Given recent events in Japan, I wanted to broach the somewhat controversial topic of nuclear fission power plants, and the following video (thanks Thomas) — making the Fukushima nuclear situation a little easier for even little Japanese children to comprehend — makes a good lead-in to the topic.
There are several schools of thought on nuclear. Here’s a sampling. You may wish to add others:
- "Let’s just do it!" Often said by those seeking the contract to design, build and manage the station, these conveniently don’t mention that their projections for total cost are normally half or a third or less of ultimate actual costs. Historically they are always over budget, and often significantly so. The same is true of time frames to build — normally much longer than initially outlined. It is said that no nuclear power station anywhere has come even close to being on time and within budget.
- "Let’s not do it!" This comes from a several quarters — not just environmentalists, but also lobbyists for other power systems (from coal to solar and wind, etc.).
- "Let’s do it, but very, very carefully!" There are a decent number of, I admit, realists amongst this group — including environmentalists like George Monbiot (see here and here for example). While I often run George’s pieces on this site, I can’t bring myself to do so, however, on this topic, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.
Now, I want to list a few of the main reasons for and against nuclear fission. Again, you may wish to add others:
- With nuclear we don’t need to burn trees — whether fossilised or living — to heat and light our homes, and… er… run our gadgets (although, we may need to dig up some forest and grassland here and there to access uranium deposits).
- 1kg of uranium can produce more energy than 200 barrels of oil.
- Small footprint for power plant, comparing area:energy ratio.
- All of the above means less CO2 release, and also less destruction of CO2 sinks (forests).
- Historically proven to be safer, to date. If you add deaths, casualties, shorter life spans and birth defects from nuclear accidents, nuclear has, so far, proven to be far safer. Add all the deaths from fossil fuel (coal, oil, gas) mining and distribution (mine collapses, explosions) and add in all the deaths, cancers and shorter life spans caused by particulate emissions and runoff (mercury, arsenic, uranium, etc.), and there’s really no comparison.
- Steady, reliable source of electricity — unlike wind and solar in particular, which fluctuate greatly, and increasingly more dependable than power from peaking supplies of oil and gas.
- Peak uranium is (arguably) likely to occur after peak oil and gas (PDF) and coal.
- Once built, the typical fission power plant’s life span is 40 to 60 years.
- Centralised power source. Unlike localised energy systems, where you become acutely aware of every kW produced and therefore every kW used (and so incentivises a frugal mindset and lifestyle), with centralised systems (be they nuclear, coal, gas or large scale wind and solar systems) when you flick the switch you are totally detached from any understanding of what it takes to support that flow of electrons. This results in profligate, unconscious, guilt-mollifying wastage. In short, we stick with the live-how-you-want-damned-the-consequences-as-technology-will-save-us mindset.
- Very expensive to build, and with long time frames to do so — often more than a decade. With energy issues becoming acute today, the lights may well go out before we get new plants completed. More, those with a lucid understanding of the economic implications of peak oil will wonder how such costs can ever be met given present and impending financial circumstances. Without a rapid, holistic rework of our invisible social infrastructure (politics, economics) and the land and resource ‘management’ they incentivise, you could say we’re heading into economic armageddon. It seems unrealistic to begin mega-expensive ‘think big’ style energy projects which may never get completed, and that snatch funding from more sustainable, localised, decentralised options and the education that should go with these.
- Potential for proliferation of nuclear weapons. This, in the words of Monty Python, "goes without saying."
- Terrorist attacks on nuclear power stations.
- Cost cutting and the incompetence that can result.
- Difficulty in sourcing necessary technical expertise to build and maintain. Most of the world’s fission power plants were built decades ago, and many are due, or are soon due, for decommissioning. (Considering the above-mentioned economic situation we’re in, you can be forgiven for shouting cynically: "What excellent timing!") There’s now a definite deficiency in competent engineers to meet the scale of construction that many deem necessary to meet future demands for power. This can translate to increased likelihood of potentially dangerous errors.
- Nuclear is not without its own CO2 implications (PDF).
