Friday, February 22, 2013

Nuclear Energy: In the Hands of Experts (And That’s a Bad Thing)

CyclopsYesterday, I highlighted a good list of reasons to use nuclear energy that worked its case a little too hard – why oversell when you can just sell, after all?

Anti-nuclear advocates almost always oversell. Some of the arguments are fact-based - the disposition of used nuclear fuel, proliferation, etc. These, at least, are debatable. But some root in what might be called deep dish ideology, with a soupcon of academic mumbo jumbo.

Take this list by Jim McCluskey of “10 urgent reasons to reject nuclear energy” for example:

6. They [nuclear energy plants] Epitomize the Centralization of Power.

There is a burgeoning awareness among citizens that they are more free and more in control of their lives if facilities and decision-making occur at the local level, that national government should only control those matters that cannot be dealt with locally. Nuclear power is the ultimate way of centralizing power, putting it in the hands of experts, multinational corporations and national - often distant - government. In complete contrast to this, benign methods of supplying power, such as wind and water turbines, solar energy and heat pumps can be in the control of local communities and even, for some provisions, households.

Distant government sounds like medieval Europe, doesn’t it, and the writer may well mean to evoke a time of serfdom. He who owns the windmill owns the mill, after all, though in this instance, windmills are “benign” and nuclear energy plants are run by sinister “experts” (?). This argument has a certain off-the-grid appeal, with perhaps a tea party love of the 10th amendment mixed in, but it’s not really an argument, it’s a personal statement. It sounds like hooey to me, but it’s manna to McCluskey. 

It’s true that nuclear plants are regulated on a national basis, but sited locally and usually considered a benefit locally. No, it’s not the same as setting up a little bundle of turbines in your backyard, but I can’t see anything inherently wrong with either approach. Either can be done well or badly.

But it does make this point intriguing:

Because of their potential of mass destruction, nuclear power stations are a major target for terrorists. The 9/11 atrocity would be tiny by comparison. If a large plane were flown into a nuclear power station, the disaster would be immeasurably worse than Chernobyl.

At least you can throw some facts back at this one. First, let’s dispose of the airplane argument:

The EPRI study found nuclear power plant containment buildings and used fuel storage pools would protect reactor fuel even if the structures were struck by a fully loaded Boeing 767-400 flying at approximately the same speed as the airplane that crashed into the Pentagon. The study also found that such an impact would not breach the used fuel storage containers used at many plants to store used nuclear fuel outside a used fuel pool. Such a crash certainly would cause a significant amount of collateral plant damage, and no doubt would shut down the plant. However, the EPRI study concluded that such an event would not cause a release of radiation because it would not result in a breach of reactor containment, nor would it cause the spent fuel pool to lose cooling water that shields the fuel from the environment.

EPRI Is the Electric Power Research Institute. It has no particular reason to be in the tank for the nuclear energy industry and has done a fair number of reports on this subject. Put “terrorist” in the EPRI search box and you’ll learn a lot.

But the interesting point here is that locally sourced electricity – solar arrays and wind farms would not be more safe from a terrorist attack and an attack could cripple a town quickly if exploited. Nuclear energy facilities have large and well-trained security forces, as does most essential infrastructure. (Some of this came about after the terrorist attacks. They weren’t taken lightly.)

In any event, one point – sourcing electricity locally - makes hash of the other point – that a solar array or wind farm would be safer from terrorist attack than a nuclear plant. It just doesn’t follow logically or factually.

One more point, rather more serious:

7. Poor countries are made dependent on rich ones.

Poor countries do not have the knowledge and facilities to design, build, maintain and run their own nuclear power stations. This puts them at the mercy of the rich and more technically advanced states if they go down the nuclear power route.Technically less advanced countries with nuclear power stations increase the safety risks.

