Monday, August 6, 2007

(Nuclear) Power For the People (of France)

Ira Nearly Gets Arrested in France!
There were no sirens as the gendarme car approached us. Two uniformed guards jumped out and asked if we spoke French. I replied that our Dutch guide spoke French and I called for her to come over and translate.

We had just finished dinner on our barge after a day of bicycling along the Loire River and the canal that parallels it. All day we had observed two large cooling towers in the distance, one belching steam. As the barge docked in Belleville-sur-Loire, I couldn't help notice that the cooling towers were an easy walk. After dinner I suggested we stroll over and see how close we could get! Half a dozen bicyclists and our guide joined me.

Along the way, we took some photos, including the one above that shows the cooling towers on the left and the containment vessel, the cylindrical building on the right, that protects the nuclear reaction.

As we got closer, I left the public road and took a picture of the warning sign, with the containment vessel to the right of it. We then proceeded to the parking lot along the Loire River and observed where the hot effluent from the towers flowed into a small bay and then into the Loire River. That was when the gendarmes approached us.

We were not permitted to be in that area, we were told, nor were we allowed to take photos. We lied that we had not taken any photos and assured the gendarmes we did not plan to take any. I was tempted to ask the gendarmes if I could take a photo of *them*, but managed to hold back! *

I find their warnings about photos kind of ridiculous because anyone in the world can access Google Earth and see the high resolution view of the entire nuclear plant in the photo above. The containment vessels are the two round buildings in the lower right. We walked along the public road on the upper left and were accosted in the parking lot on the upper middle. (The black areas are water and the Loire River itself flows along the upper right.)

France's Committment to Nuclear Power
In any case, we saw nuclear plant cooling towers looming in the distance and belching steam almost everywhere we bicycled in the Loire River area of France. I knew that France had made a major committment to nuclear power for generation of electricity several decades ago and that about 80% of their electricity comes from nuclear.

Some Interesting Facts About Nuclear Power
When I returned home I did some further research and here are some interesting facts:
  • France has some 59 operating nuclear plants while the US has more plants but, since our population and power needs are greater, we get only about 20% of our electricity from nuclear.
  • Environmental activists in the US have stymied further development of nuclear power due to (somewhat justified) concerns about safe disposal of nuclear waste and accidental release of radiation.
  • France and Japan, however, overcame opposition and reduced their dependence on volatile MidEast oil while, at the same time, reducing CO2 emissions.
  • Today, France and Japan have been joined by other countries, including China, India, South Africa, South Korea, and Finland with active nuclear power programs.
  • Ironically, many of the original nuclear reactors in France make use of US-developed technology, while US anti-nuclear activists have inadvertently made us more dependent upon non-renewable carbon-based fuels, increasing human CO2 emissions that may cause substantial global warming. Political pressure seems to be building for a renewal of the growth of nuclear power in the US.
  • Most of the radiation we absorb is from natural background sources and from medical use of radiation. Any mineral that is mined from the earth is likely to contain sources of radiation. That is why a coal-fired power plant emits more radiation into the atmosphere than a nuclear power plant. A person who lives in a brick building is exposed to more radiation than someone who lives in a wooden house because the materials in the brick emit radiation!
  • France has clean air and low cost electricity because of it's adoption of nuclear power generation. (We spent three days in Paris and, although the car and truck traffic was heavy, the air seemed cleaner than New York City or other large US cities. We had unlimited three-day passes for their very well-developed public transit which takes a big load off of auto travel. They have also instituted an automated system where you can obtain a bicycle in one area and return it in an other for a cost of a few dollars a day. We passed a half-dozen automated rental stations within several blocks of our hotel which was near the Arc de Triumph. We saw many people using the distinctive bicycles and we would have tried them out had it not rained on the morning we had set aside for that adventure. The air in the countryside along the Loire River Valley where we bicycled and barged also seemed quite clean.)
  • Electricity costs about 0.03 Euros per KW/hr (about 5 cents US) and has gone down a bit in France over the past decade as our US coal- and oil-powered electricity has gone up. French costs for reprocessing and waste disposal are around 5%
  • France now exports electricity to Italy and England. Prior to their commitment to nuclear power they were a net importer.
  • Disposal of nuclear waste was an issue in France until they came up with a clever *psychologically-based* solution. The radioactive waste products, the people were told, were not being disposed of forever. Rather, they were being stockpiled until research scientists and engineers could come up with a way to make use of them. Each of the nuclear waste "stocking centers" has an associated research laboratory working to find way to make use of the waste products in the future. Given that explanation, several areas in France are competing for the research centers (and associated waste stocking centers) and all the technical jobs that go along with such centers!

I hope readers will Comment on this posting and give their opinions on possible resurgence of large-scale growth of the US nuclear power industry. If we are serious about reducing CO2 emissions (as well as other byproducts of burning carbon-based fuels), nuclear seems to be one of the best proven alternatives.

I accept that storage of nuclear waste and the possibility of disasterous accidents and terrorist attacks are issues that detract from the advantages of nuclear power. However, we need to balance that against the cost in blood and dollars of our dependence upon MidEast oil. What do you think?

Some Good Websites I Used For Information
Nuclear Power (Wikipedia)

Nuclear Power in France, August 2007

Why the French Like Nuclear Energy (PBS)

Ira Glickstein

*Some years ago, I had a business trip to a NATO meeting at the Royal Air Force Establishment at Farnborough Airport in England. I added a week of bicycling prior to the visit and looked kind of scruffy as I checked in to the hotel where my colleagues and I were going to stay. I hopped on my bicycle and rode the short distance to have a look at the meeting site. Of course, it was behind a fence and guarded gate. I leaned my bike against the fence and started taking photos of the gate and signs and a uniformed guard came running to check me out. I don't think he believed me when I told him I was scheduled for a meeting the following day, but, he was nice enough to take a photo of me and my bicycle in front of the gate!

1 comment:

joel said...

from Joel, re: nuclear power, France, Ira, USA?

So let's see what you've said here. A group of people led by a scruffy guy who resembles Osama Bin Laden can stroll up to recoilless rifle range of the containment vessel of a French nuclear reactor. One can only hope you were under surveillance before you were actually approached by the police. That's not totally out of reason. I was once hunting mushrooms in a forest adjacent to the Renault headquarters near Orleans. Out of nowhere, from behind a tree, there appeared a unformed guard who courteously asked what we were doing and ushered us off the property. I have no idea how he knew we were there! We must have been under surveillance.

I'm not at all confident that the anti-nuclear crowd in the U.S. will listen to reason. They didn't before and there's no reason why they should now. I predict that no environmental or petroleum consideration will change that. For some, the anti-nuclear power movement is still a part of being anti-nuclear weapons, for some it is anti-capitalism and for some a concern for the disenfranchised who must live beside the nuclear waste or the reactors themselves. The realities of energy and environment are secondary to the the emotions involved in being anti-nuclear. besides, I don't know if the opposers can afford to say that all their protestations concerning safety were overblown. They would lose credibility.

In France anti-nuclear protest was regional and the police were able to squelch it. At the time of maximal growth all of the reactors were sited well away from Paris. Add to that, the fact that Paris holds enormous electoral power and a disdain for the rest of the country. We don't have anything comparable to that. Finally, there's the economic factor. Nuclear power is not as cheap as fossil fuel. Our utilities have to show a profit, but those in France don't.