Why I Am (Still) Against Nuclear Power

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by Tim Widowfield

People on the Internet who like to style themselves as rational, worldly, and clever members of the intelligentsia enjoy poking fun at people for their irrational beliefs. The usual targets of their (our) jabs are fish in a barrel: creationism (young Earth and old Earth), homeopathy, climate-change denial, and so on.

We see, for example, groups of people dedicated to poking fun at those who are supposedly afraid of chemicals by calling water by its unfamiliar sciency name: dihydrogen monoxide. I’m not necessarily opposed to poking fun at people for their ignorance, but I can’t really support the DHMO thing, because it’s a one-joke wonder that’s too clever and far too satisfied with itself.

Punching down

There’s a sociological reason why it provokes a smug smile, but not actual laughter. It breaks one of the few rules of comedy — punching up is funny; punching down is not. We should try not to make fun of people who cannot understand science (the dumb) while we’re justifiably ridiculing those who refuse to understand science (the deliberately ignorant) or who exploit the ignorance of others for their own gain (the malicious).

Atomic Energy Town

On social media rational people enjoy posting on subjects like the anti-vaccine movement and the rejection of anthropogenic global warming. And that’s good; these are threats to human survival. However, I’ve noticed a trend in the past few years in which the proponents of the nuclear power industry have successfully made supporting “green nuclear energy” one of our merit badges.

A recent USA Today article (“People trust science. So why don’t they believe it?“) demonstrates a now-mainstream tactic: namely, juxtaposing AGW-denial with the supposed AGW solution, nuclear power.

Many conservatives reject the science of man-made climate change, just as many liberals reject the science that shows nuclear energy can safely combat it. The views we express signal which political group we belong to. The gap between what science shows and what people believe, sociologists say, is about our identity.

Do some liberals oppose nuclear power for unscientific, political reasons? Probably. Ignorance exists in all quarters. Some social liberals believe in healing crystals. Others may fear vaccines. Conservatives and liberals have irrational beliefs.

Is it safe?

The key word in the excerpt above, I suppose, is “safely.” People, we are told, have an irrational fear of nuclear power because they think it isn’t safe, which, we are further told, is ridiculous, because it’s extremely safe. And if you don’t think it’s safe, you must be a nut job. As Richard Carrier writes:

On balance, being against nuclear power is just like being an anti-vaxxer: it is based on a false assessment of risk. Both exaggerate immensely the actual dangers of these technologies. And both fail to assess risk differentially. Even if a vaccine can cause death, the probability it will is vastly less than the probability of dying from the disease it inoculates against. The net risk is therefore a no brainer in Game Theory: only a fool wouldn’t vaccinate. You are trading an enormous risk for a trivial one. In other words, you might not be eliminating risk, but you are vastly reducing your risk by making use of the technology rather than opposing it.

So, let’s talk about safety and risk assessment. Is nuclear power safe? Yes. And there are good reasons for that, including system redundancy, sophisticated engineering, high-tech materials, combined with continual monitoring and inspection.

Yes, it’s quite safe.

It’s safe in the way that NASA’s manned space program is safe. The United States, if I’m adding the numbers correctly, has launched 175 manned missions with only 2 catastrophic flight failures. (The Apollo 1 tragedy happened on the ground in pre-mission tests.) The reasons for NASA’s stellar safety record are similar to the reasons for nuke safety. See above.

And the reasons for its failures and the difficulty in predicting (let alone preventing) those failures are also the same.

To date, there have been 11 nuclear accidents at the level of a full or partial core-melt. These accidents are not the minor accidents that can be avoided with improved safety technology; they are rare events that are not even possible to model in a system as complex as a nuclear station, and arise from unforeseen pathways and unpredictable circumstances (such as the Fukushima accident). (Source: phys.org, emphasis mine)

You will, I hope, recognize at once that we’re talking about black swan events. They’re way out at the tails of the curve, extremely rare, impossible to predict, but catastrophically dangerous. These events are so rare that we fool ourselves into thinking they won’t happen, or at least that we won’t be around when they happen.

