Nuclear power: Safe, clean, abundant energy to fight climate change

This article was inspired by one of the areas where people on my side of the spectrum, the Left, get things the most wrong. Bernie Sanders wants to abolish nuclear power, Elizabeth Warren said she would “not build more nuclear,” and AOC’s Green New Deal has no place for nuclear and was even looking to phase it out.

Much of the anti-nuclear position seems to stem from the idea that nuclear scientists are clueless about the dangers and risks associated with nuclear and have given next to no thought to minimizing those risks. Nuclear critics seem to have a caricature of nuclear scientists as maniacal mad scientists who don’t care about keeping people safe. This may at least partially spawn from a fallacious circular belief that nuclear scientists must not care about people’s safety by virtue of them having chosen the field of nuclear energy as a career.

In reality nuclear organizations have detailed outlines of how nuclear plants have been made safer, and how they can be made even more safe in the future. But for anti-nuclear fanatics, nuclear can never be safe enough. They will set a bar for nuclear to reach, nuclear will reach it, and they will continue raising the bar higher in order to continue justifying their rejection of nuclear power. It isn’t about facts, it is about having adopted a hate for nuclear long ago based on emotion, and now needing to interpret all new incoming information on the topic in whatever way justifies maintaining that position.

So let us go through several of the bad arguments, fallacious reasoning, and mental gymnastics they use to justify their opposition to nuclear.

“It isn’t safe”

This is one of the most transparently false claims. No matter how you measure safety, nuclear comes out ahead of almost every other form of energy production, even hydroelectric.

Scientific studies by Markandya and Wilkinson (2007) and Sovacool et al. (2016) which have tallied up the deaths from accidents, such as the Chernobyl or Fukushima, occupational accidents in mining or power plant operations, and premature deaths from air pollution. The picture below representing this data shows death per unit of energy produced. This is done for the obvious reason that, for example, if coal and a nuclear plants were equally deadly, coal plants would still have a larger number of gross deaths because there are more coal power plants. Putting things in terms of deaths per unit of energy adjusts for this potentially misleading variable.

Ritchie, H. (2020). What are the safest sources of energy?

Nuclear wins. It is safer than almost all other sources of energy, including wind, hydroelectric, and solar. It is safer than coal and gas by multiple orders of magnitude. This fact is so pronounced that a study by Pushker Kharecha and James Hansen (2013)—yes, the same James Hansen who is a well-respected climatologist and whose 1988 climate models are ineptly and dishonestly attacked by climate denialists—found it beneficial to look at how many lives were actually saved between 1971 and 2009 by nuclear energy through reduced air pollution. The finding was 1.87 million human deaths were prevented by nuclear power.

Something else to consider is how safe nuclear reactor use has been in the world’s naval arsenal. The US has not had any incidents. In the words of the World Nuclear Organization:

“The US Navy has accumulated over 6200 reactor-years of accident-free experience involving 526 nuclear reactor cores over the course of 240 million kilometres, without a single radiological incident, over a period of more than 50 years.”

If the beliefs of anti-nuclear fanatics were true about nuclear, the oceans should all be radioactive toxic waste dumps, and sailors should be growing extra limbs left and right (obviously I’m being facetious). That isn’t the case.

Nuclear waste

The basics

First we need to acknowledge that all forms of energy production create waste. Wind turbine blades aren’t recyclable, and in 20 years we will have 720,000 tons (653,173 metric tons) of blade material to deal with (Stella, 2019). Compare that with the 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste accumulated in ~60 years of operating nuclear plants (U.S. Government Accountability Office, n.d.). There was around 250,000 metric tons of PV solar waste in the world as of 2016, projected to be around 78 million metric tons by 2050 (Weckend, Wade, & Heath, 2016). Cadmium from PV panels is particularly hazardous to the environment. And, since PV and wind only work about 25 and 35 percent of the time respectively due to cloud cover, lack of wind, etc. (nuclear works 93.5 percent of the time), batteries are necessary for storage when conditions are good (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2020). The EPA (2013) has written extensively of the severe environmental impacts of production and disposal of such batteries. On large power-production scales, this would be a considerable drawback.

