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Debating the Necessity of Nuclear Power

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July 8, 2013

The Case for Nuclear Power: A Critical Tool for Slowing Climate Change

by Alan McGowan

Nuclear SymbolOf all of the technologies for war, peace, and industry, nuclear power is uniquely feared by many and loved by few. Yet it may be a critical tool for slowing and delaying global climate change and all of its destructive and disruptive outcomes. Climate change is real, happening right now, and very dangerous. Ice caps and glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising, and oceans are warming, all much more quickly than experts thought they would. Despite a number of United Nations conferences, however, the world has done little besides making minor adjustments (primarily in increased efficiency and some increase in the use of solar energy). These efforts fall far, far short of what is needed. Today, eighty percent of world energy comes from fossil fuels, which scientific consensus holds at least partly responsible, and probably the chief culprit, in the warming of Earth’s atmosphere. Compared to what will happen if humanity continues to rely on these carbon- and methane-emitting fuels, the dangers of nuclear power pale, and are significantly more manageable.

The U.S. currently uses about 98 quadrillion BTUs of energy per year, near the top of energy use per capita in the world. Twenty-eight percent is consumed in transportation, and 40 percent for electricity production. With increased efficiencies in such things as refrigerators, automobiles, and industrial processes — somewhat offset by the expanding number of electronic devices — growth in energy use has declined in recent years. Still, we use more energy each year than the last, and worldwide energy use is growing even faster.

Non-solar alternatives to fossil fuels, such as tidal and geothermal power-generation, are capable of providing less than 5 percent of our current total energy use. These technologies require very specific locations with very specific characteristics, which are not plentiful in the U.S. (Regarding tidal power, see “An Evaluation of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Marine and Hydrokinetic Resource Assessments” National Academies Press, 2013; for geothermal, see “The Power of Renewables: Opportunities and Challenges for China and the United States,” National Academies Press, 2010.)

As for solar energy, it constantly bathes the U.S. in the amount of about 340 watts per square meter, enough to produce about .45 horsepower (HP). However, we can currently convert only 10 to 15 percent of this energy into electricity (although in the laboratory, efficiencies run as large as 40 percent). A 100-HP engine (less powerful than a Toyota Camry’s) would therefore require 21,000 square feet of solar-baked landscape, or a solar panel stretching 145 feet on each side, to be run by the sun. Similar calculations show that the amount of land mass needed to convert solar energy into other useful forms — solar thermal, for example, which uses solar energy to heat water or, combined with advanced technology, to create steam that can power turbines and generate electricity — is quite vast.

There are also hidden costs to using alternative fuel sources. For example, the land that is used to grow food is the same land that would be useful to grow crops for biofuels (see, for example, “Ethanol Production Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower,” David Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, Natural Resources Research, Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2005). Although we currently have enough land to more than satisfy our food needs — the U.S. is a net exporter of food — the same may not be true if we devote significant land mass to biofuels. Certainly there would be an increase, perhaps dramatic, in food prices — which would, like global climate change itself, affect poor people disproportionately. A recent New York Times article described precisely this situation in Guatemala, where poor people are being pushed off farmland to make room for biofuel crops. Moreover, studies have shown that the energy input for growing corn for ethanol is just about the same as the energy output; in other words, we are merely transforming one form of energy into another, not producing any net savings.

Given the dire threat of global climate change, and the difficulty of completely fueling our lives and economies with solar and other alternative forms of energy, it is essential that nuclear power be on the table as an important part of our energy future. Granted, there are serious problems with nuclear power — not the least of which is public perception of atom-splitting and nuclear bombs. However, the world we live in — the world we have created — allows us no other option than to make difficult ethical and technological choices. This may be one of them.

The process of fission, i.e., splitting the nucleus of the uranium isotope of atomic number 235 (U235), or of plutonium, is the same for producing electricity or nuclear explosions: It produces a chain reaction in which matter is turned into an enormous amount of energy, in keeping with Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2 (energy equals matter times the velocity of light squared). (I am not here discussing fusion energy, the energy of the hydrogen bomb, because it is doubtful that it will ever become technologically available to play a role in the world’s energy future.)

The only isotope found in nature that is capable of sustaining a chain reaction is U235, but more than 99 percent of the uranium found in nature is the non-chain reacting U238. Natural uranium therefore has to be “enriched” in centrifuges. Fuel enrichment does raise issues of nuclear weapons proliferation, but nuclear bombs require 80 percent enrichment, compared to only 5 percent to run a reactor.

