The case for nuclear power

Stewart Brand, in this TED debate with climate scientist Mark Z. Jacobson, makes the case that the world needs nuclear power, at least for now.   Jacobson’s argument was that nuclear power is unnecessary because solar, wind and other renewable sources will provide all of the energy we need.  Brand’s answer is that solar and wind are too dilute and too variable, and only nuclear power can provide reliable base load electricity.

This will not last forever.  There are new technologies that should make it possible to stretch out our nuclear fuel for centuries at present rates of use. But at some point we will realize the vision in Al Gore’s Our Choice or something like it.  Wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and other forms of renewable energy will be practical when there are advanced batteries and other devices to store the energy they produce, and an computerized continent-wide electrical Smart Grid to distribute it from where it is in surplus to where it is needed.  I don’t know of any reason to think this is impossible.  I just don’t count on it any time soon.

Perhaps environmentalists reason that by stalling nuclear energy and coal, they can force faster development of renewable energy.  I don’t think things will work that way.  For the near future we’re going to need all sources of energy – renewable, nuclear and (clean, we hope) coal.  I don’t know of any advocate of nuclear energy who advocates a moratorium on developing renewables.

Lots of things have gone wrong with nuclear energy in the past – the Chernobyl disaster, the cost overruns on U.S. nuclear power plants in the 1970s.  But the experience of France has shown that this dangerous and challenging technology can be operated safely and cheaply.  The French electrical grid is 75 percent nuclear, electricity in France is the cheapest in the world, and the French export surplus power to neighboring countries.

The so-called fourth generation of nuclear power plants – still on the drawing board, however, like affordable clean coal and large-scale solar and wind energy –  offer the possibility of nuclear energy that stretches out the supply of nuclear fuel for centuries and generates comparatively little waste.  We can’t afford to ignore the potential of this technology.

Click on Small Reactors Are Becoming Big Business and Mini nuclear reactors: Thinking small for reports in Business Week and The Economist on the kind of small nuclear reactors mentioned by Stewart Brand in his presentation.

Click on Uranium Is So Last Century—Enter Thorium for a report in Wired magazine on advanced nuclear reactors.

Click on Obama’s nuclear generation gap? for a report in Facing South, the on-line magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies, on federal nuclear policy.  The writer criticizes President Obama’s energy plan for subsidizing existing nuclear technology rather than advancing the state of the art.

Click on Why the French Like Nuclear Energy for the transcript of a Frontline report on the success of nuclear energy in France.

My order of preference is (1) solar, wind, tidal, geothermal and other renewable sources, (2) advanced nuclear technology and (3) clean coal.  But, as I said, I don’t think there is a choice.  I think we need them all.   Without sufficient energy, our industrial civilization fails and we revert to a primitive existence in which life for most people is mostly hard labor.

Advanced nuclear technology is not an alternative to renewable energy; it is an alternative to out-of-date nuclear technology.  Clean coal technology is not an alternative to renewables and nuclear; it is an alternative to dirty coal.

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