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What's Really Wrong With Nuclear Power?
30 Nov, 2007 01:30 pm
In terms of its achievable potential, financial and social cost, and even carbon dioxide emissions, nuclear power is not an optimal solution.
Contrary to such optimism, however, nuclear power plants will not be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in any meaningful timeframe; their financial, environmental, and political costs are severe; and they are far from being a “carbon neutral” energy source.
Too Little, Too Late
First, in both the US and UK, if governments approved new nuclear units today, the earliest they would come online is 2015—and that is presuming everything would go as planned. Frank Barnaby and James Kemp estimate that by 2075, assuming that countries meet projections and would produce one-third of their electricity from nuclear sources, China would require around 530 Gigawatts (GW), India 600 GW, the US 146 GW, and Indonesia 125 GW.
Taking an average reactor size of 1,000 MW, this means 2,000 to 2,500 new nuclear reactors will be needed between now and then, or around three a month. This is completely infeasible, even if the social, political, and environmental concerns discussed below could be wished away. France, which currently generates 76 percent of its electricity from nuclear units, has the fastest record for deploying nuclear plants in history: 58 between 1977 and 1993, or an average of 3.4 reactors per year, not month.
Furthermore, even if just 700 new nuclear plants were constructed, they would require the additional construction of 11 to 22 large enrichment plants, 18 fuel fabrication plants, and 10 waste disposal sites the size of Yucca Mountain. This may not be just undesirable, but also technically impossible.
How Much, and For How Long?
Second, nuclear power plants pose insurmountable economic, environmental, and political challenges.
While the industry reports that new nuclear plants cost around $2,000 per installed kilowatt (or a total of $4 billion if the plant reached a capacity of 2 GW), the historical record suggests that costs will escalate. New nuclear power plants are extremely capital intensive and take years to build. The capital intensity of such projects means that they often cost $1-2 billion more than anticipated, as they are subject to greater interest rates, higher financing expenses, and changes in regulatory requirements during construction.
Moreover, because nuclear plants provide centralized power sited away from urban centers, they must rely on a vast and complex transmission network to distribute their power. Yet such a network loses between 6 and 12 percent of its transmitted electricity before it ever reaches a single home or business, due to the laws of thermodynamics. Nuclear plants also use around 5 to 7 percent of their own energy to contain and cool nuclear reactions.
In other words, getting electricity from a typical nuclear plant would be the equivalent of purchasing a dozen beers at a local grocery store only to lose between two and five bottles every time you transported them home, day after day.
Environmental costs abound as well. The reprocessing and enrichment of uranium and plutonium, needed for fuel, often necessitate fossil-fueled generators that emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide. At an earlier stage in the nuclear fuel cycle, the mining and milling of uranium and the operation of nuclear reactors also present grave dangers to the environment. Abandoned mines, for example, can pose radioactive risks for as long as 250,000 years after closure. Let’s not forget that nuclear plants produce prodigious amounts of waste that remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years—longer than our civilization has practiced Catholicism, or, more important for some, cultivated agriculture.
From a political standpoint nuclear plants degrade energy security in three ways. First, they make countries more dependent on imported and interruptible fuels that have large price spikes. The cost of uranium, for instance, jumped from $7.25 per pound in 2001 to $47.25 per pound in 2006, and the Nuclear Energy Agency reports that fuel counts for 15 percent of the lifetime costs of a nuclear plant.
While nuclear power plants themselves can be relatively well-secured, guarding the transmission and distribution grid through which they distribute their power is difficult.
In Britain during the coal-miner strikes of 1976, a leader of the power engineers famously remarked that “the miners brought the country to its knees in 8 weeks, but we could do it in 8 minutes". This is because the infrastructure needed to distribute nuclear power is brittle, and subject to cascading power failures easily induced by severe weather and small animals, to say nothing of accidental or intentional human interference.
As if this wasn’t enough, the safety record of nuclear plants worldwide is extremely questionable. More than 90 nuclear accidents, defined as incidents that either resulted in death or more than $50,000 of property damage, have occurred worldwide since the 1970s, according to data from the Union of Concerned Scientists and International Energy Agency. That’s more than two incidents every year, including dozens this past decade.
About as Carbon Friendly as Natural Gas ...
Third and finally, nuclear power plants are not carbon neutral. The Oxford Research Group concludes that the nuclear fuel cycle is responsible for emitting 84 to 122 grams of carbon dioxide per every kWh, mostly from uranium mining, plant construction, and plant decommissioning. The report also notes that these emissions are around half of that as natural gas plants (so we are talking about some serious carbon).
In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency notes that uranium is getting harder to mine, meaning that the carbon emissions related to nuclear will get worse as more uranium gets depleted, not better. This is because mining uranium ores of relatively low grades and greater depth is much more energy intensive. If world nuclear generating share remains what it is today, the Oxford Research Group concludes that by 2050 nuclear power would generate as much carbion dioxide per kWh as a comparable gas-fired power station.
In the end, the belief that nuclear power represents a clean and safe alternative to coal-, natural-gas fired, or renewable power generation is completely misguided. It exposes our country to dangerous and prolonged risks, legitimates transmission and distribution efficiency losses, commits policymakers to continued greenhouse gas emissions, and obscures better alternatives towards a truly sustainable energy portfolio.
Barnaby, Frank and James Kemp, Secure Energy? Civil Nuclear Power, Security, and Global Warming (Oxford: Oxford Research Group, March, 2007).
Echavarri, Lance E. “Is Nuclear Energy at a Turning Point?” Electricity Journal 20(9) (November, 2007), pp. 89-97.
International Atomic Energy Agency, Analysis of Uranium Supply to 2050 (Geneva: IAEA, 2001).
Keystone Center, The, Nuclear Power Joint Fact-Finding (July, 2007), available at http://www.keystone.org/spp/documents/FinalReport_NJFF6_12_2007(1).pdf.
Sovacool, Benjamin K. “The High Costs of Going Nuclear for Indonesia,” The Jakarta Post, September 13, 2007, p. 7.
