Why do we need nuclear?
The truth about nuclear is quite simple. Only nuclear power can lift all humans out of poverty without cooking the planet, or keeping cities like Delhi and Beijing caked in deadly particulate matter. Coal and fossil fuels can lift people out of poverty but at a high environmental cost.
Solar and wind are too diffuse and not reliable enough to power factories and cities, and thus cannot lift people out of poverty nor reduce emissions from fossil fuel-powered electrical systems more than only modestly.
Hydro can lift people out of poverty and is low-carbon, but it’s limited — most rich world rivers are over-dammed.
Spraying sulfur particles into the atmosphere can temporarily cool the earth but not reduce humankind’s negative environmental impact or lift all people out of poverty.
By contrast, everything is in place to just build more nuclear plants. They are the safest way to make reliable electricity. They use the least amount of natural resources and produce the least amount of waste. And they are long-term investments that can last for 60, 80 and maybe 100 years.
Isn't clean energy on the rise?
Clean (low-carbon) energy as a percentage of electricity globally has been on the decline for the last 20 years — from 37 to 32 percent since the mid-1990s. This is not just because fossil energy is increasing faster than clean energy. It's also because nuclear power is on the decline in absolute terms. Why does all of this matter? Because slowing global warming requires going from today's 32 percent low-carbon power to 100 percent — as quickly as possible.
But isn't clean energy increasing in absolute terms?
Yes — but energy from fossil fuels is increasing faster. In order to decrease global green-house gas emissions, energy from clean sources needs to be increasing faster than the energy from fossil fuels and, in fact, replace them. It needs to grow in relative terms not just absolute terms.
Aren't you making a big deal of just a 4.5 percent decline? Isn't the trend flat?
A 4.5 percent decline of global electricity from clean energy is the equivalent to about 900 solar farms the size of one of the world's biggest (Topaz, in California) — or 60 power plants the size of Diablo Canyon. So, no, the trend is not flat.
But don't Germany and California show you can reduce emissions by deploying a lot of solar and wind?
No. When countries like Germany and states like California deploy large amounts of intermittent renewables like solar and wind, they must use a lot of natural gas or coal as back-up. California emissions have actually declined less over the last 15 years than the U.S. average, while German emissions actually rose slightly during the period of intensive solar and wind deployment, and it has recently cut back on subsidies for renewables. In both California and Germany, the premature closure of nuclear plants was another major reason for higher emissions.
Does the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say nuclear is needed?
Yes, since 1990 the IPCC has stressed the need for an expansion of nuclear to deal with climate change. In its 2014 report, the IPCC concluded, "No single mitigation option in the energy supply sector will be sufficient,” the report warns. “Achieving deep cuts [in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions] will require more intensive use of low-GHG technologies such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, and CCS.”
Why is nuclear on the decline?
Everywhere the underlying reason is the same: anti-nuclear forces, in tandem with rent-seeking economic interests, have captured government policies. On one extreme lies Germany, which decided to speed up the closure of its nuclear plants following Fukushima. In Sweden the government imposed a special tax on nuclear. In the U.S., solar and wind are far more heavily subsidized than nuclear. And states across the nation have enacted Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, that mandate rising wind and solar, and that exclude nuclear.
To be sure, nuclear has also been hurt in the U.S. by low natural gas prices. But if nuclear were subsidized at the same levels as solar and wind, or allowed to contribute to state RPS, nuclear would continue to be highly economical. Proof is that wind and solar have boomed over the last five years when natural gas prices have been very low. Furthermore, when wind and solar subsidies are withdrawn, whether in the U.S. or Europe, installation of wind and solar declines dramatically.
Isn't nuclear just too expensive?
No. In countries like Germany and Sweden governments are openly closing economical nuclear plants. In the US, economical nuclear plants are being closed or threatened 10, 20 — even 40 years before a full life. Nuclear plants are being closed off prematurely both because they are excluded from federal and state clean energy policies and the fracking boom. Solar and wind receive many times more in subsidies than nuclear. Meanwhile, 30 states, including Illinois, exclude nuclear from their Renewable Portfolio Standards.
But aren't nuclear plant owners now asking for more subsidies?
Yes, in some cases, but they are always far less than what solar and wind receive. In New York, the proposed subsidy for nuclear is half the existing subsidies for renewables. In Illinois, the subsidy required to keep the Clinton and Quad nuclear plants open amounts to 1 cent/KWh, a small fraction of the 2.3 cents/KWh Production Tax Credit (PTC), one of several subsidies available for renewable sources. And as natural gas prices rise, keeping nuclear plants on-line will protect consumers and industries from future price shocks.
Doesn't nuclear get extra subsidies, including free insurance and decommissioning?
The Price-Anderson Act requires nuclear utilities to buy private insurance of about $375 million per plant. If there is an accident, they are required to contribute to a collective industry fund of about $13 billion to pay liability claims. If liability exceeds $13 billion, Congress can require nuclear utilities collectively to pay more to settle the additional claims. Nuclear is among many activities and circumstances for which we have established liability limits. Others include plane crashes, oil spills, product liability, and medical malpractice. The largest renewable energy project, hydroelectric dams, has liability limits, too. Anti-nuclear advocates call these limits a "subsidy" but taxpayers have never paid anything to industry for those limits.
