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Green Economy Nuclear power station over sunset

Published on April 16th, 2012 | by Thomas Gerke

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Nuclear Sunset — The Last Straw of the Nuclear Lobby?



 

Where is the Positive Image of Nuclear Energy Coming From?

Despite the problems and disasters of the past and present, nuclear power is still being praised for being a cheap, abundant, and clean form of energy production by many politicians. Of course, it’s also “safe” and without any kind of “waste management problems” (due to future developments that would make energy out of dangerous nuclear waste), but those slogans are a little harder to sell today, so the focus is usually on “clean” and “cheap”.

While there is overwhelming proof that these pro-nuclear arguments are questionable at best, it’s a strange tradition that the pro-nuclear voices always seem to oversell their favourite product and try to turn this decade-old technology into some kind of silver bullet that fixes the problems of present and future generations alike. It’s even stranger or outright alarming that critical voices are often ignored or portrayed as making unfounded or unscientific claims. As the scale of the disaster in Fukushima became apparent, this schizophrenic nature of the public discussion on nuclear energy took a turn to the absurd.

When the German government announced that it would review it’s nuclear policy and [return to (!) a] phase-out of nuclear power as a result of the worst human and economic nuclear disaster of the past 25 years, the international and domestic media were suddenly flooded with articles about something called “German Angst”. There was little or no information about the background behind this decision. The fact that it was forced upon a pro-nuclear government by a well informed public due to a long-lasting anti-nuclear grassroots movement was simplified into an election gamble. Instead of reporting the issues and risks that were raised by anti-nuclear activists (airplane impacts, terrorist attacks,…), the decision was based on  ”German Angst”, case closed.

Taxpayer-Funded Lobbyism

When looking at the history of the nuclear industry, it becomes very obvious where the pro-nuclear voices come from and who formulated the talking points. Since the early beginnings in the 1950s, the propagated image of nuclear power has never been the result of an open, scientific, ethical, public, and economic discussion. It has always been the product of special-interest-driven public relations campaigns. Starting with the famous “Atoms for Peace” initiative and the nuclear programs of the UK and France  (resulting in nuclear weapons), nuclear energy turned into a manufactured consensus.

Furthermore, a strong web between politics, business, and science was established and resulted in many international and national institutions. The IAEA, EURATOM, or the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) are just some of these taxpayer-funded institutions that were designed to push the nuclear future of our energy supply. They love to be portrayed as neutral and objective institutions that assist policymakers with their knowledge, but they are biased by design.

“To assist its member countries in maintaining and further developing, through international co-operation, the scientific, technological and legal bases required for a safe, environmentally friendly and economical use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. To provide authoritative assessments and to forge common understandings on key issues as input to government decisions on nuclear energy policy and to broader OECD policy analyses in areas such as energy and sustainable development.”
Mission Statement of the  Nuclear Energy Agency 

In fact, organisations like the NEA are very frank about their lobbying activities. They provide governments and opinion leaders with pro-nuclear arguments and studies. They promote their publications throughout their member countries and at importantant policy events. (See: The Strategic Plan of the NEA 2011-2016)

The Nuclear Renaissance that Was Not

Most nuclear reactors that are in operation were built in the 1970s or 1980s. That means that the bulk of these highly subsidized power plants are nearing the end of their life and need to be decommissioned. If the nuclear lobby doesn’t manage to turn this situtation into a necessity to build new reactors, the nuclear age in the field of electricity production will come to an inevitable end.

The arguments of the nuclear lobby to achieve the necessary public support for this goal are easily summed up: Nuclear is Clean, Cheap AND there is no alternative!

It’s easy to show that all three arguments are wrong and it has been done countless times. But nonetheless, the web of politics, business, and science that is being spun by institutional lobbyism has had some success at framing their nuclear product as “clean” in recent years (in terms of CO² emissions).

Today, these arguments are in fact falling apart in front of our very eyes and the renaissance might end before it started. Fukushima has put a huge question mark on the argument that nuclear is “clean” — hundreds of thouseds of tons of contaminated soil and the constant threat of contamination of the food supply are difficult to put aside.

Plans to build new nuclear reactors face increasing difficulties due to the high and rising intital investment costs. According to studies and recent estimates, the costs for decommissioning the aging fleet of reactors are also skyrocketing. This puts an even bigger question mark on the argument of nuclear energy being cheap energy.

