As you might expect, there's a catch. Nuclear energy faces escalating capital costs, a radioactive waste backlog, security and insurance gaps, nuclear weapons proliferation, and expensive reactor decommissioning that will magnify the waste problem.
The contention that nuclear energy is "carbon free" and therefore a global warming solution, fails to account for the nuclear fuel cycle - mining, milling, enriching, and transporting uranium; forging steel for pressurised vessels; building massive, complex plants; and handling, shipping, reprocessing, and storing waste - requiring substantial fossil fuel supplies. Nuclear fuel processing also employs halogenated compounds that both erode the ozone and simultaneously produce more global warming impact per volume than carbon dioxide.
This fall, at Stanford University, Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson published a "Review of Global Warming Solutions," comparing the lifetime CO2-equivalent emissions of energy sources. Wind and concentrated solar emit between about 3 to 11 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity. Geothermal and conventional solar emit between 16 and 64 grams; wave, tidal and hydro power emit 34 to 71 grams. Nuclear electricity emits between 68 and 180 grams per kWh. Jacobson concludes that "Coal … and nuclear offer less benefit [and] represent an opportunity cost loss."
A dollar invested in nuclear power increases global warming because it consumes scarce resources required by real solutions.
This year, billionaire investment wizard Warren Buffett withdrew financial support for a US nuclear reactor in Idaho, killing the project. Why? Nuclear power is not economical.
A full accounting of nuclear power remains obscured by billions in public subsidy and still-uncertain costs of processing waste and decommissioning plants. Nevertheless, Amory Lovins and Imran Sheikh calculate a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a new nuclear power plant averages about 14 cents compared to a wind farm at 7 cents. Even this calculation does not account for capital financing, security, waste disposal, insurance, or public health impacts. No nuclear plant is insured, even with public guarantees, to the full cost of a Chernobyl scale accident, which becomes an unbudgeted liability on the public's balance sheet.
Nuclear power plants have a dismal safety record, featuring thousands of private, public, and military accidents up to the present day. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Kyshtym in Russia (1958), and Idaho Falls in the US (1955) were not anomalies, but simply the most dramatic accidents. The US Davis-Besse Reactor in Ohio has suffered four serious accidents since 1977. The latest, in 2002, followed George Bush era deregulation, allowing a delay in safety inspections. While the Bush team slept, boric acid ate six inches through a 6 ½inch pressure vessel head. A full breach could have caused core damage and full meltdown. The plant closed for two years to repair the damage, spending $600 million. Such costs plague the nuclear industry.
Some 439 nuclear plants now operate worldwide. To replace even 25 percent of the world's current oil and coal energy would require over 1000 new reactors, plus replacement of existing plants as they expire. Decommissioning 400 plants and building 1400 new ones would cost $10-20 trillion, at least, and would triple the world's unresolved nuclear waste problem. Such a plan would also exhaust global uranium supplies long before the 1400 plants could be built.
Of 36 current nuclear construction projects, 14 remain stalled and most of the surviving projects are state-owned in Russia, China, and India. There is no business case for nuclear power except to socialise costs, privatise profits, and leave the garbage for future generations. In the US alone, 104 "private" nuclear power projects have received over $130 billion in taxpayer subsidies, over $1 billion per reactor. Billions more will be needed to solve the nuclear waste backlog.
Waiting for waste solutions
Nuclear waste remains the untamed demon of nuclear power. After 40 years of research, not a single kilogram of high-level spent-fuel waste has been stored in a permanent repository. Deadly, radioactive plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. Some fuel has been reprocessed, itself a polluting industry, but three-quarters of the waste ever produced remains in temporary storage in 50 countries.
According to Dr Mohamed El Baradei, Director of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), most countries have no geologically appropriate disposal sites, and many lack the expertise or will to deal with the waste that remains vulnerable to leaks and attack.
