Alternative Power vs. Nuclear Power

One of the pleasures of blogging is that it promotes the free exchange of ideas amongst people with various perspectives. This post started out as a response to one of Dean's comments, but I wrote enough on the matter that I decided to post it here. If you don't feel like reading all the comments at Dean's World, here is the latest post to which I am responding.

Yes, Admiral, I'm afraid that on nuclear power I'll have to consider you a luddite. Because the human factors involved in nuclear power are no greater than the human hazards involved in the handling of any hazardous material--and are usually less hazardous than what's found in the handling of other hazardous materials.

Sorry man. But living near a nuke plant wouldn't make you an expert, either. :-(

We have rejected the safest, most cost-effective, and least environmentally harmful power generation technology in history, and now some are upset that we might continue using artificial oil? :-(

As for the criminal possibilities in this new technology: the mind boggles, doesn't it?

And yes, if this thing pans out, it will be "a whole new world." How do you get rid of sewage? Make oil out of it. Old food? Ditto. Old plastic? Ditto.

Massive savings both in terms of landfill and cheap power.

Well, I guess I'll have to live with being considered a Luddite ;-) And no, I don't consider myself an expert on the subject, just a reasonably informed layman who has had similar discussions with experts who run nuclear powerplants.

But I strongly disagree with your characterization of nuclear power as the safest and least environmentally harmful power generation in history. Reasonable, intelligent, and well-informed experts in the field may disagree without being Luddites (in fact, some of those running the nuclear reactors I mentioned do not advocate building more of them - and they are certainly experts by any definition). I'll stipulate that nuclear power has the potential to be everything you advocate, but in practice it has fallen woefully short of its potential. Do you have any references to support your claim? I find it inconceivable that an intelligent person such as yourself would think nuclear power is safer and less environmentally harmful than some alternatives such as tapping geothermal energy. Do you really believe this? If so, please elaborate so I might understand. I'll start by providing a basic reference to geothermal projects.

Regarding the comparison of nuclear to hydroelectric power, the outcome of any comparison will be probably be determined by what criteria you use and if you use discuss theoretical implications vs. actual implications. For example, in theory nuclear waste can be safely stored. In practice, some escapes and gets into the local eco-system.

Let me give you two examples from when I resided in Tennessee. When the locals went deer hunting in National Parks in East Tennessee (not in Oak Ridge, just in public lands that were "downstream" of Oak Ridge (if downstream is the appropriate word for underwater rivers), they were supposed to get their deer scanned by an ORNL official for radiation. Approximately one out of three deer were confiscated by ORNL as being unsafe for human consumption. Make me wonder about how many wells are using that same ground water for human consumption and/or crop watering... Another example - sometime ago, ORNL put in geiger counters at their guarded entrance to ensure no one smuggled radioactive substances away from the lab. However, the guards were shocked to discover that when it rained, incoming cars were setting off the detectors. The rain had caused frogs - miles from ORNL - to hop onto the highway where many were run over by cars. Some of these frogs had consumed so much radioactive substances from their environment that the parts that stuck to the tires were setting off the geiger counters. And ORNL is considered to be one of the best-run nuclear facilities in the country... Short of buying a personal geiger detector, there is no way to protect myself from the dangers of radioactive contamination once this hazard has gotten into the ground water other than moving to another environment.

Yes, I agree hydro-electric power has some problems. Ignoring the risks of construction, which are true for any project (dams, nuclear power plants, tidal generators, etc.), the only risk to human life that hydro-electric generators pose is to those downstream if the dam is destroyed. In some cases, even this is not a risk (e.g,. if the hydro-electric facilities were destroyed at Niagara Falls the only loss of human life would be any tourists and workers who might be inside/under them at the time). Careful placement of hydro-electric projects and care about where downstream facilities are located can minimize any risk to human life. Other hydro-electric projects (such as tidal generators) pose no risk to humans after construction. Now the creation of most hydro-electric projects will have an environmental impact that will reduce the viability of some species and increase the viability of other species. But this comes back to the issue of criteria. I freely admit that I am human-centric. If a project benefits humanity but causes a variant of owl to become extinct from the region, I'll wave goodbye to the owl. I'll look for an eco-friendly solution, but humans come first. And the loss of a subspecies (in the region) will be compensated for as other animals are attracted by the change in environment. Compare this to the frogs and deer near Oak Ridge that are undergoing cancer and mutations due to a radioactive environment. There are legitimate reasons why 20% of the world's power is generated by hydro-electric generators (BTW, if you have a good source for how the world's power is generated by energy segment, I'd be quite interested - I do not really trust the few things I've found on the internet since they were posted by advocacy groups).

Well we may just agree to disagree on this issue, but I would like to better understand your perspective so long as you can provide some references. I can understand while you support nuclear power, but I have trouble understanding why you think it is safer than many other options.

And I would agree that anyone has problems with us moving to artificial oil - that is produced by eliminating waste products that are currently burned or buried - is truly a Luddite. As Voltaire said, the enemy of the good is the perfect. Artificial oil will have some disadvantages, but it is much better than our current situation. I'd be happy to switch to this technology while I await the perfection of an even better solutions such as hydrogen-based fuel cells or cold fusion. Even if the technology may provide a challenge to law enforcement...


i have a question, i am doing a project on Nuclear Power VS. Alternat sources of power.
i would like to know the basic pros and cons of each. i am only a 9th grader and have researched in my school's library and not found anything.. i have also looked on google and found limited info.. can you help?

Posted by: callum | 04/06/2004 - 01:55 AM

For nuclear power, I'd start at the NRC site. They also have a student page - it may be a bit simpler than you need, but it does have some good background information. John McCarthy also has some very useful information (and links to other sites).

For alternative power, I'd also start with a federal site. As with the NRC, the EERE has an additional link for young students. It may be more basic than you need, but some of their other links are pretty good. You might also want to report on what is going on in your state.

I also found two references that specifically mentioned a few pros and cons.

I hope this helps. Good luck on your project.

Posted by: Don Quixote | 04/06/2004 - 04:17 PM
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