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Friday, January 25, 2008

Nuclear: Maybe Not Such a Great Idea

posted by on January 25 at 11:57 AM

As the Washington Post reported yesterday (via Grist), drought conditions produced by climate change could force nuclear power plants to scale back or shut down later this year, “because drought is drying up the rivers and lakes that supply power plants with the awesome amounts of cooling water they need to operate.” Of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors, 24 are located in areas experiencing the most severe levels of drought, and all but two are located on lakes or rivers, relying on submerged pipes to draw billions of gallons of water for cooling and condensing steam. If the plants do shut down, replacement power will cost ten times as much as nuclear. Nuclear plants are not designed for the wear and tear of repeatedly stopping and starting. Whatever you think of nuclear power, it’ll be pretty hard to argue that it’s a panacea for climate change if, you know, it doesn’t work.

Where are the two major Democratic candidates on nuclear power? Obama supports continued use of nuclear power; his sixth biggest contributor is a company called Exelon, which owns and operates more nuclear plants than any other company. Although Clinton has said she’s “agnostic” about nuclear, she is also on the record as being “very skeptical that nuclear could become acceptable in most regions of the country, and I am doubtful that we have yet figured out how to deal with the waste,” adding, “we should not be putting a heavy emphasis on nuclear.”

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pebble reactors for the win.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 25, 2008 12:08 PM

So we just need to build the reactors near water sources not affected by climate change. Hell we could just build them up north in Canada and use the melting ice.

Nuclear is not ideal or perfect, but if it is either that, or shutting down the modern economy I'll take nuclear.

Posted by Giffy | January 25, 2008 12:09 PM

Well, the same issues occur with other methods of power generation as well - fossil fuel and hydroelectric generation also generally rely on water availability. Solar power doesn't, but the technology just isn't there yet.

Posted by tsm | January 25, 2008 12:10 PM

I think a lot of people are conflicted on nuclear. I understand that it has a much smaller environmental footprint in the short term. But man what a cost in spent fuel and decommissioned facilities (which, my understanding is, are $500m/facility after 30 years and not generally considered in the $/MW.)

My preference would be to tax energy to the point (30-50% above todays costs) where wind, solar, and tidal become cost effective.

Posted by Big Sven | January 25, 2008 12:10 PM

So, to paraphrase -

Obama - let's consider nuclear power as a way of meeting our energy needs without destroying the environment.

Hillary - Forget about it, it will never work. Don't try. Burn more coal instead.

Posted by Dr. Spin | January 25, 2008 12:10 PM

Clinton's great at modifying her message depending on the audience--that quote is from an interview with an anti-nuclear enviro site. Here's what she said to an audience in South Carolina:

I think nuclear power has to be part of our energy solution. I think we've gotta do a better job at figuring out how we're going to deal with the waste. You know, because in a post 9/11 world we've got to be very careful about the waste and about how we run our nuclear plants.

Ah, but I, I don't have any preconceived opposition. I want to be sure that we do it right, as carefully as we can--because obviously it's a tremendous source of energy. We get about twenty percent of our energy from nuclear power in our country. A lot of people don't realize that. and other countries, like France, get, you know, much much more.

So we do have to look at it because it doesn't put greenhouse gas emissions into the air. But we gotta make sure it's done as safely as possible.

And as the Washington Post reports,

But Obama's not the only candidate wading deep in a pool of contributions from the nuclear energy industry.

Clinton has received $68,650 in 34 contributions from NRG Energy, and the company's chief executive, David Crane, is listed as one of her Hillraisers -- meaning he has brought more than $100,000 in contributions into the campaign. The Clintons' ties to the New Jersey-based power giant run deeper than that, though. The company committed $5 million to the Clinton Global Initiative in 2007, according to the web site of the charity run by former president Bill Clinton. The company's six-year commitment is $175 million.

