Dear Co-op Voice Editors and other Readers,
In the June article “Nuclear, Solar, Grid,” we were warned that the views about nuclear and solar energy would be “biased.” That was, indeed, an understatement. Solar was presented with its downsides (works only in the early afternoon and only produces DC power, not AC) whereas nuclear was presented with its upside (works continuously at high AC power output and availability). This is a nuclear lobbyist’s dream pitch.
I am a physicist and former researcher for NASA. When I graduated from SUNY Albany with my Masters back in the early 70s, it was clear to me that the two greatest dangers to humanity were: 1) nuclear weapons, and 2) nuclear power plants. And that was before the Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima disasters. So, I’d like to set the record a little straighter about solar vs. nukes.
It’s true that solar produces its maximum power output during the early afternoon, and that our home consumption takes place in the early mornings and evenings. But this ignores the fact that solar electricity goes to the grid during the afternoon to power businesses and offices using an abundance of lighting, air-conditioning, and computer equipment. Last year, during the crushing July heatwave in Texas, solar and wind power saved the day when air-conditioning demand hit a record high while nuclear and gas power plants had to be turned down because they could not be adequately cooled. Solar and wind help prevent a widespread blackout and possibly saved lives.
The intermittency of solar energy, however, does not make it a whimsical environmentalist’s day-dream. The problem is merely a technical speed-bump; companies like Tesla Power now produce an elegant-looking home battery module that hangs on your wall, outside or inside. These home batteries can capture the power from solar panels during the afternoon so that the electricity can be used later in the early evening and morning at peak home demand. The batteries cost the same as a typical home central air-conditioning unit.
Meanwhile, the downside of nuclear power plants was hardly touched upon in the interview. When Chernobyl and Fukushima were mentioned, they were cited as mere “isolated incidents.” In reality, conventional reactors are ‘dirty’ atomic bombs ready to explode the moment something goes wrong with their containment or control system. And just one ‘incident’ can spew out an invisible radioactive cloud that can go around the world. I was living in France when Chernobyl exploded and spread its lethal contamination across Europe and then was detected later in the U.S. I had to stop eating dairy products for the next ten years to avoid ingesting radioactive iodine and cesium, which accumulate in your thyroid and lead to cancer.
And let’s not forget, radioactive contamination lasts, in practical terms, forever, i.e., for hundreds of human generations. No chemical action has any effect on radioactivity; it can’t be neutralized or stopped until it’s done decaying. Even today, neither Chernobyl nor Fukushima are extinguished (except in the media). The town and surrounding countryside of Fukushima today are still sealed off to the public, no one can live there. Modern-day kamikaze workers continue to battle the reactor core, flooding it daily with 300 tons of water just to cool it so that it doesn’t explode. The water that comes off is then filtered but remains too contaminated to release into the adjoining sea, so it must be stored in large steel storage tanks like those for gasoline and gas. The number of these steel tanks is starting to cover the landscape; there is no end in sight in this battle, for the next 30 years. The older storage tanks are now starting to corrode and leak; if this contaminated water reaches the sea it will contaminate Japan’s coastline where much of its seafood comes from. Then it will spread across the north Pacific contaminating one of the richest fisheries in the world and the home of Alaska salmon.
But wait, there’s a ‘white elephant’ in the room, too. I’m referring to the horrific ‘downside’ of every conventional nuclear reactor in existence: radioactive waste. It’s the same stuff of the deadly ‘clouds’ but in solid form (2,000 tons/year for each reactor). Around the world 250,000 tons has accumulated because we have never found a safe way to dispose of it. Some of it is slowly leaking into the ground and water. Do we really want to continue this nightmare by building more nuclear power plants?
When a solar panel breaks or a wind turbine grinds to a halt, nothing bad happens: the cows and sheep come out to graze next to them as usual, children continue to play outside at local school playgrounds; the surrounding populations hustle and bustle through their daily lives without interruption or fear. And there is no waste or emissions. The choice should be clear.
Yet some technology experts continue to fret about a continuous and available electricity supply for the grid. Here’s an alternative vision. First, use industrial-size storage batteries (they already exist) as well as home batteries to guarantee most of the steady supply of electricity to the grid. Second, for those who never feel that an energy solution is serious unless it burns something, let’s imagine that we finally take advantage of all of our heaps and heaps of trash, garbage dumps, sewage, food waste, farm and crop waste, slaughterhouse waste, etc. and use this to produce biogas (organic methane). Biogas would replace all our current fracked gas (fossil methane) and could be burned in conventional turbines to produce a steady flow of electricity, 24/7. It would be carbon neutral and not add to global warming.
We can build a better and safer world if we have the political will to do it.