Debate: Is Nuclear Part of the Solution?

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Two environmentalists debate nuclear power.

Barry Brook is the Sir Hubert Wilkins professor of climate change at the University of Adelaide. He runs the Brave New Climate blog.

Dr Jim Green is national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition.

From Green Left Weekly, October 25 2009

It’s time to fast track sustainable nuclear

by Barry Brook

Let’s start by establishing some common ground between myself and anti-nuclear campaigners like Jim Green. Green and I both understand the seriousness of the climate crisis and the imperative for a rapid transformation of our energy system to technologies that emit no carbon when generating power.

Green and I also agree that proliferation of atomic weapons poses substantial risks to the security of global society. I also suspect that Green recognises the dangers of a dependence on foreign oil for our transportation infrastructure, one of the arteries of the economy.

Australia, like any nation, needs to move to energy independence based on clean, sustainable sources.

However, we part ways on our view as to what the solutions to these problems are. Green hopes to see a world without nuclear weapons or nuclear power, and considers the two to be irrevocably intertwined. (I assume he accepts the need for research reactors that produce the radioisotopes needed for nuclear medicine and industry.)

In Green’s view, and that of many other fellow environmentalists (I am, of course, deeply environmentally conscious), nuclear power is not only dangerous, but also unnecessary.

Renewable energy, from sunlight, wind, waves and plant life, is clearly the answer, they believe. This is a widespread view — almost “common wisdom” — and would be perfectly acceptable to me if the numbers could be made to work. Unfortunately, they can’t, and there is no prospect of this changing.

First, let’s quickly review the challenge. In the developed world, we have enjoyed a high standard of living, linked to cheap fossil energy.

This has encouraged excessive energy use, and we can clearly cut back on wastage — but this doesn’t remove the fact that we must also replace oil and gas, and that means a future surge in electrical substitution.

In the bigger, global picture, however, there is no realistic prospect of even reducing traditional stationary power demand. A third of the world’s people have no access to electricity at all, yet strongly aspire to get it.

Even if a country like India reached just a quarter of Australia’s per capita use, that country’s national energy demand would more than triple! It’s a huge challenge.

If we aim for society to be nearly completely powered by zero carbon sources by 2050, what is the size of the task?

This would require about 10,000 gigawatts of electrical capacity, worldwide. Let’s say we were to do it all with wind and solar. Even if we ignore energy storage and backup, this would still require building 1200 huge wind turbines and/or carpeting 45 square kilometres of desert with mirror fields, every day, from 2010 to 2050.

For wind, this would consume 600,000 tonnes of concrete and 300,000 tonnes of steel. For solar, it would be 200,000 tonnes of concrete, 150,000 tonnes of steel and 20,000 tonnes of glass. Every single day, for the next 40 years.

What if we did it with nuclear power? Using the AP1000 design now being deployed in China, we’d have to build two reactors every three days, using 100,000 tonnes of concrete and 8000 tonnes of steel a day. A huge task, no doubt, but this is 10 times smaller than the wind challenge, and five times easier than the solar option.

When energy storage and the required overbuilding are considered, the numbers blow out ever further in favour of nuclear.

So let’s not kid ourselves that because the task for nuclear seems huge, the renewable alternative is the only sensible choice. The hard truth is that it will be inordinately tough no matter what route we choose.

Now let’s consider further the nuclear pathway. Since the 1970s, when prominent environmental groups switched from being active supporters to trenchant detractors, nuclear power has fought an ongoing battle to present itself as a clean, safe and sustainable energy source.

Today, a mix of myths and old half-truths continue to distort people’s thinking on nuclear power. Given the crises we face, this is downright dangerous.

Some of the most regularly raised objections are that uranium supplies will run out, nuclear accidents are likely, long-lived radioactive waste will be with us for 100,000 years, large amounts of carbon dioxide are produced over the nuclear cycle, it’s too slow and costly, and a build-up of nuclear power will increase the risk of weapons proliferation.

Yet the surprising reality is that most of these perceived disadvantages of nuclear power don’t apply now, and none need apply in the future. As Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes said recently, we just have to get serious about this.

