Nuclear Power Is NOT the Answer

Contrary to widespread claims by industry promoters, nuclear is , and funding nuclear .

Mark Jacobson – the head of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Program –  who has written numerous books and hundreds of scientific papers on climate and energy, and testified before Congress numerous times on those issues – notes that nuclear puts out much more pollution (including much more CO2) than windpower, and 1.5% of all the nuclear plants built have melted down.

Jacobson also points out that it takes at least 11 years to permit and build a nuclear plant, whereas it takes less than half that time to fire up a wind or solar farm. Between the application for a nuclear plant and flipping the switch, power is provided by conventional energy sources … currently 55-65% coal.

Derek Abbott – Professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide in Australia – concludes (via PhysOrg):

Nuclear power cannot be globally scaled to supply the world’s energy needs for numerous reasons. The results suggest that we’re likely better off investing in other energy solutions that are truly scalable.

In his analysis, Abbott explores the consequences of building, operating, and decommissioning 15,000 reactors on the Earth, looking at factors such as the amount of land required, radioactive waste, accident rate, risk of proliferation into weapons, uranium abundance and extraction, and the exotic metals used to build the reactors themselves.

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His findings, some of which are based on the results of previous studies, are summarized below.

  • Land and location: One nuclear reactor plant requires about 20.5 km2 (7.9 mi2) of land to accommodate the nuclear power station itself, its exclusion zone, its enrichment plant, ore processing, and supporting infrastructure. Secondly, nuclear reactors need to be located near a massive body of coolant water, but away from dense population zones and natural disaster zones. Simply finding 15,000 locations on Earth that fulfill these requirements is extremely challenging.
  • Lifetime: Every nuclear power station needs to be decommissioned after 40-60 years of operation due to neutron embrittlement – cracks that develop on the metal surfaces due to radiation. If nuclear stations need to be replaced every 50 years on average, then with 15,000 nuclear power stations, one station would need to be built and another decommissioned somewhere in the world every day. Currently, it takes 6-12 years to build a nuclear station, and up to 20 years to decommission one, making this rate of replacement unrealistic.
  • Nuclear waste: Although nuclear technology has been around for 60 years, there is still no universally agreed mode of disposal. It’s uncertain whether burying the spent fuel and the spent reactor vessels (which are also highly radioactive) may cause radioactive leakage into groundwater or the environment via geological movement.
  • Accident rate: To date, there have been 11 nuclear accidents at the level of a full or partial core-melt. [And see this]. These accidents are not the minor accidents that can be avoided with improved safety technology; they are rare events that are not even possible to model in a system as complex as a nuclear station, and arise from unforeseen pathways and unpredictable circumstances (such as the Fukushima accident). Considering that these 11 accidents occurred during a cumulated total of 14,000 reactor-years of nuclear operations, scaling up to 15,000 reactors would mean we would have a major accident somewhere in the world every month.
  • Proliferation: The more nuclear power stations, the greater the likelihood that materials and expertise for making nuclear weapons may proliferate. Although reactors have proliferation resistance measures, maintaining accountability for 15,000 reactor sites worldwide would be nearly impossible [Nuclear plants are also vulnerable to terror attacks.]
  • Uranium abundance: At the current rate of uranium consumption with conventional reactors, the world supply of viable uranium, which is the most common nuclear fuel, will last for 80 years. Scaling consumption up to 15 TW, the viable uranium supply will last for less than 5 years. (Viable uranium is the uranium that exists in a high enough ore concentration so that extracting the ore is economically justified.)
  • Uranium extraction from seawater: Uranium is most often mined from the Earth’s crust, but it can also be extracted from seawater, which contains large quantities of uranium (3.3 ppb, or 4.6 trillion kg). Theoretically, that amount would last for 5,700 years using conventional reactors to supply 15 TW of power. (In fast breeder reactors, which extend the use of uranium by a factor of 60, the uranium could last for 300,000 years. However, Abbott argues that these reactors’ complexity and cost makes them uncompetitive.) Moreover, as uranium is extracted, the uranium concentration of seawater decreases, so that greater and greater quantities of water are needed to be processed in order to extract the same amount of uranium. Abbott calculates that the volume of seawater that would need to be processed would become economically impractical in much less than 30 years.
  • Exotic metals: The nuclear containment vessel is made of a variety of exotic rare metals that control and contain the nuclear reaction: hafnium as a neutron absorber, beryllium as a neutron reflector, zirconium for cladding, and niobium to alloy steel and make it last 40-60 years against neutron embrittlement. Extracting these metals raises issues involving cost, sustainability, and environmental impact. In addition, these metals have many competing industrial uses; for example, hafnium is used in microchips and beryllium by the semiconductor industry. If a nuclear reactor is built every day, the global supply of these exotic metals needed to build nuclear containment vessels would quickly run down and create a mineral resource crisis. This is a new argument that Abbott puts on the table, which places resource limits on all future-generation nuclear reactors, whether they are fueled by thorium or uranium.

