Weeks after a tsunami devastated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, the impassioned debate over nuclear energy continues. In the wake of Fukushima, comparisons with other energy choices have grown sharper and the question looms whether nuclear power will expand or decline to meet rising energy demands. What is it precisely that makes nuclear energy different from other energy sources? Over the upcoming weeks in this Roundtable, the Bulletin's experts will provide thoughtful analysis and insight as they explore this very question.
Editor's note: This introduction was modified on May 2, 2011.
Every energy source has unique characteristics that deserve careful consideration and comparison. Renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, do not emit greenhouse gases but produce power intermittently and require large areas of land. Oil and gas are convenient and easily stored but are concentrated in limited locations, particularly in the Persian Gulf. Coal is abundant but massive quantities of materials must be processed, resulting in large-scale land disturbances and climate change.
For nuclear energy, its most unique characteristic is the massive energy output embodied in each kilogram of uranium fuel—nearly a million times the energy density of fossil fuels. Most of nuclear energy's advantages (such as its relatively small waste volumes) and disadvantages (such as its potential use in nuclear weapons) are a consequence of this characteristic.
Only 200 tons of milled uranium are needed to fuel a 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor for a year. That makes the cost of uranium fuel only two to four percent of the final cost of the electricity. Low fuel costs and high energy density enable a country to affordably stockpile a couple years' worth of nuclear fuel in a space no larger than a small warehouse. That can assure a country's energy independence, which has major implications for war and peace.
Fighting over oil. Throughout the industrial age, nations have waged wars to gain control over energy sources. During World War I, the British fleet converted from coal to oil. But the British Empire had very little oil, so the British Indian Army invaded the northern Persian Gulf and in 1920 carved Iraq out of the Ottoman Empire. The newly formed state was strategically located halfway between British India and the British Suez Canal.
America's introduction to energy security came on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Japan was short on oil and concluded it had to take over Asian oil fields, but feared the US might block its actions. To prevent that, Japan launched its preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor, precipitating the US entry into World War II.
In 1953 America was drawn into the Middle East when the democratically elected government of Iran responded to a series of oil-company scandals by nationalizing all foreign oil holdings. The United States and Britain reacted by organizing a military coup, overthrowing the Iranian democracy, and establishing a monarchy.
In 1979, Iranian anger with the Shah and his foreign backers fueled the Iranian Revolution and the country's anti-American sentiments. US alliances with other Arab monarchs, and with Saddam Hussein of Iraq, have had similarly troubled outcomes. US military forces are in the Middle East because Iran and Saudi Arabia each have the equivalent of about 300 billion barrels of recoverable oil and gas; Iraq has about 140 billion barrels; and Qatar has 180 billion barrels. These reserves are controlled by national oil companies where price and availability are political decisions. By comparison, Exxon Mobil and BP have combined reserves of less than 28 billion barrels.
Why is this relevant to nuclear energy? Japan's nuclear power program can be traced to World War II, after which the Japanese concluded that war was not the right route to energy security. Similarly, the French nuclear power program is a consequence of the Algerian war, after which the French concluded that only fools would bet their future on Mideast oil. France and Japan chose nuclear energy, a difficult technology, not because it was popular but because the alternatives were worse. Nuclear power in these countries is part of a larger policy that includes high-speed electric trains, efficient vehicles, and other measures to reduce oil and gas consumption.
Environmental impacts. The high energy density of uranium not only makes it an affordable option for countries seeking energy independence, but also produces relatively small quantities of waste. Relative to the price of electricity, radioactive waste from power plants can be disposed of in geologic repositories at low cost; currently, this technology is used to dispose of hazardous chemical waste in Europe, and defense-related transuranic radioactive waste at the US Energy Department's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. With energy sources such as coal and gas, it is not possible to dispose of all waste -- there is simply too much of it.
Nuclear energy's environmental impacts can be more closely monitored than the impacts of other energy sources, because it's easy to measure radioactivity at orders of magnitude below the levels hazardous to human health. The ability to detect radioactive contamination cheaply and quickly -- and thus avoid it -- is why no one has died of radiation in the Japanese accident; why the public health effects will be small; and why the Japanese will be able to fully clean up after the accident.
If measurements could be taken of the hazardous fallout from a chemical-plant fire, or the mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants, there would be a public outcry as those contaminants spread around the world. Hazardous non-radioactive fallout is noticeable, however, only when large numbers of people are visibly sickened. People are content to let scientists and epidemiologists sort out why some communities have high cancer levels -- and whether chemical fallout might be responsible.
Power and weapons. Along with concerns about public health, opponents of nuclear power also legitimately worry about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Historically nuclear weapons have been developed independently of nuclear power programs. Nuclear weapons technology is now more than 65 years old, and advances in every field -- from computers to carbon composites for aircraft -- are lowering the technological barriers for entry into the arms race.
History suggests that nuclear power can be a force for peace, by removing energy demands as a cause for war. Western fears about oil supply have repeatedly led the United States and other nations into interventions in the Mideast. If the United States was not so dependent on oil, the country might not have intervened in Iran and neighboring countries -- and the Middle East could be a very different place today.
The potential coupling of nuclear power and weapons can be reduced with strategies such as fuel leasing. Under this approach, major countries would produce nuclear fuel, lease that fuel to smaller countries, and take back spent fuel for disposal. Such a strategy requires international commitments to provide nuclear fuel to any country that meets nonproliferation obligations -- not just current friends. To be successful, a fuel-leasing strategy also requires domestic waste-management systems that can accept small quantities of foreign spent nuclear fuel.
Comparisons of different energy sources show the total risks for nuclear power are lower than the alternatives—even after considering accidents. The concern about accidents follows from the concentrated wastes that are a consequence of a concentrated energy source. Accidents can never be eliminated, but they will become less likely as people learn from experience. Nuclear fuel is not controlled by unfriendly and unstable regimes. Only small amounts of nuclear material need to be handled to assure large quantities of energy. These are the fundamental characteristics of nuclear power, and remain the strongest argument on its behalf.
