Whatever Happens Next, Let's Think Clearly About Nuclear Risks

By Chris Mooney | March 13, 2011 9:18 pm

Precipitated by the horrible unfolding disaster in Japan, we are poised to have a big public policy debate about nuclear power in this country–and the advisability of the much touted “Nuclear Renaissance,” which President Obama has thrown considerable weight behind.

Whatever happens next–and it is not clear right now just how bad the problems at the two afflicted Japanese nuclear plants are, or how well those problems will be contained–I’m hoping that the unfolding debate over nuclear power will based on the best available science.

On this front, risk assessment scholar David Ropeik, writing at Scientific American, has already thrown down the gauntlet big time. His view well represents the pro-nuclear side of the debate:

…nuclear radiation, in addition to being actually physically hazardous, has some psychological characteristics that make it particularly frightening, and a frightening history, and as a result, the worst case scenarios get played up, and magnified in the scream-a-thon that 24/7 global communication creates around events like those in Japan. Fear of nuclear energy is reinforced, fear that unquestionably in the coming weeks and months will infect the ongoing debate over what kind of energy future we should have.

Nuclear energy certainly has its risks, but are they as great as those from burning coal and oil, given what’s happening to the climate of the earth? Are nuclear emissions, including releases from accidents, as bad as the particulate pollution from fossil fuels? Not close. Remember the low radiation-induced cancer death toll among the hibakusha [survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki], or the WHO estimate of 4,000 lifetime cancer deaths from radiation for Chernobyl. Fossil fuel particulates kill several hundred thousand people around the world per year. (Estimates for this risk are all over the place, but Dr. Joel Schwartz of the Harvard School of Public Health, a pioneer in the study of air pollution risks, estimates the number could be as high as 250,000 in the United States alone, annually. Estimates for the annual US death toll from fossil fuel particulate pollution, on the low end, are 20-30,000.)

Catastrophe? Yes, we should worry about what’s going on in Japan, and about the risks of nuclear energy. But the more we exaggerate those risks, the more overall harm we could be doing to ourselves, by letting our fears drive energy policy that heavily favors a much more dangerous fossil fuel-based power supply.

What do people think? Is Ropeik’s view reasonable?

My understanding is that some might put the death toll from Chernobyl higher–Greenpeace puts it as high as 100,000. Still, I find myself tending to agree with Ropeik overall. Put nuclear next to fossil fuels, and nuclear will tend to look pretty good.

Put nuclear next to wind and solar, though–or just plain energy efficiency–and it’s a very different story….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy

Comments (45)

  1. As I wrote this morning on facebook, regardless of advances in technology, efficiency, and safety measures, it will likely be public sentiment that decides what happens next.

  2. David Grinspoon

    The fear of a worst-case scenario is not irrational – it is fear based on science, such as an understanding of seismology, nuclide half-lives and radiation medicine. This quake may not even be close to a worst-case scenario, in part because the Japanese are the best in the world at preparedness. The comparison with fossil fuels is valid and important. It is definitely a lesser-of-evils question. To me the huge and hugely relevant science question is whether or not we can really do without both nuclear and coal. I am still waiting for a fully satisfying quantitative answer to this.

  3. I work as a technical writer for the US’s Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, so I’m intimately familiar with the hazards of nuclear energy and the technology surrounding it. The US Navy has been running nuclear-powered ships since the 1950s, and have had precisely zero casualties that were actually related to radiation or the fact that the ships are nuclear powered (i.e., any deaths or injuries were related to things that could happen on any similarly sized boat).

    I’m convinced that nuclear power can be done safely, efficiently, and effectively. I do recognize the difference between land-based and sea-based reactors, but I think this difference can be minimalized, in terms of our ability to respond to and recover from disasters. The only thing that concerns me, at this point, is what we can do with the waste products of the nuclear reactions. Perhaps future generations of reactors will be able to recycle these products into a secondary kind of fuel; we’ll have to see.

  4. You can’t really put nuclear energy next to just plain energy efficiency, because they’re not parallel. Just plain energy efficiency is something we need to do anyway, regardless of whatever it is that we end up using to generate energy. However, we are going to need to keep generating energy, so we need to figure out how we’re going to do that.

