Energy’s greatest health risk comes from fossil fuels — precisely why we need to hit the pause button on nuclear power

The greatest energy-related health risks to Americans clearly come from fossil fuels.

The gravest immediate risk is the traditional air pollution that comes from the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas, which kills 20,000 or more Americans a year, and impairs the health of hundreds of thousands (see Life-cycle study: Accounting for total harm from coal would add “close to 17.8¢/kWh of electricity generated” and Burning fossil fuels costs the U.S. $120 billion a year “” not counting mercury or climate impacts).

The gravest risk in the coming decades is from unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas, which threatens multiple simultaneous catastrophes whose combined impact would very likely harm all Americans and all of humanity severely and irreversibly for many centuries (see “A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice“).

But we also live in a world of finite resources and finite investment dollars, which is precisely why we can’t afford to make big mistakes in energy policy, as we have with, say corn ethanol.  Right now, it appears that a major push towards new nuclear power would be such a mistake.

Fundamentally, we need to focus on the energy technologies and strategies that meet the combination of low cost (including all environmental and health costs), practicality, and scalability.

Nuclear fails the key tests not because Japan shows nuclear power is inherently unsafe.  Nuclear fails the test because it is wildly expensive, and Japan makes clear there is a good reason for that.  As Richard Caperton and I wrote in our CNN piece:

New reactors are intrinsically expensive because they must be able to withstand virtually any risk that we can imagine, including human error and major disasters. Why? Because when the potential result of a disaster is the poisoning “” and ultimately, death “” of thousands of people, even the most remote threats must be eliminated.

Nuclear power wasn’t going anywhere in this country before the earthquake and tsunami (see  Exelon’s Rowe: Low gas prices and no carbon price push back nuclear renaissance a “decade, maybe two”).  It is just far too expensive:

Clearly, we shouldn’t be trying to accelerate the permitting process or reducing safeguards.

Insurers know that the results of a nuclear catastrophe would be ruinous on a scale that would overwhelm any private company, which is why they won’t insure nuclear plants. Instead, the U.S. government “” which is to say taxpayers “” takes on the liability for nuclear reactors.

If one of the 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S. experiences a catastrophic failure, taxpayers will be on the hook to pay for the damages.

Taxpayers aren’t just bearing the risk for operational and environmental disasters, they are also on the hook for financial disasters. No bank will finance a new reactor without a loan guarantee from the federal government, which says that if the power company can’t pay the loan, the government will step in and pay it for them.

Let’s be clear: If something goes wrong with a U.S. nuclear reactor, the American public will be in double jeopardy “” we’ll suffer the health consequences and then also have to pay for it.

Because taxpayers have so much to lose in a nuclear disaster, the government has a responsibility to take every precaution to minimize that risk.

Right now, energy efficiency and demand response are vastly cheaper than new nukes.  Increasing the capacity utilization of combined cycle natural gas plants can replace coal for the foreseeable future as new baseload power (in the few places where that is needed and that are too uninformed to be pursuing efficiency).

Even solar power can apparently meet many critical aspects of utility needs cheaper than new nukes — and unlike the nukes, both solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal power are coming down steadily in price.

Nuclear needs to get its act together in this country if it is to see significant growth.  The industry had decades to agree on one or two moodular designs that would have streamlined permitting, reduced construction costs and bottlenecks, simplified training, improved oversight, and increased safety.  The ONLY reason not to have one or two designs is, supposedly, that multiple designs  improve competitiveness and thus lower total costs.  #FAIL.

So let’s hit the pause button on new nuclear power plants.  Let’s figure out what we’re going to do with the waste and if we can’t get a central repository, then we must figure out how we’re going to make the spent fuel as safe as possible.  Let’s get one or two modular designs and see if we can develop a process that gets nukes on a declining cost curve, rather than an increasing one.

It may be that nuclear power won’t be a substantial contributor to solving global warming in this country.  There is certainly no intrinsic reason why it should be and there are many plausible alternative pathways, one of which I just posted (see “a practical, affordable (and safe) clean electricity plan“).

For the foreseeable future, we’re certainly not gonna be building any new nukes that the taxpayers aren’t guaranteeing — and since the president and Congress seem to be committed to austerity, nuclear subsidies certainly aren’t going to be dramatically increasing (see Wall Street Journal poll: Most popular spending cut is to subsidies for new nuclear plants).

Right now, the country simply isn’t serious about global warming, but come the 2020s, we’re going to be desperate — and we will engage in a WWII-scale effort to deploy every practical and affordable low carbon technology available.  Right now, it doesn’t seem like nuclear will be a big part of that deployment in the United States.  If the industry and policymakers want to change that assessment, then they will have to completely rethink what they are doing.

