The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Nuclear Opinions

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I’ve been thinking.

I’ve just watched a documentary from last month in which Miles O’Brian explored nuclear power. It was an interesting show, full of detailed but easy-to-understand descriptions of various types of reactors. The basic thrust of the piece was that resistance to nuclear power is wrong-headed in light of the threat of climate change and the existence of new, much safer, reactor designs.

My immediate impulse is to be suspicious of such claims. Like many people, I have a very negative association with anything nuclear–which may be deserved, but is knee-jerk nonetheless. I am suspicious of the jerking of knees. You’re never too smart to be dumb, as Jimmy Buffet says, and I doubt my emotional impulses are any wiser and more reliable than anyone else’s.

What I have heard is that the potential harm of a nuclear accident is so great that even a small chance of that accident happening is too great. That even a properly functioning nuclear power plant produces large amounts of radioactive waste that nobody knows what to do with. That although a nuclear power plant is free of carbon emissions in the sense that it has no smoke stack, huge amounts of fossil fuels are used to build the plant, to mine and mill the fuel, to transport it, and to decommission the plant afterwards. So nuclear power is actually carbon-intensive.

But I have heard all these things from people who are already opposed to nuclear power.

I am not a nuclear physicist. Neither am I an engineer. I do not understand the operation of nuclear power plants unless someone explains it to me in very simple terms, and I am not equipped to differentiate the accurate descriptions from the inaccurate ones. I am reduced, therefor, to deciding whether to accept the message based on whether I trust the messenger. I have friends whom I trust who are anti-nuclear activists. They aren’t physicists, either, but they are highly educated in other fields and seem to know what they’re talking about. Therefore, I am anti-nuclear as well. When I hear Miles O’Brian on television implying that nuclear power might be a good idea, my impulse is to distrust him, to wonder if perhaps he is on the take somehow (despite the fact that I generally admire his work).

Pay attention to how this works:

  1. I do not understand a topic, but I feel the need to have an opinion.
  2. I therefore adopt the opinion held by people I like and trust, even though my trust in them has nothing whatever to do with their expertise in the relevant topic
  3. Because I am now emotionally invested in my adopted opinion, the mere fact that someone disagrees with me is enough to make me question their competence and their professional ethics.
  4. Miles O’Brian is not a physicist, but he is a professional science journalist who has obviously spent several years intensively researching the nuclear energy field, including talking to a lot of physicists–and yet my impulse is to assume he is deliberately lying because he contradicts people who, so far as I know, have no more real expertise in the matter than I do. Thus have I made myself impervious to learning on an important topic.

This is exactly the same psychological process that causes some people to doubt the reality of climate change.

Now, the fact that I’ve apparently taken leave of my senses is not proof, all by itself, that I’m wrong about nuclear power being bad news. As they say, just because you’re paranoid is no proof they’re not out to get ya. But the jerking of my knee is a good indication that I need to open my mind back up, even if I have to do it with a crow bar.

Offhand, the new reactor designs do sound promising. Whereas the water-cooled reactors build in the 1960’s and ’70’s more or less have failure as a default mode, other designs exist that simply turn themselves off if anything goes wrong. For example, some use liquid fuel that expands if it gets too hot. In an expanded state, the uranium atoms are too far apart to sustain nuclear fusion, and the reactor cools back down again. Sounds perfect.

Except I don’t know what happens to the spent fuel afterwards or what the environmental cost of uranium mining and processing is. So maybe not so perfect. But it’s worth noting that the environmental cost of fossil fuel mining and processing is truly awful, so it might come out even.

I should do some research on this, but have not yet done so. My point is not to argue in favor of nuclear in this post. I can imagine that I might do so in the future, depending on what else I learn–while I doubt nuclear power can ever be rendered truly safe, the small risk of local or regional disaster might be better than the absolute certainty of global disaster we face otherwise. But I’m writing this post today because I’ve had an even more unsettling thought.

I’ve long maintained that we don’t need nuclear power and its various risks and costs, nor do we need new technological advances in renewable energy and alternative fuels. All of those approaches make saving the planet conditional on our getting “enough” energy by other means, but we’re never going to get enough because the human capacity for consumption has no lid. Some of us use tens or hundreds of times the energy our fore-bearers did, and, given the opportunity, I’m sure we could find some use for tens or hundreds of times more than what we use now.

Rather than committing ourselves to filling our hunger for energy and then engaging our ingenuity to find ways to live sustainably anyway, we should commit to living sustainably and then engage our ingenuity to fin ways to keep our luxuries and gadgets anyway. We should just turn the polluting machines off. Today.

But of course, I know we’re not going to. Hell, the United States of America doesn’t seem capable at the moment of electing people who think climate change is real, let alone mounting a grass-roots movement to radically re-shape our way of life. Ideal solutions are important to hold on to for perspective and as a useful starting point for brain-storming, but I’m in no way suggesting that we reject partial and imperfect solutions when they come along. We must cope with political reality just as we must cope with physics.

And herein lies the disconcerting thought.

Are we in a position where nuclear power, whatever its costs and hang-ups and difficulties, may be the best we can get?



Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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