Why Do People Claim that Nuclear Power is a Low-Carbon Source of Energy?
Even well-known, well-intentioned scientists sometimes push bad ideas. For example, well-known scientists considered pouring soot over the Arctic in the 1970s to help melt the ice – in order to prevent another ice age. That would have been stupid. Even Obama’s top science adviser – John Holdren – warned in the 1970′s of a new ice age … and is open to shooting soot into the upper atmosphere. That might be equally stupid.
In other words, scientists – even prominent ones – sometimes fall prey to hairball theories and dangerous proposals. (Remember, doctors used to bleed patients to remove the “bad humors”.)
Similarly, some scientists are under the mistaken impression that nuclear power is virtually carbon-free, and thus must be pushed to prevent runaway global warming. (If you don’t believe in global warming, then this essay is not aimed at you … although you might wish to forward it to those who do.)
But this is a myth.
Amory Lovins is perhaps America’s top expert on energy, and a dedicated environmentalist for close to 50 years. His credentials as an energy expert and environmentalist are sterling.
Lovins is a former Oxford don, who taught at nine universities, most recently Stanford. He has briefed 19 heads of state, provided expert testimony in eight countries, and published 31 books and several hundred papers. Lovins’ clients have included the Pentagon, OECD, UN, Resources for the Future, many national governments, and 13 US states, as well as many Fortune 500 companies, major real-estate developers, and utilities. Lovins served in 1980-81 on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Research Advisory Board, and in 1999-2001 and 2006-08 on Defense Science Board task forces on military energy efficiency and strategy.
Lovins says nuclear is not the answer:
Nuclear plants are so slow and costly to build that they reduce and retard climate protection.
Here’s how. Each dollar spent on a new reactor buys about 2-10 times less carbon savings, 20-40 times slower, than spending that dollar on the cheaper, faster, safer solutions that make nuclear power unnecessary and uneconomic: efficient use of electricity, making heat and power together in factories or buildings (“cogeneration”), and renewable energy. The last two made 18% of the world’s 2009 electricity, nuclear 13%, reversing their 2000 shares–and made over 90% of the world’s additional electricity in 2008.
Those smarter choices are sweeping the global energy market. Half the world’s new generating capacity in 2008 and 2009 was renewable. In 2010, renewables except big hydro dams won $151 billion of private investment and added over 50 billion watts (70% the total capacity of all 23 Fukushima-style U.S. reactors) while nuclear got zero private investment and kept losing capacity. Supposedly unreliable windpower made 43-52% of four German states’ total 2010 electricity. Non-nuclear Denmark, 21% wind-powered, plans to get entirely off fossil fuels. Hawai’i plans 70% renewables by 2025.
In contrast, of the 66 nuclear units worldwide officially listed as “under construction” at the end of 2010, 12 had been so listed for over 20 years, 45 had no official startup date, half were late, all 66 were in centrally planned power systems–50 of those in just four (China, India, Russia, South Korea)–and zero were free-market purchases. Since 2007, nuclear growth has added less annual output than just the costliest renewable–solar power –and will probably never catch up. While inherently safe renewable competitors are walloping both nuclear and coal plants in the marketplace and keep getting dramatically cheaper, nuclear costs keep soaring, and with greater safety precautions would go even higher. Tokyo Electric Co., just recovering from $10-20 billion in 2007 earthquake costs at its other big nuclear complex, now faces an even more ruinous Fukushima bill.
Since 2005, new U.S. reactors (if any) have been 100+% subsidized–yet they couldn’t raise a cent of private capital, because they have no business case. They cost 2-3 times as much as new windpower, and by the time you could build a reactor, it couldn’t even beat solar power. Competitive renewables, cogeneration, and efficient use can displace all U.S. coal power more than 23 times over–leaving ample room to replace nuclear power’s half-as-big-as-coal contribution too–but we need to do it just once.
(Read Lovins’ technical papers on the issue here.)