Of course in terms of waste, coal is currently the worst offender. In 2017 the US alone produced 1.3 billion tons of CO2 carbon pollution, which pretty much all just goes into the air. And that is before considering the waste from mining coal. In fact, the pollution from coal puts 100 times the radiation into the environment that nuclear does; 2 millirem from coal versus .02 from nuclear! Natural background radiation is 300 millirem in the US.

Something important to think about is that the more waste a source produces in sheer volume per unit of energy produced, the more complications that arise from disposal, whether it is recycled or just tossed. This is why coal, at ~30 megajoules of energy per kilogram (MJ/kg) is pathetic compared to uranium fuel at ~80,000,000 MJ/kg (Fisher, n.d.; whatisnuclear.com, n.d.). In other words, waste created from mining and disposal is inherently drastically less with nuclear because less material is needed. Disposal is where this density is particularly useful. Spent fuel doesn’t take up much room relatively speaking.

Solar and wind are below coal in energy density. There is plenty of sun, but the technology used to harvest it is extremely inefficient at converting it into electricity, and there is a ceiling on level of efficiency possible even with improved technology. Typical PV panels currently operate about 10 to 15% efficiency. That means only ~15% of the energy hitting the solar panel is converted to electricity, while the rest is wasted as heat.

The power plant using the fuel also matters. Large-scale solar farms have an energy density around 5 W/m2, while typical nuclear plants go well in excess of 1,000 W/m2 (Wilson, 2013). Let us use two concrete examples of stars in their fields: the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station and Topaz Solar Farm. Palo Verde takes up about 6 square miles and Topaz takes up 9.5. Annually Palo Verde generates 25 times as much power as Topaz; 32,340 GWh versus 1,282.

Summarizing all this information, while nuclear waste can be more dangerous per unit of volume, because it produces such colossal amounts of energy per unit, it needs so much less fuel (and associated waste) that it more than overtakes every other fuel source in the cost/benefit analysis.

Dealing with waste

But how do we deal with nuclear waste? There are many good ways, all better and done more easily than how coal disposes of its waste (dumping it into the air). Some plants have a spent fuel pool, or “pond,” which are swimming pool-looking structures that hold all the spent fuel, sometimes for the duration of the plant. Water is extremely good at stopping radiation, and 22 feet of it (7 meters) can stop pretty much all the radiation from nuclear fuel. A person will typically be getting a smaller dose of radiation looking at a nuclear core through water than they would standing outside on a sunny day. For a fascinating look at this property of water, a short documentary on MIT’s experimental reactor on YouTube mentions it.

For a longer term solution, fuel that has cooled for at least 5 years in pools can be moved to dry cask storage in concrete and steel containers that effectively store the spent fuel as long as necessary with little risk for storage failure.

Then there is permanent storage in deep bunkers of non-porous rock (preventing water contamination) and in geologically stable zones. The proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada is one such example. We know what to do, we know how to build it, but NIMBYs and politics are getting in the way.

Part of the political problem is that multiple sites were considered originally (not just Yucca Mtn.), but “Yucca Mountain was chosen, in part, arbitrarily after Congress balked at the spending required to fully test the other two sites” in Texas and Washington, angering the people of Nevada who labeled the 1987 act the “screw Nevada bill.” While all options should have been fully looked into, having the repository in Nevada hardly screws Nevada. The facility would not dangerously irradiate the area, and the facility would create jobs.

Yucca Mountain has been a decades-long political and legal mess more so than a technical one. It looked like President Trump was going to finally do something good for a change in 2018 by looking into restarting the project, but he stopped the project dead in its tracks again to curry favor in Nevada for the 2020 election.

But remember, despite the political battle for a long-term repository, even with the on-site storage that is currently going on, there is little real threat to the people or the surrounding environment. Decades worth of waste can be stored in an area the size of a parking lot. Compare that with coal plants pumping tons of pollutants directly into the air, or the mining necessary to build storage batteries for wind and solar methods (not do mention the landfill space for disposal), all of which produces massive amounts of waste in creation and disposal.

