Choosing nuclear

Nuclear flowchart

The flowchart above illustrates one process through which we could collectively evaluate the desirability of nuclear power, given the potential risks and benefits associated with the technology. In my personal opinion, the answer to the first question is probably “yes,” though perhaps not to as large a degree as commonly believed. The second and third questions are much more up in the air, and necessarily involve uncertainty. We cannot know exactly what will be involved in building a massive new nuclear architecture before it is done; similarly, it cannot be known with certainty what would result from choosing conservation and renewables instead.

As for the third question, there are major questions about risk evaluation and risk tolerance. If the world keeps running nuclear plants, it is a statistical certainty that we will eventually have another serious nuclear accident. No nuclear state is without its contaminated sites, and none yet has a geological repository for wastes.

This post definitely isn’t mean to settle the question initially posed, but rather to clarify thinking on the issue and dismiss the automatic logical leap from “climate change is happening” to “build more fission plants.”

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.

54 thoughts on “Choosing nuclear”

  1. “There are great potential gains and great potential costs with nuclear power. Existing reactors seems to work well and mostly safely although waste disposal problems remain. If the uranium resource limitation people are correct then we cannot go much further without a new technology, perhaps based on thorium. Various issues related to terrorism are more important than they used to be. Earlier “new technologies” such as Breeders (Clinch River, Super Phoenix) have been abandoned as too expensive. Plumbing issues have plagued the Candu style reactors, although they appear intrinsically cheaper and safer and do not require energy-intensive enrichment. Fusion is still many decades away. So there is no free lunch with nuclear. Nevertheless it is possible that nuclear fission should be considered as a transition fuel on our way to solar or something else simply because the cycle emits far less CO2 than does any fossil fuel. In our opinion we need a very high level series of analyses to review all of these issues. Even if this is done it seems extremely likely that very strong opinions, both positive and negative, shall remain. There may be no resolution to the nuclear question that will be politically viable.”


    It is sometimes stated that nuclear power plants can supply electricity with zero emissions of greenhouse gases. In fact, consideration of the entire fuel cycle indicates that some greenhouse gases are generated during their construction and decommissioning and by the preparation of fuel and other materials required for their operation. This follows from the use of fossil fuels in the preparation of materials and during the construction and decommissioning of the plants. This paper reviews life cycle studies of several different kinds of power plants. Greenhouse gases generated by fossil fuels during the preparation of fuel and heavy water used by operating CANDU power plants are estimated. The total greenhouse gas emissions from CANDU nuclear plants, per unit of electricity ultimately produced, are very small in comparison with emissions from most other types of power plants.

  3. Forget Nuclear
    By Amory B. Lovins, Imran Sheikh, and Alex Markevich

    Nuclear power, we’re told, is a vibrant industry that’s dramatically reviving because it’s proven, necessary, competitive, reliable, safe, secure, widely used, increasingly popular, and carbon-free—a perfect replacement for carbon-spewing coal power. New nuclear plants thus sound vital for climate protection, energy security, and powering a growing economy.

    There’s a catch, though: the private capitalmarket isn’t investing in new nuclear plants, and without financing, capitalist utilities aren’t buying. The few purchases, nearly all in Asia, are all made by central planners with a draw on the public purse. In the United States, even government subsidies approaching or exceeding new nuclear power’s total cost have failed to entice Wall Street.

    This non-technical summary article compares the cost, climate protection potential, reliability, financial risk, market success, deployment speed, and energy contribution of new nuclear power with those of its low- or no-carbon competitors. It explains why soaring taxpayer subsidies aren’t attracting investors. Capitalists instead favor climate-protecting competitors with less cost, construction time, and financial risk. The nuclear industry claims it has no serious rivals, let alone those competitors—which, however, already outproduce nuclear power worldwide and are growing enormously faster.

    Most remarkably, comparing all options’ ability to protect the earth’s climate and enhance energy security reveals why nuclear power could never deliver these promised benefits even if it could find free-market buyers—while its carbon-free rivals, which won $71 billion of private investment in 2007 alone, do offer highly effective climate and security solutions, sooner, with greater confidence.

  4. 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.

  5. The trouble with nuclear fuel
    Struggling to hold up a bank
    Aug 6th 2009
    From The Economist print edition
    When narrow national interests obstruct a noble cause

    PAVED it may be with good intentions, but there are many twists and pot-holes along the road to a nuclear-free world. So many, in fact, that the path, tantalisingly opened up by Barack Obama, may yet turn out to lead nowhere.
    But to keep things minimally on track, governments that care about the spread of the bomb will make a big effort to shore up the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at next year’s five-yearly review. The Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, talks of ratifying the test-ban treaty. America and Russia are busy cutting warheads. Nuclear officials from America, Russia, Britain, France and China will meet in London next month to explore ways to build confidence for future disarmament.

    Yet all will be in vain unless better ways can be found to deal with a practical problem as old as the nuclear age: how to stop nuclear technologies that can be used legitimately for making electricity from being abused for bomb-making. Efforts to tackle it are in a muddle.

