Is Nuclear Power the Fix to Global Warming?

While President Obama has put climate change back on the national agenda, the likelihood of significant action is low. Earth continues its resolute march toward global warming, the results of which continue to be born out in every storm, drought and species die-off. A chorus of experts has offered up everything from energy credits, carbon caps, taxes and social engineering to address the crisis, but so far we’ve only continued to shove our heads further into the increasingly hot sand.

There are a solutions, though, and one of them could come in the form of nuclear energy. Despite the fact that it’s been a part of presidential energy policies from both parties, it remains outrageously controversial, and support of new nuclear plants still means political blow back.

The next generation of nuclear power

However, a new breed of nuclear-power facilities, which bear little resemblance to their forerunners, is finding support among a most unlikely group, including leading environmentalists Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas, Michael Schellenberger, James Hanson and anti-nuke documentary filmmaker Robert Stone. Stone’s pro-nuclear energy documentary Pandora’s Promise has generated far more thoughtful conversation than controversy. (Disclosure: I was hired by an indie PR firm to do some press for four films at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, including Pandora’s Promise. I was entirely anti-nuke prior to seeing the film and have had no contact with the project since the festival ended.)

The fervor of these supporters is due to the fact that modern nuclear technology is the most reasonable, measured approach for not only reducing the carbon footprint in big consumer countries, but also cheaply and safely generating power in the places that need it the most: developing nations.

There are formidable roadblocks to creating a new nuclear energy paradigm, beginning with the term itself. “Nuclear” breeds a gut reaction and reporting about the few disasters that have happened, is nearly always lacking in critical information about the nature of the accidents, as well as the technology of the facilities themselves and the countries in which they were built.

Fear is a powerful obstruction

anti-nuclear power protest in TaiwanChernobyl — that non-compliant, poorly constructed Soviet death trap — casts a long shadow. Japan’s tidal-wave-pounded Fukushima Daiichi is vexing, and now it’s been widely reported that underground tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are threatening to explode. If that doesn’t paint a bleak enough picture, instability throughout the world generates dread that uranium used in existing plants will create a proliferation of nuclear weapons-grade materials.

Despite the grimness of the media reports, the truth is far more nuanced. Each nuclear situation comes with its own set of challenges. As to what happens post-disaster, Chernobyl probably provides the best window: After nearly 30 years of research, the Ukrainian plant’s meltdown has proven to be nowhere near as deadly as previously thought and a predicted generation of horrifying cancer clusters has never materialized. A door to debate and discussion without inflammatory rhetoric needs to be opened.

Renewables are only part of the answer

For those of you that cling to the hope of solar and wind power as the answer, while pointing at Germany as the ultimate solar success story, it may be wise to loosen your grip. While an impressive 22 percent of Germany’s power is generated with renewables, (in the U.S. it’s only 3.6 percent), solar power provides less than a quarter of it. Wind and sun are intermittent and variable resources, with a need for large collecting areas. There’s a lack of adequate storage materials, which creates waste heat. Most importantly, we aren’t close to finding a way to store and then transmit anywhere near enough energy for long nights and gray, windless days.

The curse of particulates

Meanwhile, particulate matter from fossil fuels continues to be a primary killer. Decades of medical and environmental research draw a direct link from outdoor air pollution to an early demise. According to a fine-tuned, comparative risk assessment of worldwide causes of death published in The Lancet in 2012, fine particulate matter — such as soot — contributes to more than 3.2 million deaths each year.

Our use of coal, a major particulate creator, has only increased. The World Coal Association states that coal in all its forms “provides 30.3 percent of global primary energy needs and generates 42 percent of the world’s electricity,” and is the “fastest growing form of energy outside of renewables.” And while the U.S. and China are major coal users and producers, even green Germany is one of the top 10 countries that use coal to produce electricity, and is itself a major producer of lignite.