You may have seen this meme. It is true.

Financial costs of nuclear

There are many things that add to the cost and feasibility of a method of generating electricity. Opponents of nuclear power like to focus on the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) sources. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (2020) defines levelized cost as “the average revenue per unit of electricity generated that would be required to recover the costs of building and operating a generating plant during an assumed financial life and duty cycle.”

Levelized cost of electricity from eia.gov website

Opponents prefer this metric because it seemingly confirms their bias; nuclear appears to be more expensive than everything but biomass and offshore wind. Unfortunately in doing this, opponents are failing to heed the warning of the U.S. Energy Information Administration itself:

“Actual plant investment decisions consider the specific technological and regional characteristics of a project, which involve many other factors not reflected in LCOE values. One such factor is the projected utilization rate, which depends on the varying amount of electricity required over time and the existing resource mix in an area where additional capacity is needed… Because load must be continuously balanced, generating units with the capability to vary output to follow demand (dispatchable technologies) generally have more value to a system than less flexible units (non-dispatchable technologies) that use intermittent resources to operate. The LCOE values for dispatchable and non-dispatchable technologies are listed separately in the following tables [the screenshot above] because comparing them must be done carefully.

LCOE does not capture all of the factors that contribute to actual investment decisions, making the direct comparison of LCOE across technologies problematic and misleading as a method to assess the economic competitiveness of various generation alternatives.”

Joskow (2011) summarizes one of the problems with relying on LCOE:

“In a nutshell, electricity that can be supplied by a wind generator at a levelized cost of6¢/KWh is not ‘cheap’ if the output is available primarily at night when the market value of electricity is only 2.5¢/KWh. Similarly, a combustion turbine with a low expected capacity factor and a levelized cost of 25¢/KWh is not necessarily ‘expensive’ if it can be called on reliably to supply electricity during all hours when the market price is greater than 25¢/KWh… Integrating differences in production profiles, the associated variations in wholesale market prices of electricity, and life-cycle costs associated with different generating technologies is necessary to provide meaningful comparisons between them.”

Among the reasons LCOE as used by anti-nuclear people is bad and misleading is because “it ignores the additional cost of integrating non-dispatchable energy sources into the grid” and “the value of the plant’s output to the grid” (Emblemsvåg, 2020). More on this in a moment. Additionally, LCOE calculations are skewed against long-lived sources of energy like nuclear because their calculations assume recovery periods much shorter than the plant will actually likely operate. Nuclear plants remain in operation north of 60 years, yet, for example, the U.S. EIA (2020) uses recovery periods of 30 years in their calculations.

With all these things in mind, it is not surprising that the study by Emblemsvåg (2020) in the International Journal of Sustainable Energy concluded that “windfarms are not cost effective when a certain output must be guaranteed as major opportunity costs are introduced… New technologies do not provide enough productivity gains to offset the advantage that existing power plants have concerning lower fixed costs.”

Something that should cause a mental red flag to go up about levelized cost is how different of a picture Energy Return on Investment (EROI) shows. EROI is how much energy we get back for the amount we put into an energy source. To build an energy source there is an investment of energy required through mining, manufacture, maintenance, fuel, and waste disposal. An energy source would be worthless if we only broke even, let alone had a net loss in energy. And as we know, things that take a lot of energy to make are expensive to make. So, if something is expensive to make, it better have a high return on investment, otherwise it is not worth making.

Weißbach et al. (2013) report the EROI for various methods of generating electricity and it turns out that nuclear blows all other sources of energy out of the water (including hydro, pun intended). Nuclear gets us 75 times the energy we put into it. Wind, solar, and biomass have much lower returns, and that means they are extremely wasteful and are likely to pollute almost as much as they save in pollution.

Weißbach et al. (2013) graph

The yellow striped line indicates the “buffered” energy output. What that means is, for example, wind doesn’t always blow enough to generate electricity, so other sources would have to step up to buffer that lapse. Solar has the same problem; it doesn’t generate electricity at night or during cloud-cover. Also note the “economical threshold” in the picture. It indicates the threshold at which relying on an energy source overall would be economically feasible without tanking the economy through the necessary investment in energy.

