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Could the US Phase Out Nuclear Power? 657

Posted by samzenpus
from the won't-somebody-please-think-of-the-mutants dept.
mdsolar writes "In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, [German Chancellor] Merkel announced that her country would close all of its 17 existing reactors by 2022. Other nations, including Japan, Italy, and Switzerland, have announced plans to pare back nuclear power, but none have gone as far as Germany, the world's fourth-largest economy. Merkel vows to replace nuclear power with alternatives that do not increase greenhouse gases or shackle the economic growth. Could the US do the same? An increasing number of reports suggest it is not beyond the realm of possibility, and Germany could provide a road map."
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Could the US Phase Out Nuclear Power?

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  • Short Answer (Score:3, Insightful)

    by badran (973386) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:07PM (#36377806)

    No.

    • Re:Short Answer (Score:5, Insightful)

      by enderjsv (1128541) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:15PM (#36377932)

      Sure they could. Never underestimate the power of fear and ignorance, my friend.

      • Re:Short Answer (Score:5, Insightful)

        by mlts (1038732) * on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:33PM (#36378264)

        Don't forget Big Oil and Big Coal. They would love the US to be nuclear free. There are plenty of lignite coal deposits and plenty of small towns just itching for toxic mine tailings to wind up in the ground water.

        Realistically, lets close nuclear plants... the first gen ones. Replace those with passively safe breeding designs like TWR that can happily chug on fuel until it is plain old lead suitable for adding to paint chips. Done right, we can take the high level nuclear products from older reactors and use it for more than triggering NIMBY knee jerk politics near Yucca Mountain.

        There is nothing wrong with nuclear power. We just need to move to designs of plants made after the conflict in Viet Nam, or ideally, designs made this millennium.

      • Re:Short Answer (Score:5, Insightful)

        by nharmon (97591) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:33PM (#36378272) Homepage

        Are you referring to the fear and ignorance of saying a phase out of nuclear power is irresponsible? Or the fear and ignorance of saying nuclear power can never be safe?

        I forgot which one we're supposed to side with.

        • Re:Short Answer (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Patch86 (1465427) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @03:06PM (#36378774)

          Anything which deals in absolutes is probably fear and/or ignorance based. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle.

          Phasing out nuclear power in some geographical areas might not be the stupidest thing in the world. Banning it from a whole continent surely is.

      • Re:Short Answer (Score:5, Insightful)

        by drooling-dog (189103) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:49PM (#36378514)

        Never underestimate the power of fear and ignorance

        Fear, maybe, but ignorance? I'd say it's more an issue of trust. Not everyone can be a nuclear engineer, but most can smell the stink when the assurances they are given by them are contradicted repeatedly by empirical reality. When people who purport to know what they're talking about ridicule popular concerns about safety and accidents, they allow themselves to appear cavalier about those matters, which erodes public confidence even further.

        Personally, I believe that nuclear energy should be part of the mix in the future. But the next time the impossible happens and a reactor melts down, don't try to convince me that it's no worse than standing next to a bunch of bananas.

        • Re:Short Answer (Score:4, Informative)

          by Ill_Omen (215625) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @03:11PM (#36378848)

          The question is not whether it's worse than standing next to a bunch of bananas. The question is whether it's worse than an alternative source of energy. Assuming the demand for power stays constant (and it's certainly not going down), shutting down a nuclear power plant requires additional power to be generated elsewhere.

          Clearly, a nuclear power plant is less safe than an open field. But is it worse than a coal plant, or a natural gas plant, or the equivalent solar or windmill farm? And by what metrics are we measuring 'safety'? How do you compare the (fairly unlikely) danger of a radiation leak at a nuclear plant to the effects of toxic rain, deforestation, and other byproducts of coal?

          • Re:Short Answer (Score:4, Interesting)

            by pixelpusher220 (529617) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @04:12PM (#36379638)

            But is it worse than a coal plant, or a natural gas plant, or the equivalent solar or windmill farm

            Partially apples vs oranges.

