The On/Off Switch in Energy Choices: A Deeper Problem with Oil, Coal, and Nuclear Energy

When we make energy choices, we have a variety of different ways to decide: carbon impact, cost, efficiency, security, toxic pollution, risky employment, ethics, etc.  This is incredibly complex and everyone decides based upon a variety of different criteria.  I have a simple way to make my decision: Does it have an off switch?

This is a simple way of evaluating different power sources.  Can you shut it off when you want/need to?  Or is it by design prone to some accidents, which may be rare events of course, which prevent it from being shut off? This won’t be the only value I use to decide what energy source I prefer, but it will be the first one I use.

Think about the two largest energy crises of the past two years, and what do they have in common.

2010– BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  An explosion on April 20, 2010 caused a pipe rupture and lasted 4 months leaking millions of gallons of oils per day.  10 different plugging techniques were used with most failing entirely.  A total of 4.9 million barrels of oil were lost into the Gulf of Mexico from the spill (for some comparison that is 19 times the size of the Exxon Valdez Spill).  Significant oil pools may remain and continues being discovered from the spill.  Full cleanup and assessment will take decades.  Political pressure attempted to manage the crisis by lowering the numbers of the extent of the problem while it was ongoing which may have negatively impacted democratic discussion during the crisis to really assess energy futures.  Skytruth made the map here to show only the direct areas that oil hit during the leak.

SkyTruth Map of BP Oil Spill

March 11, 2011- Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster.  A tragic 9.0 earthquake and tsunami caused a failure at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  Plutonium from the disaster has been found 40 KM away.  People around the plant fled and the 12 miles around the Fukushima plant remain a ‘wasteland’ largely frozen to the time of the tunami with only a few people allowed to return.  Multiple leaks of radioactive water have entered the ocean. Efforts to prevent chain reactions in damaged parts continues through this week.   Cleanup will take decades.  The iron triangle linking the government, regulators, and the industry (which has since been partially broken) resulted in conflicting statements in the midst of the crisis.

The Off Switch

When we think about our energy future, one criteria that we may want to consider is the ability to shut energy off.  The problem with the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill and the Fukushima plant disaster is not that accidents happened: this will be true with any energy path.  The problem is that despite significant design engineering, safeties, and backup systems, the energy provision systems lacked an Off Switch.  A simple feature that simply stops producing energy from the source.

Some energy systems are intrinsically built so that there will not be a suitable off switch in case of accident.  Petroleum lacks an off switch.  Coal lacks an off switch.  Natural gas lacks an off switch.  Nuclear lacks an off switch.  Renewable sources (solar, wind, etc.) can have a lasting impact; but it is simply to the extent that materials persist.  They have an off switch.

We can look at energy futures from a variety of different perspectives.  This happened last week with the approval of the first new U.S. nuclear reactor since the 1970s.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission prioritized a host of values in their decision; unfortunately, the discussion of whether it has an on/off switch was not one of them.

It should have been.


2 thoughts on “The On/Off Switch in Energy Choices: A Deeper Problem with Oil, Coal, and Nuclear Energy

  1. Pingback: Are we in a Constitutional Moment of global environmental politics? « Lullaby of the Commons

  2. Pingback: Fukushima Nuclear Plant Continues Leaking Radioactive Water into the Ocean « Lullaby of the Commons

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