Climate change and nuclear power

Locks on a gate

Among environmentalists these days, the mark that you are a hard-headed realist committed to stopping climate change is that you have come to support nuclear power. (See Patrick Moore, one founder of Greenpeace, in the Washington Post.) While appealing in principle, the argument goes, renewable sources of energy just can’t generate the oomph we need as an advanced industrial society – at least, not quickly enough to get us out of the hole we’ve been digging ourselves into through fossil fuel dependence.

I am sympathetic to the argument. A good case can be made for employing considerable caution when dealing with something as essential and imperfectly understood as the Earth’s climatic system. Nuclear power is strategically appealing – it could reduce the levels of geopolitical influence of some really nasty governments like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. It is appealing insofar as carbon emissions are concerned, though it is not quite as zero-emission as some zealots claim, once you take into account things like fuel mining and refining, transport, and construction. It is appealing insofar as it can generate really huge amounts of power, provided we can find people who are willing to have reactors in their vicinities.

The big problem, obviously, is nuclear waste. Nuclear reactors produce high level radioactive waste, as well as becoming radioactive themselves over the course of time. The scales across which such waste is dangerous dwarf recorded human history. Wastes like Plutonium-239 will remain extremely dangerous for tens of millennia. As The Economist effectively explains it:

In Britain only a few ancient henges and barrows have endured for anything like the amount of time that a nuclear waste dump will be expected to last—Stonehenge, the most famous, is “only” 4,300 years old. How best, for example, to convey the concept of dangerous radiation to people who may be exploring the site ten thousand years from now? By that time English (or any other modern language) could be as dead as Parthian or Linear A, and the British government as dim a memory as the pharaohs are today.

In fairness, we have some reason to believe that future generations will be more capable of dealing with high level radioactive waste than we are. There is likewise some reason to believe that we can bury the stuff such that it will never trouble us again. Much of it has, after all, been dumped in far less secure conditions. Chernobyl remains entombed in a block of degrading concrete, and substantial portions of the Soviet nuclear fleet have sank or been scuttled with nuclear waste aboard. (See: One, two, three) Off the coast of the Kola Peninsula near Norway, 135 nuclear reactors from 71 decommissioned Soviet submarines were scuttled in the Berrents Sea during the Cold War. In addition, the Soviet Union dumped nuclear waste at 10 sites in the Sea of Japan between 1966 and 1991.

In the end, I don’t find the argument for long-term geological storage to be adequate. We cannot make vessels that will endure the period across which these materials will be dangerous. As such, I do not think we can live up to our obligations towards members of future generations if we continue to generate such wastes – though that is unlikely to matter much to politicians facing US$100 a barrel oil. Pressed to do so, I am confident that a combination of reduction in the usage of energy and the development of renewable sources could deal with the twin problems of climate change and the depletion of oil resources. The short term cost might be a lot higher than that associated with nuclear energy, but it seems the more prudent course to take.

All that said, I very much encourage someone to argue the contrary position.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

28 thoughts on “Climate change and nuclear power”

  1. Dr Anderson said the separate demands of the transport and heating sectors meant that nuclear power supplied only about 3.6% of total UK energy used. Replacing nuclear reactors with gas and coal power stations by 2020 would raise carbon emissions by 4%-8%, he said. “We could very easily compensate for that with moderate increases in energy efficiency. If you’ve got money to spend on tackling climate change then you don’t spend it on supply. You spend it on reducing demand.”

    (From The Guardian)

  2. “Off the coast of the Kola Peninsula near Norway, 135 nuclear reactors from 71 decommissioned Soviet submarines were scuttled in the Berrents Sea during the Cold War. In addition, the Soviet Union dumped nuclear waste at 10 sites in the Sea of Japan between 1966 and 1991.”

    While unfortunate, this is surely a red herring. What importance does it have for deciding whether responsible states should use nuclear power in a civilian capacity or not?

