What have you got against nuclear power, anyway?

Sooner or later, at least one member of the audience that has turned out to see me present Al Gore's climate change slide show wants to know why I haven't included nuclear power in the list of technologies that can help cut our carbon emissions. The question is usually put by the likes of a retired engineer who actually understands the physics and technical aspects of nuclear power. I have to admit that I don't welcome the question, because it tends to lead to a drawn-out debate at what is already a longer evening that most attendees bargained for. But I do have an answer: time.

I've written before about some of the problems with nuclear power, without really scratching the surface. There are so many dimensions to the problem -- waste storage, proliferation, construction capacity, the glacial pace of the regulatory context, and of course, economics -- that it's easy to overlook the simplest drawback of all.

It's beginning to look like the industry really is on the brink on a revival, though, so we'd better come to grips with these issues soon. There's a campaign in New Zealand, where CO2 emissions have grown 50 percent since 1990, to make nuclear power a major plank in the country's future energy portfolio. The Philippines is making similar noises. The director general of South Africa's department of minerals and energy wants to put his country's large uranium deposits to work in domestic reactors in a big way. Last year, Toshiba bought 77 percent of Westinghouse Electric, which makes nuclear power plants, in anticipation of an industry resurgence. And the government of Kazakhstan wants 10 percent of that piece of the pie. (Now, that can't be a good idea...)

A look at the South African plan exposes the flaw in all these schemes. According to South Africa Press Agency report:

The draft document sets out a phased approach to creating a nuclear industry. This includes proposals up to 2010 of maintenance and enhancement of current nuclear infrastructure, research into advanced nuclear energy systems and promotion of uranium exploration and mining.

In the following years up to 2015, new nuclear power plants would be constructed. These would come into operation by 2025 and advance nuclear energy systems would be commercialised.

So, no new nukes until 2025. Back in the United States, it takes at least a decade and sometimes closer to 15 years to choose a site for a new 1 GW nuclear power plant, conduct the environmental assessment, hold the regulatory hearings, commission the project, build the plant, test it and bring it up to full power.

The U.S. government recently produced $10 billion in subsidies to help get 6 nukes built over the next decade. That's a lot of taxpayer clams for just half a dozen plants. The American nuclear industry only has the capacity to build two a year in any case. But these are side issues.

The real problem is that serious climate change, the kind that could send the planet into a rapid and intolerable regime shift, could be upon us in as little as 40 years. In order to mitigate some of that warming, we'll have to start bringing down our carbon emissions long before that. The reason I don't mention nuclear power in the list of alternative energy sources that can make a significant contribution to that goal is, even in the best-case scenario, we can't build enough nukes fast enough.

Again, realistically, we can't expect to see any new nukes online before 2017 or even 2022. By then, solar power (photovoltaics) could well be economically competitive not only with unsubsidized nuclear power, but oil, gas and even coal. Wind power is already cost-competitive, and there is enormous potential for improving energy efficiency between now and then. All those approaches, with a (very) little bit of biodiesel and ethanol and what have you thrown into the mix, and we might just be able to give ourselves a few years of breathing room to make the enormous changes in lifestyle, and technological breakthroughs, that a low-carbon economy will demand.

We could, of course, do all those things the environmentalist like, and still build more nukes, so they can help when they do finally come on line. But before we do that, we'd have to figure out how to:

1. Reduce the massive carbon emissions associated with mining and refining natural uranium, which is 99.3 percent U-238 and can't be used in your standard American light-water reactor until the U-235 content is upped from less than .0.7 % to something like 3 %. This is not an minor problem. In fact, some uranium refining might need a couple of coal-fired plants to supply the energy to refine the uranium. You could instead use straight U-238 in a CANDU reactor, but they use heavy water as a moderator and coolant, and again, producing heavy water is energy-intensive.

2. Safely bury the radioactive waste. The official plan is to stick it all in the Yucca Mountains in Nevada, but the transportation and sequestration details have yet to be worked out.

3. Secure a reliable supply or uranium. A recent report from the International Atomic Energy Association concludes: "The message is clear: long lead times will be the rule rather than the exception, and exploration will have to accelerate to ensure a stable supply of relatively low cost uranium." In other words, we don't have a reliable supply at the moment, not one to meet even modest industry growth rates of 1 to 3% a year. There is a virtually inexhaustible supply of uranium in seawater, but again, extracting it is energy-intensive, and we're back to square one.