If not, here’s what will do the heavy lifting:

48 Responses to Energy’s greatest health risk comes from fossil fuels — precisely why we need to hit the pause button on nuclear power

  1. For more on the nuclear cost issue in the US, check out

    Hultman, Nathan, and Jonathan Koomey. 2009. The Real Risk of Nuclear Power. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. December 2.

    Hultman, Nathan E., and Jonathan G. Koomey. 2007. “The risk of surprise in energy technology costs.” Environmental Research Letters. vol. 2, no. 034002. July.

    Hultman, Nathan E., Jonathan G. Koomey, and Daniel M. Kammen. 2007. “What history can teach us about the future costs of U.S. nuclear power.” Environmental Science & Technology. vol. 41, no. 7. April 1. pp. 2088-2093.

    Koomey, Jonathan G., and Nathan E. Hultman. 2007. “A reactor-level analysis of busbar costs for U.S. nuclear plants, 1970-2005.” Energy Policy. vol. 35, no. 11. November. pp. 5630-5642.

    The first two are freely downloadable. If you’re interested in the latter two papers (the last one of which is the basis for the analysis in the other two academic papers) please email me and I’ll send you a copy.


  2. Aaack. Forgot that Joe’s blogging software hates triangular brackets and strips out my urls. Refs with links below:

    Hultman, Nathan, and Jonathan Koomey. 2009. The Real Risk of Nuclear Power. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. December 2.

    Hultman, Nathan E., and Jonathan G. Koomey. 2007. “The risk of surprise in energy technology costs.” Environmental Research Letters. vol. 2, no. 034002. July.

    Hultman, Nathan E., Jonathan G. Koomey, and Daniel M. Kammen. 2007. “What history can teach us about the future costs of U.S. nuclear power.” Environmental Science & Technology. vol. 41, no. 7. April 1. pp. 2088-2093.

    Koomey, Jonathan G., and Nathan E. Hultman. 2007. “A reactor-level analysis of busbar costs for U.S. nuclear plants, 1970-2005.” Energy Policy. vol. 35, no. 11. November. pp. 5630-5642.

  3. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    A couple of questionable characters (one already busted for bilking investors) are planning a nuclear plant in Green RIver, Utah, upwind of Grand Junction, Colorado and many other communities. They have already purchased the water rights necessary and appear to have the Utah legislature behind them (only in corrupt Mormon-run Utah).

    I’m hoping the Japan fiasco shuts this down, but I don’t really have high hopes, knowing how corporate interests work.

    And it’s no wonder many of us are against nuclear – we’ve been lied to since day one – about the Manhatten Project, the AEC (not answerable even to Congress), nuclear testing in Nevada (downwinders), etc. – lied to about the health risks, the consequences, etc.

    The credibility of those involved in the nuclear business has never been good. Dr. Saccamano was testing the uranium workers in the 50s and 60s and finding huge health problems while the government lied through their teeth about it. Our government has never put the citizens first when it comes to nuclear, as usual, it’s in bed with the corporations.

  4. Mark says:

    Resistance to new nukes in the UK may well increase:

    Expressing her sorrow and sympathy at the developments, Dr Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, commented: “Clearly, the nuclear incidents at Fukushima, and elsewhere in Japan since the earthquake, are collectively one of the worst in the 50-year history of the international nuclear industry.

    “There may have been a partial meltdown of the fuel rods at reactor No.1 at Fukushima Daiichi. There may be a partial meltdown underway at reactor No.3 of Fukushimi Daiichi. Engineers are pumping seawater into reactor No.3, a reactor that uses a mixed-oxide fuel which contains plutonium, making the problem potentially more serious. As well, at Tokai No.2 nuclear power plant, in Ibaraki, the cooling system pump has stopped. Finally, at a third complex in Onagawa, radiation levels are above safety margins.

    “In terms of lessons learnt, we welcome Chris Huhne’s announcement that the Chief Nuclear Inspector, Dr Mike Weightman will produce a report on the implications of the situation in Japan for the UK.”

    Mr Huhne, a Liberal Democrat MP, was appointed Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change following the 2010 general election.

    In November 2007, he referred to nuclear power as a “tried, tested and failed technology which was clearly a costly blind alley.”

    However, the Lib Dems have come under pressure to compromise their position significantly since entering a coalition with the Conservatives.

    “It appears that the Fukushima Daiichi complex was affected not by the quake per se, but the failure of grid electricity and back-up diesel electricity supply for cooling, and that could easily happen elsewhere,” continued Dr Lucas.

    “Nuclear power carries inherent risks,” she declared, “and is particularly vulnerable to the potentially deadly combination of human error, design failure, and natural disaster. Given that there are cheaper, quicker, and crucially, safer ways of meeting our energy needs and emisson reduction targets, it is particularly perverse here in the UK to launch the building of a fleet of new nuclear power stations.

    “In the UK, nuclear power generates less than four per cent of our electricity. We urgently need to meet short-term targets to prevent the risk of runaway climate change. Nuclear power cannot help with that, but significant state-led investments in renewable power and energy efficiency could.

