More weirdness from the Washington Post's op-ed section

Few technologies give rise to more spirited debates among environmentalists than nuclear power generation. So it was with some trepidation that I started to read an essay on the subject in last week's Washington Post. This is the same newspaper that took six weeks to run a rebuttal to George Will's latest attempts to obfuscate the climate change debate and still hasn't run a correction for the myriad mispresentations contained therein. So maybe it's not surprising that "5 Myths on Nuclear Power" by hitherto unheard of Todd Tucker is similarly hobbled by a lack of respect for reality.

Here are his five alleged myths, accompanied by my thoughts:

1. Three Mile Island killed the idea of nuclear power in the United States.
The 1979 accident and the fear it spawned were undoubtedly setbacks to the nuclear power industry. Only recently did utilities even attempt to license new reactors again. But Three Mile Island didn't even kill nuclear power at Three Mile Island. While TMI 2 was destroyed, TMI 1 is still in operation today. In fact, in generating electricity, nuclear power is second only to coal, which produces about half the power we use. Nuclear today produces more electricity than it did at the time of the accident -- about 20 percent compared with 12.5 percent in 1979.

Yes, nuclear provides more power today than in 1979. That's because there were a fair number of nuclear power plants under construction prior to 1979, but according to the U.S. Department of Energy, "there has been no new order for a nuclear power plant since the 1970s. The last nuclear plant to be completed went on line in 1996." Before TMI: lots of activity. After TMI: no new reactors ordered.

2. Long half-lives make radioactive materials dangerous.
There seems to be something intrinsically evil about anything that persists for so long. But a long half-life doesn't necessarily make a substance dangerous....But the problem isn't the material's half-life -- it's the level of radioactivity it possesses.

Actually, the problem is the combination of half-life and level of radioactivity. If it's very radioactive but decays rapidly to an inert isotope, then short-term on-site storage is good idea. But long-term exposure to low-level radiation can be dangerous, too. That's why we measure cumulative exposure. To imply that the half-life of a radioactive material is irrelevant is just plain wrong.

3. Nuclear power is bad for the environment.
The top environmental concern for most of us is global warming, and nuclear power is by far the biggest source of emission-free power we currently have, contributing none of the greenhouse gases that coal plants spew by the ton every day. Neither does nuclear power require the decapitation of Appalachian mountains or the construction of billion-gallon sludge ponds. .... But most environmentalists remain constitutionally averse to nuclear power, for reasons that Brand has described as "quasi-religious."

This might be called a straw man argument, in that most environmentalist are perfectly well aware of nuclear power's relative advantages when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. They just don't like some of the other, real environmental consequences that come with the technology. However, it's not accurate to claim that nuclear power produces "none" of the GHG of coal plants. As Andrew Nikiforuk sums up in his new book on the Alberta Tar Sands, it can take a decade for a nuclear power plant to compensate for the GHG emissions released during uranium mining and construction. A gas-fired co-generation plant might even actually produce fewer GHGs during its life cycle than a comparable nuclear plant.

4. Nuclear power is "unnatural."
From Godzilla to Blinky the three-eyed fish on "The Simpsons," many of pop culture's oddest creatures owe their existence to the mutating powers of radiation. It's easy to forget that radiation and nuclear processes are pervasive in the natural world.... Uranium, the primary fuel in most nuclear reactors, is a natural substance found all over the globe, roughly as plentiful as tin.

True, but fission of uranium is exceedingly rare in nature. Indeed, as far as we known, only one deposit of the ore ever experienced a natural chain reaction, thanks to the unusual geological formation and water supply two billion years ago at a side in Gabon. So natural, yes. Norma as tin? No.

5. A nuclear power plant is similar to a nuclear bomb.
Not really. Nuclear power plants use fission -- the splitting of uranium atoms to release enormous energy -- to create power. Modern nuclear weapons use nuclear fusion: the fusing together of hydrogen atoms to release even greater amounts of energy....You couldn't turn a nuclear reactor into a bomb any more easily than you could power your house with a hand grenade.

Another straw man. No one's talking about turning a reactor into a bomb. As Tucker then paradoxically concedes, the fears associated with nuclear proliferation have more to do with responsible types getting their hands on the plutonium waste, either to turn it into a fusion bomb or a dirty bomb that simply scatters radiation around in a conventional explosion.

