Science nuclear power plant reactors

Published on January 15th, 2008 | by Shirley Siluk Gregory

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Devil’s Advocate: 10 Green Arguments for Nuclear Power

nuclear power plant reactors

I never thought I’d consider nuclear power a desirable solution to climate change until I read James Lovelock’s latest book, “The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity” (see my previous post on the issue here).

Though I’m still not 100-percent convinced, Lovelock’s arguments are factual, rational and highly persuasive. So I thought I’d take a similar crack at making the case for nuclear energy as a way to help curb our greenhouse gas emissions … maybe in part to clarify my own mixed feelings about the matter.

Here goes:

1. First, there’s a truly powerful pro-nuclear argument I’ve never seen given much attention before: according to the Keystone Center’s “Nuclear Power Joint Fact Finding” released last year, failing to replace existing nuclear power plants over the next half-century would actually increase carbon emissions by 12.5 gigatons. Unless we’re planning on replacing all the nuclear facilities set to go off-line with something other than coal or natural gas plants, we’ll be making climate change worse.

2. As scary as the “what-if” scenarios for a nuclear reactor failure are, the reality has — so far — proved much less so. The World Health Organization (WHO) carried out several studies after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster; one, conducted 19 years later, concluded that 75 deaths could be directly attributed to the accident. Other WHO findings: 28 deaths among first-responders in the year after the accident could be directly linked to acute radiation sickness; there was a large increase in highly treatable tyroid cancerns among young people and no clearly demonstrated increases in leukemia or other non-thyroid solid cancers; and the lifetime risk of cancer deaths among those exposed to Chernobyl radiation was about 3 to 4 percent higher than average. (You can find the complete digest report here.)

3. By comparison, the health impacts of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the U.S. were minuscule, with no attributable illnesses or deaths. The Keystone Center’s “Nuclear Power Joint Fact Finding” last year said the average dose of radiation to the region’s 2 million people was about 1 millirem, with the maximum exposure to individuals right outside the site at less than 100 millirem. By comparison, a full set of chest x-rays delivers 6 millirem of radiation, and a year’s exposure to natural background radiation gets you 100 to 125 millirem.

4. Participants in the Keystone Center “Nuclear Power Joint Fact Finding” all conceded that “on balance, commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. are safer today than they were before the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.” In fact, an industry study in 2003 found that even a direct-side impact by a large commercial airliner wouldn’t cause a loss of coolant at a nuclear power plant.

5. A National Academy of Sciences study found a low risk of widespread harm from either a terrorist attack or a serious accident involving spent nuclear fuel. And the Keystone Center’s “Nuclear Power Joint Fact Finding” found that “the risk of a major accident at a nuclear facility is not seen as a significant risk by investors today.”

6. A 2001 study by the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland (quoted in “The Revenge of Gaia”) found that, beteween 1970 and 1992, nuclear power had the best safety record of all major energy sources, both in terms of total deaths and deaths per terawatt of energy produced each year. The results for the top four sources were coal: 6,400 total deaths, 342 deaths per terawatt per year; hydro power: 4,000 total deaths, 884 deaths per terawatt per year; natural gas: 1,200 total deaths, 85 deaths per terawatt per year; nuclear power: 31 total deaths, 8 deaths per terawatt per year.

7. A life-cycle assessment by Meier Engineering Research (thanks redcraig!) found that nuclear fission energy actually had a lower life-cycle greenhouse gas emission rate than solar (using an eight-kilowatt, building-integrated photovoltaic system for the assessment): 15 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per gigawatt-electric of electricity, compared to 39 tons for photovoltaic. Of course, those rates were considerably higher for fossil-fuel sources like natural gas (469 tons) or coal (974 tons).

8. Nuclear power makes economic sense. According to the Energy Information Administration (thanks again, redcraig!), operation, maintenance and fuel costs per kilowatt-hour for nuclear plants are more than twice those for hydroelectric, but nearly a third less than those for fossil steam energy and two-thirds less than either gas turbine energy or small-scale photovoltaic or wind energy.

9. During the nuclear testing heyday of the Cold War era, the superpowers set off numerous nuclear weapons; in 1962 alone, test bombs equaled the output of 20,000 Hiroshima warheads. Such tests, Lovelock argues, released radioactive materials into the air equal to two Chernobyls a week for a whole year … yet no proven health damage to humans was observed in subsequent years. (For more details, see “The Revenge of Gaia,” pages 94 – 95).

10. Finally, Lovelock argues — and it’s hard to disagree with his view — that “a continuous supply of electricity is an essential requisite for civilization.” Nuclear power, unlike wind or solar energy, fits that bill.

