Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Nuclear Tussle in Minnesota

337706694_7c9a799cc3The Duluth News tries a pro-con pair of op-eds on nuclear energy that would have benefitted considerably from a more direct match-up. John LaForge of Nukewatch takes the con and Rolf Westgard, a professional member of the Geological Society of America and of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, takes the pro.

Both writers make points well worth arguing, but since they don’t engage each other, it’s impossible without further research to determine the relative validity of the arguments or how other data points would mitigate the extreme negativity on one side or the extreme positivity on the other. That leads to preaching to the converted and isn’t as useful as the News no doubt hoped for.

Here’s how LaForge kicks off:

Lofty claims about the benefits of nuclear power have been coming from the Nuclear Energy Institute’s lobbyists and others. Yet news journals, financial journals and energy journals all make clear that boiling water with uranium is the costliest and dirtiest energy choice.

Readers of this site or anyone interested in nuclear energy won’t have much trouble with this one. But LaForge knows how to debate: he references outside sources – implying but not saying that every independent source agrees with him – and raising points he really doesn’t intend to go further with – he argues for costliness but not really dirtiness. He tries a bit:

Nuclear is so dirty Germany legislated a national phase-out of its 17 reactors by 2025. That 1998 decision was based partly on government studies that found high rates of childhood leukemia in areas near German reactors. In July 2007 the European Journal of Cancer Care published a similar report by Dr. Peter Baker of the Medical University of South Carolina that found elevated leukemia incidence in children near U.S. reactors.

But this is overwhelmed by many, many studies (and not sponsored by the nuclear energy industry) that do not find such increased incidence – someone directly debating LaForge would bring those up. You can find more on radiation studies here, but you may be sure that this would be a glaring issue for nuclear energy if true and hard to overlook – meaning it doesn’t pass the smell test very well.

On the other side, Westgard puts out reasonable facts that make the case for nuclear energy well. If we had any criticism, it would be that he needed – in this forum – to take on plausible arguments rather than simply make the case.

Meanwhile, we have 103 [actually, 104] nuclear power reactors in the U.S., and they provide cost-competitive electricity to millions. Fifty-five [actually, 59] of them have been granted 20-year operating extensions by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Many more extensions are expected, including for Minnesota’s Prairie Island facility. Once amortized, nuclear plants produce power for 2 cents per kilowatt hour, including fuel.

This is true and worth noting, but also a trifle abstract while LaForge is raising leukemia fears. On the other hand, Westgard’s calm recitation goes a far way to regularizing nuclear energy as another energy source though one particularly responsive to current energy needs.

Why aren’t we in the U.S. building more nuclear plants? Nuclear energy is environmentally superior. It doesn’t emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide or particulates like soot, mercury and sulfur, which make acid rain. There are 435 nuclear electric power reactors operating safely in 30 countries. Our nuclear Navy operates safely. Thirty more nuclear plants are under construction in the world with many others in the planning stages.

Don’t misunderstand – we really appreciate the Duluth News’ goal here, and both LaForge and Westgard give their arguments their full measure. And we don’t think it would take very long for an interested reader to find out who’s closer to having a good fact set. But we always hope for more from newspaper – and especially on the web, the News could easily have had the two gentlemen mix it up more directly.

So – a somewhat missed opportunity.

The Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge. Instead of two sections of bridge inclining out of the way of passing ships, as most bridges do, the entire lower deck rises to the top portion. It takes about three minutes to raise the lower deck.

No comments: