Global Warming: Nukes Are NOT the Answer
Sometimes when I set out to review a book, certain parts of the book inspire me to write before I am even ready to review it. I made many references to parts of what I was reading in John and Teresa Heinz Kerry's book, This Moment on Earth, before I reviewed it, for example.
Right now I am finishing up the latest book on Global Warming, titled...well, Global Warming: The Last Chance for Change, by Paul Brown, a long-time correspondent for The Guardian. I will review this book soon. It is excellent, far better than my initial expectations of it. Simply put, it is the most comprehensive and thorough discussion of the issue to date. A must read even for skeptics because if they can't address what is in this book then they have no right to be skeptics. But more on that in a later diary someday soon.
Right now I want to focus on a single chapter of this book: Chapter 13 discussing Nuclear Energy.
I have written about the issue of Nuke Enegery as it applies to Global Warming before. I have been swarmed by Nuke industry advocates, both reasonable and irrational, and discussed it at length. We had some Nuke Advocates of the more or less reasonable end on Culture Kitchen for awhile. But the arguements put forward by the nuke advocates alwasy struck me as too one-sided and too dismissive of any other opinion.
Now, unlike the coal industry shills I have gone head to head with in the past, these Nuke advocates do not deny the existence of Global Warming. Coal shills are part of the very stupid Denial Lobby that would have us blindly destroy our society despite ample warnings that we need to change. They will go down in history as some of the biggest fools in human existance.
Nuke advocates, on the other hand, have decided to embrace Global Warming as their savior. In essence, the Nuke industry is a slowly dying one as more and more nations decide to phase it out. The UK wants to revive it. France continues to embrace it. Japan and the US have a love/hate relationship with it. Germany wants to divorce it. No one has a comfortable relationship with nuke energy. So the nuke industry clearly has a major PR proble. So they use Global Warming as a way to convince people that we NEED nuke energy. Their arguement goes that the ONLY way we can phase out fossil fuels in a timely fashion is to switch to nuke. They argue that no alternative energy will succeed beacuse they are all too unreliabe, too underdeveloped, and too irregular to meet even a fraction of our energy needs. Their arguement boils down, pretty literally, to: embrace nukes or die.
When I came to this debate, I was treated like a fool by the nuke advocates and told I just don't understand science, which is kind of odd since I AM a scientist. Truth is, what they didn't seem to get was that I was actually open to nuke energy as a necessary evil to get us off fossil fuels, just not the ONLY solution. I realize that some difficult decisions might be neccessary to deal with Global Warming, and nukes just might be one such difficult decision, particularly when the energy needs of a developing China and India were taken into account. But hearing the nuke advocates talk made me really, really suspicious. The way they talked just didn't sound kosher.
First, whenever a problem arose with a nuke plant, like the earthquake damage at a Japanese nuke plant, they went into "don't worry your pretty heads about it mode." They completely ignore that this was the third nuclear incident in Japan in a decade, two with fatalities. Rather than recognizing the dangers and problems and discussing how future plants can avoid those problems, they downplayed each and every accident, each and every problem and insulted anyone who considered the accidents and problems worthy of concern. When and industry tells us not to worry our pretty heads about them, I get suspicious immediately. And the more they disregard public concern and downplay accidents, the more suspicious I become.
Second, they consistently downplayed the problem of nuke waste. Their solution is to burn it in other reactors. This is a "solution" of sorts, but it does not eliminate the problem, merely reduce it. Their arguement that all you have to do is build more and more reactors is unconvincing...you never can get 100% efficiency in any real world process. Ultimately there will be nuke waste that needs to be dealt with and we do NOT have the capability to store it for even a fraction of its dangerous life. The nuke advocates completely failed to address this issue except to say that MORE reactors can solve it.
Third, I knew that the numbers they used to denegrate alternative energy were dubious. They claim no other technology can wean us off fossil fuels. I have now been reading about the potential of various alternative energy sources for 12 plus years. From what I can tell, the nuke advocates are using outdated claims to denegrate their rivals. For at least a decade we have had the technology to wean us from fossil fuels, but have failed to implement it. And they fail to consider the range of alternative sources. No single alternative energy source will solve the world's problems. But a combination where each one covers the deficiencies of the others can, or so I have argued. The potential of alternative energy is huge and only beginning to be realized. And new technologies are rapidly being developed.
These were my concerns about what they claimed. Ultimately, their approach and the numbers they quote that so obviously seemed biased in favor of nukes made me wonder if their entire arguement was false. So I went from considering nuke energy a probable necessary part of solving Global Warming to wondering if we could trust anything the nuke industry said. The nuke advocates got me MORE suspicious about their industry than I had been before they opened their mouths. But I have consistently tried to keep an open mind.
Now we come to Paul Brown's Global Warming book. This book is a very hard-headed approach to the topic, so I wasn't sure how he was going to deal with nukes. Some of what he advocates in parts of the book may not sit well with some liberals and Greens, though most will. He seems a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, seeing Arnold as one of the politicians who has done the most to address global warming. But the chapter on nukes will sit just fine with those who are deeply suspicious of the nuke industry. He titles his chapter on nukes "Vodoo Economics," and that is one of the bottom lines that is the nail in the nuke coffin for me. Fundamentally, Paul Brown argues that going nuke does not make economic sense in any way and the numbers used by nuke advocates are largely useless. And, far more important, the nuke advocates forget to tell you that the average time of construction for a nuke plant is 10 years. Too long to make a difference. The vast majority of alternative energy technology can be up and running in months to a year.