All that said, I still have doubts about the viability of nuclear power as our way out of dangerous climate change, and I don’t believe my concerns are the result of a conspiracy by environmentalists, as some pro-nuclear types suggest. I’ll take on the “con” side of the issue in another post soon.

Photo via James Marvin Phelps




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About the Author

Shirley Siluk Gregory, a transplanted Chicagoan now living in Northwest Florida, represents the progressive half of Green Options' Red, Green and Blue segment. She holds a bachelor's degree in Geological Sciences from Northwestern University but graduated in 1984, just when the market for geologists was flatter than the Florida landscape. Just as well, though: she had little interest in spending her life either in a laboratory or, heaven forbid, an oil field. So, of course, she went into journalism. After extremely low-paying but fun and educational stints at several suburban Chicago weeklies and dailies, Shirley and her then-boyfriend/now-husband Scott found themselves displaced by a media buyout and spending the next several years working as freelancers. Among their credits: The Chicago Tribune, a publication for the manufactured-housing industry, and Web Hosting Magazine, a now-defunct publication that came and went with the dotcom era. Shirley's always been concerned about nature and conservation (and an avid pack-rat, as her family can attest to), but became even more rabidly interested in the environment primarily due to two factors: the growing signs that global warming was real and threatening, and the birth of her son, Noah, in 2003. Suddenly, the prospect of a world that might not be quite as habitable in 40 or 50 years took on a whole new, and personal, meaning. Living where she lives now also helped light the fire of Shirley's environmental awareness: her hometown was severely damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and beaten up again by Hurricane Dennis in 2005. That, and the fact that she and her family were vacationing in New Orleans until the day before Katrina -- and spent 12 hours driving home for a trip that normally takes 3 -- has made Shirley deeply appreciate how fragile our lifestyles are, and how dependent they are on sound management of natural resources and sustainable living practices. That's why she's become a passionate reader and writer about all things green and sustainable.



  • http://Web Erin

    In response to your #9, you may want to check out: “Exposed at the Front” by Alan Burdick featured in Sciences in 1993. Come to Utah, talk to the families of the people who died from cancer and suffered through radiation burns before you use “facts” that can’t possibly be true.

  • igmuska

    The following list, copied from one of the numerous articles on the problems with nuclear energy, is what I feel needs to be fully address before any thought of using nuclear energy to save us from climate change.

    1. Prohibitively high, and escalating, capital costs

    2. Production bottlenecks in key components needed to build plants

    3. Very long construction times

    4. Concerns about uranium supplies and importation issues

    5. Unresolved problems with the availability and security of waste storage

    6. Large-scale water use amid shortages

    7. High electricity prices from new plants

    As a Native American (Hunkpapa) directly adversely affected from legacy uranium mining in northwestern South Dakota, I must also add that the nuclear energy industry left a radioactive mess, poisoning many Native Americans yet doesn’t own up to this travesty. Yet it has greenwashed its hands from its part in this act of genocide, while hoping that racism will help its current initiatives to restart uranium mining in low-income and Native American land. Instead the nuclear energy industry paints itself as a savior, pointing out to the uranium mining legacy as being from a different age of rapacious destruction of precious natural resources and water. All the while it is using in its nuclear generating stations that very same uranium that poisoned many people and is killing them now as we write. For shame on the nuclear energy industry, you are stained, washing your hands as did Herod absolves you of nothing.

    NO NUKES
    NO COAL
    NO KIDDING

    • Bender226

      It’s very apparent that people who oppose nuclear power generally do not understand it, whether it’s nuclear physics, how power plants actually work or radiation physics. You prove your stupidity by saying things like “we are messing with the laws of nature” and other such nonsense, or Murphy’s laws says nuclear power will cause disaster. I don’t recall Murphy’s laws being in science textbooks, but let the uneducated make decisions based on their own irrational fears, as seems to be the case with a lot of laws these days.
      Whether or not you have any understanding of radiation, it might interest you to know that if you have granite counter tops in your home, you receive a higher radiation dose than a nuclear power plant worker and the smoke detectors in your home “mess with the laws of nature” by using the principles of radiation physics and contain radioactive material (Americium). All your doomsday arguments regarding Chernobyl are also retarded since it had no containment building unlike every reactor ever built in this country, and if 3 mile island would have exploded like Chernobyl, it would have been contained without a major disaster occurring.
      Just like we have to put up with creationists and alternative medicine quacks, we also are stuck with the anti nuclear people who are simply afraid due to ignorance and fear from misinformation (Hollywood and TV).

  • http://greenpeace.org Sam

    Although many of you argue for nuclear energy with rationality, I believe you are leaving out considerably more important arguments against the energy source.

