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Response to an Open Letter on the Future of Nuclear Power

Dale Bryk

Posted November 5, 2013

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Response to an Open Letter on the Future of Nuclear Power

By Dale Bryk, Sheryl Carter, Ralph Cavanagh, David Goldstein and Kit Kennedy

NRDC Energy Program

Four distinguished atmospheric scientists, including Dr. James Hansen, have written an open letter encouraging those “opposed to nuclear power” to rethink their position in light of the urgent need to fight dangerous climate change.

Hansen and his coauthors are right to underscore the dangers of climate disruption from the global addiction to fossil fuels.  As longtime leaders of NRDC’s energy program, we agree with them that “energy systems decisions should be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases.”  But the authors of this letter (and other nuclear energy proponents) are on the wrong track when they look to nuclear power as a silver bullet solution for global warming.  To the contrary, given its massive capital costs, technical complexity, and international security concerns, nuclear power is clearly not a practical alternative. Instead, energy efficiency will always be the quickest, cheapest solution to our energy and climate challenges, and clean renewable energy is growing today by leaps and bounds.  

Inexplicably, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues ignore energy efficiency altogether. Yet as NRDC documented in a recent report [ ] in the 40 years since the first OPEC oil embargo, energy efficiency has made a larger contribution to meeting the energy needs of a growing U.S. economy than all other resources combined, including nuclear power, oil, natural gas and coal.  Those who take global warming seriously need to begin the discussion of solutions with the potential for more of these efficiency improvements; the open letter doesn’t even mention them.  The dominance of energy efficiency in the U.S. energy economy didn’t result from anybody’s bias or ideology; it is all about comparative advantages in cost and reliability (it turns out to be much cheaper and easier to get more work out of less electricity than to build new nuclear or coal-fired power plants). 

Renewable energy is at least mentioned in the open letter, but the treatment is inaccurately dismissive.  Wind farms and solar arrays can be installed much faster and typically at lower cost than new nuclear plants, and the consequences of any single unit’s failure are trivial by comparison.  Hansen et al.’s contention that these resources cannot “scale” rapidly enough to make a difference is belied by the recent record – windpower alone added nine times more generation than nuclear plants to the US grid from 2000 – 2012.  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has concluded that “renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.”

Hansen and his colleagues do not contest the generally disappointing performance of nuclear power in U.S. and global energy markets since the mid-1970s (for example, no US nuclear power plant operating today was ordered after 1973, and Japan’s Fukushima disaster brought one of the world’s largest utilities to its knees in March 2011, while ending any pretense of a “nuclear renaissance”).  Instead, the coauthors hold out the promise of “safer nuclear energy systems” that will somehow turn things around.  But, as NRDC’s Tom Cochran and Ralph Cavanagh point out in a recent article on the CNN website [LINK] the global history of the nuclear industry is littered with costly failures to create advanced reactor designs that could economically and reliably do what Hansen and his colleagues think has already been accomplished by “modern nuclear technology”:  “reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently.”

Finally, the open letter suggests that that it is the environmental community that is somehow holding back a nuclear power surge.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  A US “nuclear renaissance” has failed to materialize, despite targeted federal subsidies, because of nuclear power’s high capital cost, long construction times, the lower demand for electricity due largely to improvements in energy efficiency, and competition from renewables. Unless Hansen, et al. want the US to join the society of planned economies, the better approach to which we can all agree is to internalize the cost of carbon emissions and let energy efficiency, renewables and nuclear compete on a level playing field.  We and the Hansen group obviously disagree on who the winners are likely to be, but let’s not delay further in finding out.

NRDC is a long-time advocate for expanded research spanning a wide range of energy technologies.  No one can or should close the door to the prospect of improved nuclear power technology.  But in a world with constrained capital resources and an urgent need to find the lowest cost ways to cut carbon pollution, nuclear power ranks far down the list of promising or likely solutions.  We hope that Hansen and his colleagues will keep their focus on the urgent need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, and let winners and losers in the clean energy race emerge on the merits.


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JohnNov 5 2013 11:01 PM

Thank you for serious and substantive responses rooted in facts and actual experiences with nuclear power, energy efficiency and renewables.

It is interesting that Mike's comments encapsulate the reactions to substantive critiques by many nuclear power boosters: avoiding any responses to meritorious critiques, especially concerning the economic problems of nuclear power; choosing instead to lash out at criticism with personal and diversionary attacks; and attempting to co-opt concern over climate change to excuse or ignore pervasive economic, technological, waste and national security concerns with nuclear power.

