Friday, July 31, 2009

Nuclear Power Now?

August 1945. America uses the horrifying and horrible power of atomic bombs in nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today we struggle with our attitudes toward the use of nuclear power for domestic, peaceful purposes. We could attribute this unease to some sort of collective squeamishness related to those days in 1945 but my informal survey reveals far less moral concern lurking behind our reticence. The possibility of meltdown and the long-term safety of waste disposal top the list of considerations with, "We'll just wind up paying a fortune for nuclear power, too" close behind.

Given the cost of construction, containment, waste disposal, and operations it's naive to argue that nuclear power will wind up being a bargain in the long run. There's just no way to guaranty it. Then again, should monetary benefits be the test? What if a switch to nuclear power sources would make a significant positive difference in Global Climate Change? What if a a switch would put us ahead in terms of our carbon footprint -- that distressing number we can each calculate on sites like EarthLab -- by causing less damage to the environment in the long run?

Unfortunately, that's another question without a solid answer. Any nuclear waste disposal schemes have to remain effective for generations. They have to withstand damage by seismic events while ensuring there is no leakage. It won't do us any good to reduce our carbon imprint while poisoning our groundwater and soil. Given the current level of technology, can we safely and effectively dispose of nuclear waste for all time? How about for the time it will take to develop and test more effective methods? Is that a gamble worth taking?

And what about a nuclear accident? Today we can build reactors with passive safety features. Features that use the laws of physics to slow nuclear reactions in the event of a problem -- without the need for immediate human intervention. These smart facilities don't rely upon effective communication, proper operating procedures, or human cooperation to keep things under control in the event of a malfunction. Is that enough?

As recently as twenty or thirty years ago -- the days of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island -- the state of technology gave us reason to pause. Are our concerns warranted today? Will nuclear power be more expensive in the long run? Will we have difficulty disposing of the waste effectively? Are nuclear accidents with severe implications a forgone conclusion? Is it time for America to embrace the use of nuclear power?

Please weigh in with your thoughts.

Originally posted August 7, 2008 on The Witches of Agnesi

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