A skeptic’s analysis of the role of nuclear power in the fight against climate change.
A recent piece in the New York Times, Nuclear Power Can Save the World, stirred up discussion regarding the role of nuclear energy in a future transitioning off fossil fuels. This discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear power is not new, but is frequently quite passionate.
While we (largely) agree that oil, gas and coal must be replaced with “cleaner” sources of energy, the US has not yet sat down and sketched out a thoughtful, implementable plan for a large-scale energy transition. A variety of political fears plague our ability to fully take on the responsibility of building, and re-building, energy infrastructure.
In addition to politics, certain ideological views trip us up on our way to sustainable power: the view that renewables such as wind and solar are pie-in-the-sky ideas, and that nuclear power stations are akin to bombs with an easily-lit wick. However, we have lived alongside nuclear power plants for over 60 years, so an honest discussion of its role is appropriate.
From the suburbs of Philadelphia, where I live, you can sometimes see the rising steam from the Limerick nuclear plant on a clear, still day. I have shopped at an outlet mall in the shadow of this plant. I also live under 100 miles from the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.
You may have heard of Three Mile Island. Back in March 1979, the station experienced a partial meltdown of one of its reactors, Unit 2, accompanied by a radiation leak. The movie The China Syndrome, detailing dramatic wrongdoings and near-calamity at a fictional nuclear plant, premiered a mere 12 days before the meltdown at Three Mile Island. Hollywood is generally not tagged with prescience, but if you write enough scripts eventually life will imitate art.
Even while growing up in the long shadow of the rare nuclear incident, I never thought to be fearful of nuclear plants, I have only been curious … and a little apprehensive.
Following relatively quickly on the heels of the Three Mile Island incident came Chernobyl in 1986. The accident at the Chernobyl station in the then-Soviet Ukraine is considered the worst nuclear power disaster to date, certainly in terms of the incalculable costs to remedy the aftermath and of the lives that were affected, in the disruption caused to thousands of people and in the 31 lives directly taken.
The plant is defunct, encased in a new confinement structure as recently as 2017, and contained within an Exclusion Zone measuring approximately 19 miles in all directions. Quite a legacy for nuclear power. And in the wake of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011, the undefined fear and lingering doubt regarding the future of nuclear energy became more apparent. But is this an opening of our eyes or a knee-jerk reaction to sensationalist media coverage?
Understandably, world-wide opinion has waxed and waned with the occurrence of nuclear accidents, including the 1979 Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania and the 1986 Chernobyl incident, both involving human error.
In the midst of the meltdowns in Japan, several countries were reevaluating their nuclear safety programs and reconsidering their stance on future utilization of nuclear power, including Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Austria, as well as the relatively nuclear-friendly China. The political view of nuclear power has largely been bipartisan in the US. The White House continues to support inclusion of nuclear energy as part of the country’s energy portfolio, even in the immediate aftermath of the meltdown in Japan.
Why consider nuclear energy? Although most don’t consider nuclear “renewable” in the vein of wind and solar (although some now claim it is), nuclear power has a low-carbon footprint — that is, it does not involve direct emissions of greenhouse gases. However, it is dependent on the availability, resource-intensive extraction and price of the necessary nuclear fuel; the expense and problematic process of designing, approving, building and operating a nuclear reactor; susceptibility to terrorist interests; and, the inherent, sometimes underestimated, price of the resultant and long-lived radioactive waste.
According to the World Nuclear Organization, the US is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for over 30% of worldwide generation. There are currently 98 commercial nuclear reactors in the US. Since 1990, nuclear power generation has provided an average of 20% of the U.S. electricity supply.
When I first wrote about nuclear power following the Fukushima incident in early 2011, there were 104 plants operating in the US. Obviously, nuclear power is not on the increase here. Following a 30-year period of zero growth, two new units are reported to come on-line after 2020. Several of the existing U.S. power plants have a Mark I containment design similar to that used at the Fukushima plant, including two Peach Bottom reactors in Delta, Pennsylvania.
There have been prior warnings regarding the Mark I design, although it should be noted that the Japanese plant withstood an initial, devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The plant’s back-up power system and electrical switchgear needed to operate the cooling system, were overwhelmed by the resultant tsunami.