No wonder a former Commissioner for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that building nuclear plants to fight global warming is like trying to fight global hunger by serving everyone caviar.

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. Nuclear energy can be cheap, or it can be safe … but it can’t be both.

And America’s nuclear reactors are old … and are falling apart piece by piece.

Even operating “normally”, nuclear plants leak radiation. For example, an investigation by Associated Press found that 75 percent of all U.S. nuclear sites have leaked radioactive tritium.

And prolonged exposure to even SMALL doses of radiation can cause cancer and other fatal illness.

And nuclear is wholly subsidized by the government, and would never survive in a free market.

Why don’t more people know these facts?  A Japanese nuclear industry consultant explains:

We spent ten times more money for PR campaigns than we did for real safety measures. It’s a terrible thing.

It’s no different in the U.S. or the rest of the world.  For example, Bloomberg noted in March of 2011:

The Nuclear Energy Institute [NEI] spent about $1.69 million lobbying Congress and the White House last year, according to records filed with the Senate. Twenty-two utilities and utility trade groups each spent more than that on advocacy, often on a range of issues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

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Executives and employees of utilities also contributed to political campaigns.

Exelon spent more than $3.7 million lobbying last year. The company’s executives and employees contributed more than $514,000 to congressional candidates ….

Those figures might be low.  The Progressive reported in 2006:

NEI spent nearly $45 million on industry coordination, policy development, communications, and “governmental affairs” in 2006, according to its most recent financial report.

That doesn’t include lobbying by individual companies with a stake in the nuclear power business, such as Entergy, Exelon, or Duke Energy.

***

NEI’s numbers also don’t include utility groups, an important part of the pro-nuclear lobby

And some of Obama’s top funders are connected with the nuclear power industry.

Bottom line: Nuclear is not the answer.

 

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  • Joffan

    Only in the desperation of anti-nuclear dogma is it feasible to discount nuclear power’s obvious low-carbon credentials. The clear example of countries like France and Sweden shows them using nuclear power to drive their electrical CO2 output to levels comparable to countries blessed with hydro-friendly geography.

    Since the reality of climate change has crept upon them, anti-nuclear activists have been frantically trying to craft arguments to cast doubt on the efficacy of nuclear power as a response to reducing CO2 production. They have pulled numbers from thin air and used circular referencing to boost the apparent basis of their arguments. The reality is cut through by the studies, like the European Union’s ExternE project, which found hydro and nuclear as the lowest net CO2 emitters over their lifecycles, closely followed by wind with solar PV a little further back. All comfortably more desirable than burning fossil fuel in terms of atmospheric challenge.

    Build rate of nuclear power for nations that have undertaken significant build-out is consistently higher (in terms of MWh/yr) than wind or solar. So the “too slow” argument fails spectacularly.

    The remainder of Abbots arguments are vacuous. We can site coal plants, therefore equally we can site nuclear plants. The workable lifetime of nuclear plants is longer than claimed – 80 years doesn’t seem unlikely – and getting longer with new materials and new understanding. Nuclear spent fuel is a future resource, but is essentially a passive mineral that is easy to store. Accidents are now sufficiently unlikely that the most recent took a massive killer tsunami to trigger; and getting rarer as lessons of disaster tolerance are learned. (Engineering 101 is that future systems build in tolerance to past problems). Proliferatoin is a non-issue; power reactors do not lead states to develop nuclear weapons. Uranium’s crustal abundance is well-known and perfectly adequate to support many more reactors than currently – more reactors simply means more uranium prospecting will take place. Exotic materials are not a significant issue and would be recycled if needed.

