Can Nuclear Energy Solve Our Energy Crisis?

Do you live anywhere near one of these “temporary” repositories for nuclear waste? The current Federal Budget in place today allocates $0 to monitor and care for these wastes.

It has come as a shock to me that some of my fellow environmentalists, and one of this country’s leading newspapers, have recently begun arguing in favor of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels and a way to fight global warming. Stewart Brand, according to a recent interview in the New York Times—which calls him one of the originators of environmentalism—is for it and feels “guilty that he and his fellow environmentalists created so much fear of nuclear power.” The famous British scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock has also said that nuclear power is our best choice to combat global warming, and not long ago the New York Times ran an editorial endorsing this kind of power. These opinions are apparently having an effect. The New York Times reported on March 28 that rising concerns about global warming are helping to drive up the price of uranium and leading to a new boom in uranium mining.

If leading environmentalists are for it and the power industry is for it—usually two opposing sides in the environmental debate—then this must be the way to go. Right? But consider these facts:

We would need too many nuclear plants. In the United States, 104 operating nuclear power reactors at 65 sites provide 8% of our energy, while fossil fuels provide 85%. For nuclear power to completely replace fossil fuels, we would need more than 1,000 new nuclear power plants of the same designs and efficiencies as existing plants. This would mean an average of 20 new plants per state.

Today, fossil fuels provide 71.4% of the electricity produced in the United States, while nuclear power plants provide 19.4%. Just to replace the electrical generation by fossil fuels with nuclear energy would require 285 new nuclear power plants of the kind, size, and efficiency of those in use now, and to counteract global warming these would have to be built and put online within a few years. This is just not practical.

Nuclear power is not a short-term solution. The uranium isotope that fuels conventional nuclear plants is a rare mineral—less than 1% of uranium ores. It is so rare that known reserves of it will run out before the end of this century if we greatly increase its use, as is proposed for the United States and the rest of the world. It is unlikely that the amount of uranium required for 1,000 new plants could be obtained at all—and certainly not quickly. Moreover, nuclear power plants are complex and take a long time to build. Even reaching agreement on where to build them is contentious and time-consuming. The fact is, no one wants to live near a nuclear power plant.

In short, if we need to diminish our use of fossil fuels right now—this year, next year, within the coming decade—nuclear power isn’t going to help. It would take a decade or more from planning to going on line for any of these plants to become operational, and it would take a huge effort to site and develop plans for the required number of nuclear power plants.

Add to this that uranium is dangerous. Mining it, transporting it, using it, and disposing of its radioactive waste all pose problems to which we have no satisfactory solutions. Right now there are 70,000 tons of radioactive waste in the United States in temporary holding facilities. This waste (and more to come) will need to be sealed off securely for 10,000 years. The federal government’s plan is to put it underground at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Estimates are that just transporting this waste from the 39 sites in many states where it is now to Yucca Mountain would take one to six trainloads (or truck convoys) a day for 24 years. The Department of Energy plans to have each shipment heavily guarded by police and the military to protect against terrorism. The shipments would go near or through many major cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City, as well as right through metropolitan Las Vegas.

The federal government doesn’t have a good plan in place for dealing with all this waste in the meantime. Think the Department of Energy is taking care of all this for us? Think again. A 2005 GAO report said that existing holding facilities would be filled in 2008. That isn’t exactly the kind of long-term planning that nuclear power requires.

Finally, conventional nuclear power plants have limited lifetimes, perhaps 30 or 40 years, perhaps more, but after that they have to be dismantled. Current federal government plans are to remove the less radioactive parts and then seal off the really hot reactor and other materials for 70 to 100 years until they become safe enough for people to dismantle them. That’s a lot of unusable, dangerous reactors sitting around the country, also targets for terrorism.

It costs even more to dismantle a nuclear reactor than to build it. These costs, along with the costs of transporting and policing the wastes, need to be included in calculating the cost of electricity from nuclear power plants. Has anybody made those calculations?
I’ve done research on global warming since the late 1960s and am concerned about the potential effects, so I do hope to see reductions in our release of greenhouse gases. But this clearly isn’t the way.

The question is not whether nuclear power is a viable replacement for fossil fuels. The question is, Why would anybody think it is?

