Picking Your Poison

...And yet nuke is green.
I was in fifth grade the year of the Chernobyl disaster. I watched with morbid rapture all the great nuke movies — Silkwood with Meryl Streep, Marshall Brickman’s Manhattan Project and Hal Hartley’s Trust (which is as amazing as it is impossible to find). I grew up believing that nuclear energy — despite being low-carbon and, well, cheap — was most definitely not the answer to the world’s energy problems. But then Jean-Christophe Nothias, editor-in-chief at The Global Journal, asked me to do the story excerpted below. Here’s why my entire worldview on nuclear changed.
Since 2001, a project has been underway to determine ‘alternative’ nuclear technologies, conducted by a large group of scientists from over 15 nations. The list of specifications is very demanding, but with a simple objective: can science provide radical new solutions to allow us to dispense with ageing second- and third-generation nuclear technologies? The group came up with a set of discoveries promising remarkable advances. So, why does no one talk about them? Nuclear energy, it seems, remains a sensitive subject at the global level. Our reporter, Leah McGrath Goodman, decides to throw some light on the matter.

A Strange History

It is a little-known fact that the heavily guarded, Cold War-era fortress that houses the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington is named after – as one official jokes without a trace of irony – “a deeply depressed man.”

That man, General James Forrestal, former Secretary of the U.S. Navy, died in 1949 under strange circumstances. Depending on whom you believe, he was either assassinated or committed suicide by tying the end of a bathrobe sash around his neck, the other to a radiator, and throwing himself out of a hospital window. His body was found, shirtless, on a ledge, in an alley. The investigation into his death was marred by rumors of foul play, but he apparently left a suicide note…

Quoting a passage from Ajax, the Sophocles’ tragedy about a warrior who takes his own life after deciding he has lost his nobility and dreads the prospect of living in a world in constant flux, Forrestal wrote: “Worn by the waste of time…Comfortless, nameless, hopeless save…In the dark prospect of the yawning grave.”

Not cheerful stuff, but perhaps a fitting warning for the agency that makes its home at the former compound of the Atomic Energy Commission and continues to devote the majority of its resources to maintaining U.S. nuclear stockpiles and cleaning up the toxic mess left behind by years of manufacturing nuclear weapons. Indeed, the DOE itself could be called a warrior grappling with a world in flux, its throwback existence a metaphor for the bind the world now finds itself in when faced with the future of nuclear. While Washington desperately wants to move forward, it is hamstrung by the failures of the past and the administrative wastes of the present.

Nuclear’s Secret Silver Lining

Dr. Strangelove (who would feel right at home in the DOE’s concrete-bunker headquarters) would not approve. Still, in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown just over a year ago, it is clear that the rumors of the death of nuclear, like those surrounding the demise of General Forrestal, have been greatly exaggerated. Much stands in the way of the nuclear renaissance the world likely needs to avoid a fatal uptick in greenhouse gases, but emerging nuclear technologies with advanced safety features offer a zero-carbon alternative at a time when mankind may need it the most.

Interestingly, it is not the specter of Fukushima that has slowed some of the progress on the nuclear front, but a boom in natural gas, which has flooded the marketplace on the back of advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (more popularly known as ‘fracking’).

Traditionally, nuclear has beat gas by a long shot as the cheaper and greener energy option, but in recent years that has been less and less the case. Both are relied upon across the continents for their steady generation of electricity, but the ocean of natural gas stemming from perfected drilling techniques has led to rock-bottom prices in some parts of the world. “We are living at a historic moment in the evolution of energy markets,” Rex W. Tillerson, Chief Executive of ExxonMobil, pronounced in June at a conference in Kuala Lumpur. “How we respond will shape the quality of life for generations to come.”

Tillerson was not mincing words. Gas is poised to outstrip coal as the second most widely used source of energy worldwide by 2025. That takes into account soaring demand in Asia, which is projected to grow by more than 50 percent in the next three decades. Coupled with the chilling effect of Fukushima, that does not bode well for the future of nuclear, even with its carbon-neutral appeal. While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it is still a fossil fuel that produces its share of dirty greenhouse gases. And that does not bode well for the future of the planet.

Renewables: Too Little, Too Late?

“It’s really a pick-your-poison sort of issue: nuclear comes with radiation and fear, while greenhouse gases and climate change come with uncertainty and the potential for serious impacts far in the future,” says Roger Pielke Jr., Professor of Environmental Studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming. “As things stand, there’s no way we can produce enough solar and wind and hydro to replace the existing base load and power needs we’re dealing with, let alone the growth in energy demand we’re going to see. And everyone is beginning to realize that.”

(For how a ground-breaking breed of nuclear reactors may pose our best (and last) chance at significantly slashing greenhouse gases — and why mankind, not the technology itself, is to blame for nuclear’s past meltdowns — see the latest issue of The Global Journal.)

5 thoughts on “Picking Your Poison”

  1. I was against nuclear power before the Chernobyl disaster happened because of the highly dangerous daughter products of nuclear fission. I was a freshman in high school when Chernobyl happened.

  2. You have no clue how accurate (and prescient) your article truly is. Great job Leah! In 12th Grade I won the physics award at the Science Fair by building a portable nuclear reactor (which I copied from Westinghouse). Just so I could one-up Hollywood (mine was table-top + it worked!). Those DOE folks have NO sense of humor when kids do that crap! Luckily, I used my powers for good (as a certified RERO/CBRNE-WMD Tech). Great reporting!

  3. PS- Almost forgot: Every single Nuclear accident has been the result of HUMAN ERROR…not nuclear error! (The China Syndrome is about as realistic to nuclear energy as Cinderella is to British Royals). Between nuclear tech today, and Tesla’s proven wireless electricity 70 years ago? Ask yourself WHY we’re still buried under power bills? Answer: There’s no profit in the cure…only in the “treatment”.

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