Rethinking the Nuclear Energy Renaissance
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently approved a license for what is to become the first nuclear power reactor built in the U.S. in over 30 years. The reactors, scheduled to go online sometime in 2016, would be the first nuclear reactors in the U.S. since before the Three Mile Island incident. The reactors will be additions to an existing nuclear power facility near Augusta, Georgia.
The lone dissenter in the NRC 4-1 vote to approve the new reactors came from Gregory Jaczko, Chairman of the Commission. Jaczko stated “I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened”. It appears he is not comfortable that there has been time to incorporate the lessons learned from the Japanese disaster.
The Georgia reactors were to be the leading edge of a renaissance in the nuclear power industry. However, lasts year’s Fukushima Daiichi incident in Japan was a sharp reminder of the dangers of nuclear power. Despite the approval of the new project the nuclear giant in the U.S. is more likely to go back to sleep than reawakened.
Nuclear power was on the verge of making a strong comeback with many projects winding their way through the bureaucratic gauntlet of analysis, regulatory approval, and financing. However, most of the other potential projects have fallen out of the pipeline leaving only 5 reactors including the two in Georgia that are likely to be completed in the next decade. One of those five is actually just the completion of a plant that was started in the 1970’s but never completed. The erstwhile nuclear power renaissance was the result of decades of lobbying and spending by players in the nuclear industry after the Three Mile Island incident effectively halted any new nuclear power in the U.S. for over a generation.
The Questionable Green Credentials of Nuclear Power
Proponents of nuclear power try to include nuclear energy in the category of ‘green” energy that includes wind and solar. Ostensibly, this is because nuclear generated electricity doesn’t create a great deal of carbon emissions. However, when considering the entire nuclear fuel chain there are some not inconsequential environmental concerns. Each step along the way has an environmental impact to varying degrees. Exploration, Uranium mining & milling, transport, enrichment, construction of the reactors, managing the radioactive waste both as a byproduct of the mining process and power generation process all have environmental consequences. Beyond that, the occasional nuclear power disaster also obviously can be disastrous to the environment.
Unlike other alternative energy sources nuclear power does not enjoy strong public support. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima all served, and rightfully so, to frighten the public over the potential catastrophic risks inherent in nuclear power.
The spent uranium left over from the process of generating nuclear power is dangerous material that remains radioactive and deadly for many humanlike times. There is still no good answer as to how to deal with this problem or even where to store it so that it isn't a hazard to the environment and human life. This is an expensive problem, the cost of which is never fully accounted for when weighing the true cost of nuclear power. The waste problem has to be solved and, regardless of the solution, will cost billions of dollars most likely coming from taxpayers. This is on top of the billions already spent in unsuccessful attempts to solve the storage problem. Plans for the Yucca Mountain Waste Repository were finally cancelled by the Obama administration in 2009 leaving the U.S with no real option other than to continue to store nuclear waste on location at nuclear power plants.
The uranium used for nuclear power is not just a problem as waste. Uranium mining is an ugly process that devastates entire regions and communities leaving behind a radioactive mess. It kills or sickens miners and people unlucky enough to live anywhere near the mining operation. For proof of what uranium mining operations can do consider the case of the Navajo people and the government sponsored uranium mining on Navajo lands. The impact of uranium mining on both the land and the Navajo people is shocking by any standard.
- Of the 150 Navajo uranium miners who worked at the uranium mine in Shiprock, New Mexico until 1970, 133 died of lung cancer or various forms of fibrosis by 1980.
- When mining ceased in the late 1970's, mining companies walked away from the mines without sealing the tunnel openings, filling the gaping pits, sometimes hundreds of feet deep, or removing the piles of radioactive uranium ore and mine waste. Over 1,000 of these unsealed tunnels, unsealed pits and radioactive waste piles still remain on the Navajo reservation today, with Navajo families living within a hundred feet of the mine sites. The Navajo graze their livestock here, and have used radioactive mine tailings to build their homes. Navajo children play in the mines, and uranium mine tailings have turned up in school playgrounds.