In the UK, a 2002 Royal Society report reprimanded the nuclear industry for "neglecting … the serious and urgent ... problem of nuclear waste disposal." The report estimated proper UK waste storage would cost £ 85 billion (€108 billion, US$139 billion). At that rate, to store the world's entire nuclear waste backlog would require some $3 trillion, far in excess of the 2008 global bank bailout, equalling more than $6 billion per reactor, a hidden liability not found on any company balance sheet.
No one - corporations, politicians, or public - wants nuclear waste in their environment. In the 1980s, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced it would store waste in a cavern at Yucca Mountain, Nevada by 1998. This year, NRC spokesman Edward McGaffigan told the New York Times that the Nevada repository may not open for 20 years, if ever, due to technical problems, including allegedly fraudulent geological reports. Today, seven years after projecting a $58 billion cost, the NRC estimates a $96 billion cost, paid for by the public.
Over budget and two decades behind schedule, the US industry now finds itself with nuclear waste in storage in 121 temporary facilities, leaking and corroding, and presenting vulnerable targets and security risks.
The allegedly safe French nuclear industry faces critical pollution and waste problems. The French reprocessing plant at La Hague retains most of its high-level spent fuel in temporary storage. The plant releases radioactive krypton, tritium, iodine, and carbon-14 into the environment of surrounding villages and some million litres of radioactive effluent into the English Channel every day. French health scientists warn of local leukemia risks, and since 1997, Greenpeace has campaigned to close the site.
After a 1972 London Dumping Convention ban, the UK, France, and others nations turned to secretly dumping radioactive waste into the Sea of Biscay from ships MV Topaz and Gem. In 1979, the first voyage of Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior confronted and exposed this illegal dumping, winning the new ban in the 1980s.
However, after the 2004 Tsunami, massive drums of toxic and radioactive waste washed up from the Indian Ocean onto 15 beaches in Somalia. Villagers, who attempted to open the containers, were killed, burned, and contaminated by the waste. We don't yet know if these drums came from France, the UK, the US, or elsewhere, but they represent the hidden cost of nuclear power dumped into the sea, a cost paid by the marine environment and the public.
With radioactive waste accumulating in 50 countries, the Somalia evidence demonstrates that clandestine dumping continues. Professor Geoffrey Boulton of the Royal Society in London has warned that UK waste will soon "multiply by 50 times" as existing power stations are decommissioned. Most plants worldwide, built in the 1970s and 1980s, are nearing the end of their life cycle, and no plan yet exists for processing the massive decommissioning wastes.
Chainsaws and butter
The assertion that nuclear power will solve, or even help, the global warming challenge is a hoax. Nuclear power is a carbon hog compared to wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower. Purely on economics, nuclear power fails. The waste backlog, risk of accident or sabotage, and weapons proliferation are added burdens on society.
Remember, all this risk and pollution comes from an attempt to boil water. In the 1970s, Amory Lovins pointed out "using nuclear fission to boil water is like using a chainsaw to cut butter."
Human society must now face the inevitable decline in energy use. The oil era was a one-off energy bonanza and there exists no credible alternative that will replace the sheer volume of oil energy. The most important source of clean power in the world is conservation, at zero cost and zero carbon emissions.
The next most effective new power sources include efficiencies such as cogeneration, recovering waste heat that is now sent up smokestacks. Finally, we can build capacity with renewables - wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal - built to appropriate local scale, while creating more jobs and better return on investment than nuclear power plants.
The secret yet to be realised by industrial civilisation is that we can improve real quality of life with less energy and less commodity throughput. We can achieve a richer life without mining the planet to death and strapping future generations with our toxic garbage.
You may respond to "Deep Green" columns at my Ecolog, where I post portions of this column and dialogue with readers.
Useful nuclear links:
Greenpeace study: The economics of nuclear power:
Lester Brown: Earth Policy Institute on nuclear economics
Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson, Stanford University, "Review of Global Warming Solutions"