Nuclear Power Myths

By Deane Barker on January 29, 2008

Ten myths about nuclear power: Just to add to our recent discussions about nuclear power, here’s a good article debunked 10 myths. The first one is something I never considered:

1) Uranium is running out
[…] In fact, there is 600 times more uranium in the ground than gold and there is as much uranium as tin. There has been no major new uranium exploration for 20 years, but at current consumption levels, known uranium reserves are predicted to last for 85 years.

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Comments

  1. I’m not sure which logical fallacy it is, but the comparison of uranium levels to gold levels most definitely is one (or more), for a couple reasons:

    • Last I heard, we don’t burn gold for energy, so even though there might be a finite amount of gold in the world, that overall level is not necessarily decreasing, just being redistributed into money, jewelry, etc, and can even be reclaimed if necessary after it’s used. Uranium though, like oil, is destroyed in the very process that it is used for, so the net amount most certainly will decrease.
    • The public has been convinced that gold is rare, hence the high cost. If this is true, why would you try to demonstrate the abundance of one material by comparing the amount of it to a known or thought-to-be rare material, even if the comparison is 600x? 600x a small number is still a small number.
    • The public in general really has conceptual framework for how much gold exists in the world anyway. Apart from diamond-like marketing that gold is a rare metal, does anyone (in the public, not geologists or miners) really have a concept of what it means to have 600x more uranium than gold? He might as well have said we have 10,000 more kilos of uranium than peanuts grown every decade in Kansas. Yeah…. so what?

    Having said all that, none of that actually affects my views on nuclear power, but it’s a weak argument at best.

  2. just read the rest of #1 in the article, about how used uranium can be used again multiple times, so that eats into my first point up there. Either way, the general notion still stands. ;)

  3. And, just because there’s allegedly a lot of uranium doesn’t mean that it can be extracted at a reasonable cost or without environmental damage. And, the harder it is to mine, the more carbon emissions there are from the extraction process. Emissions from mining must be counted against the carbon footprint of nuclear power plants, a fact that’s often overlooked by proponents of nuclear power.

  4. Emissions from mining must be counted against the carbon footprint of nuclear power plants, a fact that’s often overlooked by proponents of nuclear power.

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander… I don’t think you’d come anywhere close to emissions from coal mining.

    1. I wonder if the proponents of nuclear energy are willing to build these plants and store the waste in their own backyard? It’s all fun and games until we know where the plants and the waste go. Yeah, it’s safe until you have a Chernobyl situation. I just don’t think the risk is worth it no matter how advanced the technology is now. Due to the half-life aspect of this, that means we have to be guarding and monitoring the possible deterioration of the storage containers for THOUSANDS of years. That is a lot of money and resources over a long period of time. This is not fair to future generations.

    2. If it is so cheap there should be no government welfare to build these plants. Government subsidies for this are huge. Instead of going towards this,that money should go towards home owners (such as it is done in Germany) so they can get solar panels for their roofs and people can start getting off the grid.

    I think were are much more creative than settling for nuclear. Yes it may have some good arguments against existing technology, but boy that is setting the bar reeeeal low.

    We need to aim for clean, renewable, sustainable energy sources. And for God’s sake please stop calling nuclear power “Green” unless you mean that is what color people will glow if they get exposed to the radiation.

  5. Emissions from mining must be counted against the carbon footprint of nuclear power plants, a fact that’s often overlooked by proponents of nuclear power.

    How about use nuclear power equipment to extract… uranium?

  6. Yeah, it’s safe until you have a Chernobyl situation.

    When it comes to safety, I maintain that likely hundreds of thousands of people a year die from accumulated or acute pollution caused by coal. Those deaths happen today, have happened for decades, and will continue to happen in the future if we keep burning coal.

    Kind of puts “safety” in perspective, doesn’t it? It seems that everyone who is against nuclear power because of its supposed uncleanliness have somehow convinced themselves that coal is an innocent alternative, pure as the driven snow.

    Put the reactor in my backyard. Seriously. I’ll move the swingset.