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In particular, they vastly overstate the CO2 emissions from nuclear energy. Unbiased appraisals put the life-cycle CO2 emissions in the same range as renewable energy sources.[ http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata/GLB.Ts+dSST.txt ]
The second problem is that it confuses short-term speculative pressures with long-term price trends. In the last year or so, speculators have driven up the futures price of uranium beyond reason and, in fact, those prices already have fallen back with almost as much ferocity. But the supply-and-demand balance hasn't shifted much and won't until new plants are constructed and then only over centuries.
The third problem is that it makes no comparison with alternatives. Since your article refers to US data, and since I have some comparison data for that country, allow me to offer it.
According to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, for the land suitable and available for wind turbines, the average rated power would run at 7.8 MW/km^2.[ http://www1.eere.energy.gov/ba/pdfs/wind_overview.pdf ] Allowing a generous load factor of 35% [ http://www.ecn.nl/docs/library/report/2003/c03006.pdf ], the output would be 23,900 MWH/km^2/year. To provide all the electricity the US uses would require 167,000 km^2 or 64,600 square miles, because of the spacing required between the turbines. That would be a strip of land 50 miles wide running from the Montana/Canada border to the Arizona/Mexico border. If the turbines were all rated at 3 MW (rotor-tip height = 500 ft [Gipe, Paul. Windpower: Renewable Energy for Home, Farm, and Business. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004. ]), the largest size being sold, 435,000 turbines would be required. Typical commercial-size turbines are rated around 750 KW (rotor-tip height = 250 ft); 1,740,000 of them would be required.
For the US, an average insolation would be around 5.5 KWH/m^2/day [ http://www.nrel.gov/gis/images/us_pv_annual_may2004.jpg ], or 2 MWH/m^2/year Allowing a generous 20% efficiency [ http://www.solarexpert.com/pvbasics2.html ], the output would be 0.4 MWH/m^2/year. To provide all the electricity the US uses would require 10 billion square meters or 3861 square miles of solar panels. That would be a panel 1-1/2 miles wide running from San Diego to Boston.
In comparison, assuming 1000-MW nuclear power plants, 571 would be required to provide all the electricity the US uses, compared with 104 that currently are in operation.
Consider what nuclear gets us:
(1) An electricity source that doesn?t depend on wind or sunlight or the limited amount of energy storage available, and emits virtually no greenhouse gases. It could reduce CO2 emissions by 40%.
(2) An energy-efficient way to produce hydrogen, which could be used directly in automobiles and trucks or added to biofuels to make their production higher by a factor of three. Presently, transportation accounts for about 33% of CO2 emissions; all of that could be eliminated through conservation, electrification, and alternate fuels.
(3) A huge reduction in air pollution, lowered trade deficits, and freedom from Middle-East involvements.
The simple truth is that we won't shut down all the homes and businesses when there isn't enough wind and sunlight to power them. We won't make people stay home in their cold, dark houses. If nuclear energy isn't developed in a major way, the world will keep burning fossil fuels. Within fifty years nearly all the world's people will live in severe hardship and the natural environment will have completely disappeared.
[Response] I am always happy to engage interested and clearly intelligent readers on these matters. First, I would directly challenge that there is such a thing as ?unbiased? appraisals of energy technologies. There are only assumptions within studies, and the reason I chose the Oxford Research Group was that their assumptions were both apparent and sound. Their research, in contrast to most studies, looked at carbon dioxide emissions for nuclear plants that included the uranium fuel cycle, construction of the plant, and decommissioning. The P.J. Meier dissertation you sent a link to looks good, but from its abstract that work does not calculate lifecycle emissions for nuclear: just natural gas and solar photovoltaics. Moreover, its results for solar photovoltaics look almost identical to the most recent ExternE assessment. The reason I did not use that assessment was that it looked at emissions for solar using 1990s technology. The most recent data I?ve seen show that newer models of solar PV can be slightly better than nuclear plants, but the clear winners are hydroelectric (0 to 68 grams carbon equivalent/kWh), biomass (46 grams/kWh), and wind (29 grams/kWh). As for uranium prices, you illustrate precisely the problem with fossil-based and nuclear fuels: their price can be driven up by a number of ?non-market? factors such as natural disasters, wars, and, yes, speculation. Renewables such as wind and solar displace this entire fuel cycle (until, I suppose, someone learns how to block the sun or wind). Projections are always subject to error, but the IAEA documents detailing how high-quality uranium ore is getting scarcer seem to suggest that its price will continue to rise. In terms of comparison with alternatives, of course I did not elaborate as much as I could have: the piece was already over the standard limit by a few hundred words. The numbers from PNNL sound about right, but you seem to forget that the land used by wind turbines is dual use. It can be still used by farmers, ranchers, hikers, etc. In contrast, the land used by nuclear and fossil fuel stations is hardly dual-use, unless you really want to walk through a nuclear reactor or spent fuel storage facility. Same with solar: most of it can be integrated into building structures, parking garages, and existing impervious space. In the end, the idea of having 571 1,000 MW nuclear plants is a dangerous one that presents intractable problems relating to safety, spent fuel storage, and proliferation. Moreover, nuclear power will not free us from Middle East dependence on oil anytime soon, since oil is hardly used to generate electricity in the U.S. Hydrogen has incredible challenges relating to fuel cells, storage, and distribution infrastructure. And we?d still be dependent on other countries for most of our uranium. Nuclear power is not the solution, and to claim that it is creates incredibly long-lasting challenges for this generation, and the next few hundred generations to follow.
I don't see why you would think the ORG's assumptions were both apparent and sound. They don't describe their assumptions, and their conclusion that nukes generate more CO2 than fossil fuels should be dismissed simply on the basis of silliness.
Every CO2 life-cycle study I've seen included the uranium fuel cycle, construction of the plant, and decommissioning. The Meier paper shows a comparison of different energy sources; the link is on the abstract page. It's impossible that biofuels could produce fewer GHG emissions than nuclear because production of biofuels consumes as much fuel as it produces. If that's the same place that told you PV beats nuclear, you need a better source. I wish you'd give more references.
Coal and uranium prices have been surprisingly stable in the past. More recently, U saw a big price drop because Western reactors started consuming Soviet warhead material. Then, speculators saw U as an easy opportunity because it became apparent that nuclear power is the main solution to global warming. I think they failed to consider that demand will only grow as nuclear plants are built, but I'm not qualified to give investment advice. I can't guess where you found an IAEA document warning of U shortages; this one shows the opposite.
