Is Nuclear Power the Answer to Climate Change?

Nuclear power plant in France (photo by Tristan Nitot)A growing chorus of voices is touting nuclear power as the energy solution that can help curb global warming. I’ve never been one to sing that tune, but I’m no longer as certain as I once was.

My doubts arose after reading James Lovelock’s “The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity” (2006, Basic Books). In it, Lovelock warns that, within this century, climate change could very well end civilization. He also argues — more persuasively than I expected — that nuclear power is the only energy source today that will let us both stop pumpking lethal amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and preserve modern life as we know it.

I’ve heard that argument before, though never as eloquently as Lovelock puts it. But even if nuclear energy is as safe and reliable as Lovelock says, I still question whether it’s as low-carbon as its advocates make it out to be.

For one, there’s the matter of mining uranium for fuel and transporting it to reactor sites — that requires fossil fuels, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the construction of the nuclear plants themselves, with all their thick concrete shielding. The cement-making process creates a lot of carbon dioxide … possibly as much as a ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of cement produced, according to George Monbiot’s book “Heat.”

Assuming we could muster the will and finances needed — and overcome the guaranteed public objections — to embark on a nuclear plant construction spree today, wouldn’t we just be sending our carbon emissions into overdrive, at least until the reactors are up and running? Is it worth the risk, or do we have no other choice?

Photo courtesy of Tristan Nitot, posted on Wikimedia Commons

16 thoughts on “Is Nuclear Power the Answer to Climate Change?”

  1. Shirley, that’s a great question. I don’t pretend to have a good answer; we know that we all have to restrain our use of the world’s resources but we learned from the examples of communism that coercion leads to a distorted economic structure which ultimately fails.

    What you describe is exactly right. Consider the people who ride buses or bicycles to minimize their footprints and watch others squander fuel. When Senior Bush was President the country faced a serious shortage of motor fuels: people couldn’t get fuel to get to work but he drove his cigarette boat around on the ocean for relaxation.

    No doubt there will have to be different parts to the solution. But the first part should be to offer attractive alternatives. For example, taking the bus stinks. Unless you live on a bus route that takes you to work, buses are slow. Even if you do they’re inconvenient, uncomfortable, unreliable and unsanitary. But light rail can work and has worked where it’s been put in place. In contrast, HOV lanes are aimed at punishing people who don’t have decent bus service and can’t carpool; they interfere with traffic and waste both time and fuel, not to mention raising air-pollution levels. So I think we should focus on positive measures, such as improving public transportation and establishing safe bicycle routes.

    Some services, such as water or electricity, can be billed differentially, depending on when and how much people use them. But there will always be Bill Gates Jr’s who don’t care about cost. I don’t think long-term rationing will work; even if politicians were willing to vote rationing in the voters would replace them with other politicians. Also, people will never agree on which rationing scheme is fair.

    But efficiency standards would be an important part of the solution. Building energy codes already accomplish much; possibly the codes could be made stricter for bigger houses. Still, residential energy-use only accounts for about 6% of the country’s CO2 emissions (that is, if electricity comes from non-fossil sources). Gasoline accounts for about 33% and for sure, a lot could be done with fuel-efficiency standards; the present targets are way too slack.

    But what about recreational use of motor fuel?
    People buy RVs because national and state parks don’t have the amenities that make tent camping comfortable. RV owners don’t care about the cost of fuel because RVs don’t make economic sense anyway. Maybe the solution is to provide more lodges and cabins. Or at least hot showers and maybe rain shelters over the tent pads.

    What about boats and personal aircraft? For about a hundred reasons the number of private pilot licenses needs to be restricted. Maybe there should be a law requiring boats to have at least enough sails to propel themselves.

    I think in the end there always will be selfish people who abuse the world’s resources. But if we societally offer people good alternatives then we personally will take advantage of them.

    This is a really tough question. I’d be glad to learn your thoughts.

