[Editor: Back in the 1980s, I followed the lead of Dr. Helen Caldicott, who called for a “nuclear freeze.” My spouse and I thought it was important enough that we founded an educational program on the dangers of nuclear arms and nuclear energy. I have felt the same urgency in more recent years about the dangers of climate change and the absolute imperative of taking action to slow and reverse global warming. Recently, I’ve read a number of articles promoting the virtues of nuclear power as a cheap “non-fossil-fuel source of energy.” Below I am posting a few pro and con stories, side by side. This “balanced” approach is unusual for me – my Benicia Independent is a personal blog, and I am more likely to advocate a position than to lay out pros and cons. But this particular issue is critical for the planet, and might deserve a little study of the factors for and against a resurgence of nuclear power plants. – R.S.]
Climate change is scarier than nuclear powerBy Jack Edmonston, Barnstable Patriot, Dec 28, 2019
While closing the aging Plymouth nuclear plant may have been a wise decision, the world’s withdrawal from nuclear power since the tragic tsunami at Fukushima in March, 2011 will likely lead to disaster.
Before Fukushima, a recent piece in The New Yorker points out, “there was serious discussion among energy experts about a nuclear ‘renaissance.’” After Fukushima, Japan shut all its nukes down. Belgium, Switzerland and Germany announced complete phaseouts of nuclear power, and France announced a major decrease.
The New Yorker reports that Pushker Kharecha, a scientist at Columbia University’s Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program, thinks this is a terrible mistake. “Our window of time to mitigate the climate crisis is shrinking by the day … . Given this urgency it simply makes no sense to curtail a non-fossil fuel source like nuclear power in countries that produce significant power from fossil fuels.”
If professors Steven Pinker of Harvard and Joshua Goldman of American University and Swedish nuclear engineer Staffan Qvist are correct, we need to stop closing nuclear plants and start building them as quickly as we can. In a New York Times op-ed, “Nuclear Power Can Save the World,” they argue that the only way to supply the growing global demand for electricity without fossil fuels is through a mix of renewable energy and nuclear power.
The professors believe we have to supplement the nuclear plants we have with a buildup of safer, advanced nuclear plants. While some experts assert that renewables alone can solve the problem, economic models show that at least 20% of our power has to come from a reliable, consistent, low-carbon source. And the only one we have available is nuclear power.
The risk of nuclear power is localized, visible and very low – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima notwithstanding. The risk of global warming is worldwide, not visible until it’s too late, and very high.
The professors tell us that “the reality is that nuclear power is the safest form of energy humanity has ever used.” “Mining accidents, hydroelectric dam failures, natural gas explosions and oil train crashes all kill people, sometimes in large numbers, and smoke from coal-burning kills them in enormous numbers, more than half a million per year.
“By contrast, in 60 years of nuclear power, only three accidents have raised public alarm,” and except for Chernobyl they didn’t kill anyone.
“Climate change is a trolley moving inexorably but slowly toward the people on the tracks,” says Steven Davis, an earth systems science professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Maybe nuclear is scarier because a person could be run down before she even sees the trolley.”
The future of nuclear power lies in “fourth-generation” reactors currently being developed by dozens of startups. They will be mass-produced with standard parts and shipped to the world, “potentially generating electricity at lower cost than fossil fuels.
The good news is that Congress recently passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act. Unless Donald Trump (who calls global warming a hoax) stops it, we may be on our way to a sensible answer to the problem.
Can nuclear power help save us from climate change?
The technology’s slide must be reversed, the International Energy Agency says, but significant barriers existChemical & Engineering News, by Jeff Johnson, Sept. 23, 2019
Globally, nuclear power is on the skids. Its contribution to electricity generation is in a free fall, dropping from a mid-1990s peak of about 18% of worldwide electricity capacity to 10% today, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The agency expects the downward spiral to continue, hitting 5% by 2040 unless governments around the world intervene.
