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“Every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on clean renewable energy and one more dollar spent on making the world a comparatively dirtier and a more dangerous place, because nuclear power and nuclear weapons go hand in hand.” ― Mark Z. Jacobson
The Nuclear Power Dilemma
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report elicited a large public response about global warming and its truly frightening impacts. But in those initial reactions, less attention was paid to the unnerving implications of the report’s suggested solutions, which encourage us to take a risky gamble on unproven technologies and double down on nuclear power.
In the following episode of Just Have a Think, David Borlace discusses Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century and brings up some the key issues that will be discussed here as well:
Underlying the IPCC report’s claims is the belief that technological solutions can fix the climate problem. Yet these fixes don’t address the root cause of climate change. The US and other nations need to find ways to swiftly decarbonize by mid-century and nuclear energy has been long touted as the most readily available solution we have.
Alternatively renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency measures can help significantly cut the sector’s emissions, and are safe, cost-effective, and commercially available today. Despite this, many argue that renewables won’t be enough and that limiting the worst effects of climate change may also require other low or no-carbon energy solutions, pointing to nuclear power. The Union of Concerned Scientists and eminent scientist James Hansen, PhD have said that we have to consider nuclear power as a potential solution to climate change.
Nuclear energy also produces substantial economic challenges, and carries significant human health and environmental risks. Accidents, leaks, and the nearly complete inability for humans to control or contain this power have a long and dark track record that includes the Three Mile Island Accident, Chernobyl, The Dome, Novaya Zemlya, Kosmos 1818, The Hanford, Fukushima Daiichi, and many other large scale disasters that are still playing out. In fact, some have called the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daichii a potential extinction level event.
Still, according to some prominent scientists and researchers we must explore this complex issue from many angles. Advantages of nuclear power. The generation of electricity through nuclear energy reduces the amount of energy generated from fossil fuels (coal and oil). Less use of fossil fuels means lowering greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 and others). A list the advantages of nuclear power include the following:
- Low Greenhouse Gas emissions
- Low life-cycle carbon emissions
- High power output
- Provides a steady base load output
- Inexpensive electricity
- Nuclear energy doesn’t rely on fossil fuels
- Economic impact (provides jobs, etc)
As a global society must consider both sides of this argument and weigh the risks and benefits very carefully before making any conclusions. Some argue that the benefits outweigh the risks given our current energy demands and lack of infrastructure in place for renewables. In the following SW video hosted by Stuart Scott, Michael Shellenberger and James Hansen discuss this matter further:
This video is provided to show the many sides of this argument. In this video, Michael Shellenberger significantly underplays the enormous risk and ongoing unfolding environmental tragedy of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident as many nuclear supporters do. Shellenberger also claims that according to an apples-to-oranges nuclear industry supplied analysis by Environmental Progress, solar panels create about 300 times more toxic waste per unit of electricity generated than nuclear power plants. This will be discussed further below.
Shellenberger also makes points about eROI (pronounced Ee-roy). According to Forbes, “also referred to as Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI), EROI is the ratio of energy returned to energy invested in that energy source, along its entire life-cycle.” The energy return on investment (EROI) is a key determinant of the price of energy. Many nuclear industry supporters claim that the return on investment for nuclear power over solar is much more and with less risk.
According to Clean Technica “some critics and skeptics incorrectly say too much energy is consumed in the production of solar panels and that the panels don’t generate enough electricity during their lifetimes to make up for it. This criticism has been proven to be false, and may be nothing more than a deliberate form of misinformation intended to persuade people who are interested in solar power to lose that interest. Too often, the critics turn out to be people who are directly or indirectly connected to fossil fuel industries like oil and gas, nuclear, or coal.”
“Nuclear Safety” is an Oxymoron
Despite the advantages of nuclear power listed above, nuclear power comes with many notorious disadvantages:
- Substantial safety and security risks.
- An unsolved waste disposal problem.
- Ongoing containment issues.
- Increased threat of accidents.
- Constant leaks.
- Huge water requirements.
- Some plants have become unprofitable.
The failure to make nuclear energy safe is an ongoing concern. These caveats also make nuclear power vulnerable to public rejection with good reason as seen in Japan and Germany following the Fukushima disaster of 2011.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) many nuclear plants in the US alone are scheduled for much needed maintenance and are falling behind safety schedules. Additionally, these plants are no longer making a profit and many insurers do not want to cover these plants due to the potential for large unmanageable disasters.