Generation III nuclear power snapshot

Third-generation nuclear power plants have been operating in Japan since 1996 (Fukushima Daiichi was built in the 1960s). France is currently operating third-generation plants and despite opposition, Britain is pressing forward in building new facilities. The short story is that they are smaller, have a simpler, sturdier, standardized design, a longer operating life and use fuel far more efficiently, thus reducing the amount of waste. They also provide for a three-day period where no active intervention is required following any kind of shut-down and incorporate “passive or inherent” safety features that require little or no human intervention to avoid accidents in the event of malfunction.

Generation IV nuclear power snapshot

Pressing forward, here’s how the near future may look: six different categories of thermal reactors, molten salt reactors and gas-cooled fast reactors. These nuclear technologies have clear advantages over what exists now. The plants are even smaller in size, use less uranium and can potentially yield 100 to 300 times more energy. They have vastly improved operating safety. They recycle nearly all of their existing nuclear waste in the production of electricity, and the small amount of waste that does remain is radioactive for centuries not millennia.

The bottom line is, we need to pave the way for a less rigid brand of international environmentalism that isn’t afraid to consider new versions of nuclear technologies. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t regard the risks, of which there are many. New technologies, nuclear and otherwise, come with bumps and it’s impossible for every conceivable contingency to be covered in simulations. Also, human error is always a factor. But we have to press on, continue to test the possibilities and sort out deficiencies. It may be time to stop chanting “No Nukes,” at least where creating energy is concerned. We aren’t going to blow up or glow. We just need another link in the chain to arrest global warming.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

35 Responses to “Is Nuclear Power the Fix to Global Warming?”

  1. MichelleG

    I don’t think nuclear power is the answer. Chernobyl was a large-scale disaster with lasting effects. Though we didn’t get all the information at the time, we have since been given details of the events. Mikhail Gorbachev was interviewed by the BBC in 2006. In that interview he says

    One must not compromise on nuclear safety. The social, ecological and economic consequences of these kind of disasters are much too heavy in every sense of the word.

    We can therefore see what enormous responsibility is placed not only on politicians, but on scientists, engineers and designers – their mistakes could cost the life and health of millions of people.

    The victims of Chernobyl continue to suffer both physically and mentally. It is our moral duty to help them while continuing to limit the ecological consequences of this disaster.

    The disaster was real and far-reaching. Marginalizing the meltdown does not make the area safe to inhabit. Children today are still suffering the effects of this meltdown. Chernobyl International has collected touching stories of children it has helped over the years. New victims of the disaster are born every day.

    • Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

      You’ll have to do better than Mikhail Gorbachev and Chernobyl International. Independent field studies prove otherwise. Residents who have returned over the past two decades have seen no greater incidence of cancer than is found anywhere else. The largest uptick that’s even calculable has been in some thyroid cancers in children. Terrible, yes, but nowhere near what was anticipated. The point is, Chernobyl, badly built with no adequate safety net, was so far, the worst case scenario. Currently, radioactivity at the blast point is no greater than what can be found on a beach in Rio.

        • Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

          Approximately 1200 people returned to the area in the months after the blast. Because of insufficient services, etc. most would leave. There are now 280, mostly older and elderly people who remain.

  2. I find the title a but misleading. This article is not really about global warming but about promoting nuclear power.
    That said, it was interesting to hear about the improvements, even if a bit biased. I would have liked to have heard about geothermal, and a mention to 3-Mile Island*; and just because some parts of the planet cannot easily use wind or solar, there are others (like AZ) that would gain major benefits, especially if “hybrid cars” were equipped with a solar collection panel on their roof.

    * “… reporting about the few disasters that have happened, is nearly always lacking in critical information about the nature of the accidents, as well as the technology of the facilities themselves and the countries they were built in.”
    The countries they were built in? Does that mean that Russia, Japan and the US don’t really know how to build plants? Maybe just don’t know how to maintain them? Maybe don’t have the technological expertise to manage them?

    So is nuclear good or bad? Obviously has some major benefits and some major risks. Time will tell if the risks are worth the benefits and whether we survive to new generations with no more energy problems, or suffer the fate of other extinct creatures.

    As for global warming, the creator of the Weather Channel is of the believe (from various scientific studies) that we don’t have a problem and that we may actually be slightly cooling. I personally think that we don’t really have a good way to measure and most of it is politically driven rather than fact-driven.

    • Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

      Yes, the US, Japan and Russia have been, until recently, relying on old or untenable technologies.

      For the most part, the US had been using a model that was already outmoded while they were being built. Corporate interests held sway during the first nuclear boom and private industry was looking for dollars and cost effectiveness, not energy effectiveness and maximum safety.

      Daiichi should have been upgraded or dismantled. It’s telling that the Japanese wouldn’t allow international nuclear inspectors near the plant after the earthquake.

      Chernobyl was a disaster…the Russians have had an unfortunate history of how they handle nuclear energy.

    • “As for global warming, the creator of the Weather Channel is of the believe (from various scientific studies) that we don’t have a problem and that we may actually be slightly cooling. I personally think that we don’t really have a good way to measure and most of it is politically driven rather than fact-driven.”

      This is the most rational statement I have read within these posts! The “father” of global warming “science” has been exposed and admitted using false data to arrive at the predetermined conclusion. There is no meterological evidences supporting the “drastic change in climate” over the past 2 decades. You tell a lie enough times and loud enough people start to believe it. This is just one more of those lies. Foolish people do foolish things when drawn to foolish ideas!

      As for Nuclear Power Plants….You can put one in my backyard any time you want to!!!!

  3. Larry Randall

    “Global Warming” has been widely debunked by the scientific community, including past chair of the National Science Foundation, current and former astronauts, and the majority of actual scientists. Only those with a financial interest in “carbon credits”, countries who wish to eliminate US jobs and influence, and those who have failed to look carefully at the REAL science, are still trying to sell the “pseudo-science” of “man-caused global warming”.

    Nuclear power is a safe alternative, with many positive factors, and very few negative factors in a well-designed plant. The risks are small, and rewards are immense.

    Solar is best used as an on-site DC source, with a bank of storage batteries that is sized to that specific load, latitude (i.e., sun cycle), and maximum “dark days”. The inefficiencies and costs of conversion to AC, costs of transmission to remote sites, cyclic nature of availability, loss of availability on cloudy days or in dust storms (or smoke), make it a really hard technology to make financially viable.

    Wind can produce AC power directly — but wind speeds vary greatly in all locations, and latest data shows that NOT ONE wind farm has actually turned a profit if government subsidies are not considered. In other words, we are paying out massive amounts of tax dollars and getting zero in return. Like solar, wind is best used (and can be economically feasible without subsidies) as an on-site power source. Like solar, it requires batteries for storage, and the best LOCAL POWER solution for many areas is a combination of wind and solar.

    • Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

      Global warming has not been widely debunked. If anything, the scientific community has increased the drum beat of impending disaster. Your facts can be soundly disputed but it’s unlikely you’re mind will be changed, so we’ll leave it at that.

      • Larry Randall

        The UN Climate Change Commission — the name of which implies that it MUST advocate for some “man caused” change — is stacked with non-scientists who have a HUGE financial interest in convincing the world that such nonsense as CO2 “storage” and “carbon credits” are needed.

        ACTUAL scientists allow the complete data to decide the issue, rather than creating a “conclusion” and then “cherry-picking” data to support ONLY that conclusion.

        We have had the coldest Spring on record, with temperatures in the 30’s in May for the first time in history. The last 16 years have shown a cooling trend — not a warming trend.

        Geologic evidence clearly shows that the Earth has been much warmer — and much cooler — within the past 3000 years. It also shows quite clearly that temperature fluctuations, and sea level fluctuations can be traced back tens of thousands of years. It should be obvious that man did not cause those fluctuations, and there is absolutely no indication supported by true science that man has caused either the warming or the cooling that has been experienced within a few decades.

        • The people who are saying that Earth has been warmer in the past 3,000 years are lying. Their graphs are 20 years out of date or they actually airbrush the last decade out. They also change the ranges and scale to make it appear as if the rise in temperature is less dramatic. They also report only local temperatures and temps for only a single season or year which does not a trend make. The GLOBAL temps are the highest they’ve been for the last 100,000 years. Climate change means some areas will get colder or wetter while others will get warmer & dryer. Archeologists are finding that 7,000 years ago climate change caused the world wide collapse of several advanced civilizations. One reason for the collapse of the Roman empire may have been due to a drop in temp of 2 degrees which caused the little ice age in Europe.

