Michael H. Fox
Why We Need Nuclear Power
The Environmental Case
With climate change, those who know the most are the most frightened.
With nuclear power, those who know the most are the least frightened. --
Nuclear power is considered by many to be an old technology locked in
the past -- they say the future is with renewable energy such as wind and
solar. But there are problems with renewable energy that makes it very
unlikely to provide a large part of our electrical energy needs. For a more
detailed discussion of this, see Renewable Energy. Wind and solar
power are especially unlikely to displace coal, which is a major
contributor to climate change because of its production of carbon dioxide.
Nuclear power is the only energy source that could displace coal for
As of the end of 2013 the US produced 43.0% of its electricity by burning
coal, 21.7% by natural gas, 21.6% by nuclear, 12.6% by renewables, and
0.7% by petroleum. The coal that was burned produced about 1.7 billion
tons (gigatons or gt) of carbon dioxide. And that is just from the US.
China produced about four times as much (EIA coal statistics).
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new rules
for carbon emissions from new power plants that would essentially
prevent any new coal-fired power plants from being built unless they had
carbon capture and storage. Other EPA rules on nitrous and sulfur oxides
and mercury emissions mean that old coal plants will have to finally
upgrade or be shut down. About 20% of coal plant capacity, accounting for
about 7.5% of total electrical capacity, will have to be retired in the next five
to eight years. But what will take their place? That is the huge question on
which so much depends.
Nuclear power is the alternative to coal for stable baseload power that
can truly cut the emissions of CO2 to nearly zero. It would take about 175
Generation III nuclear reactors to replace all of the coal-fired power plants
in the United States. There are currently 100 operating nuclear reactors in
the US (see map). This would take a major national effort but it would
also require a major national effort to get 20% of electrical energy from
wind and solar. Neither of these goals will be achieved unless there is a
cost associated with CO2 production through some kind of carbon tax.
And that will only happen if there is a strong public demand that we get
serious about reducing CO2 emissions and halting global warming.
Many people are very concerned about the risks of nuclear power,
especially the environmental groups who are most concerned about
global warming. After Chernobyl and Fukushima, it is not surprising. But
the reality is that nuclear power has a much better safety record than coal
or even natural gas. According to the Mine Safety and Health
Administration, coal mining caused about 33 deaths per year from 2001-
2010. Since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident (that killed no
one), US coal mining caused 1,969 direct deaths. Deaths from black
lung (pneumoconiosis) were over 2,500 in 1979 alone and continue to be
hundreds per year. Deaths in the general public from lung disease are
estimated to be in the thousands per year. No one in the US has ever
died from a nuclear power reactor accident in over 3,500 reactor-years of
experience. It is vastly worse in China where several thousand miners
die yearly and several hundred thousand people die from respiratory
diseases related to coal burning.
The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident caused 31 immediate deaths, 19
delayed deaths in emergency workers and 15 kids who died from thyroid
cancer. The best scientific estimates are that 4,000 more people may
ultimately die from cancer. The tsunami that caused the nuclear accident
in Fukushima in 2011 killed nearly 19,000 people and destroyed or
damaged over a million buildings. No one has died from the nuclear
accident and it is likely that very few if any ever will. Even with these
accidents, nuclear power has a far safer record than coal.
Another concern about nuclear power is what to do with the spent nuclear
fuel (SNF). In the US we store the SNF in cooling pools at the reactor site
for years and in some cases transfer it to dry cask storage later. That can
be done safely and is good enough for 50 to 100 years. It is the plan
recommended by President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on
America’s Nuclear Future. It still requires a long-term geological
repository such as Yucca Mountain. Other countries have a different
approach – they recycle the SNF. France is the leader in this technology,
though it was developed in the US. They extract the fission products and
vitrify them. After a few decades it is mostly cesium-137 and strontium-90
with half-lives of about 30 years each. The plutonium and uranium are
extracted and the plutonium is blended into new nuclear fuel pellets –
mixed-oxide fuel (MOX). This provides about 25% more energy from the
uranium and drastically reduces the waste problem.
The final argument against nuclear power is that it is very expensive to
build a reactor. The levelized cost ($/MWh) of new nuclear reactors is
25% less than coal with carbon capture and storage, 33% less than PV
solar, and 200% less than offshore wind. It is 25% more than onshore
wind and advanced combined cycle natural gas. The four new Generation
III reactors being built in Georgia and South Carolina are expected to cost
about 7 billion dollars each. That is a lot of money by anyone’s standard.
Yet it is important to put it into context. These reactors are designed for a
lifetime of 60 years and may last for 100 years. In contrast, a wind farm or
photovoltaic (PV) solar farm last only 20 or 25 years and they cannot
provide the dependable power of nuclear. As one relevant comparison,
the Ivanpah solar power tower in the Mojave Desert is rated at 377
megawatts, about one-third of a nuclear power plant. But it is only 30%
efficient so it produces about one-third of its rated power. It costs about
2.2 billion dollars and is subsidized to the tune of 1.6 billion dollars by
guaranteed federal loans. To scale it up to a one gigawatt nuclear power
plant would cost 16 billion dollars!
I consider myself an environmentalist but most environmental groups are
opposed to nuclear power. I challenge environmentalists to look at the
environmental cost of depending for so long on coal and measure that
against the actual hazards from the very few nuclear accidents that have
occurred. Even in the worst accident—Chernobyl—the effects were
localized, but the atmospheric effects of burning coal are worldwide. Wind
and solar energy are not going to substantially reduce the use of coal—
that is the unfortunate truth. Is nuclear power really as bad as coal?
Choices must be made, and every choice entails some risk. If
environmentalists continue to oppose nuclear power, coal will still be
providing most of the world’s electricity 50 years from now and the earth
will be on a path to catastrophic warming.
The choice is up to us. I believe the best choice is to halt global warming
by replacing most fossil fuel electrical generation with nuclear power,
supplemented with wind power. I hope we have the wisdom to take that