And last, but not least, the big energy lie  is being unmasked by the large-scale introduction of renewable energy sources around the globe. The technologies required to harvest the abundant natural energy potentials from renewable resources are proving to be more than enough to supply even our growing energy needs of today, despite being at the beginning of their technological development.

Myth-Based Opinions & A Call for Subsidies

Despite all this, the nuclear lobby is still propagating its gospel of the atom — its “nuclear is cheap and there are no alternative” arguments. As the widespread talking points about “German Angst” have shown, the public discussion is still very much dominated by myths instead of honest discussion.

At this critical moment of a fading nuclear power industry, pro-nuclear governments of France, the UK, Poland, and the Czech Republic seem to have embarked upon a mission to save the future of nuclear energy. According to a leaked letter to the European Commission, they have voiced their wish that nuclear energy should be on par with young renewable energy technologies, thus making their struggling nuclear projects eligible to receive EU subsidies. This comes at a time when the EU is about to start the debate about 2030 goals for CO2 reductions and the future introduction of renewable energy sources.

While this push by pro-nuclear EU governments will hopefully end up dead on arrival, their mission has already accomplished an important task:

With their call for financial support, they did prove once again that nuclear power is not and never has been a cheap and economical way of producing electricity. Even after 60 years of development, research, and subsidies, nuclear requires large subsidies to survive.

Image: Nuclear power station over sunset courtesy shutterstock

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About the Author

is a close observer of the scientific, political and economic energy debate in Germany and around the globe. Inspired by the life's work of the renewable energy advocate Hermann Scheer, Thomas focuses on spreading information that showcase the possibilities & opportunities of a 100% renewable energy system. Though technology is key for this energy shift, he also looks at the socio-economic benefits and the political, as well as structural barriers.



  • John O

    LIke all other anti-nuclear power artticles this one is more opinion than fact. Thomas created more of this fiction and is trying to pass it off as some sort of journalism report.
    For example he stated the groundwater studies of Yucca Mountain were “faked” As an inspector of the research done at Yucca Mountain I have observed the groundwater studies done on the Mountain and is test labs and reviewed the results. What exactly do you think was faked.
    Lab tests are not fake,they provide a better understanding of soil permiability than pure theory.

    • ThomasGerke

      When you wrote “Thomas” did you mean me?
      Because I sure never wrote a thing about studies of Yucca Mountain…

  • Guest

    The future of nuclear energy in the United States is thorium technology and I think it well be done by the military minus all of the regulations of the NRC and the endless litigation by environmentalist lawyers. It is a perfect technology for small modular reactors to power remote military bases. Once it is developed it will become public. As an example the nuclear propulsion units on ships are extremely successful because they were secretly developed in the military.

  • Bill Leavens

    I hope the author is heralding the end of uranium nuclear. It’s long past time that we resumed the development and practical application of thorium fission. We know how o do that. Or at least we did fifty years ago. And if we don’t know now, I’m sure the Chinese will be happy to sell us the reactors…

    • ThomasGerke

      Thorium fission faces the same industry resistance like renewables. (It indangers investments in the uranium fuel cycle) It also still requires alot of experimental work & the construction of protoyps… It’s also not problem free in terms of waste. Though it’s not the 100.000 year problem, it creates difficult to manage waste products for several decades (as far as I know).

      At the same time, thorium nuclear fission doesn’t ofter the wider macro-economic & socio-economic benefits that is provided by decentralized renewable energy sources.

      But thorium won’t happen because it doesn’t provide the nuclear energy industry with any significant benefits AND nobody else has the ability to get into that business unless the government pours out huge subsidies.

      Having read abit about thorium I totally agree that it would have been the better nuclear reactor design…but it’s still a technology with a high investment cost barrier, requirement of an elite fuel source and it’s by no means a silver bullet technology.
      It sure doesn’t fit into a world that operates a smart grid and in which people live in plus-energy-houses and enjoy their energy autonomy.

      • Bill Leavens

        You are right on a number of counts. Thorium certainly threatens the entrenched uranium processing industry and I am sure they are doing whatever they can to surpress interest. But I think thorium can be made to work in a more de-centralized power generation regime. Thorium plants can be built small enough in cost effective sizes to power smaller regional areas. Yes, the radioactive effluent is highly radioactive but for a much shorter period of time. Part of the research will have to be in mitigating that high radiation hazard – maybe microencapsulating in ceramic beads. I
        am strictly a layman and can’t speak toward any feasible solutions.

