Sunday, May 3, 2009

Nuclear Power

The recent ruling in the Minnesota house banning nuclear power seems to have caused a surge in public opinions concerning whether or not nuclear energy is a viable option. Just skimming the headlines most people seem to be adamantly in favor of it or on the fence. Some of the headlines in favor read:


“HOW I SEE IT: Nuclear energy is America’s best option”

“Avoiding nuclear power is another big energy mistake”

“Remove ban on new nuclear plants


One headline on the fence reads, “Nuclear energy risks: flimsy or concrete”


The most recent public opinion survey by the Nuclear Energy Institute supports such observations. The November 2008 survey shows that about 74% of Americans are in favor. And interest is growing. So why aren’t more power plants popping up?


Consider the surge of other related nuclear articles:


“Power on the cheap it’s not”

“Projected nuke power’s price tag inflating”

“High price scramble for nuclear sites”

Nuclear power proves extremely expensive. The first power plant of next generation reactors in Missouri was put on hold because it would cost $6 billion.


In my mind nuclear power may be our only solution to America’s growing addiction to energy. It is the only alternative to fossil fuels with high enough energy capacity and density and also works where the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. However, the two main driving forces, public opinion and cost, seem to be working against each other.


One question looms in my mind: How will global climate change affect the efficiency of a nuclear power plant? Nuclear power requires excessive amounts of water, cold water. The temperature of water will go up in the near future. That will decrease the efficiency of the plant. Will it still work with slightly warmer than cold water?

1 comment:

Andrew said...

It is interesting to think about people's risk attitudes in relation to nuclear power versus fossil fuel power. It seems to me that we haven't come up with great answers for what to do with nuclear waste if we all of a sudden replaced all of our fossil fuel plants with nuclear plants. Perhaps, as Dr. Webber suggested, solid waste is an easier problem to contain than air and water pollution, so perhaps the nuclear waste issue is more manageable than the pollution issues associated with fossil fuel use. But it seems like the perceptions of the downsides of nuclear tend to skew to the spectacular because those are the worst case scenarios, and the damages from one of those scenarios would be pretty concentrated. Worst case scenarios associated with fossil fuel use, on the other hand, tend to have diffuse harms, such as global warming. So while the consquences may be more likely to be severe if we continue to use fossil fuels, people don't fear the diffuse but very real and likely consquences of global warming, but they do fear turning into a mutant if they live near a nuclear power plant because it is such a concentrated and acute harm, even if it is far less likely.

It's also interesting to note that people rarely think about fossil fuel use from a safety perspective despite well-known accidents like BP's Texas City refinery explosion and all of the negative health consequences of working in the coal extraction or petroleum refining industries. My guess is that as the threat of global warming becomes more real to people, and the farther we get from the nuclear accidents of the 70s and 80s, the more peoples' attitudes will change, notwithstanding Minnesota's actions.