          • Larry Randall

            The only liars are the “Global Warming Alarmists” who use carefully selected data — ignoring such realities as the “heat islands” that surround large cities — to support their “religious speculation” that man has somehow caused climate changes.

            The overwhelming majority (about 98%) of scientists and engineers require that scientific conclusions be derived from TRUE AND COMPLETE data. Very simply, the full dataset fails to support a premise of global warming, does show past global temperatures within man’s last 10000 years(and within 3000 years) that are higher than today, and does indicate that we are in a cooling trend right now.

            The latest report by a USG agency shows that “global warming” was not responsible for the drought in the Midwest. The cause of this was the “El Nino/La Nina Southern Oscillation (ENSO)”, As long-time farmers and ranchers will tell you, droughts are cyclic, and expected events. The ENSO cycle is responsible for these.

            The majority of scientists believe that the sunspot cycle is the driver for Earth’s cyclic temperature shifts, but we have too few complete solar cycles (and too little data on the probable long cycles upon which those appear to be embedded) for any reputable scientist to make a proclamation.

            Unlike “politically-motivated pseudo-scientists”, true scientists must await sufficient data to make statements of “fact”. The “pseudo-scientists” have thrown out data more than 60 years old, and have made “pronouncements” based upon “religious belief” or flat financial interests. They are a disgrace.

    • The only scientists who are ‘global warming’ deniers are those in the pay of the energy companies and even those are getting fewer and fewer. Last year one of these deniers – a phycisist whose background didn’t include ANY of the sciences related to climate or biology completed a 2 year study of climate change paid for by the Koch brothers. Even he changed his tune, he now admits that global climate change is real and being significantly influenced by humans. The Koch brothers instantly attempted to discredit his findings saying that he hadn’t studied the oceans. However, he didn’t have to. Oceanologists have found the oceans to be warming up as well, fragile reefs are dying, populations of arctic creatures are dropping, ice is melting, islands are disappearing under the waves as the oceans rise.

      As for the cost of fossil fuels vs renewables: There is a lot of hidden costs that are absorbed by we the people in the form of tax subsidies, pollution, and damage caused by larger storms, more forest fires, reduction in food supply that make renewable s more competitive if you add in these factors.

      • Larry Randall

        Tax subsidies for what ? For the solar energy and wind energy companies that took tax money and folded because they could not make a competitive product ? For the “carbon credits” that failed to pass congress because they were HOAX TAXES meant to benefit millionaire Al Gore and his companions ?

        What large storms ? Storms have not been “more frequent and more damaging”. If you go back in history, you will find predecessors to Sandy that hit in virtually the same location, with comparable strength — so please don’t embarrass by citing that storm….

        USA has the lowest pollution on the planet. If you want to attack pollution, work on India and China — which account for about half of the pollution…..

        • Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

          Larry where on earth do you get your facts? The US is no where near the least polluted place on the planet, there are swaths of the world that do much better than we do. While our air quality has incrementally improved over the last decade, due to those pesky government restrictions you probably abhor, we’re still the second biggest polluter on the planet.

          This article is about how we need to become more energy efficient as the earth continues to warm. Global warming moves far beyond your diminished political leanings. It is internationally recognized, scientifically sound and should be above political grasping. It doesn’t just affect Americans, it’s destructive to everyone and everything.

          • Larry Randall

            I support energy efficiency that is achieved RATIONALLY — including nuclear. What I abhor is the “religion” that overlooks scientific FACT in favor of hysteria.

            I suspect that you have not traveled outside the United States — or at least have a limited travel background. I have been to 39 countries, and most of them have FAR worse pollution than any place that I have ever seen in USA.

            The “zealots” look at “tons of emissions” by country — which is largely meaningless — instead of a meaningful measure of particles per cubic meter. Any large country will produce more tons than a smaller one (unless the small one is absolutely horrific)….

    • Well said!