  6. Germany’s energy debate
    Nuclear power? Yes, maybe

    Sep 10th 2009 | BERLIN
    From The Economist print edition
    Angela Merkel’s promise to keep nuclear power is turning radioactive

    REFLECTING the morning sun like a lake of black ice, the solar panels in the wild forests of Brandenburg’s border with Poland offer a glimpse of a German dream of a future built on clean energy. Here, at Lieberose, the world’s second-largest photovoltaic power plant captures morning light to produce enough electricity for a town of about 15,000 homes. Gleaming rows of solar cells like these, lazily turning windmills and other renewable sources already provide about 15% of Germany’s electricity, making the country a leader in both wind and solar technology.

    But impressive as such achievements have been, Germany faces contentious energy choices, and none more so than over the future of 17 nuclear power plants, some aged and prone to breakdowns, that provide almost a quarter of the country’s electricity. Their fate has been one of the few emotive issues in the campaign for federal election on September 27th.

  7. Perhaps the most sensible position on nuclear/CCS/geoengineering can be summed up by paraphrasing William Lyon Mackenzie King: “nuclear/CCS/geoengineering if necessary, but not necessarily nuclear/CCS/geoengineering.”

  8. Australia ‘open’ to atomic energy

    There has been a significant shift in support for nuclear power in Australia, according to a poll.

    It has found that almost one in two people believe the technology should be considered as an alternative source of energy to coal or other fossil fuels.

    Proponents of nuclear energy said it showed Australians were more open to the technology as a means to help combat the effects of climate change.

    In 2006 one-third of people surveyed supported the atomic energy option.

    Now, almost 50% believe it would be a sensible alternative source of energy in a country that is heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

  9. Stewart Brand’s nuclear enthusiasm falls short on facts and logic

    Posted 3:00 AM on 14 Oct 2009
    by Amory Lovins

    Today, most dispassionate analysts think new nuclear power plants’ deepest flaw is their economics. They cost too much to build and incur too much financial risk. My writings show why nuclear expansion therefore can’t deliver on its claims: it would reduce and retard climate protection, because it saves between two and 20 times less carbon per dollar, 20 to 40 times slower, than investing in efficiency and micropower.

    That conclusion rests on empirical data about how much new nuclear electricity actually costs relative to decentralized and efficiency competitors, how these alternatives compare in capacity and output added per year, and which can most effectively save carbon. Stewart’s chapter says nothing about any of these questions, but I believe they’re at the heart of the matter. If nuclear power is unneeded, uncompetitive, or ineffective in climate protection, let alone all three, then we need hardly debate whether its safety and waste issues are resolved, as he claims.

    In its first half-century, nuclear power fell short of its forecast capacity by about 12-fold in the U.S. and 30-fold worldwide, mainly because building it cost several-fold more than expected, straining or bankrupting its owners. The many causes weren’t dominated by U.S. citizen interventions and lawsuits, since nuclear expectations collapsed similarly in countries without such events; even France suffered a 3.5-fold rise in real capital costs during 1970-2000. Nor did the Three Mile Island accident halt U.S. orders: they’d stopped the previous year.

    Rather, nuclear’s key challenge was soaring capital cost, and for some units, poor performance. Operational improvements in the ‘90s made the better old reactors relatively cheap to run, but Stewart’s case is for building new ones. Have their economics improved enough to prevent a rerun?

  10. CERN Physicist Warns About Uranium Shortage

    “Uranium mines provide us with 40,000 tons of uranium each year. Sounds like that ought to be enough for anyone, but it comes up about 25,000 tons short of what we consume yearly in our nuclear power plants. The difference is made up by stockpiles, reprocessed fuel and re-enriched uranium — which should be completely used up by 2013. And the problem with just opening more uranium mines is that nobody really knows where to go for the next big uranium lode. Dr. Michael Dittmar has been warning us for some time about the coming shortage (PDF) and has recently uploaded a four-part comprehensive report on the future of nuclear energy and how socioeconomic change is exacerbating the effect this coming shortage will have on our power consumption. Although not quite on par with zombie apocalypse, Dr. Dittmar’s final conclusions paint a dire picture, stating that options like large-scale commercial fission breeder reactors are not an option by 2013 and ‘no matter how far into the future we may look, nuclear fusion as an energy source is even less probable than large-scale breeder reactors, for the accumulated knowledge on this subject is already sufficient to say that commercial fusion power will never become a reality.'”

  11. Green.view
    Fuelling fears

    Nov 30th 2009
    A uranium shortage could derail plans to go nuclear to cut carbon emissions

    THERE is an awesome amount of energy tied up in an atom of uranium. Because of that, projections of the price of nuclear power tend to focus on the cost of building the plant rather than that of fuelling it. But proponents of nuclear energy—who argue, correctly, that such plants emit little carbon dioxide—would do well to remember that, like coal and oil, uranium is a finite resource.

    Some 60% of the 66,500 tonnes of uranium needed to fuel the world’s existing nuclear power plants is dug fresh from the ground each year. The remaining 40% comes from so-called secondary sources, in the form of recycled fuel or redundant nuclear warheads. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is a United Nations body, and the Nuclear Energy Agency, which was formed by the rich countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, both reckon that, at present rates, these secondary sources will be exhausted within the next decade or so.

