Deep Green is Rex Weyler's monthly column, reflecting on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace's past, present, and future. The opinions here are his own.
Why nuclear power is not a solution to our energy challenge
The heating of Earth remains the most urgent symptom of humanity’s mismanagement of our technological civilization. Desperately seeking answers for a low carbon energy regime, some observers propose a “nuclear renaissance” to replace hydrocarbons. Nuclear companies, nations, and advocates offer nuclear as a possible “low-carbon” energy path. However, the evidence in hand shows that nuclear energy is not the solution to humanity’s energy needs that many hope for. Here are the reasons:
1. Nuclear energy is not low carbon
The industry claims that nuclear energy is “carbon free” because while a nuclear plant operates, it does not directly burn hydrocarbons. However, from a life-cycle analysis, nuclear energy is a carbon hog. Plant construction – cement, steel, and complex electronics – is carbon intensive. The nuclear fuel cycle – mining, milling, enriching, fabrication, transport, and processing nuclear waste – is carbon intensive. Halogenated compounds used in uranium refining have a greater impact on global heating than carbon dioxide. Finally, when a nuclear plant’s 40-to-60 year life is over, decommissioning adds more carbon costs and leaves a radioactive, lifeless blotch on the landscape. Many studies confirm that nuclear electricity is not low-carbon; here are three:
A study of carbon and nuclear power by the Australian government and Sydney University, found that nuclear plants emit about 60 grams of carbon-dioxide equivalent per Kilowatt-hour of electricity 3-times the comparable emissions from wind turbines.
The International Energy Agency’s 2006 World Energy Outlook, a pro-nuclear report, found that among the alternatives – wind, solar, hydro – nuclear power yielded the lowest emission reductions.
At Stanford University, Dr. Mark Jacobson compared the lifetime CO2 emissions of energy sources, “Review of Global Warming Solutions,” and found nuclear electricity to be the highest non-hydrocarbon option, emitting between six and 60-times more carbon than wind and concentrated solar.
2. The health risk is real
Radiation emissions have serious health implications. There is no safe level of radiation. Any increase in public radiation exposure results in bio-concentration of radionuclides and cancer, birth defects, and genetic damage.
Nuclear promoters claimed that there were “no deaths” from the Three Mile Island meltdown in the US in 1979. However, Dr. Steven Wing, epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health documented lung cancer and leukemia rates 2-to-10-times higher downwind from the Three Mile Island reactor, compared to upwind rates.
Questioning our assumptions is always wise, and some writers have questioned Dr. Helen Caldicott’s calculations of radiation health effects. This is fair enough, but if we examine the data, there appears a significant gap between industry and medical interpretations.
For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) vets and approves World Health Organization (WHO) estimates of nuclear’s health effects. The IAEA/WHO estimated “four thousand fatal cancers” from the Chernobyl accident. The IAEA is a nuclear industry promoter.
We should not be surprised that industry studies minimize radiation levels. However, IAEA and industry estimates usually rely only on external radiation doses, failing to account for internal radiation inhaled or ingested by the victims. Radioactive isotopes such as iodine-131 concentrate at each food chain stage, migrate inside the body to specific organs such as the thyroid or bone marrow, irradiate cells, and produce cancer and genetic damage decades after exposure.
In 1992, the British Medical Journal published a study showing a significant change in infant mortality in Germany after the Chernobyl incident, where the post-natal death rate ceased declining and temporarily increased. Studies showed an increase in cancer in Sweden and even childhood leukemia in the US linked to the radiation from Chernobyl. In 2009, the New York Academy of Sciences compiled data from some 5,000 research papers not reviewed for the IAEA/WHO reports and estimated 985,000 excess deaths due to Chernobyl radiation, 250-times more deaths than reported by the nuclear industry.
We cannot precisely know how many people died from Chernobyl radiation because radiation’s trail is difficult to follow, but people die. I have witnessed children dying from leukaemia: A painful, heartbreaking tragedy. There is something grotesque about counting the dead with the nuclear apologists and trading off human suffering for electricity. I would not advocate one single death by cancer as a necessary price for electricity, much less 4,000 or 985,000.
