The ongoing debate on nuclear power and climate change

On January 8, 2014, 311 mostly grassroots organizations from around the world sent a letter to four climate scientists, including the well-known Dr. James Hansen, in response to their November 3, 2013 open letter to the environmental movement calling for our support for new nuclear power as a tool to help address the climate crisis these scientists have so ardently brought to public attention. Our GreenWorld post about the January 8 letter can be found here, and it includes links to the letter itself and the November 3 scientists’ letter.

The January 8 letter was spearheaded by NIRS and the Civil Society Institute and essentially argued that nuclear power is not only too dangerous and presents too many problems ranging from radioactive waste disposal to the environmental devastation caused by uranium mining and processing, but that it is uniquely ineffective at addressing climate both for economic reasons and because the “safer” reactors the scientists’ advocate don’t exist and, even at a best-case scenario for the concept, won’t exist in any meaningful time frame–e.g. the time frame these same scientists effectively argue is necessary to drastically reduce (or, as we’d prefer) essentially eliminate carbon emissions from the electricity sector.

Our letter also included an invitation to debate these issues with us in a public forum.

That’s the quick background. Read the previous post for the details. Well, we’re still waiting (not exactly with bated breath) for a formal response–a response that is actually to us (and we did include our contact information) from the scientists.

But one of the scientists, Dr. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, did respond to an e-mail requesting comment from Grist. While we appreciate the indirect feedback, it seems to us that Dr. Caldeira missed the key points of our position even while casting some tacitly snide aspersions on our motivations and expertise.

For example, as reported by Grist, Dr. Caldeira begins his e-mail this way, “It is time for people to rethink their positions on nuclear power, and make arguments based on facts rather than prejudices.”

Actually, as someone who collaborated on the letter and with nearly 30 years experience on nuclear power issues, I kind of resent the implication that our arguments were not based on facts. Indeed, it is precisely the facts that lead us to the conclusion that nuclear power not only will not and can not be useful in making any substantial reductions in carbon emissions, but therefore spending limited resources on trying to make nuclear power succeed would divert those resources from much more effective technologies. That would make nuclear power actually counterproductive as a climate strategy.

Dr. Caldeira also takes issue with our describing the scientists’ position as one of “embracing” nuclear power. We’re glad to hear he does not “embrace” nuclear power, and indeed he does offer compelling critique of current nuclear reactors. Perhaps we could have chosen a better word than “embrace,” but really, that’s a red herring. Whether wholeheartedly embracing or accepting nuclear power at arm’s length, the end result is the same. More nuclear power would result in more nuclear accidents, more radioactive waste generation, and more money tossed down the drain in a futile attempt to rush new reactor designs into commercialization as a carbon reduction strategy.

Dr. Caldeira probably hadn’t seen our January 9 post on GreenWorld, where I elaborated a bit more than the January 8 group letter on the obstacles facing nuclear power in that latter regard. So here is a relevant excerpt:

The problem (or one problem anyway, there are many) is that those reactors don’t actually exist except on paper and mock-ups in various labs. So, in order to be deployed, here’s what would have to happen:

*Full designs would have to be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for design certification. So far, no “Generation IV” designs have been submitted, nor are any ready for submission. And no utilities have expressed an interest in building any of these reactors, so the incentive to submit such designs is rather lacking. The design certification process, for technologies that the NRC already is basically familiar with (i.e., like the Westinghouse AP-1000 reactor that are fundamentally based on current Pressurized Water Reactor technology), takes several years. For radically new designs, the review process could be expected to take longer. Some might argue that other countries might not need to go through such a lengthy certification process, and in the abstract that’s true, but the reality is that the NRC is the gold standard for nuclear regulation across the world, and few, if any, countries can be expected to approve a radical reactor design that has not first been through the NRC process.