    First, there have been more and more pushes towards MOX fuel use and Pluthermal nuclear energy production. This form of energy production deals with large transfer and sequestering of weapons grade plutonium, leading to immense potential for terrorism. While nuclear facilities assure that there are adequate security measures, the amount of potential damage from 400 tons of plutonium can do – what Japan’s nuclear program is aimed at using in Fukui – is enormous. It only takes 10 kg of Pu239 to make a bomb for example.

    Second, the costs of building nuclear power plants in conjunction to the time it takes to get them working, their life span as well as the resources they use is more than enough to counter balance their production advantages. The argument for renewable sources used diversely (wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, hydro etc) is not only more cost effective, but carries almost none of the risks involved in both human error (criticality of nuclear plants, meltdowns etc due to negligence or improper security/monitoring – which will be much more of an issue for countries who are starting to capitalize on the nuclear power industry, like Iran, Korea, India, Pakistan, African countries etc.) and the risks of waste production and contamination. Renewable resources are becoming not only more affordable and rational for energy consumers especially in the non-industrial sectors, but are actually becoming more productive/efficient (maintenance, sequestration of energy/storage, resources needed for construction).

    One more I noticed was never mentioned in the argument against nuclear power:

    Earthquakes pose incredible risks to the nuclear power industry. Despite many claims, there are dozens of nuclear power plants which rest on alarmingly dangerous fault lines, and have caused failures in Japanese plants. What if the growth of natural disasters continues?

    All in all those who argue theres no point in using wind, solar power (like chris above ^) – you must be missing what is happening all over the world right now. People can and will, and it is working for communities all over Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe/USA. Not only does it allow for independence from the obsolete “industrial infinate growth complex fed by limited resources” paradigm, but creates the potential for more development in countries who desperately need energy and cannot wait for the resources, technology and legislation to implement nuclear power.

    Let me know if you can’t find proof these arguments are more valid than those proposed by either Lovelock or Jim47 and the rest of you who support nuclear energy.

  • Haletite

    Nuclear plants put out 1 billion watts of electric power a day. They also put out 3 billion watts of heat energy per day. That heat could easily be used to evaporate sea water and turn it into potable water, an important function considering our depleting water resources and rising sea levels.

    Radiation is actually a poor carcinogen, probably why it works so well combating cancer. It wouldn’t make sense to kill off one kind of cancer with something that caused 14 other types now would it?

    Coal ash is highly radioactive and toxic (arsenic and lead) and responsible for poisoning many of our nations water supplies. The typical coal plant produces 600 tons of this toxic mess a DAY which is dumped with little regulation. A nuclear plant produces enough radioactive waste in a YEAR to fill one coke can. That coupled with the fact that this waste is partially recyclable and one Nuke plant out powers a coal plant any day kind of kills the “OMG! Nukular waste!” argument.

    I realize my arguments are not the most well articulated but I get tired of people using bad 1950′s movies for their perception on nuclear power. Talk to a nuclear engineer, talk to a radiation health physicist… they can explain the dangers and the risks… Too many groups take worst case scenarios written for their mathematical simplicity while realistically impossible (like spherical chickens in a vacuum makes a physics problem easy to write) and parade them as the MOST LIKELY event instead of the impossible extreme they were intended to be.

  • http://aguy.us Reaster

    Think again about Chernobyl

    “Debris removal

    The worst of the radioactive debris was collected inside what was left of the reactor, much of it shoveled in by liquidators wearing heavy protective gear (dubbed “bio-robots” by the military); these workers could only spend a maximum of 40 seconds at a time working on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings due to the extremely high doses of radiation given off by the blocks of graphite and other debris. The reactor itself was covered with bags containing sand, lead and boric acid thrown off helicopters (some 5,000 metric tonnes during the week following the accident). By December 1986 a large concrete sarcophagus had been erected, to seal off the reactor and its contents.[49]

    Many of the vehicles used by the “liquidators” remain parked in a field in the Chernobyl area to this day, most giving off doses of 10-30 R/hr (0.1-0.3 Gy/hr) over 20 years after the disaster.[50]“

  • Glen Christensen

    oops. (exponential)

  • Glen Christensen

    How much uranium ore do we have? How long would it last, given an expontial rise in it’s consumption?

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  • alex

    i think nuclear power is a good thing and should be used to get power in the future.

  • Fruser

    QUOTE: “10. Finally, Lovelock argues — and it’s hard to disagree with his view — that “a continuous supply of electricity is an essential requisite for civilization.” Nuclear power, unlike wind or solar energy, fits that bill.”

    its not hard to disagree with the view that wind energy doesn’t fit the bill. you are probably thinking that “the wind doesn’t always blow when you want it to”. i read an article in New Scientist recently about a project in the USA that will be able to store surplus energy produced by the turbines until it is needed, so there will be a continuous supply.