No, I didn't forget you can use land between wind turbines. The point is that 167,000 sq km will be tightly gridded with maintenance roads and power lines, plus inverters and transformers, etc. And the problem with ten billion square meters of PV panels isn't just finding places to put it, but of gathering enough semi-conductor material and manufacturing the panels, with the attendant pollution and energy consumption. In comparison, 571 nukes instead of the current 104 will take up a negligible amount of land and construction material.
I was disappointed that you resorted to slogans. Safety, spent fuel storage, and proliferation have to be tractable because we've been treating them for over 60 years. Please see this page for better information. Surely you're aware that natural gas and even oil are being used to generate electricity. You're right about the challenges of hydrogen for meeting motor-fuel needs. But the only solutions being pursued are electrically-powered transit systems, battery-powered cars, hydrogen, and biofuels. All of these will depend on nuclear energy, as explained in the last link.
As is characteristic of anti-nukes, you haven't addressed the problem inherent in wind-power and PV. The world will never depend on part-time energy sources and failing to develop nuclear energy will force the continued burning of fossil fuels. All the pure thoughts and windmills in the world won't change that.
[Response] What I said was not flattery?you seem engaged and interested in these issues, which is more than most people. We are certainly entitled to disagree, but I hope some further clarifications will highlight some important flaws with some of your beliefs. Like I mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as an unbiased report. The ORG?s assumptions were transparent, and most of the big, peer-reviewed studies on externalities, such as ExternE, the Pace study, and the ORNL/RFF study (all done in the early 1990s), did not look at nuclear or when they did, only looked at one or two of the events on the fuel cycle, not all three. Rather than attacking the conclusion from the ORG study, which you think is ?silly,? why don?t you attack the methods? What precisely is wrong with their study? I?d be interested to know. Your claim that biofuels could never produce fewer GHG emissions is way off mark. We?re talking about bioelectricity using waste, energy crops, or agricultural residue, not ethanol, and even if we were talking about ethanol all of the recent techniques using cellulosic material are nowhere close to consuming as much fuel as they produce. See any of the work done by Lee Lynd from Dartmouth on this point: http://engineering.dartmouth.edu/faculty/regular/leelynd.html Coal, uranium, and other fossil fuel prices (such as natural gas) have been anything other than stable the past five years. I?ve already mentioned the price spikes with uranium, which seem to refute your argument about Soviet warhead material (or, at least, show that the Soviet warhead material uranium was not enough to prevent overall price spikes). According to the EIA, between 1995 and 2005, natural gas prices rose by an average of 15 percent per year. As a result, many electricity generators switched back to coal-fired peaking units. But the switch only increased demand for coal, driving the price up. In 2003, for example, the cost of coal in Central Appalachia was $35 per ton. The price increased nearly 7 percent each year until, by 2006, a ton of coal in the same region cost close to $60 a ton. In some regions of the U.S., coal prices actually doubled between 2002 and 2004. The price of natural gas jumped from $6.20 per million BTUs (MMBtu) in 1998 to $14.50 per MMBtu in 2001, then dropped precipitously for almost a year and then rebounded steadily from around $2.10 per MMBtu in 2002 to more than $14.00 per MMBtu near the end of 2005. As for the IAEA ?switch? from talking about a shortage of uranium resources in 2001 but a ?surplus? in 2006, it (ironically) proves the contention that uranium is getting scarcer. The IAEA recorded the total amount of uranium as around 3.6 giga grams (Gg) in 2001, but the number jumped to 4.7 Gg in 2006. The increase is due not to new discoveries or improved technologies, but simply a redefinition of what counts as uranium. The IAEA included in its new estimate the higher price category of uranium that costs 80-130 USD/kGU. This category comprises uranium ores of relatively low grades, of greater depth, that are harder to mine and require longer transportation distances. Finally, anybody that really thinks proliferation is tractable, given Iran, North Korea, India, and Pakistan, or nuclear power safe, given the dozens of accidents in the last three years, is simply ignoring the evidence. I will gladly write the next column on your last claim, that renewables are too ?small? or ?intermittent,? since I believe it does deserve more discussion that I don?t have space for here.
The Lynd reference just talks about cellulosic ethanol; I didn't see anything about burning woody waste. Looking through some of the links, I came across this: "The simulations found the farm that harvested the most stover also needed the most fertilizer, had the most erosion and barely returned sustainable levels of organic matter to the soil. That farm also recorded the highest net farm income before taxes."[Is a bioeconomy sustainable?] Clearly, this is not a promising direction. Mining soil to grow crops is what we have to get away from. Anyway, I couldn't find a reference that shows biofuels could meet more than part of the motor-fuels requirement (without hydrogen), and supposing we also could use it for electricity is unreasonable. If there's a magic new technology (I don't mean hopes of a new technology) it ought to be featured more prominently on his web page. Heck, it ought to be headline news. I've seen the numbers; if you care to, check out this page.
I didn't check the price history of gas and oil; their instability is well known. The US DOE data shows that coal was about $20/ton before 1975 in "chained dollars" (I didn't look that up). In 1975 (oil scare) it peaked at $51/ton and since then it's dropped down to less than $20 in 2000 and now it's ~$20.50. I can't see what IAEA data you're looking at. Here's a chart that shows uranium peaked in 1975 and went crazy this last year, though it's headed sharply downward. In between, U has been about as stable as coal and followed the same trend. I don't see the point of your dodging numbers around on U reserves; the point is that there's almost a century of proven recoverable ore and nobody's looking for more until there's a market for it that can be seen within a decade or two. Meanwhile, geological surveys show centuries' worth waiting to be proven. Advanced fuel cycles will make the whole thing moot anyway, because the world will run for many centuries on depleted uranium and recycled fuel.
Here's what Hans Blix, a former Director of the IAEA, the United Nations agency responsible for preventing proliferation, has to say about proliferation:
"A phasing out of nuclear power in some or all states would not lead to the scrapping of a single nuclear bomb.
