Monday, December 5, 2011

Mitt, the lover of all things nuclear (or at least some things nuclear)

We’re way past it being just a Mitt fortnight on the blog, but I still want to talk about the guy. Since I haven’t swung by the library just yet, you’ll be treated to another Mitt-based post. This time it’s about nuclear energy. Incidentally, he and his lovely wife are currently on the cover of Parade magazine (yes, the one that comes with the newspaper). Does anyone else think Tag’s collar hearkens back to the 1970s? Stick with the button-down collar, Tagg, like your father.
So, while nuclear energy isn’t exactly a hot topic at the moment, perhaps that’s due to the fact that we have a large part of the population out of work and a media that’s more concerned with the merry-go-round circus that is the Republican primary. While it’s hard to measure exactly how much these things will hurt us, the unmitigated effects of air pollution, climate change, and the unsavory aspects of enriching despots with our oil purchases make nuclear power a suitable topic, indeed. First, I’ll quote Mitt’s No Apology (page 239) and then I’ll talk about the disaster that occurred in Japan this year and why it shouldn’t deter us from nucleating our energy policy (or something). Mitt:
Nuclear power is a win-win; it’s a domestic energy source with zero greenhouse gas emissions. The McKinsey analysis determined that nuclear power poses the single largest opportunity to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Without increased nuclear generation, the same study predicts global temperatures cannot achieve the two-degree Celsius goal. So, if you’re serious about global warming, you have to say yes to nuclear, and if like me you’re serious about energy security, you get to the same place.
I confess that I don’t understand why some environmental activists still consider nuclear power such a boogeyman. They should consider the contemporary evidence—the United States now has 104 trouble-free nuclear reactors at sixty-five power plants. France gets 80 percent of its electrical power from nuclear generations. Nations all over the world are currently building new plants, and scores of naval vessels have been safely and efficiently running on nuclear power for decades. Vermont, the state which many consider to be the “greenest” in the country, gets 73 percent of its power from nuclear power. Nuclear generations has a safe and economic track record, and it is here to stay.
Some argue that “nuclear power has no prospects in market-driven energy systems for a simple reason: nuclear plants cost too much to build… electricicty from new light-water reactors will cost twice as much as from new wind-farms.” This argument would be more persuasive if Argentina, Canada, China, Finland, France, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and other nations didn’t have a total of forty-eight new nuclear reactors under construction as of the summer of 2009. Can all of those countries be pursuing energy solutions that make no economic sense?
Mitt goes on to say our dependence on foreign oil is more dangerous than the risks posed by nuclear power and that the red tape inhibiting new plants should be slashed. Indeed, he’s right that it makes no sense that environmentalists are up-in-arms about nuclear power considering the currently limited capacity of wind and solar energy. As an undergraduate I once had a choice chat with one of my Atmospheric Science professors, who expressed such sentiments by saying that without nuclear, “society is fu**ed”. He said it twice for emphasis. Mitt seems to get that fact, and smartly uses energy security as a cover to win the argument with his own party (again, I’m still not convinced he’s as conservative as he pretends to be).

Sure, nuclear waste and radiation are undesirable, but, as this same professor noted, oddly the best thing to promote nuclear power could be some sort of well-publicized accident. Hear me out on this. Those who have spent any amount of time in Japan have likely traveled to Hiroshima or Nagasaki. I visited the former of the two last year and was impressed by its beautiful parks, impressive museums, and efficient transit system. You know what I didn’t notice? The effects of radiation. The city was bustling with 1.2m people (and has amazing okonomiyaki). The street cars were purportedly running days after the bomb was dropped, so perhaps you can file this in the only-in-Japan file, but generally people wrongly assume that contaminated areas remain so for millennia.

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the events in Japan this year. To keep it simple, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants were rated as safe for a 8.6 magnitude earthquake, while the quake that actually occurred was 8.9-9.0. Similarly, the tsunami that hit the plants was 14 or 17m high (45 feet!), whereas the plants had been prepared for a 5.7m wave. In terms of the earthquake alone, the power was at least twice as strong (10^8.9 / 10^8.6) as what the Fukushima nuclear plants had been rated for (this same paper argues that since we don’t feel the waves the seismograph does, but rather the actual energy, the quake was fifteen times that which had been planned for). Twice to fifteen times stronger than what was planned for. This is why there was a problem. And it wasn’t a problem with nuclear energy, but a rather a lack of imagination on the part of the engineers and geologists that planned the reactors' defenses. If you still have doubts, drive through West Virginia one of these days and examine what the coal mining there has done to the landscape and the miners’ health. Some of those regions are a lot worse off than Hiroshima.

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