    Chernobyl aside, the extraction and production of fossil fuels have killed WAY more people than nuclear power has. Indeed, that may well be true even if you don’t put Chernobyl aside, but I don’t actually know. The plants in Japan, despite being hit first by an earthquake that was bigger than what the designers planned for, followed by a tsunami that the designers didn’t plan to have happen, haven’t gone Chernobyl, and won’t. (See http://bit.ly/gYCnPO .) That’s a testament to how much of an edge case Chernobyl was, and to the fact that even “outdated” reactors like the ones in Japan are built for far more safety than Chernobyl was. We should probably not keep talking about Chernobyl when we talk about the merits nuclear power, any more than we should talk about the Hindenberg when debating the merits of air travel.

    Solar power is great, but at the moment not very efficient. The costs of producing the solar panels compared to the typical lifetimes means that the efficiency is only “a few”.

    Given that we’ve already gone down the garden path of excessive carbon emissions, and that we’ve wasted at LEAST a decade (with no signs of the time wasting ending any time soon) pretending there’s a debate over whether we need to do something about it, we’re gonna be screwed if we don’t have an answer right now. I don’t know that it will be possible to address our carbon emissions if we don’t rely at least partially on nuclear power. We can’t allow fear of the n-word to prevent us from rationally reviewing that possibility. If we’re going to do that, every time we talk about however much scary stuff happened in Japan, we need to remind ourselves the scary stuff that happened from Katrina. No, you can’t blame Katrina on anthropogenic global warming… but there is reason to suspect that that sort of thing will happen more often as a result of anthropogenic global warming. (I could recommend a book….)

    Long term (long long term), we can’t rely on nuclear fission forever. The sooner we don’t have to mess with it, the better. But we don’t know how to make nuclear fusion work yet. We really need to do a Manhattan project or an Apollo project on nuclear fusion, but the engineering challenges there are turning out to be far more difficult than for those earlier projects. Until either we find a far cheaper way to make solar power work, or until we manage to create our little Mr. Fusions (or even effective bigass fusion plants), we’re probably going to be facing the choice of nuclear fission power, or continuing to use far more fossil fuels than we can afford if we want to keep the planet hospitable for our current style of civilization.

    (And even if the denialists turn out to be right, and CO2 in the atmosphere is no problem, oil is going to run out before long anyway. Nuclear fission fuel will run out too, but that day is much farther off, and it buys us more time.)

    (Ultimately, entropy means that any resource, no matter how renewable, is going to run out, but that’s kind of a straw man. Solar’s not going to run out for a few billion years, for instance, and it would be presumptuous to believe that our species is going to be able to cancel evolution long enough to last all that time.)

  5. The only thing that concerns me, at this point, is what we can do with the waste products of the nuclear reactions.

    Yes, this is the thing that really gives me a queasy feeling deep in my stomach about fission power. That stuff is nasty and stays around for a very long time. However, it’s far easier to control than the waste from fossil fuels. Individually, CO2 is much more benign, but we’re seeing that it’s far from benign when you look at the system as a whole.

  6. Chris Mooney

    Thanks for these comments.

    The more I think about it, the more I realize that something very important (to me, at least) is about to happen here. A kind of natural experiment, if you will, in the politics of science.

    Liberals, allegedly, hate nuclear power. And to hear conservatives tell it, they twist science to support this preexisting ideological commitment.

    I don’t really buy this claim–maybe this was once true, back in the 1970s, but I don’t think it’s true today. Certainly, I’m a liberal, but I don’t have a knee jerk negative reaction to nuclear power at all. Quite the contrary. If anything, I’m favorably inclined.

    So here’s the natural experiment: Will liberals twist science to attack nuclear power in the upcoming debate? Let’s find out…

  7. JT

    At this time, there is really no alternative to nuclear energy. Fusion is no where near ready and might never be. Natural gas and coal plants are cheap, until you factor in the long term damage to the environment. Wind and solar are expensive and unreliable in most situations. We can either get with the program and built more nuclear plants or watch our standard of living plummet.

  8. Paul Baer

    It’s an interesting experiment, but it ought to be a bit better specified.

    It is of course a safe bet that some people who already opposed nuclear power will use this to reinforce their arguments. Some will probably say things that will count as “twisting science.” But how can we distinguish between a few individuals, even if some are famous enough to make the media, and organized environmental organizations, who have debated nuclear policy for years and are generally connected with mainstream scientific practitioners? Also, how to we evaluate and rank and “twisting”? Can we get to “weight” the offenses by both the significance of the speaker and the egregiousness of the twist?

    The other question of course would be, how many non-liberals will “twist the science” to defend nuclear power? Could we keep a scorecard?