    “The problem with a centralised electrical grid is the prospect of failures that affect millions of people. Basing our energy system around a decentralised energy grid would avoid this,” the Green Party leader concluded.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    A close relative died before his time because the military told him it was OK to watch the mushroom clouds from bleachers in Nevada in the early 50’s. The science of radiation poisoning is complex, and not transparent. This has been used to obfuscate the many dangers of the technology.

    At least with coal we know they’re poisoning us with SOx and mercury.

    Now Mitch McConnell tells us to not worry about what’s going on in Japan. McConnell collects cash from dozens of corporations, in spite of not having been in a close election for 20 years. The coal and gas companies that shovel money to Congressmen love nuclear, because they know it’s not competitive.

    Democrats need to loudly announce that their opponents, and some within their own party, have gone over to the dark side. The people would understand, since most of us know this intuitively. Then, we may begin to see change. I don’t think that we can afford to wait until the 2020’s.

  6. Richard Brenne says:

    Great points, Joe, wonderfully said. Can we all agree that the appropriate decline of nuclear must not trigger an inappropriately lethal increase in coal?

  7. Those were just my thoughts when I read the article in today’s NY Times saying that India and China will continue building nuclear because of their voracious energy demand. Wouldn’t they do better at meeting that demand by investing the same amount of money in wind, solar, and a smart grid?

  8. MKM says:

    I would support Nuclear power as a carbon neutral energy source if it were. (In addition to it’s being mindbogglingly expensive.)

    We need to keep in mind that uranium is a fossil fuel with all the potential for reaching peak production in a short time frame. Half the carbon emissions of coal come from mining and transport. Mining releases large quantities of methane. Methane is more than 100 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2 in its first decade in the atmosphere.

    Even Bill Gates’ mini-reactors rely upon this dirtiest and potentially most dangerous of fuels.

    Still I agree that the points about investing our financial resources wisely is enough of a reason to hit the pause button.

  9. paulm says:

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

    The world is unraveling.

    Just as civilization peaks, the great decline begins and starts to accelerate.
    There are too many loaded guns. Easter Is Syndrome.

    Japan Foreshadows A Planet Of Triage?

    As for the more mundane issues of energy and climate change…
    One thing we can say with absolute certainty is that climate change will make the human impacts of such terrible events even worse.

    How did we get to this state with all the historic perspective we have…

    Our inability to understand the exponential function
    Albert Bartlett

  10. Michael Tucker says:

    If the earthquake had caused a large dam to fail, we would all be talking about dam safety.

    And is this really the big fear:
    “…the potential result of a disaster is the poisoning — and ultimately, death — of thousands of people, even the most remote threats must be eliminated.”

    Our waste, our relentless supply of industrial and agricultural waste does poison the environment and ourselves. We have been doing it from the beginning and tolerating it. I think the big fear is ‘death by radiation poisoning’ because it just sounds scary and we all believe that radioactive materials are deadly. That is not a common belief when it comes to burning coal.

    Yes, we need to examine whether nuclear is the right direction to go in. But these are not national decisions; they are made at the state level. The national government can stop the building of new nuclear power plants as a safety concern but does not seem to have that same authority when it comes to coal. Anyway the Gang Of Polluters like both coal and nuclear and, at the moment, the President wants to make them happy.

    But the death of “thousand of people” is a very terrible event no matter how it happens. The Wolf Creek dam above Nashville has that horrifying potential. I wonder how it might handle an event on the New Madrid fault? How is that repair going on Wolf Creek? Are they ready for the big one?

    The thing is we have built a civilization that comes with large manmade risks. We try to avoid risk but we have also tolerated risk. Not so long ago heat and light were supplied by open flames and massive city destroying fires were a fairly common occurrence; then technology changed that. If Mrs O’Leary’s cow had kicked a battery powered flashlight, well..

    Will technology save the Wolf Creek dam? It is in the hands of the Corps of Engineers. I’m not convinced that is a good thing. Are our nuclear power plants completely safe from ever failing under any circumstance? No. That will never happen so maybe we should not build them.

  11. I am loathe to cavil over a good piece, but there is a substantial argument why a cautionary flag needs to be raised about the pursuit of standardized modular reactor designs, which are not contemplated in the story’s statement that: “Let’s get one or two modular designs and see if we can develop a process that gets nukes on a declining cost curve, rather than an increasing one.”

    Nuclear power is, among so many other things, inherently infinitely complex once all of the human variables are recognized, which probably exceed our capacity to anticipate ahead of time.

    As such, no matter what reassuring label is given to the project, like “standardized,” the reality is that there will continue to be surprise problems that were not understood when the original design is licensed, and do not crop up until later. Compounding that is the fact that, since we will not have 100 years of operating experience from which to quantify the impact of those problems in the real world, we will rely upon manufacturer’s modeling in an attempt to resolve those pesky gray areas.

