How Green is Nuclear Power?

By Deane Barker on January 25, 2008

America Needs France’s Atomic Anne: I’m curious on your thoughts about the below quote from a New York Times article.

Nuclear power has proved safe in both France and America — not one radiation-related death has occurred in the history of U.S. commercial nuclear power. It constitutes a vital alternative to the greenhouse-gas spewing coal-power plants that account for over 50 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Thousands of people die annually breathing the noxious particles of coal-fire installations.

[…] “Nuclear power is the most efficient energy source we have,” said Gwyneth Cravens, author of “Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Power.” “Uranium is energy-dense. If you got all your electricity from nuclear for your lifetime, your share of the waste would fit in a soda can.”

I think I’m in favor of nuclear power, but I haven’t thought about it enough. The bottom line is that nuclear waste sucks, but so does fossil fuel waste, and there’s so much more of that. How many people die every year because of pollution?

People who rail against nuclear power sometimes act as if there’s a good alternative. Yes, wind power is very cool, but I don’t think we’re going to power the whole country with it. Since coal is obviously bad, what does that leave?

Could it be that nuclear power is the green choice?

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  1. I don’t know a lot about it, so my opinion is far from based in logic, but it seems like the biggest obstacle in the way of nuclear power is fear.

    Nuclear just sounds scary. And the effects of nuclear meltdown ARE scary. But, like you said, so are the effects of fossil fuels and pollution.

  2. Nuclear is definitely the green option. Nuclear waste, while annoying, can be dealt with in safe ways. And nuclear power is the only option that can realistically scale.

    Eventually everything should run from sunlight, but nuclear power is a good stopgap until we can do that properly.

  3. Anthony — Nuclear waste is more than annoying. It will remain lethal for tens of thousands of years. And, as a stopgap, it’s an incredibly dumb idea. For fifty years of energy, we’re going to have to guard the waste for millenia. No country, no form of government and no language has endured for ten thousand years. And yet, we’re to believe that the Department of Energy will last that long? In an era of terrorism, the idea of safeguarding material that could be used to make thousands of dirty bombs is ridiculous.

  4. I would be very interested to find out if any one has every done the math to calculate how many homes can be converted to use only solar energy for same cost of one nuclear power plant.

    Last year, here in Ontario Canada, the governmen backed up a plan to use nuclear to meet the energy needs of the province. I recall the price tag for this reactor is in the area of $30B (thats $30,000,000,000 ). I would think that you can convert a far number of houses with this type of cash…

  5. Ok, I found some answers to share… The Ontario government plans on spending $40B(CDN) in a twenty year plan to build and fix reactorys. Say $30B (CDN) goes into new stuff which is about $29.7B(US). The Watson Solar House has some nice details and rated at 5KW. They spend about $35,000 without the rebates they recieved.

    So the cost of 1 nuclear power plant = 848,571 solar houses.

    This calculation doesn’t even consider the savings when manufacturing and purchasing large volumes. It also doesn’t consider the evironmental impact of having so many solar panels and disposing of them eventually.

    I would put my money into solar rather than nuclear anyday…

  6. I don’t think it’s the size of the nuclear waste that’s the problem. To say that all of my electrical waste is the size of a soda can is one thing, but they should include the materials, energy, and risks involved in storing that soda can until something else can be done with it. I can’t just put it in the beer fridge and forget about it.

    I actually do think we could do a lot more with wind. The wind doesn’t blow all the time, true, but it’s always blowing somewhere. Combine massive wind farms in the Dakotas with conservation, and we might not need to figure out how to store too much of that energy anyways.

    Just a thought.

  7. “So the cost of 1 nuclear power plant = 848,571 solar houses.”

    Actually, for about 30 billion you can get, at a pessimistic minimum, 4000MW of nuclear capacity. I wonder what that CANDU? 4000MW at a conservative 80% capacity factor over 25 years will generate 700.8 billion kWh. So the (admittedly unrealistic) simple capital cost over 25 years is $29.7B/700.8B = $.04238/kWh. Operating costs are in the neighbourhood of $.02/kWh.

    The Watson Solar House generates about 5000kWh per year for its $35,000 investment. Output declines over time, but if we optimisticaly allow 5000kWh/yr for 25 years, the simple capital cost is $35k/125k = $.28/kWh. Based on 3 years of operating history, the operating cost for the Watson Solar House PV system is at least $363/15234kWh = $.0238/kW. This could easily drop, but is not negligible.

    “I would put my money into solar rather than nuclear anyday…”

    While I like solar, and am happy that others are putting their money into it, I don’t have that kind of money to throw around. I recognize that my simple comparison is flawed, but it illustrates the magnitude of the difference in costs.

    I would put my money into nuclear rather than solar any day!

  8. Not only is solar almost four times as expensive, but the main problems with all renewables is that they are intermittent, i.e., the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Most renewable sources only deliver power ~1/4 of the time, and fossil fuels must be used as backup the rest of the time. For this reason, most experts think that such sources will only be able to provide ~20-25% of our overall power, for the forseeable future. It’s fossil or nuclear for the rest.

    Given that fossil plants cause hundreds of thousands of deaths every single year (worldwide) and are the leading cause of global warming, it’s imperative that nuclear’s share be increased as much as possible. Western nuclear plants have never killed anyone, have never had any measurable impact on public health, and have no impact on global warming.

    We do NOT have to “guard” the nuclear waste for millenia. The plan is to bury the waste (i.e., seal the repository) and then leave it (no future actions required). That is, the plan is to do the same thing we do with all other waste streams from all other industries/activities, only much more carefully.

    The idea that nuclear waste is unique in terms of long term risk is a myth. Other waste streams, such as toxic sludge from fossil plants, chemical toxic wastes, and even ordinary garbage, are generated in vastly greater volumes, are in much harder to contain physical forms (i.e., liquids, gases and sludges as opposed to un-dissolvable solid, ceramic pellets sealed in non-corrosive metal rods), and they contain toxic components that literally never decay away. All of these waste streams will pose a far greater risks to distant generations than nuclear waste ever will (even a hundred thousand years hence). How long, exactly, does it take all the arsenic and mercury, that is released and deposited into the biosphere from coal burning, take to migrate back down, deep underground? Probably as long as nuclear waste takes to decay, the only difference being that the arsenic and mercury will be in contact with humanity and having a health impact before it does so, whereas nuclear waste will not.

    With nuclear waste we really only need to contain it for a few hundred years. After that we will definitely have the technology too process and eliminate it. The chances of any leakage over this time period are negibile. Even if we leave it there permanently, even the most conservative and unrealistic studies show that the repository (Yucca Mtn.) is incapable of producing annual exposure levels outside the range of natural background, even in the worst concievable leakage scenario.

    Given that we will be using fossil or nuclear for most of our power generation over the next several decades, the choice is as follows. We can burn fossil fuels over that period, release massive amounts of pollution into the environment, kill hundreds of thousands of people every year, and (probably) radically alter the earth’s climate. This also involves burning through most of the earth’s precious, remaining hydrocarbon reserves. The term “irrevocable harm” applies here. The other option is to use nuclear power over the interim period, generate a tiny volume of waste, place this waste in containers and store it (w/o releasing any of it into the environment and w/o having any environmental impact) and wait until we figure out a place to bury it, or come up with the technology to eliminate it. Either way, the nuclear approach causes absolutely no harm in the interim. The choice is pretty clear!!

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