Jun 10 2019

Answering Questions About Nuclear Power

It seems every time I write even tangentially about nuclear power the same comments crop up, with the same objections. So I want to explore, as best I can, the answers to those objections. First here are a few caveats. On this topic I am acting as a science journalist, not an expert. This is my personal synthesis of publicly available information. I also consider blogs to be as much conversations as essays, so welcome any thoughtful feedback, especially if you include links to back up your assertions, or if you bring genuine expertise to bear. Sometimes, in fact, I specifically choose a topic to blog about because I want to “crowd source” it in the comments.

Overall, while I think that nuclear power is likely to be a critical component of our attempts at minimizing carbon release from energy production, I am not otherwise “pro-nuclear.” I have no dog in that hunt, I simply want the best science-based solutions to our energy infrastructure problems. I also think that no source of energy is perfect. They all have trade-offs. So my approach is – what are all the risks and benefits to nuclear, and are they ultimately worth it in the end, compared to all the alternatives?

I have taken the same approach to this question that I take to all controversial questions – what do all sides say, and who tends to have the better or final arguments? At this point I find the pro-nuclear position to be more compelling than the anti-nuclear position. In fact I haven’t heard any really compelling arguments against using nuclear power. There are some legitimate points against nuclear, they just don’t add up to a reason not to use it, in my opinion. So let me go through them.

Nuclear Energy Safety

Safety is often a keystone to objections about nuclear power. However, it is pretty clear that nuclear power is the safest form of energy production we have. We need to do an entire lifecycle analysis for each type of power – production of resources (usually mining), operation, and environmental effects (including waste and pollution). Every single reference I have found indicates that nuclear power, when we consider deaths per terawatt hour (TWh), is by far the safest form of energy production.  Burning brown coal has 467 times the death rate of nuclear (including accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima).

In fact a recent study estimates that nuclear power, by displacing fossil fuel production, has already saved 1.84 million lives, and potentially can save millions more – just considering air pollution. This study used an estimate of 5,000 deaths from nuclear power between 1971 and 2009, which is a reasonable estimate. But even if you think the number should be an order of magnitude higher, nuclear still saved about 1.8 million lives.

Here is another analysis. Nuclear is the safest form of energy even if you use the higher end of the death estimates. It is even safer than wind and solar, mainly from mining the elements needed in their construction, but also in their installation and operation. Even if you use the crazy high end of death estimates – it’s still much safer than fossil fuel.

Part of the reason for its relative safety is that nuclear produces so much energy. In order to replace that energy, we would need to burn a lot of coal, or produce a lot of solar panels. So even low-level risks add up to a great deal. Nuclear accidents, however, have a different psychological impact. But the best decisions will be made by crunching the numbers, not reacting emotionally to the drama of events.

I will also add that the large nuclear accidents that have happened so far were preventable, and far more containable. Chernobyl was a comedy of errors – it didn’t even have a containment facility. Fukushima had design flaws that should have been corrected (such as having the backup generators in low areas). Lessons learned means nuclear power is getting safer. One counter-argument that often comes up is – do we really trust dysfunctional governments around the world to operate nuclear safely? This is a fair point, but there are two powerful counterpoints. The first is that we have an international organization, the IAEA, to monitor nuclear safety. The second is that those same governments will be operating whatever form of energy substitutes for nuclear, with the same problems. Do we trust these same governments to inspect dams, have safe coal-mining operations, or rare-earth processing? Arguably the existence of the IAEA and international standards makes nuclear a better option for this reason.

What About Nuclear Waste?

The safety issue is, I think, a home run for nuclear. So those who don’t like nuclear power often argue that we have to consider all possible future deaths from nuclear waste and pollution. Regarding radioactive contamination from the operation of nuclear power plants and the existence of nuclear waste, again we need to put this into perspective. First I would note that coal burning produces more radioactive waste in the form of fly ash than nuclear power. Coal contains uranium and thorium, and burning it into fly ash concentrates those elements. Studies show that more radioactive contaminants get into the environment around coal plants than nuclear plants.

The real issue is high-level radioactive waste, the spent fuel rods and parts of the reactor that are highly irradiated. These need to be stored safely for thousands of years. Right now it is fair to say that we are not properly storing nuclear waste long term. Most waste is stored on site.  This problem, however, is entirely political. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a real issue – and this gets back to the point above. We need functional governments that can properly manage the complexity of something like nuclear power.

In the US, for example, we have Yucca Mountain. We could safely store much of our nuclear waste there, and develop other sites as necessary. But fear of nuclear and old-fashioned NIMBY attitudes prevent this. We have the solution – we simply lack the political will to use it.

I have to put this into context as to what my opinion about nuclear is. My position is that nuclear can be a safe and effective part of our energy infrastructure. My position is not that our current nuclear infrastructure is optimal or without major problems. Rather – we have the solution to these problems. We don’t need any scientific breakthrough. Using existing technology we can have safe nuclear power and deal with all the waste. We should do that. If we had a proper conversation in this country about all our options, I think nuclear would emerge as one good option, at least for this century.