    And this is where a single standardized reactor fails the test of how intensely political decisions are actually made. Confronted with a problem in the future for which there is no hard data to assess the real probabilities of a low probability/high impact event, a hapless regulator will be faced with a Hobson’s choice. Because any decision to order a shut down to fix the problem will not only be very expensive, but also would shut down, perhaps 20% of the nation’s electrical output and turn out the lights across the country. Unless the particular facts for such a problem are incredibly overwhelming — a exceedingly rare occurrence, almost every one even the most serious are initially gray — no regulatory agency will have the moxie to act.

    Remember that the exact sequence of mistakes that led to the near meltdown at Three Mile Island (something as stupid as a stuck open relief value compounded by bad instrumentation) occurred three times before, and only did not lead to an accident because in those prior cases, the units were not at full power.

    The reality is that the real push behind standardization has far less to do with the development of a safe reactor than it does it reducing the licensing uncertainty that precludes securing financing in the free
    market. And the price of fooling market place signals is the erection of a monster — the elimination of diversity which, in the world of regulation, is essential to avoid creating an overriding regulatory bias to paralysis that prevents the necessary proactive ability to act.

  12. Joan Savage says:

    My son has drawn attention to thorium reactors, which are in active development in India and China. Apparently they are smaller and are expected to have less toxic waste than more familiar reactor designs.

    But like all promising innovations, the full entropic costs may not yet be understood.

    I’m for putting nuclear development on pause, and taking a fresh look at all the risks, and also who has vested interests in particular technologies.

  13. What pause button?

    Of the nuclear power plants currently under construction in the world, 27 are under construction in China, 11 are currently under construction in Russia, and 5 are under construction in both India and South Korea. In the US, however, there is only one nuclear power plant currently under construction.

    So those like Joe Lieberman who are calling to halt the nuclear renaissance in America are trying to stop something that ended more than 30 years ago!

  14. Mark Shapiro says:

    The road to clean energy has three lanes:

    renewables, and
    (undefined by economists, ignored by the media, but essential nonetheless) conservation.

    Clean energy makes us healthier, wealthier, safer, and more secure.

  15. risa bear says:

    I would like to see more of the research money in nuclear go into small-scale thorium, personally. But meanwhile, what’s happened to the various million-roof initiatives? Ramping up production of thin-film solar combined with unplugging half our stuff would go a LONG way toward retiring nuke/fossil, despite all the head-waggers that say it can’t be done … I’ve lived off-grid, and, y’know, I could do it again, though I’m getting old. Not that much to it!

  16. Solar Jim says:

    Example of a horrible mishmash of techno-speak: Nuclear needs to get its act together in this country if it is to see significant growth.

    Atomic fission, along with the many poisonous steps of it’s “nuclear fuel cycle,” can not exist without market liability indemnification (not to mention fossil fuel dependency).

    If we want to prevent US nuclear meltdowns, and their attendant bankruptcies and permanent contamination, all the citizenry need do is rescind one law, the Price Andersen Nuclear Insurance Indemnification Act (of 1957). Then this poisonous, radioactive scam would dissolve under principles of free-market economics (since full liability coverage renders the nuclear scheme economically unfeasible).

    It would be a beginning first step back from the current plutocratic, ecocidal corporotocracy of US federal governance. The international system of finance, set up during a 20th Century war economy, seems to excel at economic bombs. Japan is having one.

  17. Unfortunately, many renewables like wind and hydroelectricity are not all that safe to human health and to the environment. In the same area of Japan where the nuclear crisis occurred, a dam burst after the 9.0 earthquake wiping out 1800 homes. Damming regions to create renewable electricity can be extremely dangerous.

    In 1975, the failure of the Banqiao dam in China to contain flood waters killed 26,000 people while the subsequent famine and epidemics killed an additional 145,000. The breach of the dam also caused the collapse of 5,960,000 buildings.

  18. Zetetic says:

    @ Marcel F. Williams:
    I agree that dams are a potential hazard, especially in earthquake country or with poor construction. Even so the risks are smaller and can be better mitigated than with a nuclear disaster, if efforts are taken to do so.

    But as to risks from wind?
    Like what?
    Falling off a tower? Maybe standing under one during an earthquake? That hardly compares at all to dams and especially nuclear plants. The risks to the environment from wind have also been greatly exaggerated by phony “studies” from the fossil fuel industry exaggerating bird strikes, etc.

    Then we also have solar, geothermal, wave power, tidal power, bio-gas, etc. None of them have anywhere near the risks of nuclear either (or dams).

