Tuesday, August 08, 2006

No Getting Around Nuclear?

After Howard Stern got pushed off of the public airwaves a few months back, it was looking like the old morning commute was going to be pretty boring. Yeah, I know, Stern's a racist, sexist jerk, and I'm a cretin for listening to him, but he's also funny as hell, and the greatest celebrity interviewer ever.

But then, just a short time later, Penn Jillette's new radio show appeared to save the day. A typical Penn Radio show is pretty silly, although several grade school levels ahead of Stern in maturity. And Penn is a Libertarian to boot.

One of the most interesting shows Jillette has done was relatively serious. The other day he had environmentalist, Patrick Moore, on for an interview. Moore was one of the founders of Greenpeace, but split from the group when, in his opinion, they became too involved in leftist politics and anti-scientific thinking. The split was not amicable -- some of the remaining members refer to him as the "Eco-Traitor" or "Eco-Judas" because he has had good words to say about things like nuclear power, genetic engineering, fish farming and managed forestry.

The interview covers a lot of environmental topics, but the part I found most interesting were Moore's views on the necessity of using nuclear power in any meaningful effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He brought up something I'd never heard before: that nuclear power is our only non-polluting option for a power source that can drive the base load of our power grid. More hydroelectric isn't an option because we've already built out all the good sites. And, although alternative power sources like solar and wind have an important role to play, they aren't steady state enough to drive the base load.

I also liked Penn's anecdote about his brother-in-law, Ed, who worked at the nuclear plant. Penn figured he couldn't possibly know anything since he had a crew cut. So, he got his information about the nuclear energy from "guitar players" like Bruce Springsteen. Then, one day, after he had grown up a bit, it dawned that maybe the guy with the crew cut knew more about the subject than the musician.

They also talk about the unfortunate irony that the people who care the most about global warming tend to be against nuclear power, while at the same time global warming deniers are very open to nuclear power. That is starting to change: prominent environmentalists are starting to talk about nuclear energy and climate change deniers are getting harder and harder to find.

(The nuclear power topic starts up about 18:30 minutes into the interview.)


At 8:04 AM, August 11, 2006, Anonymous Po said...

Here's what Al Gore said in an interview in May:

"There are serious problems that have to be solved, and they are not limited to the long-term waste-storage issue and the vulnerability-to-terrorist-attack issue. Let's assume for the sake of argument that both of those problems can be solved.

We still have other issues. For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal -- which is the real issue: coal -- then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale. And we'd run short of uranium, unless they went to a breeder cycle or something like it, which would increase the risk of weapons-grade material being available.

When energy prices go up, the difficulty of projecting demand also goes up -- uncertainty goes up. So utility executives naturally want to place their bets for future generating capacity on smaller increments that are available more quickly, to give themselves flexibility. Nuclear reactors are the biggest increments, that cost the most money, and take the most time to build.

In any case, if they can design a new generation [of reactors] that's manifestly safer, more flexible, etc., it may play some role, but I don't think it will play a big role."

Even if they can build safer reactors, handle the waste somehow, and protect the reactors from terrosits, I think energy companies would probably want to be heavily subsidized and given almost "guarantees," otherwise they won't bother building any reactors.

Has anyone done a study that predicts how much energy we could produce if we put big wind power generators in the ocean off each coast and in the Gulf of Mexico?

At 8:35 AM, August 11, 2006, Blogger Mike Laursen said...

In the interview, Moore addressed a lot of the points Gore brings up. He implied that he was talking about breeder reactors; said that new nuclear power plants would be much safer than old ones; and he also talked about how safe the storage of materials is, especially when you compare the stuff side by side with coal -- which is really nasty stuff.

I gather that he would also agree with Gore about nuclear not being suitable for incremental power generation. He was suggesting nuclear as the only non-polluting option we have for driving the grid's base load.

Moore didn't bring up terrorism. I wonder if the context of Gore's statement was addressing the use of nuclear power worldwide, not just domestically.

At 11:40 AM, August 11, 2006, Blogger GRLCowan said...

Did Gore really say, "every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program"?

I have to believe he did. I read the interview at the time.

It could be true, if they didn't deal with any weapons proliferation problem.

It could make sense if Gore were lying like a flatfish. "Was connected to" might be the cloak over the dagger. The scheme to build civilian reactors in North Korea was connected to their small, secret, apparently weapons-grade-plutonium producing reactor in the sense that one was to replace the other.

In the event, they, like every other proliferator in history, turned out to have no interest in misapplying civilian power reactors for this purpose. Perhaps they thought they did, until their technicians informed them of some of the practical difficulties.

(The "nuclear link" is an outright lie; no reliable person ever brings it up.)

He sounds so honest, when discussing global warming. The, at best, amazing stupidity of his remarks on nuclear-energy issues has been hard to get a grip on, hence my lack of comment before now. Too stupid ever be president, for sure.

--- G. R. L. Cowan, former hydrogen fan
Boron: internal combustion, nuclear cachet

At 2:45 PM, August 11, 2006, Blogger Mike Laursen said...

I don't really know that much about Al Gore or nuclear proliferation. I do hope we are confident we can guard domestic power plants here in the U.S. from being used in weapons proliferation. If not, we should worry.

Come to think of it, Patrick Moore is from Canada. (Looks like you may be, too.) So, any time Moore talks about what "we" should be doing, he's probably talking as much about Canada as the U.S.


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