The nuclear reactors currently in use are basically scaled-up versions of the first ones Admiral Hyman Rickover pioneered to power submarines. Eager to show that nuclear power could have peaceful uses, the U.S. government in the late 1950s funded research and promoted nuclear power as the wave of the future to an eager media (one pundit even declared that electricity so produced would be “too cheap to meter”). The government also encouraged utility companies to purchase reactors, built by major corporations such as General Electric and Westinghouse, through the Price-Anderson Nuclear Liability Act of 1957, which shielded companies from financial liability for accidents.

Yet nuclear power has not proven to be the hoped-for energy panacea. Although it does produce one fifth of the U.S. energy supply, and more in some other countries (France produces seventy-five percent of its electricity through nuclear energy), numerous accidents, most of them minor but several quite major, have proven running a nuclear power plant to be more than a minor technological feat. Because radioactivity is so dangerous and a runaway chain reaction would be so destructive, expensive safety features have been added to plants, making their construction costs very high. Some plants, such as Shoreham in Long Island, New York, have been shut down without producing a single kilowatt-minute of energy, largely because of serious construction faults and high costs.

As harmful as nuclear accidents have been, however — and we should not minimize them, but rather attempt to learn from them — we must note that the social, political, and environmental costs of fossil fuels are huge. Coal kills up to five thousand times more people per unit of energy produced, even counting the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents. (The Three Mile Island failure in the U.S., though serious, emitted no radiation to the public at large.) Mountaintop removal of coal is an environmental horror show, as is the air pollution associated with coal-burning power plants, which today still produce more than half of America’s electricity. Oil use has a terrible history of waterway and wilderness pollution, not to mention its role in international politics and warfare. Natural gas, or methane, is another atmosphere-warming element, and its extraction through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” using noxious chemicals to break apart the shale deposits in which the methane resides, involves extensive water and land pollution.

Swamping all of this, however, is the reality of climate change, which represents the greatest threat to our planet since the advent of atomic weaponry. Global warming is a creeping destructive force: It threatens to bring drought and endangered food supplies, pandemic disease, super storms, flooding, species extinction, and mass migration of human beings. Inch by inch, it threatens to disrupt our fundamental dignity, security, and well-being.

Our multi-faceted response to the risk and reality of climate change must include nuclear power. There is no way around it. Can nuclear power be deployed “safely?” That depends on what one means by the word “safe.” It is worth reiterating that nuclear power has killed far, far fewer people than its fossil-fuel alternatives. While this does not absolve governments and corporations of their overconfidence and laxity, which has cost a great deal, most painfully in Japan, we do now have a good deal of operating experience from which to gain insights.

Chernobyl, we know, was a reactor that never should have been built and that would never have made it through the regulatory process in the U.S., as it lacked both a solid containment vessel and many fail-safe provisions that are required here.Chernobyl emitted a great radioactive cloud that swept over Europe, causing widespread damage and death. The plant and the land around it are still highly radioactive, and will remain so for decades.

Fukushima-nuclear-plantFukushima, meanwhile, is an egregious example of poor oversight, bad planning, official complacency, and terrible failures of management. It is important to note, however, that the main containment vessel, where the reactor is housed, was not harmed at all during the earthquake and resulting tsunami. What planners did not take into consideration, inexcusably, were the “swimming pools” where the spent radioactive fuel rods are held. The same hazard exists in the U.S., where spent fuel rods lie unprotected outside the containment vessel.

These fuel rods contain the enriched uranium for reactors. When the control rods separating them are removed, a critical mass is achieved and the chain reaction begins, producing the heat that creates the steam that runs the turbine connected to the generator, producing electricity. When the uranium is used up, the spent fuel rods are removed and stored in pools where circulating water removes the heat of their radioactive decay. These pools were once thought of as temporary storage from which the rods would be taken to a permanent storage facility, but the failure of every country except France to solve the permanent radioactive waste problem has turned the pools into long-term storage sites.