The commitments are not donations to the former president's charity, but promises made by the company to the Global Initiative to spend the money on projects that will "help increase the benefits and reduce the burdens of global interdependence, make a world of more partners and fewer enemies, and give more people the tools they need to build a better future."

Posted by annie | January 25, 2008 12:11 PM

also erica, it doesnt surprise me that anti nuclear people such as yourself are ignorant, either willfully or naturally of the developements in nuclear technology.

the lack of disposal areas for nuclear waste is a by-product of nimbyism and federal government inefficiency to create and incentive to find a place ot put it. throw a couple billion in incentives to tax payares towards nevada or utah and theyd change their tune.

most fear of nuclear powers comes from 5 incidents over the past 50 years and is not grounded in breakthrough nuclear technology.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 25, 2008 12:12 PM

coal: maybe not such a great idea

Maybe coal isn't as great of a power source as we first thought. US Coal-fired power plants produce over 2 Billion tons of CO2 per year.

Posted by greenhouse gases | January 25, 2008 12:13 PM

water usage is actually the big problem with nuclear, more than the waste, in terms of environmental devastation.

also, a lot of the problems with the nuclear plants already in existence is that they're so antiquated, and with a moratorium on new plants, there hasn't been much invested into the R&D needed to upgrade the system to make it more eco-friendly. or so i've read. there's so much propaganda for and against nuclear power it's hard to know who to trust.

maybe we just need to learn how to use less energy. hmmmm...

Posted by brandon | January 25, 2008 12:14 PM

nuclear power seems to work fine for France. french society seems to be over the whole no nukes era of the 80's.

Posted by SeMe | January 25, 2008 12:21 PM

good point, annie. one thing to keep in mind with hillary - you can find quotes from her to suit whatever policy position you like, if you know where to look!

obama's biggest fault seems to be he stays on message no matter who he's speaking to.

Posted by brandon | January 25, 2008 12:27 PM

Let me get this straight;

Some of our nuclear power plants can't run because of drought. Therefore, we should never consider nuclear power, it's an idiotic idea, Obama is an idiot for suggesting it, and I'm an idiot for supporting Obama.

Cool. Got it.

Posted by steve | January 25, 2008 12:30 PM


Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 25, 2008 12:32 PM

Excuse my earlier sarcasm.

No one has ever said nuclear power would be a panacea for global warming. No one has said solar power would be. No one has said wind power would be. Everyone who thinks about it enough to mention it even fleetingly knows that our energy future will be comprised of a combination of countless technologies. Just because our current nuclear power plants can't run without large amounts of water is no reason to disregard nuclear power forever. Grow up.

Posted by steve | January 25, 2008 12:33 PM

Bellevue Ave-

Isn't pebble reactor technology still in the experimental stage? Aren't they still only running prototypes?

But water is a straw man- there are lots of reasons to oppose fission power. Sometimes NIMBYism is a good idea- living next to a nuclear waste repository, volcano, CDC lab, or half-way house for sex maniacs is a bad idea no matter how you slice it.

Posted by Big Sven | January 25, 2008 12:39 PM

Oh come ON. This is your stretchiest argument yet.

Nuclear works just FINE as long as you build the plant near the ocean or some other big, drought-immune water source.

Posted by mattymatt | January 25, 2008 12:43 PM

sven, nimbyism across the board requires incentives from the government to reduce it. also, no one is talking about living next to a depository or setting one up near people. moot point.

as for pebble reactors being prototypes; if we have a solution for a strawman like water, that is safer than light water reactors, then we should fund it, and provide incentives for disposal of waste.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 25, 2008 12:44 PM

If we reprocessed our spent fuel, we could cut the resources required for storage of wast significantly.

Posted by Lou | January 25, 2008 12:45 PM

As I understand it, coal could be much cleaner, but we won't make the utilities clean up their act, and we won't make the mining companies do it in an environmentally responsible manner.