  9. Bucherm

    *Some* Liberals hate nuclear power, Greenpeace, who you cited in the blog, would certainly have an ideological axe to grind with nuclear power. The Greens in Western European countries(well to the left of the titular “liberal” Democrats) do their utmost to minimize nuclear energy. OTOH France has adopted nuclear power to a degree equal to or exceeding any other country out there, and France is the poster-child for “welfare state”.

    The nuclear accident in Japan is unfortunate, but it is afflicting elderly reactors that require electricity for all the safety measures to work(newer ABWRs don’t) following on the biggest earthquake in Japans recorded history. That it has come down to the Japanese engineers struggling to maintain the reactors future viability rather than a disaster killing civilians in the immediate area is a testament to the reactor design and the professionalism of the plant engineers and technicians.

  10. David George

    Who believes a phony “liberal vs. conservative” debate will influence the powers that be? They will come to their own determination, and the voting units will take what they are given.

  11. Chris Mooney

    @8 I agree the experiment would need to be better “specified.”

    But I do give a definition of what it means to misuse or abuse science in my first book, The Republican War on Science. Basically it means inappropriate interference with either the process of science, or its substantive conclusions–and it’s the latter we’d be looking at here.

    So, we would be looking for prominent, influential, mainstream liberals–emphatically including the heads of environmental organizations, or prominent persons within these organizations–stating things about nuclear power that are provably untrue, in service of political goals. And we would be looking closely at Democratic politicians as well.

    In other words, we are looking for a close parallel to what conservatives/elected Republicans do all the time on climate science. And moreover, we are looking for a significant number of examples, enough to suggest that this is not fringe or a one-off–that this is the way liberals and environmentalists are going to conduct themselves in the upcoming nuclear policy debate.

    Who wants to bet on whether we will see such a thing? I would bet against it.

  12. We are already seeing the spin machines at work. On one program, their “expert” on nuclear energy addressed the safety question by talking of the very low probability of a tsunami affecting any of the US reactors. We only have about 100 currently running with a design similar to Fukushima.

    Then, on Fox News, the volume was being ramped up to answer the nuclear chickens and Libyan civil war with a rousing chorus of drill baby, drill.

    We have so far failed to think of the energy issues in a systematic manner. Even in this comment thread, there is mention of the problem of nuclear waste. There is almost never any mention, or anybody seeming to care, about the problems of contamination in the mining and transportation process. In fact, the actual generation of electricity with a nuclear reactor supplying the heat is probably the safest part of the entire system that stretches from mining, transportation, processing, transportation, etc.

  13. Chris Mooney

    Classic. Here is a good liberal with a nuanced supportive view of nuclear power, like mine

    http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2011/03/two-cheers-for-nuclear-safety/

  14. Liath

    I am a 70 year old liberal. Forty years ago I was anti-nuclear based on what I saw as inadequate construction of reactors and of course, waste disposal. Today, I remain a liberal but my views on the use of nuclear energy have changed. I frankly do not see many options available to modern industrial civilization.
    Peak oil was probably reached a few years ago

  15. Liath

    Oops, apparently I am clueless about using these reply forms. I had no idea you can’t use the tab.

    So, peak oil was probably reached a few years ago and yet our consumption of fossil fuels continues to increase and there is little chance we will voluntarily cut back. So in the next 100 years± use of fossil fuels is not likely to be an option. As someone mentioned above solar and wind are fine if we can make them work efficiently, which may happen sooner or later. Probably later. That leaves nuclear.

    My concerns at this point have more to do with sensible construction, i.e. don’t build on earthquake faults and work on disposal. I believe there was a nuclear plant constructed in California many years ago directly over an earthquake fault. Somebody confused foggy thinking with acceptable risk.

    I am hoping the nuclear debate can happen without the automatic taking sides based on ideology. Well, I guess I have little hope for that. I would have assumed the climate change issue was too important to base decisions on ideology and that certainly didn’t pan out.

  16. Everett Young

    I agree with the Sci American writer about the science.

    There is another political consideration, though. I think I’m quite willing to see expanded nuclear power in the U.S.–so long as we have a strong regulatory regime to make sure we do safety as well as, say, Japan.

    However, the ascendant political tribe pushing the hardest for nuclear power will also oppose having it regulated at all–or, they will insist that the best regulation is the pressures of the market. Hey, companies that experience meltdowns or kill a few thousand people will incur the wrath of the market; that will be enough. I don’t really want to do it that way.

    I’ll take more nukes, but can I have them AND my regulations to keep me safe, too? Not so sure.