The driver for that intervention would be nuclear reactors’ ability to generate energy with low greenhouse gas emission. To meet the world’s energy needs and avoid the worst effects of climate change, low-carbon electricity generation must increase from providing 36% of the world’s energy today to 85% by 2040, the IEA says.
“Without an important contribution from nuclear power, the global energy transition will be that much harder,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol says in a statement accompanying an IEA nuclear power report. “Alongside renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security.”
But steep barriers to a nuclear energy renaissance exist, among them aging reactors, high costs to build new ones, safety concerns, and questions about how much nuclear is needed in the world’s energy mix.
Historically, nuclear power has played its biggest role in advanced economies, where it makes up 18% of total electricity generation today. France is the most dependent on nuclear energy, with 70% of its electricity generated from nuclear reactors. By number of operating reactors, the US leads with 98 power plants capable of generating 105 GW; France is second with 58 reactors generating 66 GW of electricity.
However, many of those reactors are old. In the US, the European Union, and Russia, plants average 35 years or more in age, nearing their designed lifetimes of 40 years.
Building new nuclear power plants based on traditional designs will be nearly impossible in developed economies, IEA analysts say. The challenges include high costs and long construction times, as well as time needed to recoup costs once plants start running, plus ongoing issues with radioactive waste disposal. In addition, the competitive electricity marketplace in the US makes it hard to sell nuclear energy against that generated more cheaply through natural gas, wind, or solar. Right now, only 11 nuclear plants are under construction in developed economies—4 in South Korea and 1 each in seven other countries.
There is more potential for nuclear energy expansion in developing nations with state-controlled, centralized economies. China is the world’s third-largest nuclear generator, with 45 reactors capable of producing 46 GW of electricity. China also has the biggest plans for new power plants, with 11 at various stages of construction, the IEA says. India is building 7; Russia, 6; and the United Arab Emirates, 4, with a sprinkling of other new plants coming throughout the rest of the world. All will be state owned, the IEA says.
The nuclear industry’s main hope for future expansion lies in a new generation of small, modular reactors that generate less than 300 MW each and are amenable to assembly-line construction. These are still under development, however, with none licensed or under construction.
A middle path between new plants and no plants is lifetime extensions for existing reactors. The IEA estimates the costs for maintenance and improvements needed to continue operating an existing nuclear reactor for an additional 10–20 years would be $500 million–$1.1 billion per gigawatt, an amount the IEA says is comparable to constructing a renewable—solar or wind—system of the same size. The result would be effectively 1 GW of new, low-carbon electricity without the delays involved in siting and building a new solar field or wind farm.
In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has already renewed and extended the operating licenses from 40 to 60 years for 90 of the 98 operating reactors. The industry is now focusing on renewals to operate for up to 80 years. Similarly, other countries are considering extending existing reactor operations but for shorter periods, the IEA reports.
These extensions present what the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) terms a “nuclear power dilemma.” The nonprofit organization, which advocates scientific solutions to global problems, has been a frequent nuclear industry critic.
Aging nuclear plants
“We are very cognizant of this climate challenge and the need to act quickly to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” says Rachel Cleetus, the UCS’s climate and energy policy director. The UCS’s solution for providing energy in a warming world is to tax and cap carbon dioxide emissions and introduce a low-carbon electricity standard for all energy sources. Such measures would drive the construction and development of low-carbon energy facilities and technologies, the UCS says.
For nuclear energy in particular, the organization endorses temporary financial support for the extension of some plants, conditioned on rate protection for consumers, safety requirements, and greater investments in renewables and energy efficiency. “We can’t just give them lots of money and blanket life extensions,” Cleetus says. Scenarios and mathematical models run by the UCS show nuclear is very unlikely to grow beyond providing at most 16% of the world’s electricity generation capacity by 2050 even with aid, far short of the 85% or more of the low- or noncarbon generation needed to address global warming.
