Planetary Emergency? Then Go Nuclear

Antinuclear Greens Aren't Serious About Climate Change

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Anyone concerned about global warming should reconsider their opposition to nuclear energy. It is our best bet for quickly reducing carbon emissions — and it is far more economical than many greens believe.

May 28, 2013 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Last week we published an oped in the Wall Street Journal that began like this:

Over the last several decades, the cost of electricity from solar panels has declined dramatically, while the cost of building new nuclear plants has risen steadily. This has reaffirmed the long-standing view of many environmentalists that it will be cheaper and easier to reduce global warming emissions through solar electricity than with new nuclear plants. But while continuing price declines might someday make solar cheaper than nuclear, it's not true today. Yet the mythmaking persists.

We conclude with this:

Misleading claims about solar's readiness might be excused as the exaggerations of enthusiasts if the claims weren't coming from environmentalists who believe that global warming is a planetary emergency. If they were really serious about the need to move to zero carbon energy, they would see nuclear energy as the obvious answer.
 

The only nations in the world that have achieved emissions reductions at a pace and scale that begins to approach what will be necessary to mitigate global warming are France and Sweden. Both did so by switching to nuclear energy. France shifted over 80% of its electricity to nuclear in about two decades. Renewable energy, despite decades of public subsidies, can make no such claim.

Warning of the end of the world and delivering the good news about solar and wind plays well with green audiences, but anyone truly concerned about climate change will need to reconsider their opposition to nuclear. It is the best chance we have to make big reductions in carbon emissions quickly. 

 
Comments welcome.
 

Comments

  • I agree that environmentalists should embrace nuclear technology.  I would also add that using natural gas (which is primarily methane) to replace coal and petroleum is also a proven method to reduce carbon emissions as methane has a greater hydrogen to carbon ratio than coal or petroleum.  Considering that methane is highly renewable from biomass and waste it offers a second parallel pathway to reducing carbon emissions.

    Environmentalists also need to come to grips with the environmental impacts wind and solar carry, since neither is ecologically benign.  Any proposed massive build out of solar would require substantial land use that would displace biomass and habitat.  Some proposals suggest that 11,000 square miles of PV could power the entire United States, that does not seem ecologically positive to me, perhaps others have a different opinion.

    Wind turbines bring their own problems, particularly near people’s homes and to wildlife.  Wind turbine syndrome, likely caused by wind turbine wakes disturbing the air pressure, is a consistent and repeatable complaint by homeowners living near turbines.  Quebec recently enacted a 2km setback from any residence for new turbines.  A similar setback requirement in the United States would severely limit the number of potential development sites and the overall potential for the industry.  Even without regulations, real estate market forces may be enough to keep people from allowing wind developers to build wind farms near their homes if they fear a negative impact on their home values.

    By Ed Dodge on 2013 05 28

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  • I do enjoy reading your articles, they provide a refreshing perspective on environmental concerns

    I am the coordinator of the Caldera Environment Centre in Murwillumbah, (NSW Australia) (http://www.calderaenvironmentcentre.org ), we are a local, volunteer based group.

    The American perspective on these issues is so different! Recently in our region we have just defeated the Coal Seam Gas miners through a 6 month blockade. They will be back but we have protected our area for the time being from this destructive industry. The lesson from America was stark, if we don’t stop them…well, we might end up like those US states in the mid-west! Your comments about the opponents of this industry in USA are white and wealthy (Fracktivists for Global Warming). In Australia we are white but poor (90% lower end of socio-econmic scale), hippies would be a fair label for the activists*. I don’t believe that the argument that it is only privileged people opposing this industry does not hold true outside the US,  I feel sorry for your people and landscapes which are being sacrificed in the current US gas rush so that your nation can maintain its superfluous lifestyle of conspicuous consumption.

    As for your comments on Nuclear power, wow! That really is quite amazing. Australia is the world’s Uranium mine, and likely to be the world’s nuclear waste dump. When advocating this form of energy do you consider the lifecycle of the resource? What about the state of South Australia or the Northern Territory which hosts the worlds’ largest uranium mines. The amount of water used for these enterprises is massive, and depletes irreplaceable groundwater resources for tailings dams. Already indigenous people report drying up of springs because of water extraction.