    Now, another question is: how to compare (A) expanded nuclear power alongside a Republican-approved regulatory regime (that is, an intentionally weak one) with (B) runaway, unrestrained fossil-fuel burning? Nuclear might still win.

  17. Tertius

    I too am a liberal, and at one point had a slight anti-nuclear bias, but then I educated myself on the issue, and what the future of nuclear power is likely to look like, if we really give it a go (and that is very different than what the past looks like).

    Unfortunately, the debate is very focused on the past when it comes to this issue, and not the future.

    It is likely that the next generation of reactors, be they LFTR, Pebble bed, or some other design, will have far higher intrinsic safety levels than even the safest of lightwater reactor designs in operation today.

    And this is not at all included in the debate, just as the “nuclear waste” issue is rarely discussed in the framework it should be: that spent fuel rods are a potential resource that contain many valuable elements, and are not a garbage problem, but an engineering and legal issue that can be solved in a fairly straightforward manner.

    It’s an unfortunate fact that the public at large (and our lawmakers) are likely even more poorly informed on this issue than climate change and fossil fuels.

  18. Nuclear power is one of those things which tends to be sensationalized when something goes wrong but is not appreciated enough (and reviled) when it’s going right. To keep the playing field level, it’s time we also sensationalized coal mining, highway, natural gas and chemical accidents which kill far more people compared to nuclear. Another option would be to not sensationalize anything. But that’s probably not going to happen with The Washington Post. The picture for their cover story yesterday looked like it was out of “Dawn of the Dead: Nuclear Edition”. You wouldn’t find a more alarmist photo if you looked hard and far.

  19. To answer Chris’ question about liberals opposed to Nukes twisting the science: I suspect we don’t see that too much. Part of the reason is that, as this thread shows, there’s not enough consistent anti-nuke sentiment among liberals to carry it. We know that there are conservatives who understand the reality of climate change, but the bandwagon effect has taken over the Republican party to the point that it’s part of being Reupblican to deny it exists.

    The other reason is that climate change is happening and it’s pretty much an unambiguous bad… so that if you want to argue against doing anything about it, you have to twist the science to deny what’s going on. Nuclear power is not an unambiguous good. I (and others above) believe that it’s necessary. But it does have drawbacks, the nuclear waste being the biggest one. The potential magnitude of a plant disaster (as compared to any other energy plant disaster) is a second one, although many of us argue now that that’s not nearly as bad a problem as the waste problem in reality. If you want to argue against nuclear power, you just have to emphasize the real risks and drawbacks over the benefits. There probably does need to be some head-in-the-sand with regards to the severity of the energy crisis and the potential of wind and solar power, but it doesn’t have to be complete and total denial of reality.

    (What I really wonder is why we aren’t considering lots and lots of hamsters on wheels….)

  20. Eric the Leaf

    Nicole Foss’ new article posted on The Oil Drum deserves reading. It is entitled “How Black is the Japanese Nuclear Swan?”

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7638

    She states: “Proponents argue that the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for nuclear power is sufficient to power our societies, that nuclear power can be scaled up quickly enough as fossil fuel supplies decline, that there will be sufficient uranium reserves for a massive expansion of capacity, that nuclear is the only option for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and that nuclear power can be operated with no safety concerns through probabilistic safety assessment (PSA). I disagree with all these assertions.”

    See also Sharon Astyk’s blog (Casaubon’s Book) on ScienceBlogs.

  21. Nicole Brown

    I consider myself a moderate/liberal, and I work at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. WIPP disposes low grade legacy Transuranic waste in a 250 million year old salt deposit 2150 feet under the ground. We have been receiving waste since 1999 and are a little over halfway through our mission.

    I am for more nuclear power, but wish the Reagan-era law of not recyling used rods would be repealed. I think the idea of “clean coal” is just a conservative myth used to appease those who don’t want to try new technologies. I used to be for things like wind power, living in New Mexico where there is a consistant wind. Then I heard that the windmills only generate power during certain windspeeds, and they’re constantly breaking down and in all honesty, using them is just unfeasible.

    Engineered appropriatly, which they have been for the last 30 years, nuclear fission is “green technology”.

  22. The nuclear energy is relatively cheap and clean technology. Unfortunately there is nothing comparable to it (maybe Thorium can play some important role in this). Because of what happened in Fukushima we should ask for higher protection of public. But this can increase the selling price of nuclear energy for consumers.