- Nuclear’s EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is decreasing already, as the low hanging fruit of high grade uranium is disappearing, and we’re using more fossil fuels to source and process lower and lower grade deposits. Whilst it appears we have enough uranium for the time being, if we don’t go overboard in building new plants, if current calls for widespread builds of new fission plants get the thumbs up, it’s quite possible that many of these plants would later have no economically viable material available to them — with this perhaps occuring long before the expected expiration date of the plant.
- High cost of decommissioning. Closing up shop (prematurely or otherwise) is a problem compounded by the fact that the original people profiting from construction decades earlier are usually not there to make good on their promises. Nuclear liabilities funds, which set aside money for later decommissioning, also usually seriously underestimate costs (PDF), just as the industry does for construction. Many such funds are inadequate (PDF) and lead to bailouts not unlike those of banking exec’s and other corporate captains, and — also not unlike those bailout scenarios — can see rather inappropriate bonuses paid to industry staff regardless.
- The "I want one too" reality. Every country and his dog will want one. That means all those who before hungered for an American lifestyle, and sought the oil that grants it, will now be seeking to build budget nuclear power stations instead. Think about countries that had cheap energy, but are seeing rapid declines — won’t they all want to make the nuclear switch if they possibly can? Won’t the goalposts for what a ‘safe’ power plant looks like constantly move to accommodate the growing citizen demand for energy and to avoid the social unrest that will result if they don’t get it?
- Oh, and, ah — what to do with the waste…? I think I’ll devote closing passages to this one….
In the end I come down to moral dilemmas. I can well understand the sincere arguments that we must go nuclear. China, for example, has put its nuclear plans on hold this month due to the situation in Japan. Their alternative is to continue with their 1-2 new coal fired power plants per-week scenario, with devastating consequences for the people and place of China and the world at large. What will our world look like in 2080, or 2050, or even 2020 if we keep this up?
On the flipside, by going nuclear, we’re also ‘gifting’ subsequent generations with waste that needs to be taken care of for, potentially, hundreds of years, or longer.
To put this into terms we can all understand, I’ll invent an analogy to illustrate.
Let’s say you and your partner are expecting, with child. Now let’s say you want to build a home for your little family, but don’t have the collateral to take out a mortgage to build it. What about this proposition: you can take out a mortgage on your child’s future labour value. In other words, when your child reaches maturity, in return for giving him/her life and a home, he/she is obligated to begin to repay your debt (in addition, of course, to any debts your child may generate over the course of his/her own life). In this scenario though, the repayments may need to be kept up for not only your child’s lifetime, but that of generations beyond as well — i.e. you’re taking out a mortgage on your great-grandchildren’s labour value, and perhaps beyond.
Taking care of nuclear material is a difficult and energy intensive enterprise. You require lots of water, fossil fuel energy, and a functioning, cooperative economic climate to deal with it. What if, as is looking increasingly certain, future generations won’t have any of that? By calling for a widespread build of new nuclear fission plants, we’re not only making a highly unethical decision to lumber our descendents with our nuclear waste, we’re also making the assumption that they’ll live in a world with the time, culture, technology and resources to deal with it. Take just water as an example, set to be one of the defining problems of this century. Even just a few years ago, as Atlanta in Georgia faced a grave water shortage situation, keeping the downstream Farley nuclear power station supplied with the blue gold took priority for most outside the thirsty city.
These are challenging questions, no doubt. What will the lives of our children look like in a world devoted to nuclear? What will they look like in a world devoted to coal? Neither looks pretty to me.
When I get down to root considerations, I think the big question is: what kind of lifestyle are we really expecting to maintain into the future? Unless we get realistic about that, in arguing over power sources, aren’t we just arguing over firebrands, and burning the house down in the process? You probably expected this article to attempt to hammer home either a pro- or no-nuclear message. I hope instead to leave you seeing this deliberation is a diversion from the really important decisions that need to be made. As permaculturists, I think these decisions must begin with ethics: do we have the right to live, not only outside the means of our own labour pool, but also well outside that of future generations — future generations who will inherit a world in far worse state than we ourselves?
I see answers in biology — in nature’s perfect ability to cycle waste streams within an ultra-diverse biosphere. This means a life on the land, a life transitioning, as quickly and peacefully as possible, towards reliance on real time energy systems within communities who appreciate what it’ll mean if we fail. It’ll take design, it’ll take permaculture, and more than anything, it’ll take cooperative community interdependence.