Let us momentarily put the dramatic specter of meltdowns behind us and examine the considerable and long-term drawback of nuclear power: radioactive waste. In the US there are currently four disposal facilities that receive low-level radioactive waste (materials contaminated by radioactive waste such as clothing) and multiple storage sites that contain high level radioactive waste (spent nuclear fuel and byproducts) including some operated by the US Department of Energy.
Although the overall volume is relatively small, these wastes must be secured and isolated due to the potential health effects of radiation exposure. These include radiation sickness for very high doses (e.g. directly handling a spent fuel rod without protective equipment), or a possible increased risk of cancer for doses above 100 mSv (only a handful of workers at Fukushima accident received a dose this large). The high level waste is in solid form and is currently being stored in secure casks at nuclear sites. It is worth noting that no one in the US has ever been hurt by nuclear waste.
All the high-level sites are for storage, not for disposal. There are currently NO approved disposal sites in the US. Research for an appropriate disposal site has taken decades and a great deal of money to come up with the Yucca Mountain site located in Nevada, awaiting authorization of its license application to begin construction. Some summer work I completed during my graduate studies involved looking at the factors for siting a disposal facility.
The best scenarios, per the Nuclear Energy Agency, include deep geological formations on land with groundwater barriers or deep disposal under the ocean floor, i.e., subseabed disposal. We could send the waste off into space, too, but the prospect of either ocean or space disposal comes with international implications.
As the US commercial power industry is the largest in the world, it has also generated more spent nuclear waste than any other country, including nuclear fuel that is no longer efficient at generating power as well as reprocessing waste— nearly 80,000 metric tons. Some sites also manage radioactive waste produced via the federal government’s nuclear weapons programs, accounting for an additional 14,000 metric tons. The transportation, handling and storage of high level radioactive waste must be done with care: these high-level wastes can take thousands of years to decay to be considered harmless.
The New York Times article noted above strongly proclaims, “The reality is that nuclear power is the safest form of energy humanity has ever used.” If we look at the history of coal mining, oil and gas exploration, indeed, there are more casualties from fossil fuel use, both direct and indirect. As the author points out, there have only been 3 notable incidents in the history of nuclear power: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, with only Chernobyl leading to any deaths at all. I agree with the author that the fear expressed for nuclear power is hard to understand in the face of the willingness that the public holds for the prevalent environmental and health risks of fossil fuel use.
Hearkening back to Three Mile Island, the infamous Unit 2 has been offline since the incident back in 1979. However, Unit 1 is active and has changed hands at least once. Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a permit for operation of the station until April 2034, the current owner and operator, Exelon Nuclear, announced in 2017 that the station would cease operations this year. Why? One of nuclear power’s competitors, natural gas, is a cheaper source of energy. The prospect of cheap natural gas has put a damper on new nuclear capacity for close to a decade.
This brings us to a quick review of arguments for and against the use of nuclear power:
Some have argued that new plants may be made cheaper if some standardization of design could be enacted. Certainly almost any issue related to the approval and construction of nuclear power plants could be overcome with the political and economic will tantamount to a Green New Deal-type national mobilization. However, as pointed out by the US GAO, “the future prospects for permanent disposal remain unclear” … and there’s the rub, because we cannot keep piling up our waste in the equivalent of temporary holding stations and responsibly pursue plans for new plant construction.
Arguably, the dangers of fossil fuel as an energy source are greater in comparison. The US economy is heavily entwined with the petroleum industry, engaging us in geopolitical conflict, increasing detrimental environmental effects and weakening our hold on a sustainable future. A short-term economic view should not trump the long-term livelihood of generations to come. What is required in the US is an integral, encompassing energy policy, which incorporates a diversity of energy sources, as well as substantial support of research and development into alternative energy sources and technologies.
So, should nuclear energy play a role in climate action? The easy answer is that it already does play a role and will continue to play a role in some measure for the near future. Perhaps innovation will bring nuclear energy more clearly into the picture in the US, but it is more likely that the growth of nuclear power will prove more promising in other countries, such as China.
There are serious detractions from its promise of clean energy, including no long-term policy for the management of wastes, the long path to permitting and construction of new plants when we have less and less time to gamble with, higher expense to operate compared to wind and solar, and, most significantly, the looming issue of human error. Human error led nuclear power into a period of stunted growth. However, it can also be argued that human error led us into our current predicament: reliance on a set of non-renewable energy sources that have left us with polluted land and water as well as coughing, wheezing … and warming.