Now, why can't we talk about the really interesting "myth" about nuclear power: that's it's cheap? Even if everything Tucker wrote was accurate and fair, he'd still have to deal with the fact that his favored technology is the most non-renewable source of electricity, and getting more expensive all the time, according to the Wall Street Journal.

As always, I will wrap up by noting that there may be alternative nuclear power sources, like thorium reactors, that aren't burdened with the same problems of the technologies currently in use by the nuclear industry. But at this point, it's all speculation.

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Todd is one of those nice 'think tank" guys. He's hooked up with and was born the year that 3 Mile Island happened.

See also where you will find that he got a B.A. in International Affairs at George Washington U (where for some reason he wants us to know that he studied with Jose Quiroga. I guess Jose bring kudos in name dropping circles), and he went on to do post grad at Cambridge in Development Studies.

So it's seems perfectly obvious that his knowledge of nuclear power generation was gleaned from cereal boxes and Popular Mechanics.

Way to go Washington Post!

Number 5: "A nuclear power plant is similar to a nuclear bomb" is definitely not a straw-man. Anti-nuclear activists have routinely invoked images of Nagasaki to generate an emotional response against nuclear energy. Consider this recent article by Rob Goldston:

Although the book does present many of the complexities of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, it does not dig deeply enough into the risks of nuclear proliferation from the greatly expanded use of nuclear power. What would a world that burns two million kilograms of plutonium a year look like, when the Nagasaki bomb needed only six kilograms?

Rob Goldston is not "nobody", he is a professor at Priceton and the head of their Plasma Physics Laboratory. His article was even promulgated by one of your colleagues at scienceblogs. He is explicitly making comparisons between controlled nuclear fission and the effects of a nuclear weapon. These comparisons happen all the time.

"getting their hands on the plutonium waste, either to turn it into a fusion bomb"

No. All modern weapons are 2 stage weapons - fission that then drives fusion. 1 st generation weapons of all countries so far are pure fission weapons. That is the proliferation risk.

Two things on cost - a lot of the cost of a nuclear plant has been the cost of licensing. It is true that fuel, unless produced in a breeder - a bigger proliferation risk, is in limited supply. There is a lot available in the oceans but it would be quite expensive to 'mine' it.

Wow, humans really have no conception of relative timescales do they? Depleted uranium from nuclear power plants has a half life of around 4 billion years. By increasing the number of nuclear facilities we will be creating a poison that will continue emitting radiation until our Sun goes Red Giant (whether it continues after that probably isn't much of a concern). We don't know that civilization will be able to continue for the next 1,000 years, let alone a million or a billion. Even if the material is safely stored (an assumption that would require unrealistic levels of faith in government bureuacracies) records of its location can easily be lost, contracts for upkeep can be sold to private enterprise and again to subsidiaries until there is no longer any knowledge of what's beneath our feet. Remember, we're talking millions of years. There is no system efficient enough to manage on such timescales.

The United States has accumulated more than 700,000 tons of depleted uranium waste (the largest amount of any country). There is currently so much DU material already sitting in storage that the US military has started "recycling" it as a high-density munition. First used in Gulf War 1 (and in every conflict zone since) this radioactive material continues to litter the battlefields in Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia and Afghanistan. A Pentagon and UN study in 2003 estimated that 1,100 to 2,200 tons of DU was used in Iraq in March and April of that year alone. In 1988 about 34 people died of cancer in southern Iraq, in 2001 that number increased to 603. A study of southern Iraq in 2007 has shown that cancer is now one of the leading causes of death, responsible for 45% of all deaths in the southern provinces. While this may also be compounded by pesticide use, the levels are far beyond anywhere else in the world. In a study presented to the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network in 2004, children throughout Iraq now represent 56% of the cancer cases compared to just 13% in 1990.

This is just a sampling of the shortsighted madness that nuclear power represents. We should never have allowed this technology to be used on such a massive scale in the first place. Now that people have registered concern about the safety of nuclear power, we definitely shouldn't roll back the moratorium on new power plants.

After TMI: no new reactors built.

Arrgh. Read the DOE bit you quoted. No new reactors ordered. Due to long lags between ordering and building, several were ordered before TMI, but not built until after TMI.

In the context of the modern question of what nuclear power can contribute to GHG emissions cuts, this is critical; the long lag between ordering the plant and the delivery of energy would likely delay emissions cuts resulting from a plan relying primarily on nuclear for 10-15 years.