In 2007 following a series of congressional hearings the EPA finally begin to take action to deal with the radioactive contamination left behind on Navajo land. This mining started over 60 years ago. Yet, the effects still linger. The impact of uranium mining on the Navajo people and Navajo land is a shameful period in American history.
Uranium Contamination at Church Rock nuclear mine in New Mexico. Image Source:
The byproduct of uranium mining is a toxic radioactive soup that has to be dealt with and somehow disposed of or sequestered. Uranium ore is crushed to extract the uranium leaving leftover radioactive sand known as tailings. Tailings are mixed with water to create a radioactive slurry that will remain radioactive for thousands of years.
This obligates someone to watch over this radioactive waste for thousands of years in the future; long after the company that mined the uranium is still around.
The Expense of Nuclear Power
Cost is a significant challenge for any alternative energy sources. However, the expense of nuclear is not likely to fall as fast as wind or solar as a result of technological advances. Nuclear power must be heavily subsidized in order to be anywhere near cost competitive with traditional power sources.
In the U.S. nuclear power accounts for around 20% of electricity production. This is most likely the highest percentage it will ever be. New capacity is continually being built to meet energy demand and with the exception of the two approved reactors in Georgia none of that is coming from nuclear. Support for public subsidies for alternative energy sources is waning given the current economic climate.
Perhaps unexpectedly, those who oppose nuclear power are finding their cause helped by the current state of the natural gas industry. The extremely low price of natural gas has helped in bringing cheap electricity to the public and making more expensive power generation methods like nuclear harder to justify financially. Government subsidies will only go so far. Private capital still has to come to the table at some point. The project in Georgia in addition to several billion dollars in government loan guarantees was also prefunded by assessing monthly fees on consumer’s electricity bill to raise the remainder of the $14billion+ price tag.
Electricity rates have been driven down substantially in recent in years in places like Texas where the availability of cheap, abundant natural gas has made the economic justification for alternative energy sources even more difficult. Texas is both the largest producer and largest consumer of electricity in the United States. Nuclear power accounts for 10% of Texas electricity but that number will continue to fall as new mostly natural gas burning power plants are built to keep up with increasing demand.
The Nuclear Black Swan
Perhaps the best argument against nuclear power is the risk of a “black swan” event. The term black swan is used to describe an event that is so rare that we don't account for it in our normal thought process and as part of our everyday experience. We fail to account for the black swan in our assessment of risk.
The thing about black swan events is that they can have profound implications precisely because they are so unexpected. It's only after the event when we reflect on it in hindsight that the cause seems so obvious and preventable in the future. This gives us a false sense of confidence in our ability to anticipate and control risk.
Fukushima was a black swan event. The Japanese rely heavily on nuclear power having no real reserves of fossil fuel. Many would have considered them the most disciplined and most prepared nation on earth when it comes to nuclear technology and safety. Yet, despite this, the unthinkable happened. Experts will study the events of Fukushima for years to come. They will improve designs and revise regulations and procedures. The likelihood of a catastrophic outcome from that particular series of events will go down. Yet you can never fully plan for the unexpected.
With nuclear power when things go wrong they can go horribly wrong with implications for millions of people if not the entire globe. Nuclear mistakes are permanent; at least in the context of the span of a human lifetime. Areas contaminated by radiation could be uninhabitable for generations. The risk/reward equation of nuclear power is lopsided.
We build nuclear facilities within 20 miles of population centers holding millions of people and we fool ourselves into thinking that we have planned for all the things that could go wrong. Over 100 million Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor. 50 miles is the radius around the Fukushima meltdown that the U.S. government urged Americans to evacuate. The Comanche Creek Nuclear Plant in Texas has 1.7 million people living within its 50 mile radius. The Limerick Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania has over 8 million people living within its 50 mile radius.
While Fukushima has largely disappeared from the news cycle the crisis is still very real and ongoing. The publication Environmental Science and Technology recently released a report noting substantially elevated radiation levels of 50 million times normal levels in ocean waters off the Japanese coast. As a reminder, the Pacific Ocean also lies off the coast of California. There is a saying that all politics is local. Well, all nuclear accidents are global.
