Thanks for raising the issue. I copied some others who might be interested in commenting. Until now I have paused long enough on this question only to do a gut check, with the result being a dope slap upside the head, exclaiming, “No!” Like most people, I generally trust much to unconscious thinking; I appreciate this excuse to consider the subject just a bit more, for my own understanding if nothing else. But just because I needed to work through this doesn’t mean that it will be useful to you. I focused mostly on framing; I find myself wishing I had the time to paw through the research some….
With regards to your question, “Can Nuclear Energy ever be ‘sustainable?’”:
1) Definitions: In contrast
to the Brundtland Commission’s positive-sounding description of desired
outcomes, I think it useful to portray sustainability as a set of
solutions to multiple examples of the dual problem:
a) An overdemand of available resources or carrying capacity, and
b) An inequitable distribution of resources.
2) Supply v. Demand. The danger to
our high dependence on fossil fuel resources (known variously as the end of oil,
peak oil, or oil shock) offers an obvious driver for the question. This
classic concern posed by petroleum-fueled energy demand outstripping the
accessible reserves has been subject of much discussion since at least 1956 when
Hubbert presented it to the Spring Meeting of the Southern District, American
Petroleum Institute, Plaza Hotel, San Antonio, Texas (positing what is now known
as Hubbert’s Peak). The details of the precise time of overshoot is still
subject of much discussion, most recently in Matthew Simmon’s book,
Twilight in the Desert, http://www.twilightinthedesert.com/ (some nice slides, http://www.simmonsco-intl.com/files/Twilight%20in%20the%20Desert%20Presentation.pdf ), but I doubt anyone seriously disagrees with the
Nuclear energy could certainly do much to prolong the existing reserves of oil. Add to that the French example that nuclear power gives them energy independence, and one can understand why we’re hearing talk about going nuclear. But distancing the date of the end of resources is hardly evidence of sustainability, any more than adding electrical production from coal is sustainable. Both nuclear and coal depend on a finite supply of fuel. Mathematically, one simply changes the shape of the bell curve, moves the timeline for Hubbert’s Peak to make this a problem for future generations and unrealized (but hopefully improved) future technologies. In this context, nuclear can be described as a bridging technology, but not a sustainable one. I’m not doing any serious reading for my opinion here, but it seems possible that Hubbert may have had something to say about this in his 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, M.K. Hubbert, link available in references of this Wikipedia article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._King_Hubbert . BTW, I like the quote he is credited with, “Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know.”
[Note to save the discussion about discounting the future for a different day. Be sure to discuss the concept that discount rates are not simply numbers pulled out of a table and plugged into present value formulas, but are functions of several factors, including supply and demand of resources. Also discuss findings in the nascent field of neuroeconomics which suggest that people are hard-wired to discount the future.]
Overdemand: Fails, but need curves to gauge magnitude.
Inequitable distribution: Fails due to temporal shift of impact.
3) Climate Change. A second
driver for the question, i.e., the growing concern about climate change (some
say overemphasis, did you hear the author of Cool It on NPR the other day
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14285997&ft=1&f=3 ? (I also worry about overemphasis, but I’d like
to see his numbers supporting that viewpoint)), has also been the subject of
research for some time, popularly presented in An Inconvenient Truth.
As pointed out in EPA’s 2007 Draft U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory
Report, coal-fired power is the biggest contributor to this problem here in
the US (lo-res summary image posted http://www.memagazine.org/april07/features/pwindow/38.jpg ). Nuclear energy’s ability to generate power
with little impact on climate change provides a reasonable basis for
characterizing it as a sustainable source of power with regards to climate
change. From a systems viewpoint, added associated costs that come to
mind: petroleum-fueled transportation-related impact will increase as
volumes to existing mining areas increases and as a developing mining and
refining support system feeds new locations of nuclear reactors.
A clarification/reiteration of the definitional framework: Here, the question is whether an increasing production of greenhouse gases creates a reduction in available resources as opposed to an increasing extraction leading to a reduction in the availability of a natural resource. Environmental quality represents a limited resource as much as does resource quantity. I don’t think anyone on the P2Tech list serve is surprised that the increase in a pollutant creates a resource limitation, and the above problem statement uses the terms “available resources or carrying capacity” to include measurable (but not minable) concepts such as clean air, clean water, glacial ice mass, temperature degree days at a given latitude, etc.