            Nuclear has lower operational impacts than coal. Coal has lower failure impacts than Nuclear.

            Operational impacts can be planned for and reasonably dealt with. Failure impacts cannot. At some point the level of planning fails because of unforeseen risks. You can mitigate as best as possible, but you can never solve the problem with certainty.

            Solar/wind is lower than either on both accounts. The energy 'storage' technology isn't yet ready for wind/solar to be grid scale but it is coming.

            And on top of that it's fuel is free.

            • by SETIGuy (33768) *

              Operational impacts can be planned for and reasonably dealt with.

              How are we planning for and currently dealing with the 15,000 people killed annually by pollution from coal plants in the US? The 30,000 killed by the effects of petroleum distillates?

      • by MightyYar (622222)

        Sure they could. Never underestimate the power of fear and ignorance, my friend.

        All fear and ignorance will accomplish is to prevent new plants from being built, thus extending the life of the old ones, perhaps making them more dangerous. We'll still be dependent on nuclear power, it will just be a bunch of 40+ year old plants instead of shiny new ones.

    • Re:Short Answer (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Andy Dodd (701) <atd7@corUUUnell.edu minus threevowels> on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @03:07PM (#36378786) Homepage

      I disagree. Anything is possible - but at what cost?

      A knee-jerk reaction to an incident at one of the oldest reactors in the world, triggered by a record breaking natural disaster, is the LAST thing we need in an economy that is already weak due to rising energy costs.

      If we pull a Germany, I'm going to have to start learning French or Chinese I think...

      Coal power is a major polluter, both air AND soil/water. Look at the Kingston fly ash spill...
      Natural gas may burn clean, but the process for extracting it from the ground has contaminated more water resources and sickened more people in 5-10 years than the entire history of United States nuclear power generation.
      We're tapped out on hydro - and that isn't completely safe either (Banqiao Dam anyone?)
      Wind and solar are too variable for more than 10-20% penetration given the current energy storage technology we have. In Washington or Oregon, they have frequently had to shut down wind farms because the windiest times were also the rainiest, which meant that the hydro facilities were cranking at full capacity. Denmark exports a significant portion of its wind power and then buys it back from their nuclear/hydro-enabled neighbors, and many believe this is at a significant loss. (Denmark sells it when it's abundant and hence cheap, and buys it back when it's more expensive.)

      Nuclear isn't perfect either - but of all of the power generation technologies out there, it has the cleanest and safest track record. Chernobyl and Fukushima are the only times in the history of nuclear power generation that more than a handful of members of the public have been exposed to anything but negligible hazards. (Note: I don't count incidents related to weapons detonation or production such as Kyshtm, since most countries are dismantling weapons instead of producing them.) Technically you could even throw Chernobyl into the weapons category, since its flawed and dangerous design compromised safety in favor of suitability for weapons production.

    • by hey! (33014)

      Actually, the short answer is "yes". The long answer is "We could certainly phase out nuclear power with some economic sacrifice, but in the first place 'could we?' is the wrong question. The right question is 'should we?'"

      Unfortunately, the answers to questions like "*should we*" tend to start with "It depends." Then they go on to raise a whole new set of questions like "What kinds of nuclear plants will we build to replace the existing ones as they are retired?" Not at all pithy, I'm afraid.

    • Can't do attitude. Love it.
  • Longer Answer: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:09PM (#36377828)

    And neither can Germany.

    • Re:Longer Answer: (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Dyinobal (1427207) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:13PM (#36377880)
      Indeed, I read the article about Germany's plan to phase out nuclear power, and honestly it felt more like a short term grab for political power in the wake of Japan's issues to get more votes from the antinuke/enviormental crowd than an actual plan with substance.
      • Re:Longer Answer: (Score:5, Informative)

        by Vlad_the_Inhaler (32958) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @04:17PM (#36379712) Homepage

        It most definitely was that.
        There were State elections in Baden Wuertemburg several weeks ago, the CDU have *always* ruled there - often with over 50% of the votes.

