Opinions

The Insanity of Expanding Nuclear Energy

Former nuclear regulatory top dogs from the United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain issued a joint statement in January strenuously opposing any expansion of nuclear power as a strategy to combat climate change. Why? There is not a single good reason to build new nuclear plants. Here are ten solid reasons not to.

1. Nuclear is too slow to tackle climate change. The new generation of proposed commercial nuclear plants, socalled Advanced and Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), are at best decades away in designing and building. The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change makes clear that limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) means “achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions globally in the early 2050s.” Wind and solar farms can be up and running in just a few months or years. Renewables can power the world by 2050, according to financial think tank Carbon Tracker.

2. Nuclear energy is too costly. Renewables like wind and solar are already the world’s cheapest form of energy, and their prices continue to tumble. By 2019, utility-scale renewable energy prices had already fallen to less than half that of nuclear. Together with lower natural gas prices, there has been little momentum in the United States to construct new nuclear plants for decades. Expanding nuclear power would translate into higher energy costs for consumers.

3. Nuclear is neither carbon-free nor non-polluting. While it’s true that the electricity produced by an operating nuclear plant doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, mining and enrichment of uranium are carbon intensive and pollute the air with potent greenhouse gases called chlorofluorocarbons. Radioactivity releases into air and water from nuclear plants are routine. And, the United States has already accumulated 85,000 metric tons of highly radioactive commercial spent fuel waste, the most dangerous pollutant known to man.

4. The problem of permanent disposal of nuclear waste remains technically unsolvable for the short or long term. Though the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 mandated construction of a permanent deep geologic repository to safely isolate nuclear waste for a million+ years, four decades hence there is literally no progress. Consequently, the nation’s commercial nuclear plants are, for the foreseeable future, de facto nuclear waste dumps.

5. Nuclear is non-renewable. Like coal, oil and natural gas, uranium is a finite resource. The United States imports nearly half its uranium from Russia and its two close allies, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Uranium was not included in the Biden administration’s recent ban on energy imports from Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

6. Proposals for constructing “temporary” storage solutions—so-called consolidated interim storage sites (CIS)—are a diversion from the fact that a proven geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel doesn’t exist anywhere on Earth. Governors of Texas and New Mexico are fighting against CIS facilities in their states for fear of becoming permanent dumps. Moving nuclear waste across the country to CIS facilities creates risks of radiation accidents along transportation corridors.

7. The nuclear waste dry storage canisters used throughout most of the United States are thin-walled (1/2 to 5/8 inch) and unsafe for storage or for off-site transport. They are susceptible to short-term cracking but can’t be inspected for cracks or monitored to prevent radiation releases. Other countries use thick-walled (10 to 19 inch) metal casks that are designed to prevent cracking, can be monitored, and survived the 9.0 Fukushima earthquake.

8. The nuclear meltdowns at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island demonstrated there is no room for human error or natural disasters when it comes to anything nuclear. Moreover, human civilizations come and go: The Roman Empire lasted short of 1,000 years. Humanity can’t ensure the safety of even our current nuclear reactors let alone ensure that future civilizations will stay clear of nuclear waste dumps for the next million+ years.

9. Nuclear plants are sitting ducks for terrorist attacks, whether still operating or storing nuclear waste. Dry storage canisters are stored onsite in the wide open in so-called Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations. Vulnerability to malfeasance was driven home recently by the ease with which Russia captured both the Chernobyl site and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant early in the invasion of Ukraine.

10. The idea that Advanced and Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) can save the day is magical thinking. SMRs are a completely unproven concept. On the order of ten thousand SMRs would be needed to impact climate change in time. This would create thousands more radioactive dump sites and as many opportunities for both nuclear accidents from human error or natural disasters and weapons proliferation from the plutonium generated by nuclear reactors.

Getting to net zero carbon emissions by the early 2050s requires the greatest reduction in carbon emissions in the shortest time and at the lowest cost. That nuclear can’t deliver on this and should be banned is the outspoken position of the former head of the Nuclear Regulatory commission, Gregory Jazcko.

The “all hands on deck” approach espoused by too many politicians to explain support for new nuclear is blatantly faulty, given that every dollar misspent on new nuclear is a dollar not invested in energy efficiency and faster, cheaper renewables. Expanding nuclear will actually retard progress on solving the climate crisis.

No matter what the misguided motivations of some politicians, our duty as informed citizens is to demand that they abandon the deadly pursuit of new nuclear energy and commit to shutting down our aging nuclear reactors.

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6 replies »

  1. Only problem? No carbon based energy currently promoted means insufficient energy until 2050 when, maybe, technology in sustainable energy catches up with demand. We are in for a bleak winter and hot summers without sufficient energy for the next 30 years.

