Friday, May 26, 2006

The New Era of Nuclear Power: Will California Be Left Behind?

A Position Paper by iNuclear.Org

Ed Note. At the Nuclear Assembly last week in San Francisco, we asked attendees: “What do you think is going to happen in California? Is California going to be a significant part of the new nuclear revival, either as a buyer of reactors, or as a supplier of technology to new reactors?” The answers were disheartening. The general perception by the group, and by extension for the rest of the world (as they change to supporters of nuclear power) was not at all positive for the state's image. This article is the first of 4 parts.

PART I: The International Scene

In the 1970s, the attempt to pass an Anti-Nuclear Proposition 15 made California the spiritual heart of the movement to halt nuclear power. After the rapid post-WWII nuclear expansion, citizens and leaders throughout the world stopped to ask: “Do we really want to build this many nuclear reactors? Is nuclear energy the right path to follow for the future of our world?”

Now, after 30 years of this debate, the answer appears to be “Yes”. With surprising speed, the world community of thinkers, leaders, citizens, and even environmentalists are deciding in favor of nuclear power. The nuclear power industry, which had been declared all but dead by opponents, has suddenly revived and to the shock of many, looks healthy indeed.

Of course there will be continued debate, but it is likely to be moot. Fears over global warming, out-of-control energy costs, and dangerous international politics are driving the change, and the pro-nuclear case is gaining speed. It’s a new technological trend, still at the early stages but unmistakable.

As the long nuclear debate resolves itself, the state of California doesn’t look good. Far from being the technology leaders, we are in danger of being laggards, holding tight to old and out-of-date policies while the rest of the world moves ahead. Our energy future is not only stagnating, but may in fact be backsliding…devolving towards more primitive, dirtier forms of energy. For a state that has long relied on a competitive edge based on it’s perception as a technology center, this is a dangerous situation.

Nations Shift Their Stance

Where are these historic shifts happening? At the Nuclear Energy Assembly meeting last week in San Francisco, the leaders of the new nuclear industry described case after case:

In the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair and most of his government have all but capitulated to the need to re-build and perhaps expand nuclear power. Wind and other renewables are simply unable to fill the need.

In Europe, alarm over global warming, pressures from the Kyoto protocol, and the ever-growing dangers of middle eastern and Russian energy has even staunch greens saying “well, we don’t like it, it’s not our first choice, but we can’t live without it”.

France already gets 75% of their electricity from nuclear power, and they are smugly enjoying the lowest stable electric rates, and the lowest carbon dioxide emission rates, in the world.

China has 14 reactors working or under construction, another 58 proposed by 2020, and there is public discussion of thousands more. Chinese energy is primarily based on coal burning, which is taking an enormous toll on air and lungs. Their hydroelectric program has serious grassroots opposition from displaced citizens. So their need for nuclear, for practical purposes, is infinite. India already has an aggressive nuclear program. Between them, China and India have almost two billion people, almost a third of the human race that is striving to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become part of the clean, healthy, modern world. Two billion people demand an almost inconceivable amount of new energy, and the survival of the ecosystem may well depend on our ability to deliver that energy from clean sources.

In the United States, 10 or more new reactors are in in the planning process, southern and midwestern states are competing to be the first new locations, and the federal government is seriously re-tooling their efforts to develop new reactor technologies, fix waste disposal, and reduce proliferation risks. Even as the Bush administration enters it’s last few years of power, it will leave behind significant changes, which subsequent administrations are unlikely to reverse.

Finally, most important, nuclear power is no longer driven by the United States. It’s no longer just a local question. It’ a worldwide movement with worldwide consequences. Who will lead that movement?

Environmentalists for Nuclear

The environmental community is also shifting. Environmental provocateurs Patrick Moore, Steward Brand, and James Lovelock have led the change, and other environmental leaders from major organizations are beginning to jump in. Their increasing success at convincing the world to fear global warming has produced an unexpected result: the irresistible logic of nuclear power as a tool to save the ecosystem.

Finally, the ultimate shift. Public perception of nuclear power has improved quietly over the years. The great high-technology revolution of the past few years has created a generation of citizens who are technology-friendly and technology-savvy. They love their gadgets, love the Internet, and want the electricity to keep their servers and cellphones humming. They are capable of sophisticated judgments about the pros and cons of competing technologies. They are software engineers, biotech scientists, microwave engineers, chip manufacturers, and video game hackers. And they are open to nuclear power.


At 12:19 PM, Blogger Kirk Sorensen said...

Supposedly under California law no nuclear power plants can be built until the waste problem has been "solved". Does anyone know what that means? Does it mean that no nuclear power plants can be built until fission does not produce radioactive fission products? In that case, it will never happen--that's like saying that a rock shouldn't fall when you let go of it.

But if it means that reactors have to have closed-fuel cycles, then there are technologies that might satisfy California.

At 10:44 PM, Blogger Tom Benson said...

Hi Kirk,

I believe this is a decision that will be "made" (perhaps politically) by the California Energy Commission who are a typical group of political people with various agendas. Recently I heard a rumor that they would consider the opening of Yucca Mountain to be a solution if they can identify space for california waste. But who knows.

I doubt that new fuel cycles are part of the decision, being several decades away, and in some ways even more politically challenging. I think this is really a short-term problem.

Of course there is a significant risk for them to look irrational, when they shut down nuclear power for unresolved waste problems, meanwhile letting hydrocarbon fuels "off the hook" despite the fact that they spew gigatons of carbon dioxide, a MUCH BIGGER waste problem.

At 6:24 AM, Blogger Kirk Sorensen said...

Hi Tom,

Only closed SOLID fuel cycles are decades away. With liquid fuel you could have a closed fuel cycle from the outset. That ought to be a factor for the California Energy Commission to factor in.

Furthermore, what if there never is a Yucca Mountain? What do we do? Again, the solid fuel-cycle is up the creek, whereas the liquid-fluoride reactor fuel cycle provides an attractive answer.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Tom Benson said...

Good points Kirk. I think the liquid fuel concept certainly has some tremendous advantages. Interesting to see what happens...


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