Nuclear, however, has the issue of waste. Poisonous waste that will last longer than the recorded history of man thus far. Waste that has to be either stored on site or transported to a central depository.

I'll take coal, thank you. Or how about more solar? We've not even scratched the surface there.

Posted by catalina vel-duray | January 25, 2008 12:55 PM

Are you implying that Hillary has an energy plan that will allow us to produce all the elctricity we need without resorting to nuclear or fossil fuels? I assume in your researching of her record and stated positions you would have come across such a bombshell.

Not so much, then? Well maybe you know. What changes could we make - right NOW - that would allow us to produce the same amount of electricity while using less nuclear and less fossil fuels?

Conservation is important but won't get us all the way there. Solar and wind aren't viable on a large enough scale and won't be for the forseeable future. So right now, it just isn't possible. You want less greenhouse gas emissions, you're gonna have to deal with more nuclear. Period.

Obama admits this reality and you accuse him of caving to corporate donors. Hillary panders to enviros who don't get it, and you call it leadership.


Posted by MplsKid | January 25, 2008 12:57 PM

Ugh, ECB has officially crossed the line from making questionable arguments against Obama to making outright dumb ones.

Erica, support of nuclear power as an option is not the same as thinking it's a "panacea for climate change." Neither Obama's limited support nor Hillary's ambivalence preclude other support for other options. More importantly, nothing about droughts makes nuclear power a bad idea for all; only an ineffective one in some circumstances.

Posted by tired of fluff | January 25, 2008 12:59 PM
Nuclear works just FINE as long as you build the plant near the ocean or some other big, drought-immune water source.

And, conversely, most feasible non-nuclear sources also demand water (either for momentum or for cooling) and face problems if you build them in areas vulnerable to drought.

Posted by tsm | January 25, 2008 1:09 PM

catalina, more radioactive material is put into the environment by coal than nuclear power. figure out the % of coal that has trace amount of elements that are radioactive and figure out how much coal we burn.

fact is, pebble reactors have only one byproduct and that is nuclear waste which can be accounted for, which can be contained, and wont be inhaled by us. pebble reactors are the way of the future. the reason there isn't a depository for nuclear fuel is a lack of incentive and willpower and fear of accidents. all of which will take government incentive and changes in regulation to achieve.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 25, 2008 1:13 PM

You know, I have to say, that at this point, the Obama-Clinton rivalry is nothing compared to the ECB-Annie rivalry.

THIS is what keeps me coming back to Slog. Watching you two duel it out is way better than any movie.

P.S. I also have to say that it's very refreshing in a political internet filled with men, to see two women posters who are both so knowledgeable and thoughtful. Thanks and props to you both.

Posted by arduous | January 25, 2008 1:21 PM

a lot of this is the same reason that gasoline prices are inflated to some degree; the reason why we feel such a jump in gas prices at times is due to limited refinery capacity. the reason this is limited though is because of the environmental damage that it causes and the extensive regulation. there is also limited incentive for oil companies to build refineries in the face of such regulation and if new refiner capacity would simply increase the supply of gasoline and thusly decrease the price. since gas is a relatively inelastic good for most, any price decreases will drastically affect the gasoline producers.

in summary, there is no economic benefit to new refineries for the producers and there is no tolerance for the environmental impact that it has in today's society.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 25, 2008 1:22 PM

They both are saying look at it/there are problems. Gee, how many angels can fit into the space between Obama and Clinton on nuclear energy?

[BTW the real problem with nuclear is that it's risks are so much more catastrophic (spent fuel, waste, terrorism, meltdown) and most of all, unknown at this point in time. We don't have a data set of the potential problems tha arise over the life history of nuclear plants, or waste storage facilities. We won't have that data set until, ahem, the end of time. And every plant is an argument why Iran and N. Korea should get into nuclear, too. Conservation, and new energy sources like wind and solar, don't present any of those risks and unkowns.)