Chris MurrayNov 6 2013 06:07 PM

Hansen’s figures on the risks and harm from nuclear power are simply badly wrong. He has taken the figure of 43 deaths at Chernobyl, and elevated it into a more or less final figure. It is not. It is the number categorically, epidemiologically, proved, as of 2008, to have been caused by Chernobyl. It takes no account of later-developing cancers, of the implications of more recent studies, or of the difficulties finding even tens of thousands of Chernobyl cancers among tens of millions of naturally-occurring cancers, of the difficulty in carrying out accurate epidemiology in poor, pro-nuclear countries with broken health services and no interest in funding the necessary research. Nor has the rich West much appetite for such studies.

However, even establishment radiology risk-estimates, solidly based on the Japanese LSS study, among others, would point to 30,000 fatal cancers arising from Chernobyl. In fact, THE VERY REPORT HANSEN REFERENCES (UNSCEAR 2008) when he speaks of Chernobyl only causing 43 deaths, actually clearly states "Although the numbers of cancers projected to be induced by radiation exposure from the accident are very small relative to the baseline cancer risk, THEY COULD BE
SUBSTANTIAL IN ABSOLUTE TERMS" (my emphasis - even a "very small" increase of say, 0.5%, in baseline risk would cause, say, 10,000 extra cancers in a 10 million population, assuming normal cancer mortality of 20% of all deaths." and an earlier UNSCEAR report put the eventual excess cancer death toll among the cleanup workers at 4,000, and in the most affected areas of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus alone at a further 5,000.

The International Atomic Energy Agency estimated 600,000 man sievert was released at Chernobyl. All radiological protection agencies recommend the continued use of the Linear Non-Threshold (no safe dose) model for radiological protection. The International Commission on Radiological Protection advises doctors to assume a fatal cancer risk of 5% per sievert – a figure soundly based epidemiologically on the LSS study of Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - when carrying out radiology such as CT scans
(usually about 10millisievert). Although UNSCEAR and the ICRP now do a Pontius Pilate (citing “uncertainty” re low doses) at this point and refuse to do the maths (in spite of having done exactly such maths themselves in the past, as have numerous other scientific agencies), this suggests a total 30,000 cancer deaths from Chernobyl, a figure broadly in line with more sophisticated estimates from a wide range of qualified scientists.

Dr. Ian Fairlie has an excellent site re the risks of low level radiation for those interested in scientific, objective information

Kathy BeavinNov 6 2013 07:35 PM

I would dearly love to hear from just one scientist, or any proponent of nuclear energy how (dirty) mining figures into their hype of the benefits. I have asked this question numerous times and never received an answer.

Chris WoodwardNov 8 2013 12:29 AM

Dale, You commented on CNN's run of Pandora's Promise that another's comment that solar was "one tenth of one percent" of US generation was "inaccurate". It is accurate, and if you look at EIA data for California, you will see it only grows to 0.7% of their 2012 generation. This, for a state famously pursuing solar energy.

If is important that we accept and watch these numbers, as PPM levels rise, and that we also be realistic about what else can help tackle the problem.

Dale BrykNov 8 2013 09:44 AM

Thanks for your comment Chris. I don't disagree wtih the film's statements that solar and wind currently represent small percentages of our power mix. I disagree with its characterization of renewable energy and energy efficiency as marginal solutions to climate change in the near future and over the long term. The cost of solar has plummted 80% over the last 5 years. Wind has grown 9 times faster than nuclear since 2000 and represents 35% of new generation. In contrast, the cost of nuclear is increasing, firms are shutting exisitng plants (5 this year) and of the 29 plants in the works over the last several years only a handful are moving forward, and it remains to be seen if even they will be built,

Eugene PrestonNov 15 2013 05:39 AM

Those against nuclear power are fighting a lost cause. Nuclear is already here. Let's consider just one example where nuclear power cannot be replaced by any other energy source, a nuclear powered naval ship such as the one in this video:
The aircraft carrier can operate for 22 years without refueling. If you calculated the life cycle cost of 22 years of wind and solar energy needed to manufacture a liquid fuel alternative to nuclear power you would find that cost to be non workable. So the idea that nuclear can be replaced with wind and solar is just a pipe dream.

Robert StoneNov 15 2013 07:14 AM

This shameful dismissal of the pleadings of the world's leading climate scientists stands as a historic testament to an environmental leadership that has lost touch with sound science, reason, and the new realities of our time. Cocooned within a self-referential information bubble where dissent is rejected, compromise shunned and inconvenient truths are ignored or dismissed, NRDC has proven itself to be more beholden to institutional inertia and the prerequisites of maintaining it's $250 million annual operating budget than they are to being responsible stewards of effective environmental policy.
I predict that this document, which shall live on the internet forever, will come back to haunt it's authors in ways they can now scarcely imagine.

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