7-1: Is Nuclear Power Worth It?

The two readings that we were assigned for this week both focus on the use of nuclear technology for civilian power production. The article by Glaser and Socolow gives a very well balanced presentation of nuclear energy. It discusses positive attributes and potential benefits to the environment from nuclear energy, as well as its shortcomings and inhibitors.

The general idea that I took home from the article is that a lot needs to fall into place in order for nuclear power to be prevalent and beneficial in our society. Although lower in carbon emissions, nuclear energy comes with its own brand of harmful waste. The waste in itself provides a significant obstacle to overcome, but it does not stop there. As with any network of energy production and consumption, there is inherent interest in recycling this waste. However, when dealing with masses of plutonium large enough to power a nation, it is difficult to keep track of masses small enough to make a bomb. Due to the military nature of the technology, this creates suspicion that something unscrupulous is being done with the recycled material, and decreases confidence in nuclear energy as a whole. Similar suspicions can be aroused by privately owned uranium enrichment facilities, some of which can easily be adapted to producing bomb grade materials. Multinational participation seems like the only immediate solution to these qualms. Finally, nuclear energy has massive startup costs, and would be difficult to establish on a global scale, especially in undeveloped regions or regions of unrest.

The most fundamental question that arises from these considerations is whether or not nuclear energy is even worth it. In a world where climate change is imminent, nuclear energy is an idea that does work. However, in a world where there are many other options that could have equivalent benefits, is it the most effective or the most practical option?

Should the world invest long term in nuclear energy? It seems risky. There is already a public stigma against nuclear technology due to its military connections and past accidents. With such an energetically powerful technology, one mistake or accident could invalidate all previous developments in a matter of seconds. If we want to use nuclear energy as a way of combating environmental damage, it could make sense to invest short term and reevaluate the technology in a few years.

However, again, is this worth it when there are other forms of energy that can be invested in immediately and which present fewer risks? Perhaps. A quick glance at a few government energy websites can tell us that, with the exception of hydroelectric power, nuclear energy is among the most inexpensive per kilowatt-hour, even when the cost of startup and decommissioning is accounted for. However, nuclear energy has far more political and technological hurdles that have nothing to do with operating costs. Considering this, renewable forms of energy do seem like the easy way out in this situation. In the end, its origins and close ties to nuclear weapons are the ultimate nail in the coffin for nuclear energy. Decoupling the two just does not seem worth the effort when other perfectly good forms of energy do not have such an inhibitor. No red flags are going to be raised if wind farms begin popping up all over Iran (this is something that has been happening in recent years, but is perhaps not as newsworthy as their nuclear program).

For those who want to jump right into discussion without necessarily reading the entire post:

  • Is nuclear energy worth it, considering all the hurdles preventing it from becoming well established?
  • Is there a less complicated way to decouple nuclear weapons and nuclear energy?
  • In a world where climate change is an imminent danger, what forms of energy do you see establishing themselves?

Nik

11 thoughts on “7-1: Is Nuclear Power Worth It?

  1. I had actually read another article co-authored by Socolow with another author, Robert Pacala, called “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the next 50 Years with Current Technologies,” which explains in-depth the non-nuclear wedges mentioned in “Balancing Risk: Nuclear Energy and Climate Change.” Both papers argue that none of the wedges, 15 of which are mentioned in the article solely focusing on stabilization wedges, are indispensable or sufficient on their own. If we assume that most of the other wedges can be implemented in practice, then we should not include nuclear energy as a wedge since fissile material can be turned into weapons, as Nik mentioned. Furthermore, ridding the world of nuclear power plants entirely would only be decreasing half a wedge (Socolow and Glaser 32) so theoretically, we could also shut down existing nuclear power plants as well. This would make verification of compliance with the NPT very easy, since fissile material enriched to any degree would be banned.

    Then again, we would probably have to take a closer look at all the wedges that are suggested (and other potential wedges that we haven’t identified yet) before making the preliminary decision to jettison nuclear energy. Unlike nuclear energy, which already constitutes half a wedge, many of the other wedges haven’t yet been put into practice, meaning there is uncertainty about how operational they would be, especially on a larger scale. Furthermore, some wedges (like reducing our reliance on cars) relies on non-technological economic and social factors that could pose unforeseen obstacles to implementing the wedges.

  2. As mentioned previously, nuclear capabilities in any subnational or unstable national group create a threat for the global community. The solution of a system of multinational governance seems the safest proposal, but every country has slightly unique energy needs and employs a distinct system for managing their energy production and consumption. For example, Garwin and Charpak note that 80% of France’s electricity stems from nuclear plants while only 17% of the US’s electricity has nuclear origins. A variety of combinations of wedges can be considered to offset reliance on coal plants. However these combinations will have to be individually tailored for individual countries and face revision as technologies improve.