  • Tomek

    Rachel,

    When I was reading your comment I had a feeling that maybe living close to Nuclear Power Plant is really dangerous. I always have such feeling when I read how nuclear oppenent cites some inconvenient fact. But only to the moment I check what The Fact is really about. The 30 years old Ichikawa Fact that You cited is true. NPP generates additional one thousandth of an average background radiation. And radiation cause mutations that are detectable by specially suited genetical experiments. But the weight of this argument is similar to claiming that NPP makes shadow, and plants in the shadow don’t grow. True but totally irrelevant. Radiation in many parts of the world is several to even hundred times bigger than average. Read about Ramsar in Iran.

    http://www.ecolo.org/documents/documents_in_english/ramsar-natural-radioactivity/ramsar.html

    In case You didn’t know. In every cell of your body (some 60 trillion cells) takes place 2.2 damages of DNA each second. Only 5 % of this is caused by radiation. The rest comes from heavy metals and free radicals. Are You worried? Because I’m not.

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  • Robert

    Hi everyone
    I have just read your arguments with great interest, as I am currently writing a paper on the “Greenness” of Nuclear power.
    It seems that most emphasis has been put onto nuclear waste, which is certainly a major problem. However the environmental impact of mining the uranium, and the fact that just like fossil fuels, uranium will one day become scarce, has not been touched upon. The suggestion from Klaus that the lack of recycling of spent uranium is due to environmentalists seems quite far fetched, especially as more environmentalists (such as Greenpeace president) are becoming pro nuclear.
    Klaus also suggests that no suitable storage for wind energy has been found. How about a combination hydro – wind energy solution? the water in the lake can be as an energy store for when it is required.

    The Chrenobyl incident has been quoted repeatedly during the forum, rightly so, as it has been the worst nuclear power leak leak so far. However, the disaster occured at the end of the life of the uranium, the safety systems test which sparked the problems was scheduled just before a fuel change shutdown. If there is any nuclear engineers out there, I would be interested to know if the disaster could have been much greater if the fuel rods had been fresh.
    Also, hydro electricity has been identified as being much more dangerous due to dam bursts etc. I would like to point out that most of these accidents have occured in developing nations, which have been previously assumed as having lesser safety standards as the west. the same nations which are currently investing in nuclear energy.
    Solar and wind energy is continuing to improve through technology, and although it has been stated otherwise, the efficiency of these technologies is increasing, and the environmental impact lessening.

    Nobody has mentioned tidal or wave energy.

  • Chris

    Lovely, well argued cases, Nuclear Power is the way to go. There’s no point using wind/solar power because you cant fill the globe with wind turbines can ya?

  • Shirley Siluk Gregory

    Thanks for the WIPP link, Jim47: I’ll check that out.

    Drbuzz0, you’re right that each technological advance in human history was accompanied by skepticism and/or fear. Lovelock does an excellent job of dispelling many of those concerns regarding nuclear power in “The Revenge of Gaia.”

    Still, though, I believe the fear of nuclear power is unique in some ways, having been fueled by all those scary bomb drills during the Cold War and — not least of all — by the images of post-bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While nuclear power and nuclear weapons are two very different things, it’s hard not to equate the two after seeing such vivid and horrifying evidence of the damage and destruction an A-bomb can cause.

    Still, I’ll get back to Lovelock and agree that we need to create a rational, sensible debate over the real aspects of nuclear power: it might be our only way to ensure continued civilization as we know it.

  • http://www.depletedcranium.com Drbuzz0

    elie’s post reminds me of what nuclear energy really means for humanity: It is the next quantum leap in our ability to move forward and harness the forces of nature for progress, enterprise and exploration.

    This is a rare event which has only happened a very few times in human history.

    First it was combustion. Without fire there would be no civilization. It was the first energy man mastered and used for warmth, heat and later to smelt metals and forge machines.

    No doubt some like elie were afraid of fire. They saw that it burned and could destroy. They probably thought it evil. Luckilly they did not win.

    Next was the ability to create mechanical energy from thermal energy. This was at first steam. It made industry possible. Some certainly feared it. They saw boiler explosions and ran in fear and ignorance from the loud and fast locomotives and the clanking of gears.

    Then came electricity. With electricity there could be our modern society and telecommunications and such. Electricity was feared by some at first who did not understand this strange force. Even Thomas Edison campaigned against AC current because he thought it unsafe. People did things like remove lightbulbs when not in use so the force they did not understand would not make them explode or jump down and zap them.

    elie’s fear and ignorance is like those who, in the past, ran in fear from each quantum leap, each new order of magnitude in human expansion and understanding. It is based on the simple fact that some cannot appreciate the awesome potential offered by forces they cannot comprehend and see as only destructive.

