Something I will always remember from my childhood in central Alberta is the collection of oil pumps that dotted the prairies with black and orange steel, noisily pumping day-in, day-out. One was across the road in a neighbour’s field, I passed several on the way to school, and there was a commemorative one in Memorial Park in the town nearest ours. Pumps were a fact of life — an almost miraculous, sustaining, economical success that I was bred to accept. The rigs provided jobs and Albertan wealth. We were not supposed to question. Only years later did I understand that there was a time limit on this splendour, that the steel giants had some badly-needed competition in the form of solar panels and clean-burning fuels in the wake of ongoing environmental disputes about the dangers of carbon-emitting fuels, soon to be replaced by newer, supposedly “green,” contenders for a future we hope will be a little less smoggy and warm.
Presently, three new nuclear reactor designs have been approved and certified by the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), pushing ahead America’s plan to become a more nuclear-dependent nation by 2030. GIF is dedicated to commissioning a new line of commercial nuclear designs by 2030. The approved designs, known individually as System 80+, the Advanced Boiling Water Reactors, and the AP600, are awaiting buyers within the next few decades. They are exponentially more efficient and clean to run than existing reactors in North America and Europe. They use a technology referred to as “Advanced Light Water,” which utilise regular water for both cooling and regulation of the nuclear reaction rate. They create less water pollution than today’s reactors that were designed in the 1960s and 1970s.
These developments come at a particularly stressful time for the nuclear industry, despite America’s fervent government support, in the face of growing concerns over environmental sustainability. Many citizens in GIF countries, such as the U.K. and Canada, would prefer a new source of ecologically sustainable power, such as wind farms and hydro-electricity, a sentiment echoed in other GIF nations, including the U.S. The ardent support of Bush and Blair, however, will ensure that the new reactor designs are important in coming years.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration website, the GIF takes four factors into consideration before approving new reactor designs:
1. Sustainable energy (extended fuel availability, positive environmental impact),
2. Competitive energy (low costs, short construction times),
3. Safe and reliable systems (inherent safety features, public confidence in nuclear energy safety), and
4. Proliferation resistance (does not add unduly to unsecured nuclear material) and physical protection (secure from terrorist attacks).
As Light Water reactors, the trio of new designs satisfy the GIF criteria much better than do presently active reactors. By eliminating what is called hard-water waste (an isotope-containing form of water that requires modification before it can be re-introduced to the eco-system), the major remaining environmental concern with nuclear power is the nuclear waste itself that takes millions of years to decay and poses a great threat to public health.
On the other hand, some (notably few) scientists believe we are lucky that nuclear waste decays at all, since other man-made chemicals will never disappear from the eco-system. While the tedious disposal of nuclear waste may not leave the telltale signs that we imagine from cartoons, there will be serious issues in the near future if a more viable energy option is not agreed upon and implemented in the U.S. and other nuclear countries. Tentacle-wielding trees and glowing squirrels aside, there is limited space to store buried nuclear waste, and this will be a problem regardless of the new Light Water designs.
In stark contrast to the nuclear plan comes the new Green Windmill design from Robert Green of California. More durable and efficient than its predecessors, lightweight, noiseless, and able to perform a long list of energy-efficient tasks, the Green Windmill design seems to be everything that the oil pumps are not — indeed everything that nuclear reactors are not. According to the Green Windmill website, suggested applications for the windmill are plentiful and include: acid rain control; preventing freeze-over and oxygen depletion of lakes, ponds, dugouts; aqua culture maintenance; air compression; irrigation; drainage; water filtration; desalination; sewage processing; domestic water pumping; water or oil heating; washing; mining; grinding; fibre processing; pressing; ventilation; and boat propulsion.
With such a list of benefits, the only reason for not switching to wind power must be the total power output. A single windmill cannot even begin to compete with the electrical output of a nuclear power station, thus creating the need to build entire wind farms over vast stretches of land. This is where public opinion becomes slightly warped. It seems that a massive number of people opposed to the construction of wind farms in the U. K. are of the opinion that the fields of towering white windmills are just plain ugly. Despite a design that is simple and environmentally friendly to run in ways that crude oil and nuclear reactors can never contend with, it seems you just can’t argue with an eyesore.
Isn’t it strange? Put a windmill on a postcard next to a pair of wooden shoes and it’s picturesque, but fill a field and the surrounding property value plummets. Never mind the peace of mind that comes from producing neither carbon emissions nor nuclear waste, these wind farms are considered hideous and they tend to hum. Not in my backyard! However, the image of the new Green Windmill design is less intense than the wind farms, a definite factor in its favour. They are designed for implementation in small settings, and the sail-like fins of the rotating head are relatively quieter. Could it be that a more personal use of singular windmills could ease the apparent strain of buzzing, vast wind farms?
What people need to realize is that the world is shrinking; there is less and less open space every year because our own expanding population that requires more farmland, more power plants, more airports and, evidently, more Walmarts. It isn’t logical that the only reason the public has for choosing nuclear power over green power is the scenery. Sooner or later, something is going to move into the empty field across from your pretty cottage, and from the direction we’re going it might even be a lovely new government-endorsed System 80+. Don’t worry. We’ll put it in a place where only the poor people need look at it, smell it, and raise their children in its proximity.
Nuclear reactors are being hailed as the power source of the future, but I think they are more of a reminder that we are not so forward thinking as a nation or as a species as we think. We are needlessly polluting. Apparently, nuclear reactors are not ugly because most likely they will be in someone else’s eye line, while wind farms are a no-go because they may mar the beautiful landscape around your own ocean-view property. I didn’t realize that everyone thought oil pumps were so resplendent.