  19. 350 Now says:

    A bit O/T for comic relief: 2 music videos about Fred Upton – [mostly for the younger crowd…]

  20. 350 Now says:

    Living on Earth: Can a Hollywood Producer inspire Americans on Climate? (audio)

  21. 350 Now says:

    oops; adjusting to a new keyboard; link should have been:

    Living on Earth: Can a Hollywood Producer inspire Americans on Climate? (audio)

  22. Leif says:

    The media is quick to point out that the problems in Japan have all occurred in the “older plants.” (With rapid developments, I am not sure that this is still a valid statement.) None the less, each and every nuclear plant in existence in the world today WILL be old in ~30 years or less!

  23. Sasparilla says:

    If there was a renaissance in the Nuclear Power Industry coming, its surely fizzled…as Joe mentioned I didn’t see alot of it happening anyways since the plants are so expensive, but the experiences of the last week (and what happens going forward) will definitely keep the “hands on the throttle” of any serious expansion of this radioactive industry.

    While the remarks about efficiency and of course alternative energy inputs are totally on target – we don’t (in the US) live in a world where those common sense ideas will get any traction (maybe efficiency will get some traction if the President can push it himself, but experience doesn’t lend alot of hope for that).

    We shouldn’t kid ourselves here, Coal and Natural Gas powerplants will pick whatever future nuclear plants that don’t happen (I doubt there would have been too many since, as Joe said, they are so expensive). The Koch controlled GOP led congress will allow nothing else.

  24. GSMPedia says:

    I say the only valid question about nuclear energy is : Is it worth the risk?

  25. jcwinnie says:

    The pro-nuclear PR flaks that have invaded Grist
    had quick responses for why Japan needed nuclear and why renewable energy like solar. wind, solar thermal and geothermal were contraindicated.

    Their naysaying may have been false and certainly biased, yet I was reminded of the seeming lack of alternatives for the Southeastern US, It’s tough enough marginalizing a region, almost impossible for an entire first world country.

    So what are the best clean alternatives for Japan? What has been the most successful development?

  26. malcreado says:

    >So what are the best clean alternatives for Japan? What has been the most successful development?

    geothermal base load, sun & wind.

  27. Zetetic says:

    @ jcwinnie:
    I’m not a renewable expert, but considering Japan’s limited land area and geologic activity I’d say that floating offshore wind power would be a great choice (depending on the winds of course) . A floating platform would probably have been completely unaffected by both the earthquakes and the tsunami since they would be floating on water far off the coast.

  28. Zetetic says:
    March 15, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    @ Marcel F. Williams:
    “I agree that dams are a potential hazard, especially in earthquake country or with poor construction. Even so the risks are smaller and can be better mitigated than with a nuclear disaster, if efforts are taken to do so.

    But as to risks from wind?
    Like what?
    Falling off a tower? Maybe standing under one during an earthquake? That hardly compares at all to dams and especially nuclear plants. The risks to the environment from wind have also been greatly exaggerated by phony “studies” from the fossil fuel industry exaggerating bird strikes, etc.

    Then we also have solar, geothermal, wave power, tidal power, bio-gas, etc. None of them have anywhere near the risks of nuclear either (or dams).”

    If you get a 9.0 earthquake at a major dam in the US, the dam is gone and probably tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands are going to die from flooding. I’ve seen some estimates that a major quake near a US dam

    A nuclear power plant accident, however, is a slow moving event that allows you to easily evacuate people from an area that can be potentially highly irradiated. That’s why so few people died at Chernobyl, the worse nuclear accident in global history. The newest nuclear power plants being built today,like the AP1000, however, are walk-away safe.

    No one has ever died from radiation poisoning from a commercial nuclear power plant in the US even with the 50% meltdown of nuclear material at Three Mile Island. Coal kills more than 30,000 people annually in the US and puts 100 times more radiation into the general environment than nuclear power plants do. If I had a choice between living next to a wind power complex or a coal power complex or a natural gas power complex or a a nuclear complex, I’d choose the nuclear complex. Much safer!

    Of course, its rather difficult for me to be afraid of radiation since we live in a naturally radioactive universe thanks to cosmic radiation, natural radioactive materials in our soil and in our oceans and in our food. And, of course, humans and other plants and animals are also naturally radioactive. There is no escape from our naturally radioactive environment.

    You can find the deaths per TWH for various power sources at:

  29. Zetetic says:

    @ jcwinnie (again):
    An additional thought…
    If Japan had a network of offshore floating wind turbines, not only would it insure that many of them would be generating power at all times (to compensate for any that might stop due to wind conditions), but they could also have sensors placed on them to provide additional weather, earthquake, and tsunami monitoring for the whole country.

    Placing such sensors offshore with (and/or near) the wind turbines might help buy the Japanese additional early warning time for future natural disasters and perhaps improve the accuracy of any such predictions.

  30. Barry says:

    Solar power outshines nuclear power: Study–solar-power-outshines-nuclear-power-study?bn=1

    Study show solar would create far more energy than nukes if given the same subsidies.