First, I wouldn’t underestimate the intelligence and capability of local populations or their knowing when assistance (even “expert” assistance) is necessary. The UAE is getting up to speed with the help of the IAEA. Turkey will depend on the very experienced Russians to help run their plant and regulatory authority (I’m sure the IAEA is there somewhere, too.) 

Second, countries making a move toward electrification cannot and, I daresay, will not be fobbed off with intermittent energy sources because they have to avoid carbon emissions. Late to the party, no industrial revolution for you!

Nuclear energy is a real solution here because it is both a dessert topping and a floor wax. it provides potent baseload power and it’s free of carbon emission. Only hydro can claim anything similar. In a larger context, I think we can agree that access to electricity falls closer to being a human right, not a talking point. It’s not nuclear energy that’s key here, it’s electricity.

None of these arguments seem valid. They contradict each other, they promote a view of energy that is (almost) anti-science in nature, and they condescend to countries not already electrified – a sort of Whole Earth Catalog viewpoint that’s gone berserk. It all points backward, just as much of the world is surging forward.

6 comments:

EntrepreNuke said...

This goes along with a saying that I am planning to use extremely often moving forward: "Anti-nuclear equals Pro-EnDARKenment"

Also, nuclear power is the only present method of producing power with which we can "have the cake" of our modern lifespan-lengthening amenities and the "eating it too" of not rapidly depleting our fuel supplies and emitting combustion byproducts to the atmosphere.

Engineer-Poet said...

First, I wouldn’t underestimate the intelligence and capability of local populations or their knowing when assistance (even “expert” assistance) is necessary.

I beg to differ.  Oil sheikdoms like the UAE have long been known to hire foreign guest workers to run their complex equipment; to the extent that the locals have university degrees, they are often from foreign institutions for the purpose of prestige, not for technical merit.

If you still don't believe that the Dunning-Kruger effect can exist on a national scale, please consider that the subjects reported on here were completely un-ironic and get back to me.  There are potentially idiot-proof nuclear technologies in the pipeline; there are places where they would be the only ones safe to deploy, because the locals either could not afford or would not tolerate foreign expert workers.

jimwg said...

The knee-jerk panic of these Hudson River (New York) green groups is something to behold. How do you ascertain that because Hanford waste tanks are leaking, so must Vermont Yankee's and Turkey Point's, etc? Of course that logic is only slyly endorsed by the media when they don't even "bother" to investigate the assertions.

Where is the nuclear 911media truth squad??

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that many "locals" have in fact been trained to a very high level in American universities. I have recently retired after 30+ years in the academic business and have advised students at the M.S. and Ph.D. levels from countries such as Turkey, Syria, Iran (pre-revolution), Armenia, S. Korea, Pakistan, Romania, Finland, Hungary, Japan, China (ROC and PRC), South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina, India, Malaysia, Italy, Spain, and Indonesia. They have almost all been very capable and highly motivated. While some have sought to remain here, others have returned home to work in their own governments and industries.

Anonymous said...

I find their point 7 very ironic, because it can happen just the other way around. For decades the "rich countries" (i.e., Western countries like the US) have been very dependent on "poorer" ones, like third-world regimes of the Middle East, for supplies of crude oil. We are also seeing a similar evolution today in Europe, where a supposedly "rich" country, Germany, because of it's renouncing of nuclear, is becoming quite beholden to a "poorer" country, Russia, for its natural gas supply. We may also be seeing a similar transformation in the Northeast region of this country, where state governors and legislatures, in their haste to rid their territories of nuclear plants, may become heavily dependent on imports of electricity supplied by Canadian hydropower. I'm not saying there is any danger of any conceivable Canadian government becoming despotic in the mold of Middle East or Soviet tyrannies, but, if push comes to shove, a country will take care of its own before sending energy supplies across the border.

rbl said...

As for terrorist attacks, will anyone care to mention the recent murderous attack on an Algerian natural gas plant? As for deaths from energy industry accidents, google the experience of Mexico with their gas plant explosions.