But because their effects are so cataclysmic, we must prepare for them. The reason we spend enormous amounts of money on basic engineering, system redundancy, and constant vigilance is that a full core meltdown would render a large area uninhabitable for centuries. It could render the aquifer unusable for millions of people. And that’s just for openers.

Don’t misunderstand me. Nuclear power has proven its safety over the years. Accidents are extremely rare. But don’t forget that this safety record comes at a high price tag. And since the accidents that will occur are unpredictable, we must guard against them with further redundancy and extra vigilance. We must also invest in mitigation to insure that the accidents we cannot prevent and cannot predict will do less damage. Local governments must keep evacuation plans up to date. State and federal agencies must protect the sites from terrorist attacks. These costs pile up, and they generally remain hidden from public view.

Assessing risk

When Carrier said those of us who oppose the spread of nuclear power fail to assess risk properly, he makes two mistakes. First, in the case of the anti-vaxxer, there are only two alternatives: take the vaccine (with extremely low risk) or don’t take the vaccine (with extremely high risk). In the case of electricity generation, we have several choices, including the investment in greater efficiency to stave off the need for more power plants.

It’s a false comparison. It would be like comparing Jesus Mythicism to Creationism.

Second, and more importantly, he greatly overestimates our ability to assess the risk of nuclear accidents. The risk of occurrence is low, just like the risk of the U.S. banking system imploding. I recall financial analysts after the financial crisis of the 2007-2008 referring to those crazy speculators “picking up pennies in front of a steam roller.” But that’s what events look like to observers in retrospect. We can always predict the disaster after it happens. All the steps seem blatantly obvious. We ask, “Why didn’t somebody do something?”

Paradoxically, the rarer the event, the more difficult it is to model and make a rational assessment, and the more vulnerable we are to black swan disasters. Now, as if to add more data points to the swarm, let me remind you that we are currently recertifying reactors well past their intended lifespan. Is that safe? Yes, as far as we know, and as long as we replace parts that wear out with equal or better quality, and as long as we’re extremely careful. But once we reach, say, the 60th operating year of a reactor that was designed to be decommissioned at 40 years, we’re in that zone that Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns.”

Note well that a risk assessment is useful only if you can quantify the risk of occurrence balanced against the effects of the occurrence. Let’s say we play a game where we roll a pair of dice. If you roll anything other than snake eyes, I’ll pay you a dollar. If you do roll snake eyes, you pay me two dollars. Ready to play?

Now let’s change the game. I have a revolver with a million chambers. I’ve put a bullet in one of the chambers. Point it to your head and pull the trigger. If you live, I’ll pay you $1,000. Will you play? How about one more time? And again. How many times would you pull that trigger? At what point would you halt the game?

The deliberately hidden costs

I fear I have led you astray, since I’m not opposed to nuclear power because of the safety issue. Back in the late ’70s, I took a course in environmental science at Ohio University, and one of the things that stuck with me (besides the way the industry overstates the safety record, emphasizing the rarity of occurrences and ignoring the consequences of an occurrence) is the fact that we have always vastly underestimated the costs of nuclear energy.

♦ Siting

Before constructing, operating, and decommissioning a fission power plant the first step is to find a suitable site. Imagine you wanted to build a large solar array, but you wanted to mitigate the effects of a solar cell melt-down. I know that isn’t possible, but if you lived in a universe or a game simulation where it was possible, you’d have some decent options available to you. You could, for example, build it miles away in the desert and use long-range, high-voltage cables to bring power into the city.

But you can’t do that with nuclear power. You need a site near a river or a lake, so you can pump in millions of gallons of fresh water to cool the reactor(s). This is our first cost: An area of land usually next to a river. The community will need to set aside a 500-acre spot that will likely be used for nothing else for a century or more. (Note: According to current U.S. law, a plant must be decommissioned within 60 years after it halts operation.) Moreover, you will prefer that the spot is seismically stable and won’t be under water when the seas rise.