    Everything is going to be solar eventually. Let’s stop creating energy disasters along the way and just get on with it. BP oil volcano followed by Japan multi-meltdown in just one year. And all along coal is ruthlessly killing tens of thousands annually. Oh, and then there is climate change…

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Marcel Williams takes advantage of the fact that radiation induced mortality is mostly slow and insidious, and occurs some years later, mostly from neoplastic disease. So the attribution of cause is difficult to make, and the nuclear polluters deny responsibility. Of course we live in an environment subjected to various radiation sources, but we know that increased exposure leads to increased risk. Too much sunlight and you get melanoma. Fly too high, too often and your cancer risk goes up. Work in a uranium mine, like my uncle, with inadequate protection from radon gas, and you get lymphoma. Nuclear power produces radioactive waste, and if it escapes people will be made sick and die of it. Of course if it does not amount to a catastrophic release it probably will not equal the numbers killed and injured by coal or oil, but, seeing as there are even safer alternatives available, such as solar, wind, geo-thermal, why do we have to proceed with either coal or nuclear? One advantage of nuclear, for the Masters at least, is that it is so dangerous. The problem of ‘nuclear security’ ie the dangers of proliferation and ‘terrorism’ are one of the convenient excuses that the ruling powers use to justify the all pervasive surveillance of the ‘national security state’, with its draconian ‘anti-terrorism’ laws, massive data bases, data mining, ubiquitous surveillance and criminalisation of dissent. Fear of nuclear power serves the political establishment in maintaining the ‘state of tension’ that is an essential feature of capitalist pseudo-democracies.

  32. Bill Waterhouse says:

    So I guess you, Edward @ 32, are not watching CNN which has just reported radioactivity in #4 reactor is now too high for any plant workers to continue working there.

  33. Zetetic says:

    @ Bill Waterhouse:
    Nah, that’s no problem for Edward, a couple of decades from now (after the radiation has died down) he/she will be comparing what is happening at the plants to living in Denver.

  34. Prokaryotes says:

    Sickening – time to quit deadly oil addiction.

    Shell records 22 oil spills in two months

    Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, a Dutch oil giant operating in the Niger Delta region, says it has suffered 22 oil spills occasioned by sabotage between January and February 2011.

    The company attributed the incident of vandalism of its facilities especially pipelines to lack of government presence and severe unemployment, volatile political environment and militancy and organized criminality among others.

    Speaking on “Managing Pipeline Vulnerability in SPDC,” in a one-day media engagement and field trip in Port Harcourt, Rivers State on Tuesday, Mr. Afahron Sekobe, said other causes of pipeline vandalism included ineffective law enforcement and the unwillingness of the communities to expose criminals due to fear of reprisals.

    Sekobe, who represented Mr. Raymond Asukwo, leader of the Encroachment Operations Team, pointed out that most people resolve to vandalise the pipelines because they want to “generate oil spill clean-up jobs”, adding that stealing of crude oil for illegal refining leads to serious environmental problems.

  35. Malcreado says:

    #35. Seems obvious that Shell should spend a little more money helping the local population and perhaps less money buying the politicians. Perhaps their oil would flow with less interruptions.

  36. paulm says:

    ‎” Germany has installed more wind power capacity than the entire current UK nuclear capacity, and is adding to it at a rate equivalent to more than one new reactor a year. Furthermore, in 2009 alone Germany installed solar photovoltaic systems with capacity equivalent to approximately four nuclear reactors, and it looks like the 2010 figures will be much higher.”

  37. jeo says:

    If nuclear power is wildly expensive, why does France have the cheapest electric power in Europe?

    [JR: First, I don’t know that they do. Second, old, fully paid for nukes are cheap to run. New nukes are very costly.]

    I read James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren recently. He said he asked a bunch of utility executives and engineers if we could get rid of coal without using nuclear, and they all said no. Hansen said maybe all of them are wrong, but do we really want to bet the planet on it?

    I don’t.

  38. sailrick says:

    ABC News
    Mar 15, 2011 6:19pm AEDT

    “The Japanese government says radiation levels near a quake-stricken nuclear power plant are now harmful to human health, after a further two explosions and a fire at the facility.”

    ‘”There is no doubt that unlike in the past, the figures are the level at which human health can be affected,’ said chief government spokesman Yukio Edano.”

    “He says radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear plant have reached as high as 400 milisieverts an hour, thousands of times higher than readings taken before the latest blasts.”

    “Mr Edano says radiation levels as at 10.22am (local time) were 30 millisieverts between the No. 2 and the No. 3 reactors, 400 millisieverts near No. 3 and 100 millisieverts near No. 4.”

    ABC News

  39. sailrick says:

    To put the figures from my last comment in perspective, this is from the same article at ABC News

    A single dose of 1,000 millisieverts – or one sievert – causes temporary radiation sickness such as nausea and vomiting, according to the World Nuclear Association.

    A dose of 5,000 millisieverts would kill about half those receiving it within a month.

