Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, September 26, 2008

Comment to Mark Lynas on Nuclear Energy

September 26 2008

Dear Mark:

I read with surprise and dismay your "Why greens must learn to love nuclear power" in last week's New Statesman {see below}. Your unstated premise seems to be that those of us in the very richest nations must find ways to continue using as much energy as we've grown addicted to using during the past few decades, which is many times greater than the vast majority of people living in the poorer nations use now and also many times greater than people in the very richest nations used until a generation or so ago.

Based on that premise you claim we "must learn to love nuclear power".

If you are truly an environmentalist, and not a shill for the nuclear industry, you should be proposing ways those of us in the very richest nations can learn to live sustainably on far less energy than we've become addicted to using. Physics tells us that the energy required by any activity varies with the square of that activity's speed: twice the speed requires four times more energy, thrice the speed requires nine times more energy. Slowing economic activity (aka GDP or GNP) by half would cut our energy needs by 75%!

Are most of today's air and automobile travel, video games, round the clock air conditioning, neon signs, "just in time delivery", and the vast amount of other things that consume most of the energy used by the very richest Earthlings really necessary for our health and happiness?

Bill Totten


Why greens must learn to love nuclear power

Global warming and finite resources mean our way of life is more threatened than ever, and it's time for the environmental movement to face up to some hard truths

by Mark Lynas

New Statesman (September 18 2008)

"If nuclear power is the answer, it must have been a pretty stupid question", went an oft-cited slogan of the 1970s environmental movement. But the question was not stupid, and it is even less so today when the challenge is even blunter: how are we going to provide for our energy needs in a way that does not destroy, via global warming, the capacity of our planet to support life? The hard truth is that if nuclear power is not at least part of the answer, then answering that challenge is going to be very difficult indeed.

Unfortunately, just by writing the sentence above, I will already have prompted many readers to switch off. Being anti-nuclear is an article of faith (and I use that word intentionally) for many people in today's environmental movement and beyond, just as it was during the 1970s. That the Green Party, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have held the same position on the subject for thirty years could show admirable consistency - but it could also be evidence of dogmatic closed-mindedness.

When I first broached the issue in these pages three years ago, the reaction was extraordinary. A close acquaintance sent me a tearful email saying that I had "destroyed" her motivation for environmental campaigning. Other friends here in Oxford accused me - jokingly, of course - of having formed a romantic liaison with BNFL's spokeswoman. Just last week, after tackling the subject once again, I received a one-line email from a well-known environmentalist accusing me of having "done a considerable disservice to the cause of combating climate change".

So why does the nuclear issue evoke such strong reactions? For answers, I think we need to look to nuclear's past, when today's entrenched positions were first formed. Civil nuclear power began life as a heavily state-subsidised industry largely designed to produce plutonium for bombs. Civil nuclear power was part of the military-industrial complex and shrouded in secrecy. An association with the mushroom cloud has tainted the nuclear industry ever since - and clearly continues to be an issue in countries such as Iran, North Korea and Pakistan.

Then there is radiation. Most people are terrified of radiation precisely because it is invisible, making it all the more threatening, and because of its potential to cause cancer and genetic deformities. (Many other cancer-causing agents such as food or smoke seem innocuous by comparison.) Nuclear accidents and near-meltdowns - such as Three Mile Island in 1979 - provoke scary headlines throughout the media, as did popular treatments such as the film The China Syndrome (released, by an extraordinary stroke of luck for the film-makers, just twelve days before Three Mile Island), in which a sinister nuclear cabal covers up evidence of an accident.

It is undeniable that nuclear fission generates radioactive by-products, some of which will inevitably enter the environment. It is also undeniable that exposure to radiation increases the risk of cancer (though radiation can also be employed to treat cancers). But it is the level of risk that counts, and here the story is less fearsome than many would have us believe. Take Three Mile Island, which exposed local populations to one millirem of radiation on average. This equates to roughly what we all receive from natural sources (cosmic rays and naturally occurring radioactive elements in the ground) every four days. The number of deaths from Three Mile Island - the worst civil nuclear accident ever in a western country, and one that ended the US nuclear programme (not a single reactor has been built since) - is therefore officially estimated to be zero.