    Once every two years the two agencies publish what is considered the best estimate of global uranium stocks, “Uranium: Resources, Production and Demand”, colloquially known as the Red Book. It estimates that there is enough unmined uranium to supply today’s nuclear power stations for at least 85 years for less than $130 per kilogram. But Michael Dittmar, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, thinks they are mistaken. He has studied the uranium supply and argues, in a recent series of papers, that shortages will drive the nuclear renaissance to an untimely end.

  12. Regarding the second question: “Is an alternative means cheaper or quicker?” there is some interesting information in Al Gore’s book Our Choice.

    Because of modular construction, wind turbines can actually be built and deployed in less than two months. By comparison, recent attempts to build nuclear reactors have seen timelines slipping to more than a decade.

    Wind also has the advantage of transparent economics. It is easy to work out what they cost, and to take into account any associated subsidies. The economics of nuclear, by contrast, remain mysterious.

  13. Tuesday, November 17, 2009
    The Coming Nuclear Crisis
    The world is running out of uranium and nobody seems to have noticed.

    The world is about to enter a period of unprecedented investment in nuclear power. The combined threats of climate change, energy security and fears over the high prices and dwindling reserves of oil are forcing governments towards the nuclear option. The perception is that nuclear power is a carbon-free technology, that it breaks our reliance on oil and that it gives governments control over their own energy supply.

    That looks dangerously overoptimistic, says Michael Dittmar, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich who publishes the final chapter of an impressive four-part analysis of the global nuclear industry on the arXiv today.

    Perhaps the most worrying problem is the misconception that uranium is plentiful. The world’s nuclear plants today eat through some 65,000 tons of uranium each year. Of this, the mining industry supplies about 40,000 tons. The rest comes from secondary sources such as civilian and military stockpiles, reprocessed fuel and re-enriched uranium. “But without access to the military stocks, the civilian western uranium stocks will be exhausted by 2013, concludes Dittmar.

  14. Only a carbon tax and nuclear power can save us

    * James Hansen
    * From: The Australian
    * March 11, 2010 12:00AM

    AUSTRALIA will suffer if fossil fuel use continues unabated. Climate extremes will increase. Poleward expansion of the subtropics will make Australia often hotter and drier, with stronger droughts and hotter fires, as the jet stream retreats southward.

    But when ocean temperature patterns bring rain, the warmer air will dump much more water, causing damaging floods. Storms will become more devastating as the ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland begin to disintegrate and cool the neighbouring ocean, as I describe in [my book] Storms of My Grandchildren. Ice discharge from Antarctica has already doubled in the past five years.

    Science has shown that preservation of stable climate and the remarkable life that our planet harbours require a rapid slowdown of fossil fuel emissions. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, now almost 390 parts per million, must be brought back to 350ppm or less. That is possible, with actions that make sense for other reasons.

    But the actions require a change to business-as-usual. Change is opposed by those profiting from our fossil-fuel addiction. Change will happen only with courageous political leadership.

    Leaders must draw attention to the moral imperative. We cannot pretend that we do not understand the consequences for our children and grandchildren. We cannot leave them with a situation spiralling out of their control. We must set a new course.

    Yet what course is proposed? Hokey cap-and-trade with offsets, aka an emissions trading scheme. Scheme is the right word, a scheme to continue business-as-usual behind a fig leaf.

    The Kyoto Protocol was a cap-and-trade approach. Global emissions shot up faster than ever after its adoption. It is impossible to cap all emissions as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy.

  15. “Uranium is usually extracted from ore that contains 1,000 or more parts per million (ppm) of the element. The Lincang coal ash holds much less, about 300ppm. That said, it does not need to be mined—which brings costs down. Sparton says it can extract a kilogram of uranium for $77 or less. Uranium’s spot price is now near $90 a kilo. That is not a huge margin, but it is a profit nonetheless.

    To extract the uranium, Sparton adds sulphuric and hydrochloric acids to the ash, along with water, to make a slurry. With some sorts of ash, nitric acid is also used. The acids dissolve the uranium, and various other things, leaching them from the ash. The trick is to get the dissolved uranium out of the resulting solution.

    Sparton’s process uses a charcoal filter made from burned coconut husks to trap floating particles and eliminate organic compounds. The filtered solution is then passed through small beads of an ion-exchange resin. These selectively remove uranium ions while leaving the others behind—extracting about two-thirds of the uranium in the ash, according to the company. The uranium is then dissolved from the beads using a solution of ammonium carbonate and precipitated as “yellow cake”, a mixture of uranium oxides.

    At the moment, this process costs more than ten times as much as conventional mining, but some countries might regard that as a small price to pay for security of supply. Perish the thought that the supply is for anything other than providing fuel for civilian nuclear-power stations.”

  16. Sweden to replace existing nuclear plants with new ones

    The Swedish parliament has approved the replacement of old nuclear reactors with new ones, marking a change in policy on nuclear power.

    The plan, proposed by the government, passed narrowly by two votes.

    In 1980, a Swedish referendum decided to phase out reactors by 2010, although the target was later abandoned.

    Sweden’s 10 reactors, at three power stations, supply as much as half of the country’s electricity.

    The plan allows for new reactors to be built at the same site as the country’s existing plants, but forbids the approval of new sites. The number of reactors is not allowed to exceed 10.

    It passed by 174 votes to 172 against, with three MPs absent.