From the time we learn to walk, mistakes are inherent in the process of human learning. An essential design principle for technology should be that we, the generations that benefit, should bear the major costs of its mistakes. Nuclear power fails this simple test miserably. It is just not possible to pick up the pieces and move on after a grave accident. Land is contaminated for generations. Cancer risks lurk in the shadows. Local economies are destroyed and cannot be restored. Nor have we properly addressed the problem of nuclear waste, even though each year's operation of a reactor creates enough plutonium (if separated from the waste) to make about 30 nuclear bombs.
Of late, even some staunch environmentalists, like James Lovelock of Gaia hypothesis fame, have become nuclear power advocates. They argue that nuclear power is essential to solving the challenges of climate change. But this is deeply flawed thinking. Nuclear power is not a game-changer, panacea, or even vital piece of the energy puzzle. It is an unpredictable, existentially dangerous, and far too costly energy source that would have us trade carbon dioxide for plutonium.
Meltdown rates and bureaucracy. Those who promote nuclear power have hidden behind two related assumptions: first, that severe accidents will be extremely rare -- once every several hundred years if several hundred reactors are operational; and, second, that we are prescient enough to know the accident mechanisms and calculate their probabilities.
The current tally: one in every 100 commercial light water power reactors, the most common design in the world (including all operating US commercial reactors), has now had a partial or full meltdown before its first 40-year license period has expired -- three at Fukushima Daiichi and one at Three Mile Island. The Fukushima meltdowns have had serious containment failures. In addition, there have been four hydrogen explosions and heating up or boiling of one or more spent fuel pools, which often have larger stores of long-lived radioactivity than the reactors. This severe accident rate -- one every five to 10 years for which a few hundred reactors have been operational -- is far greater than regulators and proponents imagine. So, we simply do not know how to reliably calculate the probabilities of such events, which remain rare in theory, but evidently not so rare in practice. And each accident sequence has been unique. There even appear to be differences among the meltdowns at the Fukushima reactors. Still, the US regulatory process moves ahead, relying on the perilous notion that these terribly dangerous events can be calculated -- though the official numbers are now in the realm of statistical fiction.
Chernobyl was written off by many in the West as being attributable to poor design and the Soviet dictatorial system. Three Mile Island released radioactivity but did not create severe offsite hot spots; as a result, some even pointed to it as a very rare event and a demonstration of nuclear safety. But Fukushima has given lie to the idea that severe accidents are very rare or that the consequences for the public are not disastrous. They already are. Hot spots dot the landscape around Fukushima. The livelihoods of farming and fishing families have been destroyed; the seas have become radioactive for miles around. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced; many or most will not be able to return to radioactively contaminated homes. Parents had to protest vigorously to prevent their children from being ordered to schools within radioactive hot spots, which would irradiate the children as much as nuclear workers. And still the radioactivity releases continue, months after the earthquake and tsunami.
Worse, while the US government actively ignores the failure rates of nuclear power plants, it still encourages their growth by offering loan guarantees, among other subsidies. In a sensible world, where government was above all dedicated to public safety, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would have stopped licensing new plants and re-licensing existing ones. But, the process marches on, while a review of Fukushima is conducted on the side.
Take the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant: It has more spent fuel in its pool than all four pools at the stricken Fukushima reactors put together, and it is of the same Mark 1 design. Nevertheless, the NRC re-licensed Vermont Yankee on March 21, just 10 days after the start of the Fukushima disaster and despite the National Academies' conclusion -- pre-Fukushima -- that dry-cask storage of spent fuel is a much better defense against terrorism. Additionally, the dry casks at Fukushima did not leak radiation, even in the face of both an earthquake and a tsunami. Most of the spent fuel at Vermont Yankee has cooled down enough to be put into dry storage. Yet, the NRC did not require that that be done as a condition of re-licensing the reactor. The NRC made a bet that reactor spent fuel pools are safe enough -- based on accident probabilities that have been rendered obsolete. That much was evident well before March 21, 2011.
Design flaws. In addition to dismissing smart design, like hardened dry-cask storage for aged spent fuel, nuclear power plants, even new ones, continue to incorporate a central design flaw. All four meltdowns had a common root in a single design feature: zircaloy fuel rods, which are used in all commercial light water reactors. Zircaloy is composed of zirconium (more than 95 percent) with small amounts of tin or niobium, or both. The zircaloy tubes contain the uranium-dioxide fuel pellets that sustain the chain reaction. Zirconium was chosen because it absorbs relatively few neutrons and because it has excellent heat-transfer properties. But there is a price: Zirconium reacts with steam to form zirconium dioxide and hydrogen gas -- an exothermic reaction that increases the temperature in the reactor even more than the loss of coolant alone. So, once the fuel is uncovered and the water in contact with the fuel rod begins to boil, both the process of a meltdown and the risk of an explosion accelerate.
This problem with zirconium was known early on. But, with its good heat conductivity and low neutron-absorption cross-section, it was just too attractive to nuclear power plant designers. Even after the Three Mile Island accident, there was no concerted effort to create a more robust fuel-rod design. Nor does there seem to be now -- after three more meltdowns and four hydrogen explosions.
The price tag for disaster. Insurance, too, is a problem hiding in plain sight. Under the Price Anderson Act, Congress has limited the liability of the whole nuclear industry to about $12 billion per accident. Yet, according to a 1997 Brookhaven National Laboratory study done for the NRC , the worst-case spent fuel pool accident in a densely populated area would result in about 140,000 excess cancer deaths and $540 billion in damages (roughly $700 billion in 2010 dollars). The US government has promised to assume the rest of the liability, though there is no practical legislative provision for it.