Even Chernobyl, surely the worst-imaginable case for a nuclear disaster, was far less deadly than most people think. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, 28 people died due to acute radiation sickness - all firemen and power plant workers, some of whom had been exposed to radiation doses as high as one million millirems. By comparison, 167 men were killed during the Piper Alpha disaster on a North Sea oil rig in 1988. But it is the long-term effects from Chernobyl that tend to scare people most. In a 2006 report, Greenpeace claimed that "60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000".

These figures, if correct, would make Chernobyl one of the worst single man-made disasters of the last century. But are they correct? The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reports 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children and young people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, but very few deaths (thyroid cancer is mostly treatable). Indeed, it concludes, "There is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure twenty years after the accident", and no evidence of any increase in cancer or leukaemia among exposed populations. The World Health Organisation concludes that while a few thousand deaths may be caused over the next seventy years by Chernobyl's radioactive release, this number "will be indiscernible from the background of overall deaths in the large population group". Without wishing to downplay the tragedy for the victims - especially the 300,000 people who were evacuated permanently - the explosion has even been good for wildlife, which has thrived in the 30 kilometer exclusion zone.

A plentiful supply of free fuel

One way of statistically assessing the safety of nuclear power versus other technologies is to use the measure of deaths per gigawatt-year. This technique is cited by Cambridge University's Professor David MacKay in his book Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air (available free on the web), and shows that in Europe, nuclear and wind power are the safest technologies (about 0.1 death per gigawatt-year), while oil, coal and biomass the most dangerous (above one per gigawatt-year).

A focus on statistics is also useful when assessing the financial costs of nuclear power. The high price for nuclear waste disposal and decommissioning - with a hefty chunk always payable from public funds - is surely one of the environmental lobby's strongest arguments, particularly if any subsidy from taxpayers means taking money away from investment in renewables. Helen Caldicott's book Nuclear Power is Not the Answer discusses the finances of nuclear under a chapter subheaded "Socialised Electricity", quoting figures for nuclear's subsidy in the US over recent decades of $70 billion. To make a direct cost comparison, the International Energy Agency in a 2005 study looked at life-cycle costs for all power sources - including construction costs, operations, fuel and decommissioning - and concluded that nuclear was the cheapest option, followed by coal, wind and gas.

But how about nuclear power's potential contribution to mitigating global warming? One persistent myth is that once construction and uranium mining are taken into account, nuclear is no better than fossil fuels. However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), total life-cycle greenhouse-gas emission per unit of electricity is about 40g CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour, "similar to those for renewable energy sources".

But why not ditch nuclear and focus only on renewables, as the greens suggest? MacKay calculates that even if we covered the windiest ten per cent of the UK with wind turbines, put solar panels on all south-facing roofs, implemented strong energy efficiency measures across the economy, built offshore wind turbines across an area of sea two-thirds the size of Wales, and fully exploited every other conceivable source of renewables (including wave and tidal power), energy production would still not match current consumption.

This is rather different to Britain being the "Saudi Arabia of wind power" as many in the environmental movement are fond of asserting. Indeed, MacKay concludes that we will need to import renewable electricity from other countries - primarily from solar farms in the North African desert - or choose nuclear, or both. Indeed, it is vital to stress the neither I nor MacKay nor any credible expert suggests a choice between renewables and nuclear: the sensible conclusion is that we need both, soon, and on a large scale if we are to phase out coal and other fossil fuels as rapidly as the climate needs. As MacKay told me: "We need to get building".

The UK's Sustainable Development Commission, in its 2006 report on nuclear power, argued that new plants should be ruled out until the existing waste problem could be solved. But what if a new generation of nuclear plants could be designed that, instead of producing more waste to leave as a toxic legacy for our grandchildren, actually generated energy by burning up existing waste stockpiles? This is the solution proposed by Tom Blees, a US-based writer, in his upcoming book Prescription for the Planet. Blees focuses particularly on so-called fourth-generation nuclear technology - better known as fast-breeder reactors. While conventional thermal reactors use less than one per cent of the potential energy in their uranium fuel, fast-breeders are sixty times more efficient, and can burn virtually all of the energy available in the uranium ore.

