By guest contributor Matt Owens
Nuclear power is back in the climate headlines. Earlier this month, influential climate scientist James Hansen was joined by three others in posting a public letter in which they jointly urge environmental organizations to stop opposing nuclear power. In the letter they say that more nuclear energy is urgently needed and essential in the fight against global warming – because, in their opinion, wind and solar “cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.” Mark Jacobson however, finds that perspective to be “without foundation or factual support.”
Jacobson, a professor at Stanford in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, studies the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and holds an impressive cross-disciplinary array of degrees in civil engineering, economics, environmental engineering, and atmospheric science. He has also published several papers¹ on this topic.
Jacobson’s response was specifically directed at this line of the letter: “While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.” This stark sentiment regarding renewables was in fact intentional. Confirming it, the Associated Press reported that Kerry Emanuel of MIT, one of the letter’s signers, said he and the three others ‘aren’t opposed to renewable energy sources but want environmentalists to understand that “realistically, they [i.e. renewables] cannot on their own solve the world’s energy problems.”‘
However, research by Mark Jacobson paints a completely opposite picture and says that wind, water, and solar can replace fossil fuels quickly, without nuclear. In email correspondence earlier today, he said that nuclear power actually takes “10-19 years to plan, permit, and install, compared with 2-5 years for a solar or wind farm.” Regarding next generation nuclear power, Jacobson said that it “does not even exist, except in theory and in the lab, and there is no guarantee it will ever exist at the commercial scale.”
And the drawbacks to nuclear power continue. Similar to fossil fuels, the supply of high-density uranium ore is limited, and the lower-density ores require ever more energy to extract and process into fuel. A 2007 paper² by Mark Diesendorf of the University of New South Wales, Australia, puts the numbers like this: “Although there are vast quantities of uranium oxide in the Earth’s crust, almost all of such reserves exist at very low concentrations, typically 4 x 10-4 %, at which 1000 tonnes of ore would have to be mined to obtain 4 kg of uranium in the form of yellowcake. In this case the energy inputs to extract uranium would be much greater than the energy outputs of the nuclear power station. Sea-water contains uranium at a concentration of about 2 x 10-7 %, meaning that 1 million tonnes of sea-water would have to be processed to extract just 2 kg of uranium.”
Jacobson expressed his own concerns about the costs of nuclear compared to renewables: “while wind and solar have zero fuel cost and require zero mining for fuel, nuclear fuel costs rise annually and require the continuous mining and refining of uranium.”
Plus, the hidden costs, which are also called externalities, have often been ignored in the past. Energy externalities from the burning of fossil fuels include increased health expenses and the consequences of global warming. These costs are not paid at the time that the energy is purchased, or by the people doing the purchasing. Often it’s the government or a different nation entirely that pays, financed by tax funds. For nuclear power, externalities include the lost use of land from accidents, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the legacy costs of nuclear waste.
“We have only 400 reactors today,” Jacobson said, and even “if we double this to 800 reactors, which would never happen given the costs of nuclear and its drawbacks, more countries of the world would have reactors, increasing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation as at least 5 countries have already developed weapons capabilities under the guise of civilian nuclear programs.”
Currently, nuclear energy provides about 6% of the total global energy supply. Assuming that the perspective in the Hansen letter were valid, we could reasonably conclude that actually 5 to 10 times more reactors would be needed – far more than just a doubling. That would mean 4,000 to 8,000 total reactors spread around the world.
If we consider political instability, terrorism and war, sea level rise, and increasingly unpredictable extreme weather events, it stretches the imagination to conclude that there wouldn’t be more accidents. We are human after all. Jacobson noted that “1.5% of all nuclear reactors ever built have melted down to some degree.” And when the new operators of a nuclear reactor make a mistake due to inexperience, the consequences are quite different compared to those from a solar or wind farm.
As far as the fuel supply, after considering the various estimates, it looks like thereprobably would be enough nuclear fuel at sufficiently low prices to make a significant nuclear expansion possible – that is, if the public were in support of it. However, with strong opposition like we have now, expansion becomes much more difficult and costly.
At the local planning level, when the choice is between nuclear and wind/solar, people overwhelmingly prefer wind and solar. A 2011 paper³ by Michael Greenberg, professor and director of the Environmental Assessment and Communication Group at Rutgers, observes that in recent years, about 40 to 60% of U.S. residents have said they would like to see more reliance on nuclear power, while about 20 to 35% have said they would prefer more coal, but over 90% of people have said they’d like to see a greater reliance on solar and wind. To state the obvious: people prefer more power that uses free, renewable fuel and that is also clean and healthy.
Overcoming an inherent dislike and distrust of nuclear energy is something the nuclear industry has been working on for years, and with little success. Yet the Hansen letter seems to assume that the public’s view on nuclear can be changed. The negative perception is however, based on real facts and personal memories. Nuclear waste is horribly toxic. Large areas of land have been made unlivable – directly because of nuclear meltdowns. And the most recent meltdown, Fukushima, won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
As bad a reputation as nuclear power has, renewable energy has suffered an even worse fate in the arena of public attitudes: wind and solar are commonly dismissed as not being feasible. Unlike the perceptions surrounding nuclear, this bias is not based on fact in any substantial way. In reality, detailed research and a track record of performance supports the case that a fast transition off fossil fuels and onto wind, water, and solar is very possible without nuclear power. Material resources, site availability, and technology are all more than adequate as things stand now. Yet, because of the presumption that renewables won’t be scaled up, sites and materials are not being brought to the marketplace or even considered.
Summing up his views on the matter, Jacobson said, “wind, water, and solar (WWS) emits less carbon, is safer, requires zero fuel thus stabilizes prices, and can be installed much more quickly than nuclear.” Arguably, rejecting nuclear would be irrational if fossil fuels were the only alternative, but they aren’t according to Jacobson’s findings.¹
Despite all the misconceptions about renewables, there may be some considerable room for hope. Consider, what are the origins of the hard-to-change negative perceptions surrounding nuclear energy? Could it be the history of meltdowns? The ongoing costs and burdens that stem from dealing with growing volumes of nuclear waste? Or maybe the very high price of nuclear proliferation and nuclear war, something that we cannot easily dismiss… These are well-known and hard to smooth-over realities no matter what the PR budget. Now consider that the dangers of global warming continue to emerge and are rapidly pushing fossil fuels into – or beyond – the same riskiness category as nuclear energy. Continued use of fossil fuels could trigger some very bad outcomes. And for comparison, what are the dangers and costs that renewable energy carries? A higher monthly electric bill? “Range anxiety,” about not finding a recharge spot within 100 miles? Do these really stack up against catastrophic climate change or global nuclear war? Governments and charities routinely support poor families with hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month to cover their basic costs of living. Is it really beyond conceivable reality that an initially higher cost of energy would be too much to ask from society?
This was original posted on Fairfax Climate Watch.