[images in on-line article]
Nuclear Power Is Not "Green Energy": It Is a Fount of Atomic Waste
Monday, 14 November 2016 00:00
By Arnie Gundersen, Truthout | News Analysis
Starting in 1971, I became a card-carrying member of the "nuclear
priesthood." I began as a licensed nuclear reactor operator and
progressed through the industry to become a senior vice president. I
believed, with religious fervor, that by helping to build and operate
atomic power reactors, I would be creating power that was "too cheap to
meter." The historic 1973 gasoline shortages and long lines of cars
queued at the pumps made it clear to me and hundreds of other nuclear
engineers that nuclear power was the only solution to the "energy
shortage." In the 1970s and '80s, solving this apparent energy shortage
was our only mantra. At that time, there was no scientific data
connecting fossil fuels to climate change.
In 1953, President Eisenhower initiated his "Atoms for Peace" program as
a means to transform the atom from a scourge into a benefit for mankind
and created grand illusions of at least 1,000 US atomic plants by the
year 2005. However, well before the 1979 disaster at Three Mile Island,
nuclear construction costs were skyrocketing and construction schedules
were constantly slipping. The overzealous goal of 1,000 US atomic power
reactors dwindled to about 110 finally completed reactors, while more
than 120 others that had been on the drawing boards were canceled before
producing a single watt of power.
By 1985, Eisenhower's dream of reclaiming the power of the atom for
peaceful purposes had unraveled and had become a nightmare. Electric
rates continued to skyrocket and ratepayers were left picking up the
pieces from Atoms for Peace.
Of the more than 230 attempts to construct atomic power reactors in the
United States during the 20th century, only 99 reactors are still
operating. Globally, a total of 438 atomic power reactors were still
operating in 2015, according to the World Nuclear Association.
During the 20th century, the lights stayed on and the prediction of a
dire energy shortage never materialized. Nuclear power's claims that it
would be an economic nirvana "too cheap to meter" collapsed as well.
Entering the 21st century, renewables began to appear more feasible, so
the atomic power industry latched on to NASA's James Hansen's 1988
prognosis of the global buildup in CO2 resulting in global climate
change as a new justification for existence. Armed with this new
marketing ploy, nuclear power lobbyists flooded Capitol Hill looking for
financing to fund the 21st century "nuclear renaissance."
Does the nuclear industry's latest claim that it is the world's
salvation from increasing levels of CO2 hold up under scrutiny? No. The
evidence clearly shows that building new nuclear power plants will make
global warming worse.
A Growing Carbon Footprint
Before we look at the data, two concepts are important to clarify.
First, burning a fossil fuel like coal or oil emits CO2. The amount of
CO2 emitted into the atmosphere each year is massive, measured in
gigatons. A single gigaton is one thousand million tons of CO2 gas. The
second concept is "ppm," or parts per million. As all this CO2 is dumped
into the atmosphere, it is diluted by air. The concentration of CO2
atoms in air is measured in parts (molecules) of CO2 divided by one
million air molecules, hence parts per million. In preindustrial times,
normal background levels of global CO2 levels were around 280 ppm.
When the first large commercial nuclear power plant went on line, global
emissions of CO2 were about 16 gigatons in 1970 and the concentration of
CO2 in the air was about 320 ppm. Hansen and 350.org claim that the
world's CO2 levels must stay below 350 ppm to avoid catastrophic climate
change, a level that was exceeded late in the 1980s. By 2015, well after
more than 438 heavily subsidized atomic power plants were constructed
worldwide, global emissions from burning fossil fuels have reached 36
gigatons. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has already exceeded
400 ppm and is increasing by about 2 ppm yearly.
Nuclear power lobbyists and their marketing firms want us to believe
that humankind's current CO2 atmospheric releases would have been much
worse were it not for those 438 power plants now operating. How much
worse? The World Nuclear Association industry trade group estimates that
an additional 1.1 gigatons of CO2 would have been created in 2015 if
natural gas plants supplied the electricity instead of those 438 nukes.
