"Because you can't hug a tree if you can't find one."


A Fossil Fuel Free Future

A few days ago, I posted a link to an article about how the democratic presidential candidates have both received funding from the nuclear industry. I had been wondering where they stood on the nuclear energy issue, and the article answered some of my questions. (I don't mean to imply that McCain is any better: according to this chart on Grist, he wholeheartedly supports a nuclear future.)

After posting that link I became embroiled in a debate with pro-nuke blogger Red Craig, who is aware of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming, but reduces the issue to a choice between nuclear energy and coal.

I am going to make a disclaimer here: I am neither a scientist nor a journalist, and my posts are not as researched as articles in a scientific journal. However, the ideas and opinions I share on Urban Botany are informed by a lot of reading, both online and in print. Energy is not my specialty; in fact I am much more interested in the issues of waste and global resource depletion. It's based on this point of view that I believe that beefing up the nuclear infrastructure is not the way to salvage the climate or preserve the biosphere. Rather, it would replace one long term problem with another.

We are already feeling the effects of spewing waste from fossil fuels into the air. If we allow the nuclear power industry to build a lot more plants, they will generate a lot of radioactive waste that has to be stored on land or underground. And there is no safe, fool-proof way to do so. No one wants the nuclear waste that already exists to be stored near them (would you?), and there is no way to neutralize it.

Craig claims that clean, renewable power technologies like solar and wind can't provide enough energy "without something to back them up." I think he's probably right. The way developed countries consume energy at present can't continue. As Bill McKibben says in this Alternet article:
We need to conserve energy. That's the cheapest way to reduce carbon. Screw in the energy-saving lightbulbs, but that's just the start. You have to blow in the new insulation -- blow it in so thick that you can heat your home with a birthday candle. You have to plug in the new appliances -- not the flat-screen TV, which uses way more power than the old set, but the new water-saving front-loading washer. And once you've got it plugged in, turn the dial so that you're using cold water. The dryer? You don't need a dryer -- that's the sun's job.
We shouldn't turn the planet into a nuclear wasteland so that we can maintain the Western way of life. We also can't count on magic technologies to allow us to continue our wasteful ways. Rather, we have to adjust to the reality of a fossil-fuel free future.


Red Craig said...

Rejin, it's flattering that you remembered our earlier dialog. At the risk of overstaying my welcome, I'd like to comment on your remarks here.

Somehow you've made the determination that if the world pursues nuclear energy, we'll "turn the planet into a nuclear wasteland."

I don't mind a little poetic license to illustrate a point. This isn't poetic license. It's wholesale misinformation. There are not prospects that we'll ever do anything of the kind. For example, for all the harm coal wastes have caused, not even the most adamant coal opponent would argue that the planet is a coal wasteland. But the wastes of nuclear energy are trivial compared to those of coal. A 1000-MW coal plant generates 300,000 metric tonnes of solid waste per year, not including the filth that is released to the atmosphere. A comparably-sized nuclear plant produces 23 tonnes per year, enough to partly fill a railroad boxcar. Can you see that 23 tonnes is much less than 300,000 tonnes? But it gets better. Reprocessing the spent fuel reduces the wastes by 97%. So the same nuclear plant will produce only 0.7 tonnes per year. Reprocessing also reduces the time before the waste is harmless to some centuries. In comparison, coal wastes stay deadly forever.

The NIMBY argument is an empty one. You're contending that people's reluctance to live near a nuclear repository makes nuclear energy nonviable. Actually, if people understood the nature of nuclear repositories their reluctance would fade considerably. In any case, there are many installations people prefer not to live near. Coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, interstate highways, airports, hog farms, dairy farms, meat-packing plants, waste-water treatment plants, landfills, recycling centers, gasoline stations, secondary schools, concert halls, sports stadiums. A person with imagination could make a very long list. Is it your contention that none of these enterprises should be allowed?

No one's going to argue against conservation. Clearly that's the highest-payback solution available. On the other hand, in a world where Chinese are buying cars as fast as they can be manufactured and Americans are buying motorhomes, yachts, and houses the size of hotels, we probably shouldn't depend on conservation to save us.

The reason I present this argument is that the world has no choice but to fully employ nuclear energy. That is, assuming self-destruction isn't a choice. Part-time energy sources won't work and the only full-time energy sources available are fossil fuels and nuclear energy. The sole obstacle to minimizing the harm of global warming is unwarranted fear of imaginary concerns and the most important thing people can do now is get past these misconceptions. I invite you to abandon the political extremists who thrive on spreading misinformation and confusion and find better sources.

There's lots of good information on the web, along with much more bad information. Look for sources that don't have a political or ideological connection. I've done this exercise and posted the results on a web page, with links to the most authoritative sources I could find. If you can improve on it I'd be very glad to hear from you.

Randi Cecchine said...

As always, I love reading your poasts. Even thought you don't write that much that is personal, the writing always gives a feeling of *you* being there, and the sheer personal, gentle nature of your mature convictions and views.

Anyways... I spent some time reading up and really loved the toilet paper planting! The photo on this page of the windmills is something I've become accustomed to in Europe- at the same time I'm not really sure how much energy they produce. They sure are pretty! What is the story with the windmills in Southern California? I drove through them once.

Today I spent some time looking at the Tierney Lab- a really nice blog connected to the New York Times.


He talked about how taking one international flight consumes as much gas as if I drove a Hummer for a year. IS THAT TRUE??

Anyway, I'm living with very little heat here in Amsterdam, nobody but me uses the dryer at the laundrymat, and conservation is the norm. It also connects the Dutch frugality -- they are simply not big on the idea of waste and showing off.

Thanks for your always insightful, always personal blog. It makes me feel like I'm hanging out with you even when I'm far away!