Of course, no private insurance company or even consortium of insurance companies would shoulder the fearsome liabilities arising from severe nuclear accidents. Governments seem to want to go where insurance companies fear to tread. An interesting form of capitalism seems to be at work: privatize profits and socialize liabilities. It will be some time before all the damage and liabilities arising from the Fukushima accident can be tallied, but there is no doubt that $12 billion is a pitifully small amount in the face of the losses, dislocation, and damage -- not only in Japan, but globally.
Nuclear power and nuclear bombs. Clearly, nuclear power is different from fossil fuels in that it has low carbon emissions (and, in principle, in an all-nuclear economy, none). But nuclear power is also different from fossil fuels in a far more sinister way: Nuclear fission is the only energy source that can be used to hide a nuclear weapon infrastructure.
In contemplating US participation in a nuclear weapons convention, J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote in 1946: "We know very well what we would do if we signed such a convention: we would not make atomic weapons, at least not to start with, but we would build enormous plants, and we would call them power plants. … We would design these plants in such a way that they could be converted with the maximum ease and the minimum time delay to the production of atomic weapons." More recently, Mohammed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said of the rush to nuclear power by a number of countries: "You don't really even need to have a nuclear weapon. It's enough to buy yourself an insurance policy by developing the capability and then sit on it. Let's not kid ourselves: 90 percent of it is insurance, a deterrence."
Solutions. Nuclear power reactors are just boilers. Is it sensible to make plutonium and highly radioactive fission products just to boil water? Is that a sensible thing to do even if it were cheap, which it is not? Is that the limit of human technological creativity?
Luckily, the world has a free thermonuclear reactor in the sky: the sun, which also animates the winds. Innovations in renewable resources make it possible to take nuclear power out of our energy future. Wind power, even with storage (using compressed air pumped into caverns) is cheaper than new nuclear power plants. Solar photovoltaics are expected to be cheaper than coal without carbon capture in less than a decade (it is official US policy to try to achieve that goal with its "Sunshot Initiative"). Germany has decided to phase out nuclear power by 2022 while reducing carbon emissions. They will use solar power, onshore and offshore wind energy, distributed combined heat and power, advanced efficiency technologies, and a very smart grid. Italy and Switzerland have joined the Germans. The Japanese appear to be headed in the same direction, at least if Prime Minster Naoto Kan has his way.
The United States -- and indeed the rest of the world -- would be wise to do the same. Even if the United States had bold regulators who were unafraid to shut down unsafe plants or mandate a change in fuel design, they could still not possibly have the perfect crystal ball that nuclear reactors demand. And, as it is, the United States has regulators who operate in a political atmosphere that frowns on regulation and even on government itself. No wonder nuclear regulators are too timid to take the modest step of ordering dry storage of spent fuel to guard against terrorist attacks. The United States needs to phase out nuclear reactors in an orderly way -- before there is a Fukushima-scale human tragedy and deep environmental and economic damage.
Yes, nuclear energy is different than other energy sources. This happens to be both a great strength and, if not managed properly, sometimes a great challenge.
Nuclear energy is the only low-carbon electricity source that can operate around the clock on a mass scale. It is the largest solution to global goals for reducing carbon emissions in the power sector: It provides 70 percent of US electricity generated by low-carbon sources; globally, it produces nearly half of all low-carbon electricity.
Once a nuclear energy facility is built, it produces electricity at a fraction of the cost of other sources, both fossil-based and renewable. Based on these attributes, nuclear energy stands alone as a secure, valuable source of power both for economic growth and to reduce air pollution. No other energy source can do both on such a large scale.
Nuclear energy is not always given credit for its environmental and economic benefits, while its risks often are viewed beyond what the realities of physics and medical science warrant. The earthquake- and tsunami-related accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan has given new momentum to those who oppose nuclear energy generation in America and elsewhere. The widespread public concern over the events in Japan is appropriate and understandable. This accident certainly requires a thorough investigation, and the global nuclear energy industry should respond decisively to lessons that emerge. But this is not a time for shortsighted actions based on irrational fears or political motivation.
Continuous evaluation and improvement. Needless to say, all those in the nuclear energy industry must apply the lessons learned from Fukushima, and in particular prevent damage caused by sudden flooding. While a tsunami is improbable at many of our nuclear energy facilities in the United States, it would be foolish to miss the larger lesson: We must always evaluate each of our 104 reactors to make sure they can withstand severe conditions regardless of the cause, including the loss of significant operational and safety systems.
We did this after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and as a result greatly improved security at US reactor sites while confirming that our reactors can sustain the impact of a deliberate airline crash without releasing radiation at levels that would harm the public. We have to use our imagination for the worst possible case, and plan for it.
This work is ongoing, but it is happening -- and again, this makes nuclear energy somewhat unique. No other energy sector has such a thorough process for continuous safety evaluation and improvement. Nuclear energy facilities already are designed to withstand earthquakes of historic magnitude in whatever region they are located. In situations that might have caused problems -- Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew, for example -- nuclear plants were shut down safely with no public consequences. As an industry, we can't be complacent. So we are working with the government's independent regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to make sure nuclear energy facilities meet or surpass standards for safety, security, and emergency preparedness. No other energy source faces this kind of scrutiny at each facility.
The nuclear energy industry understands why this independent oversight is necessary. Yet along with this scrutiny, we hope policymakers, scientists, and the general public will recognize the unique combination of benefits that nuclear energy provides:
Risks vs. benefits. All these benefits have to be weighed against the concerns of those who view the risks as too great to bear. There were, for example, people who wanted to shutter the nation's nuclear reactors after the September 11 terrorist attacks, for fear they would be targeted next. Had we listened to them, today we would have more harmful emissions, higher utility bills, more land devoted solely to energy production (particularly in and around urban areas), and tens of thousands fewer jobs.
