You may want some facts on nuclear in order to prove that nuclear is either more “good” than “bad” or, vice versa, more “bad” than “good.” And yes, I will provide some in this article, but the point of the matter when it comes to nuclear energy is that we don’t yet have the needed facts to adequately weigh nuclear energy’s costs and benefits…. but if we did, it seems impossible they would put nuclear in the “good” category.
We here at CleanTechnica have remained conspicuously quiet on the topic of nuclear energy over the past couple of weeks, and this lack of facts is probably one reason why, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have strong opinions on the matter. In the midst of all the chaos, I, for one, did not feel that adding more noise to the matter would be very helpful at the time. But I have been reading about nuclear more than ever, am very interested in it, and think that I now have some useful points to make, now that we are moving towards a more “level-headed” discussion of its merits and downsides.
There is one main thing about nuclear that is critical to my view that we should not continue pursuing it, and there are two other important and supportive issues that bolster that point of view, in my opinion.
Before I get into those things, though, I want to lead into them with a little discussion on the hot topic of the last day or two — that coal causes many more deaths than nuclear. Seth Godin and Next Big Future recently highlighted information from the World Health Organization and a European study on death rates per energy source to “show” that nuclear causes tremendously fewer deaths per TWh than coal or oil, or even any other energy source (including solar and wind). This would be really critical information.. if the future matched the past. But it is the very important issue of time that makes this information a lot less useful than one might think.
The death rate based on information up until now makes nuclear look very good, but what would the death rate into infinity look like?
This brings me into my #1 issue with nuclear.
The graph above shows, roughly, the length of time humans are known to have existed with the length of time plutonium-242 remains radioactive. Homo sapiens have existed for about 500,000 years. “Modern humans” for only 200,000 years. Nuclear waste can remain radioactive for several times longer than that.
Who can ever claim to create mechanisms for ensuring that radioactive waste remains out of the air, water, and our food for such a long period of time? Who can claim to create a containment vessel that will last so long?
While the death rate of nuclear energy may be rather small at the moment, who can even attempt to identify anything close to the death rate caused by radioactive waste that lasts for much longer than humans have been in existence?
Sure, the chance of an earthquake and tsunami causing problems like in Japan were pretty small, but the chances of such things or much worse happening over the course of millions of years (with radioactive waste presumably growing each extremely short year), are probably pretty freakin’ high. Not that anyone could come up with such a statistic, since we are completely unable to predict the risks we will be facing in one thousand years, let alone one million.
Here are a few good quotes I’ve picked up on this subject that I hope help to convey the point (links to the sources, both of which are definitely worth reading in full, are at the beginning of each quote):
[N]uclear waste lasts forever. That’s the real horror of Fukushima – that the spread of radioactive material could make an entire chunk of Japan uninhabitable. We could afford to be smug if we knew how to deal with our nuclear waste. But we don’t.
Spent fuel continues to pile up in a nuclear waste stream that will have to be closely managed and monitored for eons, so long that those designing nuclear-waste repositories struggle with the problem of signage that might be intelligible in a future so distant today’s languages may not be understood. You might think that a danger virulent enough to outlast human languages would be a danger to avoid, but the hubris of the nuclear establishment is equal to its willingness to deceive.
A natural disaster, accident, or terrorist attack that might be statistically unlikely in any year or decade becomes ever more likely at the half-century, century, or half-millennium mark. Given enough time, in fact, the unlikely becomes almost inevitable. Even if you and I are not the victims of some future apocalyptic disturbance of that lethal residue, to consign our children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren to such peril is plainly and profoundly immoral.
So, that is my big issue with nuclear. And I am in wonder, in complete wonder, at how that can not be an issue for everyone else….
Now, I said there are two supportive points that help me in my opposition to nuclear energy.
One is regarding our need to address global warming and climate change, which could also harm billions of people and have consequences lasting longer than we can possibly conceive. Many argue that nuclear is needed to cut global warming emissions. However, a number of studies have shown that we actually can do without both nuclear and fossil fuels with a stronger focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy. (More to come on that in future articles.) The clinging-for-life claim that we need nuclear is just that, a claim — & a well-sold one I would add.
The other point is regarding cost. While it shouldn’t take much thinking to realize that the true life-cycle cost of nuclear is much greater than that reflected in the price we pay for electricity from it, some people only care about short-term economics — well, most politicians and most of the public seem to only care about that. The good news is, however, the rising cost of new nuclear plants and the quickly falling cost of renewable energy options, are making renewable energy a better option even in the short-short-term. The better option, even in this narrow realm, is to move away from nuclear.
Well, each of those paragraphs could be several pages long (or even a full book long), but I know that lengthy articles are not what blogs are all about and most people aren’t willing to read pieces that are too long, so — throw your corrections, counterarguments, or words of agreement in the comments below.