4. Free the industry from massive government assistance. Nuclear utilities are the only ones who don't have to cover their own liability costs. How long with this be tolerated by investors in "clean tech" who are eager to see some return on their fuel-cell, cellulosic ethanol bacteria reactor, nanotech solar panel and tidal generator schemes? Not long, I suspect. This week's Nature, writing about new U.S. legislation that woul further assist the industry, notes that

Under the legislation, the federal government could be liable to pay back loans covering up to 80% of construction costs if the utility defaults. Not everyone thinks that this is the best course of action. "This is a huge risk for taxpayers," says Michele Boyd, legislative director at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group in Washington DC.

All things considered, we can't afford to embark on a path that leaves people with the misleading impression that we've solved the climate change problem. And nuclear fission, whatever its merits, simply can't replace enough oil, gas and coal-fired plants to make a significant difference, not in time to forestall catastrophic climate change.

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Here on Prince Edward Island I am extremely pleased to see the proliferation of wind turbines (we are one of the consistently windiest places in Canada). However, we still rely heavily on power generated by the nuclear plant in New Brunswick and I was dismayed to hear that PEI would buy into a second nuclear plant with construction slated for the very near future. Almost 15 years ago I was introduced to the concept of harnessing power via underwater turbines from the potential of the Bay of Fundy tides (highest in the world). It was only last week, 2007, that the Premier of Nova Scotia brought the idea to the fore. I would much prefer our Island to buy energy from the Nova Scotia Tidal Project than from yet another nuclear source. I believe our Premier is short sighted in his view of "green energy" when he opts for nuclear over tidal. What a shame.

Some quick responses to your points:

1. This isn't a problem. According to numerous third-party studies on the total life-cycle emissions of nuclear energy, it's roughly comparable to most renewables. See the following link for more:

http://tinyurl.com/2gkptq

2. The industry position is pretty clear: Any obstacles in the way of Yucca Mountain are political and not scientific. You also fail to mention the potential for recycling to significantly cut the volume of the waste that needs to be sequestered as well as its toxicity:

http://tinyurl.com/28ou8e

3. You fail to put this quote into context. For many years, uranium supply has far out paced demand worldwide thanks to surplus Russian warhead material being recycled into reactor fuel. While the market will need time to adjust, suggesting that there isn't a reliable supply of uranium available is misleading.

http://tinyurl.com/yupxeg

4. Before you draw any conclusions about industry subsidies, why not take a look at an historical analysis that an NEI colleague of mine, David Bradish, did last year. You might be surprised what you find:

http://tinyurl.com/2xs4h3

As to your final statement that nuclear can't possibly displace enough fossil fuels in order to make a difference, you're ignoring the historical role that nuclear energy played in displacing oil-fired electric generating capacity back in the 1970s.

In other words, by permanently displacing the use of fossil fuels, nuclear energy is preventing the emission of carbon every day.

I'm not sure how well the math works out for actually producing very large amounts of power on a 24/7 basis- as our current system does now, by using photovoltiacs and wind. Both of these are intermittent sources which on an individual basis do not provide much power. (Unfortunately, electricity can't be stored well in large quantities either.) Nature's checkbook is hard to balance. That doesn't mean nuclear in the answer (you've got other points saying no as well) but it's worth considering.

Kudos for mentioning that an enormous change in lifestyle is part of the program. If you do factor massive cuts in power consumption into the equation, then alternative sources do become more practical. Its having a population willing to embrace such massive changes that is the real trick.

Regarding actually understanding the real world of nuclear power - which is much different that what most proponents and opponents portray - see http://RadDecision.blogspot.com for an insider's look.

"If you do factor massive cuts in power consumption into the equation, then alternative sources do become more practical. Its having a population willing to embrace such massive changes that is the real trick"

And this is the real reason that we have to move to nuclear - people will not reduce consumption down to the levels required, and that means burning more coal.

All of the issues mentioned have solutions that have proven effective in places like Ontario, Canada and France. The U.S.A. is certainly equally as capable as those two jurisdictions.

You asked "What have you got against nuclear power, anyway?" My full answer is not short and sweet, but my simplified one is.

Nothing.

I think atomic fission is one of the greatest gifts man has ever discovered. Like many of the other ones on the short list that includes such things as fire, the Bernoulli principle, and semi-conductors, it is a gift that takes some time to nurture and develop. In many respects, we are still in the very early stages of atomic fission technology development. In Clay Christensen's disruptive technology language, we are still on the flat part of the S curve before the big knee in the upward direction.

Even in its first manifestation, controlled atomic fission showed that it was capable of an incredible feat - it could operate inside a sealed submarine full of people and provide power to that submarine for months at a time on a tiny quantity of solid fuel.