Alternet points out:
Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis at the Vermont Law School … found that the states that invested heavily in nuclear power had worse track records on efficiency and developing renewables than those that did not have large nuclear programs. In other words, investing in nuclear technology crowded out developing clean energy.
Building the [nuclear] power station produces a lot of CO2 ….
Greenpeace points out:
When it comes to nuclear power, the industry wants you to think of electricity generation in isolation ….. And yet the production of nuclear fuel is a hugely intensive process. Uranium must be mined, milled, converted, enriched, converted again and then manufactured into fuel. You’ll notice the [the nuclear industry] doesn’t mention the carbon footprint of all steps in the nuclear chain prior to electricity generation. Fossil fuels have to be used and that means CO2 emissions.
An International Forum on Globalization report – written by environmental luminaries Ernest Callenback, Gar Smith and Jerry Mander – have slammed nuclear power as catastrophic for the environment:
Nuclear energy is not the “clean” energy its backers proclaim. For more than 50 years, nuclear energy has been quietly polluting our air, land, water and bodies—while also contributing to Global Warming through the CO2 emissions from its construction, mining, and manufacturing operations. Every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle—mining, milling, shipping, processing, power generation, waste disposal and storage—releases greenhouse gases, radioactive particles and toxic materials that poison the air, water and land. Nuclear power plants routinely expel low-level radionuclides into the air in the course of daily operations. While exposure to high levels of radiation can kill within a matter of days or weeks, exposure to low levels on a prolonged basis can damage bones and tissue and result in genetic damage, crippling long-term injuries, disease and death.
See this excellent photographic depiction of the huge amounts of fossil fuel which goes into building and operating a nuclear power plant.
Nature reported in 2008:
“You’re better off pursuing renewables like wind and solar if you want to get more bang for your buck.”
Evaluating the total carbon output of the nuclear industry involves calculating those emissions and dividing them by the electricity produced over the entire lifetime of the plant. Benjamin K. Sovacool, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore, recently analyzed more than one hundred lifecycle studies of nuclear plants around the world, his results published in August in Energy Policy. From the 19 most reliable assessments, Sovacool found that estimates of total lifecycle carbon emissions ranged from 1.4 grammes of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (gCO2e/kWh) of electricity produced up to 288 gCO2e/kWh. Sovacool believes the mean of 66 gCO2e/kWh to be a reasonable approximation.
The large variation in emissions estimated from the collection of studies arises from the different methodologies used – those on the low end, says Sovacool, tended to leave parts of the lifecycle out of their analyses, while those on the high end often made unrealistic assumptions about the amount of energy used in some parts of the lifecycle. The largest source of carbon emissions, accounting for 38 per cent of the average total, is the “frontend” of the fuel cycle, which includes mining and milling uranium ore, and the relatively energy-intensive conversion and enrichment process, which boosts the level of uranium-235 in the fuel to useable levels. Construction (12 per cent), operation (17 per cent largely because of backup generators using fossil fuels during downtime), fuel processing and waste disposal (14 per cent) and decommissioning (18 per cent) make up the total mean emissions.
According to Sovacool’s analysis, nuclear power, at 66 gCO2e/kWh emissions is well below scrubbed coal-fired plants, which emit 960 gCO2e/kWh, and natural gas-fired plants, at 443 gCO2e/kWh. However, nuclear emits twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaic, at 32 gCO2e/kWh, and six times as much as onshore wind farms, at 10 gCO2e/kWh. “A number in the 60s puts it well below natural gas, oil, coal and even clean-coal technologies. On the other hand, things like energy efficiency, and some of the cheaper renewables are a factor of six better. So for every dollar you spend on nuclear, you could have saved five or six times as much carbon with efficiency, or wind farms,” Sovacool says. Add to that the high costs and long lead times for building a nuclear plant about $3 billion for a 1,000 megawatt plant, with planning, licensing and construction times of about 10 years and nuclear power is even less appealing.