Let me interrupt the flow here by mentioning that no nuclear power plant has ever been seriously damaged by an earthquake. That’s because they’re over-engineered to withstand the effects. But that extra safety is not free. The Japanese have earthquake-proofed their nuclear fleet because they had to.

Do we factor in the opportunity cost of consigning a huge swath riverfront land to nothing but power generation for many decades to come? Typically not. The now laughable phrase “too cheap to meter” could only have ever made sense when discussing day-to-day operating costs and nothing else. For after the difficult task of finding and setting aside a site for your plant, you must build it. And here’s where you’re going to need deep pockets.

♦ Building

Optimistic fans of nuclear power tell us with the newest technologies, we can get a plant online much sooner than ever before. But a sober review of past data reveals that no matter what the predictions, you can always count on two things: (1) it will take longer than planned, and (2) there will be cost overruns. From a safety perspective, that’s fine. Please, take all the time you need. Don’t cut corners. After all, we need nuclear power to maintain its sterling record of safety. Gambling here would be foolish.

Next, you will need to choose the type of reactor to build. Let me be clear before any of you with itchy fingers starts commenting about fusion or thorium reactors. Fusion technology is still a pipe dream. Thorium is not ready to contribute in any meaningful way for at least 20 years. Thorium sounds cool, and I like cool technology. But it isn’t ready now.

We must confine our choice to fission-based reactors, powered by uranium. So, which style of reactor will we choose? The industry may have churned out a lot of happy talk about Generation IV reactors, but those technologies aren’t ready now. They won’t be ready for full-scale commercial use for many years. And while Carrier practically turns handsprings over molten salt reactors, the “readiest version” of a Generation IV reactor, economically viable MSRs are still at least a decade away, probably more.

The nuclear industry has operated this way since its inception. In the world of marketing, they call it “selling the sizzle.” They lure us in with the promise of prime beef, but we end up buying lumps of gristle-laden pork. You say you’d like to look at a breeder reactor? Well, heh-heh. They’re still in the experimental stage. Let me show you what we have in a good old-fashioned fission plant.

We must select some type of Generation III or III+ power plant. The industry told us these designs would solve the three big problems surrounding nuclear plant construction and operation: safety, cost, and complexity. Notice that those three problems are tightly interrelated. Generation III/III+ reactors were supposed to address all three. So, what’s the track record of Generation III+?

Despite its being nearly 20 years since a Nuclear Renaissance was mooted, none of the new designs is yet in service. By May 2015, 18 reactors of designs claimed to meet Generation III+ criteria were under construction. Only two were still on time and the rest were two to nine years late. So on the face of it, the claims that these designs would be easier to build appear no better based than the cost claims are unsubstantiated. (“World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015,” p. 55)

Our choices do not inspire confidence. You’ll probably have to go with a Generation III+ design, because commercially viable Generation IV designs won’t be ready for many years. You should probably prepare yourself for delays and cost overruns. Remarkably, one common reason for these delays is the lack of qualified, experienced workers. Even in nuke-friendly France, there’s a shortage of experience.

The low ordering rate for new nuclear power plants over the past 30 years has meant that there has been little demand for skilled construction workers, so the workforce has aged and its skills have not been utilized. Re-building a skilled workforce cannot be done quickly, requiring basic education as well as experience. Until the flow of orders is more established and the job prospects secure, the incentives for workers to undergo such training will be weak. For both the first orders for EPRs, the pouring of the concrete base-mat had to be re-done because of errors. Particularly for France, where EDF, the owner and site engineer had already built 58 PWRs, it seems reasonable to assume this was due to loss of expertise at diverse levels of craft labor and management. This is not surprising, since the French vendor’s last construction start before Olkiluoto-3 dates back to 1991—long enough for a whole generation of craftsmen and managers to have retired and their transmission of experience therefore to have been lost. (“World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015,” pp. 59-60, emphasis mine)

We have now hit upon one of the reasons I am adamantly opposed to the spread of nuclear power as a means for fighting climate change: resource contention. In a world wherein cost were no object and resources were unlimited, the nuclear industry’s call for us to use all carbon-friendly options available to us would make sense. We do not live in such a world. As a result, nuclear power is suffering a brain-drain that industry fans would rather not talk about, assuming they are even aware of it.