Copyright © 2007 Daniel B. Botkin

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Comments

  1. If you place this into a world scheme, then you should also look at nuclear power and its place in electricity markets. The essential question in such an arrangement is: “who underwrites the insurance?”

    In all my discussions with people in the industry (and outside) who support nuclear power I’ve not come across anyone who can determine of an insurer for a nuclear power facility – leaving it to fall back on the government of the day (and location) to serve as insurer of last resort. Unfortunately that leaves the government liable and selecting technologies in a market – since the nuclear power industry would be getting an unfair advantage by not being exposed to the market for a substantial cost in their business that other players need not worry about because their risk is priced out in other ways.

    Thoughts?

  2. Dear Daniel, kudos for writing this. And of course “leading environmentalists” have not switched their views on nuclear power. The spoon-fed press has just accepted without question the bogus credentials of Patrick Moore who claims to have co-founded Greenpeace but in fact joined their first sailing two years after Greenpeace was founded by the real founders. He’s paid by the nuclear, logging, GM food and chemical industries. NOT an environmentalist. His partner in crime is Christie Todd Whitman who put people in harm’s way after 9/11 by telling New Yorkers their air was safe to breathe. Also paid by the nuclear industry and NOT an environmentalist! And James Lovelock has never been against nuclear so he cannot be described to have switched. (He says he’d take nuclear waste buried in his back garden. I say,”go to it!” Can’t be any worse than leaky Yucca Mountain.) But try telling the mainstream media all this.
    Do check us out at http://www.beyondnuclear.org

  3. Your “Uranium will only last so long..” argument is seriously flawed. Did you know that all LWR (Light Water Reactor) spent fuel can be used directly in CANDU’s ?? Therefore ALL US spent nuclear fuel is actually a massive stockpile of nuclear fuel for CANDU -type nuclear power plants !! Furthermore, look into advanced fuel cycles based on thorium (which the Indians are already irradiating) and you’ll see there’s sufficient fuel for 100’s of nuclear reactors for 1000’s of years to supply the majority of world electricity (and in the future hydrogn too). Please try and provide more balanced arguments in your writing, as that would be far more useful and informative.

  4. Steve’s comment is right on target. Fourth-generation reactors would actually use the existing stockpiles of nuclear waste as fuel and leave behind material that requires containment periods measured in decades rather than millennia. Plus the process in these reactors would be much safer than in current designs. There is virtually no way that alternative energy can replace worldwide use of fossil fuel — not that we shouldn’t try. However, advanced nuclear technology can be a big part of the answer. It’s time to remove the stigma and actually look at the technology that is available. We could actually replace all fossil fuel use and power the globe within 10-20 years while at the same time start eliminating our nulear waste problem.

    • As I’ve written in my forthcoming book about how we can solve our energy problem, this is a typical kind of response that one gets from nuclear power enthusiasts. I have taken each of these concerns seriously and searched to find the extent to which they hold up. This is another one of the speculations that, in fact, does not yet have any reality. Even if the claims were valid, the time it would take to get such technology on line would exceed the time that those who write about global warming say we have to act.

      Dan Botkin

  5. Why would anybody think it is?
    Because they have done their homework. You need to do your homework — an excellent place to find objective studies is prof. Barry Brook’s BraveNewClimate site. Dr. Brook holds the Foundation Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change and is Director of Climate Science at The Environment Institute, University of Adelaide.
    Like you Barry began his quest for practical policies to combat climate change with no consideration of nuclear power as a candidate. After a lengthy investigation of all the options Barry has discovered that nuclear is the best alternative, actually quite an exciting solution.
    There are no 10 year solutions. But there is a 50 year solution if we start today.

    • Like so many extreme nuclear power enthusiasts, this writer begins by trying to insult and degrade the website’s authority. The op-ed piece that I have placed on the website had to be short enough to be published in a major newspaper, and therefore could not provide all the background. My forthcoming book, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere, “Powering the Future: A Scientist’s Guide to Energy Independence” (Pearson press, due out March 2010) goes into the details. While I am glad to receive comments to what I write, I look for ones that contain actual content, not merely assertions.

      Nuclear power enthusiasts also tend to claim that somebody else has answered all the problems and all you have to do is read their documents. I’ve been reading those other documents for years now. Readers, please continue to write comments, but please write more than assertions without any information defending them.

