The Misguided Exile of Nuclear Power How Banishment of a Safe Technology Will Keep Fossil Fuels in the Driver’s Seat

nuclear power now more than ever
A nuclear power plant – one of the safest places on Earth. Credit: pixabay.

1. Nuclear Accidents Have Been Overblown:

Due to media hype surrounding three major nuclear accidents, the risk of nuclear power has been greatly overstated and therefore public opinion is against it.  As a result, this very valuable tool in our arsenal against climate change is being left on the sidelines.  This will be seen someday as a mistake of enormous proportions.

Let’s consider each of the accidents:

A. Chernobyl:

The Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26, 1986 when the fourth reactor suffered a huge power increase, leading to the explosion of the plant.  The reactor at Chernobyl was designed and built by the Soviet Union.  Two very serious safety omissions were the absence of a steel containment vessel around the reactor core and the absence of a concrete containment dome around the reactor itself.  With no containment, any significant failure was bound to be catastrophic.  Furthermore, the personnel that operated the reactor were inadequately trained.  These are radical departures from standard design and operating procedures in other countries, therefore the Chernobyl accident should be seen as an outlier, not a representative case.

As a result of the accident, 29 disaster relief workers died of acute radiation exposure in the immediate aftermath of the accident.  In 2011, The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated the worldwide additional long-term cancer deaths at 45,600, an increase of 68 millionths of one percent. The worst affected were the 25,000 residents in the most contaminated areas. They experienced an increased cancer incidence of 4%, producing an estimated additional 1,000 early deaths over time.  The IAEA had predicted 4,000 deaths. After the accident, all people were evacuated from a one thousand square mile exclusion zone.  With man gone, wildlife has flourished so much that the area has become a tourist attraction.

B. Three Mile Island:

On March 29, 1979, a reactor at the Three Mile Island Plant in Middleton, Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown.  Approximately 2 million people who lived around Three Mile Island during the accident received an average radiation dose of about 1 millirem above the area’s usual background dose of 125 to 150 millirem per year. By comparison, a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem. In spite of serious damage to the reactor, the accident had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment. There were no deaths.

C. Fukushima:

On March 11, 2011, power supply and cooling to three reactors was disabled following an earthquake and tsunami, causing a partial meltdown of all three.  Although 154,000 Japanese citizens were evacuated from a 12-mile exclusion zone around the power station as a precaution, radiation exposure beyond the station grounds itself was limited. There was no major public exposure, and no deaths from radiation, however Fukushima prefecture counted 1,368 deaths related to the Fukushima plant accident.  The cause was mainly displacement of the sick and elderly while in temporary housing and shelters, degraded living conditions, and separation from support networks.

There are 60 nuclear power plants in the U.S. and 450 worldwide that have been operating for decades without incident. Exaggerated reporting about these accidents has caused the safety concern in the public’s mind about nuclear energy to be greatly magnified.  Surprisingly, coal presents a far greater risk of exposure to radioactivity.

2. Fossil Fuels are More Dangerous than Nuclear:

A. Death Rates From Nuclear v Fossil Fuels:

The fear of nuclear power has gone viral, but it is fueled by emotion.  Here are the facts:

nuclear power now more than ever
From Our World in Data 

Coal has 333 times the death rate of nuclear; oil has 249 times the death rate of nuclear, biomass has 63 times the death rate of nuclear, and gas has 38 time the death rate of nuclear.

B. Coal Plants Emit More Radiation than Nuclear Plants:

Because coal contains trace amounts of uranium and thorium, and because a typical coal fired power plant burns 10,000 tons of coal per day, the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant, a by-product from burning coal for electricity, carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. This is because the radioactivity from coal plants is not regulated whereas the radioactivity from nuclear plants is.  This is why working at a nuclear power plant is extremely safe.

3. Disposing of Nuclear Waste:

The issue of nuclear waste storage and disposal is complex and fraught with controversy. As in the United States, nearly every nuclear waste disposal program around the world has fallen behind schedule due to scientific uncertainty and public opposition.

In 1987, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository was designated as the site for the disposal of U.S. nuclear waste.  But the plan was vigorously opposed by the citizens of Nevada, the State of Nevada, and other non-local groups.  As a result, funding for the depository ended in 2011.  This was not a technological failure, but a political one.  Nuclear waste continues to be stored in spent fuel pools at reactor sites where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has determined that spent nuclear fuel can safely be stored for at least the next 100 years.