This gives these fourth-generation reactors a big advantage. As Blees puts it: "Thus we have a prodigious supply of free fuel that is actually even better than free, for it is material that we are quite desperate to get rid of". Moreover, fast-breeder reactors can also run on the "depleted" uranium left behind by conventional reactors, and help reduce the proliferation threat by burning up plutonium stockpiles left over from decommissioned nuclear weapons. Blees estimates that supplies of nuclear waste and depleted uranium are sufficient to "provide all the power needs of the entire planet for hundreds of years before we need to mine any more uranium". Although these reactors produce plutonium - which might be used for nuclear weapons, and could therefore pose a proliferation threat - weapons-grade material is never isolated in the fuel-cycle process, making fast-breeders less dangerous to international stability than conventional reactors, and relatively simple to inspect.

But what about the waste these reactors themselves produce? Since the by-products of fast-breeder reactors are highly radioactive, they have much shorter half-lives - rendering them inert in a couple of centuries, instead of the longer time over which conventional nuclear waste remains dangerous. (Once again there is a powerful myth here - that high-level waste from reactors remains dangerous for enormous lengths of time. Greenpeace states that "waste will remain dangerous for up to a million years". In fact, almost all waste will have decayed back to a level of radio activity less than the original uranium ore in less than a thousand years.) Fourth-generation nu clear technology is also inherently safer than earlier designs. The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), discussed at length by Blees, operates at atmospheric pressure, reducing the possibility of leaks and loss-of-coolant accidents. It is also designed to be "walk-away safe", meaning that if all operators stood up and left, the reactor would shut itself down automatically rather than overheat and suffer a meltdown.

So why, given the purported advantages in safety and fuel use, have fast-breeders not been developed commercially? The US Integral Fast Reactor programme was shut down in 1994, possibly - Blees suggests - because of political pressure levied on the Clinton administration by anti-nuclear campaigners. (Even so, fourth-generation nuclear power plants are being built in India, Russia, Japan and China.) Ironically, the Clinton administration may have inadvertently killed off one of the most promising solutions to global warming in an attempt to please environmentalists. Even if the decision were to be reversed immediately, twenty years has been lost.

It is worth remembering the contribution that nuclear power has already made to offsetting global warming: the world's 442 operating nuclear reactors, which produce sixteen per cent of global electricity, save 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year compared to coal, according to the IPCC. Blees agrees that "the most pressing issue is to shut down all coal-fired power plants" and urges a "Manhattan Project-like" effort to convert the world's non-renewable power to IFRs by the thousand. This sounds daunting but it is not unprecedented: France converted its power supply to eighty per cent nuclear in the space of just 25 years by building about six reactors a year.

An anti-nuclear report published by the Oxford Research Group in 2007 concluded that an additional 2,500 reactors would need to be built by 2075 to significantly mitigate global warming. The report's authors suggested that this was a "pipe-dream". But it sounds eminently achievable to me, given that it is only a five-times increase from today. The question is this: are those who care about global warming prepared to reconsider their opposition to nuclear power in this new era? We are no longer living in the 1970s. Today, the world is more threatened even than it was during the Cold War. Only this time nuclear power - instead of being part of the problem - can be part of the solution.


´╗┐Mark Lynas is a climate change writer and activist, author of the acclaimed book High Tide (2004) and fortnightly columnist for the New Statesman. He was selected by National Geographic as an 'Emerging Explorer' for 2006, and blogs on .

Bill Totten


  • Bill,

    Having seriously practiced Zen meditation for years, I can appreciate austerity, even asceticism. But expecting the public at large to embrace attitudes even remotely resembling that would be a herculean struggle that can only succeed if people are forced into what you and many others see as sensible behavior.

