Nuclear power. A reader comments.

John Couzin in Scotland commented in our recent post about nuclear power that it is problematic in the UK. I emailed him asking for more information. Here’s his reply.

All nuclear power stations have leaks of some kind, some internal some external, some pass without comment others create news. They also have “glitches” which don’t result in a leak but a shutdown, which in a normal power station is a nuisance but in a nuclear it could be the start of a disaster. The Sellafield problem is two fold it is a nuclear reprocessing plant as well as a power station, hence the big problem with the clean up there. It has had several leaks over a long period of time, at least one rather nasty fire. Several areas of the beaches around it are contaminated. Even the water that they discharge into is contaminated, Norway and Ireland have complained to the British government about the radio active contamination of their waters. The very use of radio active material means that what it comes in contact with also becomes radio active this in turn creates problems in containment and decommissioning.

I don’t have any information on the French situation but going by historical evidence in every other country they must have had leaks and/or problems of some sort and nobody has said they have found the answer to the decommissioning problem or surely we would be doing something similar. Don’t be fooled by thinking that you can run a nuclear power station for years and not have a radio active problem on the site. Everything man made breaks down, aircraft fall from the sky, ships sink, bridges collapse but we are suppose to believe that it won’t happen in a nuclear power station, (Three Mile Island). All of these other accidents are a tragedy, in a nuclear case it can be a catastrophe for years and/or generations to come over an incredible distance, (blowing in the wind).

All the information that I have is easy available from the British broadsheets The Independent, Guardian, Herald, The Times, etc. all on line now, and what I can find on the web.

While nukes could keep the lights on until we figure out what comes next, an alternative is energy conservation coupled with massive renewable energy development. We can certainly do both. Conservation doesn’t mean we all have to live by candlelight, but with smart grids, use of CFLs and LEDs, and other such measures, we could probably cut energy consumption 10-20% without much noticeable difference in our lifestyles.

The question is, can renewables provide enough clean non-carbon-emitting power to keep the grid going? Keep in mind that China and India are developing fast and will use coal if other low-cost alternatives aren’t available. Even an industrialized country like South Africa says they need up to twelve new nuclear plants because their electrical production is woefully short of what’s needed, causing ongoing rolling blackouts everywhere.

There are no easy answers here.

PS Apropos to the discussion: Rolling blackouts for mid-Atlantic states and the coming State of New York energy shortage.


  1. More mixed sources of re-newable energy nearer the main areas of use in a decentralised fashion is a much better road than the massive centralised nuclear proposals. Transmitting energy over long distances has energy loss, waste. Small self sufficient areas linked to some sort of grid for back-up rather than the big business answer of half a dozen super producers pumping their energy across the length and breadth of the country. The answers are there, it is the will of the people that is needed to change the direction of the corporate world and their political puppets.

  2. I disagree with you on one major point: in the U.S., we could easily conserve 50% without a noticable difference in our lifestyles. That’s FIFTY percent, not 10-20%. I have yet to see a household that has fully applied basic conservation techniques that has failed to cut its energy usage in half. My wife and I reduced by 51% while failing two major benchmarks– we think we can cut by 70% overall! And that’s using what we call the “easy method”– no major capital investment and no lifestyle changes.

    Based on the industries I’ve seen, I believe the same to be true outside the home: switching to CFLs and LEDs, turning off unused equipment, and not heating/cooling unoccupied rooms could cut 50% of non-household energy as well.

    I’m not surprised to find that U.S. CO2 emissions are double the average for industrialized nations– if we cut our energy usage in half, we’d halve our CO2 emissions as well.

  3. While we in our humble little homes are reducing our energy usage the British government has stated that it wants to increase air travel by 30%. and at the other end of the financial spetrum the wellheelled from all corners of the world are jetting off to snowboard on real snow in the desert at 104 degrees and holiday in an underwater hotel in the Middle East. The life style of the ordinary people is not the real problem, it is the excesses at the other end plus the ever increasing flights across the world for touirism or what ever and the flying food across the world so that I can have a mango after dinner in the middle of winter in a cold country like Scotland.
    Although it may help, there is more to this than turning the heating down a degree at home and only boiling enough water for your cup of tea. Yes every little helps but until we tackle the real problems we are “pissin’ in the wind” but feel we are getting somewhere.
    Reducing CO2 is one problem but reducing world energy consumption in a world with reducing energy sources is an even bigger problem. Can the entire world have 100% renewable energy sources?

  4. John, I’d respectfully suggest that the math doesn’t fully support your argument. The U.S. emits 20 tons of CO2 per person per year total. Of that, household emissions account for 8 tons per person– about 40%– and 4.5 tons of that is generated just from household electricity use– about 1/4 of the total U.S. CO2 emissions. Cutting just household electricity use in half would reduce the nation’s emissions by over 10%.

    Sure, the jetset crowd emits more per capita. But there are few of them and a lot of us average folk. There’s lots of room for reduction in almost every American’s life: household, travel and business.

    For urban southwest dwellers, water may be the key; for cold weather dwellers it’s heat. For us rural folk, it’s driving. The point is, we’ve all got areas that can be reduced– and while decrying waste wherever it occurs, we should never forget our own impact.

  5. The point I was trying to make was not that we should do nothing but on the contrary, we are and having some success but the other end of the scale is going the the opposite direction, ie; an ever increasing drive for tourism with more exotic far flung jetset holidays and all the lavish indulgence, more exotic fruits and such flown across the world to titivate our taste. The sad case of Kenya, where it was said that the soil was so rich and fertile that if you stuck your walking stick in the ground when going to bed it would have sprouted leaves by the time you had breakfast, was coerced by the IMF and the World Bank into growing cash crop for export, and what was that crop, “ROSES” acres and acres of “ROSES”. So now practically ever cheap rose in Europe is grown in Kenya and flown to the European capitals for distribution. How many degrees do we have to reduce the household temperature to offset that carbon footprint. Meanwhile the developed world is flying food across the world in aid programs to that poor raped and plunder continent of Africa. Should we not be taking these people to task, had Kenya with its rich fertile soil been encouraged to be self sufficient in food production and what surplus it had sent across its borders to the less fortunate countries. But where would we get our cheap roses to decorate our warm homes, business is business.

  6. We absolutely should– I agree with you 100% on the shift from subsistence farming to cash crops. In Thailand, farmers switched to export fruit, and became so poor they could nbot afford to eat fruit themselves. In Sri Lanka, the shift was from subsistence farming to factory work. Incomes tripled– but standards of living plumetted because they now had to buy all their own food. I’ve seen living spaces in the Colombo slums where so many people lived, they had to sleep in shifts because there wasn’t enough room on the floor for them all.

    Meanwhile, we should refuse to buy the Chilean, Ecuadorean, and New Zealand fruit in our own grocery stores. Did you know that transporting nectarines from Chile emits 4.5 pounds of CO2 for every pound of fruit? It’s tempting, especially when Chilean peaches taste better than the tasteless, spongey peaches they truck in from California during the summer– but the environmental cost is staggering.

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