  40. jeo says:

    A simple google search turns up, for example, this article in Business Week, which says “France, which gets 85% of its electricity from nuclear power, has long been proud of the system’s reliability and its benefits to French consumers, who pay some of the lowest electric rates in the world. ”

    The article goes on to talk about some difficulties they were having, so it’s not exactly a cheerleading piece.

    Of course you pay up front to build the plant, and amortize the costs over time. Nuclear is a long-term investment, and France has proven that it pays off.

  41. Zetetic says:

    @ jeo:
    Aside from JR’s response don’t forget that when France has a heat wave they often have to shut down many of their rectors due to the water (from rivers) getting too warm. That sounds like a bit of a drawback to me, especially with the planet getting hotter.

    As to the utility engineers, I wonder how many of them have had direct experience with the full range of renewable power options, or if they were talking in the context of the USA not having a smart grid. Many of them (from Hansen’s own book) are currently dependent on coal power generation. IMO they may have a vested interest, or may just be resisting a sudden change to they way they have always done things.

    Also don’t forget that Hansen is rather optimistic (perhaps too much so IMHO) about 4th generation nuclear reactors that aren’t even available yet, and may not be for quite some time yet.

    Denmark is on track to be getting 50% of it’s power from wind alone by 2025.
    Scotland in on track for 80% renewable by 2020.
    Gee… it sure seems like they’re doing something right.

  42. @Barry

    From 1960 to 2006, nuclear power received about $65 billion in Federal subsidies, solar and wind about $45 billion in subsidies. The fossil fuel industry received about $549 billion in subsidies during that time period.

    However, light water reactors in the US only received about $6 billion in subsidies. The rest was spent on breeder R&D. Still, no commercial breeders currently exist in the US.

    For the $45 billion in subsidies to the wind and solar industry, they’ve managed to produce less than 1% of the electricity in the US. For the $65 billion for the nuclear industry, they’ve managed to produce nearly 20% of our total electricity.

    Federal Support for Non-Carbon Dioxide Polluting Technologies

  43. Rachel Freeman says:

    I still believe that we in the developed world need nuclear in the mix.
    We can’t keep civilisation going while we are transitioning to a low-carbon future without it.
    Also, coal is responsible for a huge amount of mercury and radiation pollution on a daily basis (not to mention of course the CO2). I bet if you compared toxic emissions from nuclear plants, which are extremely rare, with those from coal, you would find coal the worst risk.
    The UK’s climate change plan includes new nuclear and wind to replace coal and gas generation. Comparing the long-term risk from all the generation types (or not having enough power) leads me to agree with the plan. However, I work on the demand side, and that has to be the cheapest and fastest way to move forward.

  44. The greatest risk of all to human well being and environmental health…

    As humanity’s most luminous beacon of truth, science provides us with a last best hope for the survival of life as we know it on Earth. We must make certain that scientific evidence is never downplayed, distorted and denied by religious dogma, politics or ideological idiocy.

    Let us not fail for another year to acknowledge extant research of human population dynamics. The willful refusal of many too many experts to assume their responsibilities to science and perform their duties to humanity could be one of the most colossal mistakes in human history. Such woefully inadequate behavior, as is evident in an incredible conspiracy of silence among experts, will soon enough be replaced with truthful expressions by those in possession of clear vision, adequate foresight, intellectual honesty and moral courage.

    Hopefully leading thinkers and researchers will not continue supressing scientific evidence of human population dynamics and instead heed the words of Nobel Laureate Sir John Sulston regarding the emerging and converging, human-driven global challenges that loom ominously before humankind in our time, “we’ve got to make sure that population is recognized…. as a multiplier of many others. We’ve got to make sure that population really does peak out when we hope it will.”

    Sir John goes on, “what we want to do is to see the issue of population in the open, dispassionately discussed…. and then we’ll see where it goes.”

    In what is admittedly a feeble effort to help John Sulston fulfill his charge to examine all available scientific evidence regarding human population dynamics, please give careful consideration to the following presentation and then take time to rigorously scrutinize the not yet overthrown science from Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation.

    Please accept this invitation to discern the best available science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation; discover the facts; deliberate; draw logical conclusions; and disseminate the knowledge widely.

    Thank you.

  45. jeo says:

    4th-gen tech may or may not be ready soon (though, since we had a demonstration reactor working in the early 1990s, it seems to me that our chances are decent.)

    By the same token, wind and solar with a smart grid and large-scale energy storage may or may not be ready to provide all our power in the near future.

    Meanwhile, climate feedbacks are already kicking in. Methane is releasing from permafrosts, icecaps are reflecting less sunlight away, droughts are releasing CO2 from forests. In geologic history, it doesn’t appear to take much of a tipping point before the planet releases lots of greenhouse gas without any further help.

    So I’d sure like to pursue all possible solutions, instead of taking some off the table.

