Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Elementary Particles, Complex Challenges

By Mark Caine, Breakthrough Fellow

This is a guest post from the Breakthrough Generation blog. Breakthrough Generation is the young leaders' initiative of the Breakthrough Institute, a public policy think tank. Founded in 2007, Breakthrough Generation has fostered the development of young thought leaders capable of fully grappling with the scale and complexity of today's greatest challenges and advancing large-scale solutions over the near and long term. To read more writings from this year's 2010 Breakthrough Fellows, head to

Environmentalists have long couched their opposition to nuclear power in the argument that tinkering with elementary particles to produce energy is inherently unsafe. But advances in climate and nuclear sciences suggest that the dangers posed by today's nuclear technology are far less serious than the risks of tinkering with global climate systems.

In 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer gave the go-ahead for the Trinity test, the first human-induced nuclear explosion. As he observed the massive explosion unleashed by his creation, he uttered the now-famous phrase:

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
With these words, excerpted from the Bhagavad Gita, Oppenheimer captured and reinforced a widely-held sentiment that nuclear technology is a fundamentally destructive force worthy of great respect and profound trepidation.

This view would be strengthened by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a month later and again in 1979 and 1986 by the meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Justifiably influenced by the specter of nuclear meltdown or, worse, worldwide nuclear war, early environmentalists adopted a vehement anti-nuclear stance. At the time, nuclear proliferation seemed to present an existential threat to the natural environment, to human health, and to world peace.

Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, summed it up in his 1976 report Assault on Future Generations:
Nuclear power plants are, next to nuclear warheads themselves, the most dangerous devices that man has ever created. Their construction and proliferation is the most irresponsible, in fact the most criminal act ever to have taken place on this planet.
Forged in an era of fear, uncertainty, and disaster, this uncompromisingly critical stance towards nuclear energy has remained a central tenet of U.S. environmentalism ever since.

While this stance is understandable as a reaction to the events of World War II and Chernobyl, it has become drastically outdated in the nearly twenty five years since the Chernobyl disaster took place.

These twenty five years have seen two fundamental, ground-shifting changes.

First, climate scientists--and increasingly the general public--have become aware that carbon dioxide emissions lead to global climate change and a host of resultant ecological and atmospheric consequences. Second, nuclear energy technologies have developed to become far safer and more efficient than their decades-old antecedents.

These two transitions have redefined the energy landscape; taken together, they should redefine the energy debate.

At this point, anyone serious about climate change should be asking themselves: what role should nuclear power have in a clean energy future? Can we decarbonize our economy without nuclear power?

While the science, the technology, and the debate have shifted beneath their feet, mainstream environmental groups have resolutely held their anti-nuclear ground.

The Sierra Club, an early opponent of nuclear power, continues to stick by the nuclear policy it established 36 years ago in 1974:
The Sierra Club opposes the licensing, construction and operation of new nuclear reactors utilizing the fission process.
Greenpeace, another early nuclear opponent, calls not only for no new construction but also for the dismantling of existing plants:
Greenpeace has always fought - and will continue to fight - vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants.
Most recently, Friends of the Earth has been releasing egregious anti-nuclear advertisements employing ominous music, dark photographs, and hyperbolic rhetoric to inspire visceral fear of nuclear power.

Contrary to the frightful narratives sown by mainstream environmental groups, the long-term safety record of nuclear power is in fact far better than that of coal, our primary source of electricity. Even in terms of direct deaths, which do not include the tens of thousands of yearly deaths caused by pollution from coal combustion, nuclear comes out on top:

nuclear safe bigger.jpg
Compiled by Jesse Jenkins, The Breakthrough Institute

When it comes to waste and emissions, nuclear again emerges the clear winner: while powering a single person's lifetime with coal produces 68 tons of solid waste and 77 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, a person-lifetime worth of nuclear-generated electricity produces zero emissions and an volume of solid waste the size of a soda can.