According to the UCS, “More than one-third of US nuclear plants are unprofitable or scheduled to close. On average, it would cost $814 million annually to bring unprofitable plants back to a breakeven point. Plants owned by merchant generators that sell power into competitive wholesale markets face a higher risk of closure than regulated utilities that recover their costs from ratepayers.”
UCS also says that nuclear power’s risks can and must be substantially reduced, regardless of whether new nuclear power plants are built. Recommendations include:
- Better enforcement of existing regulations
- Expedited transfer of nuclear waste into dry casks
- Strengthened reactor security requirements
- Higher safety standards for new plants.
UCS recommends that all citizens urge Congress to demand the Nuclear Regulatory Commission enforce its safety regulations and establish a clear, realistic timeline for compliance by all nuclear power reactors. In the meantime, nuclear energy is on the decline.
What About Safer Alternatives? Thorium Reactors? Fusion?
It may be possible to support continued research and development of nuclear power technologies that are safer, more secure, and lower cost. With the need for cleaner energy higher than ever before, could liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) be the solution? Molten Salt Thorium reactors are being touted as a safer alternative. There are many newer types of reactors.
However, it is also known that few large corporations will spend the money to update their plants to these types of reactors. In this video episode of Answers with Joe this option is discussed further. Joe Scott also discusses other experimental technologies like, traveling wave reactors (video), TWR technology, molten salt reactors, and fusion (video).
Some people are still hoping for a “star in a jar” solution (video), but fusion is also perpetually acknowledged to be a long way off. Promising but fleeting fusion reactions have been achieved in several experiments. China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) known as an artificial sun made an important advance by achieving a stable 101.2-second steady-state high confinement plasma, setting a world record. Fusion needs more experimentation and funding to unlock it’s promise. However, some are still asking who killed fusion?
Nuclear Power: A False Solution to Climate Change
According to this article, no matter how you look at it, nuclear power is a false solution to climate change. Deploying a dangerous solution to mitigate dangerous climate change seems like doubling down on a bad idea. Ironically, from uranium mines to nuclear waste, including radioactive and chemical pollution from nuclear reactors, every phase of the nuclear cycle brings about more industrial pollution.
The following long list of disadvantages is enough to make anyone reconsider a commitment to nuclear power and start thinking about renewables.
- At best, nuclear power’s contribution would be minor.
- Nuclear power is too late.
- Nuclear power is marginal form of energy in decline.
- Nuclear energy also produces greenhouse gases.
- Nuclear energy is too expensive.
- Nuclear energy is not adapted to a deteriorating climate.
- Radioactivity and nuclear waste: more and more pollution.
- Major accidents: a disaster is always possible.
- Proliferation: radiological terrorism, nuclear war.
- And then, there’s the nuclear waste storage problem…In summary, this article finds that “the typical nuclear power plant has 8.6 cents of damages attached to every kilowatt-hour of electricity it produces, and the industry as a whole has $223.7 billion worth of net damages every year. These costs are so large (and unavoidable) that in most countries investments in nuclear power do not occur, and they raise doubts as to whether a nuclear renaissance will produce net benefits to society.”
Waste Not Want Not
There are many serious, unresolved problems associated with nuclear power that have existed since its introduction. The most significant challenge that nuclear power presents is the high level waste (HLW) storage problem.
HLW is liquid waste taken from spent fuel pools. High-level radioactive wastes are the highly radioactive materials produced as a byproduct of the reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors. High-level wastes take one of two forms: Spent (used) reactor fuel when it is accepted for disposal. Waste materials remaining after spent fuel is reprocessed.
Nuclear fuel remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years after it is no longer useful in a commercial reactor. The resulting waste disposal problem has become a major challenge for policymakers and the environment. According to a NIRS/WISE report:
“In the last few decades researchers have been working on the technology to reduce radioactivity and the decay time of nuclear waste, the so-called transmutation process. There is no guarantee that this expensive research will be successful, and these techniques can only be applied for future spent fuel and not for the present amount of nuclear waste 300,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel have already been accumulated worldwide.”
In the following video a report on this problem the waste storage issues at just one facility are discussed:
Nuclear countries plan on burying the waste, but the only existing burial sites (Asse in Germany and WIPP in the United States) have turned into incredible fiascos that already contaminate the environment, although they store less radioactive wastes.
For the storage of radioactive nuclear waste there are still no solutions. What’s worse is HLW storage requires nuclear waste dumps for eternity (video) as highly radioactive nuclear wastes will remain deadly for over hundreds of thousands of years. SpaceX is experimenting with the notion of whether or not we can send nuclear waste to the sun (video)? The problem of nuclear waste disposal is now largely recognized as unsolvable (video).