    So what happens if we build the infrastructure to provide all the energy that everyone wants? If that can be done economically, and if that energy can be provided without mining anything at all for several hundred years, and if that energy would be free of GHGs and allow us to eliminate fossil fuels, would that be a bad thing?

    Today many of us get a feeling of virtuousness from recycling, using fossil fuels as little as possible, or driving a Prius and buying twisty lightbulbs. Yet the only reason we have to do these things is because our political leaders have yet to make the necessary decisions that could free us from dependence on behavior modification in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    The fact is that many people couldn't care less about green issues, and aren't about to make any effort in that direction. Yet we have the technologies to make such human behavior immaterial. We can recycle everything, even if people throw old drain oil and car batteries and asbestos in the dumpster along with their poopy diapers. We have the technology to provide unlimited energy for every country in the world without mining or drilling a thing.

    Please check out my book, Prescription for the Planet. It's not about how you can change your behavior to help reduce your carbon footprint. It's about international policy decisions that can make dependence on behavior unnecessary and solve some of the world's most intractable problems. That's WAY more important than lamenting the attitudes of those who are heedless of their energy use.

    By Blogger Tom Blees, at 4:23 PM, September 28, 2008  

  • Tom:

    Thanks for your comments.

    I agree that it would be a herculean struggle to persuade the pampered pigs in the world's richest nations to settle for using as little energy as the vast majority of Earthlings use today and as those even in the richest nations used until a generation or so ago. But, as John Michael Greer points out {1}, perhaps a serious economic depression might provide the necessary persuasion.

    Your book, ´╗┐Prescription for the Planet: The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises (2008) apparently focuses on so-called fourth-generation nuclear technology - better known as fast-breeder reactors {2}. I'd love to believe in fourth-generation nuclear technology, but I am not willing to "bet the farm" on unproven technology and this seems no more proven than the Golden Fleece, Philospher's Stone, Fountain of Youth, or Perpetual Motion Machine.

    And from what I've read {3}, current problems even with second-generation nuclear energy are too immense to give much hope for fourth-generation nuclear energy in the foreseeable future.

    I'll be happy to consider fourth-generation nuclear technology or fast-breeder reactors when a few have been built and proven safe and economic for several years. In the meantime, I'll place my hopes on reducing energy consumption in the very richest nations toward as little as the vast majority of Earthlings use today and as even those in the richest nations used until a generation or so ago. We know this works in the vast majority of the world today and did work in the richest nations until a generation or so ago.

    Bill Totten


    {1} "Rx: Depression" by John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report (September 24 2008), posted here a few hours ago.

    {2} "Why greens must learn to love nuclear power" by Mark Lynas, New Statesman (September 18 2008), posted here on September 26th in "Comment to Mark Lynas on Nuclear Energy".

    {3} "The NRC's Warning" by Harvey Wasserman, Z Magazine (September 01 2008)

    By Blogger Bill Totten, at 11:07 PM, September 28, 2008  

  • Bill,

    My book actually focuses on three different technologies. I don't hold it against you that you aren't familiar with fourth generation nuclear technology, for it's been a political stepchild in most of the world and actively suppressed by the US government in my country. But I can assure you, it is a proven technology and GE/Hitachi is ready to build the first PRISM reactor (the commercial version of the IFR) right now.

    To believe that 4th generation nuclear isn't feasible because of all the problems with 2nd generation reactors is a perception precisely the inverse of reality. The IFR project was initiated specifically to solve all the problems of 2nd generation reactors, and it was spectacularly successful. It is precisely the way we can leave the mistakes of the 2nd generation behind while at the same time cleaning up the legacy of their spent fuel.

    Even if people in the developed countries can be persuaded to use less energy, the teeming masses of people in the developing countries are determined to use much more than they currently do. It would be easy enough to provide all that everyone wants, and with the population of Earth on track to increase by 50% by 2050, we're going to have to supply huge amounts of energy just for desalination, let alone other energy needs.