  2. Re: 1) Several of the advanced reactor teams are trying to get demo reactors built this decade. China has already built demo units of their new high temp gas-cooled reactor and their molten salt thorium reactor. New kinds of reactors could be ready to go as soon as the early 30’s. Currently, annual carbon emissions are still increasing. Carbon emissions in 2030 could easily turn out to be higher than they are today. And citing the IPCC stated 2050 deadline as a reason not to build new nuclear is particularly ironic when the IPCC itself endorses expanding nuclear energy production (as do several leading climate scientists). There are also non-electricity ways that nuclear power could help to combat climate change and ocean acidification.

    Re: 2) New builds of old tech nuclear may no longer be cost-effective, but new kinds of reactors have very good potential to be competitive. Several kinds are targeting build costs in the $1 – $2 per watt capacity range, and several could have more revenue streams than just electricity. We invested in wind and solar when they were very expensive and not competitive because we saw they had good prospects for eventually becoming cheap, and some kinds of nuclear in development have even better prospects.

    Re: 3) Old-tech nuclear is already as low-carbon as wind and solar on a life-cycle basis. New kinds have excellent potential to be even better. The leading kind of uranium mining today is in-situ leach, which can be run by electric pumps. The dominant enrichment method now is by electric centrifuge. Both would be as low-carbon as grid-charged battery-electric vehicles. Routine radiologic releases from old-tech plants are low levels compared to natural radiation and result in trivial public dose. Radiation from medical procedures imparts far higher doses. And if spent fuel is “the most dangerous pollutant known to man” then how is it that the cumulative global human death toll from spent fuel is still sitting at zero? Even plastic buckets and window treatments have a much higher actual death toll.

    Re: 4) The Deep Isolation team has already done a demonstration of their borehold sequester technology. It’s a viable technical solution, but it will require a change in federal law in the U.S. to become a legal solution. Several teams are also developing molten salt fast breeder reactors which could consume spent fuel.

    Re: 5) Whether it is renewable is irrelevant. It can be sustainable for however long we need it–whether that be just for the present crisis or for many thousands of years.

    Re: 6) Borehold sequesters could work both for temporary and permanent storage.

    Re: 7) This is an argument against a particular kind of cask, not against nuclear power itself.

    Re: 8) There are definitely bad ways to do nuclear power. (Same for hydropower, which has killed and displaced far more people than nuclear power.) The existence of bad ways to do something doesn’t mean there can never be any good ways. And deep boreholds would easily keep nuclear waste away from the surface for as long as needed.

    Re: 9) Terrorists can also attack grid transformers, fuel depots, refineries, chemical plants, airplanes, passenger trains, fuel and chemical tanker trains, tall buildings, government buildings, bridges, dams, ships, hotels, hospitals, schools, stadiums, parades, concerts, movies, night clubs, malls, and municipal water supplies, but nobody thinks we should therefore do without those.

    Re: 10) Advanced reactors, large and small, may be unproven, but that’s not an argument against building them. All the technology we depend on today was unproven before we developed it. Some of the new designs have good prospects for being very safe. I’m not seeing the problem with having a large number of very safe reactors displacing fossil fuels that kill millions. And nuclear power plants don’t produce weapons-grade plutonium, which is why none of the thousands of plutonium bombs in the world today got their fuel from nuclear power plants. Power plants are, however, able to consume bomb fuel, and the fuel from 20,000 warheads has already been consumed and destroyed that way. New kinds of reactors would be even better for that.

    Other: Jaczko was always an anti-nuke (and was an incompetent NRC head) and now he’s also a wind power developer. No surprise that he’s still an anti-nuke. And saying the climate crisis is *not* an all-hands-on-deck emergency only gives aid, support and credibility to those who say it isn’t a real emergency at all. Having misguided good intentions and beliefs based on bad information are a real thing. Anti-nukes generally assume it cannot be themselves who are in error. That, itself, is an error.

  3. Look everyone, another proponent of more fossil fuels! Please be sure to keep donating to wonderful organizations like Greenpeace and NRDC, so they can continue to advocate for shutting down the world’s largest baseload carbon-free energy source — nuclear power! You all are doing great at that and are totally not all a shill for BIG OIL & GAS. In a few years, our children will thank you for your tireless advocacy against a proven, large-scale, carbon-free energy source, only to be replaced by more gas plants and restarted coal plants. Good job!

  4. Apologies but the author just does not know what she is talking about. She mixes facts from LWR old technologies with the advances brought in by some Generation IV fast breather reactors,

  5. Have you ever though to the increase of demand in raw materials needed to build the needed renewable infrastructure based on wind mills and alike? The quantity of copper for a small 3MWh wind mill? about 4.2 tons. 12000 tons of concreta and about 2 tons of rare earths. To keep track with the 1.5C trajectory, the demand in raw material will increase by a factor 5 to 10 and no mining company is investing in new capacity for ESG reasons. So how do you want to save the Planet if you discard other opportunities which are well known by science but so far neglected for their lack of interest in proliferation.

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