"States can have nuclear weapons without nuclear power though it is not common today. Israel is a case in point. It has no nuclear power but is assessed to have some 200 nuclear warheads. For a long time China had only the weapons. Indeed, most nuclear weapons states, including the US, had weapons before they had power."
The reality is that spent fuel doesn't get anyone closer to a bomb than uranium ore does. It just requires more shielding and has to be manipulated by robots.
Accidents in the last three years? Do you mean those incidents that had no harmful effects on anyone or anything? That's what you're worried about? Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from coal-generated pollution and the world is facing devastating climate change and you're worried about accidents with no consequences?
I'll look forward to your column on intermittency and adequacy of energy sources. It'll take some fast talking to trick people into believing you can get electricity out of solar and wind when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.
[Response] Ok, third time?s the charm; I hope I've finally learned how to respond without making it all one hard-to-read paragraph.
First, let?s remember that at least two points raised in the article above?that nuclear power could never reduce GHGs in time, and that it legitimizes extensive transmission and distribution losses?still stand. As well as the arguments about fuel dependency, capital intensity, and the waste problem.
As for the ORG, it seems you attack their studies because they reach a conclusion you do not agree with, not because you disagree with their methods (which, apparently, you did not even analyze). So how can you say either way if their study is sound? Check out their website, read a few of their reports on nuclear and carbon emissions, get into the details of their methodology (which they clearly list in the text and appendices of their studies), and then justify your conclusion, if you still feel the same way.
Yes, Lynd references cellulosic ethanol, to make the point that new forms of ethanol production are much better than the older ones. But remember my original point was that bioelectricity is both feasible, and that it is much better from a carbon perspective than nuclear. Demonstrating such potential, there are a lot of really good studies, but one of the best is the U.S. DOE?s Billion Tons of Biomass report, available at http://feedstockreview.ornl.gov/pdf/billion_ton_vision.pdf. There have also been extensive studies done in almost every region of the country that show biomass has immense economic potential as a sustainable fuel for electricity. To mention just one from the TVA region, see http://isse.utk.edu/publications/pdf/2006_01_renewstand.pdf.
As for the price volatility argument, comparing uranium prices to coal prices is not particularly persuasive if you want to argue that fossil and depletable fuels encourage price stability. They are incredibly hard to predict, and can be skewed not just to inaccurate estimates of reserves but also due to market speculation itself (look at the California electricity crisis for one example). Even if the prices of uranium do go down, as the chart you mention shows, the chart also shows how up until 2007, they have been rising steadily for at least the past five years. And if you?re really relying on the ?advanced fuel cycles? argument, remember the DOE is on its ?Generation IV? of research but that every single reactor in the country is a Generation I or II. Breeder reactors and pebble bed modular reactors seem to be just about as likely as ?fusion? to solve our energy problems, as all of them are still ?30 years away.?
Blix?s quote on proliferation only proves that eliminating nuclear power won?t eliminate the risk of proliferation. I agree. But it ignores my argument: that nuclear power, while it exists, contributes to the risk of proliferation. As for accidents, I?m talking about those that caused more than $50,000 in property damage or killed and/or injured people and workers. Amazingly, coal has not killed more people than hydroelectric, although I do admit that the pollution and accidents from coal, hydro, natural gas, and oil have killed more people than nuclear (so far). But nuclear is the clear leader in costly accidents, so much that by my count they have caused at least $16.4 billion in damages over the past 40 years, using conservative estimates. I?m much more comfortable advocating renewables which get us out of the conundrum of choosing either nuclear or coal. I say choose neither.
No fast talking is needed to show that wind and solar function incredibly well, despite their intermittency. I encourage you to check out Chapter 3 of a report I wrote with Christopher Cooper on renewables. It goes into extensive detail how the distributed nature of such resources improves overall reliability and security, and how operators in Europe have reached up to 40 percent penetration of renewables without having to keep their populations in the dark: http://www.newenergychoices.org/dev/uploads/RPS%20Report_Cooper_Sovacool_FINAL_HILL.pdf
There are no reprieves from the law of consequence. When you make a mistake you pay a price. The price we will pay is more of the same environmental degradation and death.
It's not enough to fix blame. The more important question is how to deal with the problem. First, we have to recognize that the way to correct the mistake is to stop making it. We are faced with the two-headed problem that we not only didn't build enough nuclear plants but we also allowed to lapse much of the capacity to build more. The only way the capacity can be raised is to start building, so that is the first thing to do. The second thing to do is to stop taking advice from the ideologues who misled us into the dilemma we're in. The third thing to do is to take a long, hard look at our remaining options. There is a place for renewable energy and there is much that can be done with conservation. As long as those decisions are driven by facts and not by the fictitious ambitions of true believers we can hold the destructive effects of global warming to a minimum.
Actually, nuclear energy is the best solution to transmission losses. The plants can be located near their customers. In contrast, wind-power supporters argue that intermittency can be mitigated by connecting different regions together in the hope that winds in one region can offset stalled conditions in another. If that were true, and the data show it isn't, implementing it would raise transmission losses. The solar-power fans envision building huge solar facilities in the Southwest and transmitting the energy all over the country. That would make transmission losses even greater. Coal also suffers in this regard. Either the plants have to be located near coal mines, which usually are not near customer concentrations, or the coal has to be transported long distances.
Fair enough, we'll go through your arguments.
Fuel dependency: As you know this is a complicated subject. The US gets little of its oil from OPEC countries, but since prices are controlled by the world market it's still true that OPEC matters. In the same way, all countries who use nuclear energy depend on the same suppliers. But there are several big differences. First, the US could rely on its own domestic sources for centuries. If it developed advanced fuel cycles it would be self-sufficient for thousands of years. Besides that, the uranium-exporting countries are stable democracies like Australia and Canada. I would never advise other countries what to do, except for the general observation that the world needs to use much more nuclear energy to minimize global warming, but for the US nuclear energy is a way to reduce energy dependence.
Capital intensity: This topic favors nuclear over all known renewable energy sources. Unless you are proposing we continue to use fossil fuels, this is a point you'd be better off leaving alone.
Waste: The waste materials from nuclear energy are at most a hypothetical concern. No person has ever been harmed by them. Despite that, people who oppose nuclear energy do so mainly because the wastes stay radioactive for a very long time, even hundreds of thousands of years. It's odd that the
same people don't have problems with coal wastes, which pile up in vast heaps and sludge ponds that stay toxic forever.