Money spent on energy efficiency, however, is equivalent to increasing baseload power, since it reduces the overall power that needs to be generated, says Sovacool. And innovative energy-storage solutions, such as compressed air storage, could provide ways for renewables to provide baseload power.
Thomas Cochran, a nuclear physicist and senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group in Washington DC … argues that the expense and risk of building nuclear plants makes them uneconomic without large government subsidies, and that similar investment in wind and solar photovoltaic power would pay off sooner.
Another question has to do with the sustainability of the uranium supply itself. According to researchers in Australia at Monash University, Melbourne, and the University of New South Wales, Sydney, good-quality uranium ore is hard to come by. The deposits of rich ores with the highest uranium content are depleting leaving only lower-quality deposits to be exploited. As ore quality degrades, more energy is required to mine and mill it, and greenhouse gas emissions rise. “It is clear that there is a strong sensitivity of … greenhouse gas emissions to ore grade, and that ore grades are likely to continue to decline gradually in the medium- to long-term,” conclude the researchers. [And see this.]
Beyond Nuclear notes:
The energy consulting firm Ecofys produced a report detailing how we can meet nearly 100% of global energy needs with renewable sources by 2050. Approximately half of the goal is met through increased energy efficiency to first reduce energy demands, and the other half is achieved by switching to renewable energy sources for electricity production. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agrees and predicts close to 80% of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid‐century.
Since nuclear power plants are reliant upon the electrical grid for 100% of their safety systems’ long‐term power, and are shut down during grid failure and perturbations, it is “guaranteed” only as long as the electrical grid is reliable. When the Tsunami and earthquake hit and power was lost in the Fukushima Prefecture, nuclear energy wasn’t so “guaranteed.” Instead, it became a liability, adding to what was now a triple threat to the region and worsening an already catastrophic situation.
[The claim that] Nuclear power is “low‐carbon electricity” … is the propaganda line commonly used by the nuclear industry which conveniently leaves out every phase of the nuclear fuel chain other than electricity generation. It ignores the significant carbon emissions caused by uranium mining, milling, processing and enrichment; the transport of fuel; the construction of nuclear plants; and the still inadequate permanent management of waste. It also ignores the release ‐ by nuclear power plants and reprocessing facilities ‐ of radioactive carbon dioxide, or carbon‐14, to the air, considered to be the most toxic of all radioactive isotopes over the long‐term.
In fact, studies show that extending the operating licenses of old nuclear power plants emits orders of magnitude more carbon and greenhouse gases per kilowatt hour from just the uranium fuel chain compared to building and operating new wind farms.
Nuclear might begin to address global carbon emissions if a reactor is built somewhere in the world every two weeks. But this is an economically unrealistic, in fact impossible, proposition, with the estimated construction tab beginning at $12 billion apiece and current new reactors under construction already falling years behind schedule.
According to a 2003 MIT study, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” such an unprecedented industrial ramping up would also mean opening a new Yucca Mountain‐size nuclear waste dump somewhere in the world “every three to four years,” a task still unaccomplished even once in the 70 years of the industry’s existence. Further, such a massive scale expansion of nuclear energy would fuel proliferation risks and multiply anxieties about nuclear weapons development, exemplified by the current concern over Iran. As Al Gore stated while Vice President: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program.”
Many experts also say that the “energy return on investment” from nuclear power is lower than many other forms of energy. In other words, non-nuclear energy sources produce more energy for a given input.
David Swanson summarizes one of the key findings of the International Forum on Globalization report:
The energy put into mining, processing, and shipping uranium, plant construction, operation, and decommissioning is roughly equal to the energy a nuclear plant can produce in its lifetime. In other words, nuclear energy does not add any net energy.
Not counted in that calculation is the energy needed to store nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years.
Also not counted is any mitigation of the relatively routine damage done to the environment, including human health, at each stage of the process.