      I don’t believe that “man made global warming” exists. I do believe however that we can in fact make wind and solar effective and efficient but I won’t do it for environmental reasons. Large scale facilities run by governments or subsidized companies are not the answer.

      Rural inidividuals with some land can easily install and maintain a system that will power their property and loose them from the confines of local power companies. While these technologies already exist one in rudimentary forms, we could quickly improve the quality, quantity and expense of these technologies if were to implement them on a larger scale. i.e. Thousands and thousands of inidividually owned and operated little power companies operating in the back roads and farms of this country.

      I’m not an environmentalist…I’m a capitalist that thinks that “energy independence” starts at home!

      PS I don’t sell anything along those lines….sorry.

      • Larry Randall

        I completely agree. The costs of conversion of the DC power from solar to AC, the loss of power in the conversion, and the costs of providing transmission facilities go away for LOCAL generation. This also applies to wind generation, and a combination of wind and solar offers significant advantages for small farms and other remote locations.

        I am not a fan of the huge solar farms or of the large wind farms, as neither is economically viable without the huge government subsidies — and we cannot afford those subsidies.

        DC power can be stored (i.e., batteries), while AC cannot. This makes solar and wind efficient emergency power sources. (Although solar is less than 10% efficient as an energy conversion, and wind is presently not much better.)

        We would be far better off to direct government funds to RESEARCH to improve efficiency and lower cost of manufacture than to “give aways” to firms that appear to have been created solely for the purpose of sucking government subsidies by installing windmills and solar panels, or by producing windmills and solar panels. Spending over $1,000,000 per job created makes no sense, but that is this administration’s track record on energy.

    • Larry Randall

      I would like to know the origin of those figures, and what scale (i.e., plant size) is assumed. They differ drastically from industry and engineering data that I see every day.

    • Larry Randall

      Actually, the figures show solar to be 85% more expensive that nuclear in 2016, 37% more expensive that nuclear in 2017, and 33% more expensive that nuclear in 2018.

      Overall, the figures are also highly suspect, as the are heavily biased in favor of “green” technologies, and include assumptions about “carbon credit costs” and “CO2 sequestration” that are flatly NEVER going to happen. Also, the solar figures do not include REPLACEMENT COSTS for panels that “age out”, as all panels actually do, allow for no breakage, and ignore costs of maintenance.

      All in all, the industry figures fail to support the rash assumptions made by the government. As in all things, those who make pronouncements without benefit of knowledge or fact simply make foolls of themselves.

      • Rex Berglund

        The decreasing percentages show a clear cost trend; the cost of solar is declining faster than nuclear. This is a another report of projected clean energy costs, the claim is that the LCOE for solar will be in the range of 4-10 cents/kWh within a decade:

        CO2 is not an issue for nuclear or solar, which is why I think they’re the most promising future candidates.

        With regard to replacement and maintenance, they do indeed take those into account, quoting from the latest source I cited: “Levelized cost is often cited as a convenient summary measure of the overall competiveness of different generating technologies. It represents the per-kilowatthour cost (in real dollars) of building and operating a generating plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle. Key inputs to calculating levelized costs include overnight capital costs, fuel costs, fixed and variable operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, financing costs, and an assumed utilization rate for each plant type.” If you dispute their assumptions or methodology please cite references to support your case.

        • Larry Randall

          The study by the Sanford Graduate School of Business clearly calls into question the excessively rosy government “pronouncements” of cost comparisons. The Stanford data agrees well with industry data.

          Stanford makes the assumption that solar panel costs will decrease somewhat linearly over 10 years, which tracks actual market trends. It also assumes that subsidies (i.e., grants or tax credits) will continue to lower the cost to the company or consumer to install solar. If and only if these assumptions are valid, then solar can become competitive at the commercial user scale (i.e., a reasonable sized building) within 10 years. At the utility company scale, the time is at least 15 years.

          Without tax credits or grants, the solar equation becomes much more difficult, with break-even measured in decades.

