Is nuclear power off the table?

In my forthcoming novel, Gaia and the Goliaths, #7 in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series,” Detective Castilblanco considers some of the pros and cons about nuclear power. The novel’s main theme involves climate and environmental issues, pro-environmental activism, and attacks on the environment waged by corporations and their political sycophants.  Russia, known for its lack of concern about the environment and the Chernobyl disaster, plays an important role too. These issues are current ones now, considering the new U.S. administration that will invade Washington D.C.

Mr. Trump and his cabinet choices will probably set back any progress we’ve made on environmental issues, except for states like California that are far more progressive than Washington, and there are plenty of willing accomplices for Trump’s team in the GOP-dominated Congress. The new president thinks global warming is a hoax and climate control isn’t necessary. But questionable actions have been taken by Dems too. There is a general consensus among politicians that nuclear power is bad, so let’s get rid of it.

For example, Governor Cuomo of New York has championed the closing of the Indian Head power plant on the Hudson, mentioned in my novel, without having any viable alternative for replacing the power the plant generates. Many European countries depend on nuclear power, as does Japan. Is it dirty energy? Are nuclear power plants accidents waiting to happen? Have politicians created a Frankenstein monster in order to win votes from environmental activists?

First, let’s state for the record what affects global warming and is bad for the climate, namely fossil fuels. Presumably Cuomo, who has no technical background and is apparently channeling Van Helsing in his pursuit of nuclear energy as an evil vampire, will replace Indian Head’s power output with coal-burning or natural gas power plants. Those are worse for the environment. We need to reduce the carbon footprint, not augment it. Any environmental campaign must be anti-fossil fuels because there is no way to use them that won’t damage the environment. Period.

Next, let’s analyze the alternatives. Hydroelectric is the best and can often be combined with flood control, but dams are costly and the necessary nexus with rivers can have its own negative effects, both upstream and down. Moreover, the reservoirs often steal valuable real estate—using them as recreational areas compensates a bit, but there just aren’t that many places to build a hydroelectric power plant. Some countries have zero possibilities for that.

Solar and wind energy are interesting, green alternatives too, but they are still inefficient, costly, and use more valuable real estate than any other form of alternative to fossil fuels. That’s about it. The little fusion reactor in Back to the Future isn’t a remote possibility; even a big one is out of the question because controlled fusion, which would be a lot cleaner than fission, is a problem about as close to being solved as finding dark matter—right now it’s impossible, even theoretically.

Let’s next treat concerns about nuclear accidents. Politicians like Cuomo and many environmental activists have been duped into thinking about nuclear energy as a Frankenstein monster. Real world events like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl fed that monster along with fictional disasters like the one described in The China Syndrome. As often happens in scientific and technological endeavors, paranoia has reigned supreme, when almost all previous disasters are either due to shoddy construction, old technology, or human error—these aren’t mutually exclusive, of course.

Chernobyl was the most serious—the Russian builders made errors and used old technology, and the Russian engineers didn’t design well, leaving a whole region in Russia in danger. Japanese reactors were state-of-the-art, but they were built on a fault line and didn’t have good safety mechanisms, let alone extra safeguards against earthquakes and tsunamis. In all disaster cases, the final culprit is human error, whether in construction or planning, not any inherent problem with nuclear power.

Nuclear power’s shade of green lies somewhere between the dim yellow of fossil fuels and the bright lime color of hydroelectric and solar and wind energy. If we apply a metric of power generated v. setup costs, dirty coal and natural gas wins over the green options as the cheapest, and nuclear power again lies between.

Why are we taking it off the table? Because some politicos and environmentalists have a Frankenstein complex? Because big energy companies like Exxon/Mobil and others feel threatened? (That seems to be the case for the greenest alternatives too—energy lobbyists are among the strongest in D.C., and with the new administration, they will have free rein.) Because some people think that every reactor is going to turn their urban area into Hiroshima? Sane discourse here seems absent; illogical ranting and paranoia seems to rule the day, much of it stirred up by energy conglomerates.

I’m finishing a biography about Enrico Fermi, and I’m already learning that no one on the Manhattan Project who helped the first-ever reactor go critical and only one person at Los Alamos died of radiation poisoning…and those early years of nuclear technology were primitive and fraught with unknowns compared with what we know today about designing safe nuclear power plants. Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be debated ad infinitum, but they shouldn’t preclude the safe use of nuclear technology to power our world.

My conclusion is that more nuclear power plants are needed, not less, because the world will need more power, and the way to get it can’t be found in the more expensive and inefficient green technologies. Do you really want to see acres and acres of solar panels or windmills? Do you really want to see costly dams destroying the landscapes and putting entire ecosystems under water? Nuclear power offers an efficient compromise if we regulate its use to make it safe and reliable. Human errors must be eliminated. Other potential problems must be avoided.

Regulations must guarantee improved safety. Better locations must be chosen—building on sea coasts where tsunamis can occur and/or earthquake fault lines create potential danger can’t be permitted. Dealing effectively with a reactor’s waste products will always be a problem, but it’s less of one compared with the destruction of the environment by fossil fuels.

Let’s hope that politicians and environmentalists will come to their senses and keep nuclear power on the table as a possible solution for power generation in the U.S. and the rest of the world. It’s a sane alternative that can’t be overlooked.

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Coming soon! Gaia and the Goliaths has environmental issues as a theme, but Chen and Castilblanco still have to solve a crime. #7 in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series” starts out with the murder of an environmental activist on a street in Manhattan. As the detectives pursue the investigation, they discover that the activist’s boyfriend is also a target. His activity overseas leads to the conclusion that there is a conspiracy involving an American energy company, a Putin surrogate, and an old nemesis. This new novel will be available in all ebook formats.

And so it goes…

2 Responses to “Is nuclear power off the table?”

  1. Scott Dyson Says:

    Just finished a book called PILLAR TO THE SKY (bought it off the bargain shelves at B&N for either 5.98 or 6.98, with some percentage off of that, of course) where the author tells the story of the building of the first space elevator. In the book, the entrepreneur who is responsible finally reveals that the real target is building a tower that can harvest solar energy in massive quantities and very efficiently and pass it down via the tower (instead of trying to use lasers or microwave transmission or something like that).

    It was a pretty interesting read. I can’t say it was the best NOVEL, but as a story that serves mostly to inform about this idea, I enjoyed it a lot.

  2. Scott Dyson Says:

    Did I post something about the book PILLAR TO THE SKY here? Might be caught up in spam…

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