Nuclear energy is not an alternative to energies that increase global warming, because nuclear increases global warming. When high-grade uranium runs out, nuclear will be worse for CO2 emissions than burning fossil fuels. And as global warming advances, nuclear becomes even less efficient as reactors must shut down to avoid overheating.
Also not counted in most discussions is the fact that nuclear reactors discharge tremendous amounts of heat directly into the environment. After all – as any nuclear engineer will tell you – a nuclear reactor is really just a fancy way to boil water.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted in 1971:
In terms of thermal efficiency, current nuclear reactors are even worse off than the coal plants. Against the 50 per cent loss of heat in the newest coal plants, as much as 70 per cent of the heat is lost from nuclear plants. This means that thermal pollution can be even more severe ….
1971 was a long time ago, but some nuclear plants are older. For example, Oyster Creek was launched in 1969, and many other reactors were built in the early 1970s. Most American nuclear reactors are old (and they are aging very poorly).
Indeed, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service claims:
It has been estimated that every nuclear reactor daily releases thermal energy –heat– that is in excess of the heat released by the detonation of a 15 kiloton nuclear bomb blast.
It doesn’t make too much sense to dump massive amounts of heat into the environment … in the name of fighting global warming.
The German Example
PhysOrg reported last year:
A special issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published by SAGE, “The German Nuclear Exit,” shows that the nuclear shutdown and an accompanying move toward renewable energy are already yielding measurable economic and environmental benefits, with one top expert calling the German phase-out a probable game-changer for the nuclear industry worldwide.
Freie Universität Berlin politics professor Miranda Schreurs says the nuclear phase-out and accompanying shift to renewable energy have brought financial benefits to farmers, investors, and small business;
Felix Matthes of the Institute for Applied Ecology in Berlin concludes the phase-out will have only small and temporary effects on electricity prices and the German economy;
Lutz Mez, co-founder of Freie Universitӓt Berlin’s Environmental Policy Research Center, presents what may be the most startling finding of all …. “It has actually decoupled energy from economic growth, with the country’s energy supply and carbon-dioxide emissions dropping from 1990 to 2011, even as its gross domestic product rose by 36 percent.”
Beyond Nuclear notes:
Germany reduced its carbon emissions in 2011 by 2.1 percent despite the nuclear phaseout. The cut in greenhouse gases was mainly reached due to an accelerated transition to renewable energies and a warm winter. In addition, the EU emissions trading system caps all emissions from the power sector.
While eight nuclear power plants were shut down, solar power output increased by 60 percent. By the end of 2011, renewable energies provided more than 20 percent of overall electricity.
Even after shutting its eight oldest nuclear power plants, Germany is still a net exporter of electricity. In 2011, Germany exported 6 TWh more than it imported. Additionally, German electricity exports to Europe’s nuclear power house France increased throughout 2011.
The Big Picture
The former chief American nuclear regulator says that nuclear energy is unsafe and should be phased out. Whistleblowers at the Nuclear Regulator Commission say that the risk of a major meltdown at U.S. nuclear reactors is much higher than it was at Fukushima.
And an accident in the U.S. could be a lot larger than in Japan … partly because our nuclear plants hold a lot more radioactive material. Radiation could cause illness in huge numbers of Americans, and a major nuclear accident could literally bankrupt America.
Anyone who says the only choices are nuclear, oil or coal are wrong. The question isn’t one type of centralized energy generation versus another.
Decentralizing energy production, increasing efficiency, and increasing energy conservation are the real solutions for the environment.
The bottom line – as discussed above – is that scientists pushing nuclear to combat global warming are misinformed. (True, nuclear industry lobbyists may be largely responsible for the claim that nuclear fights climate change. Indeed, Dick Cheney – whose Halliburton company builds nuclear power plants, and which sold nuclear secrets to Iran – falsely claimed that nuclear power is carbon-free in a 2004 appearance on C-Span. But there are also sincere environmental scientists who are pushing nuclear because they have only studied a small part of the picture, and don’t understand that there are better alternatives.)