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.
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