*Once certified (or perhaps while certification is underway), a utility would have to order such a reactor and submit an application for a Construction/Operating License to the NRC. Again, this is a legal process that takes a few years, and could be expected to take longer for a first-of-a-kind project. The public has a right to intervene in these procedures and challenge an application, and no one can expect that someone would not intervene. That’s how democracy works–even though the process is certainly stacked against intervenors…

*Then, the first reactor would have to be built, and it would be unreasonable to expect more than one or two radical new designs would be built at once. Electric utilities are traditionally pretty cautious and conservative; most are going to wait until someone else has gone first before they put their toe and several billion dollars into the water. Historically and reaching into today, reactor construction has averaged about eight years per reactor; some have taken much longer, a precious few have taken less.

*So now, we’ve already taken up at least 20 years, and we’ve only got the first one built. What was that Hansen, said about speedy deployment of nuclear and slow deployment of renewables? In 20 years, we are confident in projecting that renewables will play a major role–probably even a dominant role–in electricity generation, not only in the U.S. but around the world.

*Oh, and we haven’t even gotten to the need–if we’re going to use the Generation IV reactors Hansen touts that use reprocessed fuel as their fuel–to build a multi-billion dollar reprocessing infrastructure. That’s a technology that hasn’t worked well anywhere it’s been tried (France, the poster child for reprocessing, reprocesses only a tiny portion of its fuel; most of it, just like in ever other nuclear country in the world, sits in fuel pools and casks waiting for an eventual high-level waste dump to be constructed). Did we mention that reprocessing is even dirtier and more dangerous than the reactors themselves? Or that reprocessing, unlike Hansen’s claims, doesn’t reduce the volume of high-level radioactive waste that must ultimately be stored? So we have to add some more years and many billions of dollars for this infrastructure to be built–which again would require massive government support.

Hansen has argued we need to streamline the regulatory processes. That, of course, is what Congress already did back in the 1990s, when it moved from the old two-step licensing process that was in place when all currently operating reactors were built, to the one-step process that exists now. How can it be further streamlined? By cutting the public out of the process entirely? We’re confident Dr. Hansen would vociferously–and very correctly–argue against cutting the public out of the regulatory process for the Keystone XL pipeline. That he favors a particular technology–and one as potentially damaging as nuclear power–means it’s ok to cut the public out of it? We don’t think so. And, in the real world, that’s not going to happen anyway. Nuclear power and democracy have never co-existed very warmly, but the public does have some rights and trying to take those away would cause a serious shitstorm. We promise.

If all of the above actually happened, think about it: We’d have spent decades waiting for this
“solution” to be implemented and at the same time we’d have spent untold billions of dollars–trillions if the thousands of reactors it would take for nuclear to make a meaningful dent in carbon emissions were actually built. That’s time and a lot of money we could and should be spending on deploying renewables, improving energy storage, building the distributed grid, improving energy efficiency and the like. In that sense, going nuclear would actually be counterproductive and delay real carbon reductions.

While there is obviously some opinion and interpretation thrown in there, those are entirely based on facts presented, and the fact is that when it comes to nuclear power we either have to build thousands of new–but current generation–reactors worldwide in the next two or three decades (and Dr. Caldeira himself, appropriately, rejects that option as unacceptable) or, if we want to go the “safer” route advocated by Dr. Caldeira, we have to wait even longer. And with only some 440 reactors operable worldwide currently despite nearly 60 years of deployment, the world has not shown itself capable of undertaking that kind of massive construction schedule even for the dirty, dangerous and expensive reactor designs that exist now–and that brought us Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Oh, and by the way, going nuclear also means replacing about 90% or so of those existing 440 reactors, as, even with license renewals, most will be retired by mid-century.

Dr. Caldeira also misses another critical point. He charges us with “a technological myopia,” writing:

There is no justification for the claim that this important type of electricity generation can never be made sufficiently safe and inexpensive.

To say that an entire category of technology can never be sufficiently improved is, I think, to adopt a position of technological myopia, where one lacks to the capacity to imagine that future technologies can differ substantially from today’s technologies.”

