Sunday, July 27, 2008

Better Planet: Nuke Power is Earth's Friend

It’s time to replace coal power with wind and, yes, nuclear.

by William Sweet, Discover

Using coal to make electricity accounts for about a third of America’s carbon emissions. As a result, tackling emissions from coal-fired power plants represents our best opportunity to make sharp reductions in greenhouse gases.

Fortunately, we already have the technology to do that. Unfortunately, right now the United States is addicted to coal, a cheap, abundant power source. Burning coal produces more than half the country’s electricity, despite its immense human and environmental costs. Particulates and other air pollutants from coal-fired power plants cause somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. Fifty tons of mercury—one-third of all domestic mercury emissions—are pumped into the atmosphere annually from coal plants. In addition, the extraction of coal, from West Virginia to Wyoming, devastates the physical environment, and its processing and combustion produce gigantic volumes of waste.

For the last decade, coal-burning utilities have been fighting a rearguard action, resisting costly antipollution measures required by environmental legislation. At the same time, they have been holding out the prospect of “clean coal”—in which carbon is captured and stored as coal is burned. But clean-coal technologies have yet to be demonstrated on a large scale commercially, and by the admission of even the president’s own climate-technology task force, clean coal doesn’t have any prospect of making a big dent in the climate problem in the next 15 to 20 years.

By comparison, nuclear and wind power are proven technologies that emit no carbon and whose environmental risks and costs are thoroughly understood and which can make an immediate difference for the better. (link)

For those of us who accept the science of global warming and think we must find a way to curtail greenhouse emissions, we have reason to be disheartening. Meaningless, ineffective measures such as higher CAFE standards and ethanol mandates have been passed which do next to nothing to solve the problem. Our President for the last 8 years has shown no leadership on the issue and has silenced those who wanted to warn us of the seriousness of the issue. Cynical Democratic leaders advocate combating global warming and advocate lower gas prices in the same sentence. A terribly flawed Cap and Trade bill, which would have transferred vast amounts of wealth, perhaps destroyed our economy and done virtually nothing to curtail greenhouse emissions, was wisely defeated but promises to be brought up again next year. "Green" has become a chic identity, a lifestyle, and a fashion statement but not a call for action.

Yet, the solution is at hand, if only there was the political will. The three most important things we could do are (1) pass a carbon tax, (2) embrace nuclear energy, and (3) promote wind power. By most accounts we have 10 to 15 years to solve the problem but time is running out.

Wind power alone, the most popular of the options, will not solve this problem. Nuclear energy is a major part of the solution, yet is opposed by most environmentalist and we lack political leaders who will advocate for it.

New nuclear power plants are much safer than the generation of power plants of the past. Opponents of nuclear energy always trot out Chernobyl as a reason not to build nuclear power plants, when Chernobyl was a plant that would never have been approved anywhere except Russia. The problem of nuclear waste disposal is exaggerated and is offered as another reason not to pursue nuclear energy. Many opponents of nuclear power cite nuclear proliferation as a reason to oppose nuclear energy. Does anybody honestly think that whether Tehran or Pyongyang produces atomic bombs depends on how many reactors the United States decides to build in the next 10 to 20 years?

The best friend global warming ever had may be the environmentalist. However, they are wasting valuable time and energy preaching the virtues of properly inflating your tires and turning down thermostats, while standing in the way of real solutions. The environment is too important to be left up to environmentalist. Those of us who take the challenge of global warming seriously must not let the environmentalist stand in the way of policies that can save the planet. It is time to go nuclear.

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  1. Dear Sir,

    though you are right about many environmentalists being their own worst enemies, I do not think you have given the problem of nuclear waste enough thought.
    Nuclear waste from power plants will not just decompose or go away. We live behind very dangerous garbage for hundreds of generations. Some of the bi-products of nuclear power have half-lives of over 30000 years. Now that is even relevant in geological terms!
    None the less we may have to resort to fission technology for an interim period, untill we have something better. And you are right, we need the political will to start looking for alternatives!

  2. Nuclear power is a safe and proven energy source. I am all for wind, solar and biofuels but nuclear has to be part of the mix if we are going to acheive energy independence.