solveclimate debate

An outpouring of comments for and against nuclear energy followed an article of mine posted this week on solveclimate’s website. I welcome such energetic debate and take the space here to make a few more general points. As I said in a brief reply on the solveclimate site, I did not set out to suggest ways to solve the climate crisis but rather to point out the pitfalls of thinking that nuclear energy would do the trick. Similarly, my aim in writing the book was to tackle not global warming but more broadly than I could in the article our relationship with the atom and what a friend of mine describes as the “greatest mythological event in human history” – the realization that we had developed the capability to destroy ourselves.

Nuclear reactors would not exist were it not for nuclear weapons, and as the decades passed the converse has also become true — civil nuclear commerce provided a convenient foil for bomb-makers, as well as access to the necessary technology, material and equipment. Nuclear energy cannot be viewed like any other energy technology for that reason alone – leaving aside the important issues of safety and waste. We stand, I think, at a unique moment in time when everything could change, or nothing at all. But stasis is risky as several of the cold warriors (Kissinger among them) have come to realize.  If over the next several decades we succeed in stepping back from the brink, and dismantle the bombs, we will have acted in favor of the unity of the human race and a planet to live on. My own feeling is that by then we will be well on the road to solving the climate change problem and that nuclear power will have been discarded by most countries, if not all, as too cumbersome a technology.

If, on the other hand, we opt for a significant increase in nuclear energy, we face the prospect of the technology spreading to more countries in volatile and/or less developed areas of the world, where expertise and safety standards are low to non-existent, and the desire to acquire nuclear weapons is high. Simply put, we make more trouble for ourselves by raising the stakes – either in the form of serious accidents, or accidental or intentional nuclear war.

On Fermi and Davis-Besse:

A blogger wrote that Fermi “successfully restarted after the incident.” In the interests of brevity and not wishing to beat a dead horse, I omitted the fact that the attempted start-up, which occurred three years after the accident, was in fact marred by an explosion and fire after liquid sodium burst through pipes and mixed with water spilling from other pipes. It took another 2-3 months after that to start up, and the reactor ran for just two years before the AEC refused to further extend its operating permit.

The fact that Davis-Besse was allowed to operate with a corrosion problem for some two years is why the utility, FirstEnergy, was deemed to be in gross violation of its operating license and why criminal investigations, two trials, and a hefty fine for the utility ensued. Laboratory tests eventually determined that the weakness in the reactor head had started to bulge and crack – “and that the reactor head was likely within weeks of bursting and allowing radioactive steam to form,” according to the Toledo Blade, which noted that “On March 11, 2004, Harold Denton told 1,300 people from 21 countries that the Davis-Besse saga was the nuclear industry’s lowest point since the 1979 half-core meltdown of the Three Mile Island Unit 2 nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.” Denton oversaw the NRC’s response to TMI.

Finally G.R.L. Cowan is correct to point out that a steam explosion would not lead to a runaway chain reaction. Rather it could lead to a core melt.

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