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The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Richard Rhodes on the need for nuclear power

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Richard Rhodes (Image credit: Inmenlo)

Richard Rhodes - who has spent his entire career looking at the lives and work of men and women who wrested energy from the atom - has a cogent rumination on the need for nuclear power, stimulated in part by Robert Stone's noteworthy new documentary Pandora's Promise which I previously reviewed here. His thoughts have been highlighted by NYT columnist and blogger Andrew Revkin.

For environmentalists and concerned citizens like Rhodes, the transition from nuclear power skeptic to enthusiastic supporter was driven in part by simple logic and research and, more urgently, by concerns about global warming:

We all, one way or another, started out opposed to nuclear power. Each of us then learned more about it or confronted challenging conditions — global warming in particular — that led us to reconsider our opposition and change our minds. That intrigued Stone, since we all now speak and write in favor of expanding its use.

(Gweneth) Cravens and I, for example, both encountered respected scientists, men of honesty and integrity — in my case, the Nobel laureate physicists Hans Bethe and Luis Alvarez, among others — who quietly educated us in the relative risks and benefits of nuclear energy. As a result, we both concluded, independently, that the benefits greatly outweigh the risks."

I highlighted in a previous post a study by the father of modern climate change science, James Hansen, that demonstrated that the replacement of fossil fuel plants by nuclear power plants has likely saved hundreds of thousands of lives which would otherwise have been lost to air pollution and associated chronic diseases. Unfortunately, the much touted expansion of natural gas enabled through fracking, grudgingly admired even by some of its detractors (it has, after all, reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the last five years), is by no means a permanent or even a long-term fix in a world plagued by global warming.

"The World Health Organization estimates that preventable deaths from air pollution, meaning soot and smog from burning wood, coal, oil and gasoline, total more than two million per year worldwide. James Hansen, a prominent climate scientist, calculates the positive benefit of nuclear power as having saved about 1.84 million lives by reducing such pollution. Natural gas — methane — which anti-nuclear environmentalists lately seem to be embracing, is a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide. No one except their stockholders really likes fossil fuels, but neither do they call out riverkeepers breathing fire."

No one can ignore the one crushing, sobering truth that every time environmentalists vote against nuclear power, they are inevitably voting in favor of the fossil fuel industry and this is a curse they have to live with. I am sure fossil fuel proponents rub their hands with glee every time this happens, since they know that for the foreseeable future, the only thing that can stand in for all those nuclear power plants which picketers shut down are their brand new coal-fired and natural gas plants.

Rhodes wants to explore the reasons why people fear nuclear energy and he hits upon what's certainly a dominant driving force- the conflation of nuclear power with nuclear weapons. I have written before how the world might have been very different had nuclear energy first impinged on our consciousness in the form of Shippingport and not Hiroshima, and Rhodes reinforces this perception while noting how many of the fears about proliferation have simply not borne fruit.

"After researching and writing four volumes on the history of the nuclear age, I think I understand the fundamental and unacknowledged source of nuclear fear. There’s a glimpse of it in one of the first attacks on “Pandora’s Promise,” a review by Mark Hertsgaard in The Nation. Hertsgaard notes that breeder reactors, for example, breed plutonium in the course of their operation, which can be recycled to extend the energy productivity of their nuclear fuel. Such recycling, he argues, “would dramatically increase the risk of nuclear war.” He thinks so because all that plutonium could be extracted and made into weapons. Which is true: it could. But deciding to develop a nuclear arsenal is a political decision, not a technological imperative. Any technologically advanced nation has the knowledge to pursue developing nuclear weapons if it chooses to do so. There are about 37 such nations in the world today. Only nine of them maintain nuclear arsenals. The others choose not to do so. Most have signed a solemn treaty to that effect...

Nuclear testing, nuclear crisis and nuclear power were all born together in the long wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. I’m not surprised that the clean and peaceful technology, which today provides about 13.5 percent of world electricity without air pollution or greenhouse gases, was tarred with the same brush as the Bomb. I am surprised, however, that idealistic, intelligent people who want to clean up the air and limit global warming are opposed to nuclear power. They might as well be out there promoting fossil fuels. In effect, they are."

Rhodes is absolutely right that most people's ominous view of nuclear power stems from their view of the invisible entity called radiation, but the real reasons stem from deep psychology. The psychologist Paul Slovic has described how, when asked to imagine the consequences of a reactor meltdown, many people invoke completely unrealistic images of devastation by nuclear weapons. This kind of study certainly demonstrates ignorance about the true effects of radiation, but it also speaks to deeply rooted psychological fears about mysterious entities that we can't see or touch. Fear of radiation and nuclear power touches upon the instinctive fear that was engineered in our primitive brain by evolution to keep it safe from predators on the Savannah. But this is 2013, and we should know better; there is no dearth of images of mangled bodies and explosions in car accidents, and yet we embrace the automobile, not only because the tradeoff seems completely worth it but because we have trained ourselves to distinguish between rational expectations and gut feelings. We need to do the same for nuclear power. Especially with brand new reactor designs and vastly improved safety, cost and energy efficiency on the horizon, nuclear power seems poised to bring more benefits to our world than ever before.

Rhodes ends with a plea to support nuclear power with the same fervor that we should employ in the abolition of nuclear weapons. He points out the simple correlation between electricity usage and standard of living, a correlation that will continue to be embraced by the developing world with unremitting enthusiasm. If we can improve the correlation coefficient of this relationship while putting the brakes on global warming, it's the kind of development that every single one of us - affluent and poor, environmentalist and stockholder - should stand behind.

Electricity consumption correlates positively with extended lifespan and quality of life. In the years to come, with the third world emerging from poverty, we will need all the electricity we can get. Renewable sources such as solar and wind will find their useful application. Coal and oil will continue their long decline as a percentage of world energy. Nuclear power and natural gas, the only major energy sources presently enlarging their share, will rise to dominate world energy production. We should welcome both, and work at their improvement, even as we continue to dismantle the expensive, dangerous bombs.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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