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Nuclear power - good or bad?

post #1 of 27
Thread Starter 

Featured Debate 18


In the US, nuclear definitely brings out the NIMBY (not in my backyard) effect in quite a few folks.  But other countries are looking into it more seriously (take France - the majority of their electricity is generated from nuclear plants). 


So what do you Huddlers think?  Is nuclear a good option for our energy needs?  Or would it cause more harm than it's worth?

Edited by stins - Sat, 03 May 2008 16:07:15 GMT
post #2 of 27

Well I think too many people view nuclear power as a silver bullet to solve all of our energy problems.  There are both pros and cons associated with nuclear power.


Pros: minimal greenhouse gas emissions (just from uranium mining and transportation), good efficiency.


Cons: increased amounts of enriched uranium (potential nuclear bomb fuel), Chernobyl potential (though minimal risk), nuclear waste issue, uranium is a limited resource, uranium mining isn't good for the environment.


So there are definitely more cons than pros.  People also tend to neglect the fact that it takes a lot of time and money to build nuclear power plants, and the energy isn't that cheap.  In fact, solar power is already cost competetive with nuclear.


I think the solution should be to maintain what nuclear power plants we have, but what new power plants we build should be renewables like solar and wind, not nuclear.

Edited by dana1981 - Sat, 03 May 2008 16:32:46 GMT
post #3 of 27

A few years ago (2006) the co-founder of Greenpeace spoke out in favor of nuclear power and the incredible design and containment advancements that have taken place in recent history.


It's a great article from the Washington Post here.


Some great quotations:

"nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change."

"Today, there are 103 nuclear reactors quietly delivering just 20 percent of America's electricity. Eighty percent of the people living within 10 miles of these plants approve of them (that's not including the nuclear workers). Although I don't live near a nuclear plant, I am now squarely in their camp."

"Here's why: Wind and solar power have their place, but because they are intermittent and unpredictable they simply can't replace big baseload plants such as coal, nuclear and hydroelectric. Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is too expensive already, and its price is too volatile to risk building big baseload plants. Given that hydroelectric resources are built pretty much to capacity, nuclear is, by elimination, the only viable substitute for coal. It's that simple."


He goes on to dispel a lot of the rumors about nuclear...good read, highly recommended.


I'd really like some more points of view on this - what does everyone else think?



post #4 of 27
Originally Posted by Deej:

A few years ago (2006) the co-founder of Greenpeace spoke out in favor of nuclear power and the incredible design and containment advancements that have taken place in recent history.




Oh man don't even get me started on that guy.  He's also said there's no evidence that humans are causing global warming.  The guy is one of the most frequently cited by global warming "skeptics", as in "even the founder og Greenpeace says it's a scam!".


Edited by dana1981 - Sat, 03 May 2008 20:30:49 GMT
post #5 of 27
Originally Posted by dana1981:

Cons: increased amounts of enriched uranium (potential nuclear bomb fuel)


For starters, let's keep in mind there is a huge difference between fuel-grade and weapons-grade uranium.  The amount of equipment and expertise required to enrich uranium to weapons-grade is incredible and it’s simply not a viable concern.  Plutonium would call for a different discussion, but most modern nuclear designs call for uranium.


Current wind and solar technologies simply don’t have the capacity/scale necessary for our energy needs.


For example, the largest solar power plant even planned in the world today is set to produce ~100MW.  Currently in the U.S. there are over 35 nuclear plants, all built prior to 1989, producing well over 1100MW each.  Several international nuclear plants produce over 5000MW each.  Using New York City as an example, peak demand was estimated to be just under 11,000MW in 2001.  Wind and solar would have trouble making the slightest dent in that demand.


I hope that today’s wind and solar technologies are analogous to CFL light bulbs.  We all know they’re simply a stopgap solution until LED technology matures.  The research obviously needs to continue but building plants based on current wind/solar technologies isn’t a real solution.  I hope significant breakthroughs are coming, but we can't count on it.


When it comes to our options for nearly emission-free power generation that can scale appropriately, there really is only one solution available today, nuclear.


What are some other reasons people are opposed to it?  Is fear of catastrophe the biggest concern?

post #6 of 27

The potential for catastrophe is a pretty minor concern.  I think the biggest one is what to do with the radioactive waste.

post #7 of 27

even though the chances of a disaster are slim, they are not 110% impossible. i vote for wind, solar, hydro, before nuclear. i don' t like that slim chance factor. kinda scary. just my thought. i know the USS Nimitz (which has nuclear power on board) is banned from docking port in many countries.

post #8 of 27

I think we're capable of building an appropriate nuclear waste storage facility until more exotic disposal methods are available, such as launching the waste into the sun.


Also, keep in mind the US Navy operates more than 80 nuclear powered ships, all without incident.

post #9 of 27

Very bad. With the toxic waste that is created it would make sense to support cleaner energies.  I am a fan of Solar. No harm done with Solar.

post #10 of 27

Is this really a question?  The answer is "it's bad"


1.  Can't get rid of the waste.


2.  Bad for the environment -


3.  Bad for taxpayers - (HUGE Gov't subsidies - it's the only way these things even exist!)


4.  Other alternatives - If they put as much money into alternatives such as solar/wind/biofuel (not corn!) and others then they do into oil and nuclear, we would have the problem solved.


