Why A Green Future Needs Nuclear Power

By Mark Lynas

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Despite all the high emotion that nuclear power seems to cause, few people remember the rather prosaic fact that all a nuclear reactor does is generate heat. This heat boils water into steam, which expands to drive turbines, just as in any other thermal power plant. Unlike in a coal or gas plant, however, nuclear does not release CO2 because it operates via fission rather than combustion of fuel

The problem is that the splitting apart of atoms of uranium to generate this heat releases highly radioactive ‘fission product’ elements which need to be safeguarded in order to prevent them harming people.

Nuclear power’s singular environmental advantage can be summed up in the term ‘energy density’ – consider that a golf ball-sized lump of uranium, weighing just 780 grams, can deliver enough energy to cover all your lifetime use, including electricity, car driving, jet flights, food and manufactured goods – a total of 6.4 million kWh.

Early environmentalists thought that radioactivity was somehow uniquely dangerous and polluting. E.F. Schumacher wrote in 1973 that radiation was “the most serious agent of pollution of the environment and the greatest threat to man’s survival on Earth”.

I calculate the total capacity of all the canceled nuclear plants to be about 140 gigawatts; roughly half the entire current installed coal capacity in the US. More than 1,000 nuclear plants were originally proposed; had they all been built, the US would now be running an entirely carbon-free electricity system.

In the United States during the heyday of the anti-nuclear movement between 1972 and 1984, coal consumption by US utilities doubled from 351 million to 664 million tons

But just as they were spectacularly successful in stopping the growth of nuclear power, they were spectacularly unsuccessful in promoting the use of solar as an alternative. By 1984 the use of solar had risen from functionally zero to 0.002 percent of US electricity generation. The history of the anti-nuclear movement is therefore not lit by sunshine, but shrouded in coal smoke.

Even after the worst nuclear power plant disaster of all time – the explosion and fire at Chernobyl in the then USSR in April 1986 – the effects of radiation exposure were much less severe than everyone initially assumed.

The total proven Chernobyl death toll currently stands at around 50, including the 28 emergency workers who died of acute radiation sickness at the time, and about 15 fatal thyroid cancers – in total about six thousand children in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine suffered thyroid cancers which were successfully treated. UNSCEAR’s most important and least well-known conclusion is that apart from the impacts mentioned above there is “no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure”.

All the scientific authorities now agree that the worst impact of Chernobyl has been social and psychological, due to fear of radiation and the dislocation effects of the exclusion zone rather than the actual physical effects of radiation itself. Many more will die from social impacts like suicides and alcoholism than will ever die from radiation.

There is a clear consensus in the scientific literature that in terms of ‘deaths per terawatt-hour’ other conventional energy sources are orders of magnitude more dangerous than nuclear.

All told, according to the latest Global Burden of Disease study, ambient air pollution worldwide kills 3.2 million people per year. The only serious debate in numbers terms is whether the death toll from coal is five hundred times worse than nuclear, or many thousands of times worse. *

I strongly believe that the next generation of reactors must be designed and engineered so that innocent people never again suffer the kind of accidents experienced at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

The Soviet-era RBMK reactor involved in the Chernobyl accident was particularly ill conceived. Designed to make bomb fuel as well as to provide steam to generate electricity, the reactor exhibited a ‘positive void coefficient’; meaning, in simple terms, that the presence of boiling water in the reactor core (or a loss of water due to a leak) would increase its power generation in a deadly positive feedback.

Chernobyl did not happen by accident, as it were: it was the direct result of a badly-planned and disastrously-executed safety experiment, during which the operators disabled the reactor’s emergency cooling system before switching off electrical power to the pumps.

One of peoples’ great fears about nuclear waste is the long half-lives of some isotopes. But if an element has a long half-life, it is not very radioactive, by definition

If a radionuclide has a short half-life, like the 8-day half-life of iodine-131, it is very radioactive but quickly decays away. (I-131 was a big concern after both Fukushima and Chernobyl, but has virtually all now disappeared.)

Radioactive waste is the only waste, which becomes steadily safer over time, and yet oddly is the one people think we need to worry about for the longest. Such concerns do not seem to extend to common carcinogens and neurotoxins like arsenic and mercury, which are also isotopically stable and therefore dangerous forever.

Still, I accept that waste is a big concern for many, so the fact that fast reactors like the IFR can actually burn the longest-lived elements in nuclear waste should be a huge incentive to deploy them.

Fast reactors can also burn uranium-238, both directly via fission and indirectly via conversion to plutonium-239, which then fissions in turn. This means that not only can fast reactors – deployed at scale – “solve” the nuclear waste “problem”, but that they can also run entire countries for centuries on uranium which has already been mined and for which there is little other use.

