Nuclear power to the rescue?

Nuclear power to the rescue?

I’ve subscribed to the magazine Analog Science Fiction & Fact for decades. It mostly publishes short science fiction stories. But it also always includes some fact articles – and they get some pretty heavy professional scientists to write the articles. One of the things I like about the fact articles is that they often present things at the fringe of science – things where there is some good work being done, but are in a real state of wait-and-see if they’re going to pan out. I won’t say it’s happened often, but occasionally I’ve seen things discussed in Analog that I later see in popular science magazines and then get to the point of showing up in newspapers.

The fact article I want to talk about is, “Will Nuclear Power Save Us from Global Warming?” by Christina De La Rocha appearing in the November/December 2021 issue. This may not be bleeding edge science, but there is definitely a cadre of people arguing that we have to include nuclear power in our response to global warming so it’s a very topical issue.

I’ve never been a fan of nuclear power – to a great extent because there isn’t a good answer to how to deal with the waste. In particular, I don’t think having to bury something for 1000s of years is a good solution. De La Rocha does a good job of summarizing various aspects of the science and history of nuclear fission including the half-lives of the multiple radioactive nuclides involved but that’s not the point they make that I want to bring up here. They bring up a point I’ve never seen discussed before: how many nuclear power plants would be necessary to make a dent in global warming?

I won’t get into the detail they do, but here are some of the facts they present. A current strategy to meet the goal of keeping warming to 1.5o Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2050 is to reduce global energy consumption to 100,000 terawatt-hours per year (TWh/y). In 2018, the average output of the roughly 450 nuclear power plants in operation was 6 TWh/y. This means if we were to fully convert to nuclear power, it would take 16,700 of these power plants to meet the reduced need, or 1670 to meet just 10% of that need. And one of the ideas I’ve read about is producing smaller nuclear power plants that might supply a small city rather than the larger scale ones we currently have. As De La Rocha points out, the chances of thousands of new nuclear power plants being built and operational by 2050 are slim to none. So, to a certain extent, all the other debates surrounding nuclear power are pretty much moot.

I’m not going to discuss what the possible solutions to global warming are here other than a few general comments. We’re talking about long term infrastructure development. Why not put those investments into renewable sources. Another aspect of nuclear vs. renewable that I’ve never seen discussed is the ability to incrementally upgrade energy plants. Nuclear and coal can’t be; solar and wind can.

That’s the point I want to make, but I’ll take this opportunity to tell my story about the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island. I was attending Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA at the time. Well, actually I had decided to take a semester off so I wasn’t there during the main incident. Lewisburg is about 50 miles north of Three Mile Island. I was home in Massachusetts, about 250 miles away, when the incident happened, but I visited the fraternity I belonged to (Theta Chi) while the aftermath of the incident was still playing out. This was an early lesson in the difference proximity can make in attitude towards something. In Massachusetts the attitude was pretty much “Did you hear about Three Mile Island?” At Bucknell the TV was on 24/7 with people seriously concerned about their safety. What a difference a couple hundred miles can make.

At the time Bucknell held annual “Colloquium Weekends.” (I think that’s what they called them, and maybe they still hold them.) These were weekends dedicated to a series of forums addressing some poignant topic. So it made a lot of sense for the topic the following semester to be about nuclear energy. I will admit upfront that I’m going off of 40 year old memories but I remember a semiformal debate I attended. I call it semiformal because it had the structure of a formal debate with pro and con debaters. Each of them had a certain amount of time to present their arguments. This was followed by timed rebuttals and timed counter rebuttals. But there wasn’t’ any score keeping the way some formal debates have. The pro side was led by the chair of the Nuclear Science Department from Penn State (not that far down the road from Bucknell). The con side was by the authors of an anti-nuclear book. (I thought it was titled “No Nukes” but I wasn’t able to find it on the net and I know the book by that name that comes up in a search isn’t the book I’m talking about. I told you I’m basing this on 40 year old memories!) What I remember is that every point the pro nuclear people made was rebutted by the anti-nuclear side with documentation in their hands. They literally claimed that the pro side was lying on virtually everything they said in support of nuclear power. Now, I didn’t research the issues very much at the time, so I don’t know how valid either side of the arguments were, but this left a sour taste in my mouth about nuclear power. And, perhaps as interesting, it amazed me that a prestigious academic was so ill prepared for such a public debate.

(The cover image is from Pexels, a free stock photo site. I added the question mark.)

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