Because storage pools are outside the containment vessels of modern nuclear reactors, they are vulnerable to natural or human-made disaster. When the tsunami in Fukushima caused a power outage, the cooling water stopped circulating in the storage pools, which led to intense heat, some melting of the rods, and extensive radiation release. Reports about whistle-blowers being fired when they raised concerns, and other acts of malfeasance or complacency on the part of industry and government, have not been reassuring, raising the obvious question as to whether our society is capable of managing such a dangerous and complex technology.

France, on the other hand, has recycled spent fuel successfully for more than thirty years (at a single facility in The Hague). Not only does this increase the energy derived from a given amount of uranium, it also greatly reduces the amount of waste that ultimately needs to be stored or somehow disposed of. France also operates a so-called “breeder” reactor designed to maximize the production of plutonium, which then can be used in other nuclear reactors. Unlike U235, plutonium can be separated from nuclear fuel in a process much simpler than centrifuging. However, since plutonium separated in this way can also be used in nuclear weapons, the United States has eschewed recycling spent fuel and building breeder reactors, although both were once part of the American plan.

Storage of radioactive waste therefore remains the biggest unsolved problem associated with nuclear power generation. Spent fuel rods remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. They must be isolated for generations from the general environment — no easy task — and must be stored in such a way that an accident like that at Fukushima does not expose the public to danger.

Other significant problems will have to be solved before we, as a society, can be comfortable with an expanded nuclear power sector. Some of these are addressed by a new generation of reactors, which, though obviously untested, are deemed to be safer, less expensive, and somewhat smaller than existing reactors.

If global climate change proves not to be a threat, of course, or should solar and other non-fossil fuel sources of energy prove able to satisfy our needs, we should and easily could turn away from nuclear power. It is dangerous, technically complex, and requires rigorous oversight. What sane society would choose such a technology if it had a choice?

However, global climate change is a threat, and non-fossil fuels other than nuclear, though extremely important components of a sustainable energy policy, are not capable of meeting our energy needs. To have even a chance of ameliorating the warming of our planet, nuclear power plants must be deployed. As uncomfortable as this may make us, there is no choice.

Alan McGowan is an executive editor of Environment magazine. He is associate professor of interdisciplinary science in the Department of Natural Science and Mathematics at Eugene Lang College at the New School, and was founder of the Gene Media Forum and president of the Scientists’ Institute for Public Information, a major bridge between scientists and the media.

Why Nuclear Power Still Is Not the Right Choice

by Basia Yoffe

Nuclear powerAlan McGowan is not the only progressive activist or scientist who has come to see the expansion of nuclear power as a needed alternative to the fossil fuels that feed climate change. James Hansen, the climate expert who recently resigned from NASA after showing uncanny foresight about global warming, considers “next-generation, safe nuclear power” to be “an option which we need to develop.” Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University has advocated “a mix of new energy-reduction technologies, some using renewables, some large-scale use of nuclear power . . .” James Havelock, who propounded the Gaia theory of our planet as a self-regulating system, and Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, have also come out in favor of nuclear power. Clearly, it has gained new respectability, despite the Fukushima disaster, as a “lesser evil” compared with fossil fuels.

However, while I am very concerned about global climate change, I still think putting money and political energy into the development of nuclear technology is a bad idea, for at least five reasons: 1) It is unnecessary. There is strong evidence that renewable energy sources can do the job, if we turn our money and attention towards them. 2) Nuclear power is hugely expensive and can’t compete with America’s sudden wealth of fracked natural gas. 3) Nuclear power produces deadly wastes that will persist in the environment for millennia. 4) Nuclear power requires constant attention from the national security system, and also feeds the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation. 5) It is very unlikely, given the political clout of multi-billion-dollar energy companies, that nuclear power will replace fossil fuels any time soon, but will only augment them and help expand our country’s energy consumption.

The Spring 2013 edition of this column already explicated my first point by referencing scientific arguments that solar, wind, and water power actually can be sufficient to maintain the American economy, if the bulk of energy investment were directed towards those technologies. In a 2010 TED Talk debate, Stanford University Professor Mark Z. Jacobson argued, in fact, that the “entire U.S. vehicle fleet” could be powered by between “75,000 and 145,000 5-megawatt wind turbines” erected on acreage totalling no more than three square kilometers (and many of those turbines, he notes, could be in ocean waters, offshore). “To power the entire world with wind,” according to Jacobson, “you would need about one percent of the total land.” I don’t have the scientific expertise to evaluate such claims — nor to dismiss them, notwithstanding Alan McGowan’s calculations about solar energy and horsepower — but analyses such as these are published in peer-reviewed journals that bestow real credibility on the articles they publish.