    The centre-left opposition said they would rescind the law if they win the next election, due in September.

    “Of course we will tear it up,” said Tomas Eneroth from the Social Democratic Party.

  17. Nuclear Energy Now More Expensive Than Solar

    “According to an article on the New York Times, a historical cross-over has occurred because of the declining costs of solar vs. the increasing costs of nuclear energy: solar, hardly the cheapest of renewable technologies, is now cheaper than nuclear, at around 16 cents per kilowatt hour. Furthermore, the NY Times reports that financial markets will not finance the construction of nuclear power plants unless the risk of default (which is historically as high as 50 percent for the nuclear industry) is externalized to someone else through federal loan guarantees or ratepayer funding. The bottom line seems to be that nuclear is simply not competitive, and the push from the US government to subsidize it seems to be forcing the wrong choice on the market.”

    Study: Solar power is cheaper than nuclear

    The Holy Grail of the solar industry — reaching grid parity — may no longer be a distant dream. Solar may have already reached that point, at least when compared to nuclear power, according to a new study by two researchers at Duke University.

    It’s no secret that the cost of producing photovoltaic cells (PV) has been dropping for years. A PV system today costs just 50 percent of what it did in 1998. Breakthroughs in technology and manufacturing combined with an increase in demand and production have caused the price of solar power to decline steadily. At the same time, estimated costs for building new nuclear power plants have ballooned.

    The result of these trends: “In the past year, the lines have crossed in North Carolina,” say study authors John Blackburn and Sam Cunningham. “Electricity from new solar installations is now cheaper than electricity from proposed new nuclear plants.”

    If the data analysis is correct, the pricing would represent the “Historic Crossover” claimed in the study’s title.

    Two factors not stressed in the study bolster the case for solar even more:

    1) North Carolina is not a “sun-rich” state. The savings found in North Carolina are likely to be even greater for states with more sunshine –Arizona, southern California, Colorado, New Mexico, west Texas, Nevada and Utah.

    2) The data include only PV-generated electricity, without factoring in what is likely the most encouraging development in solar technology: concentrating solar power (CSP). CSP promises utility scale production and solar thermal storage, making electrical generation practical for at least six hours after sunset.

  18. Germany agrees to extend nuclear plant life span

    Germany’s coalition government has decided to extend the life span of the country’s nuclear power plants by an average of 12 years, officials say.

    Under the agreement, some plants will now remain in production until the 2030s, instead of being phased out by 2021 as the previous government wanted.

    There will also be new fees on utility companies to fund renewable energy.

    Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that renewable sources are not developed enough to abandon nuclear power.

    She acknowledged that there were widespread concerns about nuclear energy, but said it was needed as a “bridge technology” until renewables were more viable.

    German power generation, she said, would become “the most efficient and most environmentally friendly in the world”.

    Ministers met until late on Sunday to discuss the plan, emerging to announce that the older of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants will remain in production for eight more years beyond 2021 while more recent ones will stay online for an additional 14 years.

  19. The nuclear future

    SIR – Coming just before the conclusion of the UN climate-change summit in Cancún, your article on mini nuclear reactors could not have been more timely (“Thinking small”, December 11th). As you pointed out, Russia has developed small floating reactors to deliver energy to the Arctic regions, primarily to overcome the problem of building power plants and grids on unstable permafrost. The simplicity and scalability of small reactors makes them an ideal energy source where future demand is uncertain and investment in larger plants and grids is simply not viable.

    But you passed over the one big area where small reactors can perhaps make the greatest contribution: the developing world. Harnessing this technology can promote clean and affordable economic and social development in countries that are held back by energy shortages. Indeed, small reactors should figure prominently when it comes to implementing Cancún’s pledges on technology transfer to developing economies.

    For nuclear power to live up to this promise, the international community must be ready to share technology and expertise to help reduce costs and ensure the highest safety standards. So as well as representing a significant step in “resetting” American-Russian relations, the recent approval by the American Congress of an agreement with Russia opens the way for unprecedented commercial co-operation on new reactor designs that are small, proliferation-resistant and more cost-effective.

    Such an increase in international co-operation coupled with continuing improvements in technology will allow nuclear energy at last to live up to the hopes of its pioneers from more than 50 years ago.

    Oleg Deripaska
    Chief executive
    Basic Element

  20. Is a U.S. Nuclear Revival Finally Underway?

    Four new reactors are under construction in the U.S.–on time and on budget–today

    The first new nuclear reactor ordered in the U.S. in roughly three decades is beginning to take shape in the red clay near Augusta, Ga. Southern Co. and its partners have dug 27.5 meters down into that soil to reach bedrock and are now filling up the hole to provide a stable foundation for what is likely to be the first of a new generation of reactors in the U.S.: two new AP-1000 models at the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant that stand next to two older pressurized water reactors, which came online in the 1980s.

    “The nuclear revival is underway in Georgia,” says Jim Miller, chief executive of Southern Nuclear Operating Co., the subsidiary charged with administering the corporation’s nuclear power plants. “It will provide safe, clean, reliable, low-cost electric energy to our customers for generations to come.”