Sorry, but YOUR argument has several strawmans.

"his favored technology is the most non-renewable source of electricity, and getting more expensive all the time, according to the Wall Street Journa"

So? Sun and wind energy are also non-renewable - they will be exhausted in about 4-5 billion years, after all. Thorium and U-238 supply can be considered 'inexhaustible' for the foreseeable future.

Also, consider this: France has the lowest costs of electricity in Europe. And virtually all power in France is derived from nuclear stations.

Besides, can you provide links to the data on GHG emissions of Uranium mining?

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 26 Mar 2009 #permalink

It looks like the only research he did was seeing that episode of the Simpsons where Smithers presented "Nuclear Energy: Our Misunderstood Friend"… .

As to the Three Mile Island myth, its also worth noting the high interest rates of the mid-1970's, and rocketing costs which killed a fair number of projects - either before or during construction. TMI simply confirmed the case that nuclear was expensive and risky. Despite the supposed nuclear renaissance, little seems to have fundamentally changed.

Depleted uranium from nuclear power plants has a half life of around 4 billion years.

Uranium-238 from coal power plants also has a half life of around 4 billion years. Mercury (released by quite a few industries) hangs around forever. It's not the DU that makes nuclear power waste special, it's the radioisotopes produced in nuclear reactors.

By Andrew Wade (not verified) on 26 Mar 2009 #permalink

However, it's not accurate to claim that nuclear power produces "none" of the GHG of coal plants. As Andrew Nikiforuk sums up in his new book on the Alberta Tar Sands, it can take a decade for a nuclear power plant to compensate for the GHG emissions released during uranium mining and construction. A gas-fired co-generation plant might even actually produce fewer GHGs during its life cycle than a comparable nuclear plant.

That's second-order stuff. While it is pertinent - it isn't a rebuttal at all. Do you have any figures on the GHG emissions released from supplying/building other major electricity generators?

Personally I doubt nuclear is going to be at the head of the GHG list when all the carbon costs of particular power generation methods are totted up.

Can't all that depleted uranium be converted to plutonium for future reactor usage? I mean, from there, bootstrapping the process in case of a uranium shortage to feed breeder reactors does become a problem, but why not? (I mean, still not sustainable, but it does deal with a major waste issue, especially since IIRC DU is mostly stored in the form of some highly caustic uranium fluorides...)

This argument reminds me of a Michael Shermer book, "Why smart people believe weird [stupid] things." Answer: Because they want to.

The argument about GHG emissions during mining and plant fabrication are equally true for wind farms, solar farms, dams, you name it. The toxic chemicals and metals used for solar cell manufacturing are more troublesome in my mind than nuclear waste. Especially since they aren't so tightly controlled. The issue here is quantity. Take all of the high level nuclear waste in the US created since the dawn of nuclear power and stack it in containers on a football field and it would only be 15 feet tall. ONE football field! New technology would even reduce this quantity and it is possible to reduce the toxicity and the half-life of these materials to 100s-1000s of years. The problem is that nuclear R&D has been unfortunately round filed. This is also the reason that it hasn't become cheaper. Besides, who cares about the cost if we can replace fossil fuel generated electricity? Add up the death toll and put some numbers on the environmental destruction caused by coal and oil. Seriously, why can't people see this? Look at the recent sludge spill in TN. Personally, I think solar-thermal power generation is the most promising and least hazardous technology. But, there is no way that this is the only answer. We need nuclear energy. Some how damper your knee-jerk reaction to the word nuclear and be reasonable.

In response to Lambert - he's got the wrong Todd Tucker. I am not a "think tank guy," I did not go to George Washington U, and I was born in 1968 - not the year of TMI, as he states. I went to Notre Dame and was a qualified nuclear engineer in the US Navy, so my training was a little more structured than Popular Mechanics and cereal boxes, as he states. Maybe Lambert's research skills are a little lacking, or he would have been able to distinguish between the two Todd Tuckers.

By Todd Tucker (not verified) on 28 Mar 2009 #permalink

Many countries around the world get enormous percentages of their power from nuclear energy, technology that has been in existence for decades with only two major accidents. It's ironic, but not atypical, that objection from environmentalists is one of the main reasons that one of the most green technologies in the history of the world can't be put into mass production.