Posted by unPC | January 25, 2008 1:24 PM

That's what I love about Hilary -- on most topics, both sides of the debate can claim that she supports them. Or opposes them. Or both.

And, you know, maybe it would be possible to develop nuclear power plants that need less cooling, use less water, or both? This silliness reminds me of the steamship captain in the early 1900's who said there was no point to building airplanes because they couldn't cross oceans.

Posted by also | January 25, 2008 1:25 PM

also; pebble reactors. incentives for waste disposal. enough said.

unPC; pebble reactors are harder to use to refine the nuclear material. they can have pebble reactors.

the risks are catastrophic? more catastrophic than the damage from global warming? more catastrophic risk than actual radioactive elements burned into the air?

potential problems are mitigated by the benefit they provide and innovation in nuclear waste disposal and technology. we shouldnt be afraid to take risks if the benefit is immense.

if i had a dice that had a benefit 10 billion times, and disaster 1 time, i would roll that dice over and over and over. look at disasters per kilowatt hour.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 25, 2008 1:33 PM

Keep digging that hole, ECB!

Posted by lol | January 25, 2008 1:34 PM

Agribusiness has probably done more to diminish water availability than any natural drought season. It's going to be a tough fight (energy lobby vs. corp. farm subsidies), but I think most cases the article points to could be rectified.

Posted by Dougsf | January 25, 2008 1:43 PM

And no mention of Edwards, as usual.

For the record, he's against new investments in nuclear energy, because the waste, security, and environmental problems are difficult.

As an Edwards supporter, I disagree with my candidate somewhat. I think some nuclear is going to be necessary to hit aggressive CO2 emissions targets in the short-to-medium term. But in the long run, it has lots of problems, including the environmental costs of mining and eventual scarcity of fuel if nuclear becomes the predominant form of energy.

Also, to hit those CO2 targets with nuclear we'd have to increase our nuclear production four-fold (from the current 20% to around 80%, to match that in France.) So we'd have to site and build 300 new plants while replacing any existing ones that run past their useful life, which includes many of the 100 or so that are currently operating. You're talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in investment for a problematic solution. We should make sure this is cost effective and not just another corporate handout before we jump on the nuclear energy bandwagon. I'd rather have Edwards' cautious starting point than Obama's pre-compromised one, and Clinton's pragmatism of considering all options is also attractive.

Posted by Cascadian | January 25, 2008 1:44 PM

@31: The cost of mining and eventually scarcity of fuel is already a problem with our current primary energy source. They're taking down entire mountains in Appalachia for it, and it won't last forever, either.

Also, we're going to have to build new plants of some type to meet energy demand, and the solution is no more problematic than building more coal plants.

Posted by Lou | January 25, 2008 1:55 PM


Some European countries, such as France, use nuclear. To my knowledge, they don't have moratoriums. Are they not investing in R&D?

Posted by keshmeshi | January 25, 2008 1:56 PM

cascadian, the biggest issue I have with people who support a coal status quo is that any concerns they have about nuclear power are already there with coal power except for a potentially huge disaster which I think is a bit of fear mongering given the direction of nuclear power research we've taken.

people are afraid of what they don't understand, and most people don't understand nuclear power. they don't want to understand or fund the future of nuclear power either. they think all nuclear power will remain status quo. it's simple ignorance.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 25, 2008 1:57 PM

Actually, as I'm sure ECB unintentionally omitted - not like she supports Clinton, right ... - Obama proposes PHASING out nuclear eventually, along with oil gas and coal, and developing greener power supplies wholesale in America.

Do you want brownouts and blackouts? No, of course not.

But, yes, nuclear fission has MANY MANY problems that the MSM rarely discusses. Water is only one of them, disposal has never been completely solved, and the terrorism security aspects of fuel supply, operation, and disposal are a nightmare waiting to blow up in our faces.

Unlike the relatively safe CANDU reactors up in Canada, or equivalents in France - there the reactors are safer and they don't breed plutonium like most of ours do.

