Nuclear Europe?

We wrote earlier about how concern over climate change may lead to a nuclear-power revival in the U.S., despite longtime opposition and fear on many fronts.

The issue is unfolding similarly in Europe. Here’s a fascinating short article from Spiegel, via BusinessWeek:

Italy on Thursday said it would join a growing number of European countries returning to nuclear power in the face of rising energy prices and concerns about climate change. In a referendum in 1987, Italians voted to ban nuclear power and deactivate the country’s reactors. But now the country says it wants to start building nuclear power plants again before the end of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi‘s term, with the first construction scheduled to begin by 2013.

The article cites Giuseppe Onufio, director of Greenpeace Italy, calling this announcement a “declaration of war.” Interestingly, the U.S. nuclear movement has gotten a big boost from the conversation of Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace International, who used to oppose nuclear power but is now an ardent advocate.

The Spiegel article also has an interesting take on Germany’s nuclear position:

Speaking on Thursday at a national Catholic conference in the city of Osnabrück, Merkel said Germany’s plan to abandon nuclear power “didn’t make sense,” especially as a country “with the safest nuclear power plants.” She said the country would be making a “laughing stock” of itself if it abandoned the production of nuclear power for the sake of a good conscience only to turn around and import nuclear energy from other countries.

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  1. Michael says:

    Coal fire plants, oil driven combustion engines, and even the gas furnances in our homes are all old technology. Now we can either embrace the future and move forward with nuclear energy or stay in the darkness that is Plato’s cave. The choice is ours. Man has not yet found anything better than nuclear power mostly because he has not embraced the nuclear age fully.

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  2. jimmynew says:

    The problem with generating power is that no matter which method you choose, there are adverse effects. I’m not an expert, but I think that we should go with the lesser evil. And no matter what we do, environmentalists will find something to complain about.

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  3. Dan says:

    The primary problem with older plants, as has been previously stated, is that they were all custom job. Look towards the US Navy’s nuclear program if you want an example of smaller, cookie-cutter plants with a super-high level of both safety and training. We’ve made huge advances in materials technology and computer controls in the last 30 years, which will enable less expensive plants. You could easily build modular 100MW or 200MW reactors, with 15 or 30 per site. Need to shut a couple down for maintenance? No problem.

    While some on the left may insist that its the price of nuclear plants thats the problem, in fact, its the insane plant licensing requirements and the lack of certainty of license renewal. That and the years of court battles that environmentalists will demand for every new plant.

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  4. Abraham Szoke says:

    Our civilization, based on agriculture, is about one hundred centuries old; human history is measured on that time scale. Prior to that time humans were hunter-gatherers. In the last two – three centuries, in our increasingly industrial society, the human population has grown about ten fold, to six thousand million and is predicted to peak at nine thousand million people. This large increase was enabled by increases in industrial production and food production, by widely available hygiene, by childhood inoculation, by control of the most devastating epidemic diseases, by elimination of the vast majority of regional famines and, last but not least, by vast increase of energy production

    During the last few centuries, our society has been using ever-increasing quantities of fossil fuels, causing significant increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. Such increases brought societal and political awareness of the finite amount of available fossil fuels as well as the possibility of significant climate changes. The very last century has also brought the understanding and realization of nuclear fission as a practical source of power. Nuclear power does not emit CO2 and there are very large potential sources of energy available from mined uranium, thorium and from uranium in seawater. Those available resources should suffice for ten thousand centuries, one hundred times longer than our civilization. In short, we have the technical capability to generate energy from fission and fusion at competitive prices and without CO2 emission.

    Fission reactors already supply about 15% of the electricity on the planet and they are eminently capable of supplying more. It has been clear for the last twenty-odd years that, for a significant expansion of nuclear power, new “generations” of reactors have to be built with the following three important characteristics. First, they have to be passively safe, meaning that nothing bad happens if all safety systems fail. There are some reactors today that have demonstrated passive safety. Second, power stations have to consist of relatively small, standard units, as opposed to large, custom-built ones. Such units will simplify licensing and allow their efficient industrial production. Third, they have to be designed so that they are not attractive for diversion of fissile material for nuclear weapons. Designs that discourage nuclear weapons’ proliferation will have to be coordinated with the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations. In my opinion, this last point should get more attention.

    Our present dependence on fossil fuels has risen to a prominent place in civic awareness and political discourse. Given the evident suitability of nuclear power to overcome the present problems of energy usage and CO2 emission in our world, one must ask: why is it not being more actively pursued today? In my opinion, there are four main reasons for this.