What’s Worse Nuclear v. Solar Waste
Does solar power generate more waste than nuclear power as claimed by Michael Shellenberger in the video above? Nuclear industry supporters like to claim that recycling a solar panel is bad, but recycling a nuclear reactor is good! It is also trendy to claim that the resulting nuclear industry waste products are somehow far less than solar industry waste products. It’s also a somewhat ironic concern from proponents of nuclear power, which has a rather bigger toxic waste problem. Also, if you look at the overall numbers, this isn’t exactly so:
- Nuclear Waste Totals: 115,000,000 cubic meters of waste, most of it radioactive, deadly, and unmanageable.
- Solar Waste Totals: 19,500,000 cubic meters of waste, all of it safe and most of it recyclable. Further, according to a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association argues that the study cited by Shellenberger is incorrect, and that in fact solar panels are “mainly made up of easy-to-recycle materials that can be successfully recovered and reused at the end of their useful life.”
And then there are the reactors themselves. The problem here is that you can only recycle concrete a bit, currently about 28%. Crushing it costs energy. Some concrete is used as aggregate for road construction and similar tasks, but that’s about it. In any event, you can’t turn old nuclear reactors into new ones.
But don’t look at the argument, look at the facts. People are recycling solar panels right now, today. The numbers don’t lie. Meanwhile, the cost of decommissioning nuclear plants is spiraling out of control, and we still have no idea what to do with the nuclear waste as discussed above. In fact, radioactive HLW storage is one of the most significant problems plaguing modern man. All of these factors are just more reasons to look toward real world renewables like hydroelectric dams.
The Never-ending Threat of Nuclear Winter
What’s worse than the Anthropocene you might ask? The answer is the Plutocene. We cannot forget the intimate connection between nuclear power and nuclear war. Plutocene is a term coined by author Andrew Glikson to describe the future world we are on course to inhabit, now that it has become clear that we are still busy building nuclear weapons rather than working together to defend our planet. The doomsday clock is already set at two minutes to midnight, the closest it’s ever been in world history. Russia is said to have built a new 100-megaton underwater nuclear doomsday device, and it has threatened the US with it.
“An organism at war with itself is doomed.” – Carl Sagan
According to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, “nuclear weapons and nuclear power share several common features. The long list of links includes their histories, similar technologies, skills, health and safety aspects, regulatory issues and radiological research and development. For example, the process of enriching uranium to make it into fuel for nuclear power stations is also used to make nuclear weapons. Plutonium is a by-product of the nuclear fuel cycle and is still used by some countries to make nuclear weapons.”
Governments Unprepared to Manage Nuclear Power in the Long run
Scientists are mathematically predicting a 3 foot sea level rise due to our perturbation of the environment even if we stop burning fossil fuels today due to climate lag – some say as much as 130 feet of sea level rise is coming. This will displace coastal cities around the globe, where many reactors are situated. In the following video Arnie Gundersen, nuclear expert and Director of Fairewinds Energy Education, explains that we have to expect more nuclear disasters like Fukushima because governments and corporations are unprepared and incapable of managing nuclear power in the long run:
The True Solution to Climate Change
Those who are serious about climate and social justice argue that nuclear power is a false solution to climate change and are working toward a 100% renewable energy future. Continue this discussion on SW Wiki Renewables >>
- New Nukes Make Global Warming Worse | Fairewinds
- Global Warming and Energy Facts | UCS
- Is Nuclear Power Globally Scalable | IEEE
- Fukushima: A Nuclear Story (Video), Willem Defoe Narrates
- Fukushima Update 2019 | Thom Hartmann and Kevin Kamps
- Nuclear Power Overview | UCS
- Nuclear Power Cost
- Nuclear Power Safety Recommendations
- Nuclear Power in a Warming World
- Nuclear Power Primer | Ralph Nader Radio Show
- Plutonium Free Future
- The Nuclear Power Dilemma
- The Nuclear Option | PBS Nova (Video)
- Why Nuclear Power Will Never Supply The World’s Energy…
It is clear that the risks often outweigh the benefits of nuclear power, almost on the waste storage issue alone. Additionally, due to the corruption of our government regulatory bodies by profit and power motivated bad actors, warring entities, and radiological terrorists we, as a society have proven time and again that we are just not equipped to play with the proverbial fire that nuclear power represents. Especially as we move into a warmer world with several feet of sea level rise on the way and more than half of these problematic and already leaking reactor sites located on sea coasts, Rupert Read calls nuclear power a profoundly irresponsible solution (video) for our energy future.