      Dan Botkin

  6. You’ve included all the usual anti-nuclear misinformation about fuel supplies and safety/environmental effects, which claims are easily by refuted by looking up real information instead of relying on political groups.

    But your main point here is that building enough nuclear plants is to arduous a challenge. Two points need to be made. First, your idea of the arduousness is overstated. When the US was building nuclear plants, it built a hundred of them in twenty years without any form of national commitment. If we are going to be serious about minimizing global warming we necessarily will have to commit ourselves to a major energy-conversion program on the order of a national mobilization. On those terms, building enough nuclear plants is easily achievable; look up liberty ships to see what is involved.

    Second, the alternatives to nuclear energy are much more demanding in the way of construction. Consider that it takes some thousands of wind turbines spread over hundreds of square miles, complete with maintenance roads and underground power lines and inverters and transformers, etc., to yield the same energy as one nuclear power plant. Or it takes square miles of solar panels. And neither wind energy or solar energy can provide electricity on demand. People will never be persuaded to stay in their cold, dark houses when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. They will insist on going to work and they will expect to have power to run the lights and equipment when they get there; if they can’t get energy from clean sources they will take it from fossil fuels.

    Thank you for this opportunity to respond.

    • None of the information in my article came from political groups. All of it came from the best scientific and government natural resource agencies. The information about the quantity of uranium ore came from the world’s expert on uranium mining and reserves, who has written a five-volume scholarly book on the subject, and who verified my analysis, as did staff at the U.S. Geological Survey.

      As is typical with those who are so committed to one form of energy as the only solution, this writer makes extreme assertions that are not defended with any facts. But it should be clear to any engineer that building a nuclear power plant is more difficult and complex than building liberty ships. Add to this the widespread opposition, locally, to building new nuclear power plants and the time it takes to get them certified. I discuss this and other energy issues in my forthcoming book, “Powering the Future: A Scientist’s Guide to Energy Independence,” Pearson FT Press, scheduled for release March, 2010.

      The writer is incorrect in his statements about the construction demands for wind and solar, which I also discuss in my new book. Estimated costs to build a nuclear power plant today are between $5 billion and $14 billion. To provide the same amount of energy on a yearly basis, wind turbine farms would cost $9.6 billion at today’s costs. And the area they require are surprisingly small, as I also discuss in my book.

      The future for U. S. energy independence will involve a variety of forms of energy, including nuclear, but nuclear just can’t be the major source for reasons I discuss here and in my book.

      Dan Botkin

  7. Dan, thanks for taking the trouble to respond. I did not say that nuclear plants were only as complex as liberty ships, only that the liberty-ship program would serve as a model. With standardized designs and adequate manufacturing facilities, nuclear plants could be built in very large numbers on a short time scale.

    Where you and I disagree about fuel supply is that you assume future power plants will be the same as those built according to 1960’s technology. In fifty years, nuclear technology has advanced, as one would expect. New designs will make full use of all the uranium in the ore. On those terms, the supply of uranium and thorium will last for thousands of years. Since you ask for information and not just assertions, please look at http://gwperplexed.niof.org/thecase.htm#p3; all the information comes from sources like DOE-EIA, IAEA, and OECD.

    I suggested that you were taking information from political groups because of the subjective tone of your remarks about waste. Most dangerous waste products stay dangerous forever, so complaining that radioactive wastes last a long time is a red herring. Coal wastes are many times more dangerous, because the volumes are unmanageable. For example, a coal plant produces 300,000 tons of toxic waste per year, not counting the filth released into the atmosphere. A nuclear plant that generates the same amount of electricity produces 23 tons, about a third of a railroad boxcar. A quantity that small can be isolated from the environment. With recycling, the waste is reduced to only a ton, which loses its hazardous character in a few centuries. In fact, no person has ever been harmed by nuclear-energy waste. With all the things going on in the world that do serious harm to many people, concern over nuclear waste is terribly misdirected.

