Note, I’m horrified to realize I inadvertantly left out the link to Rhagavan’s piece – SO SORRY about that, and please do click through – it is well worth a full read.
Barath Rhagavan has a superb article about the conversion of many climate scientists to support of nuclear power and the reasons this is problematic. These match my own major objections to nuclear as a response. As serious as the environmental impact of failure is, that’s not the single biggest issue I see. Even if I thought the siting would avoid any future climate related disasters (I don’t), the main issue is the problem of economics and depletion in the longer term. Nuclear is simply, as Rhagavan puts it, not a technology that fails well:
Specifically, three things strike me as the major reasons to avoid nuclear:
Limits to growth. In a (permanently?) declining global economy, the resources (mostly financial, though military resources are important for nuclear safety) to keep plants well maintained are going to be scarce. Nicole Foss said it well—that after studying nuclear safety in Eastern Europe she concluded that nuclear power is incompatible with hard times. It’s these hard times that invalidate assumptions about the safety procedures and other risk modeling, for example, that can cause unforeseen cascading accidents.
Waste storage. I think it is possible for us to store waste for the short term. It’s the longer term that is a bit more doubtful, and regardless of the duration it’s an expensive undertaking. The 2010 documentary Into Eternity on Finland’s waste storage plans reminded me of a few things: a) Finland is a small country, and yet the scale of the waste site is huge, b) planning for the 100 years it’ll take to finish the waste site is hard enough (will there be the money needed to complete it? how is it possible to plan for 100 years when we can’t plan beyond the next congressional election?) let alone the hundreds of thousands of years it needs to survive intact, and c) they’ve been working on this for a decade already, while no other country has even the beginnings of a solution. (The documentary was a bit sad: Finland has assembled a number of expert, sincere people trying to solve a problem that you sense they realize cannot be solved.)
Scale. Nuclear isn’t particularly cheap when you compare it to alternatives (though cost estimates vary wildly) and is difficult to scale up quickly. In my calculations on alternative energy several months back, I found David MacKay’s estimate that the peak rate of nuclear power plant construction ever achieved was 30GW of nameplate capacity per year, globally. At that rate we’d only build 0.6TW in 20 years, a drop in the bucket compared to the ~16TW of primary energy we consume globally today.
As I’ve said many times, we’d find a justification for shovelling live baby harp seals into furnaces if necessary, so I don’t have the slightest doubt we are going to build some nuclear plants. Or at least try to. In the end, opposition to nuclear will vanish as energy becomes scarcer and more expensive – but probably too late to do a large scale build out, if it isn’t already.
One of my worries is that a half-built nuclear plant is a long way from being an asset on the landscape – and one of the consequences of economic collapse is a lot of half-built things. Still, I put this with drilling in ANWAR – it will happen. But fundamentally, it can’t happen fast enough to “save” us from our collective crisis. And it isn’t a solution.
Ultimately, all those conversions come from a simple underlying premise – we won’t cut our energy usage. They are probably right, in terms of voluntary response. Our energy usage will get cut, however, by necessity, if not desire. Sadly, it probably won’t be enough to avoid unchecked climate change – but neither will the number of nuclear plants we actually build before the depletion curve bangs into us.