Why Nuclear Energy is Still a Really Bad Idea

June 14th, 2009

After all the literature and public policy discussion and decision-making of the past 50+ years, it is hard to believe that there is still an industry – and a lobby – advocating for the expenditure of vast sums of money for the use of “controlled” nuclear reactions anywhere on this planet, let alone in the densely-populated Northeast.

But nuclear advocates have found new hope in the argument that nuclear power is “carbon-free.” New organizations have been formed to promote nuclear as “clean, affordable, and safe.”

As Environment NJ’s Matt Elliott has noted, “Recently, Exelon Corp. funded the creation of a group with the misleading name of Affordable, Clean, Reliable Energy (ACRE) Coalition. The group is little more than a front for the nuclear industry.”  (Philadelphia Inquirer – 2007-09-17)

And I was alarmed to hear the Deputy Speaker of the NJ Assembly say the other day that a new nuclear plant in New Jersey was “inevitable,” and could be approved as early as 2015. He based this in part on the delays in getting massive amounts of renewables in place – as called for in the state’s new Energy Master Plan – to meet the goals of the Renewable Portfolio Standard. In his view, and that of many others, the implementation of the state’s energy policy goals was hopelessly inadequate, and would fall so far short of these goals as to make nuclear inevitable.

For all these reasons, it’s important to state why nuclear energy is still a bad idea – for New Jersey, for America, and for the world:

  • To start with, it’s not renewable. Uranium is a fossil fuel, that has to be extracted through mining, and there is a limited amount of it that is accessible and likely to be recoverable on a cost-effective basis. The IAEA report, “Uranium 2005: Resources, Production and Demand– also called the “Red Book” – estimates the total identified amount of conventional uranium stock, which can be mined for less than USD 130 per kg, to be about 4.7 million tonnes. Based on the 2004 nuclear electricity generation rate of demand the amount is sufficient for 85 years, the study states.” (Global Uranium Resources to Meet Projected Demand, 2 June 2006.) While this may not be a limiting factor immediately, the way peak oil appears to be, the same arguments will ultimately apply: this is not a sustainable source of energy.
  • It is also not “clean.” While no greenhouse gases are emitted in the reaction cycle, nuclear power plants are massive construction projects, requiring huge quantities of cement and other materials; and the process of mining uranium is itself very energy-intensive and damaging to the environment.
As John Busby points out,

The claim for the carbon-free status of nuclear power proves to be false. Carbon dioxide is released in every component of the nuclear fuel cycle except the actual fission in the reactor. Fossil fuels are involved in the mining, milling, conversion and enrichment of the ore, in the handling of the mill tailings, in the fuel can preparation, in the construction of the station and in its de-commissioning and demolition, in the handling of the spent waste, in its processing and vitrification and in digging the hole in rock for its deposition.

The lower the ore grade, the more energy is consumed in the fuel processing, so that the amount of the carbon dioxide released in the overall fuel cycle depends on the ore grade. Only Canada and Australia have ores of a sufficiently high grade to avoid excessive carbon releases and to provide an adequate energy gain. At ore grades below 0.01% for ‘soft’ ores and 0.02% for ‘hard’ ores more CO2 than an equivalent gas-fired station is released and more energy is absorbed in the cycle that is gained in it…

The industry points to the presence of uranium in phosphates and seawater, but the concentrations are so low that the energy required to extract it would exceed many times the energy obtained from any nuclear power resulting and the resulting carbon emissions would be massive.

When the energy inputs, past, present and future are totalled up and set against the actual energy derived from the entire nuclear power programme and its waste handling, it may well be that the overall energy gain has been negative. This has been masked by the availability of cheap fossil fuels, but as that era passes it behoves energy professionals to make an honest assessment of the energy and monetary economics of proceeding further with a failed technology. (Why nuclear power is not a sustainable source of low carbon energy, 31 October 2005.)

  • Nuclear energy is not cheap. Massive subsidies to the nuclear industry are now widely understood as “hidden costs” that give the lie to the idea that nuclear electricity can be generated for as little as 3¢ a kilowatt hour. It is not even possible to fully account for the “externalities” involved in producing electricity, because the final costs of disposing of wastes, decommissioning power plants, cleaning up accidents, protecting plants from terrorist attacks, etc. cannot be known.
  • The storage problem remains unresolved. Despite technological advances that may allow for the re-processing of spent fuels (for something other than making nuclear weapons), the ultimate disposal problem remains.
  • Public opinion is now firmly against the development of more nuclear, and is likely to prevent siting of  nuclear plants near dense population centers (where the energy is needed), leading to even higher costs or the need to site plants far enough away to require an even-more massive upgrading of the grid.
  • Nuclear power is more “centralized” energy production, rather than distributed generation.
A number of other arguments could also be made, but these should suffice to make the point that nuclear is not a solution to our present global climate and energy crises. Investing additional billions of dollars in nuclear will only divert resources from developing truly clean and renewable sources of energy, and delay the transition to a sustainable economy.
And if you really want to hear the truth about the industry’s safety record, just watch Dan Hirsch’s Bridging the Gap: The Choice Between Nuclear and Renewable Energy (February 18, 2009) for some pretty startling revelations..

2 Responses to “Why Nuclear Energy is Still a Really Bad Idea”

  1. […] Nuclear Energy is Still a Really Bad Idea 15 06 2009 Why Nuclear Energy is Still a Really Bad Idea Jonathan […]

  2. infocentre.santabarbara.caton 09 Nov 2013 at 8:55 pm


    Jonathan Cloud::Life, Examined » Blog Archive » Why Nuclear Energy is Still a Really Bad Idea

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