One gram - all you need to wipe out a city with a good dispersal bomb.

Posted by Will in Seattle | January 25, 2008 2:14 PM


you might want to explain pebble reactors. Am glad to admit I have no idea what you are talking about.
A little explanation would go a long way.

And btw: you are assuming there is only a 1 in XXXXXXXXX chance. Until you have a data set of actual experience which in this case would include a life cycle of plants, and storage facilities, you don't know if it is a 1 in 10,000,000 or 1 in 1,000 chance. We do know the harm can be catsastophic compared to the harm from explosion or meltdown or terrorist theft at say, a coal fired electric plant.

You always don't know what you don't know. But after you build 20,000 buildings, you pretty much know what risks there are. You can predict: office buildigns cost $200 a foot, and last 30-50 years.

When you build a tunnel, you know less so engineers expect a 2x cost overrun. They have a data set of lots of tunnels and that gives them that rule of thumb.

But with nuclear, we had no data set of boiling water reactors until we built tham all then found out 20 years later they would all get intergranular stress corrosion cracking. We learned: oh there was this inherent risk we didn't know about. What else is there that will afflict all plants, or all storage facilities? We just won't know until we have experience.

Anyway, about those pebble reactors:

do tell us more.

Posted by unPC | January 25, 2008 2:18 PM


furthermore, you're in a catch 22. we can't create data sets on the safety of nuclear power because we don't have enough nuclear power to create data set. but we can't have more nuclear power because we don't have enough data sets on their relative safety per kilowatt hour.

we simply live in a society that is risk adverse and harm adverse. we are too afraid of potentially jumping in a fire so we do nothing and get boiled to death.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 25, 2008 2:33 PM

I think Godzilla proved why nuclear energy is a bad idea.

Posted by Tokyo, Japan | January 25, 2008 2:42 PM

#38: You should see Teeth!

Posted by annie | January 25, 2008 2:49 PM

The production of the materials to make solar work is INCREDIBLY HYDROCARBON (OIL) DEPENDENT.

I guess we could all live in a house made of our own shit, snot and cum. That would be the most environmentally correct fashion.

I want my children to enjoy at least a smattering of the standard of living that I enjoy. As a result, I will support a candidate that is smart enough to realize that nuclear is a very good idea, along with other ideas.

ECB again demonstrates that she know very little about most things. To be honest, I can't understand why she was hired. Of course, this comment will likely be deleted.

Posted by ecce homo | January 25, 2008 2:50 PM

Ecce! There you go again, with those imaginary children.

When I bought you those manequins from Fredick & Nelson, I explained to you that they WEREN'T REAL, and that we need to remember to distinguish between our IMAGINATION and what happens in REAL LIFE.

If you don't get a grip on yourself, I'll put your "children" on craigslist, and take your love doll (aka your "partner") back to the Crypt.

Fun is fun, but you have to keep control of yourself if you ever want to move back to Seattle. Auburn is your healing place, remember?

Posted by catalina vel-duray | January 25, 2008 4:09 PM

Obama will power the country with the Audacity of Hope!

Posted by Obama SuperFan | January 25, 2008 5:09 PM

It's great to be able to be Mr. Groovy Idealist, "hey, no nukes man," but in the real world of real stuff, people have to make hard choices. You slam Obama for coal, okay, fine. Then you slam him for supporting nuclear power. Okay. I can't imagine you're for drilling the Arctic for oil, right? Or building dams that block rivers and destroy ecosystems and fish? At this point, alternative energy isn't available in the quantities we need, and it's not going to be for a long time. It's not even about price, it's about quantity. Complaining about every source of energy on an electronic blog seems ironic to me. As a slam of Obama on policy, it's ridiculous, because any real president, be it Obama, Clinton, or Ron fucking Paul, is going to have to make realistic choices about energy.

Posted by Mr Me | January 25, 2008 5:23 PM

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