  2. Shirley Siluk Gregory

    Thanks, redcraig. I agree with you re: the Simpler Living approach. I try to follow that philosophy every day, and work constantly to reduce my own footprint.

    Still, though, without some mandated limits on consumption, I can’t escape the feeling that those of us who are trying to reduce, reuse, conserve and do without are in some way suckers.

    Consider, for example, the wealthy Atlanta man living in a mansion with seven bathrooms and consuming 60 times as much water as the average resident. How much are we low-flow toilet owners helping the planet when others can consume so profligately?

  3. Shirley, that’s a magnificent article.

    One small difference: I don’t consider anti-nukes to be environmentalists. Many environmentalists have been misled on the subject, but the people who started the opposition to nuclear energy had an agenda only a minority of environmentalists favor: forcing population control and lower consumption levels. Amory Lovins and Paul Ehrlich were early prophets of the ideology.

    Real environmentalists favor the Simpler Living approach. People can be persuaded to shrink their footprints and this movement has accomplished wonderful things. The originators of the anti-nuclear-power movement simply forced the world to use more fossil fuels.

  4. Shirley Siluk Gregory

    redcraig, in homage to your extensive documentation on the pro side for nuclear power, I’ve attempted further to persuade myself here. Thanks for providing so much helpful information!

  5. Hi,

    There is indeed a large misinformation campaign going on against nuclear. First, let me adress about some concerns:
    a. Nuclear power “waste” can be used to make nuclear bombs.
    No, not really. The “waste” that can be used is plutonium (Pu239). It comes from the transmutation of U238 in the fuel. But in a spent fuel rod of a power plant it is at a slightly higher level than U235 is in natural uranium. But in a spent fuel rod it is very contaminated with Pu240, and that isotope “poisons” a nuclear weapon. It can’t really explode, but can be “burnt” in a nuclear reactor. It’s also impossible to separate Pu240 from Pu239. It would be much easier to make a bomb from U235, which is contained at 0.7% in natural Uranium ore. Enrichment as fuel is only to 5%. For a weapon it needs to be enriched to 80-90%. Not easy to do.
    2. Waste is a long term problem.
    No, not really. Current reactors use only 2-3% of the potential energy in the fuel. The rest is “waste”. New reactors (various breeder designs) exist that can burn up up to 80-90% of the fuel energy. This of course creates much smaller amounts of waste with shorter half-lives of only 30 years or so. Which means after 300 years it has decayed to the radioactivity of natural uranium ore found in many places on earth.
    3. Nuclear power has a large carbon footprint.
    No, not really. Yes if you believe some of the reports and formulas from anti-nuke people. The most common formula from a report there has been applied for example to a uranium mine in Namibia with the result that the projected energy use of that mine alone exceeded the total energy use of the whole country of any form of energy (incl. the mine) by a factor 2.6. Same result as example for a mine in Australia. These examples were used because the energy usages of the mines were known exactly.
    The fact is that current uranium prices are at about USD40.- per kg. That is low. Especially considering the amount used by a nuclear station, which is measured at a few tons per year, compared to hundreds of thousands of tons for a coal plant.
    4. Nuclear power stations need massive amounts of concrete for construction.
    No, not really. Compare it to the amount of concrete used per kWh produced in hydroelectric or wind. Don’t underestimate the amount of concrete needed for the foundation of a wind tower. It has to withstand hurricane forces and needs massive foundations. Mutiply that by a few thousand times just to get the equivalent energy out of wind that a nuclear reactor uses.
    5. Hydrogen can be made from wind and solar power.
    No, not really effectively. Electrolysis, which would and could be the only way with all alternative energies, aside from nuclear, has an efficiency of less than 50% in respect to hydrogen energy content to electrical energy to produce it. Advanced nuclear reactors run at high enough temperatures to allow thermal cracking of hydrogen. With 80%+ efficiency.

