Saturday, May 29, 2010

Nuclear Power

Moonrise with Smokestack
Moonrise with Smokestack, Helsinki, 2007

Finland just approved a plan for our sixth nuclear reactor. That'll make us one of the most nuclear-powered countries in the world. A part of the background is that one of our industrial mainstays is paper and pulp, and that requires electricity; that means that our industrial lobby has always been very big on power infrastructure.

I'm somewhat at odds with many of my friends and peers about this issue. As in, I'm not categorically opposed to nuclear power. In fact, I'm sort of cautiously positive about it.

What bothers me about the most common arguments against nuclear power is that they're so often presented as a simple dichotomy—nukes or no nukes. The choice is really a lot more complicated than that. In Finland's case, for example, our choices for dealing with energy include things like:

  • Conservation. A smarter grid. Transitioning to less energy-intensive industries. Taxes on electricity. Tighter regulations on power consumption in devices. 
  • Wind. Solar is pretty much out at these latitudes; it's so dark half the year that it's not feasible. Wind, however, is. We have a lot of empty space, being sparsely populated, and especially the archipelago has a lot of wind. 
  • Hydropower. Finland's hydropower potential is already pretty well exploited. We could build a significant amount of new capacity, but that would involve creating another major artificial lake in Lapland—Three Gorges it isn't, but still a pretty major feat of environmental engineering, with all that that implies.
  • Biomass. We could build plants to burn wood chips, grow stuff for energy, and so on.
  • Import. We're currently importing a lot of power from the efficient, safe, and impeccably-run nuclear power plant of Sosnovyi Bor (the same design as Chernobyl), just over our Eastern border.
  • Coal. Helsinki produces a lot of its power with coal-fired plants. There are mountains of Polish anthracite a stone's throw from where I live.
From where I'm at, conservation is an obvious no-brainer. There are lots of little things we can do (and have already done, for that matter), which will do stuff like shave down the peaks of the power curve and lower overall power consumption somewhat. However, we can't scrap our paper and pulp industry overnight, and I don't really see that we should, either—if we did, it would just move elsewhere, taking its emissions and environmental impact with it. I don't think that's particularly responsible to the planet.

We should also build a lot more wind power. People are yelling about the visual impact—and no doubt about it, those turbines do look pretty spectacular, and if we stick the archipelago full of them, there won't be any way to pretend that it's a wilderness anymore. (It isn't, and ecologically the turbines won't have all that much of an impact, but the way they look and the noise they make will certainly inconvenience people.)

I'm not quite sure what I should think about the proposed hydropower project in Lapland. I'm leery of major environmental engineering projects such as that one, especially in what is just about as close to untouched wilderness as you get in this part of the world. The submerged vegetation will also emit CO2 as it decays. On the other hand, the environmental impact is mostly local, and once built, the power is emission-free, reliable, and low-cost, for a very long time. However, even if we do build it, the project won't be anywhere near enough to make a big difference to our energy requirements—the new reactor being built at Olkiluoto is rated at 1600 MW, whereas the two hydropower projects being discussed amount to a paltry 50 MW.

I'm not a huge fan of biomass. It's politically very vulnerable to flexible definitions, for example including peat from bogs in the definition, which just makes it another fossil fuel. It's also relatively expensive to harvest, in terms of work and land.

I have nothing in principle against importing electricity. However, I think we should be just as scrupulous about the production methods of the electricity we import as the electricity we produce. In fact, I find the categorical opposition to nuclear power in Finland entirely hypocritical as long as we're importing a single watt-hour from Russia. If not building a reactor here means that the Russians build another one in Sosnovyi Bor, things are worse, not better.

And coal? That's the worst. Coal kills, all through the supply chain, from mining accidents to permanent underground fires to transportation to emissions. Coal kills more people every year than nuclear power (not counting nuclear weapons) has killed through its entire history, never even mind the greenhouse gases. Coal, really, is the reason I can't oppose nuclear power. I just think it's hypocritical to march against nukes while not marching against coal.

So, on the one hand, I'm not entirely opposed to nukes because I don't think it's as bad as what we're currently relying on. On the other hand, I think that some of the most commonly stated arguments against it are flawed.

Take nuclear waste, for example. From listening to what gets said about it, you easily form the impression that nukes will give us radioactive glowing mountains of stuff that'll be killing things for 100,000 years or more. That's not quite true.

First, there's the matter of scale. I don't think most people realize how incredibly energy-intensive nuclear fuel—and nuclear waste—is. It's incredibly nasty stuff, to be sure, but there's very little of it produced relative to the amount of power generated. Nuclear power plants get refueled by a single truck showing up once every couple of years or so. Somebody calculated that if all the electricity you used in your life was produced with nuclear power, the resulting waste would fit in a beer can. Even if the stuff in it is incredibly nasty, it's still a manageable problem.

Second, it's by no means a given that the stuff will be with us for 100,000 years. We already have the technology to dispose of the stuff. It just costs money that nobody's willing to pay. In fact, we know—in theory—how to build a power plant that burns nuclear waste and produces electricity into the bargain. It's called an accelerator-driven subcritical nuclear reactor. We should quit chasing the fusion energy phantom and instead focus the research resources on them.

The bottom line? Yes, nuclear energy has problems. There's the proliferation issue, the ecological impact of mining and refining, the nuclear waste problem, the terrorism issue, and so on. These are very real and potentially very nasty problems. However, even with all that, we have 50-odd years of experience with large-scale nuclear power, and the track record is much, much better than that of coal, and pretty good compared to anything else out there.

Weapons-grade nuclear material hasn't made its way from power-generating plants to terrorists. There haven't been successful terror attacks against nuclear plants. There's been exactly one major disaster, but even Chernobyl is small potatoes compared to the constant ongoing disasters related to coal power—for example, the underground fires burning even now, not to mention the mining accidents, coal dust, and other hazards that claim lives all the time. Nuclear power won't save the planet, but it is an improvement over what we have. Our first priority must be to cut greenhouse gas emissions and transition away from fossil fuels. Until we have truly sustainable energy sources, nuclear power will have to be a part of that transition.

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