Nuclear Power
May09

Nuclear Power

This week’s issue contains six letters on nuclear power, a representative sample of the letters C&EN received in response to the editorial, “Resist Hysteria,” I wrote shortly after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (C&EN, March 21, page 5). Four of the six letters take sharp issue with the primary point I made in the editorial, which was that, despite the severity of the situation in Japan, nuclear power remains an essential component of our overall energy mix for the near to mid-term because it will help us avert the worst impacts of global climate disruption. The letter writers make a number of points that I think deserve consideration. Two raise the issue of disposal of nuclear waste. Mark Schauer writes: “At this time, no country on the planet has implemented a long-term solution to the problem of nuclear waste. I consider it criminally irresponsible to implement a process where you don’t know what to do with waste that remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years.” And Gary Katz observes: “The failure to make any progress on nuclear waste disposal worldwide is underscored by the fact that to date only one small country—Finland—has a long-term storage depository constructed and ready for use. … [T]he U.S. government has scuttled two decades of work on its Yucca Mountain depository after an expenditure of many billions of dollars. This leaves all our reactors laden with the same lethal stores of spent fuel as at Fukushima.” These are legitimate points. Nuclear waste is an intractable problem for which we have not developed an adequate solution. That said, at least the nuclear waste is in temporary repositories and remains under human control, which is more than can be said of the waste from burning fossil fuel. That would be, for starters, carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas that is inexorably disrupting Earth’s climate. According to the United Nations, carbon dioxide emissions amounted to about 30 billion metric tons in 2007. Straight into the atmosphere. No known way to take it back out again. And it’s going to remain there for thousands of years. How about mercury? According to the Department of Energy, coal-fired power plants are responsible for putting about 48 tons of the neurotoxic metal into the atmosphere each year worldwide, about one-third of total natural and anthropogenic emissions. Schauer also raises the environmental damage done by uranium mining. Again, one can’t argue that such damage is insignificant. However, what about the environmental damage associated with fossil-fuel extraction? The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year released 185 million gal of...

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Dressed Up With No Place To Go
Dec20

Dressed Up With No Place To Go

Here at Pacifichem, the Alternate Energy Technology topical area featured a number of sessions on improving coal technologies to curb carbon dioxide emissions and using biomass as a source of energy. I have attended quite a few conferences, workshops, and symposia during the past decade that focused on these topics. The message is always the same: We need to develop alternative technologies to generate electricity and transportation fuels as our supply of petroleum and other fossil fuels runs out, and it would be nice to curb carbon dioxide emissions to save the planet at the same time. Based on current trends in global energy consumption, even with significant incremental technology changes--that is, business as usual--atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will still more than double by 2100 and impact global temperatures. Exactly how the planet will react is uncertain, but the prospects aren't good. Scientists and engineers participating in these gatherings acknowledge that there is no one solution to this future-of-energy scenario, and of the emerging technologies such as solar, wind, electric vehicles, and more, none are yet concrete nor are they affordable.  The message is: We know what has to be done, we have a pretty good idea how to do it, but no one wants to pay for it.  It's getting to be a tiresome refrain. The U.S. budget provides more than $1 billion annually for energy research. More than $400 million of that is dedicated to coal, which is an indicator of the reality of energy consumption--the U.S. has lots of coal and natural gas, an estimated 250 years or more supply, and we are going to use it up first and set a regulatory policy in order to do it. Coal-rich countries such as China are in the same policy boat. It is not a bad policy, because coal is cheaper for now. It just means alternative energy technologies are not going to be adopted very quickly, and we are unlikely to do much about the cost of environmental control quickly, because no one wants to pay for it, hence the reason global agreements on carbon capture and sequestration to curb carbon dioxide emissions are languishing. We have to continue research in all areas to be able to move when the time comes, however. That is the essence of being sustainable. But that does nothing to satisfy the need for instant gratification that today's global society has come to expect--that one can have what they want when they want it from a blue electronic screen or by sliding a card. So it is with alternative energy technologies. It’s really an ideal that is dressed up with no place...

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