  3. Milan,

    I’ve heard, but never bothered to check, that, quite apart from the problem of disposing of the waste (on that, wouldn’t one possible solution to dump it in space?), there’s not actually very much uranium left.

  4. Rob,

    Given that the very best launch systems in the world still have a rate of catastrophic failure of about 1%, launching high level waste is risky. Since the entire core of a nuclear reactor becomes high level waste, it is also quite improbable.

    As for the availability of uranium, I have never heard any concern expressed about running out of it.

  5. According to Wikipedia:

    [Uranium] is considered to be more plentiful than antimony, beryllium, cadmium, gold, mercury, silver, or tungsten and is about as abundant as arsenic or molybdenum. It is found in many minerals including uraninite (most common uranium ore), autunite, uranophane, torbernite, and coffinite. Significant concentrations of uranium occur in some substances such as phosphate rock deposits, and minerals such as lignite, and monazite sands in uranium-rich ores (it is recovered commercially from these sources)…

    The ultimate supply of uranium is very large. It is estimated that for a ten times increase in price, the supply of uranium that can be economically mined is increased 300 times…

    In spite of Australia’s huge reserves, Canada remains the largest exporter of uranium ore, with mines located in the Athabasca Basin in northern Saskatchewan. Cameco, the world’s largest, low-cost uranium producer accounting for 18% of the world’s uranium production, operates three mines in the area.

  6. On space disposal of wastes:

    “In 1997, in the 20 countries which account for most of the world’s nuclear power generation, spent fuel storage capacity at the reactors was 148,000 tonnes, with 59% of this utilized. Away-from-reactor storage capacity was 78,000 tonnes, with 44% utilized. With annual additions of about 12,000 tonnes, issues for final disposal are not urgent.”

    The capacity of the Space Shuttle, the world’s largest capacity launch vehicle, is capable of carrying about 25 tonnes into space. It would therefore take more than 9000 missions to dispose of just the high level waste from just commercial reactors in twenty countries. Rockets would be cheaper than the Shuttle, but the scale of the problem remains.

  7. MIT reports that the world is running out of fuel for our nuclear reactors due to production limitations and an aging infrastructure. Nuclear power has gained popularity as a carbon-free energy source in recent years, but Dr. Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at MIT’s Center for International Studies, warned that fuel scarcity could drive up prices and kill the industry before it gets back on its feet. Passport has pulled together some interesting numbers: there are 440 reactors currently in operation and 82 new plants under construction. The demand for fuel has driven the price of uranium up more than 40% in the last few months — 900% over the last decade.

  8. Speaking across the ages

    Oct 22nd 2007
    How to design a future-proof nuclear waste bunker

    THE environmental lobby often laments mankind’s unfortunate obsession with the short term. People, by and large, don’t tend to think ahead (two-thirds of Britons lack wills, for example, leaving them unprepared for one of life’s few real certainties). Politicians, with one eye always fixed on surviving the next election, are particularly guilty of short-termism. That is a problem, since human time-scales don’t always match environmental ones. A razed rainforest may take decades to regrow. Climate change will remain a problem for centuries, even if carbon emissions were to cease tomorrow.

    One of the thorniest long-term problems is what to do with nuclear waste. Many western countries may build new nuclear plants; they see the energy as clean and secure. But their publics remain dubious, and nuclear waste tops their list of worries.

  9. Two Evils
    On nuclear vs. coal
    By Umbra Fisk
    16 Jan 2008

    “Cursorily, nuclear power is a potential Xtreme disaster waiting to happen both in terms of operation and of “homeland security,” cannot save us from our immediate crisis, and is a completely unresolved toxic-waste issue that we are handing down to the next hundred generations. Coal is and will increasingly be a major contributor to air pollution and climate change, not to mention what its extraction does to the ground and nearby residents. Neither industry has sufficient government oversight, and both have too much government support. Right now nuclear gets some low-greenhouse-gas positive traction; maybe back in the ’80s when nukes were non grata, coal looked all bright and shiny. But neither is good, neither is better. Neither, despite your protestation, is the only answer I can give…”

  10. Nuclear power is now offered as an alternative to coal power. But, in actuality, Big Nuke is Big Carbon’s mad-scientist cousin. Both externalize their costs: To the land, to the atmosphere, to miners, to consumers, to communities near the mines and refining facilities, and especially to future generations who will live with the long-term consequences of our short-term gains. The damage that both do is, of course, justified as necessary and unavoidable.