Paul Brown discusses the consequences of an accident like at Chernobyl. But I won't discuss that part because I think we all basically know the risks (despite the denegration of those risks by the nuke advocates) and in truth the nuke plants in America and Western Europe ARE far safer than Chernobyl. We have come some distance since Three Mile Island and safety is not as much of a concern as it once was. But the consequences of something going wrong remain high even if the chances of something going wrong is quite low with newer plants.
It's the cost and the timing that damns the industry for me.
The numbers the nuke industry cite to convince people that nuke energy is competitive with coal and wind power are incomplete. They all equate it with coal in cost and denegrate wind (which is competitive with clean coal) as being unreliable (which it isn't as long as there is another energy source like methane, small hydroelectric, geothermal or solar to complement it). But their numbers are wrong. Nuke energy is NOT competitive. In essence, they do not include the cost to build the plant or the cost of dealing with the waste. Both are considerable and make the industry completely dependent on taxpayer subsidies. That means you and I not only pay for the energy we use, but we subsidize the plants not only at the beginning (which is also the case with some alternative energy sources) but also every year it is in operation and far into the future.
The waste is still a problem. Again, we do NOT have the technology to deal with all of the waste and keep it safe for the duration of its dangerous lifespan. And the way we do deal with it is too expensive...and that cost lands on the taxpayers. Here is one example from the book:
In the UK the part of the nuclear industry that was privatized would have gone bankrupt in 2004 if the government had not agreed to pay all nuclear waste costs until 2086, at a cost of $370 million a year. That fact had been hidden from the public.
And is still being kept hidden from the public by nuke advocates. They're not up front about asking us to foot the bill to build their plants (about $4 billion per plant) and to deal with the waste. I would be less pissed about that if they just said, "look...we have to do it and the taxpayer has to pay it." But they hide these little details. And, one could add, in this day and age you have to consider the cost of defending those nuke sites. They are targets and require security and I guarantee you that cost will fall on you and me. The nuke industry is asking us for HUGE subsidies and not being honest about that.
Now...the safety issue has been greatly improved but still carries major consequences if the worst happens. The waste issue can be reduced by reprocessing, but not eliminated. And the cost of dealing with that waste is large and will be our burden. But if it really was the only answer, then these costs would indeed bye justifiable. Lack of honesty on the nuke industry's part aside, there could still be the chance that they would be right...may be we WOULD have to do it and taxpayers would have to foot the bills.
But...there is a far worse flaw in their arguements. They claim alternative energy sources would take too long to build to make a difference and ONLY nukes could be providing energy fast enough to make a difference. This is a flat out lie. And it was the lie I have been wondering about for awhile. Nuke plants take way too long to build.
Solar, wind, small scale hydroelectric, methane from waste, etc...all can start providing energy within months. Geothermal, tidal of various forms, and some more innovative technologies can be up and running in somewhat longer times...say a year or two. All can be a part of the solution NOW, at a lower cost with little waste except some production waste, which does have to be taken into account.
It takes 10 years to build a nuke plant, on average.
Yep...a decade and $4 billion of taxpayer money to build a single plant.
Let me remind you how long scientists think we have to deal with Global Warming: LESS than 10 years...possibly as little as 5 years. There is no way that new nuke plants can be online fast enough to make a difference. Period. End of story. Nukes are NOT the solution.
There is also the question of the supply of fuel. According to Brown, it is estimated that it would take 1000+ nuclear plants world wide (up and running NOW, not 10 years from now, I might add) to make a dent in carbon emissions. That woud be a cost (worldwide) of $4 trillion taxpayer dollars to build the plants and $375 billion per year to deal with the waste, also paid for by taxpayers. But uraniam is another limited resource much like oil. Even if we had those 1000 plants working, the effort to mine and process the uranium would be enormous, the supply would eventually run out (though, including reprocessing, could last for a good while) and would continue the dependence of nations on specific regions for their energy. By comparison, alternative energy sources use renewable or unlimited sources of energy, are faster and cheaper to build, and allow each region and even locality to develop an energy policy that creates LOCAL jobs and keeps that locality energy independent. This is also more efficient since less energy is lost in distribution.
There is certainly an arguement for continuing to use existing nuke plants, at least until alternative energy sources become far more widespread. I can accept this. Let's not shut down nuke plants until we no longer need them. But building new plants cannot be a part of the solution because it takes too damned long. The money is better spent on other methods.
You can't solve a problem that requires immediate solutions with a solution that takes 10 years to build.
Time to stop sinking money into new nuke plants. Any that are close to comlpetion, fine, finish them. Any up and running are still needed for now. But $4 billion could do far more far faster than sinking it into a 10 year project to build a nuke plant which will come online too late to matter.
I will write more about this book. But I think it is extremely important to single out this one chapter to hopefully end this talk of being saved by nukes. Even if there were no other problems, it will come too late.