  7. the Chernobyl comparison is simply fearmongering and furthermore is no longer valid with modern nuclear plants. Several years ago I read in Wired of the newer nuclear plants that use something like pellet-based fuel units instead of large rods. I’ve forgotten the details, but what it amounted to was that this pellet-based fuel is basically non-melt-downable, if there is such a word. They operate in different ways from the traditional rod-based units and just cannot generate enough uncontrolled heat to melt down. I’m sure there are other or different, hopefully smaller, risks associated with the new systems, but as the previous commenter noted, it’s still better than the current alternatives.

    Furthermore, pointing out 2 isolated incidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island among the 50+ years and 500+ reactors as evidence that nuclear power is inherently dangerous is like claiming that we should no long build and fly airplanes because occasionally they crash. Yes, accidents do happen, but as with every decision, there is always a cost-benefit calculation to be done. Nobody questions the benefit of airline transportation, which is remarkably safe but does occasionally produce horrific accidents. Nor does anyone propose to outlaw cars, which basically are imminent threats to your life every time you step into one, but it’s a risk we’re all willing to take. Clean burning nuclear energy, especially when replacing disgusting alternatives like coal and oil, is certainly a risk i’m willing to take.

  8. Long term uranium supply is not an issue, and nobody in the industry is at all concerned about it. Uranium is a ubiquitous element in the earth’s crust and we’ve just started looking for it. The cost of discovering new uranium (per unit energy produced) is 300 times less than that of oil. Known reserves of uranium are probably less than 1% of the economically recoverable reserves that will eventually be discovered. With today’s higher price, we hear about new discoveries almost every week. Based on all this, it will be hundreds of years before we run out of economical uranium, even if we use much more nuclear power and even if we don’t use breeders. With breeders, the supply is essentially infinite. I talk about this more at:

    http://www.americanenergyindependence.com/uranium.html

    and another expert talks about it at:

    http://216.94.150.122/investorrelations/speeches/speechtext.php?spid=49

    Even at today’s price, the cost of raw uranium ore only amounts to less than half a cent/kW-hr for nuclear electricity. Over the long term, the price will be lower (closer to 0.25 cents/kW-hr). The environmental impact of uranium mining, on a per unit energy basis, is far smaller than that of coal mining or oil/gas extraction. This is due to the fact that a given mass of furanium contains almost a million times as much energy as any fossil fuel.

  9. There have been many scientific studies that quantify the environmental and public health impacts (and risks) of various energy sources. One such study (the European Commission’s “ExternE” study) can be found at http://www.externe.info/. Virtually all such studies show that nuclear’s “external costs” are orders of magnitude smaller than fossil fuels, and roughly the same as renewables.

    These studies confirm the obvious. Coal-generated electricity causes ~25,000 deaths ANNUALLY in the US alone (hundreds of thousands worldwide). Over their entire ~40-year history, Western nuclear power plants have never killed a member of the public, and have has no measurable impact on public health. This is because they have always been required to completely contain all of their wastes and toxins, and not emit anything into the environment, while fossil plants are free to emit massive quantities of wastes/toxins directly into the air we breathe, and to carelessly bury massive quantities of arsenic and mercury-bearing sludge. Fossil power plants are also the largest single contributor to global warming (whereas nuclear has negligible impact).

    Even Chernobyl’s impact is tiny compared to that of fossil fuels. It was a one-time event that MAY (under very conservative, hypothetical analysis and assumptions) cause up to ~9000 premature deaths. This, versus hundreds of thousands every single year from fossil plants. And again, Western plants (which are fundamentally different) have had no impact (killed noone) and their maximum possible impact, in a worst case accident, is far smaller than Chernobyl.

    In terms of net CO2 emissions, even accounting for all parts of the nuclear generation process (including mining, plant construction, fuel enrichment, waste management, etc..), nuclear’s net emissions are ~2% that of coal and ~5% that of natural gas. The net emissions from renewable sources are roughly equal to or greater than those of nuclear. One net CO2 emissions study is below:

    http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Magazines/Bulletin/Bull422/article4.pdf

    Nuclear’s environmental impacts and health risks are very small, basically negligible, compared to the fossil fuels that make up the majority of our energy generation right now. That renewables’ impacts are smaller still is not even clear. They require more material, and cover much more land area, for a given amount of energy generation. Some, like solar PV, contain toxic materials (in much larger volume than nuclear waste), such as arsenic, which will have to be buried somewhere. Others, like wave, tidal, off-shore wind, or any scheme involving biomass, will have a far larger ecological impact than nuclear.