“Never” is a long time. And while it’s true that I believe that an inherently dangerous technology like nuclear power can never be made sufficiently safe, that was not the point made in our letter. To reiterate: the point we were making and continue to make is that there is nothing in the history of or current experience in nuclear power that suggests that it can “be made sufficiently safe and inexpensive” in the time frame these very scientists have forcefully argued is absolutely vital for our planet to achieve the necessary carbon reductions. If anything, at least on the cost front, the nuclear picture continues to worsen. Unlike in decades past, utilities are not only cancelling proposed new reactors for cost reasons (which has been a consistent reality over the decades), they are now closing paid-for operating reactors because they are too expensive compared to the alternatives. No one is closing operating wind or solar plants for cost reasons, nor ending energy efficiency programs either…

But, even while Dr. Caldeira berates us for a “technological myopia,” he turns around and does the exact same thing with regard to renewables. Thus he writes,

Were I king of the world, I would decree that solar, wind, and efficiency would be the primary means we deploy to solve the climate problem.

But there is no energy storage system that works at the scale of the modern megalopolis. We need a way to power civilization when the sun is not shining and when the wind is not blowing. In a modern real economy, not ruled by benevolent kings, reliable power is required at competitive prices. There are very few technologies that can provide this reliable baseload power. Fossil fuels and nuclear power are the two leading candidates.

This shows that Dr. Caldeira is simply not up on the vast and accelerating changes overtaking the generation and distribution of electricity. The concept of “reliable baseload power” served the nation, and much of the world, well during the 20th century. It brought relatively affordable electricity to the masses, and that was undeniably important. But the concept is losing meaning as we move further into the 21st century and technology continues its ever-accelerating march.

We report daily on this blog in our Nuclear Newsreel section about new advances in energy storage, distributed generation, solar and wind power–both large and small-scale, energy efficiency, and more; and especially how all of these are fitting together to create a new system of providing electricity. The goal is not “baseload” power, which is just a euphemism for large, centralized power plants, the goal is “reliable” power–electricity whenever and wherever it’s needed. And technology is quickly bringing us to the point where large centralized power plants are not nearly as relevant as they once were (not that they are irrelevant entirely, it’s true that New York City will never power itself with rooftop solar and wind–large power plants will continue to be needed, but not at current levels, and not with today’s dominant technologies); and to some degree at least can even interfere with the new systems being built.

Not that we’re there yet, of course. Electricity demand is down–for a few years due to the Great Recession, but now it appears primarily as a result of effective energy efficiency programs, especially at the state level. But a lot more needs to be done in this arena. Renewables still provide a very small amount of our nation’s, and the world’s electricity. But they are growing almost exponentially, and unlike nuclear power, their costs are going down–so fast it has bankrupted some solar companies who couldn’t keep up with the price reductions. Energy storage is in many respects in its infancy as a technology; but there again, new developments and improvements are announced on a near-daily level.

Which brings us to this: given that the U.S., and the world, has limited resources; where would you put your money? Or, on a macro level, where should we collectively put our money? In a nuclear technology that has over-promised and under-delivered for 60 years in the probably-vain hope that it will be different this time? Or in the technologies that are growing rapidly and cost-effectively and that can be deployed faster (and that, by the way, have the advantage of being safe and clean; don’t forget there are other pollutants in this world than carbon and nuclear power emits more than its fair share of them)?

It seems to us, based on the facts, that if the goal is to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions from the electricity sector as quickly and affordably as possible, the choice is self-evident.

As energy experts, we listen to climate scientists like Dr. Caldeira. We believe them. We know the U.S. and the world need to act and we push for that every day. As climate scientists, we hope Dr. Caldeira will listen to the many energy experts (and yes, advocates) like the signers of our letter. Time is running low. Nuclear power cannot do the job needed. And we need to act and push for real climate solutions every day.

Michael Mariotte
January 23, 2014

The Grist article with Dr. Caldeira’s e-mail can be found here.


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