Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Top Seven Reasons Not To Use Nuclear Power

I drew some heat last week amongst friends and readers for my opinion on nuclear energy.  A reader was kind enough to leave a detailed comment and challenged me to explain my position.  It was a comment left by Hastey Words on a previous post:
Hey, just wanted to say first that I generally enjoy your blog quite a bit. That said, it seems that predictions of catastrophic fallout from the Fukushima plant are overreactions, and that despite a magnitute 9 earthquake and massive tsunami, the plant will not pose serious danger even to nearby residents in Japan, much less people further away [http://www.businessinsider.com/japan-reactors-pose-no-risk-2011-3]. 
As to the dangers of nuclear plants generally, it's true that people living within 50 miles of a plant are exposed to some radiation, but a nuclear plant produces less than a third of the background radiation produced by a coal plant. In fact, you are exposed to more radiation by eating a banana than by living 50 miles from a nuclear plant for a year. [http://xkcd.com/radiation/].

Finally, nuclear power is linked to fewer deaths per terawatt hour than power from virtually any other source: coal, natural gas, solar, wind, you name it. [http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html]
Why then, should we be so concerned about nuclear energy instead of embracing it as a safe, clean energy?
Okay!  I choose to not embrace nuclear energy as a safe and clean energy because it is neither.  First, I concede that I am not an expert and nobody reading this should think of me as one, but here are my reasons for opposing nuclear energy based on the facts I think are important:

Reason #7 - Safety is a myth.  The Chernobyl incident was in 1986.  That accident caused (or in time directly contributed to) the deaths of anywhere from 4,000 to upwards of a half a million people depending on the estimate.  It has been 26 years since Chernobyl and there have been 22 significant nuclear power accidents since, 15 of which led to the release of radioactive substances into the world biosphere.  Not everything has been reported as widely as Fukushima, but this technology needs to be respected at all times and the potential danger can never be eliminated.  Nothing will ever make nuclear energy a 100% safe guarantee to the world community.

What Fukushima has accomplished is alerting the world to the potential of natural disasters on nuclear power plants.  Natural disasters must be factored in when discussing the safety of nuclear power.  This is true for not only Japan, but the rest of the world.  Anyone with the basic understandings of earth sciences could have anticipated that Japan was going to have a 9.0 magnitude (or greater) on their east coast sometime in the next 100 years.  Planning a country's energy policy should reflect the anticipation for several large and devastating natural disasters.  Japan knew this and even designed the facility to withstand a severe earthquake and tsunami.  The failure at the plant is proof you cannot guarantee safety no matter how good of a design or how many precautions you take.

If the process and technology of nuclear energy cannot withstand a 9.0+ earthquake, then it has to abandoned (at least for Japan).  The epicenter of this 9.0 earthquake was nearly 200 kilometers away from Fukushima.  What happens if next time it is only 20 kilometers from a nuclear power plant and the earthquake is a 9.2? (which is almost three times larger than a 9.0 on a the logarithmic scale and very possible)  No amount of safety planning and design can guarantee the facility can contain its radioactive materials.  If a plume goes up, hundreds of thousands could die as a result.  The workers at Fukushima are heroes and the worst case scenario may have been averted there, but is every country capable of averting such a disaster?

Reason #6 - If nuclear energy is the answer to the world's energy problems, then who gets to have it?  People make the argument that safety standards are always improving, and that we can trust energy companies to expand nuclear power.  That might be great for first world nations like the USA, Japan, and France, but who do we not trust to start or expand their civilian nuclear program?  Can Libya or Egypt have one?  How about Cuba?  What about Iran or North Korea?  When talking about the future of energy consumption needs, we are talking about a global society.  If the USA says nuclear is their long-term answer to sustainable energy, then every developing country is going to want it as well and they will not take no for an answer.  Japan, France, and the USA might have the best trained technicians, highest safety standards, and most-thorough government oversight to ensure nothing disastrous happens, but what about developing nations or nations with authoritarian leaders?  A catastrophic accident anywhere in the world will not respect our arbitrary political boundaries.  Nuclear power is dangerous, more so in the hands of less developed nations.  Its global expansion should be halted and reversed.  First world nations should serve as an example to follow.

Reason #5 - What about the glowing green waste?  Nuclear power is not a clean energy source.  It produces both low and high-level radioactive waste that remains dangerous for several hundred thousand years.  Currently, over 2,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste and 12 million cubic feet of low level radioactive waste are produced annually by the 103 operating reactors in the United States alone.  No country in the world has found a final solution for their waste.  Building more nuclear plants world-wide would mean the production of much more of this dangerous waste with nowhere safe for it to go.  The hundreds of thousands of metric tons of high-level radioactive waste created from nuclear energy (and the unimaginable amount yet to be created by advocates of nuclear energy) have to be sealed and successfully kept separate from the entire world's biosphere.  If any of it is lost track of by incompetence or neglect over the next couple hundred thousands years, then people start dying.