Weißbach et al. (2013) is, however, somewhat of an outlier with regards to its EROI results on renewables, solar PV in particular. That study is also using older data which doesn’t reflect the recent decline in price and necessary energy output in solar tech. More common current EROI results for solar are around ~9-10, or ~7-8 when taking into account “energy investments for service inputs such as ‘project management’ and insurance” (Raugei et al., 2017). Averaging together all renewables, including wind, Capellán-Pérez et al. (2019) put the EROI them globally at ~12. These newer figures don’t change the outlook for solar much though. It is still teetering on the economical threshold, and all unreliable energy sources like wind and solar continue to have another serious issue regarding what happens when we try to increase them as an overall percentage of where we get energy from.

Like anti-nuclear people, I want to get us off of energy sources that emit CO2. I want an approach that focuses on nuclear, but also utilizes wind and solar where they are appropriate and feasible. Nuclear opponents, however, want to approach CO2 reduction with almost exclusive reliance on wind and solar, Variable Renewable Energy (VRE), which would be a serious mistake. They are called variable because they don’t consistently produce electricity, and this creates problems when designing an electric grid.

As a result of all the power grid issues that must be dealt with because of the variable nature of VRE sources, they get much more expensive as they make up a higher percentage of overall power generation. Reichenberg, Hedenus, Odenberger, and Johnsson (2018) found that going from 0% to 80% of an electric grid the cost of VRE sources nearly doubles! Past 80% their price increases even faster! This isn’t a one-off result either. Capellán-Pérez et al. (2019) found that if we try to get to 100% renewable energy (primarily focusing on VRE sources) by 2060, renewables fall from an average EROI of 12 today to 3 by mid-century, then level out at 5 after that. This is completely infeasible. Dispatchable sources like nuclear don’t have that problem.

Turns out the fact that the Sun is often not shining and the wind is often not blowing is a very, very serious issue.

To put economics in concrete terms let us go back to the earlier examples of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station and Topaz Solar Farm. Palo Verde cost about $11.7 billion in 2018 dollars and Topaz cost $2.4 billion. Palo Verde cost 4.9 times as much as Topaz, but it generates 25.22 times the electricity. In other words, the solar farm would have to cost $60.5 billion to make the same amount of electricity that nuclear does at $11.7 billion. Keep in mind, the nuclear plant is doing its job with slightly upgraded 1980s tech while that solar plant got up and running post-2013 and is one of the biggest and newest of its kind.

Palo Verde is a remarkable station. It is the US’s largest nuclear power plant. Its annual positive direct and indirect economic impact is about $2 billion, and it gives jobs to around 3,500 people (Arizona Public Service, 2018). It produces roughly 70% of Arizona’s low-carbon energy, and 35% of Arizona’s power overall. Adding $2 billion to an economy annually throughout a plant life that can continue for 60+ years, and with a building cost of about $12 billion dollars. Palo Verde is a bargain.

So, if nuclear is so efficient and a good investment, why then do we keep hearing stories about nuclear plants that can’t financially compete with alternatives like natural gas? Well, it is likely related to the fact that nuclear gets shafted regarding tax preferences; all the other sources of energy get huge amounts of support. For example, in 2016, of the $18.4 billion that went to subsidizing the various energy industries, 1% went to nuclear while 25% went to fossil-fuels (most notably natural gas), and 59% went to renewable energy according to the Congressional Budget Office (2017).

There is also direct DOE investment, a much smaller $5.9 billion pie which includes things like research. Nuclear gets a slightly larger 15% slice, but that is hardly enough to make up the difference. Fossil-fuels get almost as much with 11% of the pie.

Considering that subsidization and preferential treatment favors all other forms of electricity production (even coal) more than nuclear, it is no surprise that the nuclear industry is having a hard time competing. Combine that with the lack of public support stemming from public ignorance on the topic, and it is clear why our best source of energy isn’t flourishing. Hint, it isn’t because of any economic infeasibility endemic to nuclear.