Worldwide, nuclear power is not going away. Of the G20 economic forum nations, 15 have nuclear power, four are planning to take it up in the near future, and only one, Australia, has ruled it out.

The countries that now have commercial nuclear power already cover almost 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions. When you add those nations that have commissioned plants, are planning deployment, or already have research reactors, this figure rises to more than 90%.

I know it’s an over-used cliche, but the nuclear genie truly is out of the bottle, and it is pointless discussing how to try to jam the stopper back in.

In this context, the oft-repeated claim that new nuclear technologies “fail the crucial proliferation test” is asinine nonsense, and counterproductive if our aim is to increase global security.

We should instead seriously discuss how we will use this low-carbon energy source safely and cleanly, with minimal risk and maximal advantage to all nations.

There are 45 so-called Generation-III reactors under construction, including 12 in China. Many more are in the late stages of planning. In terms of costs and build times, modular, passive-safety designs, which can be factory built and shipped to site, look to be game changers for the industry.

Standardised blueprints with inherent safety systems are the clear way to remove the regulatory ratcheting that killed deployment of nuclear power in the US in the 1980s. France, with 80% of its electricity supplied by nuclear power, is a good example of how it can and should be done.

The modern reactor designs are efficient, with capacity factors exceeding 90%, and have a high degree of passive safety based on the inherent principles of physics.

For instance, the risk of a meltdown as serious as the Three Mile Island incident in the US (which resulted in no fatalities) for GE-Hitachi’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) has been assessed as once every 29 million reactor years.

So judging the ESBWR against the type of reactor that was destroyed at Chernobyl in Ukraine is like comparing the safety of a World War I biplane against a modern jetliner.

The future of nuclear power is potentially bright, if we choose to make it so. So-called fast reactors can provide vast amounts of clean, reliable energy for thousands of years.

For instance, a technology developed between 1964 and 1994 at the Argonne National Laboratory in the US, the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), fissions more than 99% of the nuclear fuel, leaves only a small amount of waste (one 30th of current reactors) that drops below background levels of radiation within 300 years, shuts itself down if the control systems fail or the operators walk away, and its fuel cycle is extremely resistant to proliferation.

As an added benefit, all of the used nuclear fuel generated over the past 50 years can be consumed as fuel in these new reactors.

The IFR, and other Generation-IV designs using depleted uranium and thorium, offer a realistic future for nuclear power as the world’s primary source of sustainable, carbon-free energy with resources to power the world for millions of years.

Ironically, it’s in places like China and India that these Gen-IV designs are now being most actively implemented. China has just commissioned two commercial fast reactors. India has just announced plans to install almost 500 gigawatts of thorium-based nuclear power by 2050.

The die is cast. It’s time for all energy-intensive nations to fast track the deployment of sustainable nuclear.

Renewable energy, such as solar and wind, and energy efficiency and conservation, might allow for a partial transition to a low-carbon economy. Indeed, this is Australia’s only realistic prospect for emissions reductions during the next decade.

But I am convinced they will be grossly insufficient and uneconomic in meeting the problems we face. We will need concentrated sources of energy that are not constrained by geography or intermittency.

The Switkowski report said that, under a fast-paced schedule, we could see nuclear power delivering electricity in Australia within 10 years.

Perhaps with sufficient will and a decent carbon price we can get there even faster. But it’s absolutely clear we must start the process now.

As a climate scientist, I consider the public dialogue on nuclear power to be every bit as urgent as the debate on a carbon price and the need for climate change adaptation. It is time for everyone to become nuclear savvy.

Australia’s sustainable energy future depends critically on choices made today. Most of the developed and undeveloped world have already made their choice — the only open question is, how big will their nuclear programs get?

In the “lucky country”, it’s time for green groups to become rational “promethean environmentalists”. Why? Because there’s no silver bullet for solving the climate and energy crises. The bullets are made of depleted uranium and thorium.

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A dangerous option that wont solve climate change

by Jim Green

There are three main problems with the nuclear “solution” to climate change — it is a blunt instrument, a dangerous one, and it is unnecessary.