  4. Mahhn

    It’s very sad that people are willing to produce hazardous material that will eventually cause suffering and death just to have some electricity today. There are so many nondestructive ways to produce power, the only drive to nuclear is greed. Electricity it is a want, not a need.
    Geothermal is far under utilized.
    Energy productions restrictions placed on citizens by power company’s lobbied laws prevent power from being decentralized and privately produced. I live in New Hampshire and it is illegal to produce your own power except in emergency situations, unless you are willing to feed it into the grid and sell it. So powering your own house is illegal due to regulations put in place by power companies. This is a reflection of the greed that has facilitated nuclear power over less hazardous methods.
    There are better alternatives, and history has shown us the results of producing so much hazardous material.
    On the lighter side, now that the nuke accident in Japan finial happened we are waiting on Godzilla. However if you recall, Godzilla was a metaphor for results of such an environmental disaster, as nobody would be as interested in a movie about wide spread cancer.

    • Larry Randall

      I would like to see you do without electricity for one single day. No car (requires a battery), no phone, no computer, no video game, no TV, no radio, no lights, no air conditioning, no hot water, no elevator, no music, ….. the list goes on and on.

      A problem at a poorly designed plant that was stupidly located is not an indicator of safety of nuclear power. The thousands of plants that operate daily without creating a news story are a testament to the capability of nuclear power to be safe, as are the hundreds of nuclear powered ships.

      Rants against perceived greed lack credence, when the facts support nuclear as a low-cost alternative to fossil fuels, solar, wind, and geothermal. Nuclear, fossil fuels, and geothermal are the only alternatives that offer 100% availability. Questions exist about the long-term impacts of geothermal, and much of the country does not have easily available (or cost-effective) access to geothermal.

      Wave motion carries issues of varying wave heights and spacings, and is subject to plant destruction in a storm. Because seaside and frequent storm are pretty much two sides of the same coin, wave motion is a tricky technology to implement. In the best case, the plant would require shut-down in a small gale — which makes it less than 100% available, and may mean that it is off-line when needed.

      • “A problem at a poorly designed plant that was stupidly located is not an indicator of safety of nuclear power.”
        Personally, I don’t think there’s much dispute over the “potential” safety of nuclear but rather the poor implementation that seems to occur over and over and the risk that this creates.
        For example, there is a plant in California that was built on top of a fault line. They apparently didn’t realize it at the time. Once they did, their approach was to reinforce the structure so it could withstand a moderate-sized earthquake. The problem is that it’s in an area that is subject to large earthquakes every 30-50 years and it’s overdue (although I’m not exactly sure how they determine either of these numbers.)
        Anyway, the right thing to do would have been to relocate the plant to a safer location rather than pour millions and millions of dollars into an old plant to make it “a bit safer” versus spending maybe a few more millions for a truly safer and upgrade (and probably more efficient) plant.

        This mentality (maybe politically or financially driven) continues to put potentially hazard projects on the radar as way too risky. If we could “do it right” (like in nuclear subs) then we’d probably be fine, but meanwhile, I really don’t think that we can dismiss the safety factors (or lack thereof).

  5. Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

    A ha! New comments and Larry is still here. Pleased to see that the story has hit a bit of a nerve. As for Larry, I’m glad you have a passport and that you’ve traveled. I have too. That being said, like most world travelers, I doubt you venture forth with anything that can measure atmospheric pollution and your charming observations are insufficient as actual science.

    Critical thinking is imperative. The owner of the Weather Channel, Fox News and discredited global warming deniers are not credible scientific sources.

    • Larry Randall

      The least credible sources are Hanson and his “groupies”. There is ZERO science to back up the “man-caused global warming” nonsense, and a mountain of science that refutes it.

      Thinking is required, and the “climate change zealots” apparently lack the desire to look at facts. This is why many of us refer to “the global warming religion”….

    • Larry Randall

      I have spent many weeks in each country, outside the hotel, with the people of the country. I have had to wear masks, discovered soot in my nose, and smelled noxious fumes from car exhausts and cooking fires in many cities around the globe. The real world is a much different place that the USA.

    • Larry Randall

      For us, coldest ever. For the first time in recorded history, we had 30 degree temperatures in North Texas in MAY. Peach crops are damaged or destroyed, along with other crops. Look out for higher prices at the grocery store…..