How does nuclear stand up to disasters

Epidemic: The only threat an epidemic brings is losing power, not meltdown. Third-generation nuclear power-plants are automated to shut down on their own without input from workers. Fukushima’s plants did that perfectly until they got swamped in water from a tsunami. Of course that is a good argument against building power plants at sea-level, not an argument against nuclear power in general.

To keep power going, nuclear plants can do what any power plant does; extensive testing, implementing social distance regulations, reduce down to skeleton crews, and have them shelter on site for periods of time. There’s nothing uniquely worse for nuclear plants during an epidemic that coal or natural gas don’t also deal with. If there was, why did France, a country that gets 70% of its power from nuclear, not experience nuclear failures left and right during the corona virus pandemic?

The international Atomic agency has a video of what nuclear plants do during pandemics.

Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima: These are all eye-catching news events that weren’t actually as serious as they were portrayed to be to the public. Nobody died from radiation or nuclear complications in Fukushima; all ~500-1,000 deaths were from a clumsily implemented evacuation of the surrounding area. People would have been better off staying. Even the environmental impacts of Fukushima have not been particularly notable. No mass extinction or 4-eyed fish. Three Mile Island was a scare for the public, but didn’t actually result in any deaths or any meaningful amount of radiation released into the environment. In fact, Three Mile Island continued generating nuclear power without incident until it was closed in 2019 for financial reasons.

Chernobyl is the worst nuclear energy disaster in history. There were 237 workers who suffered acute radiation sickness, 31 who died in the first 3 months. A highly uncharitable alarmist (not peer-reviewed) assessment by the Union of Concerned Scientists put eventual cancer deaths from Chernobyl at 53,000. Even going by those likely highly exaggerated numbers, a comparison with the 1.87 million lives saved from the use of nuclear power up to 2009 makes the cost/benefit analysis very clear. Keep also in mind Chernobyl was a clumsily-made plant manufactured in a country that cared little about safety in a time when nuclear technology was still very primitive compared to today’s standards. The Brookings Institute reported that most damage was psychological and stemming from ignorance:

“Fear, born of ignorance of real risk coupled with anxiety about imagined harm, produced epidemics of psychosomatic illnesses and elective abortions. Better management of the emergency, including adequate dissemination of facts, probably could have prevented much of this psychic trauma. Risk perception tends to be skewed by unexpected, dramatic events—a quirk of human nature…”

Terrorist attack: Well the first fact to get out of the way is that the uranium fuel used in nuclear reactors cannot blow up like a nuclear bomb. Nuclear weapons require purities above 80%, while nuclear cores at plants are generally only around 5%. Brookings says:

“No. The laws of physics preclude it [a plant acting as a bomb]. In a nuclear weapon, radioactive atoms are packed densely enough within a small chamber to initiate an instantaneous explosive chain reaction. A reactor is far too large to produce the density and heat needed to create a nuclear explosion.”

Terror plots are regularly stymied, with virtually none of the plots involving nuclear. Terrorists aren’t interested in nuclear plants because the damage would be minimal, most plants aren’t public (and thus they wouldn’t get the visibility and terror effect they are looking for), and nuclear plant structures are among the most solid, safe, and robust in the world. Again, from Brookings:

“U.S. nuclear power plants, which are subject to both federal and international regulation, are designed to withstand extreme events and are among the sturdiest and most impenetrable structures on the planet—second only to nuclear bunkers. Three nesting containment barriers shield the fuel rods. First, metal cladding around the rods contains fission products during the life of the fuel. Then a large steel vessel with walls about five inches thick surrounds the reactor and its coolant. And enclosing that is a large building made of a shell of steel covered with reinforced concrete four to six feet thick…

What if terrorists gained access to a reactor? An attempt to melt down the core would activate multiple safeguards, including alternate means of providing coolant as well as withdrawal of the fuel rods from the chain reaction process… And if a jetliner slammed into a reactor? Given what is now publicly known, one could predict that earthquake sensors, required in all reactors, would trigger automatic shutdown to protect the core.”

Terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants are thus rarely planned in the first place, extremely unlikely to succeed, and even if they did succeed they could not do much damage.

