Nuclear Power is NOT the Solution to Our Global Warming Woes

  • Published on October 22nd, 2008

nuclear plant[Editor’s note: The following is a guest-post from Low Impact Living]
As our presidential campaign season draws towards a close and the attacks / counter-attacks reach a fever pitch, it’s almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. So many contradictory proposals, so many disparate numbers — I wouldn’t be surprised if someone says the sky is bright pink before we’re through.

The debate about energy policy is a case in point: the proposals so far have ranged from sound (invest in multiple forms of renewable energy) to questionable (clean coal, 45 new nuclear power plants) to the insultingly cynical and foolish (Drill Baby Drill!).

With most of these energy proposals, we’re being asked to take a leap of faith. Can coal ever be clean, or will carbon dioxide just leak back to the surface from the underground reservoirs where it is stored? Will battery technology advance enough to have one million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015? Can we make the technology changes and corn-subsidy reductions required to develop ethanol sources that are at least carbon neutral if not negative?

There’s one area, however, where we seem to have a long enough track record to know: nuclear power. If you listen to the McCain campaign, nuclear power (second only to drilling) is a key solution to our energy dependence and global warming woes. Remove a few regulations here, provide some tax credits there, and poof! — energy independence, clean power and new jobs flow forth like oil through a pipeline.

>>More on nuclear power at RG&B

There are a number of assumptions that underlie this proposal. One is that nuclear reactors can be operated in a safe manner, which in turn assumes that our government has a strong enough regulatory system to avoid even one small failure (since there really isn’t such thing as a small failure with a nuclear reactor). There are plenty of reasons NOT to believe this, most recently the meltdown of another sort that has crippled our financial system.

You also have to believe that we’ll figure out a way to store and process our nuclear wastes. We’ve been working on that for several decades, and political hot air is the only measurable result.

And, you have to believe that investing in nuclear power makes economic sense as compared to other options available. Fortunately, the Rocky Mountain Institute, one of the leading voices worldwide on energy efficiency and our energy economy, has published a study that addresses this very issue. Some of the key findings:

  • Long term, nuclear offers the most expensive way to generate power. When you factor in all of the costs associated with electricity generating options (construction, maintenance, transmission, etc.), even industry-sponsored research suggests that nuclear power is likely to be the most expensive source of electricity we have over the long run. It is 50% more expensive than large coal or natural gas plants and twice as costly as large wind farms or energy efficiency projects. If you don’t see that extra cost in your electricity bill, it’s only because it’s hidden away in your tax bill via government subsidies.
  • Per unit of carbon dioxide avoided, nuclear power is also the most expensive option. Nuclear power doesn’t emit much if any carbon dioxide, but when you compare the cost of each pound of carbon dioxide avoided from nuclear power to wind power, energy efficiency or cogeneration plants you once again end up with a loser.
  • Even with existing favorable subsidies, nuclear power is not attracting the private investment that renewables are. This means that the costs of developing nuclear power (as mentioned above) will be borne by tax- and rate-payers alone, rather than shared with private investors.

There are many reasons not to like nuclear power. It increases the flow of very dangerous nuclear materials across the planet. Nuclear accidents can be catastrophic, whereas accidents with other energy sources merely reduce the electricity available. We still haven’t found a good way to deal with the waste generated.

In the end, though, they just don’t seem to pay off. Renewable prices will only fall as economies of scale develop and new technologies flood the market, whereas projections for nuclear prices rise with each new report. In these hard economic times, we can all agree regardless of our political or environmental leanings that saving money makes the most sense of all!

About the Author

Low Impact Living™ is a way of life. We believe you want to lessen the load you put on the earth. You want to reduce global warming. You want to recycle. You want to do what's best for the environment, but often you don't know where to start. And you don't know what impact your efforts will have, or how much they will cost. At Low Impact Living, we want to help you lower the environmental impact of your home and your daily life. To do that, we help you find the best green products, practices and service providers to help you achieve your environmental goals. And we will also help you understand the environmental benefits and economic trade-offs of your choices. Our primary goal is to make the path from inspiration to implementation as short and as smooth as possible. Only by taking action will we collectively reduce the damage to our planet and ecosystems. Visit us at http://lowimpactliving.com

17 comments

  • Perhaps going nuclear isn't the answer…. But people need to stop looking for just ONE solution. It's going to take a combination of different technologies to "solve" the problem.

  • Lets look at the facts. We have 7 ways to generate electricity, nuclear, hydro, oil, natural gas, coal, solar and wind. Cnsidering that the planet will run out of oil, using oil to make electricity is stupid. We will eventually run out of coal and natural gas but we have enough for about 300 years. Wind is not reliable making us have to use coal and gas burning plants as they can go up and down in generation rapidly. Hydro can also go up and down in generation rapidly. Nuclear plants cannot. They produce the same amount of electricity continually. Solar is also iffy.
    At present coal plants are the cheapest to build. Nuclear and hydro plants should be the same price to build and they should be the mainstay of our electicity production.
    My suggestion is to get rid of the red tape that makes nuclear plants so expensive to build and use both hydro and nuclear as electricity producing plants. We might as well keep the coal and natural gas plants for their lifetimes, they are not hurting anyone. Use solar for buildings and houses as per the owners decision. I would scrap wind power, too expensive and not reliable.