    In addition to charging its current customers $3.73 a month for the construction of this reactor until costs are recovered Southern received an $8.3-billion loan guarantee from the federal government to help make up the cost difference compared with building a natural gas–fired turbine, for example. The total cost of the two new reactors is expected to be $14 billion in the end, Miller says.

  21. Japan declares emergencies at 2 nuclear plants
    5 reactors at 2 facilities in trouble after quake

    Japan has declared a state of emergency and called for mass evacuations near two nuclear power plants following cooling systems failures that led to radiation escaping from a reactor at one location.

    The emergency declarations, which include five reactors at the two plants, followed Friday’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake off the country’s northeast coast. The quake, the most powerful in Japan’s recorded history, triggered a massive tsunami wave.

    At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Onahama city, about 270 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, a power failure triggered a problem in a cooling system, causing radiation levels inside one of its reactors to rise to 1,000 times normal.

    In a troubling announcement, Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency official Ryohei Shiomi said a monitoring device outside the plant detected radiation that is eight times higher than normal.

    An evacuation zone has been expanded from three kilometres around the plant to 10 kilometres.

  22. Containing the nuclear crisis

    FIRST came a violent earthquake. Then a devastating tsunami followed. Now an explosion at a nuclear power plant—and the release of radioactive material—has added to Japan’s woes. There was a momentary sense of relief on Saturday evening when the government assured the public that the explosion had not been caused by the meltdown of the reactor.

    Two aftershocks of yesterday’s quake rattled northeastern Japan between 10:20 and 10:40 pm, measuring 4.8 and 6.0 in magnitude. Yesterday’s 8.8 magnitude earthquake set off the automatic shut-down systems in ten of Japan’s 55 nuclear power plants, from which the country gets a third of its energy. But the cooling systems malfunctioned in numerous reactors at the Fukushima plant. As the temperatures rose, so did the pressure inside two reactors. Radioactive vapour was released into the air on Saturday to ease the pressure. The control room reported radiation levels at 1,000 times the norm.

    At 3:36 pm the Fukushima Dai-ichi (number one) building exploded following reported tremors, billowing plumes of smoke into the atmosphere. Yukio Edano, the government’s chief cabinet secretary, said that the reactor’s nuclear containment vessel did not suffer a meltdown or explode, citing the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

  23. A year-long Queen’s University study has concluded that nuclear power is simply not worth the risk when compared to solar energy.

    “The current situation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant and the anxiety of a possible meltdown are once again calling into question the use of nuclear power as a long-term energy option here in Canada,” Joshua Pearce, a mechanical and materials engineering professor told the Star.

    The university team looked at the 100 nuclear plants in the U.S. and factored in the indirect public subsidy, which amounts to the cost of insuring a nuclear plant in the event of a catastrophic accident, and the power produced over the lifetime of a nuclear power plant.

    “In my mind it is basically insanity to shoulder the public with risk to get relatively small amount of electricity out of it,” Pearce said.

    He noted that in the U.S. there is a $10-billion cap on liability in the event of an accident, which amounts to an indirect subsidy of about $33 million per plant per year over the lifetime of a nuclear plant.

  24. Renewable Energy Review

    This report sets the Committee’s advice on the potential for renewable energy development in the UK, and advice on whether existing targets should be reviewed.

    The Committee was asked to provide this advice as part of the Coalition Agreement in May 2010.

    The report contains new analysis of technical feasibility and economic viability of renewable and other low-carbon energy technologies and scenarios for renewable energy deployment to 2030.

  25. THERE are many heroes in post 3/11 Japan. The mayor of Rikuzentakata, who ensured the safety of city residents only for his wife to perish, is one, as are the Tokyo firefighters who streamed up to Fukushima to spray water on the out-of-control reactors. But among those who deserve honour is also a humble bureaucrat at the trade ministry. In a system that prizes remaining nameless, faceless and not rocking the boat, Shigeaki Koga chose to step forward and reveal some of Japan’s ugliest secrets.

    After 3/11, Mr Koga decided speak out about the awful practices he had experienced while working on Japan’s energy policy. The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant, run by TEPCO, is symptomatic of a wider malaise. The utility companies buy the academy by sponsoring research, buy the media through mountains of public-service advertisements and junkets, buy big business by paying top-dollar for everything, buy the bureaucrats and regulators by handing them cushy post-retirement jobs.

    Talking to him one gets a chill down the spine. Often, bureaucrats are regarded as lemming-like self-interested do-nothings or devious micro-managers. But Mr Koga’s brave words and deep understanding of how energy companies pad their costs, block competition, keep energy prices high and ultimately strangle Japan is an antidote to that image. Instead, the figure that emerges is a deeply intelligent, hard-working civil servant who wants the best for his country.

  26. Fresh (unirradiated) light water reactor fuel typically consists of UO2 with 1 to 5 atomic percent fissile 235U. When such fuel is removed from a reactor, its radioactivity is 1017 becquerel/metric ton, about a factor of a million higher than that of fresh fuel. A year later, the dose rate 1 m from a fuel assembly is about 1 million millisieverts (mSv) per hour (natural background ≈ 3 mSv/year), which will give a lethal dose to a human in less than a minute. The bulk of the penetrating β and γ ionizing radiation arises from short-lived fission products (e.g., 131I, 137Cs, 90Sr) and activation products of components of the fuel assemblies (e.g., Co, Ni, Nb). Alpha radiation is mostly from the transuranium elements (e.g., 239Pu, 237Np, 241Am), some of which are long-lived (e.g., 239Pu and 237Np with half-lives of 24,100 and 2.1 million years, respectively). After about 10,000 years, the total activity of fuel is less than 0.01% of the activity a year after removal from the reactor. Tremendous heat is generated by radioactive decay initially, about 2 MW per ton immediately after removal from the reactor, declining to about 20,000 W per ton after a year.

