Archive for March, 2009

While state legislators wonder whether to call nuclear power clean or renewable the old issues that have kept the industry shut down for thirty years are still unresolved: nuclear proliferation, waste, sabotage and safety. Just last year, the safety issue was raised again at the FPL Turkey Point plant. The top nuclear operator there accused company executives of putting cost savings ahead of safety after the plant “accidentally” shut down. Since 1979, there have been thirty five nuclear plant stoppages of a year or more in order to restore minimum safety standards. Can we be sure the regulators overseeing nuclear safety are more vigilant than the regulators of banks, brokers and insurance companies?

Energy Secretary Steven Chu says Yucca Mountain is no longer an option for storing highly radioactive nuclear waste. Instead, he says a new, comprehensive plan for waste disposal will be developed. Scientists researched the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site for twenty seven years and spent about $13.5 billion in the process. We all know that spent nuclear fuel must be disposed of in such a way as to protect the environment from contamination and living organisms from exposure. Yet, no plan has ever existed. So the spent fuel remains in ponds or dry casks on site. Are these casks or ponds accessible to terrorists?

While these fundamental questions continue to occupy the time and money of Dr. Chu and others, changing climate patterns from an overheated atmosphere present new challenges for the nuclear industry. Global warming is excess heat that leads to more intense regional drought and rain. Melting glaciers around the globe shift potable water from where it is needed down rivers and out into the oceans. Less snow melt in the Rocky Mountains means less potable water for Californians and less hydroelectricity. Extended drought in Georgia means a lower water level for the Apalachicola River mussels and fishermen and the Alabama nuclear plant also on the river. Rising sea levels mean losses of protective wetlands and highly valued coastal real estate.

What are thermal electric plants, such as coal, oil and nuclear? They are heat! By the law of thermodynamics much of that heat is not converted into electricity but is wasted into the atmosphere or nearby water bodies. Water is used to cool plants now and so water is diverted from other essential uses. Fear that river levels will drop below what is necessary to maintain nuclear plant thermal stability has numerous plant operators nervous. Nuclear power has the distinction of using water less efficiently than any other thermal electric provider. But whether plants are cooled by water or air, excess heat still reaches the atmosphere. In 2007, a reactor at Browns Ferry in Alabama had to shut down to avoid heating the Tennessee River to dangerous levels. Nuclear power plants do not release carbon dioxide. But can we say that nuclear power is necessary to reduce global warming?

By locating new nuclear plants along our coastlines, ocean water can be used for cooling. Does this make sense? It is exactly the rising sea levels that we will need to mitigate. The National Intelligence Assessment on the National Security Implications of Climate Change to 2030, received by congress in June, 2008, said as many as two dozen nuclear facilities on US coast lines are at risk and may be severely impacted by storms. Can the nuclear industry make coastal plants safe from flooding and rising sea levels? Will we see more nuclear plants offline in the future due precisely to the effects of global warming?

When energy from our sun is converted to electricity there is no excess heat because this energy is already part of the overall system. Solar PV panels, wind and wave turbines release no wasted heat to warm the atmosphere. Storing this current, solar energy is still in developmental stages. The high renewable goals set in California have set utilities seeking innovative methods for storing energy and already we are seeing results. Concentrating solar thermal systems there can extend the time that steam is available during the night so turbines can continue producing electricity. Biomass is solar energy storage and new gasification methods can clean up the old air quality problems associated with combustion. Battery technology, hydrogen and fuel cell technology can be used to extend solar through the intermittent periods. If legislators allow utilities to include nuclear in any renewable or clean standard, these solar conversion and storage technologies won’t mature. We need to set goals that will take us beyond our flawed, twentieth century fuels and into the future.

Sam Kendall

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