UPDATE: Quixim, in comments on the previous post:
Do I detect a hint of scorn at the prospects of nuclear power?
I know that you’re aware it’s perfectly clean, and even less radioactive than coal power, not as damaging to ecosystems as hydroelectric, and more feasible than tidal or wind… So… for something that can essentially hold us indefinitely until we find a permanently sustainable form of energy, it’s sure getting a lot of flak here…
There are a multitude of reasons not to seriously consider nuclear power (beyond those installations already in place). Here are some of the major ones, and I’m not even going to address the issue of waste.
1.) Nuclear power is expensive. It has never, ever been cost-efficient on a private-sector basis; Mr. Burns is a fictional character, and there is no nuclear plant in the entire world capable of operating without very large government subsidy. This does not apply to solar (particularly so) or wind or any renewable energy source worth considering. On a cents per kilowatt-hour scale, nuclear right now tends to linger around 12 to 15 cents. Compare that to wind (4-7 cents) or tidal (2-3 cents) and it’s a joke. Solar energy two years ago was at 15-20 cents, and with the recent advances in solar technology making them vastly more efficient and with cheap fuel cell technology essentially perfected allowing us to more or less store solar energy overnight, solar’s costs are going to drop exponentially in the very near future.
(If we got fusion running, it would still be better than solar in many respects, but the two are essentially complementary technologies anyhow.)
2.) Nuclear power is a mature technology and it doesn’t work with economies of scale. More bluntly: it’s not going to get any cheaper because of scientific advances (pebblebed reactors are still going to cost buckets of money), and it’s not going to get cheaper if we make a lot of them. (Actually, all evidence points to the fact that nuclear plants actually get more expensive the more of them you build.) On top of that, nuclear plants represent massive infrastructure investments that just don’t exist for the likes of solar and wind.
3.) Nuclear plants are not like solar panels or windmills, which you basically just set up and then check on every once in a while. Nuclear plants are gigantic complicated fucking things that require continuous expert staffing, and for good reasons (most of which involve the word “radioactivity”). And we want safer nuclear plants, but the problem is that safer nuclear plants means more oversight, complicated devices, and staffing – meaning that the safer you want the plant, the more expensive it is to operate.
4.) Nuclear plants need enriched uranium to use as fuel. Nuke-fans, when discussing the prospects for nuclear fuel, typically point out that there is shitloads of uranium left on the planet. The problem is that we’ve already used up most of the naturally occurring enriched uranium in nuclear plants already, and most of what’s left isn’t easily accessible. This means for the long term, we have two options: 1.) strip-mining to get at the last naturally enriched uranium and 2.) refining the raw, low-grade uranium that is most of our planet’s supply into fuel-grade uranium. Either of these skyrockets the cost of nuclear power.
5.) The new “safer” reactors nuke-fans love to talk about barely exist. Pebble-bed reactors are still an experimental technology. We are decades away from mass installation of pebble-bed reactors.
Now let’s take that pin out of the meltdown and waste issues and discuss it rationally without talking about two-headed mutant babies. We don’t have a foolproof way of burying nuclear waste that can prevent it from seeping into groundwater; even if we did, what you’re then talking about is yet another additional cost assigned to nuclear power that solar and wind do not have in any meaningful context. Likewise, the necessity of preventing meltdowns greatly increases nuclear energy’s cost. Even before we consider things like radioactive risk, nuclear energy is just a bad deal.
Now, the nuke-fan might respond by saying “well it doesn’t matter if it’s expensive or not – wind and solar can’t do the job themselves.” Wind can’t do the job itself, that’s true (it can probably do a good chunk of it, say twenty percent or so, but that’s probably about it at present). Solar, however, can. If you don’t believe me, go ask Popular Mechanics, who used a very conservative plan (which, incidentally, is already outdated less than a year later as scientific advances have rendered solar collection more efficient) and determined that the USA could be fully solar-powered by 2050 for an investment cost of about $1 billion per year.
And that is why I dismiss nuclear power.