Nuclear apologists point to China as a role model that is actively building a number of NPPs [Nuclear Power Plants]. The fact is that China has built $160 billion in overcapacity of coal plants that are unused. Will their NPPs, which are presently under construction, become similarly redundant?

There simply aren’t enough Chinese students rushing to enrol into nuclear engineering courses, to produce the workforce for an expanded nuclear program. China’s ambitious nuclear expansion plans would require at least 50,000 students to be trained by 2030, but barely a few hundred students raise their hands each year. The shortage of trained nuclear technicians and engineers has already led to safety incidents.

By contrast, in 2015, China invested five times more in renewables than nuclear power. Those nuclear projects will take many years to complete, whereas renewables are deployed and put to immediate use. Moreover, China’s nuclear investments may have an uncertain future and may meet the same fate as their renowned ghost cities. Significant Chinese street protests against nuclear, in 2013 and 2015, indicate a growing groundswell of discontent. (Derek Abbot 2016, “Nuclear Power: Game Over,” Australian Quarterly, Oct-Dec 2016, pp. 9-10, emphasis mine)

The nuclear industry also requires rare materials coveted by other competing industries. Many of these and other rare elements are in short supply.

An important question that has been neglected in the nuclear debate is to ask what materials a nuclear vessel and core are made of. It turns out a whole host of exotic rare metals are used to control and contain the nuclear reaction. For example, hafnium is a neutron absorber, beryllium a neutron reflector, zirconium is used for cladding, and many of the other exotics (e.g., niobium) are used to alloy steel to make the vessel last 40–60 years against neutron embrittlement. . . .

One has to recognize that these exotic metals have many competing industrial uses. For example, hafnium is used by Intel in its latest microchip technology. Beryllium is used in precision instrumentation and also by the semiconductor industry. Zirconium has a host of industrial uses in ceramics, gas turbines, and jet engines. Yttrium has applications in lasers and in medicine. Niobium is used in superalloys for aircraft engines and in surgical steel for medicine — nuclear fusion would exhaust niobium even faster than fission.

The nuclear fuels themselves are transmuted and we deny future generations unforeseen applications of these metals. In nuclear fusion, lithium is transmuted and it should be noted that we rely on lithium in every laptop computer and mobile phone. It can be argued that any irreversible consumption of the Earth’s elements is shortsighted and detrimental to future technology. (Derek Abbot, “Is Nuclear Power Globally Scalable,” Vol. 99, No. 10, October 2011 | Proceedings of the IEEE, pp. 1615-1616)

Generation IV reactors will use more, not fewer, exotic materials, putting an even greater strain on our limited global supply.

♦ Operation

As long as we externalize all costs of operation — inspection, security, and disposal — nuclear power remains cost-effective. The industry spends millions of dollars every year to store waste at plants. We’re coming up on seven decades for the nuclear age, and we still have not agreed on the proper method of permanent off-site storage. Like fusion power or molten-salt reactors, the technology (and the political will) for safe, permanent disposal is always just around the corner.

After more than 60 years of nuclear technology, there is still no universally accepted mode of disposal, and nuclear waste still raises heated controversy. . . . Spent fuel is not the only problem; there is also the question of where to put thousands of decommissioned reactor vessels. Burial might result in radioactive leakage into groundwater due to unforeseen geological movement. (Derek Abbot, “Limits to growth: Can nuclear power supply the world’s needs?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 68(5), p. 25)

The nuclear industry usually succeeds in shielding itself from the costs of security and disposal by shifting the cost to the public. For example, Germany, a country which has abandoned nuclear power, has created a fund for future cleanup.

