Answering Concerns About Nuclear Power
It seems every time I write even tangentially about nuclear power the very same remarks crop up, with the same objections. So I desire to check out, as finest I can, the answers to those objections. First here are a few caveats. On this topic I am acting as a science journalist, not an professional. This is my personal synthesis of publicly offered details. I likewise consider blog sites to be as much discussions as essays, so welcome any thoughtful feedback, specifically if you include links to back up your assertions, or if you bring authentic expertise to bear. Sometimes, in truth, I particularly select a subject to blog about due to the fact that I desire to “crowd source” it in the remarks.
Overall, while I think that nuclear power is most likely to be a important component of our attempts at lessening carbon release from energy production, I am not otherwise “pro-nuclear.” I have no canine in that hunt, I simply want the best science-based services to our energy facilities issues. I likewise think that no source of energy is perfect. They all have compromises. So my technique is – what are all the risks and advantages to nuclear, and are they eventually worth it in the end, compared to all the options?
I have taken the exact same method to this question that I take to all questionable concerns – what do all sides say, and who tends to have the better or last arguments? At this point I find the pro-nuclear position to be more compelling than the anti-nuclear position. In fact I haven’t heard any really engaging arguments versus using nuclear power. There are some genuine points against nuclear, they just wear’t include up to a factor not to use it, in my viewpoint. So let me go through them.
Nuclear Energy Safety
Safety is typically a keystone to objections about nuclear power. However, it is pretty clear that nuclear power is the most safe type of energy production we have. We requirement to do an whole lifecycle analysis for each type of power – production of resources (usually mining), operation, and ecological effects (including waste and contamination). Every single recommendation I have actually discovered suggests that nuclear power, when we consider deaths per terawatt hour (TWh), is by far the most safe form of energy production. Burning brown coal has 467 times the death rate of nuclear (including accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima).
In fact a current research study approximates that nuclear power, by displacing fossil fuel production, has already conserved 1.84 million lives, and possibly can conserve millions more – simply thinking about air contamination. This study utilized an estimate of 5,000 deaths from nuclear power between 1971 and 2009, which is a affordable estimate. But even if you think the number should be an order of magnitude greater, nuclear still conserved about 1.8 million lives.
Here is another analysis. Nuclear is the most safe form of energy even if you use the higher end of the death estimates. It is even much safer than wind and solar, generally from mining the components required in their building, but likewise in their setup and operation. Even if you usage the crazy high end of death estimates – it’s still much safer than fossil fuel.
Part of the factor for its relative safety is that nuclear produces so much energy. In order to change that energy, we would requirement to burn a lot of coal, or produce a lot of solar panels. So even low-level dangers add up to a excellent deal. Nuclear mishaps, however, have a different psychological impact. However the best choices will be made by crunching the numbers, not reacting mentally to the drama of events.
I will also include that the large nuclear mishaps that have occurred so far were preventable, and far more containable. Chernobyl was a comedy of mistakes – it didn’t even have a containment facility. Fukushima had design flaws that must have been corrected (such as having the backup generators in low locations). Lessons learned suggests nuclear power is getting more secure. One counter-argument that frequently comes up is – do we truly trust dysfunctional federal governments around the world to operate nuclear securely? This is a fair point, but there are 2 effective counterpoints. The first is that we have an worldwide organization, the IAEA, to monitor nuclear safety. The 2nd is that those exact same governments will be operating whatever type of energy replaces for nuclear, with the very same issues. Do we trust these very same governments to check dams, have safe coal-mining operations, or rare-earth processing? Perhaps the presence of the IAEA and worldwide standards makes nuclear a much better choice for this factor.
What About Nuclear Waste?
The security concern is, I think, a home run for nuclear. So those who wear’t like nuclear power frequently argue that we have to think about all possible future deaths from nuclear waste and pollution. Concerning radioactive contamination from the operation of nuclear power plants and the existence of nuclear waste, again we need to put this into perspective. First I would note that coal burning produces more radioactive waste in the type of fly ash than nuclear power. Coal includes uranium and thorium, and burning it into fly ash focuses those components. Research studies show that more radioactive contaminants get into the environment around coal plants than nuclear plants.
The genuine problem is high-level radioactive waste, the invested fuel rods and parts of the reactor that are highly irradiated. These need to be saved safely for thousands of years. Right now it is fair to state that we are not effectively storing nuclear waste long term. Most waste is saved on site. This problem, however, is totally political. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a genuine issue – and this gets back to the point above. We need functional governments that can effectively handle the complexity of something like nuclear power.
In the US, for example, we have Yucca Mountain. We might securely store much of our nuclear waste there, and establish other websites as essential. However worry of nuclear and old-fashioned NIMBY attitudes prevent this. We have the service – we just lack the political will to use it.
I have to put this into context as to what my viewpoint about nuclear is. My position is that nuclear can be a safe and efficient part of our energy facilities. My position is not that our present nuclear infrastructure is ideal or without significant issues. Rather – we have the service to these problems. We put on’t need any scientific breakthrough. Using existing innovation we can have safe nuclear power and offer with all the waste. We need to do that. If we had a appropriate discussion in this country about all our choices, I believe nuclear would emerge as one great alternative, at least for this century.
