Long-term energy solutions: Is nuclear our best option?

While we’re definitely big optimists here at Futurismic on alternative energies, there are downsides to most of what we consider clean energy.  Biofuels in their current incarnation pits the hunger of the poor against the hunger of our poor.  Solar is at the mercy of cloudy weather and efficiency concerns, while similar problems face wind power.  And coming from the Midwest United States, tidal power generators aren’t going to do me a lick of good.

The far-thinking people at the Long-Now Foundation had two very fascinating speakers back in September whose theory is that nuclear is the way to go.  They’re not your usual nuclear shills, either.  Gwyneth Cravens wan an anti-nuclear activist who marched against the bomb and against the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant on Long Island.  The other is an sustainable organic-farming, bee-keeping, nuclear expert at Sandia Labs called Dr. Richard Anderson.

Their point is that alternative energies are largely tied to the whims of nature, something not good enough to supply the baseload power for our energy needs.  They do bring up some scary thoughts on our current use of fossil fuels, and make comparisons to what we would consume using nuclear.  One fun tidbit is that all the nuclear waste that would be generated to provide power for the average American over the course of their life would fit inside a Coke can.  Give it a listen if you can, but at least read the blog summary.

Personally, I think nuclear’s the way to go, at least for the moment, although I definitely think wind and solar can and should be used to provide supplemental power.  Maybe someday we can move to completely clean energy, but that day hasn’t come yet.

(image via Operators Are Standing By)

6 thoughts on “Long-term energy solutions: Is nuclear our best option?”

  1. Good post. I agree with you about baseload power – my girlfriend and I went to a lecture a year ago by the energy advisor to the Scottish Parliament. He basically said what you have – that all alternative energy isn’t enough to make up for the shortfalls that the closing of coal and oil power stations will bring. Around half of the UK’s power will be gone within 15-20 years and it’ll take longer than that for alternative technologies to make up the difference. With nearby France piping us a load of their excess power it’s no wonder our government wants to follow their lead and go nuclear.

    There’s no easy option. Some of the people in my department (physics) at university work on fusion, and they say any kind of useable technology is 50 years away at least. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through.

  2. I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry for over twenty years. One problem with nuclear is that neither the public, the pundits nor most of the experts have a clear picture of the real world of nuclear power, which is different than what most people think – both good and bad. If we’re to make good decisions about our energy future, it would be a good idea to first understand our energy present.

    Stewart Brand, one of the founders of the Long Now Foundation, has been kind enough to endorse my own book on nuclear power, “Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power”. This book provides an excellent insider perspective on day to day challenges in the US nuclear industry and a look at how a “bad day” might unfold. It’s also a rather entertaining thriller.

    “Rad Decision” is available at no cost to readers in a serial format or PDF at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . Reader reviews at the homepage have been quite positive. It is also in paperback at online retailers (from which I recieve no royalities.)

    Futurismic fans interested in getting a more complete picture of nuclear power (or neutron wrangling, as I like to call it) would do well to take a look at Rad Decision.

  3. Thanks for your input James! After running across Jared Diamond’s presentation to the Long-Now Foundation, I’ve been listening to the SALT lectures, and Mr. Brand has come up with some really great speakers and ideas. It’s good to see people thinking about the long-term.

    A couple of years ago here in Japan, some workers at a nuclear plant were parboiled alive due to the company being too cheap to maintain the pipes. I definitely think if we go this route, there should be very strict maintenance and safety inspections.

    Look forward to reading your book, Mr. Aach.

  4. I spent a day reading James Aach’s book online, and it does NOT give an accurate picture of the nuclear present.

    In the book, Mr. Aach has a soviet sleeper agent (remember them?) work 20-30 years on his cover identity as a US nuke worker, (returning secretly to Moscow on his vacations)……and then blow up a curiously vulnerable nuke plant by means that just could not happen at a post 9-11 plant, such as Indian Point, where I work.

    Yes, Mr. Aach can throw around some insider terms like “back-up diesel”, but his story is based on everybody in his nuke plant having a strange naive pre-9/11 trust of the soviet bad guy, and the plant having no protective systems at all, no locks on any vital areas, no mutual observation programs, no remote surveillance video systems, no “need to know” isolation, no tamper switches on any key equipment, no guards or barriers on the local 345kv system, no alternate offsite power sources, etc., etc.

    And that, my friends, just ain’t so.
    (Aach obviously gathered his “facts” before 9-11, and it shows.)

    His fictional nuke plant is tricked out as a tiny, isolated independent place, run kind of like a smalltown family business, where his Russian guy is free to walk around, sabotage stuff, and drive around outside the plant throwing helium balloons over the only power lines connecting his plant to the outside world.

    (The supposed loss of offsite power causes the explosion).

    At Indian Point there are over half a dozen separate, totally independent sources of backup or offsite power, but Aach grants his fictional plant only a single backup, (to allow the easy sabotage to occur).