Likewise, people will die from the Fukushima radiation, and the deaths are not ciphers on a health survey, they are the genuine suffering of innocent human beings. Nuclear power is a form of random murder.
3. Corruption and collusion
If the nuclear industry had been honest about accidents, radiation emissions, and other difficulties with nuclear power, government and citizens would be in a better position to assess the value of nuclear energy. But a trail of deceit, corruption, and collusion with regulators tells a different story.
For decades, since the 1950s, independent scientists have fought the nuclear industry’s suppression of data. After Chernobyl, Professor Dimitro Godzinsky from the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences claimed that “defenders of atomic energy” obstructed accident investigations by diverting scientists from radiation studies, “refusal to fund medical and biological studies,” and by “liquidating government bodies” responsible for researching the Chernobyl impact.
The fear of extinction, drove some agencies to accept nuclear industry methodology. In 2004, UK government lawyers blocked a minority report by Dr. Chris Busby and colleagues, which claimed that the Committee Examining Radiation Risk of Internal Emitters (CERRIE) underestimated health risk by as much as 300-times. Busby’s report documented the failure to account for clusters of cancer and leukemia near nuclear installations in Wales, Essex, and Cumbria.
In 2009, Dr. Jack Valentin resigned as head of the International Committee on Radiological Protection’s Scientific Secretariat because he believed the health risks from internal radiation exposure were 100-times greater than the organization claimed.
In 2000, Kei Sugaoka, a nuclear inspector at the Daiichi plant, told Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) that Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) had concealed safety information about a cracked steam dryer. Rather than act on this information, NISA and TEPCO attacked Sugaoka and expelled him from the industry.
Between 2002 and 2006 nuclear workers, who feared reprisals from TEPCO, reported 21 safety warnings to Fukushima governor Eisako Sato, who passed these concerns to NISA. However, NISA and TEPCO, ignored the warnings, attacked governor Sato, accused him of corruption, and drove him from office. Meanwhile, TEPCO routinely rewarded collaborating NISA employees with executive positions at the company.
Victor Gilinsky, who served on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) during the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown, says the NRC is “a wholly owned subsidiary of the nuclear power industry.” Like their Japanese colleagues, cooperative NRC regulators can look forward to industry jobs when they leave the agency. During the last decade, the US nuclear industry donated over $4.6 million to Congressional members, and in 1996, when the NRC investigated reactor design flaws, US Senator Pete Domenici threatened to cut the agency’s funding.
If nuclear energy proved safe, the lies, corruption, and collusion would not be necessary.
4. Costs and Subsidies
A kilowatt-hour of electricity from a new nuclear power plant costs 14-to-17-cents compared to wind farm electricity at 7-cents.
Nuclear projects routinely exceed budgets due to delays, design flaws, and rising commodity prices. In Canada, for example, the Darlington nuclear plant, with a construction budget of $6 billion, now approaches $26 billion.
In the UK, a new nuclear plant costs about £6 billion (US$ 10 b.; € 6.7 b) to build, not including insurance, accidents, waste, safety, security, or decommissioning. These added costs are paid from public funds as subsidies.
In the U.S., the average “private” reactor has receives about $1.3 billion in public subsidies. If the industry practiced free market capitalism it would collapse. Historically, the nuclear industry’s economic model privatizes profits, socialize costs and risks, and leaves the garbage for posterity.
In Solutions magazine, energy specialists Robert Costanza, Cutler Cleveland, and colleagues ask: “Can Nuclear Power Be Part of the Solution?” They offer a balanced assessment, but cite the hidden costs, tax subsidies, and “legacy” subsidies such as waste. They recommend, “Remove the subsidies, require nuclear power plants to be fully insured, and put aside adequate funds for decommissioning and long-term radioactive waste disposal.”
5. Radioactive Waste: Unsolved
At Fukushima, most public radioactivity exposure came from spent fuel rods in temporary storage pools. The nuclear industry has not yet solved the waste problem, so spent rods sit in makeshift ponds around the world at up to 1000°C, requiring 24-hour cooling and security. The UK holds over 112 tonnes of plutonium waste. In 2002, the Royal Society estimated that a sufficient storage system would cost £ 85 billion (€95 billion, US$140 billion). The UK operates 19 reactors, so the waste debt comes to about £4.5 billion per reactor.