  23. Gaythia

    Andrew Maynard is assembling an excellent resource on the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster and its implications to public health over at the University of Michigan Risk Science Blog here: http://umrscblogs.org/2011/03/13/the-fukushima-nuclear-reactor-disaster-and-its-implications-to-public-health/

  24. As the author of the Scientific American piece that Chris writes about, I am really impressed at the thoughtful quality of this discussion. My expertise is in the psychology of risk perception…why our fears so often don’t match the facts…and when I post on risk issues it often evokes some really nasty closed-minded feedback. Kudos to you all, and to you Chris, for championing a thoughtful discussion.

  25. Pablo S.

    There is something I consider somewhat inconsistent in the nuclear debate, namely using both of the following arguments

    i. Solar energy is *currently* expensive and inefficient
    ii. Nuclear waste recycling or bulletproof-severalhalflifetime-safe disposal might be available *in the future*

    The point is that trusting technological advances to cope with ii., but neglecting they can overcome i. makes not much sense. It seems to me more an issue of overemphasizing the short-term cost evaluation against long term one. I do agree fission is an steady (in the mid term) source of energy, and that it can be safely operated. But the consequences of waste disposal should not be minimized, relative to what is to be gained from going nuclear.

    “We can either get with the program and built more nuclear plants or watch our standard of living plummet.”

    Our standard of living (as a whole) will plummet the sooner or the later. So let it be the sooner.
    Seriously. It will be worthy even in terms of lifes, as sustaining the demographical expansion for some more decades will certainly make the fall harder, when the time comes.

  26. Chris

    The Tsunami has killed more people than this nuclear disaster ever will. And yet we will never hear an outcry to move people away from the Oregon and Washington coasts because of the remote yet real possibility that a Tsunami of that magnitude could strike there.

  27. As a pro-nuclear guy, I find this thread encouraging. But growing up in the Pacific Northwest and listening to the thoughts about Hanford and other nuclear plant issues, I’m not sure we’re out of the woods yet.

    I’ll believe the claimed shift in opinion the next time there’s a serious political debate about Yucca Mountain or siting another nuclear plant in the US. Until then, it’s just words.

  28. Tertius

    @ Pablo, reprocessing is not a future technology. It was simply made illegal for civilians to do it in the US during 80s. The French reprocess their spent fuel rods, though I’m not sure about the Japanese.

    “Bullet-proof” waste disposal for the few useless residuals is also not terribly difficult. It can be included into glass, and buried, and will be stable on a geologic time scale.

    And again, we’re talking about old technologies.

    New reactor designs (or old, in the case of LFTR) may not have the same kinds of waste issues that currently operating nuclear power stations do.

  29. Nullius in Verba

    For those wondering about what to do with all the nuclear waste, this may be of interest.
    http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/09/18/ifr-fad-7/

    Don’t bury it too deep – one day it will be valuable.

  30. shunyata

    The problem with nukes is the operators and regulators. Not the technology. As discussed on this forum, nukes present acceptable *theoretical* risk.

    The NY Times has an interesting forum today “Japan’s Nuclear Crisis: Lessons for the U.S” http://nyti.ms/eqhJKq.

    From Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist, is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton. His article, with Jan Beyea, “Containment of a Nuclear Meltdown,” was published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, August/September 1982.

    (Discussing Three Mile Island) “…But most of the radioactivity released by the fuel may have been trapped in a pool designed to protect the reactor containment from overpressure by condensing steam. Since the pool temperature has risen to the boiling point, it is uncertain how long it will continue this service and the area around the reactor is being evacuated out to a radius of 12 miles.

    In 1982, a colleague and I pointed out that not all U.S. reactor containments would have survived the T.M.I. accident, and we suggested that all U.S. reactors be retrofitted with a robust filter system made of sand and charcoal that could filter the gases that would have to be released if a containment was approaching its failure pressure. The nuclear utilities resisted, however, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as usual, did not press for change.

    The Fukushima accident suggests once more that the “defense in depth” design of current nuclear reactors may not be deep enough and that previously rejected suggestions like the filtered vent system should be considered again.”

    and from David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, is director of the Nuclear Safety Project of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He has worked at three reactors in the United States with designs similar to the Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.

    “…We know that earthquakes can cause fires at nuclear reactors, and U.S. reactor safety studies conclude that fire can be a dominant risk for reactor core damage by disabling primary and back-up emergency systems. Yet dozens of nuclear reactors in the U.S. have operated for years in violation of federal fire protection regulations with no plans to address these safety risks anytime soon.”

  31. Brian Too

    You know, one thing that really gets me about nuclear. Decades of talk and there are still no high level nuclear waste repositories in North America. Yeah, I know, on-site is working, it’s not so bad, oppositional politics, breeder reactors, yadda yadda.