Those reasons alone have compelled policymakers to recognize that an abandonment of nuclear energy would be a surrender of both our economic and environmental goals. Instead, policymakers and the industry itself have responded to each challenge with greater efforts to enhance safety, increase security, and do everything in our power to continue delivering electricity while protecting the planet.
The choice we have made -- the choice we must always make -- is to treat nuclear energy as a source of affordable, low-carbon power, and good-paying jobs. Is it risk-free? Of course not. But a world without nuclear energy would be fraught with far greater risks: The risk of climate change. The risk of economic stagnation. The risk of unmet energy needs. The risk of continued dependence on foreign energy. Although Germany and Italy have decided to take those risks and bear their cost, many other nations are moving in the other direction. Worldwide, there are 61 reactors under consideration and plans for another 158. That is a studied and sober choice toward a better energy future.
If reactors were safe, nuclear industries would not demand government-guaranteed, accident-liability protection, as a condition for their generating electricity. Escaping from liability is one of many differences between atomic power and renewable-energy sources. Given the need to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and avoid fossil fuels, comparing nuclear power with renewable alternatives is urgent. What are their differences? If one considers liability, cost, emissions, environmental justice, and weapons proliferation, renewables such as wind and solar-photovoltaic clearly are safer, cheaper, more climate friendly, more ethical, and less vulnerable to terrorism than nuclear fission.
The liability difference. Unlike renewable-energy technologies, by law (the Price-Anderson Act) US reactor operators are not liable for 98 percent of major, government-calculated, nuclear-accident damages. Worldwide, most reactor operators have no liability for accidents. Why? Many reactor programs (including those in the United States) began because governments sought nuclear-weapons-grade materials or technologies and, to get them, agreed to the industry demand for avoiding most liability. The public, not industry, thus bears most nuclear risks and costs, even those caused by negligence or illegal activities. Yet, government studies say there is a one-in-five chance that at least one of the 104 US reactors will have a core-melt accident in its lifetime -- and that such an accident could kill 140,000 people and permanently contaminate an area the size of Pennsylvania. Renewables like wind and solar, however, enjoy no legally mandated avoidance of liability.
Why does the nuclear industry tell the public that reactors are safe, when its own liability demands prove the opposite? Markets and credit-rating agencies provide one answer: Purchasing market-based, accident-liability-insurance coverage would triple fission-electricity prices.
Why impose nuclear costs, risks, and liabilities on innocent victims when renewable technologies will work? The classic Princeton study in Science shows any six of at least nine renewable/efficiency technologies, "already deployed at an industrial scale," could solve global climate problems by 2050. Government says that wind from only three states (Kansas, North Dakota, and Texas) could supply all US electricity; that by 2015 to 2018, solar-photovoltaic will have grid parity and be cost-competitive with all electricity sources; that solar-thermal already is fully competitive; but that by 2030, fission could provide, at most, only 57 percent as much US energy as renewables.
The cost difference. Because commercial fission has been much more heavily subsidized than renewable energy, it is artificially protected from markets -- from real prices that are much higher than those of renewables. Why the subsidies? Partly because governments seek military-nuclear-technology advantages from civilian reactors, they subsidize 50 to 90 percent of commercial-fission costs. No reactors anywhere have ever begun or operated on the market.
During the last 50 years, according to MRG Consultants, the United States has provided 33 times more subsidies ($165 billion) to commercial nuclear than to wind and solar combined ($5 billion), if one counts only direct subsidies and three indirect subsidies (for construction incentives, liability, and tax credits). Counting all direct and indirect subsidies, US commercial-fission subsidies have been 200 times greater ($20 billion annually or $1 trillion over 50 years) than those for wind and solar combined, according to the late MIT Nobelist Henry Kendall. Although the Obama administration has proposed another $54 billion in commercial-reactor subsidies, to generate new-reactor proposals, no US reactors have been ordered since 1974. Why not?
Even massive subsidies -- necessary for utilities to consider building reactors -- are insufficient to make fission economical. Investors and banks agree, refusing nuclear loans. A Forbes article calls nuclear power "the largest managerial disaster in business history," pursued only by the "blind" or the "biased." Credit-rating agencies, such as Moody's and Standard and Poor's, agree, downgrading utilities with reactors. They know that wind supplies significant amounts of power for many Midwestern states and that Iowa, for example, uses wind for 20 percent of electricity. Installed US wind is above 40,000 megawatts and rapidly increasing, but dropping in cost, while installed US fission is below 101,000 megawatts and rapidly decreasing, but increasing in cost. Credit-rating agencies say market-based nuclear costs are 15 cents per kilowatt-hour and rapidly rising, despite massive, lopsided subsidies, while the US government says median, market-based, wind costs are nearly five times lower -- 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, often dropping to 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says commercial-nuclear subsidies, over 50 years, have been so large -- in proportion to energy-production values -- that often it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy electricity on the open market and give it away. As physicist Amory Lovins notes, fission died of an acute attack of market forces. Subsidizing it is like defibrillating a corpse; it will jump but remain dead. The International Energy Agency agrees: High costs have destroyed fission, and by 2030 or sooner, it will supply only 9 percent -- not its current 14 percent -- of global electricity.
Globally, fission has 375 gigawatts installed and is declining, while by 2013, BTM Consultants says that wind will have 340 gigawatts installed, with continuing explosive growth. In the European Union, wind is growing faster than any other energy installations, and the American Wind Energy Association says that, since 2007, wind has added twice the new capacity of coal and nuclear combined. OffshoreWind.biz says that more than half of the new global-wind installations were added outside Europe and North America. For years, Germany, Spain, and India each have annually added more wind than the world added in fission. The Danes use wind to generate 21 percent of electricity; by 2030, it will generate half. By 2020, the EU says renewables will generate 20 to 49 percent of EU energy, depending on the nation.