Even with the virtual lock-down of the technology that followed in the period after WWII, it only took about 15 years to move from the very first chain reaction to an operating power plant producing commercially useful quantities of power. Shippingport, with its 60 MW of electrical capacity produced about 30 times more power than the largest wind turbine existing today and about 90 times as much energy on an annual basis.

Within 35 years after Shippingport, atomic fission power plants in the United States were producing more electricity than ALL of the power plants in the country did in 1960. Think about that - in 33 years, atomic fission caught up to and passed the capabilities of the fossil technology that it was replacing at the time that fission got started in power production.

Of course, that rapid capturing of electrical power market share did not please everyone. Some people grabbed signs and began protesting in earnest soon after the first plants began opening. There were others who fought the loss of markets in more subtle and effective ways from inside corporate board rooms, political back offices, editorial boards and other seats of establishment power. You see, fission was recognized as being quite hazardous to the continued prosperity of some very powerful people.

Before the opposition gained control of the situation, fission succeeded in almost completely pushing oil out of the electrical power market in the US, France, Germany, Japan, Great Britain, South Korea, and Taiwan. It also captured a significant share of the naval ship propulsion market, one of the largest single customers of the oil business.

Nuclear fission's entry into the energy markets was as disruptive to those markets as the introduction of a new oil supplier with about 30% more productive capacity than Saudi Arabia. The resulting drop in oil prices lasted more than a decade (1985-1999) before demand began to catch up with the over supply.

I think you are dead wrong in your assumption that atomic fission is too slow to have much effect on climate change. I think it is the ONLY source of reliable power that is not only capable of limiting the effects of combustion, but of beginning to reverse those effects in enough time to prevent major catastrophe.

I do not argue that there are some easy and immediate steps that we can take during the ten years or so (two sites have already been approved for a new plant and others are in progress) that will pass before the first few new plants begin to come on line in the US. (Aside: there will be a large number of new plants on line in Asia a couple of years before that.) Carpools, less driving, smaller cars, less air conditioning, less heating, smaller homes, local food purchases, internet shopping trips and many other steps will certainly not hurt.

The main thing, however, is to recognize that nuclear power's issues have mainly been implemented by people who did not like the competition. Since the hurdles are imposed by man, they can be dismantled by man. The same statement cannot be made about naturally limited power sources like wind, solar and biomass. They are dependent on the weather and the rotation of the earth, two forces that man will never effectively change.

Rod Adams
Atomic Insights

I think we believe and rely too much on nuclear power to be our main power source in future. We should understand and be aware that renewable power sources can be the alternative to nuclear power despite what the pro nuclear lobby says. We are at the crossroads of that happening now.
We also have to cite the very obvious that we will never have a safe nuclear industry because we live in a world entrenched in crazy ideologies. We are in dire need to have safe cheap power sources and reduce global warming as well and only renewables will in the end do that.
There has been a breakthrough in renewable energy base power production! I refer to solar thermal power using a cheap flat mirror system and storage by the disassociation of ammonia in an endothermic reactor then stored at ambient temperature and used at any later time even during wintertime the sun's energy is not lost being chemically locked up. Then reapplied to an exothermic reactor heat is produced at about 500 degrees to provide steam for power generation. This closed loop system enables 24/7 base power production for industry and it also is able to provide medium or peak power on demand. Not only that the storage system is easy to do and cheap and is based on mature technology and enables the sun�s energy to be stored any length of time without loss so that the energy can be extracted in the wintertime if necessary or any time in the future! No other storage system can do this and it is a real breakthrough. A gigawatt plant is right now being built in America financed by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla who says that solar thermal power is poised for explosive growth because of it�s low costs together with Australian scientist Dr David Mills. In Europe a TRANS-CSP report commissioned by the German government calculates that solar thermal power is likely to become one of the cheapest sources of power including the cost of transmission. Not producing any carbon and it does not have safety issues it�s easy to see why. This is the power that needs to be, and can be sent to third world counties and the rest of Europe via High Voltage Direct Current Transmission lines from solar thermal plants in North African deserts or the Middle East with only 3% loss in transmission. In fact the whole world could use this as a major power source as there are many deserts around. The potential for it to power the world cleanly and safely and reduce greenhouse gasses at the same time is a real bonus. And it is being done now. Lets get on with it and continue! A general understanding and awareness of solar thermal power (CSP) can be seen on http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/index.htm and (http://www.trecers.net/index.html and http://www.trec.net.au/ and understanding of the storage system in schematic form can be seen at
http://engnet.anu.edu.au/DEresearch/solarthermal/high_temp/thermochem/i… and to see where CSP plants are operating or being built or planned see www.earth.google.com and go to CSP plants on Google Earth.