Despite our best intentions, our governing systems all too often allow profit to trump safety forcing us to conclude that we can’t continue considering these technologies without a fundamental ecological shift in these dynamics.
With the daunting cons to nuclear energy there are many factors that will need to change significantly in order to make this type of energy a reasonable option for further consideration. Many upgrades in this technology have been promised, but not yet delivered. Simply put, this debate is ongoing and there are no definitive answers, just a cautionary tale.
When the full cost of the Nuclear Options are factored in, which need to include the full life cycle cost of:
- Mining and processing the fuels.
- Storing the spent fuel.
- Building and decommissioning power plants which often run over budget.
- The cost of all the research invested.
- The environmental and social cost of disasters.
These questions need to be thoroughly answered before considering the nuclear option.
Visit the SW Blog on this topic: Climate Change and Nuclear Risk: The Forthcoming (Un)Natural Disasters By Frédéric Moreau >>
- Cain, Fraser (2017). Can we send nuclear waste to the sun [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aovpjmaBdw
- Caldicott, Helen (2017). Sleepwalking to armageddon [Book]. New York, NY: New Press.
- Clean Technica (2018). Solar ERoEI is actually really, really good. Retrieved from https://cleantechnica.com/2018/02/03/solar-power-can-pay-easily/
- Cohen, B L. (1998). Perspectives on the high level waste disposal problem. Interdiscipl Sci Rev, 23: 193–203.
- Freeman, Marsha (2010). Who killed fusion. Retrieved from https://fusion4freedom.com/who-killed-fusion/
- Gundersen, Arnie (2018). Fairewinds presents sobering facts about Fukushima [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1EurSNdy8c
- Newsweek (2017). Plutocene: forget doomsday…Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/doomsday-plutocene-era-radioactive-nuclear-war-climate-change-673162
- NIRS/Wise (2005). Nuclear power: no solution to climate change. Retrieved from https://www.nirs.org/wp-content/uploads/mononline/nukesclimatechangereport.pdf
- Glikson, Andrew (2017). The plutocene: blueprints for a post-Anthropocene hothouse-earth [Book]. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
- Renewables Resources Coalition (2016). Nuclear energy: pros and cons. Retrieved from https://www.renewableresourcescoalition.org/nuclear-energy-pros-cons/
- Sagan, Carl (1980). Who speaks for earth [Video]? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HjrmK8t6VYk
- Sovacool Benjamin K. (2010). Critically weighing the costs and benefits of a nuclear renaissance. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1943815X.2010.485618
- Union of Concerned Scientists (2018). Nuclear power dilemma. Retrieved from https://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-power/cost-nuclear-power/retirements#.XFkzO-JlA2x
- Utility Dive (2019). Is 100% renewable energy for the us possible – yes. Retrieved from https://www.utilitydive.com/news/is-100-renewable-energy-for-the-us-possible-yes/547135/
- Verge Science (2018). 88,000 tons of radioactive waste – and nowhere to put it [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgVyPwhkoJs
- 7:00 pm August 21, 2019 – Shani Cairns (Added some more discussion with JHAT video, as well as added further discussion notes and clarified some discussion areas and updated overall content).
- 7:45 pm Feb. 19, 2019 – Charles Gregoire (Did another review, made lists out of some of the items, split one of the paragraphs, added a comment in the conclusion about the need to provide a full life cycle cost for Nuclear before comparing it to other options. Posted the link in the TOC).
- 8:00 pm Feb. 14, 2019 – Shani Cairns (Added story of who killed fusion and more on solar eROI).
- 2:00 pm Feb 11, 2019 – Shani Cairns (Added some more discussion of pros, as well as the video suggested by Charles Gregoire on thorium reactors with Joe Scott, added further discussion notes and questions from Charles, and clarified the discussion on the connection between plutonium in nuclear power used in nuclear war).
- 11:00 am Feb. 11, 2019 – Charles Gregoire – (Did an initial proof read review and took notes. Watch all the videos. Raised questions.).
- 7:00 pm Feb. 6, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Added section content, main page write up as well as several additional resources and video lectures).
- 10:00 pm Feb. 4, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Added “Nuclear Power” page with a brief introduction).
Note: This page as with many wiki pages is a work in progress. It aims to inform the reader on topics regarding the pros and cons of whether or not nuclear power is a viable solution to energy demands in a changing climate.