First, nuclear power could at most make a modest contribution to climate change abatement. The main limitation is that it is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which accounts for about one-quarter of global greenhouse emissions.

Doubling global nuclear power output by mid-century at the expense of coal would reduce greenhouse emissions by about 5%.

According to the 2006 Switkowski report, building six nuclear reactors in Australia would reduce Australia’s emissions by 4% if they displaced coal, or 2% if they displaced gas.

The second big problem with the nuclear “solution” to climate change is that all nuclear power concepts (including “next generation” concepts) fail to resolve the greatest problem with nuclear power — its repeatedly demonstrated connection to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

Not just any old WMDs, but nuclear weapons — the most destructive, indiscriminate and immoral of all weapons.

Third, nuclear power is unnecessary, as physicist Amory Lovins explained in a recent paper: “Expanding nuclear power is uneconomic, is unnecessary, is not undergoing the claimed renaissance in the global marketplace (because it fails the basic test of cost-effectiveness ever more robustly), and, most importantly, will reduce and retard climate protection.

“That’s because — the empirical cost and installation data show — new nuclear power is so costly and slow that … it will save about 2–20 times less carbon per dollar, and about 20–40 times less carbon per year, than investing instead in the market winners — efficient use of electricity and … micropower, comprising distributed renewables (renewables with mass-produced units, i.e. those other than big hydro dams) and cogenerating electricity together with useful heat in factories and buildings.”

Nuclear weapons

Let’s consider the WMD proliferation potential of the “next generation” reactors favoured by Barry Brook — integral fast reactors (IFR).

As with conventional reactors, IFRs can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium in the fuel (using a shorter-than-usual irradiation time) or by irradiating a uranium or depleted uranium “blanket” or targets.

Brook writes on his website: “IFRs cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. The integral fast reactor is a systems design with a sodium-cooled reactor with metal fuels and pyroprocessing on-site. To produce weapons-grade plutonium you would have to build an IFR+HSHVHSORF (highly specialised, highly visible, heavily shielded off-site reprocessing facility). You would also need to run your IFR on a short cycle.”

Or to paraphrase: IFRs cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium, IFRs can produce weapons-grade plutonium. Go figure.

Presumably, Brook’s point is that IFR-produced plutonium cannot be separated from irradiated materials (fuel/blanket/targets) within the IFR/pyroprocessing plant; it would need to be separated at a conventional PUREX reprocessing plant.

If so, it is a banal point, which also applies to conventional reactors. It remains the case that IFRs can certainly produce weapons-grade plutonium.

George Stanford, who worked on an IFR research and development program in the US, notes that proliferators “could do [with IFRs] what they could do with any other reactor — operate it on a special cycle to produce good quality weapons material”.

Brook has persisted with his claim that IFRs cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium even after its fallacy has been pointed out to him. “Next generation” reactors are being promoted with old-style spin.

Brook’s “highly specialised, highly visible, heavily shielded off-site reprocessing facilities” are conventional PUREX reprocessing plants — technology that is well within the reach of most or all nation states.

As well as several commercial-scale reprocessing plants operating around the world, and military reprocessing plants, about 30 countries (including Australia) have small reprocessing capabilities associated with research reactor programs.

Some of the existing reprocessing plants would suffice to extract plutonium from low burn-up IFR-irradiated materials while more elaborate shielding might be required in the unlikely event a nation wanted to separate plutonium from materials irradiated for a longer period.

IFR advocate Tom Blees notes, “extracting plutonium from [IFRs] would require the same sort of techniques as extracting it from spent fuel from light water reactors”.

IFR proponents propose building an initial fleet of IFRs designed with a target/blanket arrangement to produce excess plutonium to supply the initial nuclear cores for other IFRs.

But this is the worst possible design from a non-proliferation standpoint because it would be simple to irradiate, remove and process uranium targets, producing plutonium that is chemically pure and ideal for weapons.

IFR advocates propose using them to draw down global stockpiles of fissile material, from civil or military nuclear programs. However, IFRs have no need for outside sources of fissile material beyond their initial fuel load.

