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Does Nuclear Power Compete With Conservation, Wind, Solar and Biomass?

Morewell Open Cut Coal MineOne of my frequent frustrations is getting involved in an energy policy discussion with someone that goes something like this:

Them: I am deeply concerned about global climate change and the effects of mankind’s continued use of dirty fossil fuels on our planet’s health.

Me: I used to operate power plants that produced zero emissions. What do you think about taking a new look at using nuclear power to replace fossil fuel consumption? Them: I do not like nuclear power. We can get all the power that we need by conservation, wind, solar and biomass.

Me: How do you expect for windmills and solar panels to produce power when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining? Can you really shut down fossil plants if you build wind turbines and put solar panels on buildings?

Them: No, but the grid can provide all the back-up we need. We already have paid for building the existing plants and should not spend any money on building new ones while we transition to a new economy where we can live within our natural energy income.

Me: But that means that we have to continue extracting and burning fossil fuels when we could be building plants that make them unnecessary.

Them: I do not like nuclear power and do not want to replace one poison with another.

These conversations often go on far longer until either I or my opponent gives up from frustration or exhaustion.

As a technically trained power plant operator, I have apparently not learned the right words to use to convince people that comparing wind and solar power to a reliable electricity supply is a bit like comparing a bicycle to a city bus or a metro rail.

Sure, the sun and wind are forces that man can harness to do work or make electricity, just like a bicycle is a pretty good form of transportation in certain circumstances. However, I would look pretty silly trying to carry dozens of people on my bicycle. In fact, it gets pretty challenging just to carry enough stuff with me to provide a change of clothing and a raincoat in case of inclement weather. My legs are in pretty good shape, but I need a rest after about 25 miles.

When it comes to reliable power that is available on demand, it is hard to beat a fossil fuel powered generator, unless, of course you have a generator that runs off of the heat produced by an atomic fission reactor. As a guy who used to operate an electric power grid that ran almost exclusively on fission power – granted, it was a small, self-contained grid on a ship – I can personally testify that the system works fine and lasts a long (long, long) time. I have been an ocean sailor and spent enough days becalmed to also be able to testify that the sun sets every single day, making solar cells worthless as a power source until well after sunrise the next day, and the wind changes direction or disappears without any warning more often than many people care to admit.

Reducing fossil fuels for power production so that humans cause less damage to the planet is a big, difficult endeavor. It seems silly to undertake that challenge without using the best available tools. The photo accompanying this post is from just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of the world’s operating coal mines that currently supply about 6 Billion tons of coal each year. That is my target competition when I think about the benefits of investing the time, effort and treasure required to build new nuclear power plants.

Help me, folks. Why is it so difficult to agree that uranium fission competes with fossil fuel combustion and that conservation, wind, sun and biomass “alternatives” are simply not in the same power generation league?

Related links:

First High Resolution Wind Map

Cost of Wind vs Cost of Nuclear to Replace Coal

Nuclear vs. Wind Farms Debate – rather misses the point.

Update (posted May 20, 2008 at 1800 EDT) There is a great article on the front page of Wired dated May 19, 2008 titled Inconvenient Truths: Cutting Carbon Is the Only Thing That Matters. One of the 10 inconvenient truths listed is that environmentalists should EMBRACE NUCLEAR POWER: Face It. Nukes Are the Most Climate-Friendly Industrial-Scale Form of Energy

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Written By

loves and respects our common environment, but he has a fatal flaw in the eyes of many environmentalists -- he's a huge fan of atomic energy. Reduce, reuse, and recycle have been watchwords for Rod since his father taught him that raising rabbits is a great way to turn kitchen scraps into fertilizer for backyard fruit trees and vegetable gardens. They built a compost heap together in about 1967, when he was 8 and when Earth Day was a mere gleam in some people's eye. During his professional career, he has served in several assignments on nuclear submarines, including a 40-month tour as the Engineer Officer of the USS Von Steuben. In 1994, he was awarded US patent number 5309592 for the control system for a closed-cycle gas turbine. He founded Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. in 1993, started Atomic Insights in 1995, and began producing the Atomic Show Podcast in 2006. He is currently an active duty officer (O-5) in the US Navy. He looks forward to many interesting discussions.


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