Until recently, the plan was to bury the wastes in geological structures where they would be safe until the radioactivity decayed away. But now the plan is to reprocess the wastes to separate out the valuable uranium and transuranic actinides to use as fuel. The remaining wastes are only 3% of what was there before and lose their toxicity in much less time, hundreds of years instead of hundreds of thousands.http://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RS22542.pdf Many geologic places, such as caves or abandoned mines, could store those wastes safely. Besides that, proven technology exists to irradiate the wastes into other, shorter-lived
materials.http://www.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev26-2/text/radside1.html To deal with the wastes this way doesn't require any technological breakthroughs, just a political decision.
No, ORG doesn't show calculations or methodologies. I've looked through all the documents on the website that relate to nuclear energy and none of them offer supportive information, just conclusions. It's clear from the language that they started with the conclusions and hunted around for nuggets to support them. Predictably, most of the nuggets come from other adversarial publications. Your position on this point is on the far side of bizarre: you contend that I should accept their conclusions specifically because they hide the information which they claim supports the conclusions. By extension, the whole world should accept their assertions without examining how they reached them, precisely because they don't show it.
I don't get the point you're trying to make on uranium prices. The price changes have been moderate and gradual, excepting speculative surges driven by awareness of the world's need for more nuclear energy. The cost of extracting uranium has actually gotten lower because of improved extraction technology. Renewables are subject to the same speculative pressures: for example, price variations in copper or silicon will affect wind-power and solar energy every bit as much.
You did not make an argument that nuclear energy contributes to the risk of proliferation; all you did was assert it. The discussion given before shows that common sense, history, and expert opinion all contradict your assertion.
Why do you think anyone would accept your conclusions without your giving a basis for them? Maybe you think that if ORG can get away with it you can, too. Put your damage calculations out for them to be checked. Then we'll compare the cost with the amount of energy produced.
I looked through your paper on biofuels. The first thing that jumps out is that nowhere do you consider energy paybacks. The energy required to cut, transport, and process the biomass could easily equal all the energy that comes out of it. Air pollution isn't even discussed. The assumptions you start out with are wildly optimistic, and even so you cite technological breakthroughs that have to be made before it will become practical. And still there's the problem that you don't show the analysis, just the conclusions. Maybe the problem is that you think the same way the ORG writers do: you're so dedicated to your cause that you think everyone should just believe you. What you have to understand is that obviously adversarial publications like these don't carry any weight; they just encourage the true believers.
No, you'll still have to do some fast talking. Your RPS paper just shows that a bunch of windmills give a smoother output than a single one. There still are huge swings between high and low. Your paper's solution to the problem is bulk energy storage. As you know, there isn't anything like the storage required available. Take a look at this page and tell me what's wrong with it.
[Response] Hey Rob, see my response below to John.
You state, "While the industry reports that new nuclear plants cost around $2,000 per installed kilowatt (or a total of $4 billion if the plant reached a capacity of 2 GW), the historical record suggests that costs will escalate." In fact the quoted costs of new Nuks varies widely and depends on the cost of local labor, and the effects of government regulation on costs. For example, China signed a contract with Westinghouse for 4 AP-1000 ractors @ a cost of $5.3 billion.
The Chinese have recently announced that they will be buying several more AP-1000. That is a cost of $1200 per KW generating capacity. Since Westinghouse plans to mass produce AP-1000s it anticipates that it can bring the price of US manufactured AP-1000's to the S1000 per KW. The Chinese also plan to mass produce AP-1000's and the price of Chinese produced AP-1000s surely will be less that the price of US produced reactors.
Unlike traditional reactors, the AP-1000 is designed to be built modularly in factories, and then assembled like so many legos at the reactor site. The AP-1000 is simplier than traditional reactors. It uses less steel, less cement, less electrical cables, less pipes, and fewer pumps than traditional reactors. Yet it is safer than older reactor designs.
How many reactors do we need to construct? Pick a number of reactors you want a year. Design a reactor using the design principles of the AP -1000. Build a factory. Line up suppliers. Then start churning reactors. If you wish, we could replace every fossil fuel fired power plant by 2050. Once the production pipeline was set up, we could certainly mass produce 2,000 to 2,500 new nuclear reactor in a period of 20 years, provided we decided it was a matter of urgency.
So will we have enough uranium to power those reactors? The Japanese have developed a technology to extract uranium from sea water.
There are 4.5 billion tons of uranium in sea water, enough to keep 3000 reactor going for a long while. But we are talking about Generation III reactors. Generation IV reactors will be able to breed fissionable fuel from U238, and Thorium 232. Thorium is thre times as plentiful as uranium. Thus we have the energy potential to power human society for tens of thousands of years.
What about nuclear waste? 97% of "spent" nuclear fuel can be reused in reactors. If run through breeder reactors, that 97% can be converted into Pu239, and burned in reactors. All fissionable materials coming out of reactors can and should be reused in reactors. This will dispose of long lived radioisotopes. The most dangerous radioisotopes have short half lives, and decay into stable isotopes quickly. Isotopes with longer half lives can be used in medicine, agriculture, and industry. Radioactive isotopes decay into stable elements at predicable rates. Most will be stable within 100 years, and almost all within a thousand years. Once the decay process is complete, the stable isotopes can be used in industry or to produce consumer goods.
Arvina states: "It is interesting to note that France's energy choices have given it one of Europe's lowest CO2 emission rates per capita. Nuclear power prevents an estimated 1.8 billion tons of CO2 emissions worldwide every year, including some 800 million tons in Europe, or the equivalent of emissions from 200 million automobiles."