At worst, IFRs would not only justify the ongoing operation of proliferation-sensitive enrichment and reprocessing plants (to provide the initial fissile core) but would also operate as “breeders” not “burners”, producing more fissile material than they consume.

There are good, empirical reasons to be concerned about scenarios that increase rather than decrease proliferation risks — conventional reprocessing with the use of separated plutonium as fuel (in breeders or MOX reactors) has the same potential to drawn down fissile material stockpiles, but has demonstrably increased rather than decreased proliferation risks.

IFR advocates generally acknowledge the flaws and limitations of the international nuclear safeguards system, but show no willingness to help with the difficult work of trying to improve safeguards.

Do IFR advocates accept the need for a rigorous safeguards system to be in place before a large-scale IFR rollout? What is their timeframe for the establishment of a rigorous safeguards system?

How do they propose to hasten progress, which so far has been painfully slow? Do they accept that proponents of dual-use nuclear technology have a responsibility to engage in the laborious work of strengthening safeguards? These questions are ignored by IFR advocates.

Another common argument from IFR proponents is that proliferators would be more likely to use research reactors rather than IFRs to produce plutonium for bombs. But depending on the configuration of an IFR, it might be difficult to produce weapons-grade plutonium or it might be dead easy.

It’s certainly true that research reactor programs have a rich history of involvement in covert nuclear weapons programs, but there’s also a rich and well-documented history of nuclear power facilitating covert weapons programs.

Moreover, one of the most common justifications for building research reactors is research and training in support of a power program.

Former US vice president Al Gore has summed up the problem of heavy reliance on nuclear power for climate change abatement: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program.

“And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal … then we’d have to put them in so many places we’d run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale.”

Running the proliferation risk off the reasonability scale brings us back to climate change — a connection explained by Alan Robock in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “As recent work … has shown, we now understand that the atmospheric effects of a nuclear war would last for at least a decade — more than proving the nuclear winter theory of the 1980s correct.

“By our calculations, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan using less than 0.3% of the current global arsenal would produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history and global ozone depletion equal in size to the current hole in the ozone, only spread out globally.”

Clean energy solutions

A significant and growing body of scientific literature demonstrates how the systematic deployment of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency policies and technologies can generate big reductions in greenhouse emissions without recourse to nuclear power.

For Australia, a starting point is the study by the Clean Energy Future Group (CEFG). The CEFG proposes an electricity supply scenario which would reduce greenhouse emissions from the electricity sector by 78% by 2040, comprising solar (5%); hydro (7%); coal/petroleum (10%); wind (20%); bioenergy — mostly from crop residues so it is not competing with other land uses (28%); and gas (30%).

The CEFG study is conservative in that it makes no allowance for technological advancement in important areas like solar-with-storage or geothermal power, even over a timeframe of several decades.

Recently, University of New South Wales academic Mark Diesendorf, who contributed to the CEFG study, has proposed a more ambitious scenario.

He said: “By 2030 it will be technically possible to replace all conventional coal power with the following mixes: wind, bioelectricity and solar thermal each 20 to 30%; solar photovoltaic 10-20%; geothermal 10-20%; and marine (wave, ocean current) 10% … There is an embarrassment of riches in the non-nuclear alternatives to coal.”

It is a myth that all renewable energy sources are incapable of providing reliable base-load electricity, though intermittency is a limitation for some renewables and further technological advancement is required.

It is also a myth that the current limitations of renewables leave us with an unpalatable choice between fossil fuels and nuclear power.

As Diesendorf says: “On top of the perennial challenges of global poverty and injustice, the two biggest threats facing human civilisation in the 21st century are climate change and nuclear war. It would be absurd to respond to one by increasing the risks of the other. Yet that is what nuclear power does.”


  • What anti-nuclear campaigners always do is to conflate the Finnish cost overruns with all new Gen III reactors. How silly and myopic. Right…focus ONLY on the failures, so to speak, not the victories. The Japanese built 2 Gen III reactors in the 1990s *under budget* and *a head of schedule*. The Chinese are in fact bringing in their Gen III reactors very cheaply. The Koreans also have on budget new builds in this century. The western oriented liberal & green opposition to nuclear loves to focus in on…the exceptions, I suppose.

