Lessons From Okuma: An Energy Strategy for 2050 and Beyond

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by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

For years, I have advocated the use of nuclear power as an interim action to wean society at-large from its energy dependence on carbon-emitting fuels.  Keyword: interim.

Globally, our unsustainable addiction to fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas produces over 21 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year with only about half of that amount absorbed by natural processes.  That’s a net annual gain of nearly 11 billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas with monumental ecological consequences because it enhances radiative forcing and thus contributes to global warming.  Its annual production across the planet is roughly equivalent to a mountain 1 mile high with a base 12 miles in circumference.  Compare this to the waste generated worldwide by nuclear power plants: a mere cube with a 16-yard edge.  That’s 2 million times less waste by volume for nuclear fission!

Coal especially is an ecological catastrophe all its own.  Not only does coal change our global climate, but it’s dug from mines that collapse and kill miners.  In the United States alone, more than 100,000 coal miners were killed in mining accidents over the past century.  Add to that horrific number what’s happened to miners worldwide over the last 100 years, and we have a recurring story of untold tragedy.  A typical coal-fired power plant generates as much carbon dioxide yearly as cutting down 161 million trees.  Furthermore, the fly ash emitted by a coal plant carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant that yields the same amount of energy.  A single coal-burning plant also accounts for unimaginable tons of pollutants that cause acid rain, soot, and surface ozone.  Then add to this witch’s brew the hundreds of pounds of mercury, arsenic, lead, and cadmium generated by a single coal-fired plant, and we have a very dark picture indeed of emissions.  With 50,000 coal-fired power plants worldwide (over 600 in the United States, producing about 50% of our electricity), that’s billions of reasons why we need to stop burning coal … yesterday!  And we haven’t even touched on the physical impacts of the coal-mining process on regional ecosystems: strip mining, mountaintop removal, erosion, and such.  The idea of “clean coal” is a myth.  In short, we simply have to eliminate the use of coal straightaway from our national energy policy.  Pernicious in every aspect, coal is our modern-day DDT.

Of the remaining fossil fuels, the least noxious one seems to be natural gas.  Burning natural gas produces about 30% less carbon dioxide than burning petroleum, and about 45% less than burning coal.  That’s why many coal-fired power plants are converting to natural gas: a much more efficient and “cleaner” approach to our energy demands.  Still natural gas is a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide upon combustion.  And, since its major component is methane (far more potent than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere), leakage of natural gas during production and transport can have significant effects on climate change.  Overall, however, natural gas seems the least of three evils.

This brings us back to nuclear energy.

Emission-free sources like nuclear power supply relatively safe, reliable, and affordable power to meet Virginia’s economic growth without polluting the air with greenhouse gases and other poisons.  The Commonwealth generates nearly 40% of its electricity via nuclear energy from four nuclear power plants: two in Richmond, and two in Newport News.  This does not include the Army’s nuclear power program at Fort Belvoir nor the Navy’s fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines at Newport News.  Nor does this include hospitals and dentist offices throughout Virginia with radioactive isotopes used in medical equipment.  Note that I say “relatively safe.”

An on-line search for nuclear power plant accidents with multiple fatalities and/or more than US$100 million in property damage between 1952 and 2011 yielded 19 incidents, most of which occurred in the United States.  The “big” ones that come to mind include Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania (1979), Chernobyl in the Ukraine (1986), and Fukushima Daiichi in Japan (2011).  Compare these disasters (apples to oranges?) with some of the largest oil spills by volume in history: 240 million gallons in Kuwait (1991), 140 million in México (1979), 88 million in Uzbekistan (1992), 80 million in Iran (1983), 79 million in South Africa (1983), 69 million in France (1978), 43 million in Canada (1988), 43 million in Trinidad and Tobago, 42 million in Italy (1991), and 42 million in Libya (1980).  The 1989 Exxon Valdez accident released “only” 10 million to 32 million gallons off Alaska’s shores, but it coated more than 1000 miles of pristine coastline.  Of recent notoriety was the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill; at nearly 206 million gallons, this disaster in the Gulf of México was the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.  The nature of our human-caused disasters knows no national boundaries.  Putting all the consequences related to fossil-fuel disasters together with the environmental impacts of extraction, refining, distribution, and usage provides us with a monumentally dark picture of an invasive and unsustainable industry.  As a short-term approach to our energy needs, I will take my chances with nuclear power despite its radioactive traits.

So what’s our take-home message from the earthquake-tsunami double disaster in Okuma, Japan?  It was an unprecedented, spectacular disaster: a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and an 8-foot tsunami with nearly 12,000 people dead.  That’s about as extreme an event as any nuclear reactor will ever face.  As of early 2011, 442 nuclear power plants exist worldwide, 104 of which are located in the United States that generate 20% of our nation’s electricity.  Another 65 plants are under construction including just one in the United States.  You can bet each facility is now undergoing exhaustive performance assessment and safety inspection.  That’s a good thing.  But it’s not a good thing to shut down the entire nuclear network because of one unprecedented disaster in Japan.  When a plane falls from the sky, we don’t propose permanent closure of the airline industry.  A week ago, I received an e-mail blast from credoaction.com, asking me to sign a petition for President Obama to reverse his support for nuclear power in the United States.  I refused to do so, responding “We need to wean ourselves NOW from carbon-emitting fuels, and nuclear energy may be the way to do this … short-term.”

Here then is my brief proposal for a national energy policy: convert most coal-fired power plants to natural gas by 2020; phase out all other carbon-emitting power plants by 2025; build an additional 200 to 400 nuclear power plants in the country by 2025 and, at the same time, aggressively pursue alternative types of power generation such as solar, hydro, and wind; shutdown all carbon-emitting power stations, including natural gas, by 2050; decommission all nuclear power plants and provide all energy needs via alternatives by 2075.  Given that, with current proved reserves, we have about 150 years of coal remaining, 40 years for petroleum, and 60 years for natural gas, my proposed timetable seems a reasonable one.  Other important components of an energy policy must emphasize conservation and stewardship in a world of 7 billion people trying to live sustainably with finite resources.  That includes a firm “NO” to the development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other treasures held in the public trust.

The take-home lesson from Okuma is for us to seize the moment.  Historically, the nuclear industry has been relatively safe and reliable.  Let’s solidify our national energy policy to phase out carbon-emitting fuels, provisionally embrace nuclear power, and build alternative technologies for a sustainable society.  As we bicker about national energy policy, our skies continue to fill with poisons from an antiquated industry.