  27. But Mr Obama made no mention of nuclear energy, even though America’s 104 nuclear reactors provide around one-fifth of its electricity, and even though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was poised to approve, for the first time since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the construction of a new nuclear reactor on American soil. It duly did so on February 9th, giving its first-ever combined construction and operation licences to the Atlanta-based Southern Company to build two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, in eastern Georgia, where they will join two existing reactors that have been in operation for 25 and 23 years. Southern Company got $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees for the Vogtle expansion, and it expects the new reactors to begin operation in 2016 and 2017. This will be the among the largest construction projects in Georgia’s history, representing capital investment of $14 billion and bringing the state, by the firm’s estimate, 3,500 construction jobs and 800 permanent jobs.

    In 2009 Lamar Alexander, Tennessee’s senior senator, called for 100 new reactors to be built by 2030. The following year Mr Obama proposed tripling the nuclear loan-guarantee programme to $54 billion. Mr Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2013 (which begins this October) includes money to fund research into advanced small “modular” reactors.

    Safety, then, may well result in delays and cost-overruns: two factors not entirely unfamiliar in building nuclear plants. The cost of Vogtle’s first two reactors was initially pegged at $660m; they ended up costing a cool $8.7 billion, with electricity rates for Georgians spiking as a result. A study by Mark Cooper, an economic analyst at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment, found that in constant dollars the cost of nuclear power roughly quintupled between the 1970s and the early 1990s. Mr Cooper also found that initial cost projections tended dramatically to underestimate actual costs, as the Vogtle experience would seem to bear out.


    It is plain that we cannot do both. Reducing carbon emissions to 10% or less of current levels in the rich nations, which is the minimum required to prevent two degrees of warming, is hard enough already. To do so while also abandoning our most reliable and widespread low-carbon technology is even harder. It’s like putting on a pair of handcuffs before stepping into the boxing ring.

    To suggest phasing out nuclear power when the world is faced with a climate change crisis is utter madness. It shows that some people have lost sight of which goal is the more important.

    If there were quick, cheap, easy and effective means of reducing the UK’s carbon emissions to 5 or 10% of current levels, I too would continue to oppose nuclear power. But every one of our options entails great difficulty. We do not possess an abundance of good choices, and cannot afford to start throwing options away.

  29. Pickering nuclear units among the most expensive, least reliable in the world–pickering-nuclear-units-among-the-most-expensive-least-reliable-in-the-world?bn=1

    The economic performance of Ontario Power Generation’s Pickering nuclear stations is among the worst in the world, says a report prepared for the Ontario Energy Board.

    Not only is it the most expensive to operate, it lags at the far end of the pack in terms of reliability, with some units shut down almost 40 per cent of the time.

    The report recommends an incentive system that would base OPG’s payments for nuclear power on future improvements.

    But the company says it is well aware of the benchmarks used in the energy board report, and is already taking steps to improve performance.

    The energy board regulates the prices paid to OPG for its nuclear output, and for power generated from its biggest hydro-electric stations.

    The latest report, by Power Advisory LLC, flays the performance of both Pickering stations A and B. Pickering B has four operating units; Pickering A has two operating units with two in mothballs.

    Power Advisory notes the findings of a report previously filed by another consulting firm that “the Pickering A and B plants have among the worst, and on some measures the worst, operating measures” among nuclear generating stations worldwide.

  30. Along with contributing to the birth of the environmental movement, Weart shows how fear of radiation began to undermine society’s faith in science and modern technology. He writes “Polls showed that the number of Americans who felt ‘a great deal’ of confidence in science declined from more than half in 1966 to about a third in 1973. A main reason for misgivings about science, according to a poll that had studied the matter in detail was ‘Unspoken fear of atomic war.'”

    Even more, Weart suggests that nuclear fears have contributed to increasing mistrust not just in modern technology and the people and companies and institutions who control and regulate those technologies, but even in the societal structures that support them. He cites a widely read anti-nuclear book in the late 70s that warned that “the nuclear industry is driving us into a robotic slave society, an empire of death more evil even than Hitler’s.” He notes how strongly these underlying anti-establishment cultural worldviews informed a 1976 article opposing nuclear power by energy expert Amory Lovins, who wrote “reactors necessarily required high centralized power systems, which by their very nature were inflexible, hard to understand, unresponsive to ordinary people, inequitable (my emphasis), and vulnerable to disruption.” Weart observes that “people with a more egalitarian ideology who thought that wealth and power should be widely distributed, were more anxious about environmental risks in general and nuclear power above all than people who believed in a more hierarchical social order.” “By the mid-1970’s,” Weart writes, “many nuclear opponents were saying that their battle was not just against the reactor industry but against all modern hierarchies and their technologies.”

