by Alexander Bastidas Fry
When you are told what someone is against, ask them what they are for. If you against nuclear power, what kind of power are you for? Reasonable answers include coal, natural gas, biomass, wind, solar, hydro, or geothermal. However, not all of these answers are equally genuine given the constraints of our world. Renewable energy sources have not historically been economically or technologically viable. Our energy landscape is changing today. A future with more renewables and no nuclear power is possible, yet it may not be the best choice if we are serious about climate change. Nuclear power has often been eschewed out of fear, not practicality or rationality.
The world nuclear, by itself, means little other than associating to the nucleus of the atom which all tangible things are made. The phrase nuclear power is used colloquially to refer to classic nuclear power plants that operate by splitting the atoms of heavy nuclei, such as uranium, in a process known as fission. The key to managing the fission process inside nuclear reactors is cooling. If the cooling fails, the fission reaction can get out of control and lead to disaster. Fission releases energy in the form of heat, this heat creates steam, and the steam turns generators that create electric power. Nuclear fission power can also be used at much smaller scales using devices known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators that harness the heat released from the radioactive decay of materials such as Plutonium 238 or Polonium 210. These devices can produce reliable energy for many decades and be used to power anything including cars or space probes that will be far from the Sun.
The Sun reminds us that there is another form of potential nuclear power: fusion. Fusion is the joining of two or more separate atomic nuclei into a larger nuclei. The key to joining two nuclei together is overcoming the repulsive electric force between nuclei which has proved very challenging. Inside stars heat and pressure, which comes from the stars gravitational contraction, constantly forces nuclei close enough together for them to fuse and release energy. Massive stars are responsible for the production of all elements heavier than lithium through this fusion process. We are all made of stardust. On earth no fusion reactor has ever successfully and sustainably produced power, yet. We can create a future where nuclear power is safe with fusion.
The word nuclear can also be used in a much darker context. Nuclear weapons are the destroyer of worlds. Of all of humanities achievements the unlocking of the atom, debatable in its triumphs, is stark in its shame. Nuclear is the inside of atoms, the sun, and our consciousness. To be against nuclear categorically is brilliantly blind, but to be unaware of its destructive potential is to willfully keep our eyes shut.
To be against nuclear radiation is reasonable enough. Yet, the World Health Organization and other independent researchers find that the fear of radiation is a more important health threat than radiation itself. Radiation is energy transmitted by waves or particles. Radiation is not fundamentally dangerous. Radiation comes in a spectrum of forms. The most benign is non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation that includes radio waves and even the visible wavelengths of light that we see. When people speak of nuclear radiation they refer to the potentially dangerous radiation that includes alpha particles, beta particles, neutrons, and gamma rays. Different sources and elevated levels of radiation can be found in many locations and situations: produce (yes, the food we eat), hospitals, basements, stone buildings, and at high elevation. Radiation is a natural and expected feature of earth. Different sources of radiation have different effects on the human body and different precautionary measures that should be taken: alpha and beta radiation can be partially blocked by a sheet of cellophane, glass, or clothing. But gamma radiation can penetrate concrete and lead. Exposure to elevated levels of radiation whether from natural or human made sources can lead to acute, or long term ill health effects including cancer, however, detailed research on how radiation affects humans is not available: radiation testing on human subjects in controlled laboratory conditions is not carried out.
