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Nuclear News - Nuclear Monitor #819 - 26 Feb 2016

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

New study: Meeting carbon reduction goals economically means no nuclear power

Mark Cooper, who for years has been writing extensively about the transition to a clean energy future from an economist's perspective, has published an important new report.

Cooper examines three recent global studies taking different approaches to achieving deep decarbonization of our electrical system, two that reject nuclear power as part of the means of attaining massive carbon reductions and one that accepts nuclear power and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS) as pieces of the approach. He then lays over that two recent studies of the economics of electricity generation, along with the political structure for attaining carbon reductions established by the COP21 climate agreement, to reach his conclusions.

The central finding is this: the best way to achieve a carbon-free future from an environmental perspective is also the best way from an economics perspective. And the best way means rejecting nuclear power entirely.

In other words, a nuclear-free, carbon-free approach to a clean energy future is not only environmentally preferable – avoiding radioactive waste generation, environmental damage from uranium mining and the rest of the nuclear fuel chain, proliferation concerns, and the constant threat of more Chernobyls and Fukushimas, and so on – it is cheaper as well.

Cooper places these findings in the context of the COP21 agreement and argues that the nuclear-free, carbon-free approach fits in perfectly with the agreement. Moreover, as the agreement stresses the urgency of addressing climate change and reducing carbon emissions, so does Cooper argue that from a purely economics perspective nuclear power cannot possibly meet that urgency. Therefore, expending resources on nuclear power (and carbon capture and storage) would be counterproductive at reducing carbon emissions.

Cooper's paper – titled 'The Economic and Institutional Foundations of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change: The Political Economy of Roadmaps to a Sustainable Electricity Future' – is online at:

Nuclear power and weapons: It's three minutes to midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced on January 26 that its Doomsday Clock will remain at three minutes to midnight. The Bulletin's Science and Security Board expressed its "dismay that world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world's attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. When we call these dangers existential, that is exactly what we mean: They threaten the very existence of civilization and therefore should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries."

The Bulletin's annual Doomsday statement notes problems associated with the nuclear fuel cycle:

"But the international community has not developed coordinated plans to meet cost, safety, radioactive waste management, and proliferation challenges that large-scale nuclear expansion poses.

"Nuclear power is growing in some regions that can afford its high construction costs, sometimes in countries that do not have adequately independent regulatory systems. Meanwhile, several countries continue to show interest in acquiring technologies for uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing – technologies that can be used to create weapons-grade fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

"Stockpiles of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel continue to grow (globally, about 10,000 metric tons of heavy metal are produced each year). Spent fuel requires safe geologic disposal over a time scale of hundreds of thousands of years.

"The US programs for handling waste from defense programs, for dismantling nuclear weapons, and for storing commercially generated spent nuclear fuel continue to flounder. Large projects – including a mixed-oxide fuel-fabrication plant at the Savannah River Site, meant to blend surplus weapons-grade plutonium with uranium so it can be used in commercial nuclear power plants – fall ever further behind schedule, and costs continue to mount, with the US Energy Department spending some $5.8 billion each year on environmental management of legacy nuclear waste from US weapons programs.

"Because of such problems, in the United States and in other countries, nuclear power's attractiveness as an alternative to fossil fuels has decreased, despite the clear need for carbon-emissions-free energy in the age of climate change."

Sharon Squassoni, a member of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board, said: "North Korea's recent nuclear test illustrates the very real danger of life in a proliferated world. Nuclear proliferation isn't a potential threat – we still have few controls over the kinds of capabilities that Iran succeeded in acquiring. In addition, regional tensions and conflict increase the risk of theft or use of these weapons."

A Bulletin Editorial in January 2010 addressed the nuclear power/weapons conundrum:

"As we see it, however, the world is not now safe for a rapid global expansion of nuclear energy. Such an expansion carries with it a high risk of misusing uranium enrichment plants and separated plutonium to create bombs. The use of nuclear devices is still a very dangerous possibility in a world where Russian and U.S. ballistic missiles are on hair trigger and long-standing conflicts between countries and among peoples too often escalate into military actions. As two of our board members have pointed out, 'Nuclear war is a terrible trade for slowing the pace of climate change.'"

The Bulletin's January 2016 statement identifies the following priorities:

  • Dramatically reduce proposed spending on nuclear weapons modernization programs.
  • Re-energize the disarmament process, with a focus on results. 
  • Engage North Korea to reduce nuclear risks. 
  • Follow up on the Paris accord with actions that sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fulfil the Paris promise of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius. 
  • Deal now with the commercial nuclear waste problem. ("Reasonable people can disagree on whether an expansion of nuclear-powered electricity generation should be a major component of the effort to limit climate change. Regardless of the future course of the worldwide nuclear power industry, there will be a need for safe and secure interim and permanent nuclear waste storage facilities.")
  • Create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially catastrophic misuses of new technologies.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jan 2016, 'It is still 3 minutes to midnight: 2016 Doomsday Clock Statement',

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 26 Jan 2016, 'Doomsday Clock hands remain unchanged, despite Iran deal and Paris talks'

14 Jan 2010, Editorial, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,