    Your analysis on these issues is shallow, and typically American-centric. At best you might cite some European examples, but there is a wider world out there! Here in the antipodes we have seen the destruction your society has inflicted on the American landscape and firmly reject that as a viable future. Our politicians and industry may be seduced by the quick fix solutions you promote, but people are increasingly rejecting these facetious arguments put forward by the fossil-fuel industry or its malformed child, the nuclear industry*. I hope that the people of your nation may learn a little something from us here in the northern rivers of NSW and oppose the juggernaut of Coal Seam Gas/Shale oil and defeat this enterprise that has ruined your landscape and poisons your water.

    I would also refer you to the work of the Great American writers Aldo Leopold and HD Thoreau who I have found inspiring. Maybe it is time your society revisited its roots and get to grips with the real problem; unsustainable lifestyles rather than propping it up for the next decade or two!

    * Coal Seam Gas
    Recently the city of Lismore held a referendum on CSG mining and returned an 87% No vote. Too many questions remain unanswered; fugitive methane emissions, groundwater contamination, tailings/produced water disposal. Already evidence from Queensland of bubbling rivers (Condamine river Qld), and families suffering from rashes and nosebleeds near mines. Recent investigative journalist program ‘Four Corners’ on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.) exposed the Qld state government overlooking its own environmental regulations to fast-track coal development. NSW has seen government ministers brought before the Corruption Commission (ICAC) Ian McDonald is accused of helping his mates profit from a ‘training mine’ the same department is responsible for the CSG concessions. Hence the mistrust of government and industry amongst some people here.

    By Samuel K Dawson on 2013 05 28

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  • We must push for 4th generation thorium, fast reactors, modular reactors and other advanced designs. The new designs can actually use existing waste as fuel. In my younger years I was as anti nuclear as a person could be. Now, i see nuclear as the major technology for a low carbon future,
    Also, if we build the number of turbines that people are talking about it will one day be a silent spring for eagles, hawks and many other bird species.

    By Ted Getzel on 2013 05 30

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  • I think a lot of the resistance to nuclear power is based on the experience of environementalists (greens and pacifists) who came up during the Cold War.  In order to discredit the logic of nuclear war, they worked to discredit the very legitimacy of nuclear power.  As the fear of global nuclear anihilation has receded, the anti-nuclear energy argument is now positioned beyond its culminating point of success (to borrow a concept from Luttwak).  However, it will take time for the Cold War generation to die off.

    The most vehement arguments against nuclear energy on the younger left do not originate from a Cold War mindset but from what I call the anti-human-endeavor mindset.  They see most human consumption as a form of waste.  Nuclear energy would make consumption cheaper and, thus encourage more consumption, which is bad.  However, this viewpoint will not hold.  Once the Cold War generation fades from history, a rational debate about nuclear energy can be had.

    By Chris Dixon on 2013 05 31

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  • I oppose nuclear power, but i am a Gen Y .... a cold war child, but to be honest i am not too sure what the word communism actually means! Although my maternal grandfather only had half a mouth from exposure to British nuclear tests at Maralinga, so maybe i do have a bias…

    I think you have to consider a) where does the uranium come from and b) where does it go once it has finished?

    The answer to both these questions would seem to be outback Australia.
    http://www.theage.com.au/national/polluted-water-leaking-into-kakadu-from-uranium-mine-20090312-8whw.html This newspaper report shows that uranium mining is not safe. It is contaminating surface and groundwater. What does the Federal government do? It plans to expand the mine and increase exports! Export to countries such as India who have refused to sign on to the Nuclear non-proliferation Treaty.

    There is no debate to be had. Nuclear energy is bad. It is ok for Americans, sitting comfortable in their houses and shipping the waste overseas!

    A few years ago (2010 i think it was) there was a severe dust storm in eastern Australia where dust blew from as far away as (the state of) South Australia to New Zealand. What happens when the tailing dams fail and dry up and future dust storms carry radioactive particles??

    Renewable energy is now comparable to fossil-fuel energy. It can be implemented today. There is no radiation, there is no waste; the debate is only by the elites. The people (unless they are the 2% of the Australian workforce employed in mining) don’t want it.

    Thorium, perhaps could be an answer, but how long will it take to build these plants? Solar panels are here, now. If everyone had solar panels on their roof, especially in nations like Australia this would be a non-debate.

