Needed: The Hard Path

Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee is closing. While I normally have no real shortage of opinions on many issues, I don’t really have an opinion about this one.

If you aren’t aware, Vermont Yankee is an aging, 540-megawatt reactor in Vernon, Vermont, on the banks of the Connecticut River. It has been a lightning rod for those who oppose nuclear power in the Northeast, and the site of numerous spills, leaks, and small mishaps (though many would argue that opponents regularly make mountains out of molehills whenever this particular plant is concerned). The drive to shut it down has moved to the courts, and the battles there are ongoing. But, in the midst of this, low U.S. natural gas prices (themselves largely the result of another controversial arena, fracking) seem to have sealed Yankee’s fate, and owner Entergy just announced that the plant will be closed next year.

And here the mixed feelings begin. On one hand, nuclear power plants seem vulnerable to terrorism, have the potential to wreak havoc on huge areas (think Fukushima, Chernobyl), use fuel that is non-renewable and difficult to extract, and produce waste that is problematic. On the other hand, they have, on the whole, solid safety records, small footprints, and produce carbon-free power. Then, there is even more potential benefit when you move beyond considering just current reactors (so-called “Generation II” and “Generation III” reactors) and look at newer designs that could be built to shut themselves down if things go wrong, or, like fast-breeder-reactors, use fuel much more efficiently. (A good Time Magazine article here.)

If CO2 emissions and the resulting warming are serious problems, and if the energy in fossil fuels is difficult to replace with renewable power (posts: “A Matter of Limits” and “The Magic-Wand Question“), then nuclear power might, just perhaps, be a big part of the solution. More than a few former critics of nuclear power have come to this conclusion, and have become supporters. A recently released documentary by Robert Stone, “Pandora’s Promise”, focuses on some of these individuals. Trailer–

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint, and the reviews of the film have been mixed. Brian Walsh of Time, whose opinion I tend to respect, feels that it is important, and writes that it should be seen, especially by environmentalists. Others are more critical. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I get the gist of it.

So all of this gives me some things to ponder.

First, some issues are just complex and difficult to be definitive about, issues where all-or-nothing pronouncements tend to be intellectually dishonest. I’d put nuclear power into this group, along with fracking and GMOs. All are problematic, yet all have the potential to be part of the solution.

Second, there is the issue of whether R&D money put into nuclear power wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere. The “promise” of nuclear power hasn’t been fully realized; newer “Gen IV” designs are not ready to go into full production, and much investment would be required. These billions might be better spent doing research on permaculture, or utility scale storage, or any of a thousand other needed efforts.

But third, call me crazy, but we need the curtailment that will come with switching to renewables. It will impose self-discipline; the comparative scarcity of this power will force efficiency and conservation. Humanity has huge problems in addition to energy, like deforestation and pollution and overfishing and groundwater depletion, and many of these can only be solved by reducing the human footprint on the planet (at least until we decouple; see post “Free Lunch and the Holy Grail“); which will require true paradigm shifts with regard to human behavior. If by some miracle we could actually provide what the nuclear supporters of the 70’s envisioned, “electricity too cheap to meter”, I’m afraid it would just allow humanity to plow ahead with profligate wastefulness and business-as-usual.

So in the end, perhaps I do have an opinion. I’m afraid, though, that it is an opinion that might not be popular. Hard paths never are. We must be disciplined, we must be focused, and if we are going to work hard, we might as well think big, and work toward a planet powered by clean, renewable power, with reduced consumption and a reduced focus on material things; a world of wind turbines, solar panels, permaculture, highly-efficient buildings, and more intentional living. That’s the clean, safe, healthy future we need.

 Image credit: Wikimedia Commons