Why are most banks, credit-rating agencies, investors, and nations promoting renewable energy, while the United States continues to subsidize nuclear power more than renewables? The Economist blames US nuclear-industry campaign contributions, encouraging politicians to do what bankers and investors refuse to do.
The emissions difference. Multiple independent, university-based analyses, from Oxford (United Kingdom) to Heerlen (Netherlands) to Singapore, agree about per-kilowatt-hour, carbon-equivalent, full-fuel-cycle emissions: Once all emissions are counted, fission is five to 40 times dirtier than wind, three to 10 times dirtier than solar-photovoltaic, and roughly as dirty as natural gas (although credit-rating agencies say natural gas is three times cheaper than fission). Most people are unaware of this emissions difference because nuclear-industry-funded PR "trims the data" -- including only reactor releases but ignoring full-nuclear-fuel-cycle carbon emissions from processes such as uranium mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, fabrication, reprocessing, storage, and transport. Even pro-nuclear MIT and government studies erroneously "trim" carbon data, calling fission "carbon free," or "emissions free." Such trimming of renewable-energy costs and emissions is less likely, especially in the United States, partly because the Office of Management and Budget and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act make clean-energy funding contingent on detailed reporting, transparency, accountability, and performance requirements.
The environmental-justice difference. Fission imposes more health-and-safety burdens on children, minorities, poor people, and future generations than does renewable energy. Well-confirmed English, French, German, Scottish, US, and other scientific-journal studies show increased infant and childhood mortality and cancers within 30 miles of normally operating reactors. Such harms are inevitable because, although there is no safe dose of ionizing radiation, all nations allow each reactor to release at least 25 millirems of radiation annually, some countries allow up to 100 millirems, and yet children are up to 38 times more sensitive to radiation than adults.
Robust US statistical studies also show that reactors -- but not renewable-energy facilities -- tend to be located in poor or minority neighborhoods. Japan, for instance, places most reactors in impoverished areas. Using a system described as "bribery" and encouraging "addiction," Japan taxes all electricity consumers, then gives billions of dollars annually (up to three-fourths of local revenues) to poor communities that host reactors. Some host-community residents need not even work for a living.
Fission also places heavier burdens on future generations than does renewable energy. The US National Academy of Sciences says nuclear waste must be stored forever, yet the US government admits that current waste-protection standards cannot be met in the future. Perhaps Alvin Weinberg, former director of Oak Ridge Laboratories, was right: Nuclear waste is a Faustian bargain, exchanging future generations' safety for this generation's energy and military programs. Renewables, however, have fewer environmental-justice burdens, mainly because their generating facilities involve neither dirty fuel sources nor harmful emissions.
The weapons difference. Unlike renewables, fission encourages nuclear proliferation because the same technology can be used for arms manufacture. Many UN and US agencies warn that building more reactors unavoidably increases proliferation risks. Al Qaeda has targeted US reactors, and the National Academy of Sciences says US nuclear plants cannot withstand aircraft attacks -- which could cause 10 times more fatalities than the Chernobyl accident, up to 500 miles away.
Fission is different -- riskier, more expensive, more unjust, more proliferation-and-terrorist-prone, than renewable-energy sources such as solar and wind. These differences explain why banks, credit-raters, insurers, investors, and markets all agree. Economics, ethics, and safety all dictate the same choice: renewable energy.
Several years ago, an American utility executive said, "Nuclear energy is a business, not a religion." This was a refreshing change from the usual ardent support or criticism of nuclear energy. To most people, the nuclear landscape looks quite different. Nuclear energy is not seen as just another way to boil water, and that is precisely why it usually evokes an almost religious faith or fear.
The big difference separating nuclear energy from the alternatives is public acceptance. The BP oil spill raised many questions about the safety of offshore drilling, but few about whether we should give up oil. Despite overwhelming dependence on foreign oil and resultant concerns about energy security, the public largely accepts oil as mundane and ubiquitous. One cannot imagine, for example, the Oil and Gas Journal soliciting comments on what makes oil different from other energy sources. It just wouldn't be an interesting debate, primarily because the hearts and minds of the public are already won over.
Not so for nuclear energy. Fifty years and 104 power reactors in the United States later, nuclear energy still inspires debate. Unfortunately, the debate is often more polarizing than illuminating. To wit: After the Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents, supporters of nuclear power argued that no one died and that such accidents result in fewer deaths and dislocations than major coal- and petroleum-related accidents. Strictly speaking, those facts are true, but are they relevant? Can the public be won over by such arguments?
In government we trust … Public acceptance is fundamentally based on trust. For nuclear energy, that translates into trust in governments, for a variety of reasons. Civil nuclear energy grew out of military nuclear-weapons programs; it is essentially a "spin-off" of defense programs. Because some elements of the nuclear fuel cycle can produce fissile material for either nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons, nuclear energy is highly regulated. Virtually all "commercial" enrichment facilities are either government-owned or government-controlled, and all reprocessing facilities are government-owned. Even the exceptions, such as the US Enrichment Corporation and the European URENCO, have significant government involvement. For example, US government decisions about Energy Department uranium holdings, Russian anti-dumping restrictions, and federal bail-outs have helped the US Enrichment Corporation avoid bankruptcy in the almost 20 years since uranium enrichment was privatized in the United States. URENCO operates profitably without financial support from its governments (German, Dutch, and British) but is strictly bound by international treaties.
Nuclear power reactors in the United States, on the other hand, are largely privately owned and operated. Without legal limits on their liability in the event of a significant accident (under the Price-Anderson Act), however, such reactors could not compete with alternatives, because the cost of private insurance would be prohibitive. As for new reactors in the United States, the Energy Department's Nuclear Power 2010 program attempted to jump-start the next round of reactor construction, but nothing short of a legislated price on greenhouse gas emissions is likely to result in the kind of new nuclear construction that proponents advocate.