By Viv. Rendall (not verified) on 15 Aug 2007 #permalink

Rod
Some good points, but ultimately, the fact remains we can't build fast enough. And two a year won't be enough, either. I, for one, wouldn't want to speed up the process. Chernobyl was build quickly, we might remember.

If, as Jim Hansen suggests, we are extremely close to climate tipping points, we have to reduce energy consumption now, not later. And the enormous amounts of energy required to build atomic plants (when 95% of the carbon emission associated with nuclear power are emitted), means we simply reduce our "breathing space" rather give us more. Sorry, but nuclear can't be part of the equation.

LisaB: "Here on Prince Edward Island.."

It is quite likely that, in a few decades, sea ice melt will result in much of PEI being either be under water or subject to frequent storm water surges. Hopefully, those investing in wind turbines there have a short payback period built in to their investment strategy!

WRT to tidal power, if you check the projected power outputs of the tidal stations now in the planning stages for NS and NB, the power supplies are quite modest compared to current demands. I am not sure they will be able to contribute much to PEI's requirements.

PEI will remain a net power importer and those needs are more likely to be met by nuclear or non-renewable sources for the forseeable future. If you don't want NB's power, that's fine; but I am not sure there are any real alternatives in place.

JH: "Again, realistically, we can't expect to see any new nukes online before 2017 or even 2022. By then, solar power (photovoltaics) could well be economically competitive not only with unsubsidized nuclear power, but oil, gas and even coal."

Oh I'm sure they would be on their own regardless... just look at the rate they are progressing now. But imagine how much further solar/wind/wave technology could progress if all the money that went to nukes was diverted to them? Yikes, that would be something!

JH: " we have to reduce energy consumption now, not later."

I'd like to see some proposals for reducing power consumption in the short term radically enough to reduce GHG impacts. Mandating improved fuel economy is probably politically viable right now. Taxing gasoline to reduce auto use might be acceptable. What else? For example, AC is a huge power consumer. We could make power for AC much more expensive: would that make regions from North Carolina south much less attractive places to live? What consequences would flow from that?

The whole point that Rod was making is that we can build safe nuclear powerplants in the time available if we don't succumb to scaremongering by those who see nuclear power as competition. Chernobyl did not fail because it was build quickly; it failed because it was an inherently unsafe design, and had operators who were criminally negligent. Nobody in the West use this design, and our reactors cannot fail in the same way. Three Mile Island is an example of how our containment systems work.

Modular designs that are type approved, built at dedicated assembly plants and shipped to site would reduce the massive delays caused by the current method of starting from scratch every time and reduce the costs.

Please don't just blindly quote the propaganda from the anti-nuke side. Do your own research on the technology and the issues. Many of us started out opponents of nuclear power and were 'turned' by looking for the truth in an effort to refine our criticisms and found that that much of what we had been told was false

As a science journalist you owe yourself and your readers as much.

James:

When the US was actually building reactors, we sustained a much higher than 2 plant per year building rate. During the 1980's, for example, 46 plants entered into operation, an average of 4.6 per year sustained over a 10 year period. The 100th plant went into operation in 1986, just 26 years after the third plant began operating. Those rates were achieved despite focused opposition that began as early as 1972 with the formation of the Clamshell Alliance and the Critical Mass Energy Project.

The electricity used in the concrete receives a great deal of publicity and commentary, but a quick look at statistics would show that it is not much compared to the power used in constructing the towers and other infrastructure for an equivalent number of wind turbines.

As you may or may not understand, we never really stopped building plants in the US - there have been close to 100 nuclear plants built since the last commercial facility was completed - we just put them on board aircraft carriers and submarines. I will grant that those plants are a bit smaller, but many of the same skills and techniques are used.

Again, I agree with the fact that we need to take action to reduce energy use, but taking nuclear power off of the table for fallacious reasons of an inability to move rapidly would be almost criminal.

JH, if you're so confident in your projections, why don't you simply let nuclear power fail? If it's never going to go anywhere, why must we ban it?

If the nuclear industry has an attitude problem (it does) or is an organizational and management clown show (it is), fix those problems. If it's having problems manufacturing parts quickly enough, that's not the fault of the technology. On the contrary, nuclear power has to be good to have survived being managed by the nuclear industry.

Proving that the nuclear industry doesn't know how to run a business and still thinks they're building submarine engines for the Navy doesn't prove any flaws with (a) submarine engines as used in submarines or (b) the actual technology of nuclear power. It also doesn't prove that they can't run safe plants or store metal rods.
No, if you're going to argue against nuclear power, argue against nuclear power.