        There will always be some sort of grid and the smarter it can be made, the better. Not everyone can afford to make the capital investment in equipment to permit them to live off it. As long as we live in cities, there will be power transmission wires.

        Government is already pouring huge subsidies into different energy schemes ( ethanol production?). Or we can wait. Do nothing and buy our reactors and fuel from the Chinese. Who will take out money while they are rolling on the floor laughing at us.

      • Uzza2

        You have to separate the element thorium from the reactors. Thorium is just fuel, although one that provides specific benefits compared to uranium.

        Specific reactor designs like the Molten Salt Reactor allows for small, cheap and decentralized power generation.
        MSR is a proven design developed in the 50′s and 60′s, but eschewed in favor of LM-FBR, which had become national policy.
        Estimates put the cost needed to create a commercial design at 1-2 billion dollars, which is not that much in the large scheme of things. Solyndra for example wasted $700 million of US taxpayer money with it’s loan grant.

  • John

    Those look like coal burning plants in the picture at the top of the column. Normally I would overlook that, but following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year, the advertiser supported media frequently showed images and videos of burning oil refineries and exploding natural gas storage tanks during their coverage of the Fukushima nuclear power plants. Apparently, the quick puffs of white smoke from hydrogen explosions and wisps of vapor from the used fuel storage pools wasn’t dramatic enough footage for them.

  • Nuno Oliveira

    When the retard leftist pseudo intellectuals will have to take showers in cold freezing water in about 5/10 years they’ll too start loving nuclear power… then only thing we’ve got left

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      You have no concept of all the different energy sources that can heat water, other than a nuclear reaction? Really — think we have no other options?

      Nuclear power plants are merely big teapots. And there are many, much better ways to do this.

      If the USA went to 100% nuclear, we would run out of uranium in about 6 years. So, there goes that great idea…

      And please enlighten me — IF you can, about how we can deal with the nuclear waste that is such an anathema to life? Has there been a brilliant breakthrough that I have not heard about?

      Renewable energy will be here for as long as the earth exists — about another FIVE BILLION years. If humans are still here when the sun explodes, then we would have been using renewable energy for about five billion years.

      I’m ignoring your insults, and giving you the benefit of the doubt, and responding to the lack of facts in your post.

      Neil

      • Uzza2

        There is virtually a limitless supply of uranium available in seawater, and an amount larger than half world usage is enters each year through erosion processes.
        Uranium can be extracted from seawater at a cost of $250 per kg, about three times the cost of mining.

        But this isn’t a problem, as the raw cost of uranium is a small part of fuel costs, and fuel costs itself is a small part of nuclear plant O&M costs.

        And boiling water is just what current reactors do, since their outlet temperature is too low for other ways of driving a turbine.
        Advanced and actually proven designs that operate at higher temperature use gas turbines, and get subsequently get higher thermodynamic efficiency.
        Alternative you can use the heat directly to drive industrial processes, desalinate seawater, or for district heating.

        And waste today is not really waste. It still consists of 97% fuel. If we use up all that fuel what’s left from the process is fission products, of which 87% have decayed after 10 years and can be partitioned and used for various purposes including neodymium, ruthenium, palladium and more.
        What’s left is Sr-90 and Cs-137 that decays away in 300 years, and a collection of isotopes with extremely long half life in the millions of years. After about 500 years when there is virtually no Sr-90 and Cs-137 left, it’s less radioactive than the original uranium ore.
        If you’re really paranoid about radiation it can be destroyed by allowing it to absorb neutrons and turn into isotopes that decay faster.

        We have the technology to do this, but politics and anti-nuclear activism prevents it from being deployed quickly.

        • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

          Nuclear power is already far more expensive than most renewable sources. Nuclear has been receiving huge subsidies from the government.

          Nuclear plants only produce power for 2-3X longer than they take to build and then decommission. Until we come up with actual solutions, we should not commit to creating a bunch of poisonous and highly radioactive materials that our progeny has to live with.