  3. I agree that the implementation of a system of multinational governance would seem promising if it were not so seemingly impossible to implement meaningfully. The NPT as a meaningful, powerful document seems incongruous with the worldwide use of nuclear power because of how hard it is to discern separation between the two uses of nuclear technology. I am tempted to argue against the world investing in long-term nuclear energy. But if France already uses nuclear energy for 80% of its electricity, then I think that practically speaking, nuclear energy is here to stay. Every avenue of decoupling nuclear energy and nuclear weapons should be explored, as should alternatives to nuclear energy. And finally, as climate change becomes more and more of an imminent danger, nuclear power, to me, seems “worth it”.

  4. Nik, this is a really interesting post. Two questions that initially come to mind are: (1) What exactly are these other “options that could have equivalent benefits?” (2) Aren’t the nuclear catastrophes you mention just black swan–high impact, low probable– events? They’re fairly rare, and in fact, the data suggests that fossil fuels are far more lethal than nuclear energy. According to the Clean Air Task Force, coal power plants release fine particles that kill about 13,200 people every year. There are even more deaths that result from mining and transporting coal–as well as the pollution that comes from coal. However, the deaths from cancer following the Chernobyl accident are only around 9,000 (according to the International Atomic Energy Agency). So whether or not nuclear energy really does pose a risk, is the impact of that risk that much greater than the other technologies we currently employ?

  5. I think that one of the most important aspects to consider when dealing with nuclear energy is that of research and development. While many may argue that currently, nuclear energy may not be worth it due to the many downsides including harmful wastes or the potential for catastrophic incidents, an inhibition of the development of nuclear energy may prevent the necessary research to mitigate these weaknesses of nuclear energy. Research on nuclear power cannot be accomplished without crucial funding and if this funding is restricted, it may be much more difficult to reach a point where nuclear energy is without a doubt the best form of energy. Currently, many different sources have shown that nuclear energy is one of the most efficient and cost effective forms of energy which suggests that it would be a tremendous resource if its availability was more widespread. The only way to accomplish this widespread availability would be to invest in the research and development of better nuclear power plants such that the world believes in nuclear energy. Thus, until something better comes along, we have to have some faith in nuclear energy and provide it with funding so that it can improve.

  6. In the argument for nuclear versus fossil fuel energy, I think that mramanku’s point about the disparities in fatalities between fossil fuel use and a
    nuclear CATASTROPHE is very compelling — those deaths only occur in the
    event of a huge accident. However, in terms of relating nuclear to wind
    or hydroelectric, I think the argument that nuclear catastrophes are
    rare falls short in that it is difficult to predict the fallout patterns
    of the radioactive materials and the economic costs to repair and clean up
    these materials are quite high (the Japanese government said that it
    will spend at least $13 billion on Fukushima cleanup, for example) and require a lot of specialized tools and knowledge for proper removal and disposal. While of course any largescale energy scheme would run the same risks for meltdown, I would argue that the worst case for nuclear makes it extremely unattractive next to something like wind (which admittedly needs work technically speaking).

  7. I agree with the many arguments that while nuclear energy has become established in some nations; I do not see it becoming a viable option compared to conventional fossil fuel energy. As BLie notes, nuclear energy research is limited compared to other alternative energy research; this limited research only helps to support the claim that because nuclear energy knowledge is limited the consequences of a nuclear meltdown is still unknown and extremely expensive.

    That said, I still believe that for some areas nuclear energy is a viable and ought to be pursued option; however, like with all alternative energies it cannot be applied universally. Of course, to implement nuclear energy two things must occur: decoupling nuclear energy from nuclear weapons and reducing public fear of nuclear meltdown. Given how nuclear meltdown is a viable fear there is the additional concern that a third party organization could orchestrate a meltdown for malicious purposes. In which case, nuclear energy’s one significant failure becomes synonymous with nuclear weapon. Thus to really separate the two ideas the government needs to reassure that a nuclear meltdown has limited consequences that are marginal compared to a nuclear strike and that security is a priority for nuclear energy plants to prevent any malicious acts. Nevertheless, I feel ultimately it will be impossible to separate the two ideas entirely; people will constantly be reminded of the similar long term radioactive consequences between a nuclear strike and a nuclear meltdown that this fear will seriously prevent a movement towards establishing nuclear energy as a primary energy source.

  8. While the other commenters have focused on the more theoretical
    aspects of nuclear power, I wanted to give the example of “the first new
    nuclear power station for nearly a generation” that was approved last week in
    the UK.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/19/nuclear-power-station-consent-hinkley-point

    In multiple statements, the government has cited the plant
    as a way to combat climate change, permanently employ workers, and generate
    enough electricity for about five million homes. While the issue of security
    seems to be absent from public discussion, storage and cost most certainly are
    not.

