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
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
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