Suggested reading: Nuclear power still doesn’t make much sense

by Farhad Manjoo

Whenever I write about the plummeting costs and growing capabilities of wind power, solar power and batteries, I’m usually met with a barrage of radioactive responses from the internet’s overheated nuclear reactors — social-media-savvy environmental activists who insist that nuclear power should play a leading role in the world’s transition away from fossil fuels.

The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, they point out, but nuclear power plants produce carbon-free energy day and night, rain or shine. Their argument that nuclear power is unfairly maligned has been bolstered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Germany, which shut down many of its nuclear plants in the past decade while building natural gas pipelines to Russia, now faces a deep energy crunch. It has had to burn more coal to keep the lights on.

I’m not a never-nuke, but I’ve had my doubts about atomic power. Still, I wanted to keep an open mind. So last week I flew to London to attend the World Nuclear Symposium, an annual conference put on by the nuclear industry’s global trade group, the World Nuclear Association. I heard an earful from industry executives, analysts, lobbyists and government officials who are giddy about nuclear power’s prospects for powering the world of tomorrow. … (continue at The New York Times)

20 Comments

    1. Since we don’t have three-tier responses, I’ll have to reply to myself and note that I said **lifecycle** and I’ll stand by that vs Mihaiam. Mihaiam, per one other comment here, I’m a newspaper editor. What’s your background?

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    2. What we do for a living has little bearing on the facts; for what is worth, I’m an engineer.

      The Nature article refers specifically to the *lifecycle* emissions:

      “From the 19 most reliable assessments, Sovacool found that estimates of total lifecycle carbon emissions ranged from 1.4 grammes of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (gCO2e/kWh) of electricity produced up to 288 gCO2e/kWh. Sovacool believes the mean of 66 gCO2e/kWh to be a reasonable approximation.”

      The figure may be much lower though:

      “for nuclear energy at the international level is that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [1] : 12 g eq. CO2/kWh.”

      https://www.sfen.org/rgn/les-emissions-carbone-du-nucleaire-francais-37g-de-co2-le-kwh/

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  1. Socratic’s Counterpunch article is worthless. It claims a death toll for Chernobyl as 1 million, four times as great as Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    The leader writer cites one outlying opinion that renewables could expand fast enough to make anything else unnecessary. This is a massive ask, given that we are talking about replacement of fossil fuels, not only for electricity generation as used at present, but for heating, transport, and manufacturing processes such as steel, concrete, and fertiliser. We can also expect supply problems for copper, cobalt, and nickel, which I have read are already beginning to affect the prices of these metals.

    Next-generation nuclear based on small modules is a novel technology. Why should we assume that it is the only novel technology that will fail to rapidly improve in response to demand?

    Meantime, it is absolute folly to be shutting down existing nuclear plants when it is at all possible to keep them running.

    In the face of the multiple uncertainties, the only thing that would seem to make sense, in the absence of expert opinion to the contrary, is a mixed strategy.

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    1. Well, given that nuclear fusion power, and strong AI, remain “just around the corner,” there are other technologies that have shown they aren’t rapidly improving in response to demand.

      On the death toll from Chernobyl? Counterpunch cites an outside research study, which itself reviewed other studies. I don’t know if it’s likely or not, but possible? Absolutely.

      As far as the special danger and exploitation, even within the mining world, of uranium mining? I’m the closest thing in this discussion to an expert.

      I grew up in the US “Four Corners,” specifically, Gallup, New Mexico. I was living there as a kid in the summer of 1979 when the Church Rock Mine tailings dam broke. I’m familiar with the stories of miners from various American Indian tribes, and the poorly-buried residue dust still floating across reservations.

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    2. No, it is not possible that the death toll at Chernobyl was anything remotely like 1 million. And while we certainly need good regulations, and even better enforcement, for uranium mining, the same applies equally well to metal ores, and of course to coal. There is an enormous amount that can and should be done to insulate homes, and boost energy use efficiency in other ways, but this is true whatever source is used.

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    3. Forgot to address Paul’s one other issue.

      I would not shut down plants that are in their originally approved lifetimes. Plants seeking extensions, let alone second or third extensions? Given that’s where the “fat tail” starts building up on things like safety concerns, yes, shut them down.

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  2. This article doesn’t make much sense.

    1. Nuclear can be built much faster than “other forms of energy” – Messmer’s plan already proved that in about 10 years it can scale immensely, to levels that renewables would take many decades if not a century.