  11. Still, liberal biases may be most dangerous in the context of climate change, the most significant scientific and technological challenge of our time. For starters, they stand against the only technology with an established track record of generating electricity at scale while emitting virtually no greenhouse gases: nuclear power.

    Only 35 percent of Democrats, compared with 60 percent of Republicans, favor building more nuclear power plants, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.

    It is the G.O.P. that is closer to the scientific consensus. According to a separate Pew poll of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 65 percent of scientists want more nuclear power too.

    Ted Cruz’s argument that climate change is a hoax to justify a government takeover of the world is absurd. But Bernie Sanders’s argument that “toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit” might also be damaging.

    Highlighting the left’s biases may seem like a pointless effort to apportion equal blame along ideological lines. But it is critical to understand how they have come into being. It suggests how difficult it will be to overcome our scientific and technological taboos.

    Research suggests that better scientific knowledge will not be sufficient, on its own, to overcome our biases. Neither will it be mostly about improving education in STEM fields. To defeat our scientific phobias and taboos will require understanding how the findings of science and their consequences fit into the cultural makeup of both liberals and conservatives.

  12. “In the context of climate change, this heuristic presents an odd problem. It suggests that attitudes about climate change have little to do with education and people’s understanding of science.

    Fixing it won’t require just better science. Eliminating the roadblocks against taking substantive action against climate change may require somehow disassociating the scientific facts from deeply rooted preferences about the world we want to live in, on both sides of the ideological divide.”

  13. Summit urges action to preserve US nuclear reactors

    A US Department of Energy (DOE) summit held last week to identify policy options for improving the economic competitiveness of nuclear power plants has been described by the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute as a “wake-up” call on the urgency of preserving the country’s operating reactors.

    With the prospect of US nuclear units being licensed to operate for 60 years, Moniz said that the 2030s – when many of those licences would be due to expire – will be a critical time. He views the continued operation of existing plants as a “bridge” over the next 15 years “to a time when nuclear is going to have to see a substantial resurgence to be a significant contributor to our carbon goals”.

    In the longer term, projects already under way – the construction of new AP1000 units at Vogtle and VC Summer, the completion of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar 2, and the first applications related to construction of small modular reactors (SMRs) – illustrate the central role of nuclear energy in the future. “We’ve got to get from here to there – and getting from here to there is where I think we need good, solid operation of the current fleet,” he said.

    Recent premature closures of well-performing nuclear units were not isolated events, he said, but evidence of a larger systemic problem. “Over the last several years, companies have shut down – or announced plans to shut down – eight nuclear reactors. We can see another 15 to 20 plants at risk of premature shutdown over the next five to ten years.” That level of closures would effectively wipe out about a quarter of the carbon reduction gains achieved by the Clean Power Plan and represent about 45% of the USA’s carbon reduction commitments made at the COP21 climate conference in Paris last year.

  14. The resolution on COP25 calls for the European Green Deal, announced by European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, to include a target of 55% emissions reductions by 2030 in order to be able to reach its target on climate neutrality by 2050. It was adopted by 430 votes in favour, 190 against and 34 abstentions.

    The resolution says the European Parliament “believes that nuclear energy can play a role in meeting climate objectives because it does not emit greenhouse gases, and can also ensure a significant share of electricity production in Europe; considers nevertheless that, because of the waste it produces, this energy requires a medium and long-term strategy that takes into account technological advances (laser, fusion, etc) aimed at improving the sustainability of the entire sector.”