Underlying the debates about power plant costs and operating lifetimes are questions of safety and risks—real and perceived—of nuclear reactors and radioactivity. These concerns have made nuclear power unpopular in the US, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), resting on the US West Coast north of San Diego, provides an example of why. Seven million people live within 80 km of the plant.
A stormy relationship between SONGS and its surrounding community goes back decades. Most recently, the facility was completely shut down in 2013 after two nearly new steam generators failed. The replacements were part of a $670 million overhaul that was supposed to provide 20 more years of life for the plant.
Then, while transferring used fuel into a storage vault last year, contractor Holtec International mishandled and nearly dropped a 50-metric-ton spent fuel canister. The NRC subsequently cited plant owner Southern California Edison for failing to properly report the incident, as well as conditions that led to it. The public learned about the slipup from a whistle-blower speaking at a community meeting. The event halted fuel transfer operations, which are just now restarting.
“Repairs and replacements could be done properly at nuclear plants,” says L. R. “Len” Hering Sr., a retired rear admiral of the US Navy who lives near SONGS and is cochair of a task force established by Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA) to address community safety concerns at the facility.
Hering bases that assessment on his navy experience. “Ships are designed to last roughly 30 years, and when the navy goes through a process of life extension, we do extensive testing and evaluation,” he says. “We make certain all components are up to snuff. In the navy, repairs are made by a focused group of individuals separate from the ship’s operators, and it is not about cost.”
He has not seen a similar level of attention and rigor at SONGS. Once a nuclear advocate, he has cooled on nuclear power because of concerns over management and regulation. “I don’t believe the NRC has the capacity to properly inspect and oversee operations or maintenance,” he says.
Meanwhile, some of the groups advocating for strong action to address climate change question whether more nuclear energy is necessary. Over the past 20 years, as nuclear power generation has declined, renewable sources have expanded by some 580 GW—more than the output of all the world’s nuclear power plants—to make up the difference. Consequently, the overall share of low-carbon electricity sources—hydropower, nuclear, solar, and wind—has stayed even at about 36%.
The IEA applauds the growth of renewables but says that it is unprecedented and not sustainable. Hence the agency’s support for nuclear power.
However, energy researchers at the World Resources Institute and the UCS, speaking at a recent US congressional hearing, say renewable sources will continue to expand, and major increases in energy efficiency are on the horizon. In addition, the researchers expect that as more renewable energy facilities come on line, new technologies will be developed to address the challenge of variable output from renewable energy sources, such as with solar on an overcast day.
Overreliance on nuclear might in fact stall development and installation of technologies needed for a transition to a low-carbon future, Cleetus argues. Her modeling shows that capital investment needed for renewable energy development—building high-voltage power lines, advanced batteries and other storage systems, and of course, renewable resources themselves—could be funneled off to build and retrofit more nuclear power plants. And then there are those who question whether nuclear energy can even be called low carbon if greenhouse gas emissions are considered for the full energy cycle, including plant construction, uranium mining and enrichment, fuel processing, plant decommissioning, and radioactive waste deposition.
See also The New York Times Opinion, “Nuclear Power Can Save the World” by Joshua S. Goldstein, Staffan A. Qvist and Steven Pinker, April 6, 2019
The 7 reasons why nuclear energy is not the answer to solve climate changeMark Z. Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Director, Atmosphere/Energy Program, Stanford University, Dicaprio Foundation, Jun 20, 2019
There is a small group of scientists that have proposed replacing 100% of the world’s fossil fuel power plants with nuclear reactors as a way to solve climate change. Many others propose nuclear grow to satisfy up to 20 percent of all our energy (not just electricity) needs. They advocate that nuclear is a “clean” carbon-free source of power, but they don’t look at the human impacts of these scenarios. Let’s do the math…
One nuclear power plant takes on average about 14-1/2 years to build, from the planning phase all the way to operation. According to the World Health Organization, about 7.1 million people die from air pollution each year, with more than 90% of these deaths from energy-related combustion. So switching out our energy system to nuclear would result in about 93 million people dying, as we wait for all the new nuclear plants to be built in the all-nuclear scenario.
