Nuclear limbo

Author's photo of (at that time) an operating reactor next to one that was never completed

Growing up intermittently Catholic, I was taught about Limbo – a sort of antechamber to heaven that holds the souls of those who were never baptized by who had not committed a sin of their own. Those souls in Limbo aren’t admitted to Heaven, but neither are they sent to Hell – they are simply waiting.

At the moment, Limbo is a pretty good term for the status of nuclear energy in much of the world. As recently as March 10, 2011 the talk in the United States and elsewhere was of a nuclear renaissance – nuclear utilities were starting the decade-long process of licensing, site selection, and construction; taking the first steps towards reviving an industry that had been more or less in Limbo since the 1980s. It may be too much of a stretch to say that the nuclear industry was starting to crawl Heaven-wards, but it was starting to move in a favorable direction. However, even those faltering steps have been stopped. Once again, nuclear energy is in Limbo – not really thriving and not really dead. An interesting question to ask is why this is the case – why is it that nuclear energy’s proponents can’t quite get it revived while its opponents can’t quite land the death blow?

As far as I can tell part of the reason is that we are caught between our hearts and our heads. Rationally, nuclear energy makes sense – the facts line up in its favor. At the risk of going over well-trod ground (albeit briefly) nuclear energy emits no greenhouse gases (unlike fossil fuels), it can be put anywhere (unlike solar, tidal, geothermal, and wind), and – even with the well-publicized accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima – it is among the safest forms of energy. And lest you question this last point, hundreds to thousands of people die each year simply extracting fossil fuels from the ground – in comparison, in 2006 the World Health Organization found that fewer than 100 people had died in the 20 years since the Chernobyl accident (including deaths from both short-term radiation sickness and cancer) , nobody died from the Three Mile Island accident, and it is likely that few (if any) will die of radiation sickness or cancer from the Fukushima accidents. Even radioactive waste – long the bugaboo of anti-nuclear activists – can be safely contained, as I discussed in an earlier posting on this blog.

Of course there are also the concerns about the exclusion zone around Chernobyl and Fukushima – a lot of land has been contaminated and placed out of service. But if we are to look at that then we must also consider the square miles devastated by coal mining, the mountain lakes and streams laid to waste by acid rain; not to mention fish that die in hydropower turbines, birds killed each year by wind farms, or the naturally radioactive wastes produced by geothermal energy. And we haven’t even discussed the vast areas polluted by oil spilling from leaking pipelines, oil well blowouts, and sinking tankers. Huge swathes of territory have been devastated by our use of fossil fuels – by comparison, author Mary Mycio, in her fascinating book Wormwood Forest describes the Chernobyl exclusion zone as being one of the richest ecosystems in Europe. The environmental impact of nuclear energy – even at its worst – is no worse than that of fossil fuels. And, incidentally, nuclear reactors (during normal operation) actually put less radioactivity into the environment than do fossil fuel plants because of the geochemical association of fossil fuels and natural radioactivity.

The bottom line is that there is no rational reason not to use nuclear energy – its flaws are no worse than those of other forms of energy. That being the case, one might expect that even the recent accident would have the same impact on nuclear energy that the Gulf oil spill had on fossil fuels – little to none. So why is nuclear energy not the rational choice? Why have the (figurative) gates of Heaven not swung open for nuclear power?

The reason is that our decision to use (or not) nuclear energy is not a purely rational decision – the fact is that we make decisions based on emotion as much as on rationality, and one can no more argue emotion with facts than one can tune an engine using chopsticks. It’s possible, but unlikely and difficult. Pure rationality is the wrong tool to use when waging an emotional argument, but the scientists and engineers who design, build, operate, and stand up for nuclear power are usually ill-suited for using any other tool.

Leaving the pure facts aside, there are still good reasons for letting nuclear energy escape Limbo. In my younger years my father would take me hiking, camping, and fishing – he enjoyed sharing with me the woods, rivers, and mountain vistas. Today many of the mountains have been blasted into the valleys and the streams run red with acid mine drainage, hundreds of lakes are barren and nearly bereft of life, and the vistas are fogged with the detritus of burning fuel. We have to look harder and travel farther to share the same things with our children that our parents shared with us.

I also occurs to me that our major style of energy production today isn’t much different than it was ten thousand years ago – we used to burn wood, today we burn fossil fuels. I’d like to think that, with as much as our society has advanced, we can do better, and that “better” will likely include a mix of power sources that will almost certainly have to include nuclear.

Energy is what makes society work and the technology that has brought so many out of poverty, that has fed billions, and that has contributed so mightily to our current standard of living – this technology and all that comes from it tracks quite nicely with our use of energy. Billions of us live longer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives and these lives are better in large part because of the availability of energy. Billions more want to have the same lifestyle – can we deny them what we take for granted and what they strive for?

There are a lot of issues – maintaining our lifestyle, raising others to the same level, preserving the environment, moving beyond combustion as a source of energy, and so forth. Nuclear energy cannot be the only answer to these issues, but it must play a role. To deny ourselves this source of energy simply because it is distasteful to many just doesn’t make sense. But as neuropsychologist Drew Westen discusses in his insightful book The Political Brain, humans’ emotions have been with us far longer than have our intellects – unless we can appeal to both the heart and the mind we are unlikely to convince everyone of this. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI both voiced their belief that Limbo might not be a required aspect of Catholic theology, meaning that perhaps all of those souls have never been in Limbo after all. Would that it were as simple a matter to release nuclear energy from the Limbo in which it once again finds itself.

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2 Responses to “Nuclear limbo”

  1. Kit P March 21, 2012 at 7:37 PM #

    The nuclear industry is thriving in the US with 104 reactors producing 20% of our electricity. Power uprates, plant life extensions, and just keeping them running is a monumental task. Then there is the 6 reactors under construction.

    How many new reactors we need to built in the near term depends on how long the existing one last. We are not seeing any reasons they will not last 80 years. How many new reactors we need depends on the the economy not events in Japan.

    The only thing unrealistic expectations create is disappointment. I suspect that a data base of power projects that starts at project conception and ends with at least 5 years of commercial would show that nukes fair just as well as any other source of electricity. It is just the nature of the business.

  2. CR March 29, 2012 at 2:48 PM #

    Nuclear energy was in limbo long before Fukushima and the reason was clear: economics. Nuclear doesn’t make financial sense in the U.S with the current low cost of natural gas. And the upfront capital costs for nuclear power plants are massive. Investors won’t go near them, and the result has been a system that requires taxpayers to shoulder the financial risk. The only place nuclear power plants are likely to be built is in countries where state-driven investment strategies are not sensitive to these risks or to the price of electricity (see China, where half of all planned power plants are being built.) The psychological elements you describe are important, but even before Fukushima nuclear had an uphill struggle.

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