1. Recommend that you read this Australian report from the U. of Sydney regarding CO2 emissions and life cycle analysis for uranium fuel.
2. Recommend that you read some material on the overall safety record of various fuels and energy technologies compared. The Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland has performed a number of such studies, and has issued this report that shows that nuclear energy is distinctly better than coal and even natural gas in the area of safety and lower risk of severe accidents.

(Remember, let's keep in mind that benighted mine rescuer who has been lost in the rescue attempt at the Crandall Canyon coal mine).

Pretty much all mining is dangerous, whether it's for coal, gold, uranium or whatever. The fact that uranium is very much more energy-dense as a fuel makes it safer than coal...because very much less uranium needs to be mined per megawatt of electricity than does coal.

Before you reject nuclear energy...do your research and remember that nuclear energy uses a fuel that is much more energy-dense than fossil fuels, so much less material needs to be moved in the actions of mining and transport. This reduces hazards.

The most sophisticated life-cycle analysis for nuclear reactors is found here:
http://www.stormsmith.nl/
Though it doesn't treat the newest (4th?) generation of reactors. I think nukes are a distraction from finding a solid-state hydrogen storage medium, but are surely better than coal.
One argument against nukes is widespread construction guarantees nuclear utilities almost a permanent chunk of the world's future economy, in servicing decommissioned reactors. This turned out to be unwise when it was allowed to happen to defense contractors (see the post-2003 world).

By Phillip Huggan (not verified) on 17 Aug 2007 #permalink

Van Leeuwen and Smith's life-cycle analysis is, to put it mildly, rather contentious. Many critics have pointed out exaggerated estimates for energy demands associated with various elements of the life cycle. I suspect they are correct on some elements, but reaction from experts in the field warrants a very skeptical approach to their analysis.

I'd be interested in seeing links, papers or blogs criticizing the stormsmith analysis. It wouldn't take much to bump nuclear above natural gas and even *silicon* solar cells, in my own personal heirarchy of preferred energy sources.

By Phillip Huggan (not verified) on 20 Aug 2007 #permalink

James -

Off the top of my head..

(a) Use of Capital costs=energy costs at 1980s (very high) capital costs.
(b) Wildly OTT estimates of mining costs, including complete site restoration.
(c) Piling all decomissing costs up-front with no life cycle extensions.
(d) Assuming coal-fired electircity for all processing.
(e) Using the least efficient enrichment methods.

And so on. If the paper was an anti-AGW paper, it would be generally regarded as a standard denialist tract..

Phillip -

Natural gas is already in very short supply in North America and Western Europe; using it to generate electricity seems extremely wasteful.

Solar is more interesting.. the problem I see is that whilst all the research goes on about efficiency, what we need is standardised roof-installations that can be installed instead of a normal roof and ignored for 20-30 years.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 21 Aug 2007 #permalink

Andrew Dodds and myself are (I believe) both UK taxpayers.

Judging by the relative lack of success of the UK atomic industry to either make money under market conditions (and having to be bailed out to the tune of at least �600m by the likes of us), or to use private money to build new stations in the last 20 years (when they could have done), or even to spot a nine month leak at THORPE which has basically shut the plant for the forseeable future (and which seemingly wasn't profitable anyway)- why would building new plants be a good idea?

Of course they could build them without public subsidy - but strangely they havn't. Economics, like nature, cannot be fooled. Our energy minister (Malcolm Wickes), on the other hand...

For the critique criticism posted by A.Dodds above:
a) 1980's capital costs are high by today's standards? If anything, I'd think they are even higher today given construction demand from Western China. The commodity and labour costs are certainly higher, I would think.
b) Agreed. Complete site restoration isn't necessary when considering an energy cost analysis.
c) Is there any literature as to what expected life-cycle extensions can be expected for next-generation nuclear plants? Stormsmith only considered 3rd generation plants and before, using 26 years (or 24, I forget) as a baseline average plant operating lifespan, assuming one upgrade/retrofit at the halfway point.
Part of the problems with nuclear plants is their operation failure modes can't be captured by computer simulations the way say, solar cell degradation can be mimicked in applied laboratories. In effect, every new nuclear plant design is a science experiment.
d) Yep. This is wrong. Aluminum smelters use something like 26% coal and 20% hydro. Nuke processing should be similiar.
e) Is this an allusion to reprocessing? Are there more efficient enrichment options than what is presented in the stormsmith paper?

The reason I like stormsmith's analysis, is that it points out elementary details that have never been mentioned by the nuclear industry. This alone is enough to make me hesitant in promoting nukes (there should be no need for a culture of secrecy here if the societal goal is to overthrow coal and save lives).

By Phillip Huggan (not verified) on 22 Aug 2007 #permalink