The problem with Nuclear Power

Posted on June 12, 2012

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Nuclear energy is something of a hot topic, both in general public media and in renewable energy circles. It’s become a bit of a messy debate, and has certainly made me think about it a lot. So I decided to share some of my thoughts.
But before I get to the problem with nuclear energy, I’d like to rant a little about people who have a problem with nuclear energy. You see, for me the most important thing in energy is to have a rational debate based on fact. Too much of the nuclear discussion it emotional and reactionary. So let’s get a few things straight.

The word “Radiation”

This is the most ridiculous one – there are people who fear anything with the word radiation in it, apparently under the impression that it will turn them all into zombies or something. Radiation covers a lot of things, whether it is harmful depends on type and dose. (Also, if you believe that radio waves, light, and gamma rays are fundamentally different things, do some reading!)

Health

Nuclear power does little to damage human health – especially not when compared to coal or oil. Nuclear power plants have caused deaths as a result of a few very high profile accidents. Coal power causes death in its day-to-day operation, from lung disease due to particulate emissions, dangerous coal mining, and more.

Safety

Nuclear power plants are very safe. Even if the failures are spectacular and catastrophic, those failures are extremely rare. Even Fukushima, despite all the negative press, was something of an engineering triumph – the plant was designed to withstand a Richter 7 earthquake, but in fact withstood a Richter 9 – thats 100 times bigger (the Richter scale is logarithmic – look it up!). Now people are concerned about safety in Europe – but events like Fukushima WILL NOT HAPPEN. The risk of such a major earthquake is so remote, you might as well worry about the risk of meteorite strikes.

So with this myth debunking, surely then nuclear is fine right?

Hell. No.

Here’s some big issues that aren’t going to be fixed any time soon.

Cost

Nuclear costs are increasing, not decreasing. Every nuclear accident significantly increases the cost of nuclear energy by requiring new security systems and increasing the cost of insurance – even when the accident is due to circumstances which don’t exist at other plants. Other events such as terrorist attacks (even on unrelated infrastructure) increase security an insurance costs. In Europe, nuclear insurance is paid for by governments and therefore the taxpayer. So even nuclear power plants which are supposedly built “profitably” from purely private enterprise funding is not actually being built without government subsidy.
Worse, nuclear energy is Big Buisness. The investments are huge, the amounts of money that change hands are enourmous, and the scope for lobbying and downright corrution is equally enourmous. For example, France’s renewable energy industry is suffering because of the huge lobbying power of the entrenched nuclear industry. The progress of renewables, which could take advantes of France’s large solar resource, is being held back by nuclear power.
Nuclear power plants are just so expensive they draw attention and money away from better projects. Hell, if you just used the money that was going to be spent on a nuclear power plant for energy efficiency, such as paying people to insulate their houses properly, you would probably save as much energy as was going to be generated by the plant!

Waste

This is a biggie. No one has a solution for processing nuclear waste safely. The only current option is to store it for hundreds of thousands of years and hope that it doesn’t leak. This is pretty much the opposite of a sustainable solution, since the amount of waste can only increase while the number of places to put it stays the same. No one wants nuclear waste in their back yard, and unlike wind power this is a very reasonable position.
Maybe there will be a technological breakthrough. This would certainly make it possible to reevaluate nuclear power as a desirable option. But until that happens the waste problem is not going anywhere. Exacerbating this problem is that the private nuclear industry doesn’t have much incentive to find solutions since governments are forced to deal with the waste anyway. Companies tend to plan in time frames of a few years, much to short for there to be any profit to be made from dealing with the waste problem.

Nuclear power doesn’t play well with renewables.

This is a big problem. Nuclear power is normally touted as part of a new energy mix including renewable energy. But it actually is a very poor fit for a renewable energy mix. Renewable energy sources fluctuate on an hourly, daily, weekly, seasonal, and yearly basis. This in itself is not fundamentally a problem, it just means that the energy grid has to be designed to be dynamic rather than static. This is quite a different paradigm compared to the old approach of building huge centralized plants that generate a constant amount of power. A dynamic grid has to be able to respond to supply and demand. A nuclear power plant cannot do this – it cannot really be turned up or down very much. This means that when there is a lot of renewable energy available (lots of sun and wind for instance) the nuclear power plant cannot respond by reducing its output. This can cause a glut of power in the grid that has to be gotten rid of. It may even be necessary to switch of wind turbines to keep the grid balanced even though this means loosing clean and essentially free power because of the inflexibility of nuclear technology.

Nuclear does not have 100% uptime

I put this in here even though this has been repeated a lot before, it bears repeating again. Nuclear power plants, like coal and other fossil fuel power plants, are not on all the time. This is very important to keep in mind when people argue that renewable sources like wind are not constantly available. Nuclear power plants need maintenance shutdown time as well as when they have unexpected problems. On average they produce energy about 70% of the time – which is more than the 40-odd % of a wind turbine park, but it is still not constant.

Each case is unique

Although I am in general against nuclear energy for the reasons above, this is not a dogmatic belief. Each situation is unique, each set of circumstances different. There are places where the advantages still outweigh the disadvantages, or where change is simply not feasible. France for example is the country that is the most dependent on nuclear energy and there is no way that is going to change soon – any renewable energy plan for france will have to work around this fact. The UK meanwhile has been umm-ing and ahh-ing for decades about replacing it’s aging reactors, and they are about at the point where it is simply too late to start building them (nuclear power plants take decades from decision to comissioning!).

What I disagree most of all with is dogmatic attitudes to nuclear. If you cannot have a level headed debate, if you will not research and listen to facts, you have no business being part of the discussion. It is after all possible that nuclear technology could resolve the stated problems (and other which I didn’t mention). Reactors which use Thorium instead of Uranium have, on paper, shown great promise for addressing the issues. Therefore it makes no sense to choose a position and refuse to budge, whether it be pro or anti nuclear. It is a sad fact however that taking sides and creating conflict are the basis of current politics.

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Posted in: Green