U.K. Energy Review assigns the emission of 11-22 grams of CO2 per KWh to nuclear power. The same source states the CO2 emission of wind generated electricity to be from 11 to 37 grams per KWh. Natural gas emits 385 grams per KWh. even your claim of 84 to 122 grams of carbon dioxide per every kWh, is not half of that. How do we explain this appearant disacrepancy between your sources and others? It sounds like you are dealing with estimates from "Stormsmith," Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith made some notorious mistakes in their estimates, their sources were outdated, and in come cases they misunderstood their information. In one case they estimated the cost of fuel used to power equipment in one small uranium mine to have costs twice the value of the mines uranium output, clearly an absurd mistake. In another case they looked at a mine which produced large amounts of metal ore and a small amount of uranium. They assigned the entire energy input to of the mine to its uranium output. "Stormsmith" also assumed that the most inefficient process for enriching uranium was typical, even though newer processes require only 02% as much electricity. They also assume that 100% of the electricity that feeds the inefficient cold war era enrichment plant. In fact 40% of the electricity comes from carbon free generating sources. The "Stormsmith" calculation for the amount of CO2 requited to produce the Cement and steel that goes into reactors and reactor buildings, as well as powering the construction equipment was absurdly high.
Yhe WNA reports that the energy input to output ratio of plant using advanced enrichment technology was 1.7%.
You have stacked the deck against nuclear power. I am not sure this is because of an irrational animus against it, or because your research has been extremely shallow.
[Response] Hey Charles, see my response below to John.
To begin with, you seem to imply that building 2500 nuclear plants would be impossible. But you ignore two key things. First, that's for the whole world. That's supplying 100% of the WORLD'S electricity from nuclear. We need to fix the problem in our own backyard first. If the rest of the world wants to go a different route, that's fine as long as they do SOMETHING. We've got 104 plants supplying 20% of our electricity. To displace all the coal plants we'd only need about 200 more plants. Or two new reactors for every one that's out there. This is not infeasible. To displace EVERYTHING (hydro, coal, gas, oil, sun, wind), then only 450 more. That certainly seems to me to be a number that the US could do if we needed to.
Secondly you ignore that to address global warming, we're going to have to do something. You imply that since the fastest long term pace any country has set for reactor is <4 per year that building enough nuclear plants is impossible. Using that logic, ALL other potential power sources are impossible except coal. By that I mean, we haven't set a pace with ANY other power source to be able to supply 100% of the world's needs by 2050. To meet your standards, any source we turn to is going to have to set new records in annual capacity increases.
As others have stated, the numbers you cite for CO2 emissions just don't make sense. I also went to the ORG website and let me second the comment that they do a poor job of justifying their numbers. Specifically where the enormous numbers for mining and enrichment come from.
I would attack their methodologies if they told me what they were. As it is I'm limited to saying studies that also look at the full cycle and show their methodologies get very different and more logical numbers.
Also, finally, what math are you doing where 19% of a 12 pack is 5 beers??? :-)
RobC, Charles, and John,
Thanks for your comments. I?ll try to handle them in order. This is also the last time I will probably comment, given that I start traveling internationally in a few days and the comments are getting long. This is not a cop-out, just that I may have to address any remaining issues in future columns; I may also start collecting estimates of nuclear and c02 emissions to see if any trends emerge, since the estimates seem to be all over the place.
First, Rob. I agree with you (and many proponents of nuclear power) that nuclear is much better than coal, and probably oil and perhaps natural gas in terms of providing electricity. But it still has incredibly challenging problems relating to pollution, storage, and waste. Renewables displace that entire fuel cycle, so groundwater remains protected from both mercury and uranium tailings and transuranic waste.
Let?s be fair about renewables. I rarely advocate centralized renewable generation precisely for the reasons you articulate. However, building integrated solar PV, solar thermal water heaters, small-scale wind and hydro, geothermal heat pumps, biomass cogeneration units, etc. provide energy in ways that large and distant plants never can. However, even ?centralized? renewables such as geothermal and large hydro, in my opinion, have plenty of advantages over nuclear, especially concerning reliability and T&D displacement. Visit the extensive work of Amory Lovins on DG at http://www.smallisprofitable.org/ for just a sample of these benefits, and focus especially on the study done by PG&E comparing 50 decentralized solar PV units to 1 centralized plant. Many of the proven arguments discussing how the capital intensity of DG and renewables works to their advantage are also discussed within.
The advanced fuel cycles argument would require massive changes with the current nuclear configuration in the US, and create huge risks with new technology. See the work from David Lochbaum from the UCS on this point about newer nuclear technologies having more accidents: http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/clean_energy/nuclear04fnl.pdf.
Also, MIT conducted a study on the future potential of nuclear power and concluded that neither open nor advanced closed cycle technologies were a viable option. They concluded that ?The potential impact on the public from safety or waste management failure and the link to nuclear explosives technology are unique to nuclear energy among energy supply options. These characteristics and the fact that nuclear is more costly, make it impossible today to make a credible case for the immediate expansion of nuclear power.? See http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/.
ORG methodology: I?ve seen it in three of their studies, but the shortest version is at http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/publications/briefing_papers/pdf/toohottohandle.pdf starting on page 8. They note the range of estimates and discuss what they included when calculating emissions.
Your construction argument about copper and silicon is not unique to renewables; construction and material costs for nuclear (and all generators) suffer from those types of risks. The problem is that, in addition to those uncertainties, fossil and nuclear reactors have the additional problem of fuel cycle price spikes and changes, which renewables do not.
Your claim that nuclear power does not contribute to the risk of proliferation is absurd. See the previously cited MIT study for a host of issues relating to nuclear fuel cycles, terrorism, and security.
I?ve never written a paper on biofuels. I referenced two, one from the DOE and one from UT. Both studies completely refute your argument that cutting, transporting, and processing biomass consume more energy that comes out of it.
And the RPS report, not paper, makes a bunch of sophisticated arguments about how renewables improve construction lead times, T&D efficiency, reliability, and act as a hedge against a variety of things from future environmental regulations to natural gas prices.
Rob, I admire your enthusiasm but quit glossing over all of these reports and read them. There?s no way you could have actually read everything I?ve mentioned in a week, let alone a month. Every single document I reference I have already read, completely, and sometimes twice. If you go back through my responses, carefully read everything I?ve mentioned, and still feel the same way about nuclear and renewables, I?ll give you my email address and we can start a dialogue. I?m guessing that won?t be the case.
Charles, the estimate of $2,000 per installed kW is the world average. Yes, costs vary, and it seems like your plant in China was below the world average. By definition, I?m sure a good number are above it. It?s still damn expensive and capital intense power.