Utility-scale wind and solar farms, on the other hand, take on average only 2 to 5 years, from the planning phase to operation. Rooftop solar PV projects are down to only a 6-month timeline. So transitioning to 100% renewables as soon as possible would result in tens of millions fewer deaths.
This illustrates a major problem with nuclear power and why renewable energy — in particular Wind, Water, and Solar (WWS)– avoids this problem. Nuclear, though, doesn’t just have one problem. It has seven. Here are the seven major problems with nuclear energy:
1. Long Time Lag Between Planning and Operation
The time lag between planning and operation of a nuclear reactor includes the times to identify a site, obtain a site permit, purchase or lease the land, obtain a construction permit, obtain financing and insurance for construction, install transmission, negotiate a power purchase agreement, obtain permits, build the plant, connect it to transmission, and obtain a final operating license.
The planning-to-operation (PTO) times of all nuclear plants ever built have been 10-19 years or more. For example, the Olkiluoto 3 reactor in Finland was proposed to the Finnish cabinet in December 2000 to be added to an existing nuclear power plant. Its latest estimated completion date is 2020, giving it a PTO time of 20 years.
The Hinkley Point nuclear plant was planned to start in 2008. It has an estimated completion year of 2025 to 2027, giving it a PTO time of 17 to 19 years. The Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors in Georgia were first proposed in August 2006 to be added to an existing site. The anticipated completion dates are November 2021 and November 2022, respectively, given them PTO times of 15 and 16 years, respectively.
The Haiyang 1 and 2 reactors in China were planned to start in 2005. Haiyang 1 began commercial operation on October 22, 2018. Haiyang 2 began operation on January 9, 2019, giving them PTO times of 13 and 14 years, respectively. The Taishan 1 and 2 reactors in China were bid in 2006. Taishan 1 began commercial operation on December 13, 2018. Taishan 2 is not expected to be connected until 2019, giving them PTO times of 12 and 13 years, respectively. Planning and procurement for four reactors in Ringhals, Sweden started in 1965. One took 10 years, the second took 11 years, the third took 16 years, and the fourth took 18 years to complete.
Many claim that France’s 1974 Messmer plan resulted in the building of its 58 reactors in 15 years. This is not true. The planning for several of these nuclear reactors began long before. For example, the Fessenheim reactor obtained its construction permit in 1967 and was planned starting years before. In addition, 10 of the reactors were completed between 1991-2000. As such, the whole planning-to-operation time for these reactors was at least 32 years, not 15. That of any individual reactor was 10 to 19 years.
The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for a new nuclear plant in 2018, based on Lazard, is $151 (112 to 189)/MWh. This compares with $43 (29 to 56)/MWh for onshore wind and $41 (36 to 46)/MWh for utility-scale solar PV from the same source.
This nuclear LCOE is an underestimate for several reasons. First, Lazard assumes a construction time for nuclear of 5.75 years. However, the Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors, though will take at least 8.5 to 9 years to finish construction. This additional delay alone results in an estimated LCOE for nuclear of about $172 (128 to 215)/MWh, or a cost 2.3 to 7.4 times that of an onshore wind farm (or utility PV farm).
Next, the LCOE does not include the cost of the major nuclear meltdowns in history. For example, the estimated cost to clean up the damage from three Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor core meltdowns was $460 to $640 billion. This is $1.2 billion, or 10 to 18.5 percent of the capital cost, of every nuclear reactor worldwide.
In addition, the LCOE does not include the cost of storing nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years. In the U.S. alone, about $500 million is spent yearly to safeguard nuclear waste from about 100 civilian nuclear energy plants. This amount will only increase as waste continues to accumulate. After the plants retire, the spending must continue for hundreds of thousands of years with no revenue stream from electricity sales to pay for the storage.