  • Nick Taylor, as I'm always anxious to learn more I looked up your links. They all point to mechanical problems that had no consequences. There's this fundamental conceptual difference between scientific and political environmentalists. Politicals believe nuclear plants have to be perfect in order to be safe. Since, reasonably, they don't expect anything to be perfect, they naturally are convinced nuclear plants are dangerous, and also the spent fuel in whatever situation it's in.

    Scientific environmentalists take a different view. Layers of safety make it implausible that nuclear plants could cause serious harm and unlikely that they could cause even minor harm.

    The reactor at Chernobyl was inherently unsafe and didn't have the layers of safety that make Western reactors safe. Indeed, the Chernobyl reactor had no layers of safety. It was made of graphite, a flammable material, and covered by a sheet-metal shed to keep the rain off. Western reactors are made of steel and are built below ground and are encased in layers of steel and concrete. The Chernobyl reactor had instability built into it and at the time of the accident its emergency shutdown system and its emergency core cooling system were both disabled. In contrast, the accident at Three Mile Island destroyed the reactor but didn't harm anyone. No one was injured or made ill by that accident. The difference was the layers of safety.

    It's entirely possible that your perception of the Soviet Union is more accurate than mine. What I saw was the country with the most agricultural land and it couldn't feed itself. The environmental damage done by its chemical plants and oil refineries was and is a health disaster. It put a basketball in orbit and then fell to last place in space research. As soon as people were offered a choice they chose to terminate it. But if you know of successes then by all means I should be corrected.

  • Comparing the operation of a nuclear reactor to the regulation of a modern economy is absurd. Nuclear fission is governed by natural laws that are known, predictable, and manageable – there's not been a major nuclear accident in a modern Western economy in over 30 years. In contrast, the system that is a modern economy is many orders of magnitude more complex than nuclear physics – seriously. In fact, one of the "laws" of economics is that things are random – you cannot truly know what the price of an asset will be tomorrow, only guess. The safe harnessing of nuclear fission for productive energy instead of destructive power is one of the great triumphs of the 20th century – we in the 21st would be foolish to ignore it, especially when we can continue to find ways to improve it.

  • Gas shills expressing concern that nuclear energy programs "just don't seem to pay off" are expressing a point of view that is not widely shared. When government and industry take big tax revenues and profits on oil and gas, most of us are paying those revenues, not enjoying them.

    Recent US$ prices, inclusive of royalties but not of taxes per tonne-uranium-equivalent: uranium itself 114000, natural gas 3900000 million, petroleum 7200000. Does "Low Impact Living"'s mother know how he's paying the rent?

  • THINK ABOUT IT. WE GIVE FOSSIL FUEL FACILITIES THE GREEN LIGHT TO USE OUR ATMOSPHERE AS A WASTE DUMP. YET, WE REJECT EVERY PROPOSAL FOR NUCLEAR WASTE STORAGE AND REPROCESSING. FOOLISH AND SHORTSIGHTED.

    Regulatory hurdles, red tape, and unfounded opposition have pushed the cost of nuclear power to 10x what it should be. And people argue that the capital cost is too high, well there's your reason. Reactors in reality should cost about as much as coal facilities but unfortunately the playing field is rigged.

  • YET ANOTHER ARTICLE THAT IS WRONG, WRONG, AND WRONG AGAIN ABOUT NUKE POWER.

    Uranium and the other radioactive materials that are used for power generation are so energy dense that if fuel is spent and reprocessed to its potential there is enough energy for thousands of years. Yet, reprocessing as well as storage is banned because of FEAR MONGERING MEDIA AND POLITICS.

    Coal-fired power plants spew out more radiation than is typically radiated or even leaked, at containment facilities. Yet we seem to be putting up coal plants like it's our job and keep accepting the unfathomable amounts of radiation from coal power. US nuclear industry has a nearly perfect track record; you compare three mile island (NOTHING) to millions of tons per year of soot and radiation, and oil spills from oil companies. And contrary to beliefs the overall return on investment is by far the highest; the government even considered a windfall profits tax for nuclear facilities cause they were immune to fuel price increases! Seems big fossil fuel is in their pockets! Yet nuke power is still "worse"?

  • @Red Craig

    re: Safety

    UK: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2008/may/29/br

    France : http://www.euronews.net/en/article/24/07/2008/fra

    Germany : http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,151

    And those are just recent ones. To claim that nukes are safe because no one has been killed in these accidents – apart from the Soviet one (who did not (my xenophobic little friend) fail at everything they did) is both dishonest and irresponsible… but not untypical of nuke shills.

