Time to Go Nuclear?

Nuclear power is making a comeback.

Nuclear power is making a comeback. Energy industry titans and political leaders from Asia to North America to Europe are weighing the political fallout of reintroducing atomic reactors as a principal source for keeping on the lights.

Lunacy? Perhaps, but more relevantly it is a path borne of desperation. The global production of oil arguably has reached its peak, and the mining of natural gas is not far behind. Though hydropower was once viewed as a clean alternative, it has its limits. There are only so many rivers that can be dammed, and we now understand the dramatic environmental impact of large-scale hydropower plants (think China).

Coal is arguably the most plentiful natural resource still broadly available. Europe, for instance, has sufficient amounts of brown coal, or lignite, to keep the continent supplied with electrical power for the next 200 years or so. Unfortunately, the combustion of coal delivers high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a direct contributor to the greenhouse effect. Given these dwindling options, atomic energy looks increasingly attractive to the power industry despite the grave dangers all along the nuclear path, from mining to radioactive waste.

I had the opportunity recently to investigate with a major European utility company how it could operate in the year 2054 in a manner more sustainable for the planet. Looking so far into the future might strike you as strange. Don’t we need drastic changes immediately?

No argument there, but I have come to accept some sobering realities about the power industry. For starters, it is a complicated matter to reinvent the system-wide grid of a utility that provides electricity and home heating for major population centers. In one session, I bluntly challenged the chief executive officer of the utility about the speed of change: If a research scientist working at a lab in London discovered tomorrow a process to harness fusion energy, and that process could scale to the demands of a major utility, would your company be able to convert to fusion within a decade?

"No way," the CEO emphatically told me. A utility works in 30-year investment cycles, he explained. It would take at least that long to convert the existing infrastructure and stay financially solvent. For that reason alone, it’s likely that revolutionary models for energy generation and distribution will emerge from new power companies that do not have a legacy reliant upon fossil fuels.

WHAT, THEN, IS the status of alternative energy sources? Beyond fusion energy, solar and wind power are the most widely noted sources. Hydrogen is less promising because it does not stand alone; it requires another energy source for its own production. All of the alternative sources represent a challenge to scale their production of energy to serve the grid demands of a major utility.

Denmark utilizes wind energy to supply nearly 10-to-15 percent of its electricity needs. But the country’s utility system still is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. And let’s not forget that Denmark’s population would be a mid-sized town in China.

All the same, one can only hope that the United States and China learn from Europe’s urgency to deal with global warming. The European Union is introducing financial penalties (in concert with the Kyoto Protocols) for corporations—including utilities—that emit excessive levels of carbon dioxide. In immediate response, European utilities are experimenting with methods to capture carbon dioxide in the combustion process (before it can enter the atmosphere) and store it underground. A full-scale test of the controversial process already has been undertaken in the North Sea, where Statoil separates and stores nearly 1 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Sadly, there is no magic elixir that will solve our energy dilemma short of radically changing our consumption patterns. I don’t see that happening unless a catastrophic environmental event forces us to do so. Our best strategy is to push forward aggressively with alternative energy experiments while drastically reducing the impact of fossil fuel combustion. Both courses of action are preferable to stocking up piles of atomic waste.

David Batstone is executive editor of Sojourners.

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