    Secondly, the IFT that Prof. Brooks is proposing is NOT the one being built in Finland, which is an EPR. The Indians and Russian are actively building fast reactors, albeit not of the IFR variety being pushed by

  • The anti-nuclear commentators here seem to make two errors — conflating the capitalist conduct of nuclear corporations with the characteristics of the technology itself; and ignoring the abiity of fast reactors to recycle wastes. ‘Greedy’ corporations might well behave corruptly in regard to renewable energy technologies too, if these were profitable enough; and some types of renewable technologies may pose problems (such as biofuels made from foodstuffs, or ‘unsightly’, ‘bird-killing’ wind farms, etc). No technology is perfect and capitalism is not the only economic system possible. For that reason I personally think the solar v. nuclear polemic, dating back to the early seventies, is obsolete.

  • Like most supporters of the nuclear option, Barry Brook seems to avoid any evidence of the economics of the so-called “nuclear renaissance’. The new model IFR’s that Brooks lauds are not cheap to construct. Indeed, the Olkiluoto 3 reactor under construction in Finland is an economic disaster. The project is running three years late and US$2 billion over budget. French nuclear corporation Areva and the Finnish government agency TVO are suing each other because of delays caused by poor engineering and increased safety inspections.

    While the nuclear industry touts increased projections for nuclear generation by 2030, the global share of electricity generated by nuclear reactors actually dropped a percentage point in 2008. This will continue to fall in coming years, as many reactors built in the 1960s and 1970s come to the end of their operating life. Nuclear spruikers want taxpayers to foot the bill for future costs like decommissioning, insurance and long-term waste management. Meanwhile around the world in 2007, private venture capital put US$71 billion into renewable energy but zero into nukes. We should do the same.

  • There is such a thing as sustainable nuclear power, the fourth generation, low-power fast reactors. They can re-use their own uranium. That’s not being greedy, that’s just preparing for 9 or maybe 10 billion people on earth in about 10 year or so.

  • Green Left Weekly also published an editorial, titled Climate change: nuclear no answer.

    An excerpt: “The big nuclear push is on. The nuclear industry is trying to re-brand yellowcake as “green”.

    Most people see global warming as the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. But nuclear industry executives see a business opportunity to arrest their declining fortunes.

    Supporters of a radioactive response to climate change tend to run two false arguments at the same time.

    First, they say a new generation of nuclear reactors is clean, safe and climate friendly. Second, they say renewable energy can’t do the job.”

    Full article:

  • By a quick read it appears Brooks, like the corporados and Washington, posits that we will need to maintain and expand the already profligate consumption of electricity, the whole idea ushered in by the capitalist corporate oligarchy. Even the title is highly misleading and disingenuous: there is no such thing as “sustainable” nuclear power.

    The corporate capitalist mentality has brainwashed us into building huge trophy homes, far more than ever needed, packed with every electric/electronic toy and gadget the multinational insist we have to have. It has been proven that every dollar invested in conservation is equal to six or seven spent on generation.

    Paraphrasing an old Amory Lovins quote: “Fissioning uranium to tens of thousands of degrees of temperature to heat water to thousands of degrees, to heat water, via exchangers, to hundreds of degrees, to power turbines, to generate electricity in order to raise the air temperature in homes 20-40 degrees is like cutting butter with a chain saw.” Plus, all that enormous. excess heat has to go somewhere in the environment.

    Brooks’ equations don’t factor in the enormous environmental and monetary costs of highly inefficient mining of nuclear fuels. When has mining ever been sustainable? As has been the history of extraction so far, it will be Native Americans and other minorities who will bear the burden of this phase of the “sustainable” mining and waste disposal.

    Once it’s used, nuclear material has to be buried, safe from biotic exposure, for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Besides being practically impossible, this will only expand the “homeland security” mentality and suppression of civil rights, as citizens will be deemed national security risks if they reject the destruction of huge areas of land set aside for “storage”. Not just kilometers, but huge tracts of land will be off-limits to people for millennia, guarded by an even larger military/police state.

