Tom Blees

Tom Blees is the author of Prescription for the Planet - The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises. Tom is also the president of the Science Council for Global Initiatives. Many of the goals of SCGI, and the methods to achieve them, are elucidated in the pages of Blees's book. He is a member of the selection committee for the Global Energy Prize, considered Russia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize for energy research. His work has generated considerable interest among scientists and political figures around the world. Tom has been a consultant and advisor on energy technologies on the local, state, national, and international levels.

by Tom Blees

5 factsA discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear power often pits an emotional point of view against a scientific point of view.

1) Nuclear waste: A viable solution to nuclear waste has been demonstrated at Idaho National Lab during the EBR-II project. Their recycling of over 30,000 fuel pins proved what can be done to reduce the radiotoxicity to a few hundred years. Argonne National Laboratory has now designed a commercial-scale facility that can recycle not only metal fuel (like that used in the EBR-II) but also spent oxide fuel from lightwater reactors like those currently in use (so-called nuclear waste) as well as spent fuel from the molten salt reactors expected to be deployed in the near future. It's a one size fits all approach, using proven technology, and it's ready to build now.

2) Backup power: Those serious about climate change must realize that using natural gas for "backup" is a Faustian bargain, since it not only produces lots of carbon dioxide but the leakage of methane (sounds less "natural" when you call it that) is a serious problem. Since hydEBR IIroelectric power is both regionally and climatically restricted (remember the last 3-year drought in California when its impressive collection of dams was nearly useless), anyone serious about getting away from fossil fuels must certainly have to look to nuclear power for backup. The argument that the life cycle carbon footprint of nuclear is bad is entirely bogus (as the IPCC has declared on various occasions), and in fact even the small footprint in such calculations assume enrichment facilities that are powered by fossil-fuel-supplied electricity. Since nuclear-sourced electricity can be used instead to power enrichment facilities, the carbon footprint would be far lower than either wind or solar.

That being the case, there is no reason that nuclear power (particularly advanced systems like molten salt and fast reactors) can't be mass-produced and deployed as "backup" power for renewables, thus abandoning fossil fuels for power generation.

3) Renewables alone cannot power modern societies: Despite the non-peer-reviewed flood of "studies" coming from Mark Jacobson at Stanford (and other lesser-known all-renewables preachers), serious energy analysts know that renewables are simply too unreliable (especially given their seasonal variations) to supply the power we need for civilization. There have been several metastudies that make that point, which can be found at the SCGI site. Nuclear power, however, is perfectly capable of providing all the power humanity needs 24/7/365, without emitting greenhouse gases. Read Roadmap to Nowhere, The Myth of Powering the Nation With Renewable Energy

4) Nuclear power is too expensive: This is almost true in the USA, where decades of no new construction and an upside-down regulatory environment has made nuclear very expensive indeed. But China, Russia, and South Korea manage to build reactors on time and budget at very competitive prices. New molten salt and fast reactor designs promise to be even cheaper (and safer) than the reactors currently being built by those countries. If the USA regulatory environment can be fixed then new reactor designs could be built here very economically. If not, other countries will leave our nuclear industry in the dust. It's already happening (see the four reactors soon coming online in the UAE, built by South Korea).

5) Nuclear will power the world: Climate change politics will eventually overcome even the ideologically-driven climate denial in the USA. When the point is reached where fossil fuel use is recognized as virtually suicidal, nuclear will have to be recognized as the one reliable "backup" system for renewables. Yet since sometimes (particularly in winter) there are weeks at a time when wind and solar produce virtually nothing (see the data for Germany over the last decade), nuclear backup will have to be built to such a level as to provide all the power needed for those times when wind and solar fail. In such a case, nuclear capacity to power the grid will be 100%. Yet nuclear power plants are just fine running at full power 24/7, and fuel costs are trivial. So if nuclear "backup" is built to the degree necessary, what will be the point of building solar or wind installations? Ultimately the logic of this situation will be self-evident and nuclear power will supply all we need, including the vast amount of energy that will be required to desalinate water on a heretofore unimaginable scale, and to move it to where it's needed. Nuclear power can also provide power to make carbon-neutral liquid fuels out of air and water. The technology is well-known and proven, it's just the cost and availability of the necessary power that keeps us from doing that today (extracting fossil fuel from the ground is cheaper).