Further, next generation nuclear power plant designs could be ready as early as 2030. These are the plants we ought to be building, not 20 th century styles. These brand-new plants might even burn the spent fuel from older plants, and they would produce less waste themselves. There are also thorium reactors, which have a various set of strengths and weaknesses but fruit and vegetables less long-term waste.
The bottom line, in my viewpoint, is that nuclear waste is not a deal-killer. It is totally manageable.
Solar and Wind are Less expensive and Better
I am a huge fan of solar and wind energy, and do anticipate they will play an increasing role in our energy infrastructure. I have solar panels on my roof. They are also getting gradually less expensive. However here’s the thing – nuclear vs renewables is not truly the current option we are dealing with. Nuclear power is baseload energy – constant production of large quantities of power however below the minimum need. (Future reactors might be more scalable, however that is a different point.) Sustainable energy is not baseload. It is also not on-demand. It is intermittent. This means that we need energy storage in order to make utilize of intermittent sources, like wind and solar.
For now we can use the grid itself for storage – putting energy into the grid when producing more than need, and taking from the grid when need surpasses production. However this just works when the periodic source is a minority production. In order for wind and solar to supply the comparable of baseload power, we requirement huge grid storage. We don’t have that right now, and likely won’t have it for decades. This does need a innovation development, and you can not anticipate nor count on such advancements.
So, for the foreseeable future, there is no choice between nuclear and renewables, they serve different functions in the energy facilities. Rather, the option is in between nuclear and other forms of baseload production, which is mainly fossil fuel plants, and primarily coal. There is some hydroelectric (also more dangerous than nuclear), but this is location-dependent. I think the experience in Germany is salient here. They phased out nuclear in favor of renewables, and ended up having to burn more coal. Their carbon emissions did not decrease in spite of using more rewewables (there was a current decline, but only because of current warmer winters). They now realize they need to have phased out coal very first, and worry about nuclear later.
What about the point that nuclear is reasonably costly? Once Again – you requirement to do a appropriate comparison. This question is somewhat controversial, but here are some helpful facts. The cost of nuclear has actually been coming down, from ” 3.5 cents/kilowatt-hour (kwh) in 1987 to below 2 cents/kwh in 2001 (in 2001 dollars). By 2005, the average operating expense was 1.7 cents/kwh.” The market is focused on bringing the expense down further, with smaller more efficient plants.
But we also have to think about that the fossil fuel market is subsidized. We should stop fossil fuel aids, and rather tax carbon. Carbon is a enormous externalized expense, and nuclear’s maybe primary advantage is that the energy is carbon complimentary (there is carbon launched in building the plants, but not in operation). If we correctly price carbon, relative to the likely expenses of worldwide warming, nuclear suddenly ends up being really cost effective compared to the fossil fuel plants it will change. Once again – the contrast to renewables is not fair – they are not baseload production. If you do make a contrast, then you have to consider likewise the expense of grid storage. Right now, in a way, renewables are unjustly cheap because they are selecting the low-hanging fruit, not requiring grid storage to be helpful. Include the cost of all those batteries, and the computation is different.
The big point is – the factor we need nuclear is to avoid the worst results of international warming. So when thinking about the cost of nuclear we have to consider the benefit of all that carbon we are not releasing.
It’s too late
This is typically the last objection, and also, in my opinion, the weakest argument. When I manage all the arguments versus nuclear, typically I hear – well, it was a great alternative 20 years ago, but now it’s too late to mitigate global warming. I think this is nonsense. In 20 years, I bet, people will be making the very same argument.
First – we are partially talking about delaying the decommissioning of existing nuclear plants. (Again – see Germany.) This take literally zero time. By extending their life-span, we can reduce the number of coal plants that would otherwise change them. This can buy us time to develop those next generation reactors. We need to likewise check out ways (including investing money as needed) to speed up the procedure of building brand-new plants, which is mainly due to red tape anyhow.
Even if it takes 20 years to bring new plants on line, I wear’t believe in 2040 we will have the carbon emission problem resolved. I likewise wager we will still be burning coal in 2040. It’s likewise not as if it will ever be too late to do something about international warming. Even if we miss out on our targets for preventing the even worse results, that doesn’t mean we provide up at that point. There is still benefit in reducing the harm.
The time for nuclear is now. We have the technology to develop safe and cost reliable plants, and to deal with the resulting waste, and it is a far much better choice than the types of energy it will change. Nuclear will eventually save millions of lives and reduce our carbon emissions. It will purchase us time, 50 -100 years, to more completely establish sustainable energy and grid storage options. Hey – we might even develop nuclear fusion in the next 50 -100 years.
If we plan out our method to minimize carbon from our energy facilities, nuclear has a clear role to play. I wear’t think we can satisfy our climate goals without it. And once again – we have the innovation. All we requirement is a clear conversation and the political will. I may be wrong, and if I am then I am delighted to be tested so. Simply do so with proper reasoning and recommendations.
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