Overdemand: Fuel use passes; but nuclear fuel mining & transportation have impact.
Inequitable distribution: Passes, no impact identified.
4) Quality of Life. http://static.flickr.com/34/100660983_3e39fdc74f_b.jpg Kevin and his fellow Nevadans take a systems view and
build on the concept that we limit a resource by increasing a waste when they
remind us that the Yucca Mountain waste storage facility represents the
dwindling capacity for storage of nuclear waste material. Existing nuclear
energy use has created overdemand for diminishing areas of waste storage,
already in short supply at a static production rate and unchanged for at least a
generation (time which may contribute to a renewed interest). Tied to
this is the system impact of intensive government involvement in nuclear waste
storage development (as well as reactor safety regulation and siting), which
keeps public funds from other government provided services.
Another resource stressed by the use of nuclear energy is posed by the risks to human health and the environment associated with increased quantity, transport, and accessibility of nuclear waste. I heard Hunter Lovins make the point succinctly the other day by asking, “How many people ask to see the evacuation plan for a wind farm?” (That’s not to say that opposition to wind doesn’t exist ( http://www.milkandcookies.com/link/65706/detail/ (I couldn’t find a link to the Comedy Central source, video 91140)). Risk and risk perception are two different things, obviously. The perception of risk is relative – and public perception can be changed to change the quantifiable value of the resource, “safe distance” from nuclear materials. A good education program can help keep public perception positive. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zPCfrxA4y4 provides probably not a good example, but an entertaining one.
That is not to say that nuclear wouldn’t have some QoL benefits. Various studies indicate that sulfate pollution from coal-fired power plants is currently responsible for 45,000 to 50,000 premature deaths every year. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that a worst-case disaster associated with a nuclear plant would be around 100,000 in the US. If nuclear energy displaced sulfur-emitting coal, QoL in this regard would improve. Your question was not about comparing the two, however.
Nuclear energy’s increased risks would occur concurrently with the increasing risks associated with other fundamental quality of life issues, such as the overdemand of food supply (I believe World Overshoot Day occurs in just a couple of weeks). I don’t know that academicians have developed a good measure of the carrying capacity associated with quality of life and multiple risks posed to it. Concerns have been part of the zeitgeist for years, check out the still pertinent introductory scene to the 1973 film, Soylent Green, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKjT1v5A4Wo .
[A brief sidenote & soapbox: One of the things which irks me about discussions promoting the positives of nuclear power (in this case) is the sleight of hand, the biasing of information associated with advocates for the position. How anyone can suggest that nuclear, or coal, be seriously considered as a perfect solution, de-emphasizing the inherent problems, strikes me as naive at best and perhaps willful ignorance. Like the promises of the dot-com or real estate booms, we consumers of information need to always be a little watchful (not everyone is from Missouri, but we should all be thinking, “show me”). In the heat of promotion, even the downsides are described as positives, which is an example of the logic of “The Parable of the Broken Window” (don’t confuse with “Fixing Broken Windows”) and used to great comic effect in the movie, “The Fifth Element” when antagonist Zorg breaks a glass to illustrate that destructive behavior is a good thing for society. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krcNIWPkNzA The parable was told by Frederic Bastiat in 1850, who is also credited with the following useful quote, “…the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil. In fact, it is the same in the science of health, arts, and in that of morals.” That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen, http://bastiat.org/en/twisatwins.html ]
As Kevin pointed out, the folks around Yucca
Mountain think they are subject to an inequitable impact (But what about the
compensation of additional jobs? See Parable of the Broken Window,
cited above.) Here in Nebraska, our current Senator Ben Nelson, then
governor, left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth by the way that his
administration reneged on a multi-state compact to use Boyd County as a site for
low level radioactive waste. I think the socio-politial situation clearly
indicates the perceived and probably measurable inequity in resource
distribution, e.g., the resource of living at a “safe” distance from waste
materials. Adding more plants, even without adding more storage
facilities, only exacerbates the inequality to those along transportation routes
and storage areas by increasing the frequency of potential exposures of nuclear
The quality of life issues here are strongly tied to inequitable distribution. In part, this is due to the nature of political decision-making, in part because of the still prevalent business practice of seeking to externalize as many costs as possible. By definition, such externalization means that one party benefits by discharging their responsibility or adverse outcomes to another party, often without their express or implied consent.