    A draft of the resolution presented by the European Parliament’s Environment Committee (ENVI) had called for a phase-out of nuclear energy in the EU, claiming it is “neither safe, nor environmentally or economically sustainable”. ENVI adopted the draft resolution on 6 November with 62 votes to 11. However, following a debate on the resolution on 25 November, that position did not make it through to the final text. Amendment 38, which instead states the European Parliament’s support of nuclear, was approved by 322 votes, with 298 votes against it and 45 abstentions.

    Yves Desbazeille, director general of European nuclear trade body Foratom, said: “We are delighted to see the European Parliament recognise the role which low-carbon nuclear has to play in meeting climate change objectives and in ensuring security of supply.” Foratom notes there are 126 nuclear power reactors in operation in the European Union, providing 26% of its total electricity generation. However, nuclear power accounts for 50% of the region’s low-carbon electricity output. The use of nuclear energy in the EU avoids the emission of 700 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

  15. Australians support lifting nuclear ban

    More Australians support lifting the country’s ban on the use of nuclear energy than oppose it, a new poll conducted for the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has found. The survey also found that over half those polled were not aware that nuclear energy is banned in Australia.

    Australian committee calls for partial lifting of nuclear moratorium

    The Australian government should consider a partial lifting of the current moratorium on nuclear energy to allow the deployment of new and emerging technologies, a report published today by a parliamentary committee has recommended. The report followed an inquiry into the prerequisites for nuclear energy in the country.

  16. Exelon announces early shutdown of four Illinois reactors

    US utility Exelon Generation announced today both the two-unit Byron and Dresden nuclear power plants will be retired in 2021 as “the result of market rules that favour polluting power plants over carbon-free nuclear energy.” It warned that further plants are at risk of premature closure due to these unfavourable market rules.

  17. Nuclear energy – The solution to climate change?

    • Nuclear power’s contribution to climate change mitigation is and will be very limited.

    • Currently nuclear power avoids 2–3% of total global GHG emissions per year.

    • According to current planning this value will decrease even further until 2040.

    • A substantial expansion of nuclear power will not be possible.

    • Given its low contribution, a complete phase-out of nuclear energy is feasible.

  18. The Golden State’s only remaining nuclear plant provides nearly 9% of its electricity generation, and accounts for 15% of its clean-electricity production. Yet despite California’s aggressive climate goals and a national push to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, Diablo Canyon is set to close down by 2025. A new report from researchers at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit) reveals just how detrimental that would be.

    These three trends led researchers to ponder how keeping the plant running might change California’s energy outlook. They found that to keep it going to 2035, ten years past its current operating licence issued by the nrc, would cut emissions, bolster the grid’s reliability and save the state $2.6bn. The analysis shows that Diablo’s continued operation would reduce the carbon emissions from power generation by 11% each year from 2017 levels. And unlike wind and solar power, nuclear energy provides a stable source of electricity unaffected by changes in weather.

    Yet evidence shows that when nuclear reactors shut down, polluting fossil fuels make up the difference.

    Even while plants are being shut down, nuclear power is gaining in appeal. Environmental groups have long been sceptical of nuclear because of the toxic waste it produces, or because they were against nuclear weapons. Jessica Lovering, the founder of Good Energy Collective, which aims to build the “progressive case for nuclear energy”, says today’s climate activists are more pragmatic, and focused on nuclear’s lack of carbon emissions. She cites the Sunrise Movement as a group that is not necessarily pro-nuclear, but is against closing down existing plants.

    Nuclear is responsible for nearly 20% of America’s power generation and about half of its clean energy. A survey from ecoAmerica found that 56% of Democrats supported nuclear power in 2020, up from 37% in 2018 (see chart 2). “Young people these days maybe don’t bring with them the baggage of their parents and grandparents, who were raised during the cold war, in their view of nuclear power,” says Mr Nesbit.

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