    The UK is currently spending around a billion GBP per year just to store the waste it already has… year in year out for as long as we can foresee. We're fobbing this burden off onto our children, our grandchildren… when we could have invested this money in renewables.

  • This is very misleading. As Red Craig said, nuclear power has a perfect safety record in every country except the Soviet Union. Three Mile Island was not even a real meltdowm – it was a precautionary evacuation of the area around the facility because the warning systems operated properly and told the operators of a stuck pressure release valve in one of the cooling chambers. There was little harmful radioactive material released into the environment, and no known illnesses or deaths as a result.

    Three mile island is demonized in the media, especially at the time, because popular opinion was that Nuclear Reactors were unsafe. They were not. Also local politicians had long opposed Three Mile Island, and the federal government was slow to reveal that there was a problem, despite the fact that it was not a major disaster anyway.

    The reason it was not discovered earlier than it was is because there was a piece of paperwork obscuring the panel in the control room that reported problems to the engineers. It was operator error, not design error.

    Also, Nuclear energy is the single most sustainable source of energy that is currently viable. This article assumes that hydrogen will be cheaply available one day, which as far as we know it may never be. Currently, most hydrogen is produced by steam reforming hydrocarbons, which releases carbon monoxide into the atmosphere when performed at high pressure, and elemental carbon when performed at low pressure.

    Nuclear material for fast breeder reactors has been estimated by leading scholars as being abundant enough on earth to meet current global power demands for the next 5 billion years, which is about the time the sun will burn out.

    This article is very misleading. Please do not make up your mind about nuclear power because of it.

  • Nuclear power IS safe! More people have died from coal related power generation then ever with nuclear power. You stupid greenie hippies have no idea what the hell you are even talking about all the time, what about the environmental impact of "renewable energy". How many toxic chemicals are used in the production of a SINGLE solar panel?

    You will never stop people trying to keep up with the Jones with the latest TVs, computers. Power consumption will continue to increase. Renewable energy will NEVER generate enough energy to keep up demand. Nuclear is the safest, most environmentally friendly solution to global warming .. i mean "climate change".

  • If you add up the total amount of nuclear waste the entire planet has generated since the beginning of use. It would cover a basketball court in area and stand five feet tall. This article makes it sound like the power plants have fuel to dump every weekend. It's done once every fifteen years or something like that. I personally have tried to scram a reactor in a simulator (Big Rock, Charlevoix, MI) and it's harder than hell to get it to go solid. There are so many checks in place that we had to manually override to even get it close and the system ended up correcting itself and Big Rock was built in 1962! Plus if something ever breaks in a nuke plant it *MUST* be repaired right then. In coal plants they let their boilers leak for unsurmountable time just to make a buck.

  • "political hot air is the only measurable result"

    That's the result of this article, in my opinion. Fear mongering and a long memory are the only justifications this piece brings forth.

    Three Mile Island is such a funny example you imply with your "long enough track record to know" bit. The fact is, regardless of the paranoia, there was no leaking or contamination because of what happened at Three Mile Island. It operated completely as it was supposed to.

    Furthermore, it's embarrassing that you think technology hasn't improved in nuclear energy since Chernobyl. If that were the case, please explain why 75% of France's energy comes from nuclear power. Why don't you look into how they deal with the waste, and why they think it's safe enough. France isn't Russia 20 years ago; it's a country with better energy diversity and engineering than most countries in the world, perhaps including the US.

    As someone who disagrees with McCain on every other issue, I'm embarrassed for these environmentalists who think nuclear energy is a devil energy source and Obama is hesitant on the subject. And while we need a diverse response to the question of alternative energy, nuclear should *definitely* not be put aside because you people old enough to remember Chernobyl or Three Mile Island on TV can't get past a 1950s propaganda mindset.

  • I completely agree with Red Craig. Nuclear is the cleanest, safest and cheapest power available today and in the foreseeable future. I wish people would get past the negative stigma that the entertainment industry (read evening news) wants you to have about them.

  • You are clearly not very knowledgeable on the safety aspects of nuclear power. I suggest you look up the new generation 3 style reactors which physically cannot melt down as well as the way in which nuclear material is transported across the country. They use containers that can be dropped out of a plane and get in a head on crash in a rocket powered train and still not spill anything. The videos of these tests can be found online. One of my best friends is a nuclear engineer, seriously, nuclear power these days is ridiculously safe.

  • First, nuclear plants can be run safely. In the US and in every country except the former Soviet Union (which failed at everything it did) nuclear plants have a perfect safety record: not one member of the public has been injured or made ill from nuclear energy. Even the accident at Three Mile Island had no effects on people.

    Second, no person has ever been harmed by nuclear energy waste. Whether the spent fuel is buried or recycled, its potential for doing harm pales in comparison to dangerous chemicals that are transported and handled routinely in our modern economy.

    I strongly recommend that anyone interested in this subject find better sources than Rocky Mountain Institute. RMI is run by a college dropout who calls himself a scientist and lies about nuclear energy for pay. For a start, see what Hans Blix has to say.

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