  • Jim47

    I’ve not been able to check in here for a couple of days, but I just now was able to catch up with all the posts. Excellent work, one and all! No bromides, no appeals to emotion, just lots of well-considered commentary on both sides, backed up with lots of data :-) I really appreciate that citation from the Japanese study; I shall definitely give it a read.

    One comment I should make is that, vis-a-vis Chernobyl, this was a “spill”; there will definitely be measurable effects from that accident. I never meant to imply that there would not be; if I gave that impression, I apologize. My point was that the long-term effects *from the current levels of radiation*, appear to be minimal. Humans, being far more genetically complex than most other animals, will be more likely to suffer from increased levels of radiation. I would never want to imply that people should start building homes near the nuclear plant!

    On another blog here, I post a link to a website for the WIPP project, a facility in New Mexico which is a depository for military nuclear waste. In that website are links to a lot of good, solid scientific information about plutonium, particle decay, etc. Here is that link: http://www.wipp.energy.gov/ I recommend clicking on the “NEWS and INFORMATION” link in the blue bar near the top and then scrolling down to the “Fact Sheets” link. Lots of excellent info in there :-) Much of it will need Adobe Reader, but everyone should have that, considering that it’s free and extremely useful.

  • Klaus

    A well known argument against nuclear power is of course the longevity of nuclear waste. As the following graph shows, it is really a political problem, not a problem of nuclear power itself.
    http://www.energyfromthorium.com/postimages/spentFuelToxicity.gif
    The red line in the graph is the lifetime of untreated nuclear waste from a once-through fuel cycle without reprocessing, as done today. You can see that it decays after 300,000 years to the radioactivity level of natural uranium ore as found in many places on earth.
    When reprocessed, so that Plutonium and Uranium is removed to make new fuel (blue line), the then resulting waste decays to the radioactivity in 9000 years. If Actinides are also removed and fed back into reactors for transmutation, the resulting waste decays to that level in 300 years, and to the level of natural background radiation in 400 years. I’ve lived in Europe in houses that are older than that.
    The reason we don’t reprocess the fuel is political. Forced on the nuclear industry by so called “environmentalists”. The main CO2 production of nuclear power is from mining. Reprocessing the fuel would cut the mining requirements per GWhr to 10% of what is needed now with the once-through fuel cycle, where only 2-3% of the potential energy contained is used.
    One could argue that the nuclear waste problem is one actually created by the anti-nuclear movement.

    - Klaus

  • Joffan

    I guess there’s one main argument for nuclear, just like there’s one main argument for most of the other power sources that you might push:

    - It’s not burning fossil fuel.

    This means that:

    - It’s not altering the physics and chemistry of the entire atmosphere.
    - It’s not creating acid rain.
    - It’s not producing particulates that kill thousands every year.
    - It’s not laying waste to vast tracts of countryside by mountain-top removal.
    - It’s opening up the option of using electricity for transport (rail, bus, plug-in).
    - It’s saving hydrocarbons for more useful applications further into the future (not as popular this one, but I like it).

    and more specifically, using the CHP concept:
    - Desalination becomes a large-scale option.
    - Hydrogen production becomes a large-scale option.
    - Biofuel production can be supported “free” (with process heat)

    and finally
    - Widespread poverty, which arises from energy poverty, can finally be looked at with some hope of solution, in a controlled international effort.

  • Klaus

    Oh, I forgot to mention two more alternative:
    CO2 sequestration:
    For every ton of coal burned in a coal power plant, 3 tons of CO2 are produced. CO2 is in low density gaseous form, while coal is in solid form. The amount of CO2 that would have to be handled really boggles the mind. Nobody has really any implementable idea how it could be done.

    Natural Gas:
    Aside from it being a limited resource, it also produces CO2, just not in the same amount as coal. But natural gas is mostly methane. And THAT is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Leaks at gas piplines and gas power plants are inevitable. Not only large, but small, not significant ones also. I have not found a study how much methane is cumulatively released into the atmosphere from that. I suspect it would be significant.

    - Klaus

  • Klaus

    I am one who has been converted from anti-nuclear to pro after reading through ALL the facts with a scientifically trained mind.

    Consider the alternatives:
    Hydro consumes vast resources in building, destroys habitats on a large scale, and has higher dangers of catastrophic failure with subsequent whole-sale loss of life than nuclear has (dam breaks). Aside from which, it is mostly already tapped out.