    – Klaus

  6. Shirley, you’ve identified the problem exactly. The fact is, propaganda works. When the Berlin wall fell, East Germans were astounded to learn that West Germans were better off than they were. Everytime East Europeans liberated themselves they had the same discovery. Today, North Koreans are starving but they believe the South Koreans are worse off.

    Anti-nuclear groups have succeeded in convincing people that they are the chief defenders of the environment. The facts prove otherwise, that they’ve succeeded only in enriching themselves. Here’s a critique. But they’ve promoted themselves so successfully that someone like Pern or the Green Party can toss out misinformation without offering any basis for it whatsoever and someone like you who’s never been exposed to real information just gravitates to it because it fits the misinformation you’ve always been exposed to. Pern didn’t even say Sweden is using a lot of renewable energy, just that it could. Actually Sweden uses a lot of nuclear energy; I think that next to France it’s the most nuclear country in Europe.

    Are you aware that thousands of Americans die every month from the air pollution generated by coal-burning power plants? Please see the Abt report, “The Particulate-Related Health Benefits of Reducing Power Plant Emissions.” []. It’s a long report, very technical; if you like, you can just look at the results table Coal pollution is the main source of lead in the ocean; fish now are so poisoned with lead that people are advised to limit their consumption. When whales beach themselves and die the corpses have to be treated as hazardous waste because of the heavy metals they contain.

    Why don’t anti-nuclear groups tell you this? Well, it’s pretty obvious. Their opposition to nuclear energy has devastated the environment and they don’t want you to know. Millions of people have died world-wide, the environment has been irreversibly altered, and now we see that the climate has changed. What do you expect them to do? Should they admit that their dishonesty has led to tragic consequences on a global scale? Or should they keep on lying and pretend it’s someone else’s fault? Easy question.

  7. Shirley Siluk Gregory

    This is definitely an eye-opening discussion for me. I have to confess I never would have thought myself to be as open to support for nuclear power until reading Lovelock’s latest book.

    You make a good point, Pem: other nations could easily follow the example of a country like Sweden if they chose to. Part of the problem, as others have pointed out before, is that there always seems to be more lobbying money and political interest for big, expensive, centralized energy plants rather than diffused, individualized solutions like municipal or home-based solar, wind, etc. The power structure in place can’t derive as much benefit from these “small,” local solutions.

    redcraig, I’ve also read through your analysis of nuclear power and find your arguments both straightforward and sound. But I believe something more — not sure what — will be needed to overcome the strong (even if it’s more emotional than rational) public objections to nuclear power.

    I guess the situation can best be summed up as, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” People can see and understand the smoke coming from a coal-fired power plant or the environmental damage caused by strip-mining. They can’t see whether a canister of waste is radioactive or not, or whether radioactive gases or water are leaking from a plant. I think it’s human nature to fear more the things that are “invisible.”

  8. Shirley – a brave post, if indeed that’s the word. To keep an open mind as we attempt to to lessen the planet’s fever is imperative.

    As you know, the UK have just given the go-ahead for the nuclear route.

    As I suggested in my post, from a UK perspective, we currently glean 4% of our energy from sustainable sources, yet live on an island that is at the mercy of strong winds and tidal currents.

    Compare this with Sweden where it has been suggested that upto 50% of their energy is sustainable. seems a persuasive reaction to reactors if you ask me.

  9. I wish I could believe that was really your only concern, because it’s easy to address, but the history of this is that people have been hammered over the years with so much distortion in the news and outright misinformation from political groups that when a person’s concerns have been answered the same person will invariably say that, well, his/her concern really is —.

    First, there is an assumption made here that the earlier construction rate represented some kind of maximum rate beyond which the world couldn’t build new plants and so it’s hopeless to believe the world could do more now. That was not the case; what set the rate of construction was the demand for new plants, not the capacity for building them.