Further, next generation nuclear power plant designs could be ready as early as 2030. These are the plants we should be building, not 20th century designs. These new plants could even burn the spent fuel from older plants, and they would produce less waste themselves. There are also thorium reactors, which have a different set of strengths and weaknesses but produce less long-term waste.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that nuclear waste is not a deal-killer. It is totally manageable.

Solar and Wind are Cheaper and Better

I am a big fan of solar and wind energy, and do expect they will play an increasing role in our energy infrastructure. I have solar panels on my roof. They are also getting progressively cheaper. But here’s the thing – nuclear vs renewables is not really the current choice we are facing. Nuclear power is baseload energy – consistent production of large amounts of power but below the minimum demand. (Future reactors may be more scalable, but that is a separate point.) Renewable energy is not baseload. It is also not on-demand. It is intermittent. This means that we need energy storage in order to make use of intermittent sources, like wind and solar.

For now we can use the grid itself for storage – putting energy into the grid when producing more than demand, and taking from the grid when demand exceeds production. But this only works when the intermittent source is a minority production. In order for wind and solar to provide the equivalent of baseload power, we need massive grid storage. We don’t have that right now, and likely won’t have it for decades. This does require a technology breakthrough, and you cannot predict nor count on such breakthroughs.

So, for the foreseeable future, there is no choice between nuclear and renewables, they serve different functions in the energy infrastructure. Rather, the choice is between nuclear and other forms of baseload production, which is mostly fossil fuel plants, and mostly coal. There is some hydroelectric (also more dangerous than nuclear), but this is location-dependent. I think the experience in Germany is salient here. They phased out nuclear in favor of renewables, and ended up having to burn more coal. Their carbon emissions did not decrease despite using more rewewables (there was a recent decrease, but only because of recent warmer winters). They now realize they should have phased out coal first, and worry about nuclear later.

What about the point that nuclear is relatively expensive? Again – you need to do a proper comparison. This question is somewhat controversial, but here are some useful facts. The cost of nuclear has been coming down, from ” 3.5 cents/kilowatt-hour (kwh) in 1987 to below 2 cents/kwh in 2001 (in 2001 dollars). By 2005, the average operating cost was 1.7 cents/kwh.” The industry is focused on bringing the cost down further, with smaller more efficient plants.

But we also have to consider that the fossil fuel industry is subsidized. We should stop fossil fuel subsidies, and instead tax carbon. Carbon is a massive externalized cost, and nuclear’s perhaps primary advantage is that the energy is carbon free (there is carbon released in building the plants, but not in operation). If we properly price carbon, relative to the probable costs of global warming, nuclear suddenly becomes very cost effective compared to the fossil fuel plants it will replace. Again – the comparison to renewables is not fair – they are not baseload production. If you do make a comparison, then you have to consider also the cost of grid storage. Right now, in a way, renewables are unfairly cheap because they are picking the low-hanging fruit, not needing grid storage to be useful. Add the cost of all those batteries, and the calculation is different.

The big point is – the reason we need nuclear is to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming. So when considering the cost of nuclear we have to consider the benefit of all that carbon we are not releasing.

It’s too late

This is often the final objection, and also, in my opinion, the weakest argument. Once I handle all the arguments against nuclear, often I hear – well, it was a great option 20 years ago, but now it’s too late to mitigate global warming. I think this is nonsense. In 20 years, I wager, people will be making the same argument.

First – we are partly talking about delaying the decommissioning of existing nuclear plants. (Again – see Germany.) This take literally zero time. By extending their lifespan, we can reduce the number of coal plants that would otherwise replace them. This can buy us time to build those next generation reactors. We should also explore ways (including investing money as necessary) to speed up the process of building new plants, which is mostly due to red tape anyway.

Even if it takes 20 years to bring new plants on line, I don’t think in 2040 we will have the carbon emission problem solved. I also wager we will still be burning coal in 2040. It’s also not as if it will ever be too late to do something about global warming. Even if we miss our targets for avoiding the worse outcomes, that doesn’t mean we give up at that point. There is still benefit in reducing the harm.

The time for nuclear is now. We have the technology to build safe and cost effective plants, and to deal with the resulting waste, and it is a far better option than the types of energy it will replace. Nuclear will ultimately save millions of lives and reduce our carbon emissions. It will buy us time, 50-100 years, to more fully develop renewable energy and grid storage options. Hey – we may even develop nuclear fusion in the next 50-100 years.

If we plan out our strategy to minimize carbon from our energy infrastructure, nuclear has a clear role to play. I don’t think we can meet our climate goals without it. And again – we have the technology. All we need is a clear discussion and the political will. I may be wrong, and if I am then I am happy to be proven so. Just do so with proper logic and references.



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