Your faith in the ability to manufacture 2,000 to 2,500 new nuclear plants is striking. I admit that expansion of renewables is greatly impeded by limited supply chains, consultants, manufacturers, and skilled personnel. Vestas and GE, for example, are currently on a 2-year backorder for wind turbines. I have yet to see any reliable study on the issue conclude that we could mass produce those reactors in 20 years. If it exists, please forward it to me.
I also wouldn?t count on experimental Japanese techniques to extract uranium from seawater to fuel all of our future nuclear plants; hardly any of that uranium is fissionable. Generation IV reactors are nowhere near commercial viability, and even the DOE says they are at least 10 to 15 years away.
And, as I am sure you already know, the US currently has no breeder reactors, and see the MIT study referenced above at talking about how the breeder fuel cycle is inherently dangerous.
France could have low CO2 emissions because they do not count the entire fuel cycle in those calculations; the Areva webpage you reference does not say how France achieved those numbers. The lowest CO2 per capita in all of Europe is Denmark, and it is pretty well documented how they did that: wind energy, cogeneration, and energy efficiency measures.
The debate about the ?correct? amount of C02 emissions per kWh for nuclear power is especially important, and I appreciate you bringing it up. You are correct that the ORG is citing the Stormsmith report, but I am not sure if it is the version you mentioned: the 2005 report had a number of errors but they updated it (and claim to have responded to criticism) at http://www.stormsmith.nl/. They have an extensive rebuttal of criticism at http://www.stormsmith.nl/report20050803/Rebuttal_WNA.pdf that seems somewhat compelling. Even if the numbers from ORG/Stormsmith are a little high, and I am no expert about these studies, 11-22 grams per CO2 seems incredibly low. ISA, for instance, estimates C02 emissions at a range of 10 to 130 grams per kWh for light water reactors and 10 to 120 for heavy water reactors (with a mean of 65/60 grams per kWh). See www.isa.org.usyd.edu.au/publications/documents/ISA_Nuclear_Report.pdf. A quick google search, nothing scientific, revealed a great disparity in estimates with some as low as 1-5 grams per kWh and others above the 160 grams per kWh mark.
As for stacking the deck, I have no personal stake in nuclear power or renewable energy. I am not affiliated with any renewable energy company, I do not own any stock, I have no ulterior motive. I?m simply trying to analyze what?s best and worst about both renewables and nuclear, with no goal other than non-biased (and perhaps impassioned) analysis, and so far I?ve been convinced that renewables have countless advantages over nuclear power plants.
, John , building 2,500 nuclear plants is not assuming they power the whole world. It doesn?t even assume they provide all of the electricity. The projections simply assume they maintain their current percentage of capacity.
As for addressing climate change, I completely agree that we have to do something! But almost every study I?ve read, including Socolow?s work on climate stabilization wedges and the IEA projections for fighting climate change, have nuclear power playing no more than a 10 percent role. The ?other? will undoubtedly be energy efficiency, renewables, and other forms of adaptation and mitigation.
The ORG methodology isn?t extensive, but at least it is transparent. See above for the discussion about Stormsmith and the great disparity of estimates concerning nuclear and CO2. Perhaps my next column will focus on just explaining why the numbers diverge so greatly; I?m interested in learning that probably as much as you are.
Good call on the beer :) 19 percent of a 12 pack is indeed 2.9 beers, not 5; the missing piece of the argument is that for rural locations and during extremely hot weather losses can reach around 40 percent, getting me my 5 beers. I must have been thinking it but forgot to type it. Thanks.
Now granted, that's somewhat simplistic. It does ignore new needs but it also ignores that most new reactors will probably be in the 1000 MW range, reducing how many would truly be needed.
[Response] John, I agree the numbers are staggering, but they aren't mine. They assume the growth projections from the International Energy Agency, and they already assume reactors in the 1GW range. The world's power needs are expected to triple by 2100, which underscores the magnitude of the challenge, I think.
An wind offshore wind project of Long Island Power Authority would have installed 40-turbine off Long Island. The Installed generating capacity was to be 140 MWs. Since wind generator rare ly produce even half of their rated power, and rarely produce any power at all more than one third of the time. The average output of the wind farm would have been less than 12 MW. The cost was estimated to be $1 billion. Now consider that wind generators are considered to be doing very well, if they produce power one third of the time.
The same account discusses a second off shore wind farm near Cape Code. The 468-megawatt project will cost up to $1.7 billion to build. The project owner estimated average of output of this facility 182 MW.
A two billion dollar nuclear power plant is quite a bargan compared to recently quoted prices for coal and wind powered plants.
[Response] Charles, I don't think either of us have a shortage of arguments, and we can continue this debate over the course of the next few months, as I will be writing more on precisely these issues.
The coal fired plant you mention in WV sounds absurd, and you are correct that offshore wind turbines have capital costs per installed kW in the same ballpark as nuclear.
Looking at onshore wind turbines, however, and the numbers drastically improve. 2006 model turbines from Gamesa, Vestas, and GE were in the $1,000 per installed kW range, and those numbers are set to improve, along with capacity factors, which tend to be in the high 30s for newer wind farms that are properly sited.
Given that wind has better capital costs than nuclear, and that it has no fuel costs (where as fuel costs account for 15 percent of a nuclear plant over its lifetime), it seems like a deal to me.
There's a basic point I haven't been able to get across. Your point that "Renewables displace that entire fuel cycle" is manifestly false. Wind and solar are part-time energy sources, so either bulk energy storage has to be created or people have to be adapt their energy use to the vagaries of unpredictable supply. So far, no one has suggested a scheme for bulk storage that even sounds like it could work, much less one on which we should gamble the planet's environment. Given the way people use energy in their lives, supposing that a democracy could impose variable energy supply on its constituents is folly. To put it in simple terms, when people don't get the electricity they need from nuclear or renewable sources, they'll take it from fossil fuels.
The view that nuclear energy "still has incredibly challenging problems relating to pollution, storage, and waste" is yours not mine. Pollution is the area where nuclear shines, ranking with wind and solar-thermal and much superior to photovoltaic. I think storage and waste are the same issue: not only have they been treated much better in nuclear than in coal, the fact is that you can't point to a single example where nuclear waste has harmed anyone or any thing.