Certain areas around Fukushima will be off limits for human habitation for decades. 8% of Japan’s surface area has received radiation contamination. An equivalent size in the United States would be larger than California and Nevada combined.
Destruction at Fukushima
When the final cost of the Fukushima disaster is quantified (if it ever can be) it must be included in the true cost of nuclear power for the nation of Japan. Complete decommissioning of the Fukushima plant could take up to 30 years.
The point is not that what happened in Fukushima could happen elsewhere. It's actually more insidious than that. Nuclear experts could say Japan did X, Y and Z wrong and suggest regulatory changes, design changes, and procedural changers etc... to make sure it doesn't happen again. But the real threat is that the next incident will again be something we did not anticipate. That's the nature of the Black Swan.
Again, at the risk of being redundant, when things go wrong with nuclear they go very wrong
A Tempting Target for Bad Guys
The threat of terrorism is another consideration that can’t be overlooked when looking at the risk/reward ratio of nuclear power. I’m not advocating that we allow the threats of terrorists to dictate our energy policy. However, the aftermath of a successful attack on one or multiple nuclear facilities would be devastating. The impact would be felt for decades. We fool ourselves into thinking that with the right planning and diligence we can prevent such a thing from happening. But what if we’re wrong? With nuclear the penalty for being wrong is enormous and practically irreversible.
A report published by the group Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) outlines the particulars of the threat of a terrorist attack on nuclear power facilities in the United States.
An attack on a nuclear power plant would likely target one or both of the two most vulnerable parts of the nuclear power facility; the nuclear reactors or the spent fuel pools. The public became educated about the danger of the spent fuel pools during the crises in Fukushima. These pools are just what they sound like; large pools of water where the used nuclear fuel rods are stored after their useful life.
The water both absorbs the radiation and keeps the rods from overheating. If this material becomes exposed to the air bad things begin to happen. Any type of manmade or natural event that disturbs or empties these pools could result in massive amounts of radiation being released into the environment. The PSR report points out that if the spent fuel pools at the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Connecticut were compromised the resulting release of radiation would be larger than the radiation released from Chernobyl. That type of radiation released in a highly populated area could kill thousands in the short term and tens of thousands for decades afterwards as the delayed effects of radiation exposure take their toll.
The nuclear reactors are built to be resilient enough to withstand certain attacks. But according to both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the NRC airplane attacks like those of 9/11 were not taken into account in the design of these structures and the reactors would not survive a direct hit from a large aircraft. This further illustrates the naivety of thinking that we can possibly conceive of and account for all potential threats from a determined enemy or Mother Nature. With nuclear the cost of getting it wrong is simply too high.
Nuclear Power and the Cyber Threat
In the age of cyber terrorism the bad guys don’t even have to blow things up to create problems. The Stuxnet virus that was discovered in 2010 offers a glimpse into the future of cyber terrorism and cyber warfare.
Stuxnet is not the typical indiscriminate computer virus meant to infect and damage as many PCs as possible. Rather, it was designed with a level of sophistication never before seen in computer viruses. It is meant to spread widely but to remain hidden and undetected until it gains access to specific industrial control systems that control chemical plants, oil refineries, pipelines, and yes, nuclear power plants. In fact, there is strong evidence that it was targeted specifically at Iranian nuclear facilities. It was believed that Stuxnet was developed by a sophisticated and well funded group; most likely a state sponsored group.
With Stuxnet computer viruses have made a disturbing leap from the virtual world to the physical world. Stuxnet was design to disrupt automated industrial process. This can result in real things blowing up. When real things blow up in nuclear facilities it’s a real problem.
Not Worth the Risk
It’s said that a smart man learns from his own mistakes but a truly wise man learns from other people’s mistakes. The U.S. can’t subscribe to the “it couldn’t happen to us” fallacy. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster even countries once committed to nuclear power are rethinking their policies. Japan has abruptly halted plans for future nuclear power expansion and is looking to aggressively invest in other alternative energies including a planned massive offshore wind farm. Germany has made the drastic decision to completely pull out of nuclear power and shut down all of its nuclear facilities by 2022.
The world will continue to face energy challenges for the foreseeable future but Nuclear Power is not the answer.
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