    So far, even after decades of expensive research, no safe method of entombment of nuclear material has been found. If any small error has been made–atmospheric release or contamination of huge aquifers–it’s far too late for remedies.

    Brooks also conveniently omits a few data; eg., in the amounts of infrastructure required for construction of the different generation installations. In the case of concrete used in construction, he doesn’t mention that most–if not all–the material in nuke plants will need to be “decommissioned” after the 30 or so years the station will be “safe” to operate. This would have to be buried somewhere, safe from biotic contact, for tens of thousands of years. For its replacement, new quantities will be used.

    As for “carpeting 45 kilometers of desert” for each solar pv station, he likewise conveniently steers us into accepting this as the only places they can be installed. He also elides the rapid growth of efficiency of pv technology. Brooks doesn’t even mention ocean-wave or -current, river current turbine (not dams) or other truly renewable, non-polluting source. Geothermal energy, though technically not renewable, is naturally available and will last as long as there is heat in the Earth’s core.

    Brooks, like the corporate hucksters, tells us the “nuclear genie is out of the bottle”, that we must join the others enjoying this marvel. This being used as argument while the specter of China’s insatiable hunger for more power and consumer goods will mean more pollution, etc. It’s also the same argument used by most nations who want more weapons: “the other nations have them, why shouldn’t we protect ourselves?”

    Intensely centered electric power generation is inefficient due to significant transmission losses over hundreds of miles of wires. It’s susceptible to sabotage, etc. (the “security question again). If a centralized power plant goes offline, millions will be affected; if decentralized home or neighborhood system fails, the loss is only to a few, and the repairs are lower-tech and much more quickly effected.

    The “nuclear-is-safe” argument is as acceptable only until the next accident happens. How many Chernobyls–or worse–do we want? With more nukes being built, many will inevitably be sited around human populations.

    Even generously accepting the pie-in-the-sky argument that all nuclear technologies will be efficient, workable, safe and “sustainable”, that still leaves the elephant in the room: control of the technology, distribution, profits and dangers.

    In the terminally capitalist U$, especially, corporations will own it all; they will decide how much energy we get, how much profit they will make off public investments and egregious subsidies. For example, the notorious Price Anderson Act protects the corporados from all but a fraction of the cost of inevitable accidents. Their related media arm will hide the dangers and problems, forever assuring us of only the profitable positives–to themselves.

    The “nuclear priesthood” will grow, rejecting most, if not all, citizen input or participation, since only “they” know how it all works and what’s best for us.

    Do we really want GE, United Technologies, Bechtel and other anti-citizen, anti-Earth corporados continuing to decide who gets the benefits, who pays the costs, who takes the risks, who lives and who dies? Haven’t we–and the Earth–had enough of this?

  • Both Brook and Green have missed the central point of the ever-increasing energy demand: human greed!

    None of them problematises our exessive greed as a direct result of capitalism and hence to produce more, to consume more, the demand for energy! Whether it is wind, solar or nuclear, unless and until we find ways to curb our greed – which I believe will only be through a radical change of current political economic systems to socialism that replaces competition by co-operation, accumulation by sharing – we will, just like fuel (of any form) burn ourselves to extinction.

    Both Brook and Green have one thing in common at least as far as the two articles: they take capitalism for granted. They do not ask the questions, ‘energy for whom?’, ‘who uses the bulk of energy produced?’ ‘energy for what purposes’? ‘what is the required energy level in a ‘sustainable’ world?’ and just as the central theme of this website, ‘can capitalism ever produce the sustainable world?’ and hence the energy for a sustainable world?

    I wish they re-wrote these articles with such questions taken into consideration, in a nutshell, from an ‘eco-sociaist’ perspective!

  • I’m with Brooks too. I think I have figured out why people are so against modern (and future) nuclear power — they probably only listening to people like Helen Caldicott who is nearly hysterical at all times, and not to calmer people like James Hansen.

  • Prof. Brooks wins, Dr Green has a few points but is too much of a spin doctor. Also, why not absorb some of the CO2 from the atmosphere and use it for something practical?