Yesterday, the United States' Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of the first two nuclear reactors to be built in this country since 1978. They're both part of the same power plant complex, near Augusta, Georgia.
As David Biello points out in an excellent analysis of this news over at Scientific American, these reactors are not part of a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. That's simply not happening. But they represent some important shifts in technology. These reactors employ passive cooling systems. Basically, in the event of an emergency, you don't need to rely external pumps or generators to keep the reactor cores cool.
You'll recall, of course, that this was the key problem at Fukushima. The tsunami damaged the generators that powered the pumps, so when the reactors began to heat up, there was no way to get cooling water into them. In Georgia, the new reactors will, instead, rely on gravity. If one of these reactors gets too hot, a heat-sensitive valve will automatically open, releasing cooling water that's stored directly above the reactor core.
Obviously, this doesn't make the reactors fail-proof. If you support nuclear energy, you're going to see this (and the fact that the NRC approval is conditional on utility Southern Company demonstrating that they have learned from the lessons of Fukushima) as a step in the right direction. If you're absolutely against nuclear energy, you're going to be deeply disturbed by this project no matter what happens.
I sit somewhere in the middle. I'm uncomfortable with nuclear energy—as it currently exists—being presented as a long-term energy solution. It can't serve that role as long "bury it" is our only means of dealing with nuclear waste. And whether it's a good idea at all depends on how stringent regulatory oversight is willing to be.
At the same time, though, we are dependent on steady, ever-increasing supplies of electricity. Right now, we get 20% of that electricity from nuclear reactors, most of which are reaching the end of their functional lives. The question of what will replace them is a serious one. There are steps we can take to reduce our energy consumption. We can, and should be, adding more wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable resources to our electric generation mix. But there are some very good reasons why we can't, right now, shut down all the coal, all the nuclear, and all the natural gas power plants. All three of those sources of generation come with big safety and health problems. But we are going to continue to use one or more of them for decades to come. Renewables should be our long-term solution. In the short-term, though, we have some nasty and subjective decisions to make about what risks we're willing to live with. I'm not enthusiastic about nuclear. But a new nuclear power plant, in my mind, is better than a new coal power plant. The trouble with making these kind of decisions, though, is that there's lots of room for reasonable people to disagree.
Right now, I'm reading The Conundrum by David Owen. It's a really interesting book about some of the unintended consequences of the way we approach sustainability and environmentalism.
I'm going to post a full review soon, once I get all the way through it, but so far Owen is making a couple of key points: One that I agree with, and one I think he's oversimplifying a bit. I agree with this: You can't shop your way out of climate change. The tendency to turn environmentalism into a set of luxury lifestyle choices is a huge problem—doing nothing to solve our energy issues and perpetuating an idea that sustainability is "for" some people and not for others.
Owen also talks a lot about the rebound effect (or, as it's sometimes called, Jevons Paradox)—a very real problem that affects our ability to reduce emissions caused by energy use. Basically, it works like this: when you reduce energy use through energy efficiency, you get the same amount of work for less energy investment. That's good. But saving energy also saves money. That saved money often ends up spent in ways that consume energy. In the end, some measure of the energy you thought you saved through energy efficiency ends up not actually being saved. It just got consumed in another place. The result is good for the economy, but maybe not so good for the climate, depending on how the energy in question was produced.
So far, Owen seems to be taking the position that the rebound effect will always negate all the environmental benefits of energy efficiency programs. From the research I did while working on Before the Lights Go Out , my upcoming book on the future of energy, that's probably not correct. Like I say, I'm not done with Owen's book yet, so I'll let you know what he has to say on this issue in more detail later. But I wanted to bring it up now as an excuse to link to an in-depth FAQ on the rebound effect that I co-authored with Karen Turner, an economist who is one of the few people actually studying how the rebound effect works in the real world.
A lot of the statements made about the rebound effect are based on "common sense" logic and computer models that don't necessarily portray consumer behavior in a realistic way. People like Turner, who do empirical research on the subject, present a more nuanced view.
This FAQ—which is basically a transcript of my first interview with Turner, done 2010—will help you understand why rebound happens, why it's not strictly a bad thing, and what (if anything) we can do to make energy efficiency a useful tool in the fight against climate change.
Shameless plug: My book, Before the Lights Go Out , comes out April 10th!
As a Midwesterner and someone who has been paying a lot of attention to energy issues, I read Joel Johnson's recent Jalopnik essay with interest.Read the rest
I got to have another great conversation with synthetic biologist and blogger Christina Agapakis on Bloggingheads.tv's Science Saturday. Christina and I chatted about some of the issues that came up at an energy conference I spoke at recently, examined the possibility of using synthetic biology to create fuel, and talked about how we navigate the often-confusing questions of technology and risk.
I'll be speaking next Wednesday, the 19th, in Washington DC, as part of a one-day conference on the future of energy. What Will Turn Us On in 2030? is part of Future Tense, a series of events sponsored by Slate.com, Arizona State University, and the New America Foundation. It's free, and open to public if you register. Can't make it in person? You can catch me, along with some great thinkers like Craig Venter, Time magazine's Bryan Walsh, and Scientific American's David Biello, on the live stream. My talk will be based on some of the ideas I've spent the last two years researching and writing about in my book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, which will be published in April.