    First, the possible dangers of radioactive waste disposal have been a potent force to turn public opinion against the development of nuclear power. There is no objective reason for the widespread fear of nuclear waste if it is stored properly. Let us note that every single human is steadily exposed to radiation, due to natural radioactivity and cosmic rays; at sea level the exposure is about 200 millirem every year. It is doubled for people who fly in commercial airplanes for about four to eight hours a week or for someone who gets a CT scan; in some densely inhabited regions of the earth it is always four to five times higher. Such exposure to radiation has been going on for all of mankind’s history without devastating effects to the population. In contrast, the maximum possible exposure, in worst case scenarios, from proposed geological repositories in the US will affect only a very small number of people and will be limited to one tenth of their daily exposure at sea level. Nevertheless, in our society, any possible additional exposure by nuclear waste seems to be politically unacceptable. Let me also comment on the remark: “stored properly”. At present we are using the least safe method available: above ground storage. There are several well-studied technical solutions (e.g. the repository in Nevada) that would be safe for periods longer than the time span of our civilization. Another possibility to dispose of nuclear waste is by injecting it into a geological subduction zone, where it would be buried deep under the earth’s crust, “forever”. Continental drift has been steady for at least five hundred thousand centuries, about ten times longer than apes and humans were distinct, about two hundred times longer than modern man has been around and about five thousand times longer than our present civilization has existed.

    A second issue is nuclear weapons’ proliferation, which has been wrongly linked to power production. However, weapons may be produced without the use of nuclear reactors, using uranium isotope separation. The technical feasibility of this has been amply demonstrated. Thus it has no bearing on fission and fusion power – it is an international political problem.

    Thirdly, I would like to mention the very public debate about renewable energy as a replacement of all fossil fuels. It is my hope that it will gradually replace fossil fuels as well as fission power. In the near future, however, its use is limited by availability, quantity of production, price and efficiency. Solar power, wind power and tidal power are renewable, environmentally friendly and do not emit CO2. As long as they provide only a small fraction of the energy used, the only question is that of their price. If they provide a larger fraction of the energy used, even as much as 20%, some of the energy generated has to be stored with concomitant expenses and losses. Fuels made out of crops are fine as long as they provide a substantial decrease in CO2 emissions and are not needed to feed people. None of these criteria is satisfied today.

    Finally, there are strong and sometimes vocal interest groups opposed to large-scale employment of fission energy. They include oil and gas producers, who see loss of business and loss of political power. They include some of the transportation industry, in spite of the promise of electricity and hydrogen fuel production in high-temperature fission reactors. They include a large fraction of environmentalist groups who have invested their intellectual capital and support base in energy efficiency, renewable energy and the chimera of abolishing nuclear weapons. There is also widespread anti-nuclear sentiment in the public at large, induced by the justified fear of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the sentiment has been reinforced by a highly exaggerated fear of fission reactor accidents, like those at Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. In fact there is public fear of anything “nuclear” in its name, even though every atom on earth has a nucleus.

    Looking at the current discourse, I arrive at the sad conclusion that decision makers in the political structures of humankind are bound by conventional wisdom or the “secular religions” of our times (Tuchman). A large fraction of elected officials in many countries treat nuclear power as a taboo subject.

    A very real and objective difficulty facing our present economic and political structure is that any significant change in the direction of the “ship” of the economy takes decades. In fact, some important decisions have consequences that last for human lifetimes or even centuries, demanding prudence and foresight from the makers of those decisions. If we continue on a course of “business as usual”, we can only hope that our civilization is robust enough to survive real crises, like a serious disruption of energy supplies or a significant regional climate change.

    See Tuchman, B. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (Random House, 1984)

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  5. Ben says:

    So much of everything we do relies on electricity and electronic information that it doesn’t take much intelligence to know that a good supply of electricity is critical to mankind for the forseeable future. How much better off would we be if our economic stimulus was going toward advancing electricity generation technology and building new nuclear power plants than helping my neighbors buy a bunch of imported junk at walmart.

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  6. smart says:

    Abraham, I did not read your post. It is way too long.

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  7. janpi says:

    Italy need energy and nuclear choice is very important for this country. Oil is very expensive for “Belpaese” industry

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  8. Bob Burton says:

    Oh dear, Stephen, you’ve been suckered by the Patrick Moore spin. “Interestingly, the U.S. nuclear movement has gotten a big boost from the conversation of Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace International, who used to oppose nuclear power but is now an ardent advocate.” Don’t you think you should have at least informed your readers that Moore is a consultant to the Nuclear Energy Institute’s front group, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. Nor was he a “founder of Greenpeace International” – he was an early activist with Greenpeace in Canada but not a founder of it. Greenpeace International emerged later on.

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