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Nuclear power is not "green energy"

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Arnie Gundersen ‒ chief engineer of Fairewinds Associates.

Starting in 1971, I became a card-carrying member of the "nuclear priesthood." I began as a licensed nuclear reactor operator and progressed through the industry to become a senior vice president. I believed, with religious fervor, that by helping to build and operate atomic power reactors, I would be creating power that was "too cheap to meter." The historic 1973 gasoline shortages and long lines of cars queued at the pumps made it clear to me and hundreds of other nuclear engineers that nuclear power was the only solution to the "energy shortage." In the 1970s and '80s, solving this apparent energy shortage was our only mantra. At that time, there was no scientific data connecting fossil fuels to climate change.

In 1953, President Eisenhower initiated his "Atoms for Peace" program as a means to transform the atom from a scourge into a benefit for mankind and created grand illusions of at least 1,000 US atomic plants by the year 2005. However, well before the 1979 disaster at Three Mile Island, nuclear construction costs were skyrocketing and construction schedules were constantly slipping. The overzealous goal of 1,000 US atomic power reactors dwindled to about 110 finally completed reactors, while more than 120 others that had been on the drawing boards were canceled before producing a single watt of power.1

By 1985, Eisenhower's dream of reclaiming the power of the atom for peaceful purposes had unraveled and had become a nightmare. Electric rates continued to skyrocket2 and ratepayers were left picking up the pieces from Atoms for Peace.

Of the more than 230 attempts to construct atomic power reactors in the United States during the 20th century, only 99 reactors are still operating. Globally, a total of 438 atomic power reactors were still operating in 2015, according to the World Nuclear Association.

During the 20th century, the lights stayed on and the prediction of a dire energy shortage never materialized. Nuclear power's claims that it would be an economic nirvana "too cheap to meter" collapsed as well. Entering the 21st century, renewables began to appear more feasible, so the atomic power industry latched on to NASA's James Hansen's 1988 prognosis of the global buildup in CO2 resulting in global climate change as a new justification for existence. Armed with this new marketing ploy, nuclear power lobbyists flooded Capitol Hill looking for financing to fund the 21st century "nuclear renaissance."

Does the nuclear industry's latest claim that it is the world's salvation from increasing levels of CO2 hold up under scrutiny? No. The evidence clearly shows that building new nuclear power plants will make global warming worse.

A growing carbon footprint

Before we look at the data, two concepts are important to clarify. First, burning a fossil fuel like coal or oil emits CO2.3 The amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere each year is massive, measured in gigatons. A single gigaton is one thousand million tons of CO2 gas. The second concept is "ppm," or parts per million. As all this CO2 is dumped into the atmosphere, it is diluted by air. The concentration of CO2 atoms in air is measured in parts (molecules) of CO2 divided by one million air molecules, hence parts per million. In preindustrial times, normal background levels of global CO2 levels were around 280 ppm.4

When the first large commercial nuclear power plant went on line, global emissions of CO2 were about 16 gigatons in 1970 and the concentration of CO2 in the air was about 320 ppm.5 Hansen and claim that the world's CO2 levels must stay below 350 ppm to avoid catastrophic climate change, a level that was exceeded late in the 1980s.6 By 2015, well after more than 438 heavily subsidized atomic power plants were constructed worldwide, global emissions from burning fossil fuels have reached 36 gigatons. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has already exceeded 400 ppm and is increasing by about 2 ppm yearly.

Nuclear power lobbyists and their marketing firms want us to believe that humankind's current CO2 atmospheric releases would have been much worse were it not for those 438 power plants now operating. How much worse? The World Nuclear Association industry trade group estimates that an additional 1.1 gigatons of CO2 would have been created in 2015 if natural gas plants supplied the electricity instead of those 438 nukes.7 Worldwide, all those nuclear power plants made only a 3 percent dent in yearly CO2 production. Put another way, each of the 438 individual nuclear plants contribute less than seven thousandths of one percent to CO2 reduction. That's hardly enough to justify claims that keeping your old local power plant running is necessary to prevent the sea from rising.

Let's fast forward to 2050. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates that even if the 2015 Paris Accords (COP 21) are implemented and 1,000 new nuclear power plants are constructed, global CO2 emissions will still increase to a minimum of 64 gigatons.8 While this increase appears counterintuitive given the Paris agreement, it is on target because of pent-up energy demands from large populations in India, China, Southeast Asia and Africa who want to achieve the standard of living in western developed countries.

Can new atomic power reactors really help cut CO2 by 2050? Unfortunately, what is past is prologue. The World Nuclear Association claims that 1,000 new nuclear power plants will be needed by 2050 to combat CO2 buildup and climate change.9 The MIT estimate also assumes 1,000 nuclear power plants must be in operation by 2050. Using the nuclear trade association's own calculations shows that these new power plants will offset only 3.9 gigatons of CO2 in 2050; 3.9 gigatons out of 64 gigatons is only 6.1 percent of the total CO2 released to the atmosphere in 2050, hardly enough for the salvation of the polar bears.

If those 1,000 nuclear power plants were cheap and could be built quickly, investing in atomic power reactors might still make sense. However, Lazard Financial Advisory and Asset Management10, with no dog in the fight, has developed a rubric which estimates that the construction cost of those new power plants will be US$8,200,000,000,000.11 Yes, that's US$8.2 trillion to reduce CO2 by only 6 percent.

21st-century opportunities

Surely, that huge amount of money can be better spent on less expensive alternatives to get more bang for the buck. Lazard also estimates that solar or wind would be 80 percent less expensive for the equivalent amount of peak electric output.11

Atmospheric CO2 releases are not going to go on vacation while waiting for those 1,000 plants to be built. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2016, the average construction time for 46 nuclear plants that began operation between 2006 and 2016 was 10.4 years, not including engineering, licensing and site selection.12

Contrast that with a two-year design and construction schedule for a typical industrial-scale solar power plant.13,14 Atmospheric CO2 levels will increase by almost 70 ppm during the 35 years it will take to construct those 1,000 new nuclear power plants, an increase that they will never eliminate ‒ if they ever operate.

Proponents of nuclear power claim that somehow, sometime in the future, atomic power reactor construction costs will be much lower and construction delays will be a thing of the past. There is no shortage of atomic reactor power ideas, according to the nuclear industry and its lobbyists, when government subsidies are used to fulfill their pipe dreams.

Global climate change is a contemporary problem that requires contemporary solutions. Governments would make the CO2 problem worse by allocating precious resources for nuclear energy to reduce CO2 when the cost of such proposals is unknown and when implementation only begins in 2030. Fortunately, lower-cost renewable solutions are readily available and can be implemented on the necessary time scale needed to reverse the rapidly increasing atmospheric CO2.

Building new nuclear power plants applies a 20th century technology to a 21st century problem. Moreover, building nuclear reactors in a trade-off for CO2 reduction creates a toxic legacy of atomic waste throughout the world. Proponents of nuclear power would have us believe that humankind is smart enough to store nuclear waste for a quarter of a million years, but at the same time, humankind is too ignorant to figure out how to store solar electricity overnight.

Let's not recreate the follies of the 20th century by recycling this atomic technology into the 21st century. The evidence proves that new nuclear power plants will make global climate change worse due to huge costs and delayed implementation periods. Lift the CO2 smoke screen and implement the alternative solutions that are available now ‒ faster to implement and much less expensive.

Copyright, Reprinted with permission.