    Second, the new designs that are being proposed are simpler than the earlier designs. The designers have incorporated features into them that make them inherently safer so that the risk of accident is lower even while the safety systems are less complex. Furthermore, manufacturing and construction technology has advanced in the intervening decades. Just as office buildings can be put up faster and cheaper, so can power-plant structures. Computers and laser-guided machine tools have revolutionized the manufacture of heavy machinery. New testing techniques ensure quality control both cheaper and more thorough.

    Third, no one is proposing that nuclear is the sole means of minimizing global warming. The program for building new plants can be ramped up at a manageable rate. As new plants are being built, the number of companies who concentrate on building them will rise so the rate of construction will accelerate. In the meantime, solar and wind farms can be built to reduce the load on fossil-burning plants and conservation can also help. You’ll remember that Lovelock’s objection to solar and wind is that they require fossil-fuel backup. In the near term, the fossil-fuel backup exists anyway, so any energy the alternatives produce will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. When the world reaches the point where no fossil fuels are used to generate electricity whoever is around will be able to decide what to do at that point; they will know much more than we do because of the experience they will have gained.

    Here I’ll offer a prediction. The only workable solution to motor fuels we can see even on the horizon is hydrogen-enriched biofuels (google H2CAR). That could work, but it would require vast amounts of hydrogen. The best way by far to produce hydrogen is with nuclear-driven thermochemistry. Imagine that when the wind is up and the sun is shining, nuclear plants could shift their production from electricity to hydrogen. That’s a way that solar and wind could generate hydrogen, by taking the load off nuclear.

    As I see it, this is a plan that could work. I don’t see how any other plan could work. Failing to build nuclear plants would require fossil-fueled plants always to be standing by for when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing and so during dark and low-wind periods greenhouse gases would continue to be emitted. And the economic and environmental cost of generating motor fuels would be prohibitive.

    I didn’t address your earlier question about rising sea level. You should understand that such an event is not considered imminent, but a likely result in a century or so. Existing seaside plants will have been decommissioned by then; new plants will be sited with that concern in mind.

    Thanks for keeping your mind open on this. If we can make good decisions now the world will be much better off in the future.

  10. Shirley Siluk Gregory

    redcraig, I am serious … just very ambivalent. As I said, Lovelock makes a strong case for nuclear — one that I found quite persuasive. The links you’ve provided do so as well. It’s just that, “Yes, but … ” factor that bothers me.

    As George Monbiot put it in “Heat,” “I hate this topic (nuclear power) partly because it is charged with more anger than any other; partly because every fact is fiercely contested.”

    Even giving nuclear power all the benefits of the doubt, the greatest problem seems to be one of implementation: as the Keystone Center study said, we’d have to ramp up nuclear power development to historic peaks and keep building that way for the next 50 years to even make a dent in carbon emissions. That’s a Marshall Plan on a global scale the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

    Before we could have even reasonable hopes of such a program getting underway, I’m afraid, we’ll probably have to see the effects of climate change get far worse and really scary around the globe (not just in places like the Marianas, Tuvalu, Bangladesh and Shishmaref) … which means much valuable time will pass.

  11. Shirley, I’m disappointed. From your article I thought you were serious about this. If you become serious in the future, read Power to Save the World by Gwyneth Cravens. She started out with the same misunderstandings but researched the subject very thoroughly, going herself to see where the work was being done, and changed her view completely. I can’t tell if you’ve read the comments I made earlier. I’ll try it again. Whatever way we deal with global warming will take considerable effort. But the effort will only be somewhat larger than the effort it would take to replace coal burners as they wear out. Which do you think is more practical, 1 nuke, 1700 big turbines, or 21 million square meters of solar panels?

    Ugly, you’re just recycling the same misinformation that got us into this dilemma. You won’t but if anyone reading this wants to know the real scoop, he can read the European Commission’s report on external costs of energy. It shows that solar, wind, and nuclear all run under 1 eurocent per KWH, compared with 2 to 15 eurocents for fossil fuels. That takes into account all the pollution, illness, and injuries. There is no reputable analyst anywhere who will say wind or solar costs out cheaper than nuclear. Here’s a better example.