As of 2019 the status of the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain remains uncertain.   The site has been abandoned and nothing exists but a boarded up exploratory tunnel; there are no waste disposal tunnels, receiving and handling facilities, and the waste containers and transportation casks have yet to be developed. Moreover, there is no railroad to the site, and the cost to build a railroad through Nevada could exceed $3 billion. Today, the only thing that actually exists at Yucca Mountain is a single 5-mile exploratory tunnel.  And there is also ongoing debate over whether the geologic features and proposed engineered barriers at Yucca Mountain will provide sufficient isolation for permanent disposal.

The Yucca Mountain repository would have a capacity of 77,000 tons. In 2003, 46,000 tons of high-level waste was stored around the country. Nuclear power facilities produce an additional 2,000 tons of waste a year. However, spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste would be shipped to Yucca Mountain on an unprecedented scale. According to a recent study completed by the National Academy of Sciences, just one year of waste shipments to Yucca Mountain would exceed all shipments made in the past 30 years.  This raises a big question about the safety of transporting this material.

4. Cost of Nuclear v Solar:

If you consider only construction costs, solar is cheaper than nuclear. But nuclear plants operate at 90% capacity and solar plants only operate at most around 25%, so you would need to build four times the capacity of solar power to equal the power of nuclear.

Even with this adjustment, some calculations show that solar is still cheaper. It remains a subject of debate. But the cost of a solar plant does not take into consideration the cost of providing backup energy for solar which is legally mandated in most jurisdictions. The costs are both financial and environmental because this backup is provided by plants that run on fossil fuel.  And it doesn’t count the considerable cost involved in building a vast global energy storage capacity that is currently not within the realm of our technology.  The same argument applies to wind turbines, except that wind turbines are about twice as efficient as solar farms, so would need to build twice the capacity for them in order to match nuclear.

5. Lead Time to Build/Need for Federal Subsidy:

In 2013, after 30 years with no new construction of nuclear power plants, work began to expand the V.C. Summer nuclear power plant near Jenkinsville, S.C.  Two new reactors were to be built at a cost of $9B.  Unit 2 was to become operational in 2016 and unit 3 in 2019.  By 2017 the operational dates had been pushed back to 2020, the project was only 40% complete, and cost overruns were expected to run the project cost up to $23 billion. The owners decided to abandon the project rather than saddle their customers with additional costs.

In 2013 work began to expand the Vogtle nuclear power plant near Waynesboro, Georgia.  Two new reactors were to be built at a cost of $14 billion.  They were scheduled to become operational in 2016.  By 2018 the operational dates had been pushed back to 2021 for unit 3 and 2022 for unit 4, and cost overruns were expected to run the project cost up to $28B.  Despite talk of abandoning the project, work continues.

Here’s why these projects have been plagued with problems:

  • Since these are new designs with passive safety systems and a smaller footprint, they should be less expensive to build, but with new designs there is always a learning curve.
  • Since no nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. in 30 years, there is little experience. For the same reason, everything from manufacturing to supply chains to regulation is ad-hoc.
  • There is no existing manufacturing infrastructure and therefore no economies of scale, so the contractors must bear the high fixed costs of building the infrastructure.
  • Without trained personnel, quality control and construction problems increase.
  • On the regulatory side, the NRC and state authorities err on the side of caution which dramatically slows the building process.

The drawback with evaluating the success of these projects based solely on return on investment and cost to consumers is that it ignores the consequences of continuing to rely on fossil fuels.  The cost of continuing to increase GHG emissions will ultimately be much higher than the cost of building these plants.

Moreover, one-third of the United States’ nuclear power fleet – 21 of 60 facilities – could be closed in the next decade before their operating licenses expire.  These are mostly smaller, single reactor plants, but they provide more than one-fifth of the country’s 800 TWh (terawatt hours) of electricity from nuclear power.  If they are not replaced with new nuclear plants, they will be replaced with coal and natural gas plants which would generate an estimated 275 million tons of additional CO2 annually.

What we don’t seem to be factoring into our decisions about nuclear is the consequences of not replacing fossil fuels as quickly as possible.  It should not just be a matter of letting the markets decide.  Nuclear is not a substitute for renewables, but it is a clean source of energy that should be included in a portfolio of GHG emission abatement efforts.

