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Nuclear Energy still looking good for climate change reduction post–Fukushima

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Nuclear energy could help save our civilization from devastating climate change. (I’m not talking about nuclear weapons – those could end life, as we know it.) The U.S. (19%), France (78%), Korea (39%) and many other nations already use nuclear power to supply a significant part of their energy needs.

Nuclear power generation (with all of its problems, beyond the scope of this article to enumerate) per equivalent unit, currently adds only one–quarter of the amount of global warming carbon, as does coal (Our Choice by Al Gore, p. 165).

Ounce for ounce, uranium has one million times as much potential energy as does coal or oil. Nuclear power has the potential to become virtually climate neutral!

Current technology only taps into 1% of uranium’s energy potential, but governments and private interests are working on new, safer, cleaner and more efficient nuclear technologies.

So far, no one has deployed any of the new generation of nuclear power options, though many of them are quite viable.

James Hansen suggests the way to shift our civilization from its life–threatening reliance on fossil fuels is to impose a tax at source on all fossil fuels. Increase this fee over time and distribute the revenue directly back to citizens as a dividend. More information about the fee and dividend solution to climate change.

Fukushima could have been easily prevented — not with fancy nuclear science but with simple engineering:

On March 11, 2011, all eleven of the nuclear plants in the earthquake zone shutdown automatically, including Fukushima Dai–ichi. This key safety measure worked fine.

The nuclear plants rely on electricity to pump water and keep spent fuel rods from overheating.

At Fukushima Dai–ichi, the electrical grid failed during the earthquake and the tsunami wiped out the back–up generators.

Basic engineering could have prevented the accident at Fukushima Dai–ichi. The generators sat below the spent fuel rods so cooling water had to move up, against the flow of gravity.

Placing the generators on higher ground, out of the tsunami’s reach or in waterproof containment would be a simple first step to prevent future accidents.

Days after the earthquake, I was confused and concerned by conflicting reports in the media and contacted physicists at MIT and Harvard who told me about the simple solution in private conversations, as did many other physicists I queried over the past year. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers IEEE did an in–depth post–mortem on Fukushima Dai–ichi (see lesson 1 in red). Five Steps to Prevent Another Fukushima published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists offers a more in–depth look at measures to increase safety as well as security at nuclear plants.

 

Conclusion

Coal is far more lethal than nuclear energy. Climate change caused by burning coal and other fossil fuels is melting glacial and polar ice at alarming rates, raising sea levels, acidifying oceans and disturbing weather patterns.

With public support, governments and private industry could deploy next generation nuclear power that: helps stop climate change, utilizes 90% or more of the potential energy of the fuel and consequently creates far less waste than do current nuclear plants. With emerging technologies, the waste can be safely contained in inert casings and doesn’t have to be toxic for as long. (Bill Gates, Microsoft TED talk on climate change, nuclear and renewables.)

My heart goes out to the Japanese people and I can’t help wondering what I would do in their shoes. I feel a deep sadness at their dilemma and hope over time the truth becomes clearer, so that they themselves can make the most logical choices about the role of nuclear energy in the mix.

The challenges for humanity’s future survival are tough, complex and new. Accidents, even terrible ones, can teach us how to do it better. Navigating the times ahead is going to be all about generating strategic, intelligent responses.

 

Olivia Fermi gives talks and also blogs at neutrontrail where she recently posted about creative recovery efforts in Fukushima.

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