    Bunk. It shows a real problem with the credibility of nuclear power. It’s symbolic, I think, of a certain failure to deal directly with weaknesses in the technology cycle of the nuclear power industry. There may be a further indicator of political/technological hubris (we know better than the public so stop asking us these questions).

    Don’t like the waste repository idea? OK, then let’s reprocess spent fuel, or do something else meaningful. However we need an answer. Something more than “we’ll figure this out in 50 years, even though we said that 50 years ago”.

    Does coal kill more people? Yes, I accept that data. However you have to admit that coal’s failure modes are smaller and more controllable than nuclear’s. Who was it who said about nuclear, “mostly safe, but every once in a while, look out!”

  32. Chris Mooney

    I agree with everyone that waste disposal is the central issue. The problem is that Yucca was radically mismanaged–you can’t try to put waste where people don’t want it. You have to be much savvier about finding a community that is actually willing to accept the tradeoffs that go with waste disposal and you have to give them incentives to accept it–and let them step forward. You can’t ram it down throats or you get a situation like Yucca. I discuss this more in “Do Scientists Understand the Public”?
    http://www.amacad.org/pdfs/scientistsUnderstand.pdf

  33. Ville Koskinen

    It is discouraging that no commenter here so far has brought up the serious social justice issues in uranium mining. Setting aside the “safe” countries like Canada, there are open pit mines in Namibia, for example, in Kalahari desert, 19 square kilometers in area and up to 400 meters deep.

    Look at the companies who do the mining. They are not local companies, but global giant corporations, mining and energy companies from USA, Australia and Russia. Do you think the locals will benefit from the mining operations? (Hint: history has repeatedly shown they won’t.)

    Look at the dealings the companies do with the local governments. Hasty mining agreements, little to no regulation, guaranteed profit to the foreign corporations, almost guaranteed to either use imported miners (preventing locals from benefiting) or abuse local workers (due to lax employment laws). Income and uranium will escape abroad, leaving poverty and sickness (due to lax environmental standards) behind.

    Excellent and exhaustive information is available at http://www.wise-uranium.org/indexu.html
    (I’m not affiliated with the website.)

    Yes, there are many issues in mining coal as well, but uranium mines rarely, if ever, enter the discussion when nuclear power is brought to the table.

    A separate but related issue is mining equipment. What do heavy uranium mining vehicles and enrichment operations run on? Diesel. Guess what happens when oil prices increase or we run out of oil. Theoretically the devices could be converted to run on electricity or biofuels, but where would those come from? It’s not feasible to build a power plant next to the mine, and mines are almost always in remote areas with no access to the grid.

    As for the question of waste, some work is currently being done on molten salt reactors:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten_salt_reactor

    India in particular is trying to become a world leader in molten salt reactors utilising the thorium fuel cycle:

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf53.html

    That kind of reactors can actually burn what is currently considered nuclear waste! Thorium has other serious benefits as well, particularly efficiency: you need 1 ton of thorium versus 200 tons of uranium to produce the same amount of energy. And thorium is less hazardous (less radioactive, easier to handle, burns cleaner).

    However, few countries are interested in building that kind of reactors, because the current technologies are proven to work over a few decades. The same issues with mining also remain: Who has thorium reserves? Who will mine them? How?

    If the problems with 1) where the fuel comes from and 2) where the waste goes to, I don’t have a problem with nuclear power. But you can’t seriously propose it as an alternative to coal if you just move from one set of mining, pollution and waste issues to another set.

  34. Nic Walmsley

    I’m against nuclear power. I’m not irrational or uneducated. I just the the costs and risk outweigh the benefits. Those who support are guilty of twisting too. Yes coal and oil are bad. But why invest billions on another non renewable? Why trust private sector to run nuclear? Why ask future generations to manage our waste. How much will it cost to manage the watse, over all time required to do this. We dont have to pay for the future management of the waste, but we should care about it nonetheless. How do ypu decommission a nuclear reactor? Accidents happen. Allways have, always will. When nuclear accidents happen, it is off the scale. We let the waste from coal float freely into the air. If we put as much effort into capturing coal wafts as nuclear, what then?

    Model t ford was inefficient but had to start somewhere. Same with renewables.

    Not irrational not uneducated. Just say risks and costs are not worth it.

  35. Nullius in Verba

    “But why invest billions on another non renewable?”

    Because for some strange reason a lot of people have got the idea that CO2 will destroy the planet, and nuclear is currently the only feasible alternative.