    One valid opposition point that I would like to highlight is
    advances in alternative technologies, specifically wind power. While Soglow and
    Glaser highlight the attribute that nuclear plants are time tested, I feel they
    do not completely take into account the idea that developments in other technologies
    that are not as “time tested” may make them more appropriate wedges. Advances
    in solar and offshore wind power are making these technologies more attractive
    and cost effective, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. By the
    time this plant is complete (2020, barring delays), who is to say at what stage
    these new technologies might be at? Is this something we should take into
    consideration when approving new nuclear plants? Is this something that we can
    even adequately anticipate?

  9. Another thing that has not been brought into this conversation explicitly yet, but I found really interesting in the Socolow & Glaser article is the statement that nuclear power plants are potential military targets and that there is no taboo on such attacks. I somewhat agree with this statement; there is a clear taboo on using nuclear force and any country which does so is sure to face strong opposition from the international community. However, attacking a nuclear power plant is less clear – it could release deadly radiation that could kill many, but these killings would be indirect. Additionally, as facilities located above ground, nuclear plants could be destroyed by conventional warfare, especially air strikes. We must also account for the fact that in politically unstable regions, nuclear power plants are both strategic choke points and deadly potential targets for insurgencies. So while fossil fuels may kill more people and Chernobyl is a rare occurrence, which is made even more rare by improvements in safety technology, we must consider that without widespread multilateral agreement, extending the use of nuclear power poses additional safety risks not just from catastrophic accidents, but from catastrophic attacks as well.

    I’m not sure that this additional danger is a game-changer, but it is certainly worth considering.

  10. Given all the arguments surrounding the dangers of nuclear accidents, I would be very interested to see the potential impact of rare nuclear explosions when reactors are placed in isolated areas (similar to nuclear testing sites). I would guess that even high estimates of reactor failure in isolated areas would have a lower impact than the continuous impact of fossil fuel-burning plants. That said, “alternative” energy forms such as wind and solar would have an even lesser impact on the environment and public health, which leads me to believe that nuclear energy may be a potent intermediate step between fossil fuels and cleaner forms of renewable energy. More immediate construction of nuclear reactors may provide an opportunity to wean off of fossil fuels while furthering the technology around wind, solar, and other “cleaner” energy sources.

  11. Is nuclear energy worth it, considering all the hurdles preventing it from becoming well established? Maybe not.

    If humanity has a certain amount of capital, human, and technological resources it seems best to direct those towards renewable energies and not nuclear power.

    In my opinion it would be nearly impossible to decouple nuclear power from nuclear weapons. This not only requires global commitment to disarmament, but also to multilateral control of enrichment. As Glaser and Socolow note non-weapons states will need incentives to join such an agreement especially since “most states are already satisfied with the current market structure” (9). Moreover, states will reluctant to join a system of “suppliers” and “users” (9). The most promising solution outlined by Glaser and Socolow, multinational ownership of
    fuel – cycle facilities, has its own unique set of problems. It seems unlikely to me that weapons states will permit non– weapons states to participate fully in such a structure. The question then is ‘who’ would be included in this multinational ownership, the Security Council, all current weapons states, or all states? What is certain is that the large scale use of nuclear power requires states to take huge disarmament steps and then to cede unilateral control over enrichment facilities; I do not believe today’s nuclear powers are capable of making such a leap.

    The safe disposal of nuclear waste also presents unique challenges. As Garwin and Charpak
    explain, it is difficult to “ensure that the nuclear waste will not re-enter the biosphere because of earthquakes, volcanism, meteorite impact, or human intrusion” (147). While, it may be true that we may develop more efficient ways of dealing with nuclear waste in the future, I find it equally plausible that technological leaps may also make renewable energy a more feasible wedge. A discussion of the nuclear wedge cannot be extracted from the merits of other “wedges”. As Nik notes, “No red flags are going to be raised if wind farms begin popping up all over Iran”.

    Finally, Japan’s botched handling of the reactor meltdowns following the 2011 tsunami, highlights the dangers of moving to nuclear power too quickly. Even Japan, which has had nuclear power since the 1960s, struggled to prevent and recover from the disaster. As the economist reported, “The reactors at Fukushima were of an old
    design. The risks they faced had not been well analysed. The operating company was poorly regulated …The operators made mistakes. The representatives of the safety inspectorate fled. Some of the equipment failed. The establishment repeatedly played down the risks and suppressed information about the movement of the radioactive plume…” While, nuclear reactor accidents are infrequent- Chernobyl (1986), Three Mile Island (1979), and Fukushima Daiichi (2011), demonstrate the potential for catastrophe.

Leave a Reply