A second major problem with nuclear power is its cost. Alan McGowan is right in stating that only two nuclear accidents have been disastrous in more than forty years of operation — but the cost of the latest of those disasters, at Fukushima, is currently estimated at $223 billion! Even with the Price-Anderson Act,which has a $12.6 billion cap per incident, the insurance bill for nuclear power generation would be higher than the entire cost of a full solar- and wind-power grid (this according to Gar Lipow’s 2012 book, Solving the Climate Crisis through Social Change).

The third problem is radioactive waste. I stand by what Lawrence Bush wrote in the Forward, back in 2005, that given the length of time it takes for some of these wastes to degrade (even after recycling), it would be “simply arrogant for scientists to promise a foolproof waste disposal system . . . God only knows what can happen politically, economically and even climatically over the course of plutonium’s 25,000-year half-life. Yet without such a . . . foolproof system, splitting atoms to generate electricity is like flushing a toilet that has no septic system — only a drainage pipe that spills into the nursery.”

The fourth and fifth problems of centralization and proliferation were described well in Jewish Currents in 1982, when Jeffrey Dekro wrote: “Nuclear power directly feeds nuclear arms proliferation; the flow of capital to energy producers creates economic and political imbalance; the centralization of the energy industry limits investigation of other energy sources . . . [and] increases . . . the need for a ‘security-conscious’ society.”

That article was published two decades before 9/11, and almost three decades before Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons became a possible cause for war. The concerns Dekro expressed about how centralized, high-capital energy leads society in the wrong direction are more pressing than ever now — and the power and profits of energy companies, many of which now have large stakes in coal and natural gas as well as oil, are greater than ever. Do advocates of nuclear power truly believe that those corporations will walk away from their profitable fossil-fuel operations once an expanded system of nuclear power-generation is in place? A majority-Democratic Congress couldn’t even close the deal on a weak cap-and-trade system of carbon emission control in 2009 — and now our government is seeking to expedite the exploitation of environmentally-damaging tar sands oil. This is not a system that would ever phase out fossil fuels, unless there were a mass movement to force the issue.

Unfortunately, encouraging nuclear power helps assure that such a movement will never arise. The reintroduction of “new, improved” nuclear power would only cultivate the assumption that endless consumerism, gas-guzzling cars, disposable products, and all the other heedless practices of modern life can be maintained because one technological fix after another will bail us out of environmental trouble. I’m not suggesting here that a mass conversion to granola culture is a plausible route to stopping global climate change, but I am suggesting that an investment in consciousness-raising and community-based fixes to wasteful consumption might be more effective for slowing carbon emissions than putting billions of dollars into a yet another centralized “fix” that requires massive security for centuries on end.

America’s energy grid is already being negatively affected by climate change: In less than two years there have been major disruptions in the Northeast from powerful storms and freak winter weather in the autumn. It is becoming clear that the U.S. needs a less centralized grid, which would be much more compatible with renewables than with nuclear energy. Renewables is where our billions of dollars should go.

Our planet does not really have time for this debate. Climate scientists generally agree that we can’t burn more than a fifth of our current known reserves of fossil fuels, which we’re slated to do in less than twenty years, and stay under a two-degrees Centigrade increase in global temperature. But nuclear power plants take years to construct and activate. Construction alone usually takes between four and nine years. This won’t be speeded up unless the regulations of OSHA and the EPA are thrown out — and with them goes plant safety.

Before moving from a “no nukes!” to a pro-nukes stance, scientists and the public should demand a convincing answer to Bill McKibben’s concern, expressed in 2007, about the “real risk” of nuclear power — “not . . . from radiation or nuclear accident,” he wrote. “The real risk is that we’ll squander opportunity and resources on the wrong solutions. Given that a new nuclear plant costs $3 billion, is there a way of spending that sum that would reduce carbon emissions more quickly? Would we be better off building co-generation plants to make use of the waste heat disappearing up smokestacks? Should we invest more in energy conservation? The danger of wasting money and time in the fight against global warming is the nightmare that haunts me the most, because this wave is breaking over our heads, and we’d better choose right the first time.”

Basia Yoffe conducts "Notes from a Small Planet," our magazine's environmental column, and blogs regularly at our website.