made it a dangerous source of energy. In order to build a safe, non-toxic form of nuclear power, we need to start over again with a very different set of design parameters and objectives. Maybe some day we will do that, but right now that day seems a long way off.
Geothermal, solar, wind and hydropower are not without environmental impacts and risks. But those risks are not irreversible. With over seven billion people on the planet, we should assume that many human activities will damage the environment. Our goal should be to keep that damage to a minimum and make certain that as we learn more we can learn how to reduce, and even reverse, the damage we have done.
Nuclear power is not without defenders. Some climate scientists are attracted to it as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some nations, like France use a lot of nuclear power and believe they have it under control. Other nations such as Germany are trying to close their plants as soon as they reach obsolescence. In the U.S., civilian nuclear power has been limited by the waste problem and the contentious politics and high capital costs associated with siting and constructing a power plant. My own view is that nuclear power is a political non-starter here in the United States. I very much doubt we will ever build another nuclear power plant in the United States. We may "expand" existing plants, but before long even that will be impossible.
Since nuclear power has no chance of widespread adoption in the U.S., we need to develop viable, renewable sources of energy. I believe we will do that, and also believe we will do this without building new nuclear power plants. Unfortunately, we and our descendants will still have to pay the high costs required to treat and store the radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel rods and obsolete nuclear containment vessels. I suspect in the future, people will wonder why we ever played with such a dangerous technology. They will understand that nuclear power has no role in the sustainable, renewable economy of the 21st century.