        The Ecology Party (Gruenen) won the election and are going into coalition with the SPD. The FDP (the CDU's partners at State and national level) did not get any seats at all. Merkel panicked.

        There were some major reasons why the CDU lost their majority - mostly CDU initiatives which had gone expensively south, although Fukushima will also have been a factor. The CDU decided they had lost touch with their electorate (true) and it was all down to Fukushima (debatable).

        There are several State elections this year. One has been held since that nuclear decision. The CDU came in third, their worst result anywhere since the war. The FDP did not pick up any seats there either.

    • Re:Longer Answer: (Score:5, Insightful)

      by h4rr4r (612664) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:16PM (#36377942)

      Sure they can, just buy power from France. Who are of course using Nuclear power plants on the other side of the river.

    • by kyz (225372)

      Indeed. Remember how well it went for the Germans the last time they tried to phase something out....

    • Re:Longer Answer: (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Caerdwyn (829058) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:29PM (#36378182) Journal

      Germany is not phasing out nuclear power. They will need to import power in the short- and medium-term from France and England, both of which are nuclear-heavy (particularly France). Germany will still use nuclear-generated electricity; they're just playing a "not in my back yard" game. And by "they", I mean politicians which are pandering to their electorate to try to keep in power.

      Long-term, they are putting themselves at the mercy of Russia. The NordStream natural gas pipeline will eventually be providing fuel, which can and will be used as a political lever (Russia has successfully done so several times in the past to strong-arm NATO over membership for the Ukraine and Georgia). Also, natural gas is a fossil fuel just like oil, and if the CO2 boogeyman is still the boogeyman, well... how does that not cause problems? On a per-megawatt basis, nuclear power remains much cheaper than natural gas, and a full decimal order of magnitude cheaper than solar (recall how far north Germany is. That's a problem for solar.) Switching from nuclear power to natural gas is not a step forward, economically, politically, ecologically

      This is just another example of politicians doing long-term harm for short-term political dominance.

      • Re:Longer Answer: (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Anspen (673098) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @04:20PM (#36379748)

        Germany is not phasing out nuclear power. They will need to import power in the short- and medium-term from France and England, both of which are nuclear-heavy (particularly France). Germany will still use nuclear-generated electricity; they're just playing a "not in my back yard" game. And by "they", I mean politicians which are pandering to their electorate to try to keep in power.

        Off course they will continue to im- and export electricity to neighbouring countries depending on the day. That's how the electricity market works. France's nuclear reactor for example tend to produce far to little electricity during the hottest part of the summer since they are mostly dependent on river water for cooling. Looking at the total energy consumption and production over the course of a year however Germany has a large electricity surplus. In 2009 this was 54.1 TWh (592.6 produced vs. 538.5 consumed [energy.eu])

        As a matter of fact, the seven oldest nuclear plants can be shutdown without any problems [spiegel.de] immediately (which is what happened) since there is a significant production surplus. Even without the other nuclear power plants and all wind and solar power Germany still has enough production capacity to meet it's highest consumption moment so far. In practice that moment is always during the afternoon when you are guaranteed at least a quarter of installed solar power plus some of the wind power (since it's distributed across the fairly large country).

        Long-term, they are putting themselves at the mercy of Russia. The NordStream natural gas pipeline will eventually be providing fuel, which can and will be used as a political lever (Russia has successfully done so several times in the past to strong-arm NATO over membership for the Ukraine and Georgia).

        However, unlike the Ukraine and Georgia Germany has other sources of Gas (the Netherlands and Norway) and significant storage capacity.