    But we've got plenty for everyone, and for all the desalination. The fuel is already out of the ground. Certainly energy efficiency is a great thing. Here in California we've kept energy demand flat for a couple decades or so precisely through such programs. But nobody's being asked to diminish their standard of living in the process. Combine painless energy efficiency measures with buildup of IFRs and you get the best of both worlds. Try to pry energy out of the hands of the public and you'll be fighting a losing battle, a battle that's entirely unnecessary. It's not for you nor I to dictate how much energy people consume. As long as they're willing to pay for what they use and the production of that energy isn't harming the planet in any way, why should we care?

    By Blogger Tom Blees, at 11:36 AM, September 29, 2008  

  • Tom:

    It's not that I'm not familiar with fourth generation nuclear technology; I'm too familiar with it, paying taxes through the nose for Monju as described here:


    350 million yen spent on idle nuclear site

    Kyodo News

    At least 350 million yen in taxpayer money has been spent in the past eight years to maintain an idle experimental nuclear facility after its construction was halted in 2000 after accidents elsewhere, sources said Monday.

    The Recycle Equipment Test Facility in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, being built by the semigovernmental Japan Atomic Energy Agency, was designed to study ways to better reprocess spent fuel to be generated by the prototype fast-breeder reactor Monju in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture.

    Its construction, which started in January 1995 and was close to completion when it was suspended in June 2000, is financed entirely by public funds.

    By the time its construction was halted after a major nuclear accident occurred at the Monju and another in Tokai, some 76 billion yen had already been spent on the test facility, according to the sources.

    The total cost of building the facility was originally budgeted at 120 billion yen before construction was suspended.

    Even if construction were to resume, tens of billions of yen more would be needed to complete the work, to say nothing of the annual 50 yen million just to keep it idle, the sources said, adding they still don't know how long it will take before the work starts again.

    According to the JAEA, however, the cost of maintaining the facility while it is under construction only covers the salaries for security guards and some electricity fees, suggesting it is far less than the 50 million yen in annual costs claimed by the sources.

    The latest discovery will likely give rise to public controversy about the cost-effectiveness of the test site.

    Some researchers have questioned the value of the facility itself, according to the sources. "We probably won't need that facility to conduct studies," a researcher was quoted as saying.

    But a JAEA spokesman stuck to its official line Monday, saying, "Because we are aiming to resume the operation of Monju, more studies will be necessary in the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel."

    Japan's drive to promote nuclear power generation was dealt a heavy blow in the late 1990s.

    In December 1995, months after the facility's construction started, Monju suffered a major sodium coolant leak followed by fires and a coverup. The facility remains idle.

    Now-defunct Power Reactor and Nuclear Development Corp., Monju's operator at the time, covered up its negligence and mishandling of the accident by withholding key information and editing video showing the accident.

    Then in 1997, Japan's worst nuclear accident occurred in Tokai, the same town where the test facility is being built.

    The accident at a uranium-processing plant operated by JCO Co. led to criticality - the point at which neutrons produced in the fission process are sufficient to maintain a self-sustaining chain reaction. Two workers were killed.

    The Japan Times: Tuesday, April 15, 2008
    (C) All rights reserved

    By Blogger Bill Totten, at 1:25 PM, September 30, 2008  

  • Bill, the "major nuclear accident" was a simple sodium fire involving non-radioactive sodium in which nobody was hurt. As for Tokai, that was the result of two ill-trained workers deciding to mix up fissile material in a tub to save time. Both that and the coverup at Monju are dealt with in my book, and bolster my argument that nuclear power should be taken out of the hands of private companies.

    As for reopening Monju, I believe it's a mistake, all cost issues aside. There are better and safer ways to pursue breeder technology, specifically using metal fuel rather than oxide such as that used at Monju. Like so many poor compromises, the Japanese government has manipulated the situation to award Mitsubishi the bulk of breeder research opportunity when both Hitachi and Toshiba have arguably superior technologies already developed. By reopening Monju I fear Japan is throwing good money after bad, and even in a best case scenario will end up with an inferior result. Once again politics trumps logic. Must it always be so?

    By Blogger Tom Blees, at 1:46 AM, October 02, 2008  

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