After the inspection protocol falsification scandal that shook the German nuclear industry in 2015 (see WNISR 2016), 2016 was marked by the adoption of new legislation to regulate the funding of nuclear waste management in December and several legal decisions in favor of the nuclear utilities. Following the recommendations of the independent Commission to Review the Financing for the Phase-out of Nuclear Energy (KFK), the law creates a new public fund dedicated to the funding of long-term storage of radioactive waste. The major utilities are due to pay €23.5 billion (US$26.3 billion) into the fund, including a risk premium of €6.5 billion (US$7.3 billion) to free them from any responsibility in case of cost overruns in the future. The compromise has received political support across the main parties. Environmental NGOs however criticize the fact that this law creates a precedent to free nuclear operators from their long-term responsibilities, considering in particular major uncertainties over future costs. Much like other countries operating nuclear power plants, Germany has yet to find suitable solutions and localizations for the disposal of radioactive wastes. (“World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2017,” p. 53, emphasis mine)

♦ Decommissioning

Eventually, all good things must come to an end. As I mentioned above, we’ve been pushing out decommissioning dates to extend the life of NPPs, but at some point the return on investment won’t be high enough to justify the expense. How much does it cost to decommission the typical plant? Until recently we thought it would cost about 10 to 15 percent of the construction cost.

Ye gods, were we wrong.

The Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Rowe, Massachusetts, took 15 years to decommission—or five times longer than was needed to build it. And decommissioning the plant—constructed early in the 1960s for $39 million—cost $608 million. The plant’s spent fuel rods are still stored in a facility on-site, because there is no permanent disposal repository to put them in. To monitor them and make sure the material does not fall into the hands of terrorists or spill into the nearby river costs $8 million per year. That cost will continue for an unknown number of years. David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that even without the ongoing costs of monitoring and security, the average reactor now costs about $500 million to deactivate. (Dan Drollette, Jr., “The rising cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 28 April 2016)

We’re on the hook for these costs, whether we like it or not. It’s going to make some cleanup companies rich at the expense of the public. But there’s no sense in complaining; that’s just how modern capitalism works.

Nuclear decommission costs are high, and it is estimated that the decommissioning contracts over the next 15 years will amount to $220 billion. This sum is equivalent to the creation of solar power that would replace 44 nuclear stations. (“Nuclear Power: Game Over,” Australian Quarterly, Oct-Dec 2016, pp. 12-13, emphasis mine)

The war is over

I’m not against nuclear power because it is unsafe. Please don’t comment below on how safe it is, because you’ll only be proving that you haven’t read this post. I know it’s safe. It is not without risks, but we have all paid the price for mitigating those risks.

We have all wasted a great deal of time over the past few decades with industry fans accusing anti-nuclear activists of scare-mongering and “playing politics with science.” Very rarely are we permitted to have a real argument over the full cost of nuclear power without the descent into name-calling and wild accusations. I would suggest that this is a deliberate framing tactic.

If we had the luxury of unlimited time, money, and resources I would have no issue with nukes. But that’s not the universe we live in. I’ll be frank with you. We are already too late to stop some of the worst effects of climate disruption caused by Global Warming. Some of the great cities in human civilization are going to be flooded out of existence. Vast areas of land that used to be habitable and arable will no longer be so by the end of this century.

We need solutions now to combat climate change. We can’t wait another decade for new plants to be built (which will be carbon neutral when? in 15 years? 20?). We can’t waste time, money, materials, and human resources on nuclear technologies that are — let’s be honest here — old, but pretending to be new. Thorium reactors aren’t new. Fusion reactors aren’t new. They’re old ideas that can’t seem to get out of the lab. There ought to be a sell-by date on the word “promising.”