        Also, natural gas is a fossil fuel just like oil, and if the CO2 boogeyman is still the boogeyman, well... how does that not cause problems? On a per-megawatt basis, nuclear power remains much cheaper than natural gas, and a full decimal order of magnitude cheaper than solar (recall how far north Germany is. That's a problem for solar.) Switching from nuclear power to natural gas is not a step forward, economically, politically, ecologically

        The difference is that gas can be put into service (or out) much faster than nuclear. Itâ(TM)s a much better partner for intermittent renewables (Which is what Germany is going for to replace the nuclear power plants). And while existing nuclear electricity is indeed very cheap (because the massive investment cost have already been depreciated and because the producers donâ(TM)t have to pay for decommissioning). New nuclear power is a lot more expensive, doubly so after Fukushima. Building one on spec (that is, without public financial guarantees and/or investment)to be finished in 2018 is already more expensive [slashdot.org] than some of the feed in tariffs paid in Germany for solar now. Most wind is already cheaper than any kind nuclear plant that still has to be built. And solar is expected to continue getting cheaper (the price of photovoltaic installations in Germany has halved in the last five years [solarwirtschaft.de] thanks to economy of scale and technological improvements)

        This is just another example of politicians doing long-term harm for short-term political dominance.

        Well, the nuclear fase out plan in Germany has been on the books for years. Itâ(TM)s was only in the last y

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      Yea I love the tone of the sumary because the first question is can Germany phase out nuclear power at all. They have not done it and the rest of the it is just so much fantasy. Of course what the Green party doesn't know is they are going to replace Nuclear with carbon neutral whale oil fired plants.

  • FUD article (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Lunix Nutcase (1092239) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:10PM (#36377860)

    No. This is just another anti-nuclear FUD article from mdsolar. Secondly, if the US did phase it out what exactly is going to replace it? More coal plants? Yeah, that sounds like a brilliant plan but would be an extremely amusing backfire from the anti-nuke nuts campaign.

    • Merkel vows to replace nuclear power with alternatives that do not increase greenhouse gases or shackle the economic growth.

      Which basically leaves them with no viable alternative. Solar, wind and water can not produce the same amount of energy as nuclear even under perfect theoretical conditions let alone all the extra land required to build these alternatives.

    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      If you were willing to pay an unlimited amount for power you could do solar and wind. Nuclear, Coal, and gas could all be replaced if people were willing to pay more, a lot more.

      Over here in reality, we need new nuclear plants and solar thermal where it makes sense. Wind power in other areas can also work out quite well. To meet our needs at prices people are willing to pay power will have to come from mixed sources.

    • by SirGeek (120712)
      More likely, the plants would be natural gas based (at least in New England).
  • What the hell are they going to replace it with? More fossil fuels?

    Sunshine and wind aren't going to meet any nation's energy demands with current technology.

  • by silas_moeckel (234313) <silas@@@dsminc-corp...com> on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:13PM (#36377888) Homepage

    Can we stop being scared of fission please. Yes it will kill people so will coal solar wind hydro etc. Please can we live in the real world where people die. Once we do that we can figure out that fission is the next to least bad option next to hydro. Since nearly all the potential hydro is tapped out already it's the only currently viable option.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by donscarletti (569232)
      Here's my take, if a nuclear reactor explodes, a rare but possible occurrence, it will contaminate a hundred square kilometers or so so it cannot be inhabited for a century or there abouts. If you want a hydro system with the same power output, you generally flood a valley and not only prevent it from being inhabited while the dam stands, but also ruin it for plants and animals too, unlike Chernobyl which is returning to natural forest flora and fauna. Nuclear probably won't explode and if it does, it still
      • by Dahamma (304068) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:49PM (#36378522)

        if a nuclear reactor explodes, a rare but possible occurrence

        If there's anything that SimCity has taught us, it's that nuclear reactor meltdowns are a "rare but inevitable occurrence". Being attacked by Godzilla is a rare but possible occurrence.