    Everyone loves energy sources that we are not using yet. They all look great in theory, or on paper. When we actually try to start generating significant amounts of power with any given source, the negative aspects start to emerge. This will be true of the currently popular renewable sources, you watch. Wind power projects are already starting to encounter NIMBY resistance.

  10. Sorry but I am not buying the argument that coal is worse. Neither are good. Coal is an old dated technology that is a dirty global warming contributor. So don’t bring the coal is bad so nuclear is good comparison.

    Like I said we are more creative as a society than to need to go nuclear. I don’t care how safe it’s use has been. The risk is always there and not worth it to society. The waste containment or the power plants can potentially contaminate the surrounding areas and render land useless for thousands of years.

    Most of this so called safety that people claim is based on best case scenarios. All you need is on bad event and that itself will be enough for me to not accept it as viable. You can run these operations as perfect as you can, but what if you have a natural disaster in the vicinity of a plant or waste storage site? Can anyone guarantee that there never will be an earthquake or other natural event that may destabilize or threaten the integrity of one of these sites?

    What about some nut with a bomb attacks one of these sites somehow? I saw a 60 minutes special a while back about the security on chemical plants. Some reporter just walked in and sat on the top of one of those giant external storage containers like you see the oil industry use to store oil or gas. Security is relatively non-existent in these places. Don’t tell me that these nuke sites are that much more protected because none of these energy and chemical industry sites are not doing even a minimal job.

    And to those that would like it in their back yard go ahead. Move under some power lines while you are at it. Eat some mercury contaminated fish from these contaminated streams downstream from these mountaintop removal sites.

    Look at this article from the BBC in 2000:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/743879.stm

    Let’s not try to poo-poo what happened in Chernobyl. That is just silly. First of all the projected number of deaths related to the disaster is about 4000 people. This is according to that UN report (IAEA) that nuclear proponents like to use to support their claims. The WHO estimates it even higher at 9000 deaths:

    http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2006/pr20/en/index.html

    I dislike hearing the phrase “clean coal” as much as I do about nuclear energy referred to as being “green”. So if you are selling nuclear as green and trying to juxtapose that with dirty coal energy, I ain’t buyin’ it.

  11. Actually, according to the WHO, 20 years after Chernobyl, the actual deaths are still standing at about 40-60 so far. But you are right. The actual death toll after Chernobyl, of you wait just a little longer, will be MUCH higher and be in the hundreds of Millions. And if you wait another 60-80 years, then EVERYBODY on earth alive during Chernobyl will die from that accident.

  12. RSchewe said, Like I said we are more creative as a society than to need to go nuclear.

    So, what exactly have you designed or built that can send me electricity?

  13. Chernobyl was of U.S design. We refused to use the design because it was unsafe. Don’t blame Nuclear power for someone using an unsafe design.

  14. The U.S. does not use the same design of reactor as Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. It was flawed and so the U.S. did not use it. As for gaurds; reactors in America have maximum security. Armed guards everywhere. If a reporter got in, it was probably because he had clearance. A person actually gets more radiation from x-rays, flying in planes, and smoking than from a nuclear reactor. Our biggest concern is where to store the leftover waste. A lot of it can be reused multiple times, but our best bet was storring it underground in Nevada, but now that has gone down the drain.

  15. And because of the ample supply of uranium in and on the Earth, we will not run out. At least in our lifetime. And if we ever do, i’m sure that a new type of energy source will have been developed by then.

  16. Back for a third time ;) I would also just like to put in there that a terrorist attack could not breach a reactor. Also, the waste containers containing the waste :) are so tough, that they could withstand the force of a military jet crashing into them. The jet explodes while the container is fine. They are one of the strongest things that man has created if not THE strongest.

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