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Archive for March, 2011

The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Japan seems to be more dire as time goes on.  Not only does the news about the extent of damage and the potential for further radiation releases continue to escalate, but now we’re hearing that TEPCO, the utility company, vastly underestimated the potential for the very sort of devastating tsunami that caused the cascade of events.

It’s no wonder that the utility doesn’t seem to know how to solve the cooling problem.  I’m not certain that it is “solvable” in the conventional sense of the term.  Four reactors in trouble, along with several spent fuel cooling ponds.  There is concern of breaches to the ponds, meaning that water will need to be added continually — possibly for years until the spent fuel has cooled enough to be transferred to dry cask storage or eventual reprocessing or permanent storage.  And there is concern that at least one of the reactor containment vessels may have cracked.  Both problems make it almost impossible to contain the radiation, and we’ve seen levels up to 100,000 times normal in parts of the plant.  Elevated radiation levels, while still too low to cause immediate risk to human health, have been detected thousands of miles from the crippled plant.

It’s not surprising that people are wrestling with the advisability of increased use of nuclear energy here at home, in addition to the fact that most of our nuclear power stations are nearing or even beyond their design life.

No form of energy production is without risk.  That goes without saying.  But what is needed is an open and honest conversation  about risks, and about life cycle costs of the various forms of energy we currently use, including renewable sources.  We need to know the per megawatt cost of the entire life cycle — licensing, construction, operation, maintenance, fuel costs, decommissioning/dismantlement of the plants.  We also need to know and to understand the costs of rendering safe any  waste products of each energy source.  And we need that information for all types of electric generation — hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, natural gas, coal, petroleum and nuclear.  And finally, we need to know all the ways in which government subsidizes various forms of energy generation and the ways in which government guarantees against losses that might be incurred by investors or insurers in the event of a failure somewhere in the generating process.

It is only in knowing all of the above information and being able to compare one energy source’s costs and risks against the others that we truly can understand what is at stake.  We know that petroleum is a finite resource.  When it will run out can be open to debate, but it will eventually run out.  Having an informed conversation about the uses of petroleum products (beyond burning them to generate electricity and power our vehicles) is essential.  And it is equally essential to expand that conversation to the point that we recognize that not all petroleum was created equal.  The oil that comes from some locations burns cleaner than that from other locations.  And it’s not equal in terms of the cost of extraction.

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