  12. Shirley Siluk Gregory

    Sorry about the URL error, redcraig — it’s fixed now.

    Ugly American, I do feel the same way as you: despite Lovelock’s well-reasoned argument, nuclear power still gives me the heebie-jeebies for all the reasons you mentioned.

    (Plus, my reaction while reading “The Revenge of Gaia” was, “Well, if civilization is on the line and we don’t succeed even with a nuclear build-out, aren’t we risking even greater disaster in the future? Just imagine all those reactors left unattended as sea levels rise, or if conflict breaks out because of millions of climate refugees.”)

    Even if we could overcome those objections, there’s another problem. As the Keystone Center reported in a study last year, achieving enough carbon reductions for even one Pacala-Socolow wedge would “require the industry to return immediately to the most rapid period of growth experienced in the past (1981-90) and sustain this rate of growth for 50 years.”

    Not encouraging, is it?

  13. Shirley, thanks for the link to the article (there’s a slight error in the URL). These kinds of projects are exciting (well, if they’re the sort of things that excite you). Oregon is looking at doing something similar to extract tidal energy at the mouth of the Columbia River.

    As far as the construction materials problem goes, we won’t avoid it by looking at other energy sources. I mentioned the scale of construction needed for solar and wind farms; the same will apply to new alternatives, assuming they can be made to work. Consider the maintenance problems of ships working in the ocean. What would be the maintenance problems of undersea turbines?

    I see it slightly differently. The existing coal-fired plants will have to be replaced with something when they wear out anyway. To replace them with nuclear plants or wind farms or, perhaps, undersea turbines, will be somewhat greater but not extravagantly greater. If we can do it for coal certainly we can do it for other sources. But the point you’ve made is a very powerful argument for conservation and energy efficiency.

  14. If you ignore the cost over-runs, the shutdowns, the tax funded mining cleanup, the tax funded waste storage and the occasional world-wide disaster, then yeah, nuclear looks pretty good!

    Wind and thermal solar are safe and don’t polute.

    Wind and thermal solar total lifecycle costs are better than than nukes or coal.

  15. Shirley Siluk Gregory

    redcraig, thanks for the engineering study link — I’ll read through it for more info.

    As you said, Lovelock makes a compelling case for why nuclear is better than wind/solar/etc. But I think his argument is based upon today’s conditions for construction: if we scale up a massive nuclear plant construction project, it seems like the global demand for cement and other construction materials will go through the roof, driving up prices big-time … which makes nuclear economically less feasible.

    Again, like you said, part-time energy sources aren’t good enough (at present) to supply today’s energy needs. But one alternative that’s not really in the public eye much yet — underwater Gulf Stream power — might be promising (that is, if melting icecaps don’t shut down the ocean’s conveyer belts!)

  16. I’ve come down on the same side you’re leaning toward. Is nuclear power the answer to climate change? No, but it’s an essential part of the answer.

    There aren’t any quick easy solutions to climate change. For example, a big wind turbine (rotor-tip height ~ 450 feet) would be rated at 1.5 MW and its average output would be about 500 KW. A 1000-MW nuclear power plant would average about 850,000 KW, so 1 nuke = 1700 big wind turbines. A 1-sq-meter solar panel would average 0.04 KW in the US and less in Europe, so 1 nuke = more than 21 million square meters.

    Some studies have been done to compare the life-cycle CO2 emissions of different energy sources, which include mining, transportation, concrete, etc—everything that relates. Here’s an example. All the studies (not counting the ones done by adversarial groups like Greenpeace) show that nuclear ranks about the same as windpower and considerably better than solar power.

    But, as Lovelock points out, the biggest problem is that the world won’t depend on part-time energy sources. If there isn’t enough nuclear energy then people will keep burning fossil fuels whenever the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

    This really matters because part of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is converting fossil-fuel applications to electricity (for example, battery-powered cars). This only works if we increase the reliable supply of electric power from non-fossil sources.

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