The government must step in and pay for the cost overruns on these new plants as part of an aggressive R&D budget.  Once the problems normally associated with cutting edge technology and the learning curve associated with its implementation are solved, the costs will be much lower and in the range that are economically competitive.

But the Federal Government is not doing enough.  The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is a Federal program mandated by Congress to coordinate Federal research and investments in understanding the forces shaping the global environment and their impacts on society.  In 2016 (the latest I could find) it’s budget was $2.6 billion divided among 13 different agencies.  By comparison, the 2018 R&D budget for the Department of Defense was $96 billion.  We have the money to do this, but our priorities are terribly wrong.  Another aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine is not going to be very helpful if we can’t feed ourselves.

6. Baseline Load:

To be efficient, the electric industry must match power supply with power demand. And it must provide electricity reliably. Most electricity is provided by large coal, gas, and nuclear power plants that run constantly at a maximum capacity that is designed to meet the grid’s usual demand (the baseline load). These plants are the most efficient at generating power, but it takes 8 to 10 hours for them to warm up and come on-line, and they can only operate at their peak power and cannot be adjusted to meet peak demands.  In industry jargon, they are not “dispatchable” sources.  To meet this demand, the industry has power plants that use gas turbines or diesel engines. They can come on-line in 10 or 15 minutes but are not very efficient.

Now consider renewable energy sources. Because their power supply is intermittent and does not match demand, we cannot count on them to supply either a base load or peak demand. This means that, until battery technology can be deployed on a global scale so that renewable energy can be stored for when it is needed, we will continue to need both large baseline power plants and peak supply power plants.

The largest battery backup plant in the world is the facility built by Tesla at the Hornsdale Power Reserve in Florida.  It can store a maximum of 129 megawatt-hours of electricity – enough to supply 30,000 houses with electricity for 8 hours.  This is tiny compared with the amount of renewable energy that will eventually have to be stored globally. And the plant cost $61 million, so large-scale deployment of the current technology is not feasible.

Raising the share of electricity produced by renewables above 40% creates at least two adverse effects:

  • First, because baseline power produced by large power plants cannot be reduced, more and more solar farms and wind turbines must be unplugged from the system during their most productive hours because more electricity is being produced than is needed. This adversely affects both traditional power suppliers and renewable suppliers.
  • Second, more back-up generating capacity is needed to fill in when wind and solar are not generating power. So there is a natural stopping point at which a marginal increment of wind or solar will become unprofitable.  It has been estimated that solar and wind can only economically supply electricity to its maximum rated capacity. For wind power, this typically ranges between 20 and 40 percent, while for solar it runs between 10 and 25 percent. This means that the maximum percentage of electricity that can economically be generated by solar and wind is between 30 and 55 percent of demand.

7. Nuclear Fusion

Work continues on fusion powered plants.  The advantages of fusion are high power density, low and manageable waste production, and no possibility of uncontrolled energy release.  But fusion requires heating hydrogen to over 100,000,000o C at which temperature electrons are stripped from nuclei and the hydrogen becomes a plasma.  This is no mean feat.  And controlling the plasma is also very difficult.  The behavior of plasma is chaotic.  It is too hot to touch the walls of the tokamak (the containment vessel), and so it must be suspended in air by magnetic fields.  Stellarators are devices that control the magnets that control the plasma by twisting its flow in specific ways.  A recent new stellarator design using a fixed magnet offers a simpler approach than previous designs, and this may accelerate progress in controlling the plasma.

The largest fusion experiment in the world is ITER (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) being built by an international consortium in Provence in the south of France at a cost of $2 billion.  But despite its price tag, ITER is just a proof-of-concept plant and will not provide energy for public use.  And it isn’t scheduled for full power operation until 2035.  Optimistically, if we get some breaks and don’t run into any insurmountable obstacles, we could see the first fusion plant online between 2050 or 2060.  In the meantime, we need non-polluting baseline power now, and only fission can provide that.

Nuclear is not the sole solution, but it could be the most important element of the EDF’S portfolio of Fourth Wave Environmental Innovation to bridge us to the day when we get all our power from fusion reactors.

8. Conclusion:

We must immediately begin replacing fossil fuels with clean energy at a scale that can provide both secure baseline power and reliable peak demand power.  It makes sense that we choose the only source of clean energy that can do this – nuclear.