  • Rick

    Let’s not consider that nuclear power has never been demonstrated to the public (claimed to have been done in Chicago in the 30s – but no evidence for us today), despite no apparent difficulty in doing so, despite the trillions dumped into nuclear energy, and despite the only evidence being buildings+words (nothing verifiable/scientific). Let’s not consider that the plausibilty of nuclear power was laughed at by the founder nuclear physics (Rutherford) as well as Einstein and many others until WWII. Let’s not consider that nuclear theory demands the slowing of neutrons with water (Hydrogen/Carbon) to split nuclei – while Fukushima reporting is endless about the need to bathe nuclear reactions (to keep them cool?) when they should not occur at all without water – keeping in mind that U235 is essentially a your average run-of-the-mill cool metal at room temperature and can be held in the hand like all other metals). Let’s not consider that only 2 neutrons are emitted when U235 is split by a neutron, and most of them must split other “little marbles in football stadiums” (approximate size of a nucleus in an atom), making a chain reaction statistically nearly impossible. Let’s not consider that splitting a nucleus is not converting “atoms into energy” (only a very tiny amount of matter is lost), and that the energy physics cannot be verified because it relies on mathematical constants experimentally determined and supplied only by the US military. Let’s not consider the fact that all nuclear bomb photos/events are easily demonstrated to be frauds. No, let’s just “believe”, because that is what Americans do best. It’s really no surprise that there is no will to continue with “nuclear power” into the future, just as it’s no surprise that there is no will to go to the moon.

    • Jag_Levak

      Okay, just to be clear here, it isn’t that you are denying the viability of nuclear power reactors, you are actually suggesting they are all frauds and we have never developed nuclear power generators. Did I grasp your meaning correctly? Because if so, then what is your theory about the nature of the energy source that propels our supposedly atomic subs and carriers?

      Or was that a satire lampooning conspiracy nuts? If so, sorry. The nuts are so extreme these days, I can’t tell the difference. I don’t even know how lampooning them is possible any more.

    • Joffan

      Just to clear up one corner of your puzzlement: the continued cooling at Fukushima is to cope with residual heat production from radioactive decay, not fission.

      The fission in an active reactor produces fission products that decay over time. During operation, about 7% of heat production is from decaying fission products. That decay heat is actually the heat that melted down the reactors once the pumps and valve controls were killed by the tsunami.

      However that heat production reduces continually, and is now so low at Fukushima that it probably doesn’t really need water for cooling as much as for shielding.

  • Leslie Corrice

    Just another unprincipled, cherry-picking, overtly exaggerating, occasionally fabricating, antinuclear diatribe in Washington’s Blog. Why not just admit it? Washington’s Blog is a nuclear-bigoted rag! This blog is a part of the antinuclear conspiracy to deprive the world of the cleanest, safest source of base-load electricity on the planet; nuclear energy.

    • greenthinker2012

      What amazes me is that Washington’s Blog is such an overtly trashy tabloid and yet people believe it and actually quote it.
      Next they will be claiming reptilian shape shifter walk among us and the moon landings were faked.
      I guess most people simply accept whatever they read and especially if it agrees with their pre held beliefs.

    • man4earth

      Can you point to something that is not true in this article?

      • Leslie Corrice

        Every bullet in the piece, just for openers…

      • Jag_Levak

        “Can you point to something that is not true in this article?”

        Regarding nuclear not being a low carbon source of energy, multiple life cycle assessment place current nuclear right down with wind and solar per unit of energy generated. I also see no evidence that nuclear research and development crowds out any better alternatives, especially at this time when the bulk of advanced reactor development projects are taking place in the private sector.

        His land area demand of 20.5 km2 for one plant is ridiculously inflated (unless under “supporting infrastructure” he’s including the roadways used for related transportation people driving to work.) Nuclear is also far more area dense than solar or hydroelectric or biofuel, and marine nuclear could have a miniscule land area footprint. And smaller, hotter reactors would not need to be located near a massive body of coolant water, and finding a body of coolant water near marine reactors shouldn’t be particularly challenging.

        Surface cracking due to embrittlement is potentially serious in high strain and repetitive stress materials, but for unpressurized systems like molten salt reactors, it needn’t compromise core integrity. You just make the material a little thicker to compensate for anticipated surface degradation (like we currently make allowances for surface degradation due to rust). And his build and decommissioning projections are premised on site-built reactors. With smaller mass produced reactors, build and recycle times could be greatly decreased.