Aren't solar and wind becoming so much cheaper that we don't need nuclear?
No. The actual cost of solar panels and wind turbines have declined, but as they become a larger percentage of our electricity, their value declines. That's because they produce so much power when demand is relatively low, and don't produce enough power when demand is relatively high. That means they require very large quantities of back-up power, since the grid must have the same amount of power being produced as is being consumed at any given time.
But won't we fix these short-term problems of integrating solar and wind?
Unlikely. Intermittent power has to be backed up by an equivalent capacity of dispatchable power, and that usually means fast-ramping gas plants that can rapidly adjust to chaotic surges and slumps of wind and solar power. As wind and solar capacity swells without displacing conventional capacity, the grid enters a spiral of persistent and rising overcapacity that lowers prices even further as more gigawatts fight for market share.
As wind and solar capacity climbs the returns of usable power diminish because of increasing curtailment during surges that the grid can’t absorb. More and more intermittent capacity has to be pushed onto the grid to get less and less additional renewable electricity. The dynamic of soaring overcapacity and falling prices is the inevitable result of the fundamental inability of intermittent wind and solar generators to efficiently match supply to demand.
Can't poor countries "leap-frog" over fossil fuels directly to solar and wind?
No. Solar and wind cannot provide the cheap 24-7 electricity needed to power factories and cities — which are the keys to development, as well as sparing nature in the countryside. And neither solar panels nor more efficient cookstoves are substitutes for wood fuel, upon which three billion people still depend.
Isn't nuclear a right-wing technology?
No. Until the early-seventies, nuclear was embraced by liberals and environmentalists including the Sierra Club. “Nuclear energy is the only practical alternative that we have to destroying the environment with oil and coal,” said famed nature photographer and Sierra Club Director, Ansel Adams. “Nuclear power is one of the chief long-term hopes for conservation," said Sierra Club director Will Siri. "Cheap energy in unlimited quantities is one of the chief factors in allowing a large rapidly growing population to preserve wildlands, open space, and lands of high scenic value ... With energy we can afford the luxury of setting aside lands from productive uses.”
Since then, nuclear has been embraced by French and Swedish socialists, left-wing Guardian columnist George Monbiot, President Barack Obama, co-founders of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Bill Gates, Carol Browner, former EPA head under President Bill Clinton, liberal Minnesota Senator Al Franken, economist Jeffrey Sachs, Gaia hypothesis originator James Lovelock, Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand, Virgin's Richard Branson, TVA chief David Lilienthal, and the late, great humanitarian and environmentalist, Cambridge professor, David MacKay (1967 - 2016).
Is nuclear really low-carbon energy?
Yes. According to a review of the evidence, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says nuclear is two to four times less carbon-intensive than solar.
Isn't the electrical grid an inefficient relic being disrupted?
No. Our electrical grid is the most efficient way we have of distributing electricity. That's because it requires we only produce as much power as we need at any given moment (or there are blow-outs). By contrast, large amounts of energy are lost converting electricity to batteries and back again. For this reason, the grid will always be more efficient than any system heavily reliant on storage.
But isn't the trend now toward distributed rather than centralized production?
No, the broad trend remains toward centralized production because billions of people seek liberation from not having to haul wood, gather water, grow food, and wash clothes by hand. Two hundred years ago, 90 percent of us used to produce our own food and energy; today, in rich countries, less than one percent of us do. This applies to solar and wind as well. Cheaper solar panels came from giant centralized production facilities, and solar electricity from large solar farms in the desert is far cheaper than solar on rooftops.
Isn't nuclear just as inflexible as solar and wind?
No. Nuclear ramps up and down well in countries with high levels of nuclear, like France, which gets over three-quarters of its electricity from splitting atoms. Solar and wind cannot produce power on demand like either nuclear and fossil fuels.
Isn't nuclear just too slow to scale up?
On the contrary, nuclear deploys much more power much faster than solar and wind.
Nuclear is the safest way of producing reliable electricity, according to every major scientific review, including the British medical journal Lancet. What all of these studies show is that over 95 percent of the deaths from energy production are from pollution. A tiny number are from accidents, whether coal mine collapses, natural gas explosions, or nuclear meltdowns. As such, zero-carbon energy sources in general, from hydro to solar to wind to nuclear, result in very few deaths.
What about the accidents?
All of the nuclear accidents demonstrate nuclear's relative safety. At Three Mile Island, there was a meltdown and yet the public around the plant was exposed to radiation less than one-sixth of an x-ray. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 9,000 people will die prematurely from radiation from Chernobyl. And the authoritative study of the Fukushima accident by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that “no discernible increased incidence of radiation –related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants.”
By contrast, the World Health Organization estimates 7 million premature deaths each year from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels and biomass for energy. Replacing these sources with non-polluting nuclear-powered electricity would save millions of lives every year.
What about the nuclear waste?