    “Why trust private sector to run nuclear?”

    Private or public makes little difference – they’re all human. But I suppose the question is: “Why not?”

    “Why ask future generations to manage our waste. How much will it cost to manage the watse, over all time required to do this.”

    Over all time, it will make a profit. Fast breeder reactors can burn the waste from current generation reactors, producing a hundred times more energy. What’s left decays naturally within a few centuries. Nuclear waste will eventually become really valuable.

    And even on the current mindset of treating it as waste, the cost has been calculated and it’s really cheap.

    “How do ypu decommission a nuclear reactor?”

    Design it with decommissioning in mind. Take it to pieces and store it.

    “Accidents happen. Allways have, always will. When nuclear accidents happen, it is off the scale.”

    Not so far. There have been plenty of industrial accidents that have been worse, or have killed more. (Even wind farms kill people. You will always get industrial accidents anywhere people are working at height with high-voltage fast-moving machinery.) And even the biggest industrial accidents pale into insignificance compared to natural disasters.

    Unless of course you’re talking about media excitement, in which case they’re up there with other top causes of death like serial killers and mad cow disease.

    Yes, accidents happen. Yes, people will sometimes die or suffer injury as a result. They always have happened, and you won’t stop them or even reduce them by not using nuclear power. (Arguably you even increase them.) So how is it rational to make such a fuss about nuclear power, while completely ignoring preventable risks that kill many thousands of times more people?

  36. Everett Young

    What I sort of get about this is that liberals seem to be thinking about nuclear power pretty clearly, aware of benefits, risks, tradeoffs, and willing to go for it with some protections in place. They’re pretty non-ideological about it.

    For conservatives, it’s just another component of their ideology. Nuclear=good. It’s build, baby, build.

    Interesting.

  37. Chris Mooney

    @38 but were they non-ideological in the 1960s and 1970s? I wonder. I wasn’t there, but I bet there was much more of an ideological bent then on the left with nuclear power.

  38. smithmillcreek

    Chris- the anti-nuclear movement in the 70′s, in New England at least, had a strong libertarian component (not the same as anarchist, which was also there). In many ways, the anti-nuclear movement was a coalition of many different sub-movements:
    • consumers concerned about safety and lack of regulation, costs passed on to consumers
    • civil liberties folks concerned about a Nuclear State happy to impose emergency laws
    • a peace movement concerned with the danger of nuclear war
    • a youth culture that was part of seventies anomie
    • a cultural distrust movement angry at Them for what They were doing to Us. Frances Wheen’s book this year, Strange days indeed: the 1970s — the golden age of paranoia reminds those of us who lived through it just how confusing & painful the decade was.
    And how deeply we WERE lied to in the sixties and only slowly comprehended.
    • and a few more besides

    Since I was on the edge of the MIT anti-nuke movement, blind anti-science wasn’t part of my friends’ approach. Though an insider’s appreciation of just how dumb the bad application of a technology was. :)

    The best talk on nuclear power came not from Helen Caldicott, who always got on my nerves; but from Amory Lovins, whose 1978 speech recapped his hen-recent Foreign Affairs article, Soft Energy: the path not taken.

    In one of the first uses of scenario thinking I’d heard, Amory hypothesized a choice between
    1- The Official Future, based on coal, oil, gas and nuclear power and
    2- Renewables and Conservation

    He pointed out, as M. King Hubbert did in 1956, that oil and gas would peak and become more expensive, thus raising the cost of infrastructure building; that powerful planners always projected more power than we used; that a number of technical fixes were available to buy time because we were massively inefficient.

    He pointed out, 33 years ago, in 1978, that nuclear reactors, then still on the new side, had a limited life and would need to be decommissioned. He proposed decommissioning them early. A good idea then, and still is now, in my thinking. (This proposal was revived after Chernobyl by the radical wing of the West German Greens, but rejected by Joschka Fischer. It was, however, eventually adopted by the Green-Labor coalition; until overturned. Unless the overturn is overturned.)

    Amory’s trump card, however, was a simple one, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been pointed out by the previous 39 comments.

    Nuclear power doesn’t pencil out. It is always subsidized.
    By laws that say it doesn’t need to pay adequate insurance.
    By federal subsidy of fuel processing costs.
    By eminent domain seizure of indigenous lands in the US and Australia for uranium mining.
    By laws that mandate pre-payment of construction by ratepayers. Free market nuclear power doesn’t work.
    By exempting nukes from the toxics and brownfields laws that apply to other industries

    Before the Cato Institute turned weird, I disagreed with much of what they said; but they did oppose subsidies for nuclear power. That is the only consistent libertarian, free market position.

