On the fence with nuclear energy


There is a strain of schizophrenia running through the environmentalist movement. Long the favorite whipping boy for green-blood tree-huggers, nuclear energy is enjoying a resurgence thanks to global warming concerns. Along with solar, wind, geothermal and  tidal energy sources, fission is also free of carbon emissions– and unlike the others, already has a proven track record for providing significant fraction of energy in many regions.

The British scientist James Lovelock is no stranger to controversy with his Gaia hypothesis, but in his recent book The revenge of Gaia, he has also “gone nuclear” and came out swinging in favor of nuclear energy. First it paints a very optimistic view of fusion and calls for greater investment even though not a single controlled fusion reaction on Earth has yet been self-sustaining. (Controlled is the operative keyword, since weapons do not qualify as “renewable energy sources”) There is an interesting parallel with the fuel-cell mania taking place in the automative world here. Aside from the fact that both use hydrogen as fuel, they are both long-term, high-risk, reach-for-the-moon investments which amount to business-as-usual in the short term until some undefined magic development arrives.

More perplexing is his argument for increasing the share of conventional nuclear energy based on fision. At the heart of the issue is a very complex risk management problem involving industrial systems on large scale.  Unlike deciding between an SUV and small-car, this one is greatly complicated by the apples-to-oranges nature of the comparison, weighing the risks from dramatic accident in a reactor that unfolds within seconds to the slow, gradual build-up of climate altering chemicals in the atmosphere that leads to irreversible climate change over decades.

No room for such fine points in the book. Lambasting the critics of nuclear energy as misguided urban romantics operating out of fear, Lovelock issues a dramatic personal challenge on the subject of waste disposal:

“I have offered in public to accept all of the high-level waste produced in a year from a nuclear power station for deposit on my small plot of land; it would occupy a space about a cubic metre in size and it safely in a concrete pit, and I would use the heat from its decaying radioactive elements to heat my home.”

Not-in-my-backyard residents of Nevada can take comfort here. If only more people were willing to offer their own backyard for storing radioactive waste, the ongoing debacle of Yucca mountain could be finally put to rest.

cemp

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