      • by Pentium100 (1240090) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @03:14PM (#36378890)

        The problem is that a big disaster in a nuclear power plant affects a wide area and is broadcasted around the world, so people are afraid of it, while coal and other methods kill people all the time, but only in small numbers at once, so nobody cares.

        It's the same as with planes vs cars for transport. People die in car accidents every day, but since the numbers are small nobody cares. On the other hand, if a plane crashes somewhere, half the world knows about it since a lot of people die at once.

    • by MachineShedFred (621896) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:29PM (#36378196) Journal

      The great American cities we have today would have never been built if there was this much fear of the remote possibility of injury or death. Under today's mindset, you would have never had people walking the beams in Manhattan in order to build all that, as quickly and cheaply as they did.

      People are dying TODAY from coal and oil. Thousands of them per year. Can we please build something that only has a chance of killing people, rather than assuring people die?

    • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:31PM (#36378234)
      Hydro is only "not bad" if you don't live near where it buggers up the ecosystem, like I do.

      Make no mistake: hydro is not as "cheap" as it appears to be. It has hidden expenses (just look at the fish barging on the Snake River) and in many cases is not, in the long run, sustainable unless you want to kill off whole species.

      People tend to think hydro is "clean" because it doesn't dump poison into the atmosphere or leak radiation into the ground. But it does leak "poison" (oxygenation) into the water, and it disrupts all kinds of things in the ecosystem, from algae all the way up to peak predators.
  • A better question: (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Mongoose Disciple (722373) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:14PM (#36377906)

    Why would they want to?

    It's easy to panic about whatever the latest disaster was rather than actually rationally evaluate the trade-offs of various options.

  • by Fwipp (1473271) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:15PM (#36377928)

    Of course we could. It might be painful and messy, but we could. The more relevant question: *should* the US phase out nuclear power?

  • by loshwomp (468955) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:16PM (#36377952)

    ...and the coal industry would be thrilled.

    • With newer reactor designs, it could be even better. We still need to come up with a good solution for the waste, though. Nobody has any idea how much it will cost to deal with as we're currently just putting it aside.

    • by KiloByte (825081)

      The numbers you linked are off by several orders of magnitude. They include only direct deaths during mining, transport and burning. Pollution is not included.

      And, let's think, what is more dangerous: pollution that makes it hard to see, gives people asthma, causes old people to suffocate, makes trees lose all leaves, and so on, or pollution that is locked in steel barrels sealed in tons of concrete under a mountain?

  • If the irrational over-reaction to nuclear power based on the Fukushima disaster were mirrored in other industries, then the Titanic would have ended the ship industry, and Ford's exploding Pinto would have ended the auto industry.

    And just because water-cooled nuclear reactors were and always will be a stupid idea, doesn't mean that all types of nuclear reactors are stupid ideas.

    There was an editorial at DailyTech about this recently: DailyTech nuclear power editorial [dailytech.com]

  • by Red Jesus (962106) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:21PM (#36378022)

    And you men and half of the Internet as well are just as bad. We sit here, considering Wikipedia the all-in-all. We consider the greatest end of science is the classification of past data. It is important, but is there no further work to be done? We're receding and forgetting, don't you see? Here in the America they've lost nuclear power. In Japan, a power plant has undergone meltdown because of poor repairs, and the Chancellor of the Empire complains that nuclear technicians are scarce. And the solution? To train new ones? Never! Instead they're to restrict nuclear power.

    --Salvor Hardin, paraphrased

  • by Joey Vegetables (686525) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:23PM (#36378068) Journal
    The most rational, prudent, safe, and progressive thing to do would be to phase out the current, 1st generation plants, but simultaneously remove, insofar as possible, obstacles to safer 2nd / 3rd generation designs such as CANDU.
  • I think you'll find the answers to those are radically different. Could we? Sure, with enough expense ( time, effort and currency ), we absolutely could.