To fill this point in, the technology for handling waste has been practised for decades. It's true that technology is being improved, and the current technique for processing spent fuel is many times safer and more energy-efficient than weapons-era technology, but the point is that there is a lot of experience with handling spent fuel.
See, you keep making the same mistake. You look for someone who has the same preconceptions and goals you have and then you use him as a reference. I looked at Lovins's website. Except for plugging his book, all he does is post his conclusions without any analysis or even a frame of reference. Where is the PGE study? If you want to be taken seriously, you can't just quote Lovins or ORG or UCS as a source.
I couldn't find the quotation you list in the MIT paper. The conclusions they state are not so striking [Page ix]:
* Cost. In deregulated markets,nuclear power
is not now cost competitive with coal and
natural gas.However,plausible reductions by
industry in capital cost,operation and main-
tenance costs,and construction time could
reduce the gap.Carbon emission credits,if
enacted by government,can give nuclear
power a cost advantage.
*Safety. Modern reactor designs can achieve a
very low risk ofserious accidents,but ?best
practices?in construction and operation are
essential.We know little about the safety ofthe
overall fuel cycle,beyond reactor operation.
*Waste. Geological disposal is technically fea-
sible but execution is yet to be demonstrated
or certain.A convincing case has not been
made that the long-term waste management
benefits of advanced,closed fuel cycles
involving reprocessing ofspent fuel are out-
weighed by the short-term risks and costs.
Improvement in the open,once through fuel
cycle may offer waste management benefits
as large as those claimed for the more expen-
sive closed fuel cycles.
*Proliferation. The current international safe-
guards regime is inadequate to meet the
security challenges ofthe expanded nuclear
deployment contemplated in the global
growth scenario.The reprocessing system
now used in Europe,Japan,and Russia that
involves separation and recycling ofplutoni-
um presents unwarranted proliferation risks.
These are not anything like what you've quoted. The closest thing to a criticism is the remark that plutonium separation is not a satisfactory way to reprocess fuel. I'm OK with that criticism, and so is the US Government. The commercial reprocessing of fuel in this country will use technology that doesn't separate out any of the transuranic actinides. Since it's also cheaper and more energy-efficient getting other countries to use it will be like selling lemonade in August.
The paper was written in 2003, so naturally it's out of date now. It also cites polls that show Americans don't see nuclear as a way to minimize global warming; that's definitely changed.
The ORG paper does not show any analysis. All it does is pull nuggets out of a paper written by Storm & Smith which disagree with the studies done by everyone else. Based on that they conclude--guess what?--nuclear is a bad choice.
The price-spike issue doesn't take you anywhere. Nukes' economics are based on offsetting a fuel cost with lower capital costs than for renewables. Correspondingly, some exposure to uranium price variation is offset by lower price variation in construction materials.
Absurd? Really? Not only does Hans Blix agree with me, the MIT study you referenced doesn't disagree:
Nuclear power should not expand unless the risk ofproliferation from opera-
tion of the commercial nuclear fuel cycle is made acceptably small. We believe
that nuclear power can expand as envisioned in our global growth scenario
with acceptable incremental proliferation risk, provided that reasonable safe-
guards are adopted and that deployment of reprocessing and enrichment are
restricted. The international community must prevent the acquisition of
weapons-usable material,either by diversion (in the case ofplutonium) or by
misuse of fuel cycle facilities (including related facilities, such as research
reactors or hot cells). Responsible governments must control, to the extent
possible, the know-how relevant to produce and process either highly
enriched uranium (enrichment technology) or plutonium.
As I read this--you tell me where I get it wrong--the US should only employ nuclear energy if its reprocessing techniques leave the plutonium mixed in the recycled fuel. Good plan.
The papers you reference do not even discuss the energy required to produce biofuels. This kind of gross misrepresentation is what has alway characterized the anti-nuclear argument.
I don't dispute that the RPS study discusses a lot of interesting things. What it doesn't do is offer a working solution to the problem of intermittency.
I'm not enthusiastic at all. I am remorseful that my generation has driven the environment toward irreversible and unsustainable harm. The way we did it was through bad decisions based on misinformation. As we stand today there is as much misinformation as there ever was. There still are people denying that global warming is happening, even though the facts are totally clear. Thirty years ago, people said the world didn't need nuclear energy because all these wonderful new energy sources would meet all our needs so it was okay to keep using fossil fuels. None of the wonderful new energy sources are any closer to practicality than they were then. PV is cheaper, but it's still expensive and generates toxic waste. None of the other sources have changed. The result is that we've poisoned the planet.
The driving force behind the anti-nuclear movement is misinformation about nuclear energy. Too many people bought into false premises and stubbornly adhere to them out of loyalty to a cause. Unless people are willing to take a hard look at our energy choices we'll never get out of this self-destructive spiral.
As regards the problem of raising the world's capacity for building nuclear power plants, consider that the US was able to transform itself from a depression-plagued agricultural nation to an industrial giant able to manufacture the hardware needed to defeat the Axis powers in less than five years, even with millions of its able-bodied men and women in military service. In comparison, what is needed to displace fossil-fuel generation of electricity is easy. First, we have to replace fossil-fired plants with something as they wear out, anyway. It will take more manufacturing and construction effort to replace them with nukes, but not exhorbitantly more. By the way, this is where wind power can make a big difference. As long as the fossil burners are operating they can back up the wind turbines. That means we can make reductions in CO2 emissions while the nukes are being built and when the fossil burners are all replaced we'll be using GHG-free electricity. As discussed before, nukes will also give us a leg up on dealing with motor fuels.
We can do this. All it takes is clear thinking.
[Response] Rob, thanks for the well wishes about the trip, and for the email address. We should continue the dialogue there, but a few quick final thoughts. They will be brief, though, since we've already written close to 10,000 words in these comments.
It seems like three of the biggest issues yet unresolved between us are (a) the issue of the carbon lifecycle of nuclear plants; (b) the issue of proliferation, including how the MIT study concludes; and (c) the biomass debate.
I will plan to write my next three columns on these three issues so we can continue the dialogue. I suspect that, in the process, we will both learn something. Cheers!