        Saying we have not yet come up with a universally agreed mode of disposal for spent fuel is an attempted end run around the fact that we already have multiple means to choose from with more in development, and that there is no need to arrive at a single universally agreed mode of disposal. We don’t have a universally agreed mode of disposing of the toxic waste from solar production either, but does that count against solar as part of the answer?

        The core melt accident rate only applies to kinds of nuclear which can experience a core melt. It is irrelevant to many kinds of reactors. And even for reactors which can melt down, the accident and safety record for commercial nuclear power is among the very best of our energy alternatives, and almost certainly better than the forms nuclear is most likely do displace.

        The proliferation argument only counts against forms of nuclear power connected to arms production, such as the RBMK reactor which nobody is advocating. The proliferation argument counts in favor of reactors which cannot help with arms production, and/or compete with bombs for fuel and/or have the capability to destroy weapons grade fuel.

        Nuclear fuel abundance is an argument for nuclear power. His claim that extracting uranium from seawater will deplete it ignores the continuous influx of new uranium via erosion, plus the land reserves of uranium are much higher than the seawater reserves, plus the thorium reserves are about quadruple the uranium reserves, and that’s even before we get to the abundant fusion fuels. We’ve got easy access to enough to last us for the remainder of our time on Earth, but even if it were only good enough to last 1000 years, that would be a really dumb reason not to go ahead and develop it now, especially considering how much we need it right now.

        Abbot “argues” that the cost and complexity of potential future breeder reactors makes them uncompetitive. I’m guessing his “argument” made no serious effort to examine fast reactors which are in development or are under consideration.

        The rare and exotic metals he cites aren’t nearly rare enough to impose any constraint on building the number of reactors we need, especially since different kinds of reactors would have different metal needs and many of the metals have alternatives we can use. A copper shortfall from the rollout of huge amounts of solar power would be more likely than any kind of metals shortage hindering nuclear, and Abbott didn’t even get around to including the materials demands of storage, which would be stacked on top of the materials demands of the intermittents themselves.

        Saying today’s reactors are old is not an argument against building new reactors.

        Saying nuclear is subsidized now does not even even come close to establishing that new, cheaper forms of nuclear could never survive in a free market. Renewables are heavily subsidized now too, but nobody thinks that means they will never be able to compete.

        But let me turn your question around. Can you point to something in this article which you think does establish that nuclear power should not be part of the answer?

  • Sarastro92

    Mostly Luddite nonsense. And in any case, at various times of the year wind and solar deliver only 1% of energy supply in places like the UK. Then what?

    Ans> Fire up the coal plants.

  • http://youtu.be/FGYQhGNUMCo This video titled “Caldicott” brings attention to the fear mongering that has resulted in causing irrational fear of nuclear radiation. It was assembled from several video interviews recorded by Gordon McDowell, plus public material, and lays out how the long held myth that “any-dose-of-radiation-is-bad-for-you” came to pass.

    People like Helen Caldicott have done more damage to our planet by preaching her exaggerations and lies about the effects of radiation. A poorly conducted experiment done by Hermann Muller in 1946 on fruit flies served as a conclusive study that no threshold existed for radiation. The badly constructed theory called Linear No Threshold hypothesis became the standard ( based on very high doses of radiation given to fruit flies) upon which safety regulations were established. This prevented the growth of the nuclear industry and still remains an obstacle to the one technology that is capable of replacing coal, the climate changing energy source.

    Hormesis a very different theory that, closer to the facts, is now a much more scientifically accurate view of the effects of radiation and demonstrates how regions on Earth with naturally higher levels of radiation actually have lower incidence of cancer, suggesting the opposite to be true, that small doses of radiation act as a prevention to cancer.

    An important message here is that our society’s downfall could be due to a backwardness in society’s thinking. The reality sounds like bad fiction that superstition can lead to self destruction. We have a statistically safe, clean energy source that constantly gets maligned and ignored due to people like Helen Caldicott and the corporations that stand to lose if nuclear power were allowed to flourish.
    The real evil is coal. It damages and destroys life. People from the “green” movement allow coal to flourish by opposing nuclear energy.