In the US, radioactive waste sits in 121 temporary facilities, an enduring environmental and security risk. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) spent $7 billion researching a waste storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, projected to cost $96 billion to complete, but which may never open due to technical problems, fraudulent geological reports, and soaring costs. “Power companies don’t want to pay for it,” says Robert Alvarez, former senior policy adviser at the US Energy Department. Total US nuclear waste amounts to 72,000 tons from civilian sites, 34 tons of military plutonium, plus other undisclosed military waste, totalling more than the hypothetical Yucca Mountain site could accommodate.
The US spent $5 billion to build a nuclear fuel factory on the Savanna River in South Carolina to combine plutonium waste with uranium to create mixed-oxide fuel, MOX. However, after a decade of construction, the plant remains half finished, with no customers.
The UK built an MOX plant at Sellafield and projected producing 1200 tons of fuel in a decade. However, since 2002, the plant has produced only 13.8 tons. A leaked US diplomatic cablefrom London cites UK government sources that the Sellafield plant costs £90-million a year to operate and is “one of Her Majesty’s Government’s most embarrassing failures in British industrial history.” Japanese customers complain of UK production problems and have cancelled fuel orders for the next decade. By that time, the plant will be nearing its expiry date and will be decommissioned at British taxpayer’s expense.
Clandestine dumping of radioactive waste at sea continues, as evidenced by the containers of waste that washed up on the shore of Somalia after the 2004 tsunami. No solution has yet been successful for the storage or processing of dangerous radioactive waste, piling up as a regrettable legacy to our progeny.
6. Weapons proliferation and security
Since World War II, the nuclear industry has created more than 1,200 tonnes of plutonium. About 260 tonnes are “weapons grade,” and the remainder can be fashioned into lower-grade weapons or reprocessed for high-grade nuclear weapons. Plutonium is a toxic carcinogen that collects in bones and the liver. The weapons grade plutonium-239 has a half life of 24,110 years, and the heavier Pu-244 has a half-life of 80 million years.
The existing stockpile of weapons grade plutonium could make about 60,000 warheads, and the entire plutonium stockpile could make over 200,000 warheads. Nations that develop a nuclear industry become a threat to the world as plutonium suppliers, targets of terrorism, and potential wielders of nuclear weapons.
China, France, Russia, UK, US, Israel, India, and Pakistan now possess about 8,800 nuclear warheads. Syria, North Korea, South Africa, Iraq, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine had or still have nuclear weapons programs. Libya, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan have shelved nuclear weapons programs. Thus, twenty nations possess the capability to create sophisticated nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, anyone with a supply of plutonium and common technical knowledge can create unsophisticated nuclear weapons.
The world now operates about 434 nuclear reactors, not counting those in current meltdown or closed for repairs. To replace current hydrocarbon energy production with nuclear power at the current average capacity would require about 7,000 nuclear reactors. To replace half our hydrocarbon energy with nuclear (3,500 reactors) by 2030, we would have to build 175 new reactors per year, 3 new reactors per week for twenty years.
Such a scenario is not possible for supply chain reasons alone (cement, steel, appropriate sites, and construction capacity). From 1996-2009, the nuclear industry retired 43 old reactors and opened 49 new ones, a net gain of six reactors in 13 years.
If such a scenario were possible, we could then expect 8-times as many nuclear accidents and subsequent cancer and leukemia cases, and 8-times the annual nuclear waste and uranium demand. The current nuclear industry consumes 68,000 tons of uranium per year. TheInternational Atomic Energy Agency’s most optimistic estimate of reserves, including hypothesized reserves yet to be discovered, is 7.7 million tons. Thirty-five hundred operating nuclear plants would drain these reserves in 14 years, leaving communities on land poisoned with radioactive dust, radon gas, and suffering from a legacy of birth defects, leukemia and other cancers.
Furthermore, none of this accounts for population and economic growth. Two billion people live without electricity. The UN estimates we may add 3 or 4 billion more people before human population stabilizes. Meanwhile, the wealthy 15% of the world consume most of the current energy capacity. Even accounting for some efficiency gains and modest lifestyles, to meet these growth and social justice needs would require 3-to-4-times our current energy consumption, and to supply even half of this with nuclear plants would require about 15,000 nuclear plants.