3. Weapons Proliferation Risk
The growth of nuclear energy has historically increased the ability of nations to obtain or harvest plutonium or enrich uranium to manufacture nuclear weapons. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes this fact. They concluded in the Executive Summary of their 2014 report on energy, with “robust evidence and high agreement” that nuclear weapons proliferation concern is a barrier and risk to the increasing development of nuclear energy:
The building of a nuclear reactor for energy in a country that does not currently have a reactor allows the country to import uranium for use in the nuclear energy facility. If the country so chooses, it can secretly enrich the uranium to create weapons grade uranium and harvest plutonium from uranium fuel rods for use in nuclear weapons. This does not mean any or every country will do this, but historically some have and the risk is high, as noted by IPCC. The building and spreading of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) may increase this risk further.
4. Meltdown Risk
To date, 1.5% of all nuclear power plants ever built have melted down to some degree. Meltdowns have been either catastrophic (Chernobyl, Russia in 1986; three reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi, Japan in 2011) or damaging (Three-Mile Island, Pennsylvania in 1979; Saint-Laurent France in 1980). The nuclear industry has proposed new reactor designs that they suggest are safer. However, these designs are generally untested, and there is no guarantee that the reactors will be designed, built and operated correctly or that a natural disaster or act of terrorism, such as an airplane flown into a reactor, will not cause the reactor to fail, resulting in a major disaster.
5. Mining Lung Cancer Risk
Uranium mining causes lung cancer in large numbers of miners because uranium mines contain natural radon gas, some of whose decay products are carcinogenic. A study of 4,000 uranium miners between 1950 and 2000 found that 405 (10 percent) died of lung cancer, a rate six times that expected based on smoking rates alone. 61 others died of mining related lung diseases. Clean, renewable energy does not have this risk because (a) it does not require the continuous mining of any material, only one-time mining to produce the energy generators; and (b) the mining does not carry the same lung cancer risk that uranium mining does.
6. Carbon-Equivalent Emissions and Air Pollution
There is no such thing as a zero- or close-to-zero emission nuclear power plant. Even existing plants emit due to the continuous mining and refining of uranium needed for the plant. Emissions from new nuclear are 78 to 178 g-CO2/kWh, not close to 0. Of this, 64 to 102 g-CO2/kWh over 100 years are emissions from the background grid while consumers wait 10 to 19 years for nuclear to come online or be refurbished, relative to 2 to 5 years for wind or solar. In addition, all nuclear plants emit 4.4 g-CO2e/kWh from the water vapor and heat they release. This contrasts with solar panels and wind turbines, which reduce heat or water vapor fluxes to the air by about 2.2 g-CO2e/kWh for a net difference from this factor alone of 6.6 g-CO2e/kWh.
In fact, China’s investment in nuclear plants that take so long between planning and operation instead of wind or solar resulted in China’s CO2 emissions increasing 1.3 percent from 2016 to 2017 rather than declining by an estimated average of 3 percent. The resulting difference in air pollution emissions may have caused 69,000 additional air pollution deaths in China in 2016 alone, with additional deaths in years prior and since.
7. Waste Risk
Last but not least, consumed fuel rods from nuclear plants are radioactive waste. Most fuel rods are stored at the same site as the reactor that consumed them. This has given rise to hundreds of radioactive waste sites in many countries that must be maintained and funded for at least 200,000 years, far beyond the lifetimes of any nuclear power plant. The more nuclear waste that accumulates, the greater the risk of radioactive leaks, which can damage water supply, crops, animals, and humans.
To recap, new nuclear power costs about 5 times more than onshore wind power per kWh (between 2.3 to 7.4 times depending upon location and integration issues). Nuclear takes 5 to 17 years longer between planning and operation and produces on average 23 times the emissions per unit electricity generated (between 9 to 37 times depending upon plant size and construction schedule). In addition, it creates risk and cost associated with weapons proliferation, meltdown, mining lung cancer, and waste risks. Clean, renewables avoid all such risks.