These waste and emissions disparities raise a critical question: which is worse, small quantities of radioactive waste in secured storage or huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

For greens who find themselves increasingly concerned about climate change and its impacts on humans, oceans, and ecosystems, this lesser-of-two-evils debate should not be taken lightly.

Given the capacity of nuclear to produce emissions-free energy with orders of magnitude less waste than coal combustion, it would appear that the environmental community's reflexive rejection of nuclear energy runs counter to its most basic charge: to employ sound science and smart policy to protect the environment and the people within it.


Molly said...

but what about mining the uranium? many towns that are located near uranium mines report much higher rates of cancer and other unexplainable diseaes.
And also, what about the massive amounts of water that the nuclear plant needs? We're definitely at a shortage for water.
And disposing of the waste?

I still can't decided how I feel about nuclear energy. Although I don't think it's as horrible as the Sierra Club and GreenPeace make it out to be, I think many proponents of nuclear energy focus solely on burning the uranium and neglect many of the other issues (which may be solvable if we'd all admit they are there)

spikything said...

It is inaccurate to call nuclear derived power 'emission free'. From mining and processing to decomissioning, the nuclear cycle produces approximately 70% as much CO2 as a coal-fired power stations and, as a by-product, weapons grade fissionable material.

Thorium reactors, on the other hand, are safer than Uranium reactors (no self-sustaining chain reaction is possible), they can be used to 'chew up' weapons grade material and Thorium is much more abundant than Uranium, with a shorter half-life.

So why don't we have Thorium reactors instead? It could be precisely to do with the fact that replacing Uranium reactors with Thorium ones could lead to a world without nuclear weapons - and maybe that's just not 'good business' for some people.

Mark said...

Molly and Spikything -

Thanks so much for reading and commenting on my post! Allow me to respond to a few of your points:

Molly - You are right to be concerned with the safety, water, and waste issues associated with Uranium extraction. The key concepts here are energy density and scale, which taken together reveal Uranium mining to be significantly less harmful than coal mining. Uranium is approximately 16,000 times more energy dense than coal, meaning that 1 pound of uranium produces the same amount of energy as 16,000 pounds of coal.

While I agree that Uranium mining is neither a safe nor healthy proposition, it seems highly unlikely that mining one pound of Uranium produces the same degree of health and environmental damage as mining 16,000 pounds—8 tons—of coal.

And with regards to water, it is hard to think of anything more detrimental to water quality and watershed ecology than the dumping of entire mountaintops into streams, a technique that is becoming the tactic of choice for Appalachian coal operations.

Spikything -

While you are correct in pointing out that nuclear power is not strictly “emissions-free,” I would challenge your point by asking you: is any power source truly emissions-free? Wind and solar, for instance, both create carbon emissions in that they require steel manufacture, silicon extraction, and/or concrete mixing for their manufacture and installation. Furthermore, these basic materials must be transported to manufacturing plants, and completed solar panels and wind turbines must be transported to installation sites. To illustrate the carbon profiles of purportedly “emissions-free” technologies, I’ll point you to a graph compiled by the IAEA comparing the carbon emissions of energy technologies throughout their entire life cycles:

I am not sure where you got your 70% figure, but this graph certainly suggests a far greater discrepancy between carbon emissions from nuclear and coal technologies.

As for thorium, your point is well taken. I am strongly supportive of accelerated research, demonstration, and deployment of advanced nuclear fuel cycles and reactor designs including thorium reactors, small modular reactors, and gas-cooled high-temp reactors.

That said, at the current moment we cannot manufacture or deploy these technologies on a meaningful scale. Given the urgency of mitigating climate change, I believe we should be deploying current nuclear technologies just as we encourage future technological breakthroughs in the field of nuclear science.

Once again, thank you both for posting comments. It is important to have a robust, thoughtful discourse on issues as important as energy and nuclear power, and I hope to hear from you on future posts and articles.