    2. Nuclear power is among the cheapest.
    Other sources seem cheaper only because they are aggressively subsidized, both overtly and covertly; under similar conditions, they come out significantly more expensive

    3. The cost of batteries has come down a lot but would need to come down another order of magnitude to be competitive.
    We hope we can achieve this but there are no guarantees.
    For now, the most competitive large-scale storage solution remains old pumped hydro, batteries are primarily used in niche applications.

    6. The paragraph about the power offered by new renewables is full of outright lies.
    Even from his link, it appears that we have a total installed capacity of renewables (wind and solar) of about 1600 GW, which can provide far less power than the nuclear reactor fleet even though virtually no investment has been made for decades.
    The newly built 464 GW can generate about as much power as the 64 new nuclear reactors that have been constructed despite the hurdles due to renewables’ low capacity factor.

    7. If they don’t get screwed over, the reactors we already have are competitive enough, we don’t need to wait for new generations, and we don’t have time for that.
    By stabilizing emissions and the economy we could buy time to develop better alternatives – both cheaper renewables and more advanced nuclear.

    8. Mark Jakobson’s position is rather extreme

    9. The author fails to note that the IPCC has modelled a lot of scenarios to limit global warming and the ones with real chances (P3 and P4) involve a 6-fold increase in the contribution of nuclear power.

    10. Exaggerating insignificant details while advancing proposals that would lead to increased emissions by default could be considered another form of climate denialism, one even more hypocritical than the one funded by the oil industry.

    This piece looks like something we’ve heard before in Romania:

    https://candelainintuneric.wordpress.com/2022/09/10/ceausescus-sow-and-the-capacity-factor/

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    1. I think your criticism is too harsh. What you call “lies” are more likely the expression of a different point of view. And no, nuclear reactors cannot be built faster than alternative technologies. And of course there are the security risks, which are not negligible.

      The reason I recommended this op-ed is precisely because the discussion is both important and nuanced, so let’s stick to factual disagreements and avoid charges of unethical writing.

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    2. 1. That has not been currently demonstrated here in the US.
      2. Nuclear has been hugely subsidized in the past, more than solar and wind, and that doesn’t even count the indirect subsidies of its connection to the weapons industry.

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  3. Sorry if I’m coming as too harsh but forced comparations are more than just a different point of view IMHO; it maybe be more of a misunderstanding though.

    Those wind and solar farms weren’t built in a matter of months, they just came online then after much earlier investments.

    Their construction time isn’t very short either, A single wind turbine can be installed in months but it would take many years, maybe decades to install the thousands of turbines which would provide the same amount of power as just one nuclear reactor.

    Also, comparing the nameplate power of renewables with nuclear is nonsense due to their variability and vastly different capacity factor.

    Of course, there are security risks – but so are with about every other energy option. A mined dam may be an even larger security risk than a nuclear reactor.

    This discussion is indeed very important and unfortunately has become much too polarised and divorced from facts.

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    1. I live in a place that has multiple wind farms. No, it doesn’t take “many years” to erect a wind farm, unless that means “more than 12 months.” Now, that’s not more than 1,000 turbines, but it is an entire wind farm.

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  4. I see that it is “lifecycle” in the Nature piece. That said, that’s just one estimate. Counterpunch had a range of estimates. I doubt the low-end estimate is correct. There are two main reasons I say that.
    1. On mining and refining, we’ve already gotten the easier ores.
    2. We’ve still not “solved” the long-term waste issue. (And, no, I don’t consider France to have solved it.)
    Note that even if it’s better than natural gas, it’s still far worse than renewables.

    AND AND AND Mihaiam’s own Nature article mentions energy efficiency. There is FAR more bang for the buck, especially here in the US, on mandating better building standards, whether new, or when something crosses the 50 percent renovation threshold. Plus, per the story, that’s part of “baseload” energy.

    The Nature piece otherwise generally agrees with Counterpunch in other ways. It notes the easy ores are all gone. It notes the amount of subsidy the nuke industry has been given in the past, and still wants today.

    In response? The nuclear industry spokesman says nuclear “could” this that and the other on cheaper mining. “Could” isn’t “will.” More PR.

    So, other than Nature citing just one study, to show nuclear is less carbon intense than natural gas? Mihaiam’s piece pretty much agrees with Counterpunch.