Nuclear power plants release minute amounts of nuclear radiation during normal operation. Nuclear disasters emit copious amounts of radiation that can contaminate regions for generations, but they aren't as deadly as largely believed. The worst nuclear power plant disaster in history at Chernobyl resulted in less than 100 acute deaths. The total number of deaths that will ever be attributable to Chernobyl is less than ten thousand according to peer-reviewed research. Non-peer reviewed research concludes that much higher numbers are plausible in the range of 200,000 up to one million deaths. The most recent nuclear disaster at Fukushima has reignited political and public resistance to nuclear power. Fukushima is by many measures much less worse than Chernobyl. A study six months after the initial disaster a study found that the majority of residents that were in the evacuation zone received less than a fourth of the radiation dose expected from natural yearly background exposure (they received 1 mSv/yr as compared to the expected background of 4 mSv/yr). A year later a screening of ten thousand residents in the town of Minamisoma located 15 miles from Fukushima found even lower radiation exposure levels, but tragically 1500 of the town's 70000 residents died in the tsunami that precipitated the Fukushima disaster. A single medical CT scan is more than what was received by the vast majority of people even within 15 miles of Fukushima. The real threat to people lives was the tsunami itself that killed 16,000 people across Japan and in addition to that there were hundreds of disaster related deaths from the stresses of forced evacuation. Statistics veil these tragedies. Those who stepped in during the Chernobyl or Fukushima disaster and adverted greater disaster are heroes.
Historically and today, fossil fuels generate that majority of our energy. In particular, coal has been used for over a century and is the fastest growing source of energy in many regions. Coal pollutants include, uranium, arsenic, thorium, cadmium, and mercury. Rivers downstream of coal mines are contaminated with heavy metals. Sulfur dioxide, particulates, and mercury are released into the air during coal burning and lead to acid rain. A direct comparison of some of the consequences of coal and nuclear power are self-evident.
- The total life-cycle green house gas equivalent emissions for coal are 15 to 50 times larger than for nuclear power depending upon the design of the operations.
- A coal plant emits 100 times more radiation to the immediate surrounding environment than does an equivalent nuclear power plant .
- Coal pollution shortens the life or causes one million deaths annually across the world through increased rates of lung cancer, heart attacks, acute bronchitis, and aggravated respiratory system complications. Over humanities history coal has resulted in more deaths than nuclear, even including all of the deliberate nuclear weapon attacks perpetrated.
- A small uranium mine can supply the same amount of energy content as a much vaster coal mine resulting in less environmental damage. Many thousands of coal miners die each year across the world. 100,000 coal miners have died in the past century in the United States alone.
We are looking for sources of energy to power humanity. Standards of living between the global north and south are correlated to the amount of energy per capita that a country uses. If you believe in the equality of humans, then you would also likely conclude we should all use equal energy. You may believe that we should all use less energy then, but expert economists and sociologists argue that this will never be the complete solution. Enabling the global south to increase its energy use while minimizing damage to the environment in the form of toxic pollution or increased greenhouse gas emissions should be a major goal of those who seek equality for all humans. How can we best achieve this goal given the difficulty realities of energy production? The answer we want to hear is renewables.
The renewable energy sources (biofules, biomass, geothermal, solar, hydropower, and wind) make up about 13% of the world's total energy production and about 22% of global electricity production.
Energy and electricity are not interchangeable terms. It takes energy to make a heater or a car work, but that energy could come directly in the form of petroleum products or electricity, however, most vehicles are petroleum powered. The majority of countries have the majority of their energy going into transportation. Thus until the majority of vehicles are electric battery powered, transportation will consume large amounts of energy in the form of petroleum fossil fuels. The petroleum transportation industry is a bottleneck in any renewable future.
In 2013 the United States got 66% of its electric energy from fossil fuels, 20% from nuclear, and 13% from renewables. In terms of total energy production only 10% came from renewables in 2014.
Natural gas, wind, and solar will likely all increase greatly in capacity for the United States in the future. The United States can look to Germany to see how this could begin to be accomplished. Germany is one of the largest energy producers in the world (a reflection of their high standard of living), but they also have a vision and money to execute a renewable future. Germany has committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below their emission levels of 1990. In 1990 renewables made up just 4% of its electric energy production and today renewables are more than 30%. But Germany's total energy production is still dominated by fossil fuels. In 2014 Germany's total energy production was 80% fossil, 8% nuclear, and 11% renewables.