Reason #4 - Who has got the time?  The world is already facing an energy crisis.  It is only going to get worse in the near future.  In the USA alone, no new nuclear power plants have been built in the last thirty years and it was not until the energy bill of 2005 that plans were set in motion for the design and development of new facilities.  Because nuclear power is so dangerous, costly, and complicated, the time frame needed for the formalities, planing, and building of a new nuclear power generation plant is in the range of 20 to 30 years.  It is impossible to build new nuclear power plants in the short run to meet our immediate power needs.  Our time would be better spent investing and furthering new and renewable, emerging technologies.

Reason # 3 - It is not a cheaper energy source.  Nuclear power cannot survive and compete on its own without the aid and use of government handouts and tax payer dollars.  The list of benefits the nuclear power industry gets from the United States Federal government goes on and on.  Limits on primary insurance, covering the costs of licensing applications, reimbursing up to half the costs of research and development programs, taxpayer-finance new plant constructions costs, production tax credits, loan guarantees and power purchase agreements, shutdown subsidies, and anti-trust exemptions.  The aggregate estimate of subsidization for the nuclear power industry in the United States is estimated at over $150 billion dollars over the last 50 years.  This is a subsidy intensity (government support per kWh output) normally exceeding 30% of the market value of the energy produced.  In the European Union, the rate is almost as bad approaching $45 billion over the last thirty years.  If all of this money had been put into developing and mass producing true renewable energies such as geothermal, wind, solar, and tidal, we might have already solved all of the world's energy problems.

Reason #2 - Uranium is a finite resource like coal and oil.  The world's future energy needs cannot be solved by investing in a finite resource.  Coal is finite.  Oil is finite.  Uranium is finite.  The true irony of advocating nuclear power as an alternative to the other two is that of those three, the world will run out of uranium first.  This is no joke, the world is running out of raw materials for everything.  At the current expected rate of consumption and demand, we will run out of Antimony in 15-20 years, Hafnium in 10 years, Indium in 5-10 years, Platinum in 15 years, Silver in 15-20 years, Tantalum in 20-30 years, Zinc in 20-30 years and Uranium in 30-40 years.  Unless you plan on dying in the next five years, this will happen in your lifetime.  The world must start investing in alternative energies right now that draw energy from infinite sources, such as the sun, the Earth's core, and the Earth's wind and waves.

Reason #1 - Terrorists are still trying to do their thing.  The world we live in is very dangerous.  Every power plant in the world is a vulnerable target.  The 9/11 Commission noted in June 2004 that al Qaeda's original plan for September 11 was to hijack 10 airplanes and crash two of them into nuclear plants.  A successful attack would release "large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment."  A September 2004 study by Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, using the NRC's own analysis method, found that a worst-case accident or attack at the Indian Point nuclear plant 35 miles north of New York City could cause up to 43,700 immediate fatalities and up to 518,000 long-term cancer deaths.  Such a release could cost up to $2.1 trillion and would force the permanent relocation of 11.1 million people.

Additionally, the proliferation of civilian nuclear technology can all too easily lead to the proliferation of military nuclear technology.  The more rogue and unstable nations with nuclear materials (Iran, Pakistan, North Korea) the greater the chance a terrorist organization can obtain enough nuclear materials to make a dirty bomb and detonate it in a heavily populated city.  The more that nuclear technology is expanded, the greater the inevitable risk this worst-case scenario will happen.  Instead, research and development should go into renewable energies and then that technology should be shared with developing nations to deter them from pursuing nuclear technology.

*** I want to let everyone know that I am deeply concerned for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  My thoughts and well wishes go out to the citizens of Japan.  Reading and watching daily about the response of search and rescue teams and humanitarian organizations has been very heart-warming and inspiring.

This post was not intended to be insensitive towards the victims of the quake.  I have already been told it is inappropriate to be having this debate so recently after the tragedy, but I respectfully disagree.  This is the most important time to have the debate because the world is listening right now and I believe in my argument.  I believe that it can save lives in the future.  Thanks.


jjj_alltheway said...

"Because nuclear power is so dangerous, costly, and complicated, the time frame needed for the formalities, planing, and building of a new nuclear power generation plant is in the range of 20 to 30 years."

Where did you get 20-30 years? That sounds absurd and I'd bet Lee, Myeong-bak and any S. Korean nuclear power plant building company would beg to differ.

TWEffect said...

I linked it... That estimate is based on how long it took to build previous plants in the United States. I'm sure you could reduce the time if you cut some corners here and there. Best case scenario would be between 5-7 years.

Of course everything built in Asia is built a little bit faster than in the USA. Just how things are.

Turner said...

Some pretty solid arguments. I too disagree with the time involved in #4, but even if it's within a few years, it's still too long to address energy concerns. The only advantage third world countries have in this situation is their lesser dependence on power. The US has plenty of alternative energy sources, but we're unwilling to cut back on what we use, or, to take things to extremes, pull the plug when it needs to be pulled.

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