    The debate is a false one, proposed by industrial barons attempting to hold on to their power and wealth; in a shift from coal to nuclear who really benefits, who makes the real profits? in a shift from coal to solar panels (or wind or geothermal) then who benefits? IN the first case the rich oligarch miners, like Gina Reinhart or Clive Palmer benefit, in the second case the public are the winners.

    The best human endeavour is independence from centralised infrastructure. There is nothing retrograde about it! If you want nation building projects then Solar thermal plants are just as demanding to build as other energy plants, but it can be done, now, and without radioactive waste.

    By Samuel K Dawson on 2013 06 04

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  • The problem’s not nuclear “per se”, but the baseload business model (which includes large coal burning power stations as well) that’s being insistently challenged by innovative emerging renewable energy sources. Fine, the sun doesn’t shine at night and wind doesn’t always blow when we want it to. So what, is that an impediment to a reliable grid system with all the IT we already have at hand? Indeed, it’s not a problem at all, but a very promising and actually manageable opportunity to capture the benefits of variable renewable energy sources. Might we call it a huge win-win opportunity? You bet!

    By José A. de Souza Jr. on 2013 06 07

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  • I am currently against nuclear for 4 reasons:

    1) We do not responsibly dispose of nuclear waste. Nearly all of the current waste sites are full in the US and there is not much hope of either more sites or a centralized storage site in the near future. Temporary storage in in-situ barrels is now the permanent solution. This is bad policy that creates increasing long term risk and liability.

    If we had a centralized storage site that met or almost met standards laid out by the Supreme Court, then I would be okay with this issue. Thorium reactors and/or reprocessing of nuclear waste for fuel to reduce overall waste loads would also alleviate my misgivings about waste.

    2) The new Vogtle reactor is under construction on a fault line near my hometown and the NRC refuses to do an earthquake analysis on this site and other existing sites. Nuclear safety is about reducing the possibility of high-impact, low probability events. Refusing to even spend the money to investigate this type of risk to my family and friends bothers me. I know this is a little NIMBY of me, but I am truly willing to let go of this reason if I could see that the results of an analysis show sufficiently low levels of risk, or if I knew that at least someone took this risk into account and adequately prepared for it. Now, it’s just a known unknown hanging over my family and my friends that they are incidentally paying extra for before the plant even goes online.

    When we first built nuclear plants, we did not have the technology that we do now to assess earthquake risks and other high-impact, low probability risks. If we want to embark upon another nuclear adventure, then we should at least adequately assess all risks involved to the best of our ability. This should inform nuclear reactor design and safety procedures. We accounted for risk in a new way recently, but updating our understanding with 21st century technology would alleviate many of my misgivings. It’s just the responsible thing to do.

    3) The social cost of nuclear risk (one externality) is likely greater than the social cost of carbon displaced by CO2 emissions (another externality). The large risk premium associated with a high-impact, low probability nuclear event discourages the technology’s deployment in a free market system. Nuclear power is only used because the federal government (i.e. taxpayers) foot the ultimate bill in lieu of a nuclear disaster. Even the collective liability of all the nuclear plants in the US under the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Nuclear Act in the event of a disaster is not enough to attract sufficient capital: the taxpayers have got to be on the line.

    If someone did a study to determine the relative climate/nuclear risk premiums and social costs and proved to me that the social cost of nuclear disaster was in fact less than the social cost of CO2, then maybe I would be more pro-nuclear. Right now my risk-risk analysis is more based upon opinion

    4) Human institutions consistently mismanage long-term risks, especially high probability risks from which they cannot learn to adapt. There are layers and layers of human institutions necessary to protect against these risks and all are replete with examples of humans making short term decision to long term detriment. In many cases we cherry-pick want we want to emphasize as sound science for short term gain, and in some cases we even ignore vast swaths of information. Unless the entire intergenerational ethic of America changes in a mostly permanent way (+100 years of sustained change), I just don’t trust people to responsibly manage these risks. The failure to agree upon climate solutions in the US should be seen as an indicator that we cannot handle long term risks such as those posed by nuclear energy.

    If the first 3 reasons were adequately addressed by the experts, then maybe I could get over the fact that it’s not a free market solution (unlike some RE), that it creates a technology pathway dependence with its own set of risks and challenges, and that human institutions inevitably eventually fail in big ways.