But the good news is this: The market has spoken. Nuclear power is in decline. Not because of safety concerns, but because investors are no longer convinced it’s viable. Implementation of renewables continues to grow, as its cost per kilowatt hour falls. What we need to invest in now are not “promising” dinosaur reactors but a smart, modular, flexible grid that can optimally use and store various kinds of renewable energy.

I will leave you with a few paragraphs from the foreword in the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2017.

Nuclear power was born in a sea of euphoria out of a collective American guilt over dropping the atomic bomb. And for at least two decades it was the “clean” alternative to coal that was going to meet all of our energy needs forever.

The Three Mile Island meltdown, in 1979, ended the euphoria but the dream continued and it still goes on without much regard to contrary facts.

The opponents of nuclear power have shown a similar disregard for changing facts. They largely ignored the fact that many well-meaning people viewed local air pollution and climate change more of a danger than nuclear. In those years shutting down a nuclear plant did mean increased emissions of local pollutants and green house gases.

The debate about nuclear power was similar to talking about a religion. It was seldom grounded in all the relevant facts — each side had a religious belief in their point of view boosted by whatever ad hoc facts supported their view. Because of that history, this 2017 World Nuclear Industry Status Report is perhaps the most decisive document in the history of nuclear power. The report makes clear, in telling detail, that the debate is over. Nuclear power has been eclipsed by the sun and the wind. These renewable, free-fuel sources are no longer a dream or a projection — they are a reality that are replacing nuclear as the preferred choice for new power plants worldwide.

It no longer matters whether your greatest concern is nuclear power or climate change — the answer is the same. The modern-day “Edisons” have learned to harness economically the everlasting sources of energy delivered to earth by Mother Nature free of charge.

The value of this report is that this conclusion no longer relies on hope or opinion but is what is actually happening. In country after country the facts are the same. Nuclear power is far from dead but it is in decline and renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds.

The entire Report is must reading so that the facts of nuclear decline in the U.S., Germany, Japan, and France — indeed just about every country — really sinks in. It is more than symbolic that the Japanese Government has formally accepted the death of its breeder reactor, which was the original holy-grail of nuclear power.

Most revealing is the fact that nowhere in the world, where there is a competitive market for electricity, has even one single nuclear power plant been initiated. Only where the government or the consumer takes the risks of cost overruns and delays is nuclear power even being considered. (“World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2017,” pp. 10-11 emphasis mine)

In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter whether you think I’m a fool for preferring solar and wind power over nuclear power. It doesn’t even matter if you think nuclear technology is somehow “better” or safer than anything else on the planet. In the end what stopped the growth of nuclear power were its uncontrollable and unmanageable costs, which ultimately could not be shoved out to governments and consumers forever. These costs, along with unrealistic timelines, made it impossible for investors to have faith in bankable returns.

In some ways, the prophets of atomic energy were right: the future will rely on energy from a nuclear fusion reactor — except that it’s 93 million miles away, and will never need refueling or decommissioning.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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7 thoughts on “Why I Am (Still) Against Nuclear Power”

  1. See, I thhope no the safety issue is front and center. I don’t think a minority, I don’t care how expert they are, has the right to force any Pascal’s Wager on the rest of us. It’s arrogant and tyrannical.

  2. It never made sense to me that the people who pushed all the NPP’s never thought abut the hidden cost of all the N. waste and the cost of decommissioning when the NPP’s reach the end of their usefulness. But, the profit motive says, reap all we can and leave the cleanup to the future generation’s. Average house size has more then doubled in the last 60 years. Time to go back to 1500 sq. ft. or less for the average home and never under any circumstance should a single family dwelling have more then 2500 sq. ft. of living space. This climate change we’re experiencing these last few weeks should drive that point home. Now, how do we get bankers to fiance a one and two bedroom home? Interest rates on a home should never be more then 1.5 percent over the interest paid on the average saving account.

  3. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Ditto Nuclear for future power needs. I’ll remain skeptical of claims otherwise, notwithstanding what is presented here.

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