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Fission for Answers

To the Editor:

I read the article by Pamela White [“Goin’ Fission,” May 8] detailing all of the problems with turning to nuclear power to deal with global climate change and energy shortages, and had to respond. While there is a lot of validity to some of the arguments, there’s also a serious lack of context which keeps the piece from being an honest discussion of the issue: How are we going to obtain enough energy to survive?

Claiming that it would cost a trillion dollars to build all of the nuclear plants we’d need for power, that it would take 30 years to build them, and by then we have to start replacing them because they’d be wearing out is a deceptive argument in several ways. A trillion dollars over 30 years works out to just over $333 billion a year; Wikipedia lists the 2007 U.S. military budget alone at $439.3 billion—and that doesn’t cover all defense related items or spending on other government programs. We can find the money if we want to—and White does not give any numbers for the cost of building equivalent solar/wind energy systems, or how long they’d last before they too would need to be replaced.

Wind and solar have a problem nuclear does not. They’re diffuse—you need a lot of land and excess capacity to ensure being able to meet base power demands, and/or some way to store power for times when the wind dies or the sun goes down. Urban growth is accelerating around the world—but there’s only so much land available nearby to the capture the wind or solar power needed to run those cities. Don’t forget to factor in transmission lines and power storage facilities as part of the costs.

The safety, health, and environmental issues related to nuclear power certainly need to be addressed too—but it’s not only nuclear power that has those concerns. Every energy answer involves tradeoffs. Not everyone wants to see the land totally covered by wind turbines for example, and the effects on birds and bats being hit by turbine blades is not negligible. Further, has anyone thought of the problem some years down the road when aging wind farms start shedding fatigued blades? Solar power has some issues too: What are the environmental impacts from the manufacturing processes, what kind of toxic chemicals and wastes are involved, and what will happen as production ramps up? As for biofuels, we’re already seeing how those are turning into a train wreck from unconsidered consequences.

Further, while the estimated death tolls from nuclear power accidents are sobering, the threat to the entire planet and the death tolls from our current energy systems are already staggering—and little discussed. Any energy systems on the scale we’re talking about are going to have associated risks and a toll in human lives as we go about shifting to them. Perhaps those from nuclear power are not the best—but it’d be a good idea to see what the total price tag for the alternatives is before we close any deals.

Finally, one of the problems I am seeing in this whole debate is a certain amount of tunnel vision. Proponents of any particular alternative to carbon-based energy tend to act as though there are only either/or choices, and that those choices will be final. Failure to honestly consider alternatives, looking for a one-size-fits-all answer may be limiting our options. How many people know that there may be a real answer to the world’s energy problems within reach now? I’m referring to the other nuclear power: fusion.

The late Dr. Robert Bussard spent the last years of a long and productive life developing and testing ideas for a new approach to power from nuclear fusion. His team ran out of funding in 2006, just as their research got the basics of a practical fusion reactor defined. For about $200 million—far less than the cost of the ethanol production plant proposed for the Port of Albany— they could build a demonstration model Polywell fusion reactor that would not need radioactive fuel, would not generate radioactive waste, would not ever risk a meltdown, would not need massive cooling towers, or a huge containment vessel. They estimate it could be done in 10 years or less.

The research is still going on, and it could potentially change the debate over energy forever. Considering the magnitude of the problems we’re facing, $200 million to find out, one way or the other, looks like a pretty reasonable investment. We can also buy ourselves more time by going after Negawatts, the energy obtained by cutting back on all the ways we waste it.

Larry Roth


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