          300-500 years? That is short term, and at what costs? How do you propose we make all that concrete and steel? The costs of making them will change as the cost of oil and coal and gas goes up. Should we use solar power to make concrete to make a nuclear plant? And decommissioning in non-trivial.

          As of yet, we have not had to pay for decommissioning a plant. Will companies put a fund aside to pay it? What if it is not enough money?

          The sun will be here for about the next FIVE BILLION years — as long as the earth exists. The costs of solar power will probably get less and less expensive over time.

          Neil

  • Not an idiot

    Lftrsuk, you sound like a desperate man.

  • lftrsuk

    Starting in the 2020s, the inevitable deployment of emission-free breeder reactors will begin. At an ever accelerating rate into the 2030s, global deployment for base load electricity for everyone on the planet will become evident. Energy from renewables will be relegated to a low, single-figure % of total energy generated, which is where it needs to be for the tiny numbers in remote rural communities. Industrialised countries like Germany, politically driven to maintain living standards, will see there renewables dream, along with ridiculously expensive equipment, rot away in front of their eyes, as they import cheap nuclear electricity to remain competitive.

    The only decision the paying customer has to make is – will it be IFRs or LFTRs – see: http://lftrsuk.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/breeder-reactors-it-is-but-will-it-be.html

    • http://soltesza.wordpress.com/ sola

      Good joke :)))))

      (although I am not sure you meant it as a joke)

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      We do not have the time to wait and see if what you claim is true or false.

      We already have a breeder reactor, already up an running and tested: the sun. It is at a relatively safe distance. Let’s use it!

      Neil

  • Guest

    Thank you for an excellent analysis.

    I also highly recommend reading this free-online book on nuclear energy:

    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B2XzM53vkrUPNmMzZGQzNzUtYzYwYS00ZDVmLTkyNDEtMjVlOTRhZjBkZDg1/edit?hl=en&authkey=CNuUgLMD&pli=1&pli=1

  • Suevanden

    In the United States the will to start finding a new repository site and interim storage sites seems to be lacking. The nuclear waste storage and disposal issue remains a low priority with congress and it seems unlikely that the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission will be implemented soon. Perhaps it will be necessary to folow the example of California and impose a nationwide moratorium on building new reactors until the new repositories and interim storage facilities are actually operating. Susanne E. Vandenbosch

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    Nuclear power is hardly “clean”. It produces about 2/3 of carbon as coal when you take the whole fuel and reactor life cycle into account.

    And the HUGE subsidies that the government has put into nuclear power over the decades are taken totally for granted. We have yet to pay hardly anything for the long term storage of spent fuel. The Yucca Mountain project was a boondoggle and things like the groundwater studies were faked.

    What are we going to do with the spent fuel we *already* *have*? Let alone with any more we create…

    Neil

    • Nwnn4

      Neil, you bring up an interesting point about co2 release due to fuel cycle activities. Any way you could respond with a link or a reference to an authoritative source? I’m working on a school project in this area and would appreaciate the lead….

      • John

        Nwnn4,
        In your research of the lifecycle CO2 emissions of nuclear energy (assuming that’s your topic) is should be noted that the US effectively added an additional 3,500 MW of capacity recently by switching form gaseous diffusion to gas centrifuge enrichment.

    • Bill_Woods

      “It produces about 2/3 of carbon as coal when you take the whole fuel and reactor life cycle into account.”

      Nonsense. Even anti-nuclear analysts like Sovacool conclude that nuclear emissions are in the same range as wind and solar — tens of grams of CO2 per kW-h, versus hundreds of grams for fossil fuels.
      http://www.nature.com/climate/2008/0810/full/climate.2008.99.html

      “We have yet to pay hardly anything for the long term storage of spent fuel.”

      Don’t know where you are, but in the US we’re paying 0.1 ¢/kW-h for the disposal of spent fuel. That works out to about $300k per ton, which ought to be ample.

      “What are we going to do with the spent fuel we *already* *have*? Let alone with any more we create…”

      What we should do is use the potential energy the ‘spent’ fuel still contains — which is enough to meet the US’s entire electricity demand for a century. What we’re planning to do is throw it away….

      • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

        Mining uranium is difficult and dangerous. It has to transported, then refined, then enriched, then processed and built into fuel rods, and the metals used to make the rods has it’s own chain, as well. Then the rods get used for 3-6 years (woo-woo!) and then they have to cool for about 10 years, and then large dry casks have to be built. And what we do with the spent fuel after that, whatever it is — it has to stay completely secure and be guarded from use by terrorists for about 100,000 years.

