Debating nuclear power’s role in climate change

What does terrorism have to do with climate change? A new UK ad from GreenPeace argues against nuclear power’s role in UK’s battle against climate change, timed for a new government review on energy policy. I watched it and it took more than a few minutes for the hairs on my neck to go down.

The British may be decades behind in fashion and dentistry, but are the leading example of the future debate on climate change based energy policy. With North Sea gas supplies dwindling, and the recent Russia-Ukraine spat making people nervous about energy security, it is understandable that people are examining nuclear as an option to fulfill those tough Kyoto targets. The International Herald Tribune reported yesterday that French industrial minister Francois Loos is being hounded for advice on more than his souffle technique (France is 80% powered by nuclear energy, the highest per-capita rate in the world).

So what’s the issue? Safety is one — something the Greenpeace activists get squarely to work on, although in a silly alarmist manner (most reactors can withstand a direct hit, and certainly new ones would be engineered with this in mind).

Normal course of business accidents are the real issue. As a child in Britain, I remember a month without milk due to the Chernobyl fallout, several hundred miles away. For an eerie look at what the “dead zone” near the reactor looks like 20 years later, check out this motorcycle diary. I am sure other readers have memories of 3 Mile Island, or others on the long Wikipedia list. Clearly, safety has improved over the years, but the public is understandably skeptical of new plants.

This leads to the bigger issue about nuclear’s role in climate change — timing. Currently, it takes about 10 years for a new nuclear plant to be placed on the electricity grid. During this decade, however, the world’s energy demand is predicted to grow 22%. Where is that energy going to come from? Given we have a decade or so to stabilize carbon emissions, should we focus our energies on expensive future technologies with intense public safety issues, or deploying real solutions to climate change today? With available wind power sites currently able to power six times the earth’s energy needs, I know where I’d like to see us fighting our public safety debates.

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  1. James Aach - January 25, 2006

    I would invite any readers interested in getting a better perspective on nuclear power (both the good and bad parts) to take a look at Here, at no cost to readers, you will find a thriller novel of nuclear power, based in part on my twenty-plus years of experience in the American nuclear industry. Radiation, Chernobyl, TMI, and a detailed look at a fictionalized accident are all part of the story in “Rad Decision”. Reader reviews can be found in the comments section of the homepage.
    “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.” – Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog.

  2. Catherine - January 25, 2006

    I agree with Carl Sagen, Why do we have to split an adom in order to power our electricity. We have the technology today to harness the wind and other energy means, why are we not allowed to use it? It’s also disturbing how much nuclear waste is generated from these “power Plants”. Has the definition “Half-life” changed since the 50’s. Or does half of 5000 years still 2500?

  3. Eric McErlain - January 25, 2006

    When you say 10 years to get a nuclear plant on the grid, do you mean from paperwork to operations or just construction to operations?
    In Asia, most plants take about 48 months from start to finish when you’re talking construction.

  4. Jill Adams - January 25, 2006

    Since when are we “not allowed to use” wind and solar resources? They are simply not abundant enough to supply our needs. Rampant consumerism aside, transmission losses, technological limits, and limited lifetimes and availability of dangerous components (i.e. the heavy metals used in photovoltaics) all must also be accounted for when choosing nationwide energy technologies. The first stumbling block is not the limits of technology, however, but the limits of humans. Hydrogen still evokes images of the Hindenburg (the shell of which was pasted together with rocket fuel), electric cars were forgotten ages ago, and some people still believe that hybrids should be plugged in. Even the rather astute TerraPass audience hasn’t heard about the advances in nuclear power. Scientific American had a great article in their December issue about new nuclear processes that could radically change the amount of waste produced. There is a wealth of information about energy technologies at The Watt and its a good place to start to find links about the real impact of energy decisions.
    Also, the motorcycle diary was faked. Sorry to spoil your pudding. :-)

  5. John Wilkinson - January 25, 2006

    Newly designed nuclear reactors can be much safer than older ones, but even old Western designs are much safer than Chernobyl-type designs. Additionally, the Russian operators at Chernobyl specifically deactivated several safety systems in order to conduct a poorly-planned experiment, ironically intended to prove the safety of the reactor. Chernobyl should serve as a reminder of the tragedies that extreme lapses in human judgement can cause, however, it should not be used as a reason not to use nuclear power. Imagine if early disasters had deterred the development of the steam engine, or chemical production, or medicine.

  6. Adrian Wheelock - January 25, 2006

    Most coal-fired power plants emit more radioactivity than nuclear plants ever will, excepting a major accident. Modern nuclear power plants are a safe alternative that need to be developed in conjunction with wind and solar so as to ensure that the power supply remains stable and constant, two things that sun and wind are not.

  7. Calvin Jones - January 26, 2006

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  8. vpb - January 30, 2006

    –Wind power? You may want to send an e-mail or a letter to Robert Kennedy at the National Resources Defense Council and suggest he change his NIMBY attitude about wind power, and suggest his friends do the same. See the previous TerraBlog for more details (you may also suggest that if the world were more fair, those who consume and waste the most power would have to live closest to the power plants).
    –Sure nuclear power is dangerous. So is reliance on oil, so is buying supposedly “safe” large cars that burn more of that oil,and so is breathing air polluted by coal. As long as the public in a democracy know little about risk analysis and social cost, why should we expect anything except more of the same? At least we can change, one individual at a time.