    PV is too expensive, and always will be. There are simply natural laws against it attaining higher efficiency. As an electronics engineer I also know how many toxic materials and energy is used in the production. With much less controls and oversight than nuclear. Some material are much more toxic over the long term (forever, no half-live) than for example plutonium.

    Wind energy cannot supply any energy amount even close to what is needed, as it cannot supply energy on demand. In fact it has been shown in Denmark and Germany that it has a negligible effect on greenhouse gas emissions. Because coal fired plants cannot be shut down and fired back up to make up for the vagaries of wind. So they have to still run at close to capacity. No large-scale storage for wind generated electricity has even been seriously proposed as the scale needed would boggle the mind. Also the use of concrete alone per actually produced wind-MWhr is of a factor 2-3 higher than even for the most inefficient (current generation 2) nuclear plant.

    Geothermal is possible only on a small, limited scale in select locations. Same as solar thermal.

    Nuclear fusion is the technology of the future. Always has been, and always will be. At least for the next 50-100 years. Aside from that it would produce MORE radioactive waste material than fission (just read about the fast neutron spectrum fusion creates).

    So, what have we left. We need energy to keep civilisation going. Yes, you can make a small dent by conservation. But there are thermodynamic and practical limits to how much. Most savings possible are in the private sector. But that is vastly dwarfed by industrial energy use. And there the best energy conservation methods known are already widely used. If for nothing else, for monetary reasons. Energy costs are a large cost factor for energy intensive industries. And so it has always paid handsomely to use least and use the best conservation technology available.

    Believe me, I know. I have lived off-the-grid for years. Using photovoltaics, batteries and backup generators. I am glad I am now ON the grid.

    - Klaus

    • http://Web Ben

      all good points. however, you are wrong about the nuclear waste made by nuclear fusion, the only by-products of nuclear fusion are energy and helium gas. but also, it would take a vast amount of energy to get the tokomak reactor to the temperature it needs to create the plasma.

  • http://enochthered.wordpress.com Luke

    Nuclear energy isn’t interfering with the laws of nature – it’s simply understanding and applying the laws of nature – the laws of physical science.

    It is physical laws that tell us how to make nuclear power intrinsically safe, and it is physical laws that tell us how we most certainly isolate radioactive waste safely in deep geology for the time scale required.

    16 nuclear fission reactors existed in nature two billion years ago, in Oklo, in equatorial west Africa. They operated, naturally fissioning uranium in the Earth’s crust, because the laws of nature provide the capacity for nature to do this. They created highly radioactive fission products, plutonium, and actinide elements – just like the used fuel from our nuclear power plants. Over two billion years, these radioactive materials did not migrate through the rock much at all – they were successfully isolated, without humans having any hand in it. Today, all the radioactivity thus produced has completely decayed.

    We know that the nuclear weapons tests in Nevada had a health effect on some parts of the population – but a nuclear power plant is not an exploding nuclear bomb.

    If all the highly radioactive fission products in the nuclear fuel were somehow released in the atmosphere and dispersed, then it would create a medical disaster – much like the Chernobyl accident. But that’s an extremely big IF. The Chernobyl reactor was of a design designed for military plutonium production in the Soviet Union – it had no containment vessel, and it was operated in a dangerous, unstable situation, and safety procedures were violated, with almost all the control rods being removed, with the reactor being run by operators with no understanding of reactor physics at all, in an environment with no safety culture at all.

    Could it ever happen to our light water reactors in the Western world? No.

    The radioactive fission product waste from the recycling of used nuclear fuel will remain dangerous for about 300 to 500 years, not millennia.

  • Shirley Siluk Gregory

    Thanks for the comments, Max. You raise a good point that I plan to address in my soon-to-come “con” post on nuclear power: the fact that a growing number of reactors are going up in developing and less-than-stable parts of the world. The safety standards and oversight in those regions can often be questionable, which is a great cause for concern.

  • http://www.planetsave.com Max

    Shirley,

    Nice article, well done and I understand the siren’s call of nuclear very well. But until there is some way to dispose of the waste, I’m against building more plants.

    We seem to forget that the world’s 439 nuclear power plants provide about 16 percent of electricity, not much of a change in 20 years.

    As plants get older, so does the possibility of an equipment breakdown or a sudden, inadvertent human error, I like to call the “Oops Factor”.

    Developing countries are joining the nuclear renaissance, if you will, and therein lies another concern, corrupt governments and the lack of proper safety standard accountability. I’m not saying they’re all corrupt, but those governments do exist.

    Rachel makes a strong argument about radiation poisoning with her recollection of the farmer across the road dumping milk because it was to “hot” for human consumption.