Overdemand: Fails by increasing risks and reducing availability (quality) of multiple common pool resources.
Inequitable distribution: Fails due to (a) externalization of costs which impacts (b) disparate parts of society.
5) Path Dependance. Economists
describe production technology choices as “path dependence,” a term that was
coined by Amory Lovins in his 1977 work, Soft Energy Paths: Towards a Durable
Peace. The hard path, as he described it, is the choice of coal and nuclear,
and the soft path is a choice of energy efficiency and renewable energy
technologies. Once a path is chosen, which we have now lived with for some
time, other paths are closed.
Rather than increasing a demand for production technologies of the soft path, nuclear represents an overdemand of the hard path square peg into ever more rounding holes. As noted above, nuclear energy is in essence an extension of the mining extraction and coal-fired power plant path, a path about which we are once again asking the questions posed in the `70’s. As such, it’s a continuation of an unsustainable path. One could just as easily substitute another fuel source, e.g., vivoleum, into the system, but that wouldn’t make the system more sustainable. It’s a bit like the concept of the man with a hammer – everything around him looks like a nail. Vivoleum: http://www.theyesmen.org/en/hijinks/vivoleum and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkLzK13rI-Y .
Goodstein does a good job describing associate inequalities. “First, infrastructure and R&D investments are increasingly directed toward supporting the chosen technology and diverted from the competing path. Second, the chosen technology is able to exploit economies of scale to consolidate its cost advantage. Third, complementary technologies develop that are tailored to the chosen path, further disadvantaging the competing path.” Economics and the Environment, 4th ed. Goodstein, E.S. 2005
Overdemand: Fails by limiting resources for possible alternative technologies.
Inequitable distribution: Fails to provide a level playing field.
Hope that helps, Scott. Left for another day is a discussion about the definition of equitable. It’s been fun to consider the question, “Can Nuclear Energy ever be ‘sustainable?’”
"IT DOESN'T, 'n YOU CAN'T!
I WON'T, 'n IT DON'T!
IT HASN'T, IT ISN'T, IT EVEN AIN'T
'N IT SHOULDN'T . . .
IT COULDN'T!" - Frank Zappa
P2RIC, the Pollution Prevention
|"Butner, R Scott"
Sent by: email@example.com
09/06/2007 03:50 PM
Well, can it?
And if the answer is "yes" -- what would it take to make it so?
These are not idle musings on the part of a scruffy, distractable, overweight nerd, either.
Nope. Not idle in the least.
(The rest is pretty much spot on, of course.)
I ask these questions because I've been approached about making a presentation on this topic at a conference which is coming up later this fall, and wish to gather some informed perspectives on the subject. As I often do when faced with a question that's over my head, technically, I've come to P2TECH in hopes of finding some bits of wisdom. And maybe some viewpoints that challenge my own.
I recognize this is an open-ended question -- I think by now we all have a grasp of what the notion of sustainability means, but am not sure I've seen anything really robust in terms of quantifiable definitions.
Yes, I'm aware of any number of sustainability metrics and indicators that have been used (and in fact plan to use them prominently in my talk).
But most of these metrics allow for more wiggle room than my most comfy blue jeans, now that I've lost 22 lbs.
(had to sneak that in there, somewhere!)
So consider it an invitation to open-ended answers, as well.
If you have an opinion regarding either question: whether nuclear power CAN be sustainable, or what it would take to MAKE it sustainable -- I'm eager to hear it. If I end up using your ideas in my talk, I'll be sure to provide appropriate attribution.
The conference is in mid-November, but I'd be especially interested in comments I receive early enough to incorporate into a broader framework -- say, Oct 1.
I'll be sure to share the presentation with any who wish to see it, once it's been prepared.
Thanks in advance,
Senior Research Scientist, Knowledge Transformation & Integration Group
Pacific NW National Laboratory
PO Box 999
Richland, WA 99352
Voice: (509)-372-4946/Fax: (509) 375-2443