    If I were to see thinktanks making more meaningful contributions to the discourse by truly taking stock of the risks in a responsible manner, rather than just bashing greens for their position, then I might also be swayed. Until then, however, I think it’s a tad irresponsible to use the platform you built for yourself to advocate for a change that you don’t thoughtfully consider.

    By Ethan Case on 2013 06 11

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  • Posters above misquote the Price-Anderson Acts provision by giving the anti-nuke’s falsehood that the taxpayer is footing the bill.  The first tier of insurance protection is provided by commercial underwriters ( insurance companies DO insure nuclear plants counter to the lies of the anti-nukes ).  The second tier that is distributed by the Government is paid for by the nuclear uitilities.  Read the Wikipedia article on Price-Anderson Act at:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price–Anderson_Nuclear_Industries_Indemnity_Act

    By Edward Morbius on 2013 11 08

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  • @Ethan
    You are incorrect in your assertions about the Price-Anderson Act, the taxpayers do not have to be on-the-line to attract capital for new nuclear. In the event that a nuclear power accident results in offsite damage that exceeds the current $12.6 billion pool of money legislated that the nuclear industry pay, Congress is given the option to appropriate funds to cover some damages. However, they can also determine that the utility/plant/operator is truly at fault and force them to pay more. Limited Liability is a commonly used policy for industries that have very small probabilities of very expensive accidents, like the airline industry.

    Analysis of the inherent subsidy of the Price-Anderson Act have found it to be less than 0.1 mills/kWh (assuming plant operators need to insure for a Fukushima/Chernobyl level accident), which is hardly a burden on utilities. They already pay 1 mil/kWh into the Nuclear Waste Fund.

    Jessica Lovering
    Policy Analyst | The Breakthrough Institute
    Energy and Climate Program
    http://thebreakthrough.org/
    Twitter: @J_Lovering

    By Jessica Lovering on 2013 11 08

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  • @Jessica

    Thanks for the response!

    I completely agree with your interpretation of the law. In the event of an accident, the nuclear industry as a whole would pay up to a point and then Congress would appropriate tax dollars to address the problem and get what it can from the company. There is another important step that Edward points out: that private insurance money would also likely enter the picture and contribute funds to any remediation efforts. However, in the event of a Chernobyl-like incident (what I am referring to as “the ultimate bill”), even the $12.6 billion, the private insurance contribution, and settlements from the company would not be enough to cover the costs of such a disaster, especially in a densely populated area. In such a situation we arrive to the point where money is essentially meaningless and federal actions to remediate the problem over the longer term (e.g. tax payer dollars) is the only tenable solution. Luckily, we have never experienced this here, but had 3-mile Island led to the permanent evacuation of Harrisburg and the surrounding towns and chronic health problems for tens of thousands of people, we may have a better idea of the scope of the costs and the appropriate risk premiums for free market financing.
    I never quoted the law and so never “misquoted” it, nor did I intend to misrepresent it or present it in a misleading fashion. I am not anti-nuke; I simply have a short list of risk-based caveats to be fulfilled before I would be supportive of building new nuclear plants.
    On that note, I believe you may have misrepresented the nuclear industry insurance study. You write .1 mills/KWh. Perhaps you mean $.1 million USD per kilowatt of installed capacity? Otherwise, that would be quite expensive electricity. In any case, would you mind providing a citation and link to the study? I would appreciate reading it.
    I get the sense that the Breakthrough Institute is set on advancing an a priori pro-nuclear agenda without a rigorous examination of risks in a way that seems counter to the organization’s stated mission. I think this because you have not addressed any of the substance of my original post and instead focused upon a non-error in a way that undermines my arguments. I would love to be proved wrong and see you or anyone at the Breakthrough Institute present a nuclear argument that comprehensively and responsibly takes risk into account.

    By Ethan on 2014 01 29

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  • (Clarification: A “mill” is one-tenth of a cent, so 0.1 mills/kWh would be $0.001/kWh)

    The cost of covering a large accident - even paying the costs of evacuation, remediation -  are not unreasonable for the nuclear industry if those costs were spread out over the vast amount of energy produced by nuclear power plants. Hence, the 0.1 mill/kWh estimate to cover a Chernobyl-scale accident. Perhaps we need to reform policies to charge nuclear operators for such potential accidents in advance, but this would not present a significant cost for the industry.