    One more thing I think we tend to forget. As long as man can make it and operate it, it can break, or man can compromise its safety. Like it or not, Murphy’s Law exists.

    Looking back at the Chernobyl accident and the effect it has had on the area and people who are still dying from radiation-caused illnesses, I’m reminded of Nevada’s atomic bomb tests. The incidence of lymphoma alone in St. George, UT is still much higher than other areas of the country. St.George was downwind of those tests, and the poisoning goes on.

    Should, for whatever reason, a cloud of high-level radioactive waste be released into the atmosphere, thousands will eventually die.

    Nuclear proponents are, to use an old gambling term, “betting on the come”, that nothing will happen and we can all live happily ever after.

    I may never live to see it, but I pray I’m proven wrong.

  • Rachel

    And then again, this is what they found in rats around Chernobyl: “It is concluded that the diversity and abundance of the small-mammal fauna is not presently reduced at the most radioactive sites. Specimens from the most radioactive areas do not demonstrate aberrant gross morphological features other than enlargement of the spleen. Examination of karyotypes does not document gross chromosomal rearrangements.” (http://tinyurl.com/yvxtj3) Not much, certainly no mutations… The Ichikawa article I cited above was published in the same journal (http://tinyurl.com/2hudc9).

  • Rachel

    I did a Google search on “mutations around nuclear power stations.” The first and second hit are to a research article called “In situ monitoring with Tradescantia around nuclear power plants” by Sadao Ichikawa. To quote from the abstract: “Significantly increased mutation frequencies were observed and were correlated to the operation periods of the nuclear facilities and to predominant wind direction, but not to other environmental factors. Considering physical monitoring data of radiation dose in the air, internal exposure due to incorporation and concentration of man-made radioactive nuclides seemed to be of a greater importance in increasing mutation incidence.”

    You are not citing the National Geographic article but the title of one I found is “Despite Mutations, Chernobyl Wildlife is Thriving.” It goes on to say: “The effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe are still being felt today—whole towns lie abandoned, and cancer rates in people living close to the affected areas are abnormally high.” So, animals have adapted. Bravo. Nature is an amazing thing. That does not mean that nuclear power is safe.

    For a moment I was afraid that I fell into the trap of “reliance on ‘them’ for information” as Jim47 put it. I remembered this vaguely from my childhood, which is a “few” years ago… Thanks for calling me on the carpet, Jim! I think you are absolutely right: This topic is too important to decide on hear-say. But it looks like the mutation issue is real.

    Shirley – according to mapcrow.info, I lived about 1043 miles (1680 KM) from Chernobyl at the time of the accident. Not sure if I’d consider that “near” but it’s certainly closer than the US…

  • Shirley Siluk Gregory

    elie, I do hear you; as I said, I’ve been pretty skeptical about nuclear power until recently. If you haven’t yet, I would suggest reading “The Revenge of Gaia,” (especially the chapter on “Sources of Energy”) … I’d be interested to know if it changed your mind at all.

    I do agree with you about some of the negative effects of our tampering with nature. That’s why I’m vehemently opposed to so-called geoengineering fixes like seeding the oceans with iron to promote plankton blooms and carbon dioxide absorption. Give me a choice between nuclear power and any of the proposed geoengineering solutions to climate change — the long-term effects of which we really don’t comprehend — and I’ll have to choose nuclear.

    Rachel, thanks for the perspective of someone who lived near Chernobyl at the time of the disaster. The contaminated milk issue actually came up as one of the greater concerns in the WHO followups. In fact, the organization cited the consumption of radioactive milk as the likely cause of so many thyroid cancers among people who were young children or adolescents at the time of the accident. Fortunately, that type of cancer proved to be much more successfully treatable than leukemia and other forms of “solid” cancer.

    As I said, I plan to explore the “con” arguments against nuclear power in another post soon. Even absent documentation of mutations, etc., I think there are still legitimate reasons to approach the nuclear power solution cautiously.

    Then again, caution implies time … which I don’t believe we have much more of before the feedback mechanisms and extreme effects of climate change start making themselves felt.

  • Jim47

    I should have noted in my immediate above that there are still on-going studies at Chernobyl as to any increased mutational effects in the animal and plant populations. The jury is definitely still out on this. There is no argument that radiation from strontium, cesium and other decaying elements is higher within the Chernobyl reserve than in a “normal” area. This is certainly a cause for concern. The thing to remember is that Chernobyl was a poorly-designed station that had a serious melt-down, something which has not happened anywhere else in the world. Three Mile Island, the Santa Susana Field Lab, and other events were far smaller, and were often contained. To the best of my knowledge, no currently-active nuclear power station has radiation levels outside the containment buildings higher than the normal “background radiation” that we all live with every day. If anyone has solid documentation to the contrary, I’d be pleased to read it.