  31. Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power

    Pushker A. Kharecha and James E Hansen
    Environ. Sci. Technol., Just Accepted Manuscript
    DOI: 10.1021/es3051197
    Publication Date (Web): March 15, 2013
    Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

    In the aftermath of the March 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the future contribution of nuclear power to the global energy supply has become somewhat uncertain. Because nuclear power is an abundant, low-carbon source of base-load power, on balance it could make a large contribution to mitigation of global climate change and air pollution. Using historical production data, we calculate that global nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning. Based on global projection data that take into account the effects of Fukushima, we find that by mid-century, nuclear power could prevent an additional 420,000 to 7.04 million deaths and 80 to 240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels, depending on which fuel it replaces. By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than expansion of nuclear power.

  32. THIRTY-ONE countries generate nuclear power, with those that use it for more than 30% of their electricity all in Europe. The number of countries building nuclear plants went up by one last year, to 14. The United Arab Emirates started construction of one unit of South Korean design in 2012 and another in 2013, the first previously non-nuclear nation to start building a nuclear power plant for 27 years. But the industry’s role in electricity production is continuing to decline, according to this year’s World Nuclear Industry Status Report, a compendium of analysis and data by the activist and expert Mycle Schneider. The number of reactors peaked in 2002 at 444, compared with 427 today. The share of electricity they produce is down 12% from its 2006 peak, largely because of post-Fukushima shutdowns in Japan. As a proportion of all electricity generated, nuclear peaked in 1993 at 17% and has now fallen to 10%. The average age of operating plants is increasing, with number over 40 years old (currently 31 plants) set to grow quite rapidly.

  33. Nuclear power saves lives

    Nature 497, 539 (30 May 2013)

    Published online 29 May 2013

    Nuclear power might have prevented almost two million air-pollution-related deaths around the world, an analysis of historical data suggests.

    Former NASA scientist James Hansen, who left the agency in early April to devote his time to climate activism, and Pushker Kharecha at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York estimate that nuclear power has prevented some 1.84 million deaths that would have occurred had that power been generated by burning fossil fuels. This equates to 370 times more lives saved than have been lost to radiation poisoning or occupational accidents in nuclear power plants over the past 40 years or so. In addition, the power generated by the technology has prevented 64 gigatonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent greenhouse-gas emissions, which would have accompanied the burning of fossil fuels, from entering the atmosphere.

  34. How Rising Seas Could Sink Nuclear Plants On The East Coast

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has laid out four different projections for estimated sea level rise by 2100. Even the agency’s best-case scenario assumes that sea levels will rise at least 8.4 inches by the end of this century. NOAA’s worst-case scenario, meanwhile, predicts that the oceans will rise nearly 7 feet in the next 86 years.

    But most nuclear power facilities were built well before scientists understood just how high sea levels might rise in the future. And for power plants, the most serious threat is likely to come from surges during storms. Higher sea levels mean that flooding will travel farther inland, creating potential hazards in areas that may have previously been considered safe. During Superstorm Sandy, for example, flooding threatened the water intake systems at the Oyster Creek and Salem nuclear power plants in New Jersey. As a safety precaution, both plants were powered down. But even when a plant is not operating, the spent fuel stored on-site, typically uranium, will continue to emit heat and must be cooled using equipment that relies on the plant’s own power. Flooding can cause a loss of power, and in serious conditions it can damage backup generators. Without a cooling system, reactors can overheat and damage the facility to the point of releasing radioactive material.

  35. Nuclear energy’s share of total installed capacity will decrease from 5% in 2015 to 4% in 2040, according to the latest annual forecast by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In its New Energy Outlook 2016, Bloomberg also says continued low gas and coal prices will not derail the advance of renewable energy sources and zero-emission energy sources will make up 60% of global installed generating capacity by 2040.

  36. Such scepticism is shared by many in Lianyungang, which already hosts a nuclear-power plant (pictured), and elsewhere in China, where the government plans to expand nuclear power massively. China started its first nuclear plant in 1994. There are now 36 reactors in operation, and another 20 under construction (see map). A further four have been approved, and many more are in the planning stages. Only one new plant has been built in America, in contrast, since 1994; four more are under construction. By 2030 China is projected to get 9% of its power from nuclear, up from 2% in 2012. In absolute terms, its nuclear generation capacity will have increased eightfold over the same period, to 750 billion kilowatt-hours a year, roughly America’s current level.

  37. Nuclear v solar

    I doubt that the El Romero Solar Plant in the Chilean desert would power a city of a million people (Bello, December 10th). In fact, it would power 120,000 Chilean households today, and far fewer in the future, if the forecasts of rapid growth in demand materialise. Globally, electricity consumption far outpaces new solar and wind power. Carbon-free electricity generation as a percentage of overall generation has fallen. This is explained by both the decline of nuclear power and the failure of renewables to make up the difference.

    In the United States alone, five nuclear plants have closed over the past several years. Together they generated as much electricity as all of America’s solar plants and residential installations put together. Many more nuclear plants are at risk of closing in the Western hemisphere without any replacement in sight.