    Here is some basic arithmetic on energy alternatives. Nuclear plants operate at capacity factors around 90%, and wind farms at something under 30%. We can say that 1.5 MW wind turbines are typical, although larger and smaller ones are installed. A new nuclear plant will be rated around 1.5 GW, so it takes over 3000 turbines to produce the same amount of electricity. Such turbines have to be spaced out at intervals of about 50 acres each; 3000 x 50 gives us 150,000 acres or 234 square miles. A high-efficiency (20%) solar panel yields less than 1 kWh/m2/day. A nuclear plant, on average, will yield 0.9 x 24 x 1,500,000 = 32,400,000 kWH/day, so the panel area required for the same amount of electricity would be 32,400,000 m2 = 32.4 km2 = 12.5 square miles. The proposition that either of these could replace fossil fuels faster than nuclear energy would be hard to defend.

    But that isn’t even the problem. The essential problem is that people will continue to use fossil energy if clean energy sources are available only part-time. We know that’s true because it’s what people have been doing for centuries, ever since they learned that coal was cleaner than wood and more reliable than wind. There are no technologies that will overcome the problem of intermittency. For more on that point, please look at http://gwperplexed.niof.org/thecase.htm#a1. If there were such technologies, they would certainly drive the economic and environmental costs out of sight. Just consider the inefficiencies of storing and releasing large amounts of energy, by whatever means, aside from the costs of constructing the imagined facilities.

    I have to say that it’s a pleasure to dialog with a person as knowledgeable and articulate as you. If there were more nuclear opponents like you and fewer bumper-sticker sloganeers, this whole debate would have much greater value.

    • Red Craig,

      It’s delightful to get such a thoughtful response. This is the kind of exchange that can be constructive and move us forward. To respond to some of your new points:

      * I agree that the liberty ship program could serve as a model in the sense of a consistent design and a national commitment to resolving a major problem. However, it is also clear that we are in a stage of rapidly evolving technology, so we don’t want to get locked into just one design for every energy type.

      * Fuel supply, my calculations are specifically about conventional, currently-in-use nuclear plant technology.
      As I discuss in detail in my forthcoming book, every time I searched out information about one of the new nuclear powerplants, I was disappointed to find how much more work was needed before they could be built and put online, including siting and certification.

      * The calculations I made comparing wind and nuclear are real-world, based on existing installations and their actual annual outputs, including down-time for wind.

      * Wind is much cheaper to build today than nuclear, as cheap as a coal-fired power plant in construction costs, and not requiring the costs of fuel.

      * Your estimates of the area required are contradicted by the actual large facilities now in operation across a wide range of locations. I was surprised by how small an area in the United States lower 48 would be required if the large majority of our energy came from wind and solar. The details, too long to go into here, are in my new book, but are surprisingly small.

      * We disagree about nuclear wastes. That remains a huge and unresolved problem.

      * In my book, I discuss the percentage of power that nuclear could provide; I don’t dismiss it nor any other possible source. Each is considered in turn.

      Perhaps we could have an ongoing dialogue and continue this discussion. This website is certainly open to it.

      Dan Botkin

  8. Dan, I’d like very much to have a continuing dialog. Your arguments are all based on your book so I will have to wait for it to be published. I hope you’ve included some consideration of the magnitude of the challenge: in a few decades the world has to completely transform most of its energy supply, rebuild its energy infrastructure, implement intensive and universal conservation measures as well as changes in farming practices and land clearing, and redirect its culture away from fuel-consuming recreation. It seems clear that if we shy away from solutions because they seem like too much trouble we’re doomed.

    Best wishes
    Red

    • To Red Craig:

      Yes, my book emphasis the challenge of the energy transition we face, to the point of considering a number of scenarios for the transition away from fossil fuels, including the costs. I think we are so used to having inexpensive gasoline, kerosene, and diesel liquids that we forgot how amazing these how — how much energy they contain and how easy they are to transport. It is going to be difficult and expensive to replace them or make them ourselves rather than be able to extract them from the ground.

      Dan Botkin

  9. Web host says:

    And you can always check the WhoIs for more info. I read the other day in the current domain name registration guide lines that domains cannot be less the 3 characters? Well how does w3.org work then? It never really occurred to me. I mean “whois.org” is 5 characters; “dyndns.com” is 6 characters…Anyone unconfused me?

  10. So, tree rings correlate with global temperature, I read that everywhere. What if that is untrue though?? I read this book this week, http://www.blindedbyscience.co.uk, that clearly shows this supposed link to be unfounded. This changes everything, right? If this is the case, what implications does it have for the argument supporting global warming? I think this could be a very important realisation. What do you think?

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