Worldwide, all those nuclear power plants made only a 3 percent dent in
yearly CO2 production.Put another way, each of the 438 individual
nuclear plants contribute less than seven thousandths of one percent to
CO2 reduction. That's hardly enough to justify claims that keeping your
old local power plant running is necessary to prevent the sea from rising.
Let's fast forward to 2050. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
estimates that even if the 2015 Paris Accords (COP 21) are implemented
and 1,000 new nuclear power plants are constructed, global CO2 emissions
will still increase to a minimum of 64 gigatons. While this increase
appears counterintuitive given the Paris agreement, it is on target
because of pent-up energy demands from large populations in India,
China, Southeast Asia and Africa who want to achieve the standard of
living in western developed countries.
Can new atomic power reactors really help cut CO2 by 2050?
Unfortunately, what is past is prologue. The World Nuclear Association
claims that 1,000 new nuclear power plants will be needed by 2050 to
combat CO2 buildup and climate change. The MIT estimate also assumes
1,000 nuclear power plants must be in operation by 2050. Using the
nuclear trade association's own calculations shows that these new power
plants will offset only 3.9 gigatons of CO2 in 2050; 3.9 gigatons out of
64 gigatons is only 6.1 percent of the total CO2 released to the
atmosphere in 2050, hardly enough for the salvation of the polar bears.
If those 1,000 nuclear power plants were cheap and could be built
quickly, investing in atomic power reactors might still make sense.
However, Lazard Financial Advisory and Asset Management, with no dog in
the fight, has developed a rubric which estimates that the construction
cost of those new power plants will be $8,200,000,000,000. Yes, that's
$8.2 trillion to reduce CO2 by only 6 percent.
Surely, that huge amount of money can be better spent on less expensive
alternatives to get more bang for the buck. Lazard also estimates that
solar or wind would be 80 percent less expensive for the equivalent
amount of peak electric output.
Atmospheric CO2 releases are not going to go on vacation while waiting
for those 1,000 plants to be built. According to the World Nuclear
Industry Status Report 2016, the average construction time for 46
nuclear plants that began operation between 2006 and 2016 was 10.4
years, not including engineering, licensing and site selection.
Contrast that with a two-year design and construction schedule for a
typical industrial-scale solar power plant. Atmospheric CO2 levels will
increase by almost 70 ppm during the 35 years it will take to construct
those 1,000 new nuclear power plants, an increase that they will never
eliminate -- if they ever operate.
Proponents of nuclear power claim that somehow, sometime in the future,
atomic power reactor construction costs will be much lower and
construction delays will be a thing of the past. There is no shortage of
atomic reactor power ideas, according to the nuclear industry and its
lobbyists, when government subsidies are used to fulfill their pipe dreams.
Global climate change is a contemporary problem that requires
contemporary solutions. Governments would make the CO2 problem worse by
allocating precious resources for nuclear energy to reduce CO2 when the
cost of such proposals is unknown and when implementation only begins in
2030. Fortunately, lower-cost renewable solutions are readily available
and can be implemented on the necessary time scale needed to reverse the
rapidly increasing atmospheric CO2.
Building new nuclear power plants applies a 20th century technology to a
21st century problem. Moreover, building nuclear reactors in a trade-off
for CO2 reduction creates a toxic legacy of atomic waste throughout the
world. Proponents of nuclear power would have us believe that humankind
is smart enough to store nuclear waste for a quarter of a million years,
but at the same time, humankind is too ignorant to figure out how to
store solar electricity overnight.
Let's not recreate the follies of the 20th century by recycling this
atomic technology into the 21st century. The evidence proves that new
nuclear power plants will make global climate change worse due to huge
costs and delayed implementation periods. Lift the CO2 smoke screen and
implement the alternative solutions that are available now -- faster to
implement and much less expensive.
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