        That’s just the fuel. The plant is made with an awful lot of concrete and steel. It takes at least 10 years to build a modern plant, and concrete in particular is hugely energy intensive to make. Ironically, the heat to make concrete can come from solar power. Concrete and steel are very heavy and transporting it to the building site is not trivial. Lots of welding, wiring, computers, etc. and we still do not have a solution for things like wiring wearing out when exposed to radiation — it has to be replaced every 20 years or so so you don’t risk a fire or a short.

        That’s just building the plant — it will last for a mere 40-50 years (maybe 60 on the outside) and then it has to be decommissioned i.e. taken apart again and the various pieces and materials have to be processed or burned or buried.

        A nuclear plant needs to be shut down for refueling about every 18 months, and this takes 4-6 weeks as I understand it? So, what is that you were saying about dependability?

        Plants require a lot of maintenance, and they need to be inspected and tested and repaired. Vermont Yankee had a cooling tower collapse and also a large part of the wall of the building fell down, taking out a large water pipe. They had two fires. They had radiative water leak out and get into the ground water.

        They have to be engineered to be earthquake proof, and they have to have backup generators — they should be required to have two sets of backup generators — one underground and one well above ground. They cannot have fires, or electrical problems. They have to have failsafe backup systems and very smart and alert and motivated humans who work in teams to prevent one person making a mistake. They have to be protected from attack, flooding (two nuclear plants in Nebraska almost flooded last year!), tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes.

        ***

        We do ALL THIS — to boil water! Really? Is that the best way we can think of to boil water?

        Here’s how I would boil water: large array of parabolic polished metal reflectors super heating oil, with underground molten salt storage.

        Or, as Scientific American suggested, we could transmit the electricity across the country (from say Nevada) via super efficient high voltage DC lines, and if there was an excess, use underground compressed air storage (in spent gas fields, etc.) and then generate power again if needed.

        It uses no fuel.
        It has no waste.
        It is not radioactive.
        It is not poisonous.
        The sun rises every day.
        The sun will rise for the next 5 billion years.

        There is so much energy in sunlight that what hits the earth in ONE HOUR could power all of humankind for a YEAR. Or, if you prefer, enough of the sun’s energy hits the world’s deserts in 6 HOURS to power humankind for a year.

        That’s just solar heat. There is also wind.

        http://cleantechnica.com/2012/03/14/you-know-what-i-hate-about-wind-turbines-reader-comment/

        There is also solar PV, wave power, tidal power, biofuels (methane from sewage, landfills, and farm waste and it makes great fertilizer afterwards!), geothermal, small scale hydro — we have an absolute abundance of energy!

        Neil

  • Captivation

    This is the moment where the momentum shifts and the tide turns. This is the moment to push hard to bring the fossil fuel and nuclear industries to a standstill. Since renewable prices continue to fall, the timing is ripe to start increasing the prices for old energy. Fossil fuel should start paying fees for ecological destruction, nuclear should be penalized with high storage fees for their radioactive waste materials. Grid parity isn’t enough. There needs to be such an overwhelming economic advantage to renewable power that the other side simple throws in the towel.

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      100% agree. :D

      & Thanks for dropping in the nuclear waste storage costs — so many people ignore that!!

    • Uzza2

      So, what you want is massive subsidiaries to renewable energy, and massive penalties to everything else, to make the only economic alternative renewable?

      What you’re proposing is to completely eliminate the free market for energy.

      • Captivation

        Free markets like Somalia sound good in theory but in reality they don’t compete well against organized nations. This is especially true during times of war. During WW2, the USA banned the sale of new cars – ie eliminated the free market for automotive transportation. It did this to free up the factories to produce bombers and tanks. That’s how WWII got won.
        Our current situation is much more drastic than WWII. The tiny market modifications that would have been needed when President LBJ first warned about Climate Change in 1965 now need to be larger. By choosing not to act in the then, the size of action required has grown steadily larger. But even at this late date, the size of interventions required are actually quite small. We only need moderate incentives to increase the uptake of clean energy, and moderate disincentives to discourage the use of filthy energy.

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