Monday, August 20, 2007

Nuclear Power

David Kestenbaum did a report on All Things Considered today about France's plans for storing nuclear waste from their reactors. Some astounding amount of France's power comes from nuclear reactors, one of the few things the French government seems to have handled competently (they need power and don't have natural reserves, so nuclear is a reasonable solution). What I didn't realize was that the French aren't all enamoured of nuclear power, even though they have been using it safely for years. I always assumed that fear of nuclear energy would go away after enough exposure to it, but according to Mr. Kestenbaum, 1 in 3 French people is opposed to nuclear power, and only 1 in 5 is actually for it (I'm not sure how those numbers worked out, but it's an EU poll, so we can only imagine).

The biggest issue there, just like here, is where to store the nuclear waste. In France they've mandated a location - a city called Bure - and are dumping enough money there to convince the residents that it's a reasonable idea, although many still don't like it. Here, Yucca mountain has been under discussion for years as a spot to store our nuclear waste, and we don't seem to be any closer to a resolution. Honestly, though, I think it's just a matter of perception - people are disproportionately scared of radiation without really understanding it - perhaps because they don't really understand it.
In my college physics class (thank goodness for Professor Muller - even if it was the worst grade of my entire university career, at least he made it fun), we watched a documentary about attitudes of people who lived near a nuclear reactor. One of the men who worked at the facility was found to have elevated levels of radiation, but on investigation it was discovered that the radiation wasn't coming from the nuclear plant, but instead from naturally occurring radon in the earth. When local people found out about this, they were relieved, because the radiation was coming from "natural" causes. They went about their daily business, continuing to hate and mistrust the nuclear power plant and not worry about the fact that they were all going to get cancer. Of course as physics students, we knew that it was only the type of radiation, not the source, that mattered. But we weren't surprised to see that average Americans didn't understand that distinction.

Similarly, we don't seem to have problems finding places to build new coal power plants in the US, but no one wants a nuclear waste facility anywhere near them. I don't get it - the pollution caused by the coal plants is going to have a much larger impact on the environment and people's health - at least in the near future - than a waste facility. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a complete proponent of nuclear power, and frankly I wouldn't want any kind of power plant or waste facility in my backyard. But if I had to choose, trying to address the energy crisis by expanding our nuclear facilities seems like a much better way to go.

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