Nuclear plants have a life-cycle of 40 to 60 years. To maintain an industry of 15,000 nuclear plants, we would have to build approximately one new plant each day, forever; while decommissioning one plant each day, forever; leaving behind thousands of radioactive dead zones vulnerable to earthquakes, uranium mining wastelands, and deadly radioactive waste.
Start with Conservation
These scenarios are not even physically achievable, much less “sustainable,” and they certainly do not offer a “solution” to our energy and global heating challenges.
The first and most important genuine alternative to hydrocarbon energy use is conservation, especially in the wealthy nations. The wasteful lifestyles that petroleum has made possible are not sustainable, so imagining a nuclear industry to sustain those lifestyles remains counter-productive. We can reduce energy needs with better public transport, communities designed for walking and bicycles, with localized economies that minimize shipping; and by ending wasteful consumption. We don’t hear these kinds of solutions from our current political regimes because they remain chained to the assumption of endless growth.
After conservation, real energy alternatives do exist. Solar and wind systems must address the same scale and replacement issues that nuclear power faces, but they do not leave a legacy of cancer, radioactive waste, and abandoned radioactive dead zones.
Every dollar, every piece of land, and every resource spent on nuclear energy is an opportunity lost, consuming financial, human and natural resources required by real solutions.
Sources and links
Australia nuclear carbon Study: M. Lenzen, “Life-Cycle Energy Balance and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Nuclear Energy in Australia, Department of Integrated Sustainability Analysis, Sydney University, 2006/08”
IEA World Energy Outlook 2006, International Energy Agency p.190,
coal vs. nuclear: See chart on page 18, “Radiological Impacts of Airborne Effluents of Coal-fired and Nuclear Power Plants,” J.P. McBride, et. al., Health and Safety Research, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (5315), August 1977.
G. Monbiot on nuclear power, The Guardian.
Monbiot critique of Caldicott.
IAEA: page 15/16, "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts", The Chernobyl Forum, IAEA, 2006
German infant mortality: “Neonatal mortality in Germany since the Chernobyl explosion,” Jens Scheer, British Medical Journal, no.304 p.843, 28/3/92
Cancer in Sweden: Increase of regional total cancer incidence in north Sweden due to the Chernobyl accident?, Martin Tondel, Peter Hjalmarsson, Lennart Hardell, Goran Carlsson and Olav Axelson, Journal of Epidemiol Community Health, vol.58 pp.1011-1016, 2004.
US Childhood Leukemia: “Childhood leukaemia in US may have risen due to fallout from Chernobyl,” Joseph Mangano, British Medical Journal, 314, April 19, 1997.
Dr. Stephen Wing, cancer from Three Mile Island.
New York Academy of Sciences report, "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, 2009". Dimitro Godzinsky in the Introduction.
Dr. Jack Valentin (video)
Victor Gilinsky, US NRC
Report by Dr. Chris Busby and colleagues
Eisako Sato, Governor of Fukushima forced to resign, The Independent, UK:
Cost of UK nuclear plant: Bloomberg, August 25, 2010
Cost / kWhr: Renewable Electricity Production & Nuclear Power
Robert Alvarez, US Energy Department
R. Costanza, et. al., nuclear subsidies, Solutions magazine
McKenzie Report: “Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy;” McKinsey & Company, 2009.
US Savanna River MOX plant
UK Sellafield MOX Plant
Leaked US Cable, UK Sellafield plant, The Telegraph, Feb. 14, 2011:
World Plutonium Stockpile, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1999:
World Nuclear weapons programs
World Uranium reserves, World Nuclear Association
Addition links and information
UK energy .. UK Carbon Dioxide Emissions by fuel, 1990-2009; 2009 Provisional UK Greenhouse Gas Figures, Department for Energy and Climate Change, March 2010.
Paul Mobb, Ecolonomics, “When the facts change, I change my mind,” a survey of nuclear power and critique of George Monbiot’s analysis.
Greenpeace Chernobyl Report
Kei Sugaoka expelled from Japanese nuclear industry, New York Times.