Saturday, April 2, 2011

Discussion of the safety, risks, and future of nuclear power

The The Sydney Morning Herald ran an editorial piece looking at the opinions of four experts on the safety, risks, and future of nuclear power. The whole piece is definitely worth a read, but I just wanted to go through some of the main points made and give my own opinion as well.

The first expert is Ben Heard, who is the director of ThinkClimate Consulting. I think he most mirrors my own thinking, saying
Rationally, we should all fear climate change. It threatens our occupation of this planet within a century. This, rather than nuclear power, is what keeps me awake at night.

The biggest contributor to climate change is coal. Renewables alone cannot displace coal quickly enough. But nuclear power plus renewables can, with minuscule risk. The only rational response is to be open to the further deployment of nuclear power, in partnership with growth in renewables.

The second commenter is Ian Lowe, who is president of the Australian Conservation Foundation. He agrees that climate change is a huge concern, but thinks the nuclear just isn't worth the risk.
By contrast, we do not have to worry about terrorists stealing wind turbine blades or earthquakes shattering solar panels. It is quite rational to see nuclear energy as a high-risk approach.
Things may be different in Australia, but I disagree with this because the real comparison is between nuclear and coal. Nuclear and coal both provide baseload power, and a shift away from nuclear, especially in this political climate is a shift towards coal. And, I haven't seen anyone make the case that the risks associated with coal are less than those associated with nuclear. According to the Clean Air Task Force:
Specifically, Abt Associate’s analysis finds that fine particle pollution from existing coal plants is expected to cause nearly 13,200 deaths in 2010.  Additional impacts include an estimated 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year.  The total monetized value of these adverse health impacts adds up to more than $100 billion per year.
And this doesn't even include the climate impacts associated with coal use or the damage done by mountaintop removal, or the risks that coal miners face everyday. It was only a year ago this week that 29 coal miners died in the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, and that certainly lead to an international discussion about whether we need to shutter global coal plants. It's also been well documented that living near a coal plant will lead to higher radiation doses than living next to a nuclear plant operating under U.S. regulations.

The third expert is Ziggy Switkowski, who is chancellor of RMIT University and ANSTO's former chairman. I tend to agree with his assessment as well, since he essentially says that nuclear power has risks, but those risks are not unacceptable. He unfortunately doesn't provide any basis for comparison, though.
Experts will identify opportunities for improvement, and conclude that the best option for clean, industrial strength base-load power remains nuclear energy.
Finally, the last commenter is Beverley Raphael, who is a psychiatrist and international expert on the impact of disasters on mental health. She focuses mostly on understanding the psychological and sociological foundations of Japan's nuclear fears. She also rightly points out that people don't tend to quantitatively evaluate risk. We assess risk on a very emotional level. I don't really disagree with what she says, and her viewpoint is interesting, but it avoids the real question in my mind about what the future of nuclear power should be and how acceptable the risks actually are.
We all live with risk. We pursue risk as "thrill". Life involves the balancing of risks for the present and the future. This is part of our resilience, as individuals, as nations. We feel for, and with, the people of Japan, for whom such threat is so painfully evocative of their history.

No comments:

Post a Comment