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    1. I used the old Nature piece precisely because it refers to the one high estimation much vaunted by the antinuclear activists, made by Sovacool.

      In fact, this is the source also used by the first reference in the Counterpunch article.

      The figure is indeed unlikely to be correct, the real figure is likely lower by a factor of about 5.

      The Counterpunch article is based on what is a blatant falsehood:

      “These life cycle analyses (LCA) find that nuclear power, when every stage is taken into account, actually has a larger carbon footprint than natural gas plants”

      They made this preposterous claim based on a factoid blown out of proportion by Keith Barnham in The Ecologist:

      “Using 0.005% concentration uranium ores, a nuclear reactor will have a carbon footprint larger than a natural gas electricity generator. Also, it is unlikely to produce any net electricity over its lifecycle.”

      That’s why 0.05% concentration ore is considered low grade and nobody would mine at only 0.005% using current technology.

      We still have high-grade ore at up to 20% Uranium in Canada and:

      “Most of the uranium ore deposits at present supporting these mines have average grades in excess of 0.10% of uranium”

      https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/mining-of-uranium/uranium-mining-overview.aspx

      Ironically, the very figures in the table included in the Counterpunch article contradict this false assumption: It gives nuclear lifecycle emissions at 9-70 and gas (with CCS, no less) at 179-405.

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  5. 20 percent uranium ? Really? Well, some uranium bearing fields in Canada are, in spots 15 percent or more *pitchblende* but that’s not the same at 15 percent *uranium*. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium_ore#Athabasca_Basin That, in turn, leads to recoverability of percentage of uranium ore in different larger rock formations, and that is the whole point — the higher purity and/or more readily accessible ores have already been accessed, and there’s no uranium mining equivalent of fracking waiting in the wings.

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    1. There are plenty of such equivalents, from thorium to uranium extraction from seawater.

      There is no hurry, though, since the known uranium reserves would be enough for many decades going forward just using the technologies available today even if we’ll get all the electric energy we use from fission reactors – or for a couple of centuries at the current rate of consumption.

      Modest technical improvements could extend this to millennia:

      https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-will-global-uranium-deposits-last/

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    2. Uranium from seawater? Will be economically feasible never, if we build out renewables. Breeder reactors? Only if you MASSIVELY increase reactor security. Do I trust that to happen AND to be adequately maintained? Not that much, given the nuclear power industry’s track record.
      The 200 years of uranium reserves we have left at current mining etc? Several points back.
      1. That’s at *current* consumption rates. A great expansion of nuclear power would of course greatly increase the rate of uranium usage, and mean eating even more quickly into low-grade ores.
      2. That gets us back again to low-grade ores vs. high-grade. I seriously doubt there’s a bunch of high-grade uranium ores waiting around to be discovered.
      2A. Then, there’s the issue of *quantity* of those high-grade ores. Some of the Canadian mines have closed. Those that are open, while they may have higher-grade ore, the total amount of ore is definitely less than Australian mines. Start here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athabasca_Basin and click on the links for the various individual mines. Cigar Lake will take you to the Australian mines. Speaking of Cigar Lake, note its depth and multiple water inflow issues that delayed its opening by years.
      2B. Ergo, I repeat that this is like Peak Oil, as originally formulated by King Hubbert, with his assumption that future oil drilling would be done on an economically rational basis. (Anybody who knows the actual history of the dozen or so years of pre-COVID fracked oil in the US knows that in reality, this totally did not happen, and so, the shale oil boom did NOT disprove Hubbert.)
      2C. This is why I see Counterpunch as on solid ground on the CO2 issue. Future power plants will be having to use, overall, lower-grade ores which will require more fossil fuels to mine and process.

      Anyway, I’m clearly not going to convince you, and you’re not going to convince me. Paul also won’t convince me on new-generation non-breeder reactors. If China wants to invest money and is successful, fine, we can piggyback. But, going back to Manjoo’s column, I’d want my federal research dollars put first into work on continuing to improve solar and battery efficiency.

      And, since none of the three of us is going to convince each other, I expect to bow out of the conversation.

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  6. The point of having discussions isn’t to convince one another; this is a common misconception.

    Socrates after all failed to convince many sophists or most of his countrymen.

    We may only strive to search for the best arguments and help others tell them apart from mere fallacies like the appeal to anecdotes or emotions.

    Some of the seeds thus sowed may land on fertile soil.

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