Overseas, the trend has been for even more government involvement, if not outright ownership. Nuclear manufacturing industries are heavily subsidized or controlled, and nuclear reactors are run, in many cases, by government-controlled entities (for example, EDF and Areva in France and Atomenergoprom in Russia). For new reactors, governments dictate the terms of the bids and, increasingly, the incentives provided to suppliers. It is no coincidence that the winning bid for four reactors to be built in the United Arab Emirates included $10 billion (out of $18.6 billion total) in project financing from the Korean government. Nuclear cooperation in recent years has been more than just business for many countries; suppliers choose their partners carefully, adding to the prestige attached to nuclear power.
Such expensive infrastructure projects require government support, but more importantly, they require strict government regulation to ensure safety, security, and the non-diversion of materials for nuclear weapons. In contemplating the expansion of nuclear power to additional nations, what risks do governance challenges pose for the safe operation of nuclear power plants? Further, will governance challenges promote or suppress the kind of transparent, consent-based approach that is so vital to public acceptance of nuclear energy? The experience of Japan, an advanced nuclear state with few apparent governance issues, in responding to Fukushima is a cautionary tale.
…Or do we? Japan's investigation into the Fukushima accident exposed vulnerabilities in its system of nuclear regulation. In fact, some have suggested that Fukushima was worsened by peculiarities of the Japanese system. One of the criticisms leveled within Japan is that a cozy relationship between nuclear utilities, regulators, and politicians -- the so-called "nuclear village" -- resulted in avoidable safety lapses. Another is that the bureaucratic structure has favored nuclear power promotion over regulation. A third is that the enormous incentives for siting nuclear power plants all but silenced public opposition, since small villages found it difficult to reject lucrative deals worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.
These weaknesses are not unique to nuclear energy, but they are especially relevant for their impact on public trust. An argument for strong government involvement in nuclear power is the government's mandate to protect the public and the environment from radiation releases. Recently, the prime minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, has been considering nationalizing the Tokyo Electric Power Company's nuclear power plants, leaving Tepco in charge of thermal and hydropower plants. This is not just the result of the enormous losses incurred as a result of the Fukushima accident, but a more profound loss of faith in Japanese companies' protection of the public good. Whether bureaucratic realignments can improve regulation in Japan and deflect criticism of the government remains to be seen.
Resurrection for nuclear energy? Before Fukushima, nuclear energy seemed to be on a glide path toward doubling or tripling capacity worldwide. The traditional challenges -- cost, safety, waste, and proliferation -- were brushed aside in favor of improving energy security and mitigating climate change. The cost of transforming energy sectors to reduce carbon dioxide emissions made nuclear energy seem like a bargain, and safety issues receded as memories of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island grew more distant. Since no country had yet opened a repository for commercial spent nuclear fuel in 50 years without disastrous consequences, nuclear waste decisions could continue on a "wait and see" path. Proliferation concerns, once nuclear trade with India was reopened in 2008, were relegated to "bad actors" like Pakistani A. Q. Khan and North Korea, Iran, and Syria.
Fukushima has altered that growth trajectory. Certainly, some countries will build new nuclear power plants, but perhaps now more cautiously. Fukushima suggests that no utility is "too big to fail," and that risk assumptions need to be revisited. The safety and security of spent nuclear fuel pools is also being scrutinized; the "wait and see" approach may not be good enough to win public support. Fukushima also suggests that the public's tolerance of risk is different from that of industry and government. To bring all three into line, far greater transparency and accountability is necessary.
Finally, public acceptance of nuclear waste has been elusive but essential. As the United States knows all too well, politics will intervene in waste decisions unless public acceptance is genuine. The President's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Energy Future recently recommended an "adaptive, staged, consent-based, transparent, and standards- and science-based" approach. This will be the major challenge for nuclear energy in the United States in the coming years.
Nuclear power proponents claim:
Let's examine each argument.
1. Climate. Nuclear energy has low carbon emissions. But the United States doesn't lack low-carbon energy sources: The potential of wind energy alone is about nine times total US electricity generation. Solar energy is even more plentiful. Time and money to address climate change are in short supply, not low carbon dioxide sources. Instead of the two large reactors the United States would require every three months to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, all the breathless pronouncements from nuclear advocates are only yielding two reactors every five years -- if that. Even federal loan guarantees have not given this renaissance momentum. Wall Street won't fund them. (Can nuclear power even be called a commercial technology if it can't raise money on Wall Street?) Today, wind energy is far cheaper and faster than nuclear. Simply put: Nuclear fares poorly on two crucial criteria -- time and money.
2. Proliferation. President Eisenhower spoke of "Atoms for Peace" at the United Nations in 1953; he thought it would be too depressing only to mention the horrors of thermonuclear weapons. It was just a fig leaf to mask the bomb: Much of the interest in nuclear power is mainly a cover for acquiring bomb-making know-how. To make a real dent in carbon dioxide emissions, about 3,000 large reactors would have to be built worldwide in the next 40 years -- creating enough plutonium annually to create 90,000 bombs, if separated. Two or three commercial uranium enrichment plants would also be needed yearly -- and it has only taken one, Iran's, to give the world a nuclear security headache.
3. Production. Nuclear power does produce electricity around the clock -- until it doesn't. For instance, the 2007 earthquake near the seven-reactor Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant in Japan turned 24/7 electricity into a 0/365 shutdown in seconds. The first of those reactors was not restarted for nearly two years. Three remain shut down. Just last month, an earthquake in Virginia shut down the two North Anna reactors. It is unknown when they will reopen. As for land area and the amount of fuel needed, nuclear proponents tend to forget uranium mining and milling. Each ton of nuclear fuel creates seven tons of depleted uranium. The eight total tons of uranium have roughly 800 tons of mill tailings (assuming ore with 1 percent uranium content) and, typically, a similar amount of mine waste. Nuclear power may have a much smaller footprint than coal, but it still has an enormous waste and land footprint once uranium mining and milling are considered.