    Clean electricity is likely to continue declining for years to come. Policymakers have been slow to realise that the mandated purchases of heavily subsidised renewables have depressed electricity prices. Even with very low fossil-fuel prices, ageing nuclear plants, which often have remaining lifetimes longer than new solar and wind facilities, are at a disadvantage. Yet they also do not pollute.

    New York

  38. How Retiring Nuclear Power Plants May Undercut U.S. Climate Goals

    The United States’ fleet of 99 nuclear reactors still supplies one-fifth of the country’s electricity without generating any planet-warming greenhouse gases. When those reactors retire, wind and solar usually cannot expand fast enough to replace the lost power. Instead, coal and natural gas fill the void, causing emissions to rise.

    Faced with looming nuclear plant shutdowns, several states are considering a difficult and sometimes unpopular option: subsidizing their existing nuclear reactors to keep them running for years to come.

    In Pennsylvania, for instance, Exelon recently announced that it would close the last remaining reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant by 2019 unless policy makers stepped in to support it. Cheap natural gas had cut regional electricity prices in half, pushing Pennsylvania’s nine reactors, which produce one-third of the state’s power, toward unprofitability.

    State legislators have formed a “nuclear caucus” to explore policies to keep the plants open, studying recent moves by New York and Illinois to compensate nuclear operators for the carbon-free power they produce. Those in favor are motivated partly by climate concerns.

    “If Three Mile Island closes, we’d lose more zero-carbon power than all of the state’s renewable resources put together,” said John Raymond Hanger, a former Pennsylvania environmental secretary.

    Yet such policies still face staunch opposition from gas producers and even other environmentalists reluctant to subsidize a multibillion-dollar industry — making this one of the more contentious climate debates around.

  39. “Since 2013, five nuclear power plants have been retired in Florida, Wisconsin, California, Vermont and Nebraska, the result of a mix of political opposition and competition from gas. Six more plants, including Three Mile Island and California’s Diablo Canyon, have announced that they will close between now and 2025, even though they could technically operate for decades.

    Those shutdowns would take enormous amounts of clean energy off the grid. The six retiring nuclear plants generated nearly 60 million megawatt-hours of electricity last year, more than all of America’s solar panels combined, according to an analysis by Environmental Progress, a green group pushing to save nuclear power.

    Several more plants in Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut are also at high risk of closing. A study by Geoffrey Haratyk of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that if all of the United States’ at-risk reactors shut down and were replaced by modern gas plants, domestic carbon dioxide emissions in the power industry would increase 4.9 percent — erasing a large portion of the recent climate gains from the decline of coal.

  40. Environmentalists appeal to Macron for nuclear

    An open letter to French president Emmanuel Macron warned him that closing nuclear power plants would be a step backward for France. If the country wants to build renewables, let the new capacity support faster electrification of transport, said Energy for Humanity.

    Published today, the letter was signed by 45 activists, writers and academics spearheaded by eminent climate scientist James Hansen as well as Kerry Emanuel and Francois-Marie Breon, the lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment report.

    Energy for Humanity Executive Director Kirsty Gogan said, “For France, the next necessary step to help combat climate change and improve air quality is to increase clean electricity from all non-fossil sources and massively reduce fossil fuels used in heating and the transportation sector. Nuclear power must play a central role in this.”

  41. In “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” published this year by a team of 12 researchers led by Paul R. Epstein of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, the ledger included .02 cents per kilowatt hour for mental retardation caused by mercury in coal-plant emissions.

    Using similar methods, Markandya and his co-author in the Lancet study, Paul Wilkinson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that in Europe coal is responsible for .12 deaths from accidents, 25 deaths from pollution and 225 cases of serious illness per terawatt (1,000 billion kilowatt) hour of electricity generated. In comparison, nuclear causes .02 accidental deaths, .05 pollution deaths and .22 cases of illness.

    This human health cost is much higher in some parts of the world than others.

    It’s especially high in China, where three-quarters of the electricity is made by burning coal, mining accidents kill about 6,000 people a year, and hundreds of millions of people are affected by air pollution. In some inland cities, the economic cost to human health of making electricity from coal is as much as seven times higher than the cost of generating the electricity, according to a calculation by Stefan Hirschberg at the Paul Scherrer Institut in Switzerland, which has done energy system analysis for the European Commission.

  42. Regarding the first criterion here, from a climate pollution perspective nuclear is as good as wind or solar:

    “In this project, NREL reviewed and harmonized life cycle assessments (LCAs) of electricity generation technologies to reduce uncertainty around estimates for environmental impacts and increase the value of these assessments to the policymaking and research communities.”

  43. Powered up in 2018, the Taishan plant was the first worldwide to operate a next-generation EPR nuclear reactor, a pressurised water design that has been subject to years of delays in similar European projects in Britain, France and Finland.

    There are now two EPR power units at the plant in the city of Taishan, which sits close to the coastline of southern Guangdong – China’s most populous province. EPR reactors have been touted as promising advances in safety and efficiency over conventional reactors while producing less waste.

  44. In China, the allegations of a leak received little attention, with no state media outlets reporting the issue and almost no discussion on social media platforms. On Weibo, Wang Yigang, member of the Institute of Industrial Economics, affiliated with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the accusations were the doing of the “American imperialism hyping up opposition to nuclear power and forcing China to develop wind and solar power only.”

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