5.  Please use too much energy.  Hey, get rid of incandescents.  Get rid of non-time setting thermostats, etc, etc, etc.   Subsidize those industry/mfg's that create things that use less energy and outlaw the rest and boom, there you go. 


There is no Pro.  Period.  Done.

post #11 of 27
Thread Starter 

Just to keep the discussion's the pro side from an article in Wired.  It's called "Face It. Nukes Are the Most Climate-Friendly Industrial-Scale Form of Energy."


Look at the environmental protection agency's CO2-per-kilowatt-hour map of the US and two bright patches of low-carbon happiness jump out. One is the hydro-powered Pacific Northwest. The other is Vermont, where a 30-year-old nuclear reactor, Vermont Yankee, keeps the Ben & Jerry's cold. The darkest area corresponds to Washington, DC, where coal-fired power plants release 520 times more atmospheric carbon per megawatt-hour than their Vermont counterpart. That's right: 520 times. Jimmy Carter was right to turn down the heat in the White House.

There's no question that nuclear power is the most climate-friendly industrial-scale energy source. You can worry about radioactive waste or proliferating weapons. You can complain about the high cost of construction and decommissioning. But the reality is that every serious effort at carbon accounting reaches the same conclusion: Nukes win. Only wind comes close — and that's when it's blowing. A UK government white paper last year factored in everything from uranium mining to plant decommissioning and determined that nuclear power emits 2 to 6 percent of the carbon per kilowatt-hour as natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels.

Embracing the atom is key to winning the war on warming: Electric power generates 26 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and 39 percent of the United States' — it's the biggest contributor to global warming.  One of the Kyoto Protocol's worst features is a sop to greens that denies carbon credits to power-starved developing countries that build nukes — thereby ensuring they'll continue to depend on filthy coal.

post #12 of 27

Well WIRED clearly has a one track mind when it comes to CO2.  I think there are obvious pros and obvious cons with nuclear power.  One factor that often gets overlooked is that it takes a long time to build a nuclear power plant, not to mention get past all the red tape before initiaing construction. 


I'm not sure why they disregard solar, which is quickly becoming cost-competetive with nuclear and even fossil fuels.  I think they're ignoring the fact that the price of solar is decreasing rapidly, whereas the same can't be said of nuclear power.

post #13 of 27

Absolutely great information from a physicist working at a nuclear facility regarding the potential for nuclear power growth and the related constraints in the 'best answer' to this question on Yahoo Answers.  I highly recommend reading it.  Straight from the horse's mouth, as it were.

post #14 of 27


Do we really need more power generation though? Personally I think we need more campaigns to reduce (the other forgotten part of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) our energy consumption and improve the efficiency of what we have.


Does anyone know what all the extra energy is required for?


There was an interesting piece of Minnesota Public Radio last week about how coal (yuck) power plants would be able to generate something like 20% more energy if they were able to be retro-fitted to make use the steam given off from production.


But they can’t because the law would mean that the whole station would need to be brought up to current regulations before they can alter it in anyway. I’m not sure which amazes me more, that these stations are able to keep on polluting like it’s 1950, or that no one has thought to change the law on this. If it’s going to pollute we might as well get everything we can out of it!!

post #15 of 27

Well we are going to need more power generation (for one thing, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles are going to increase demand), but also the idea is to replace the old coal power plants.  We're not just talking about creating more power, we're talking about replacing dirty power generation.


But yes, reducing energy consumption is a very important step as well.

post #16 of 27

Yeah, but to what extent would improving the efficiency of the ways that we use power change the need to generate more power?


I was talking to my in-laws last week about the house that they built in the early 1980's. They mentioned that because of the oil crisis in the 70's they put in lower ceilings, a more efficient furnace, and better insulation than they would have if oil (and the cost of heating a home) been cheaper.


So perhaps we need energy to be expensive to make people change their energy consumption habits?

post #17 of 27

Yeah, more expensive energy would certainly help.  Of course, it would also somewhat reduce the appeal of electric vehicles, although they would still be far cheaper to refuel than gas cars.

post #18 of 27

One fact that none mentioned here is that our reactors are currently spending NUCLEAR  WARHEADS (mostly Soviet I believe) which are being reduced to fuel grade. There's no shortage of uranium; we just don't need to mine or recycle it until we have depleted all the Cold War overage.


Another fact that most of you missed is that government DOES NOT pay subsidies to nuclear; in fact nuclear is the only energy industry in this country that pays for 100% of its activities, INCLUDING disposal.


The amount of nuclear waste resulting from powering one person's energy utilization for a 70 year lifespan (yes, an entire lifetime) amounts to the size of a Coke can.