  • Jim47

    Let me “briefly” address the issues raised by elie and Rachel:

    Nuclear energy *is* one of the Laws of Nature. If you don’t believe me, please do your own research. We live on a nuclear power plant of incredible complexity (we call it “Earth”), and we derive our remaining power (of all types) from a huge fusion reactor. We live in a radioactive universe, and it’s a good thing that we do; our lives are easier because of it. In fact, we exist because of radioactivity. The difference here is that nuclear power plants are human-designed attempts to control Nature’s forces, just as wind farms and coal-powered burners and hydroelectric dams and automobiles and all the rest are. Any time humans design things, there is a chance for error. But let me ask you this: how many people have been killed by automobiles, or dam collapses? Hundreds of thousands more than have been killed by nuclear power; some have died today in car accidents, in all likelihood. Safe nuclear power can, and is, being produced, right now, around the world, and we can continue to do so. The key is writing laws and regulations that make the chances of accidents vanishingly small.

    Nuclear waste is a real issue; too bad we let the politicians write the laws, instead of letting scientists and engineers handle it. There are several solid proposals for handling spent fuel rods: sending them to the Moon and burying them in subduction zones are but two of them. They can also be reused in power plants, when properly “recharged”. The “problem” exists because politicians are not generally very visionary or practical. It’s the same reason why our health-care system is such a mess; we let politicians write the laws, rather than letting doctors and patients work things out. Politicians and bureaucrats are very useful at times, but they are also some of our worst enemies.

    Please cite any studies that discuss animal mutations near active nuclear power stations. I tried to google for them, but came up with nothing really useful in the first 5-6 pages. I *did* find several articles about the wildlife preserve that surrounds the Chernobyl plant. National Geographic’s website has at least a couple of articles about it, and the journal, “Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry”, Vol.19, No.5, pp.1231-1232, 2000, has a letter that addresses the improved conditions for flora and fauna directly outside the station. No mention of mutations in either source was made. As I live in Southern California, where two large nuclear power plants exist (San Onofre and Diablo Canyon), I keep up with any information that is disseminated about them. Several studies and collection trips have produced no evidence of mutations around these stations. Believe me or not, but I have far too many friends who are opposed to nuclear power not to have heard if such evidence existed; they would rub my nose in it. As far as I have been able to determine, mutation outside nuclear power stations does not happen.

    I do not mind at all if people are opposed to nuclear power. What I mind is a reliance on “them” for information. Please do your own research. Do not trust a “friend of an acquaintance of a relative” for your information. Learn all you can about nuclear power; you will be better able to defend your opposition to it if you can cite facts.

  • Rachel

    What about the waste?!? That is really the key issue – that stuff is radioactive and dangerous for millenia.

    Also, while the WHO might have checked into the deaths associated with Chernobyl, there was a lot of other damage. I was living in Germany then, at the very Western edge (i.e., thousands of miles from the accident). The farmer across the street from us had to dump his milk because it was too radioactive for human consumption. I believe that most of the German milk from around that time was converted to milk powder, which nobody wanted since it was radioactive. Some clever and irresponsible politician came up with the idea to donate it…

    Nuclear energy is not an alternative. It is not safe even under normal operations (there are studies documenting mutations in animals living around nuclear power plants). While it certainly reduces carbon emissions (of course! You’re not burning fossils!), it comes with a host of other problems.

  • elie

    no one knows enough about nuclear energy. the only thing we do know is that each time we interfere with the laws of nature, we end up paying the price one way or another. for some reason we never seem to learn the lesson and still try to detroy the planet for our own convenience. as for the problems we have with wind farms and hydroelectric farms, at least we know that these are not unreversible probelms, as opposed to the damage that nuclear will expose us to.

  • Shirley Siluk Gregory

    Thanks, Jim. As I said, I still have some nagging doubts, but I’m surprised at how much my view of nuclear power has changed in a short time after digging into the subject a bit deeper.

    Of course, the billion-dollar question is: can we help enough others come around to the same viewpoint and build the plants needed to stave off catastrophic climate change? What will it take?

  • Jim47

    Finally, a well-reasoned defense of nuclear energy! Thank you for taking the time to do some due diligence on this. I am strongly Green (I’m even a registered Green), but I’m also a physics student who understands the benefits of nuclear power. There are certainly a number of problems with nuclear power plants, just as there problems with wind farms and hydroelectric dams, etc, but they are not unsolvable, as the French and Japanese have shown. We truly need nuclear energy; those who rail against it without trying to understand it are being foolish.

    Know Nukes!

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