Nuclear advocates claim nuclear is still needed because renewables are intermittent and need natural gas for backup. However, nuclear itself never matches power demand so it needs backup. Even in France with one of the most advanced nuclear energy programs, the maximum ramp rate is 1 to 5 % per minute, which means they need natural gas, hydropower, or batteries, which ramp up 5 to 100 times faster, to meet peaks in demand. Today, in fact, batteries are beating natural gas for wind and solar backup needs throughout the world. A dozen independent scientific groups have further found that it is possible to match intermittent power demand with clean, renewable energy supply and storage, without nuclear, at low cost.
Finally, many existing nuclear plants are so costly that their owners are demanding subsidies to stay open. For example, in 2016, three existing upstate New York nuclear plants requested and received subsidies to stay open using the argument that the plants were needed to keep emissions low. However, subsidizing such plants may increase carbon emissions and costs relative to replacing the plants with wind or solar as soon as possible. Thus, subsidizing nuclear would result in higher emissions and costs over the long term than replacing nuclear with renewables.
Derivations and sources of the numbers provided herein can be found here.
Nuclear power is not the answer in a time of climate changeAEON, By Heidi Hutner, Stony Brook University, Erica Cirino, science photojournalist, and editor Pam Weintraub, May 28, 2019
In November 2018, the Woolsey Fire scorched nearly 100,000 acres of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, destroying forests, fields and more than 1,500 structures, and forcing the evacuation of nearly 300,000 people over 14 days. It burned so viciously that it seared a scar into the land that’s visible from space. Investigators determined that the Woolsey Fire began at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a nuclear research property contaminated by a partial meltdown in 1959 of its failed Sodium Reactor Experiment, as well as rocket tests and regular releases of radiation.
The State of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) reports that its air, ash and soil tests conducted on the property after the fire show no release of radiation beyond baseline for the contaminated site. But the DTSC report lacks sufficient information, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It includes ‘few actual measurements’ of the smoke from the fire, and the data raises alarms. Research on Chernobyl in Ukraine following wildfires in 2015 shows clear release of radiation from the old nuclear power plant, calling into question the quality of DTSC’s tests. What’s more, scientists such as Nikolaos Evangeliou, who studies radiation releases from wildfires at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, point out that the same hot, dry and windy conditions exacerbating the Woolsey Fire (all related to human-caused global warming) are a precursor to future climate-related radioactive releases.
With our climate-impacted world now highly prone to fires, extreme storms and sea-level rise, nuclear energy is touted as a possible replacement for the burning of fossil fuels for energy – the leading cause of climate change. Nuclear power can demonstrably reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Yet scientific evidence and recent catastrophes call into question whether nuclear power could function safely in our warming world. Wild weather, fires, rising sea levels, earthquakes and warming water temperatures all increase the risk of nuclear accidents, while the lack of safe, long-term storage for radioactive waste remains a persistent danger.
The Santa Susana Field Laboratory property has had a long history of contaminated soil and groundwater. Indeed, a 2006 advisory panel compiled a report suggesting that workers at the lab, as well as residents living nearby, had unusually high exposure to radiation and industrial chemicals that are linked to an increased incidence of some cancers. Discovery of the pollution prompted California’s DTSC in 2010 to order a cleanup of the site by its current owner – Boeing – with assistance from the US Department of Energy and NASA. But the required cleanup has been hampered by Boeing’s legal fight to perform a less rigorous cleaning.
Like the Santa Susana Field Lab, Chernobyl remains largely unremediated since its meltdown in 1986. With each passing year, dead plant material accumulates and temperatures rise, making it especially prone to fires in the era of climate change. Radiation releases from contaminated soils and forests can be carried thousands of kilometres away to human population centres, according to Evangeliou.