“Public opinion opposes nuclear, so we should give up on it”

That couldn’t be a worse argument. The public has opposed many things in the history of the US; fighting Hitler, desegregation, not slaughtering Native Americans, etc. In each case public opinion had to cede ground to progress, facts, and ethics. If nuclear power is as good as the facts indicate it is, suggesting it be abandoned because the public doesn’t currently fully support it is an absurd idea. That just means the public needs to receive more education on the topic.

Conclusions

Just like the title says, nuclear power is safe, clean, abundant energy that absolutely should be used to fight climate change. That doesn’t mean it should be the only thing; there is room for solar, wind, and nuclear in our approach to solving climate change. It also doesn’t mean that there are no concerns that need to be addressed with nuclear power; like all methods of power generation there are risks, costs, and benefits. But ignorance and ideology is driving a painfully misguided attack on nuclear, thus hobbling our approach to solving climate change. If you support science and facts when it comes to admitting the existence of anthropogenic climate change, you couldn’t be more of a hypocrite than by opposing nuclear.

References

9 thoughts on “Nuclear power: Safe, clean, abundant energy to fight climate change

  1. The above link to the study on LCOE links to an article last updated in 2011. Much has changed since then.

    https://www.lazard.com/perspective/levelized-cost-of-energy-and-levelized-cost-of-storage-2018/

    The carbon neutrality and relative safety of fission power is fairly uncontroversial, but economically, current reactor designs are dead in the water.

    Like

    1. Στέφανος 10 May 2020 — 12:56 am

      Turns out you’re right that a lot has changed since 2011 in wind and PV solar prices. I’ve re-researched that section and re-written it. You may want to re-read it, because your conclusions of the economics of nuclear vs. solar and wind are still very unsupported by the data I found. I would respond to your comment in the LMNT Community group, Sebastian Sassi, but I am not part of the group.

      Like

  2. Mark Harrigan 10 May 2020 — 8:29 am

    You should, I think, rewrite the section from Weissbach. This data is now seriously out of date. Don’t give your critics the chance to debunk you because one section is a little flawed.

    The truth is real EROI calculations are notoriously difficult and subject to many hidden biases. It’s probably true (as more recent data shows) that the EROI from Wind and Solar has improved quite a lot and – at least in areas of high insolation for PV – could be quite good (assuming none gets spilled which is a real issue aspenetration rises)

    Whether it’s high enough to power a modern civilization (ie the economical threshold) is still a useful subject of debate.

    There’s a decent criticism of Weissbach here – and even though its from a RE booster it still has some weight

    https://rameznaam.com/2015/06/04/whats-the-eroi-of-solar/

    The point is it’s a fairly blunt tool for discriminating between energy sources unless you can demonstrate orders of magnitude differences – so I would heavily caveat the comments you want to make

    Love the overall approach through

    Like

    1. Στέφανος 10 May 2020 — 5:16 pm

      Thanks for the input. I addressed that section.

      Like

  3. Stephen Williams 10 May 2020 — 4:08 pm

    Wonderful and succinct article! Hits all the right topics. I will share it far and wide.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am just a regular citizen that is interested in leaving a planet to my descendants that is cleaner and more politically stable than it is currently. I found you article interesting and well thought out. However I wonder why you did not say anything about using the current supply of nuclear waste as a fuel in 4th generation reactors such a travelling wave or LFTR. As I understand the technologies they could utilized the existing waste fuel to geneerate more than 100 years of electrical requirements in the US and be even safer that the 3rd generation designs. Moreover if the US lead in the design and production in the enery market it could provide and increase in export revenue and provide better energy solutions to 3rd world countries. I look forward to your response.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Στέφανος 10 May 2020 — 5:25 pm

      There’s two reasons I didn’t go into fourth gen tech. 1. It would be a researching endeavor in itself and would probably warrant an article all to itself. 2. I wanted to hammer home that current gen nuclear is already an extremely safe and fantastic source of energy. In other words, nuclear advocates don’t have to wait for some distant development to make nuclear better or more feasible than wind and solar; it already is better now. This is important since Fourth gen probably won’t be available en masse for 20, 30, or 40 years.

      Like

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