    In the case of Fukushima, the accident was partially due to the sheer extreme of the combined earthquake/tsunami natural disaster. I think governments should be responsible for covering these outlier events, because their taxpayers have benefited greatly over the decades from having access to clean, reliable, cheap energy; that has huge economic and social benefits. If Japan had not pursued nuclear power, but had instead relied on coal and natural gas, their economy would have suffered greatly over the last three decades, let alone their public health.

    The Breakthrough Institute is not a priori pro-nuclear, but we do have a driving mission to promote clean energy, both to mitigate climate change, improve the broader environment, and improve public health. From our research over the years, nuclear is one of the best ways to achieve those goals, in terms of speed and scale. Just look at what’s going on in Japan and Germany today, both countries are replacing nuclear with coal, even though they are both very wealthy, modern countries. That’s the sort of evidence that gives us pause.

    See this recent post from Robert Wilson: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/der-kohle-boom

    All sources of energy have consequences, and you have to compare them on equal footing. I think you will agree that one of the primary goals should be to shut down coal plants, because the environmental and public health impacts are by far the most detrimental. Over 10,000 people die in the US every year to to coal-related air pollution. And nuclear has proven the fastest, and cheapest route to shutting down and preventing coal globally (although now natural gas is doing that job in the US).

    Jessica Lovering
    Policy Analyst | The Breakthrough Institute
    Energy and Climate Program
    http://thebreakthrough.org/
    Twitter: @J_Lovering

    By Jessica Lovering on 2014 01 29

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  • Picking up 10 mills certainly sounds more attractive than picking up 10 cents. I would love to read it if you could post it.

    So here’s the real reason I find the Breakthrough Institute’s support of nuclear a bit fishy: without the DOE loan guarantee program and the new power plant being built in Agusta, GA, the whole nuclear argument would be a waste of words. Many people who were in DC when the DOE $32 billion dollar loan guarantee program was originated – including me – believed that money for the new reactors was granted as part of a political bargain that had nothing to do with sound policy analysis. Obama got support of moderate Republicans (especially Lindsay Graham) on the climate bill that never materialized for $8 billion dollars for an immensely expensive, pie-in-the-sky nuclear revitalization effort.

    This, coupled with the fact that every third or fourth blog post is smear pieces or at least disrespectfully dismissive of people who think differently than you (including this very article), makes the energy spin here even more dubious than the spin everywhere else.

    My take on the Breakthrough Institute’s support for nuclear also has to do with sound governance around nuclear issues. There was a 4.1 magnitude Earth quake with an epicenter within 20 miles of the new reactor’s construction site in early February. The leader of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission resigned in part because he wanted an earthquake analysis before approving the new reactor, but his efforts were confounded by other members of the NRC. Many people who have no strong nuclear stance suggest that the NRC is a completely captured regulatory body now that the old NRC chair is gone. Captured regulatory bodies rarely lead to good outcomes for the public.

    There are a whole host of barriers to nuclear including the cost to teach people to build plants again, untrustworthy regulators, the whole waste issue, organized anti-nuclear culture that will raise the cost of building any new plants, and our society’s general incompetence at very long term planning based upon science. If the Breakthrough Institute were a place where strategies were being to develop to address these barriers, I’d think you all were pretty cool and actually pushing for genuine breakthroughs. But, in this article and in general, I see unthoughtful nuclear promotion and mostly adversarial bashing.

    Right now, the top article on your blog now is how environmentalist are wrong about bio-energy but how your guy is right. I also have strong misgivings about environmentalism and strategies employed by environmentalists, but you all appear to be consistently mean about it. Why?

    By Ethan on 2014 03 03

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  • Mark -It seems to me that Roger likes to mix it up. For example, I rentecly read a thread where he referred to “climate hawks” as “climate chickens.” So it isn’t terribly surprising that he’s not universally well-liked, and no doubt, there’s quite few folks out there who don’t like Roger very much. That seems clear.But none of your links support his claim that he is “typically” viewed as “the enemy.” (Notice how you, yourself, felt compelled to change “the enemy” to “an enemy” to make his comment easier to defend.) And your belief that I “act like” he’s also an “enemy” to me can’t really be questioned. Your belief is your belief. But your belief is entirely incorrect.Maybe Roger’s claim was just a tad, maybe a smidgeon, over the top?

    By Dave on 2014 09 28

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