    Now as for shutting down reactors when the water gets too warm, there are a couple obvious responses. The first is that solar shuts down every night, and wind pretty much at random. The second is that not all reactors are cooled by water.

  46. Zetetic says:

    @ Marcel F. Williams #43:
    I found your article rather interesting, even if it a bit dated. Unfortunately there are a few problems both in the report you cite and the conclusions.

    First, the reason why the report covers such a large time frame is because it needs to cover both nuclear investment (much of which was older) and the more recent solar and wind investment. This is a problem because most of the investment in solar and wind being more recent, has given nuclear a big head start in deployment. It also ignores the rate of growth in each area, especially in recent years.

    Second, it combines several types of subsidies (combing R&D with incentives), but ignores the cost of construction today which is what matters in determining which is cheaper to implement now.

    As this article (below) points out, the cost of replacing all of the coal plants in the USA is about twice as much for using new nuclear plants as it is for using wind and geothermal to do the same job.
    With new nuclear power on pause, here’s a practical, affordable (and safe) clean electricity plan
    Here is the Union of Concerned Scientists opinion on nuclear….
    Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable without Subsidies (2011)

    Third, the report you cited fails to address the concern of safety where there is a huge difference between nuclear and renewables. Granted hydro has risks, but even those can be mitigated more than with nuclear.

    Finally, as to the 1% figure for the USA I find it interesting that pro-nuclear advocates keep throwing that number out there while ignoring how California is already at just under 20% renewable and is on track for 33% by 2020.
    Not to mention how Denmark will be at 50% from wind alone by 2025, or how Scotland is at over 27% renewable and is on track for 80% renewable by 2020, or how Sweden plans to be oil free by 2020.

    The only reason why the USA isn’t using more renewables already is due to the cacophony of those telling us we can’t and fighting any efforts to do so, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.


    jeo @ #46 said:
    The estimate I’ve found for 4th gen reactors is about 2030 if not later, either way they still aren’t ready yet. Regardless, while much safer than the current generation of nuclear plants they still have substantial risks that renewables lack.

    By the same token, wind and solar with a smart grid and large-scale energy storage may or may not be ready to provide all our power in the near future.

    As I pointed out in my reply to Marcel in this same post, the fact remains that many countries are doing just that already, and California is already partway there with very little effort having nearly doubled it’s renewables in 5 years (from about 10% in 2005 to just under 20% in 2010).

    The first is that solar shuts down every night, and wind pretty much at random.

    Perhaps you can explain to me why it is that nuclear and fossil fuel supports all seem to think that when renewables are being discussed that the renewable advocates are only referring to one (or two) types at a time or that storage isn’t also being considered?

    Yes Photovoltaic Solar stops at night (although peak demand is in the day and early evening) but Concentrated Solar keeps running for 6-8 hours after dark. While wind is intermittent, it is much less intermittent in some areas, and by combining several farms from several areas you can insure constant wind power from at least some (if not most of them) at any given time, again this is already being done around the world. Then add bio-gas, hydro, geothermal, and wave/tidal which are 24-7 base-load sources of power. Then add to that the various methods of storing power at off peak hours such as water, air, cryogenic compressed air, etc.

    If Japan had a network of wind farms and used more of their solar and geothermal, in stead of nuclear, do you think that what is happening now in Japan would be nearly as bad? Would we be talking about trying to stop a meltdown or radioactive contamination? How much more effective would relief efforts be without trying to control their nuclear crisis at the same time?

    Finally, while some nuclear reactors don’t need water, it doesn’t change the fact that most of those in use, or planed for the near future, do use water.

  47. Mark Walker says:

    If we’re going to compare subsidies, there needs to be a timeshift or a dollars-to-date approach applied.

    Consider the full subsidy for nuclear power: Manhattan Project, subsequent reactor research, to-date NPP subsides/guarantees.

    Those expenditures constitute a serious pursuit of nuclear energy.

    And that doesn’t even take the decomissioning of 104 old NPP reactors into account! That bill will come due too! The whole TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) thing applies.

    Such a serious pursuit of other energy sources has not been undertaken.

    One should keep in mind we wouldn’t have NP if it weren’t for Gov’t action, and spending, and war… The same effort, without the war, is needed for alternative sources of energy.

    One should also consider:

    that we waste as much electricity as NPPs provide,
    the NP dead ends (breeders, fusion),
    the continued invoking of pipedreams (fuel cycle, too-cheap-to-meter, fusion reactors, …),
    and the ignoring of a likely far better approach to NP, e.g. Thorium fueled reactors (if we really must use fission for power).

    In any case, the alternatives must be pursued first, and seriously.

    Yes, that means conservation and education programs too. For example, Energy Star (dorky name…) is a success. Earlier generations knew not to waste resources.

    NP research could continue as a potential future capability but be targetted on Thorium fueled reactors.