Nuclear waste is the best kind of waste from any form of electricity production. First, there is very little of it, and it is easy to manage. What people are referring to when they talk about nuclear waste is the former uranium fuel rods. All of those rods stored in the same place would fit on a single football field stacked 50 to 60 feet high. Currently, nuclear waste is stored on-site, largely because opponents of nuclear power have opposed the construction of a central waste storage facility. In the future, after Congress passes bipartisan nuclear waste legislation, it will be transported and stored underground in New Mexico or another state that wants it as a source of income. Second, most of the waste is recyclable. Later this century, nuclear “waste” — which contains over 98 percent of the energy in the original fuel — will likely be recycled by next-generation nuclear plants, such as those being developed by Bill Gates and the Chinese government.
What about all the toxic stuff at Hanford, in Washington, and the Navajo uranium miners?
Both Hanford waste and Navajo uranium mining were consequences of the rush to develop nuclear weapons, not nuclear energy. The improvement of uranium mining occurred through the development of a well-regulated nuclear electricity sector, and has gotten better and better every decade.
What about the tritium that sometimes leaks from nuclear plants?
The tritium leaks from plants like Vermont Yankee and Indian Point epitomize the mythology that radiation is a super-potent toxin. The graph on below shows how little tritium leaked from the "worst" tritium leak ever in the US. It was still an order of magnitude less than the EPA drinking water limit
What about "mutant daisies," "irradiated oceans," a "million dead from Chernobyl," "thyroid cancer from Fukushima" and other scary-sounding things?
All are myths. Those mutant daisies are in fact something called "fasciation" that is a mutation, but not one caused by radiation. There is no elevated cancer in Fukushima. There is radiation in the oceans and everywhere else and they are at levels that do not harm anyone or anything. As for the "million deaths" lie about Chernobyl — it's not only pseudo-science, it's psychologically harmful to people who live in the region, and promoted panicked reactions like the one that left about 1,500 people dead in the over-evacuation of Fukushima.
Is fear of radiation harmful?
Yes. The World Health Organization research shows that it was the fear of radiation, not the radiation itself, that caused physical harm to people near Chernobyl and Fukushima.
“The government basically panicked,” Dr. Mohan Doss, a medical physicist quoted in the New York Times. “When you evacuate a hospital intensive care unit, you cannot take patients to a high school and expect them to survive.”
The panic was created by fear-mongering and thus was avoidable.
Does nuclear energy lead to nuclear weapons?
No. And in fact, the opposite is the case. Nuclear energy has been essential to dismantling nuclear weapons, and until a few years ago, a full half of the nuclear energy in the US was produced using plutonium from de-commissioned warheads. There is no case where a nation acquired a nuclear weapon through nuclear energy. The reason for this is is easy to understand. Nations seeking nuclear power plants must agree to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and regular inspections by the United Nations, which thus makes acquiring nuclear energy an obstacle to proliferation. Nations do not need nuclear power plants to pursue a nuclear weapon and indeed, as in the case of Iran, choose to build medical research reactor rather than a full-blown nuclear power plant.
How do we know we can trust the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)?
The NRC is independent and effective, and is considered one of the best regulatory agencies in the world, in large part because of the special way it was created. NRC is governed by a bi-partisan chair and commissioners selected by the President and Congress. NRC has resident inspectors in every nuclear plant who report to NRC headquarters. NRC staff are well-trained, high-status and well-paid; they often work at NRC for their entire career. It is overseen by the US Inspector General, which enforces laws and strong ethics rules. Both NRC staff and nuclear plant workers have whistle-blower protections that go above and beyond other industries and regulatory agencies. NRC has a unique process, known as Differing Professional Opinion, that allows NRC staff to raise issues without fear of retaliation and insures that their concerns will be vetted at the appropriate level.
Aren't we ratepayers going to be stuck with the costs of decommissioning?
Plants than run their full lives have enough funds set aside in a separate, legally-required fund to fully cover the costs of their eventual decommissioning. Ratepayers are stuck with the costs of decommissioning only policymakers and the public demands that nuclear plants be closed prematurely. An example of this is San Onofre, California. On-going litigation by Friends of the Earth, discriminatory treatment from state politicians including Sen. Barbara Boxer, and harassment and hassle led its owner to close it down in 2013, rather than simply replace the steam generator for one-sixth the cost of the premature decommissioning.
Why then are people so afraid of nuclear energy?
Fear of nuclear energy has developed for a variety of reasons ranging from association with nuclear weapons to mutant creatures in science fiction. The most persistent cause, however, began in the 1960s when environmental groups decided to oppose nuclear power. Originally, their concerns about nuclear had nothing to do with safety or waste and everything to do with opposing economic growth and in-migration to California. Their explicit strategy was to prey on public misunderstandings of how nuclear power works, exaggerate the amount and risk of nuclear waste, block disposal facilities, and conflate nuclear energy with nuclear weapons. Paradoxically, early environmental leaders like Sierra Club Directors David Siri and Ansel Adams, supported nuclear power as the best means to achieve universal prosperity, avoid dams on America’s scenic rivers and leave more room for nature. Read more about the history >>
What are the consequences of exaggerated public fears of nuclear energy?
Here are a couple.