  9. Rey Aquino - April 14, 2006

    The two major issues we the earthlings need to confront right now in order to extend our existence on this planet are : energy and the environment. It has been forcasted that in the next decade we will need additional 22% or more energy than what we are using today. Today, we all know that global warming is real and accelerating at a fast rate. We all agreed that immediate reduction of greenhouse gas emission to the atmosphere could be our salvation. Given these facts, what would be our choice of solution to solve these mutual problems? My answer is : build more nuclear power plants fast!

  10. Claire - July 3, 2006

    The problem isn’t with nuclear power itself. I’m sure we can manage to construct relativeley safe nuclear power plants. The problem is that nuclear waste can not be disposed of and continues to be dangerous for a very long time–longer than human memory and longer than our ability to construct containers to hold it. At some point the containers deteriorate and we forget where we buried all the stuff (consider all the computerized maps which will no longer be readable due to changes in computer programs!) It is unsafe because its too long-term of a problem. It is a little like the people living on a “dormant” volcano — it is only dormant in the human time frame, not the geologic one. I am convinced we can find other technological solutions to our problems if we have the will.

  11. Mike J - July 5, 2006

    Nuclear power is a very viable option for power generation. It is relatively clean when compared to most other power types. It is reliable, and the raw material, uranium ore, is not controlled by people that seem to want us, (western culture), dead. The amount of waste generated is small when compared to a conventional coal power plant. (one 2000 MW coal plant makes more waste in a year than all the nuclear plants in the US). The main sticking point is the popular hysteria about radiation. Reactors do not give off large amounts of radiation during operation. (you will get a higher dosage of penetrating radiation on a sunny day from the sun). The waste has a long halflife but the radiation is mostly the lower energy, less dangerous alpha particles. Not real dangerous unless you eat them. I think the US and the world should stop watching the 50’s radiation scare movies and take an objective look at the benefits of nuclear power on the climate and the environment in general.

  12. 1985 Gripen - July 5, 2006

    Also, I think global warming is a much more immediate problem than radiation poisoning from nuclear waste. If we could replace all the coal and natural gas power plants with nuclear we could freeze and reverse CO2 emissions, which is much more threatening short-term.
    There are already ideas for permanently sealing nuclear waste in places like Yucca Mountain. It’s not like nuclear waste is being dumped in hundreds of little holes where they’re going to forget where they buried them.
    This is yet another case of a non-ideal solution being better than the alternative, IMHO.

  13. Claire - August 22, 2006

    I don’t think the argument is “choose nuclear power or global warming.” You need to evaluate the costs and benefits of each choice, and I think the long term costs of nuclear power are greater than investment in other emerging technologies. Also, the fact that those “resources are controlled by people who don’t want to kill us” is really more representative of the fact that we haven’t shown up to strip their countries of resources yet than of an attitude we can expect to see continue indefinitely. Also, there is no “permanent” sealing of anything possible. What we can manufacture cannot outlive radioactive waste.

  14. Scott Brison - November 20, 2006

    If someone had worked out how to cause a war within the environment movement, they could not have developed a better means than nuclear power. In public we will line up to attack the energy review published by the government today. But in private we will reserve some of our venom for each other, as we start to ask ourselves whether we have made the right decision.
    The UK’s dying nuclear power stations are, at the moment, its principal source of low-carbon energy. Electricity produced by a pressurised light water reactor, when all its carbon costs have been taken into account, emits around 16 tonnes of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour. Gas produces 356 tonnes and coal 891. If our nuclear power stations are replaced by thermal plants, the UK’s annual output of CO2 will rise by roughly 51m tonnes, or 8% of the total. Zac Goldsmith, arguing against new nukes, calls this percentage “miniscule”. This is breathtaking. We campaign to prevent electrical appliances being left on standby, hoping to save some 4m tonnes of CO2 a year. How can we then dismiss a cut 13 times as great?
    Some groups, such as Greenpeace, the New Economics Foundation and the Sustainable Development Commission, have produced reports showing that we can meet the government’s target – a 60% cut in carbon emissions by 2050 – without recourse to atomic power. They are right, but the target is now irrelevant. In the book I am publishing in September, I will show that when you take into account both human population growth and the anticipated reduction in the biosphere’s ability to absorb carbon, we require a worldwide cut of roughly 60% per capita by 2030. If emissions are to be distributed evenly, this means that the UK’s need to be cut by 87% in 24 years.

  15. chloe - August 22, 2007

    i don’t like the idea of having nuclear power wat if it turns us and our children into aliens with three eyes, i mean not cool!! tnx from chloe swanson yr9 scince

  16. Adam Stein - August 22, 2007

    Hi Chloe,
    I definitely don’t want to dismiss your concerns about nuclear power, but technically, even if we were turned into three-eyed monsters, we still wouldn’t be aliens. We’d just be humans with three eyes. So there’s no need to get unduly alarmed.

  17. Anonymous - July 29, 2008

    according to me nuclear power is much better because it is much clean and causes lees pollution as compared to others .