    Aach also makes all the other plant officials into oblivious Bart Simpson types. At Indian Point his hero would have been fired for unreliability, interviewed for entering unauthorized areas, locked up as a nut, or shot while vandalizing offsite power lines, (thus ending his story early).

    Moreover…since his hero has successfully become a US citizen….. living much better as a Yankee than as a Komrade, his motivation for wrecking his own life just doesn’t wash. In real life , his sleeper would have just woke up, bought a 6000 square foot house with a swimming pool and a big 60 inch TV , vacationed in Las Vegas or Hawaii, and lived life large. Screw Moscow.

    (Actually, without family blackmail, long term hypnotism, or mind altering drugs, Aach can’t credibly build a case for his hero acting as he does.– maybe he can re-write.)

    But its worth a read— as a potboiler/thriller. He gives it away free , as a pdf download.

    I fully expect to see a movie made from it.
    When that happens, maybe Hollywood can hire me to correct Aach’s inaccuracies. I’ll charge them at least a dollar for my services.

  5. I heard on the radio just last evening that the Tennessee Valley Authority has just applied for the license to build two new nuclear reactors – the first such application in the USA in some years. The pair of reactors would be built near Scottsboro, Alabama.

    I, myself, believe that nuclear is a good component of baseload generation. The plants are big and expensive, yes, but they turn out quite a few MW at a fairly constant cost. New designs, like those from Canada and South Africa, appear to be considerably safer than older designs, and could be built fairly quickly.

    I like the idea of using various forms of “green” energy for baseload, but few of them are constant or consistent. Solar power beamed from orbiting collectors is my “dark horse” bet for the future. For the short term, though, I think that wind, solar, or tidal, backed by pumped hydro for storage, is the simplest and easiest bet.

  6. Golly. This probably isn’t the place to respond to the review above of my book “Rad Decision”, but I’ll go ahead and do so. I thank the reader for taking the time to read the book. Interestingly enough, nuclear workers at other plants (who I don’t know) have read the book and had good things to say about it. But I acknowledge that the reader above as a nuclear worker does have the standing to comment on the book’s accuracies. I would note that as a worker at Indian Point, he is working at one of the most scrutinized and heavily media-covered sites in the US, and things may be a bit off the norm there.

    I stand by my portrayals of the various nuclear workers – I don’t believe they resemble Simpsons characters in the least. Regarding the comments on the trust of the Soviet bad guy, as noted in the text he is a successful, trained reactor operator with extensive schooling at the plant over the years who has lived in the community for a long time. (With regards to his motivation, people do interesting things based on ideology all the time, whether communist spies or 9/11 hijackers living it up and then finishing their mission.) In his plant operator position, the bad guy in the course of his rounds has access to the various areas he needs to go (his access key card works in the locks) and a reasonable basis for being there, and he has access to the drawings and other details he needs. Also, he can travel through the plant alone (as far as I know this is still reasonable at many plants for operators and staff), and his preplanning does not require him to dawdle around much in odd areas. His activites can work around any anti-tampering devices. Also, his key activities occur on the same day as the event – the reader is correct if he implied that they might come under some suspicion later, in review. Regarding guards/barriers on the local 345 KV system, this portion of the work is done offsite in the dark at power lines themselves and an isolated, locked/fenced substation.

    The reader’s comment regarding the number of offsite power sources is a valid one at this time for most, if not all, U.S. plants. The regulations at the time of the event required only a single backup offsite power source. Most, if not all sites, either started out with or have added multiple backup sources. My basis for sticking with a single backup was a combination of accuracy for the time and admittedly expediency. I could have added one or two more, I suppose, but I would have come up with a way to deal with that too, and it would have just slowed things down. I have continued to work in the nuclear industry since 9/11, and I believe my plot still holds up fairly well – though I might have to add a few things to work around recent improvements.

    The reviewer may have mistaken Rad Decision for just another “nuclear death” novel, which it isn’t. I wanted to show how a nuclear plant worked with its layers of safety systems, and how a “bad event” would be responded to. To do so required getting to the bad event in the first place – and other that depicting a sizeable number of workers at a plant as grossly incompetent (which I felt would be inaccurate) my chosen plot seemed the best way to do it. I also did make a point of pointing out some of the bad stories and downsides to nuclear, as I wasn’t into writing propaganda. Every energy source has it’s good and bad points. It also must be remembered the book is written for people who start out knowing little or nothing about nuclear power. Its intent is more to leave an impression with the reader more than a checklist of facts.

    I am glad the reader enjoyed the “potboiler” aspects of the book. There are plenty of non-fiction books out there covering nuclear issues (some better than others). I was trying for something with a bit larger demographic, and a bit more personal feel. To succeed as an informative novel, it first had to succeed as entertainment. Again, I thank him for reading it.

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