After Fukushima, Germany shutdown eight out of seventeen of its nuclear reactors. Germany wants to phase out nuclear by 2021. To make up for the energy deficient there are plans to build more than two dozen coal plants, but this course of action is at odds with reaching its reduced greenhouse gas emission targets. Germany remains one of the largest producers of coal energy in the world, and until 2014 it had seen five consecutive years of increased coal consumption.
Germany is a rich modern country that has made the decision to aggressively pursue renewables, however because of its rejection of nuclear, and the reality of a petroleum based transportation industry, it struggles to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
If you don't support nuclear power, the leftovers are fossil fuels and a scattered selection of other renewables. All renewables face challenges. For example, hydroelectric energy alters landscapes and damages ecological systems. Hydroelectricity also poses dangers: dam collapses in Zhumadian region of China killed over 170,000 people in 1972 alone. Further, the most suitable locations for dams have already been developed. The other renewables are intermittent such that modern economies cannot function without the additional support of on demand fossil fuels or nuclear. Advances in battery technology in the future could help ameliorate this situation.
One thing is clear, fossil fuels are underpriced. Fossil fuels carry external costs – negative valued products or environmental situations that are not paid for in the production of the energy from fossil fuels. The externalities of fossil fuels would raise the price by at least 30% and some argue that the coast of coal would double if external costs were taken into account. Yet, worldwide there are hundreds of billions of dollars of fossil fuel subsides. The United States alone subsides fossil fuels at level of about 10 billion dollars. Worldwide the subsidies to renewables are around 50 billion dollars. We should all call for increased subsides for renewables.
Historically nuclear generators were developed rapidly with the aim to support nuclear arsenals rather than generate clean power. Essentially, nuclear power was subsided by war. This resulted in the contamination of nuclear sites, the disposal of nuclear waste into the oceans, and inefficient design of nuclear reactors. New technology and new values can change this. The most modern third generation nuclear reactors have quadruple level redundancies, leak tight reactor containment, and reinforced concrete shells for withstanding airplane impacts. However, without some kind of subsidy, or paying the true cost of fossil fuels, nuclear power may not be economically viable. The entire nuclear fuel cycle of mines, processing, enrichment, and high level waste management can make nuclear fuel costly. Ideally, renewables would be so cheap that nuclear would not even be viable.
Fission nuclear power has some terrible consequences. The technology to create modern nuclear power plants is similar to the technology to create nuclear weapons and that nuclear power plants generate fuel which is suitable for nuclear weapons. But most countries that have nuclear power have chosen not to make nuclear weapons (there are 30 countries with 438 nuclear reactors, just half a dozen countries have nuclear weapons). Fission reactors generate high level nuclear waste must be stored properly for hundreds of thousands of years; to generate such a caustic material seems like the shortest sighted behavior possible. Terrorism and theft of nuclear materials is a real threat.
Nuclear power saves lives and averts the copious greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuels. As power needs increase in the 21st century, nuclear, or any alternative to fossil fuels could avoid millions of air-pollution related deaths and the emission of more greenhouse gases. We need to quantify and discuss the risks of nuclear power. Many scientists now discuss the distinct possibility that we are seeing a great mass extinction on earth because of human activities. Nuclear power or renewables are the alternatives to fossil fuels we must invest in to avert rapid climate change.
Perhaps the real threat of nuclear is psychological. People may not understand radiation or the threat of coal pollution, but they understand the threat of nuclear war. This is fair. Nuclear war is a real threat to the survival of humanity and in good consciousness we should not promote an activity that steps us closer to the edge of survival. Further, generating hazardous waste that will be left for future generations to deal with is an onerous deed. Avoiding nuclear fission would let our conscience rest easy. However, climate change also steps us toward an edge. We must walk a narrow line. Reduced nuclear power and reduced greenhouse gas emissions are contradictory goals. If we decide we can't handle nuclear, we should promote renewables before attacking nuclear.