    You wanted to know if liberals, embracing science when it came to climate, would turn their backs on it.

    One could ask if cafeteria conservatives, who reject scientific consensus when it comes to climate, but embrace technology when it comes to nuclear power, will turn their back on the market when it comes to energy prices.

    There was a time when conservatives respected virtue– the notion that there were some hard truths that just had to be faced up to, and that one should not take from one’s children. Perhaps the hard truth is this– that there ain’t no [ecological] free lunch (TAANSTAFL) and we have to realize that our wastefulness and lack of planning have a higher cost than we were willing to admit.

    Fukushima wasn’t unforeseen– yes, it was the strongest earthquake in 1,200 years, but it was the one of three that strength in 2,000 years. Not exactly on schedule, but by no means unforeseen. http://j.mp/gQRwEv

    I hope this hasn’t been too polemical. Like Ropeik, I aspire to a thoughtful discussion. Thanks to all for their comments.

  39. Raj Kris

    Though most of the readers seem to be advocators of nuclear energy, i am strongly against it, until we find a suitable means to dispose of the radioactive waste from the plant instead of dumping it in the sea or surreptitiously dumping it near third world countries.
    The scale of calamity due to nuclear leakage or from its hazardous waste is much more severe than from coal or from any other source of energy and this has to be considered than merely looking at statistical figures while comparing with coal

  40. Raj Kris

    The central issue should not be WATSE DISPOSAL but WASTE ELIMINATION. As long as waste is produced without a reasonable way of recycling it any technological progress in the long term will only create bigger issues of environmental degradation!!!

  41. Methuselah

    Thanks for the thoughtful discussion. But I must take issue with the false equivalency from #36 Nullius in Verba: “There have been plenty of industrial accidents that have been worse, or have killed more. (Even wind farms kill people. You will always get industrial accidents anywhere people are working at height with high-voltage fast-moving machinery.)”

    Yes, accidents happen, but the risks are not equivalent at all: only nuclear offers the jumbo worst-case scenario of rendering an entire region completely uninhabitable.

    So far the only drawback to renewables mentioned here is that they aren’t ready yet to take over. What’s the worst case scenario for a solar or wind accident?

    In your experiment, Chris, please also examine how the different sides account for the *actual* cost of nuclear. I like the idea of nuclear, except for the cost: we taxpayers foot the bill for loan guarantees, cleanup in case of an accident, decommissioning, safe & monitored waste storage in perpetuity — costs that aren’t factored into the heavily subsidized retail price. Neither are the external costs of fossil fuels. How can the American consumer make a choice on how they’d rather spend our limited tax dollars if they don’t have an apples-to-apples comparison?

    It’s odd that some are ready to go full steam ahead and continue spending billions on each new nuclear plant, as well as on R&D to find the someday-solution to nuclear waste (Yucca Mtn was built over a fault line, btw). Yet people balk at taking the same approach to renewables. The technology already exists, we could go full steam ahead and spend billions to deploy it to scale, along with R&D to speed up the develoment of battery tech already ongoing. No need for a 10,000 year storage facility, no wind spills, no solar spills. Yet this is somehow a bridge too far. Can anyone explain that discrepancy?

    Finally, two impacts barely mentioned here are the nuclear’s water requirements & the environmental costs of mining. Nuclear is not “renewable” by definition as long as its physical fuel requirements exist in finite quantities.

  42. Matt B.

    The comparison of death rates doesn’t quite work. The human damage due to burning coal is like having insurance–you pay a little at a time so that it’s a constant, nice and predictable. Nuclear power is like not having insurance–you have little cost most of the time, but when trouble happens, it’s extremely disruptive. I choose insurance.

    Besides, Fukushima-Daiichi is rapidly changing the safety statistics cited.

  43. there seems to be some lack of pre planning regarding that nuclear plant,in relation to the terrible situation that they now find themselves in. Why did they erect,such a dangerous commodity in such an an area,profit before people. Naturural catrospheas,in these areas of Japan,are well documented,it is known for earth instabality,and yet they erect a nuclear plant, some Deep investigation is required, nothing should be held back,for what could come out of all this terrible natural disaster is a monumental creation of our doing,and it boils down to profit before people. A lesson has to be learned from all this and that is you cant cut corners,for what lies ahead mostly in those circumstances is a dead end road,so clearly defined in the present situation

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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