4. Consistency. Solar and wind power are intermittent. But the wind often blows when the sun doesn't shine. Existing hydropower and natural gas plants can fill in the gaps. Denmark manages intermittency by relying on Norwegian hydropower and has 20 percent wind energy. Today, compressed-air energy storage is economical, and sodium sulfur batteries are perhaps a few years from being commercial. Smart grids and appliances can communicate to alleviate intermittency. For instance, the defrost cycle in one's freezer could, for the most part, be automatically deferred to wind or solar energy surplus periods. Likewise, icemakers could store coldness to provide air-conditioning during peak hot days. The United States is running on an insecure, vulnerable, 100-year-old model for the grid -- the equivalent of a punch-card-mainframe computer system in the Internet age. It's a complete failure of imagination to say wind and solar intermittency necessitates nuclear power.
5. Oil. The United States uses only a tiny amount of oil in the electricity sector. But with electric vehicles, solar- and wind-generated electricity can do more for "energy independence" now than nuclear can, as renewable energy plants can be built quickly. Luckily, this is rapidly becoming a commercial reality. Parked electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids in airports, large businesses, or mall parking lots could help solve intermittency more cheaply and efficiently. Ford is already planning to sell solar panels to go with their new all-electric Ford Focus in 2012.
We don't need a costly, cumbersome, water-intensive, plutonium-making, financially risky method to boil water. Germany, Italy, and Switzerland are on their way to non-nuclear, low-carbon futures. Japan is starting down that road. A new official commission in France (yes, France!) will examine nuclear and non-nuclear scenarios. So, where is the Obama administration?
Why do people disagree about atomic energy? In the 1787 Federalist Papers, James Madison warned: "No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment." If Madison's warning applies to this roundtable, two reasons might explain why scientific and market data contradict many roundtable claims:
University scientists, peer-reviewed journals, and market sources agree: Fission poses enormous economic, environmental, and health threats.
Charles Forsberg suggests that nuclear energy holds the kernel of energy independence, that it can be a force for peace, and that it can remove "energy demands as a cause of war," citing the West's oil interests in the Middle East as a reason for military interventions.
If true, these would be reasons enough to heavily subsidize nuclear energy. Consider, however, that energy independence may not only be unattainable, but undesirable. The reason is cost. It is cheap energy that can help fuel economic growth. Most countries will choose affordable energy over independent energy. If they're wise, they will seek mutually assured dependence with their suppliers and recipients -- not independence. Countries like Japan and France are held up as models for those seeking to reduce dependence on oil through nuclear power, but neither has been able to do so: Their transportation still relies on oil. Arjun Makhijani points out that transportation electrification could reduce oil dependence, but he suggests a smart approach would allow electric cars to take advantage of renewable sources' intermittences -- implicitly suggesting that big demands on electricity don't require resources like nuclear energy.
At the heart of Forsberg's suggestion that nuclear energy could lead to energy independence is his assertion of the massive energy output of uranium. For now, uranium is a resource like coal, oil, or gas -- geographically limited and its production is tied to cost and quality of recoverable resources. Depending on foreign supplies is a way of life in the nuclear business, from uranium to components to services. The United States, with the largest number of reactors in the world (104 of the 433 globally), for example, gets more than 90 percent of its uranium overseas without undue security risks. Some foreign dependence could diminish if uranium becomes economically recoverable from seawater. For true independence, however, the world would need to move to breeder reactors, which produce more plutonium than they burn. The proliferation implications of such a move are enormous.
Whether nuclear power can be a force for peace is debatable. Forsberg hints that if countries weaned from oil, Middle East interventions would be less necessary. However, more nuclear power plants may be built in the Middle East than in the United States in the next 20 years -- the United Arab Emirates intends to build 10, and Saudi Arabia reportedly will build 16. Will those plants be a force for peace or targets for nuclear terrorism in a region noted for terrorist activity? Will burgeoning nuclear capabilities be viewed as hedging strategies for nuclear weapons?
The conventional wisdom is that nuclear power reactors aren't proliferation risks -- that we can monitor the fresh and spent fuel, that the plutonium produced isn't good for weapons, and that proliferating states have chosen other paths to produce weapons. The real proliferation risks come from uranium enrichment and spent-fuel reprocessing. Forsberg suggests we can overcome these risks with fuel-leasing approaches.
Here are some other considerations:
If Fukushima has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn't be complacent about risks we can't imagine. We know something about the risks of renewable energy sources, but nuclear weapons don't figure there.
For those opposed to nuclear energy, the belief is that there are alternative energy sources -- a faith in alternatives, ironically, as strong as some of the early advocates for nuclear power in the 1950s. But no such options exist in a world that will soon have 10 billion people (see Forsberg, "Mutually Assured Energy Independence"). That fundamental reality dictates the need for nuclear energy.
Climate change, fossil fuels, and famine. We have fossil fuels; however, the burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with the potential for large changes in (1) climate and (2) pH (acidity) of water and soil. Both threaten agricultural productivity, because the changing climate moves agriculture to less productive soils. A consistent climate is critical in the formation of fertile soils -- a several-thousand-year process. Climate change also may entail rebuilding much of man’s infrastructure, which is designed for specific climate and sea-level conditions. Betting on fossil fuels is a high-risk strategy for world agriculture and food supplies. While carbon dioxide sequestration will work in a few locations, it's unlikely to be a universal solution.
Renewables: latitude counts. We live on a globe circling the sun that creates seasons. That reality means that renewable systems must address how to store energy on a daily, weekly, and seasonal basis. It also drives the design of future energy systems.