The SMR revolution, and all the other competing Gen III+ and Gen IV designs, show that nuclear technology has not stood still. It is as much a mistake, therefore, to judge the potential for new nuclear on the basis of accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl as it is to judge the safety of the new Airbus A380 on the crash record of the 1970s-era McDonnell Douglas DC10.

Although reactors can be built in Asia for half the price of those in the West, cost, in my view, is the one issue that still remains to be clearly solved. The nuclear industry now has an enormous challenge to bring costs down, just as solar and other renewables manufacturers have been able to do – or it will find itself priced out of increasingly competitive low-carbon energy markets.

What happens if we fail, and the nuclear renaissance runs into the sand – either because of a renewed anti-nuclear movement or because new reactors are too costly to be worth bothering with, or because of some other factor? It is time to run some final numbers.

First we need a baseline – I will use the US Energy Information Administration’s projections to 2030. The EIA projects a 250 percent increase in wind and a 400 percent increase in solar by this year, a major scale-up but still not enough to prevent global CO2 emissions in 2030 rising to 40.6 billion tonnes (45 billion tons), about 28 percent higher than today.

But let’s suppose that all nuclear power plants are shut down one by one between now and 2030, and are replaced by coal.

This would mean an additional 4.4 billion tonnes (5 billion tons) of annual carbon dioxide emissions, which would otherwise have been avoided by 2030’s operating nuclear plants. Adding this to the EIA’s baseline projection gives us a total CO2 emission of 45 billion tonnes (50 billion tons) in 2030[74], a hefty 42 percent above today’s level.

So if the nuclear naysayers are right, what kind of a world are we heading into?

If CO2 continues to rise throughout the century in a world, which abandons nuclear power, we could be looking at five or six degrees of warming.

Greenpeace and the GWEC have produced energy scenarios for 2030, which are vastly more ambitious than those of the US Energy Information Administration. Greenpeace/GWEC project wind power generation increasing by 1,500 percent above today’s levels, and solar growing by 9,500 percent. Combined, this is more than 10 times the renewables scale-up projected by the EIA for 2030.

According to my calculations therefore, Greenpeace’s scenario has emissions rising by 22 percent by 2030 rather than the EIA’s 28 percent; hardly a great improvement. This projection resembles a global version of Germany’s Energiewende: a massive renewables investment which could have been reducing emissions makes little difference because wind and solar displace nuclear instead of fossil fuels.

The conclusion is clear: if nuclear is removed from the picture, even the greatest imaginable investment in renewables reduces eventual global warming by at best a couple of tenths of a degree Celsius as compared to business as usual.

This is why, as I have repeatedly argued, those who insist on a renewables-only prescription to tackle global warming are gambling at very low odds with our planetary biosphere. I think we can and should do better than this. *

One of the most inspiring initiatives I worked on recently was an under-the-radar effort to combine the forces of the UK’s low-carbon industries in supporting the British government’s proposed energy bill.

As the Independent reported in a page 2 splash: “The leaders of Britain's nuclear, wind and tidal industries today put aside years of mutual suspicion and antipathy with an unprecedented joint appeal to ministers not to abandon their commitment to combat climate change.” The story continued: “The letter marks the first time that Britain’s nuclear and renewables industries have made common cause together. Significantly, the joint approach has won the backing of the environmental group Greenpeace – despite its long-standing opposition to nuclear power. It welcomed the “unity” demonstrated by the low and zero carbon industries who signed the letter and their goal to take carbon almost completely out of the electricity system by 2030.”

Make no mistake: opposing low-carbon technologies is an implicit vote for a high-carbon energy system, and opponents must recognise this real-world trade-off.

This unprecedented collaboration between the wind and nuclear industries helped give the UK government the support it needed: at its third reading on June 5, 2013 the Energy Bill was passed by the House of Commons by an overwhelming vote of 396 to 8.

What would low-carbon “unity” (to borrow Greenpeace UK director John Sauven’s word) be able to achieve worldwide if those backing nuclear power and those promoting renewables joined forces instead of always fighting each other and thereby sealing our dependence on fossil fuels?

Crunch the resulting numbers and in my ‘all of the above’ scenario we get a global electricity supply which is 82 percent carbon-free by 2030[94]. That really would be an extraordinary achievement.

According to our climate model, the world then at last has a 50:50 chance of hitting the magic 2 degrees Celsius target (the unlucky 10 percent outcome is 2.8°C).

That is why I called this book ‘Nuclear 2.0’ – because only with a new generation of safer nuclear reactors, added to an even greater push for renewables, can we keep the world from reaching the dangerous levels of global warming above 2 degrees. What I am of course advocating here is the oldest idea in the world: that with unity comes strength, and that when confronted with a common global challenge like climate change we should put aside old enmities and join together to tackle it.