    Should we? Absolutely not. Japan showed us what could go wrong with old designs and bad policies. We paid for those lessons, it'd be irresponsible to throw them away.

  • Look at deaths/megawatt hour. Nuclear is much lower than coal, gas/oil, hydro, and wind. (Forget about solar). Sure nuclear makes the news more often, but it's because it's scarier. Just as the e. coli outbreak is terrifying people but less than 20 have died from it.

    Forget the source on the deaths/megawatt, will look for it now.

  • by phrackwulf (589741) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:25PM (#36378098) Homepage

    Germany will fill the gap using dung fired power plants using all the horse crap from the state mandated horse based transportation system. Though of course, fossil fuel based transportation will remain available to citizens making above a certain amount of Deutschmarks and the political class since they have important business to conduct. All nice and tidy, and somewhere in all that crap, there's a pony!

  • Geez, this site is getting old. Feel the optimism. The all American 'yes we can' spirit.

    And now get off my lawn, punk!

  • Other forms of power kill more people than nuclear, nuclear just does so in a flashy form and in obvious clusters around the release. Coal, on the other hand, kills a lot more people, but does so over a longer period of time and over the entire area the particulate emissions spread...in other words, everywhere.

    But hey, don't let that stop you policy makers. Do the thing that makes it look like you're taking action rather than taking the RIGHT action.

  • Sure we can do that... but you first Germany. Lets see how that works out. Or we could use Dogbert Power [dilbert.com]

  • by Renraku (518261) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:32PM (#36378256) Homepage

    I only ask that if they get rid of nuclear, they also say no more new coal plants. Tit for tat and all that.

  • by Deathlizard (115856) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:38PM (#36378344) Homepage Journal

    The US hasn't built a new plant since TMI. As plants are decommissioned they're being replaced with coal and Natural gas plants.

    What really needs to happen is a complete phase out of the older generation [wikipedia.org] nuclear power plants and a phase in of the next generation [wikipedia.org] of nuclear power. From there, we use the knowledge gained from the reactor replacements to build the future generation [wikipedia.org] plants.

    Sitting back and letting our plants get older and older instead of replacing them on schedule is like sitting on a time bomb.

  • Probably (Score:4, Funny)

    by Phanatic1a (413374) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @02:45PM (#36378444)

    We could also, if we wished, eradicate widespread vaccination and the refrigeration of food.

  • by Mike Van Pelt (32582) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @03:19PM (#36378946)

    In a debate on TED talks, taking the pro-nuclear side, Stuart Brand said something that sums up the whole thing: "I am not so much pro-nuclear as I am pro-arithmetic."

    The anti-nukes keep making assertions about how we "don't need nuclear or fossil fuels" that are violations of basic arithmetic.

    Assuming we're to be permitted to continue having a technological civilization, of course, which is not, perhaps, a given.

  • by geminidomino (614729) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @03:32PM (#36379136) Journal

    Merkel vows to replace nuclear power with alternatives that do not increase greenhouse gases or shackle the economic growth

    Pixie dust and unicorn piss?

  • by prelelat (201821) on Wednesday June 08, 2011 @03:36PM (#36379186)

    I was watching a Nova documentary on the weekend about the issue of power in the US. it came out after Fukushima and there was this one guy who used to be an activist against nuclear power in the 70's talking about it. He said something along the line of even after the Fukushima disaster it's still a viable solution.

    The documentary went on to show how newer models were being built to be safer. They were starting to standardize and simplify their models of plants to make them more safe. One thing for instance was the water tanks were above the reactors so if there was a complete loss of power and diesel generators failed gravity would still be able to pump cooling water into the reactor for a period of time(until the tank runs out something like 1-3 days).

    The reactors that are a problem are the ones built in the 70's these need to be phased out, the U.S. hasn't built a new reactor since it was banned in the 70's. This scares the hell out of me. Proper construction and disposal of waste could be a lot cleaner than coal.

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