Kate Brown, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019), and Tim Mousseau, an evolutionary biologist at the University of South Carolina, also have grave concerns about forest fires. ‘Records show that there have been fires in the Chernobyl zone that raised the radiation levels by seven to 10 times since 1990,’ Brown says. Further north, melting glaciers contain ‘radioactive fallout from global nuclear testing and nuclear accidents at levels 10 times higher than elsewhere’. As ice melts, radioactive runoff flows into the ocean, is absorbed into the atmosphere, and falls as acid rain. ‘With fires and melting ice, we are basically paying back a debt of radioactive debris incurred during the frenzied production of nuclear byproducts during the 20th century,’ Brown concludes.
Flooding is another symptom of our warming world that could lead to nuclear disaster. Many nuclear plants are built on coastlines where seawater is easily used as a coolant. Sea-level rise, shoreline erosion, coastal storms and heat waves – all potentially catastrophic phenomena associated with climate change – are expected to get more frequent as the Earth continues to warm, threatening greater damage to coastal nuclear power plants. ‘Mere absence of greenhouse gas emissions is not sufficient to assess nuclear power as a mitigation for climate change,’ conclude Natalie Kopytko and John Perkins in their paper ‘Climate Change, Nuclear Power, and the Adaptation-Mitigation Dilemma’ (2011) in Energy Policy.
Proponents of nuclear power say that the reactors’ relative reliability and capacity make this a much clearer choice than other non-fossil-fuel sources of energy, such as wind and solar, which are sometimes brought offline by fluctuations in natural resource availability. Yet no one denies that older nuclear plants, with an aged infrastructure often surpassing expected lifetimes, are extremely inefficient and run a higher risk of disaster.
‘The primary source of nuclear power going forward will be the current nuclear fleet of old plants,’ said Joseph Lassiter, an energy expert and nuclear proponent who is retired from Harvard University. But ‘even where public support exists for [building new] nuclear plants, it remains to be seen if these new-build nuclear plants will make a significant contribution to fossil-emissions reductions given the cost and schedule overruns that have plagued the industry.’
Lassiter and several other energy experts advocate for the new, Generation IV nuclear power plants that are supposedly designed to deliver high levels of nuclear power at the lowest cost and with the lowest safety risks. But other experts say that the benefits even here remain unclear. The biggest critique of the Generation IV nuclear reactors is that they are in the design phase, and we don’t have time to wait for their implementation. Climate abatement action is needed immediately.
‘New nuclear power seemingly represents an opportunity for solving global warming, air pollution, and energy security,’ says Mark Jacobson, director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Programme. But it makes no economic or energy sense. ‘Every dollar spent on nuclear results in one-fifth the energy one would gain with wind or solar [at the same cost], and nuclear energy takes five to 17 years longer before it becomes available. As such, it is impossible for nuclear to help with climate goals of reducing 80 per cent of emissions by 2030. Also, while we’re waiting around for nuclear, coal, gas and oil are being burned and polluting the air. In addition, nuclear has energy security risks other technologies don’t have: weapons proliferation, meltdown, waste and uranium-worker lung-cancer risks.’
Around the world, 31 countries have nuclear power plants that are currently online, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. By contrast, four countries have made moves to phase out nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and 15 countries have remained opposed and have no functional power plants.
With almost all countries’ carbon dioxide emissions increasing – and China, India and the US leading the pack – the small Scandinavian country of Denmark is an outlier. Its carbon dioxide emissions are decreasing despite it not producing any nuclear power. Denmark does import some nuclear power produced by its neighbours Sweden and Germany, but in February, the country’s most Left-leaning political party, Enhedslisten, published a new climate plan that outlines a path for the country to start relying on its own 100 per cent renewable, non-nuclear energy for power and heat production by 2030. The plan would require investments in renewables such as solar and wind, a smart grid and electric vehicles that double as mobile batteries and can recharge the grid during peak hours.
Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the author of Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (2019), believes the technology is no longer a viable method for dealing with climate change: ‘It is dangerous, costly and unreliable, and abandoning it will not bring on a climate crisis.’