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Climate Change and Nuclear Power

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The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently received by email an open letter by four nuclear scientists and engineers—Andrew C. Kadak, Richard A. Meserve, Neil E. Todreas, and Richard Wilson—titled “Nuclear Power’s Role in Responding to Climate Change.” Below we look at some of their arguments.

Electricity generation by fuel, 2012 (Source: EIS)

U.S. electricity generation by fuel, 2012 (Source: EIS)

The authors state that “… nuclear power can deliver electric power in a sufficiently safe, economical and secure manner to supplement supply from other carbon-free sources.”

UCS is deeply concerned about climate change and its impact on humanity and the Earth. We believe that nuclear power must remain on the table as a means of combating climate change.

However, new reactors are not currently economical compared to electricity generation from natural gas or from other low-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar. The environmental community, which some blame for crippling nuclear power, has in fact pushed for a price on carbon as a way of building the societal costs of continued carbon emissions into the economics of electricity production. This would in effect create a significant incentive that is currently missing for nuclear power compared to natural gas. Congress has stymied such proposals, and until that changes it is difficult to see what will drive growth in nuclear power, regardless of concerns about carbon or the variability of solar and wind power.

The economics of nuclear power would look even worse if there were another nuclear accident. TEPCO, the owner of the Fukushima plant, estimates that compensation costs for the tens of thousands of people displaced by the accident in Japan will exceed $50 billion and that it will cost about $20 billion to decommission the plant. This does not include the cost of eventually decontaminating the surrounding area, which may also run to $50 billion.

We do not believe nuclear reactors are yet sufficiently safe and secure. UCS has served as an industry watchdog for over four decades, and we have repeatedly seen that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not enforce its own safety regulations. For example, half of U.S. reactors do not currently comply with fire safety regulations, which were first put in place in 1980. Yet according to the NRC, fire represents half the risk of accidents that result in core damage.

In discussing the issue of nuclear waste, the authors of the letter point to geological storage and the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommended path toward interim and final storage as the solution, but there is currently no movement forward on this front. An effort by the Senate to legislate the Commission’s recommendations is faltering and is likely dead. In the meantime, nuclear waste continues to accumulate at nuclear reactor sites, with nearly three-quarters of it sitting in increasingly crowded cooling pools, with no end in sight.

While there are clear steps to increase the safety of spent fuel while waiting for long-term storage—such as moving a large fraction of it from cooling pools to dry casks—the industry refuses to implement these steps on its own and the NRC refuses to require them. A recent NRC report purports to show that the risks of continued spent fuel storage in pools is very low, but does not, for example, include the possibility of a terrorist attack on the pool. The NRC analysis is not convincing.

More generally, the authors talk about the possibility that future technologies will provide reactor designs that are safer, more secure, and less of a proliferation risk. However, as we have pointed out in our analyses, whether that is true depends not just on the technology but on the safety and security requirements for these new designs. In particular, if cost considerations result in the industry cutting corners on safety or security systems, then the situation in the future could be worse than today, not better.

Dr. Kadak and his colleagues argue for an increased role for nuclear power, but gloss over problems that can and must be addressed to make the industry adequately safe and secure. Proponents of increasing nuclear power should be pushing the industry to meet higher safety and security standards, and for the NRC to require the plants to meet the regulations it is supposed to enforce.

Posted in: Global Warming, Nuclear Power Tags: , , , , ,

About the author: David Wright is a physicist and the co-director of the Global Security Program. He is a nationally known expert on the technical aspects of missile defense systems, missile proliferation, and space weapons. See David's full bio.

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  • Jan Freed

    A wind farm in Wyoming is being planned that would produce the equivalent of 2 or 3 nuclear plants for the costs of undoing the damage at Fukushima. No safety issues, either. Cattle will graze around the turbines.

  • Paul Capron

    Disappointed that there is no comment on MSR (Molten
    Salt Reactor) prototype success or LFTR (Liquid
    Fluoride Thorium Reactor) breeder designs developed
    and extremely well documented at ORNL (Oak Ridge
    National Lab) in the 1960’s & 70’s.

    Using ORNL documentation and visits in 2010 as a
    starting point, in 2011 China officially started a thorium
    energy development project. As Ambrose Evens-
    Pritchard in a 2013 Telegraph column reports, “Jiang
    Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin, is spear-
    heading a project for China’s National Academy of
    Sciences with a startup budget of $350m. He has
    already recruited 140 PhD scientists, working full-time
    on thorium power at the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear
    and Applied Physics. He will have 750 staff by 2015.”

    My own write up (V9 slides and synopsis) makes the
    comment that MSR and LFTR “would be vastly
    simpler, smaller, more efficient and safer than PWR
    & BWR designs.” China is working on “Sputnick” –
    the USA should gear up for an “Apollo Moonshot”
    for nuclear power that can provide unlimited electric
    power that is completely safe, non-polluting, requires
    no water, at lower cost than any existing nuclear or
    fossil fuel plants.

  • Roman Rzechowicz

    G’day,
    On balance, the total damage and costs, both financial and environmental, associated with each of the main energy generation technologies we use today seem to point to the current nuclear generation schemes as a useful significant component of the mix.
    However I believe we can do better.
    There are other nuclear technologies that are not predicated on producing nuclear weapon materiel, are potentially much safer – especially in catastrophic failure modes, have more abundant fuel available and could in fact be used to turn what has been produced by existing nuclear plants as intractable waste over the past 60 years into a source of additional fuel – Thorium salt flow reactors are the primary technology I’m thinking of here for several reasons, though they are not the only possibilities. Facilities based on this idea have been built and run, generating useful power, for long periods of time in the past – the powers that hold the cheque books just didn’t find them compelling because supply of nuclear weapon grade explosives were a high priority at the time.
    Divert 10% of fusion research budget could be enough to develop these as the energy producers of choice in 10-15 years.
    Regards
    Roman

  • Richard

    Thanks for sharing this perspective.

    I would add that citizens concerned about the proponents of nuclear power gaining momentum should engage with their Senators and Reps in the House to try to motivate them to ensure that the NRC does its job more thoroughly than has been the case up to now. Safety and security via moving spent fuel into dry casks, enforcement of fire regulations, development of realistic evacuation plans are concrete things that the NRC has failed to do.

    Only with ongoing oversight will the NRC do them. This comes from concerned citizens who engage with and encourage their reps in DC. SEND EMAILS at timely moments whenever nuclear power issues arise via the media, etc!

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