Current nuclear technology is indeed expensive, but the main reason for that is POLITICAL. We would much rather pump money to the coal industry to emit URANIUM into our atmosphere (yes, that's right!!!) than invest in new nuclear technologies. That's why we are decades behind France which is now going to see the benefit of nuclear fusion, a process that has none of the undesirable effects of nuclear fission (waste, radioactivity, etc)


I do agree that Solar and Wind have their place. But I also don't believe that they will ever meet baseline load needs. Coal is just worse, much worse than nuclear, and that's what I'd like to see disappear first.


In an ideal world, nuclear fusion is a mature technology and micro reactors that produce a few hundred kilowats are the size of a fridge and power a neighborhood. Will we get there? Not in this country.




post #19 of 27

Well Peter you make a lot of claims there, but I'd like to see some supporting evidence.


For example, you claim nuclear power doesn't receive any subsidies, but a quick search revealse that it receives billions of dollars of subsidies.  You claim France is about to achieve nuclear fusion, but nobody is near making fusion feasible yet.  They've been working on it at Princeton for decades.  Your claim about the amount of waste seems plausible, but that's on a per person basis.  When you're producing power for millions of people, that adds up.  Think about a million Coke cans worth of waste.


Edited by dana1981 - Sun, 08 Jun 2008 02:29:12 GMT
post #20 of 27


Check out Earth Beat Radio (great show if you never heard it - available via podcast or stream).  Mike Tidwell does an hour just on Nuclear energy and just how terrible it is.  This is straight forward, no BS radio. 


Getting to ZERO carbon dioxide emissions - without going nuclear; and the connections between climate change and the world food crisis.

Host Daphne Wysham speaks to Arjun Makhijani and his colleagues at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research on their plan for cutting greenhouse gases without turning to nuclear power.

A discussion on the connections between climate change and the world food crisis. Joining us from locations around the world are: Walden Bello with Focus on the Global South; Debbie Barker with the International Forum on Globalization; and Anuradha Mittal of The Oakland Institute.

In our final segment - we get an on-the-site report from the border of Burma and Thailand on the thousands of people killed and injured during the recent devastating cyclone. (The military government of Burma have renamed the country - Myanmar.)

Download this edition of Earthbeat.

post #21 of 27

Dana, a million coke cans worth of nuclear waste for 70 years of energy for a million people sounds pretty good to me. I wonder what is the equivalent amount of waste per person per 70 years for coal energy?


Yes nuclear waste is an issue, however think about it like this: Coal plants emit waste out into the atmosphere where they do who knows how much damage. With nuclear waste we seal it away, we constantly keep tabs on it, we control it, and in the future we probably refine it and find new ways of getting more energy out of it.


I like that much better than constantly dumping tons of pollution into the atmosphere via coal.

post #22 of 27

I'm certainly not arguing that coal is better than nuclear.  Just that there are obvious issues with nuclear.


A few million coke cans of waste may not sound like a lot, but what do you do with them?  Right now they're just stored within the nuclear power plants.  I listened to a podcast about Yucca Mountain this week, and it's not going to be open until 2020 at the earliest (if ever).  It's not an insurmountable problem, but it is a problem.


There is also an issue with increased availability of plutonium for nukes, too.  It's not the ideal quality for weapons material, but it is sufficient to make some serious bombs.


There's also a lack of qualified nuclear engineers, the amount of time it takes to get through the red tape and build a nuclear power plant, the immense decommissioning costs, the fact that uranium is a limited resource, etc. etc.


Nuclear is an improvement over fossil fuels, but it's not an energy source we should rely on too heavily.

post #23 of 27

no but it's certainly an improvement over what we have until we get better/more reliable solar or wind generation technology.

post #24 of 27
Originally Posted by mattress:

no but it's certainly an improvement over what we have until we get better/more reliable solar or wind generation technology.


Except that it takes a  long time to get through all the red tape and actually build a new nuclear power plant, whereas solar and wind are already cost-competetive and much quicker to build.

post #25 of 27

I think we can hold out for new solar/wind/hydro power technologies. 


  • There was that article in treehugger (Dana wrote a post about it here) that a pretty small amount of desert space can be used to power the world. 


  • New solar plants use mirrors to focus sunlight onto a heat transfer fluid, which then heats water into steam.  The steam turns turbines, generating power, even at night (through trapped heat).  There are plans to build a 280 megawatt plant in Arizona, which is to open in 2011.



  • Hydro power created by damming rivers might not be the best environmental idea, and we may be running out of rivers anyway.  But using the ocean's tides to collect hydro power has great potential.


post #26 of 27

While we could generate enough power for the world by covering the desert in arizona with solar plants (what happens to the desert ecosystem if we do that?), I don't think transporting that energy over exceptionally long distances is quite as easy. Transferring power is very inefficient; lots of power is lost transferring it over long distances. This is why power plants are spread out around the country instead of just in one place.


I live in Wisconsin, is it feasable to build a solar power plant up here when for half the year we're covered in snow and ice and the sun is out for only 7 hours a day?

post #27 of 27

Actually it would only take about 20% of the southwestern US desert, and DC lines are pretty efficient at transporting energy over long distances.


A Solar Power Grand Plan.

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