At MIT, we examined electricity-storage requirements for California assuming three energy futures: (1) all electricity produced by nuclear reactors operating at constant output, (2) all electricity produced by wind assuming California wind conditions and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) wind model, and (3) all electricity produced by solar using the NREL solar-trough model that includes limited energy storage. Table 1 shows the fraction of electricity that has to go into storage at times of excess electricity production to provide electricity when demand exceeds supply.
The hourly storage requirements were determined by using the hourly demand curves for electricity and the hourly electricity outputs of solar or wind or nuclear in California. The weekly storage requirements assumed that smart grids, pumped storage, and other technologies could result in each week having a uniform electricity demand, but different weeks have different electricity demands. It is thus a measure of the seasonal storage requirements that needs to be identified, assuming different energy sources with seasonal storage requirements measured in 10s to 100s of gigawatts per year depending upon the electricity production technology.
Two-thirds of our electricity is base-load electricity; base-load nuclear energy has low electricity storage requirements. The storage requirements for solar and wind, however, are higher. In fact, the situation is even worse than indicated in Table 1, because the calculations assumed perfect storage systems. Real seasonal storage systems have just 50 percent efficiency but may ultimately increase to 70 percent. In other words, serious wind and solar energy initiatives require massive seasonal storage systems.
There are seasonal energy storage technologies being developed, such as nuclear-geothermal gigawatts per year and hydrogen systems. In a nuclear-geothermal energy storage system at times of low electricity demand, nuclear energy is used to heat a 500-meter cube of rock a kilometer or more underground to create an artificial geothermal heat source for peak power production. However, there is no way to insulate rock a kilometer underground. The heat losses are only a few percent on a large system but prohibitive in smaller systems -- that is, it is a technology that only couples to large-scale nuclear energy.
The potentially viable seasonal electricity storage technologies (including hydrogen) either couple to nuclear plants or involve synergistic combinations of nuclear and renewables -- but viable storage technologies do not couple efficiently to wind and solar. Renewable advocates point to Denmark and Germany -- countries whose wind systems depend upon Scandinavian hydro. However, there is not enough hydro worldwide to make a serious dent in the storage challenge. An all-renewables world will remain unaffordable -- even if the cost of renewables drop because of the larger challenge of energy storage to match production with demand.
Conclusions. Our energy challenge requires nuclear and renewables -- technologies that are complementary in many applications. Energy is over 10 percent of the global GNP, so economics matters because mankind needs more than energy to prosper. The risks of nuclear energy are small compared with the alternatives of oil wars, climate change, or unaffordable energy.
With all due respect to scientists and peer-reviewed journals, the notion espoused on the roundtable on September 22 that facts are only facts if uttered by a scientist or published in a peer-reviewed journal is foolish on its face. To help along those who might miss the real-world forest for the footnoted trees, here are a few references that may help:
• With regard to emissions, analyses conducted over the past decade by the University of Wisconsin, by British Energy in 2005 and 2006, and in Germany confirm that nuclear energy compares very well on life-cycle and other environmental bases to other electric-generating technologies.
• With regard to terrorism, readers are encouraged to review a summary of a yearlong aircraft-impact analysis conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Also, a compilation of statements from security experts on the strength of nuclear facilities' protective systems is available.
• For information on costs, a white paper -- footnoted! -- is available that summarizes analyses conducted of comparative costs of various electric-generating technologies. More evidence on nuclear energy's cost-competitiveness comes in these public utilities commissions' forward-projection analyses, known as determination of needs. The public utility commissions in the states of Georgia (request docket No. 27,800), South Carolina, and Florida concluded that new nuclear energy facilities best met their generation demands from a cost and environmental perspective.
• Lastly, though I don't have a footnote for them, one or two East Coast readers might be willing to verify the occurrence of the August 23 earthquake in Virginia and the subsequent weekend's Hurricane Irene. Nuclear energy facilities proved their ability to withstand extreme events on both occasions.
The bottom line is that, in the coming decades, we will be challenged to simultaneously meet rising electricity demand and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. To meet this challenge, the United States must establish a comprehensive and sustainable national energy policy that supports the development of technology-based, low-carbon solutions. It's hard to conceive of an energy policy that does not include a critical role for nuclear technology.
Charles Forsberg paints a stark picture -- a kind of nuclear-energy-or-else stance -- of a world where, without nuclear energy, we can expect oil wars, unprecedented climate change, or unaffordable energy. Of course, oil wars could continue even if nuclear energy is widely deployed as long as countries do not wean their transportation and industrial sectors from oil. Similarly, climate change cannot be combated merely by fuel-switching. Many respected technical studies indicate that the greatest contribution to carbon dioxide emission reductions will come from greater efficiency. And nuclear energy, although it may be an economic choice for some countries, is not affordable for all.
More broadly, there may be true disagreement on the implications of moving away from nuclear energy to renewable resources. Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany are unlikely to view the risks of abandoning nuclear energy as tantamount to getting involved in oil wars, being overcome by climate change, or being unable to afford energy. There will be costs undoubtedly, and the world will watch closely as these countries chart a different energy path.
It is indisputable that there are many challenges to deploying renewable energy on a wide scale, just as there were challenges to deploying nuclear energy on a wide scale in the early years. "Affordable" nuclear energy was aided by turnkey, fixed-price contracts employed by General Electric and Westinghouse as they competed for overseas exports. If Korea Electric Power Corporation's contract with the United Arab Emirates is any indication, we may see reactor exports supported by state-sponsored financial incentives. The question is: Will countries see a similar benefit from investing in critical energy technologies (smart grids, storage, etc.) and exporting them on beneficial terms to the countries that need them most?
A roadmap for a sustainable energy future may well include nuclear energy as a component, but strategies need to weigh realistic risks.