Coal versus nuclear

While I don’t want to re-write posts about nuclear power I’ve written elsewhere, it does seem like the issue of nuclear power needs to be addressed on a site devoted to phasing out fossil fuels. Older environmentalists are often aghast when they find young people concerned about climate change supporting the expanded use of nuclear power. After all, the anti-nuclear and overall environment movements used to be deeply intertwined. In some organizations, they still are.

The fact is that the risks associated with nuclear power have to seem less significant now, given our new awareness of how risky climate change is. Nuclear accidents can kill moderate numbers of people and make big patches of land unusable, but they cannot threaten all the world’s human and natural systems like climate change does. Furthermore, the risks associated with waste and proliferation seem less threatening by comparison, once we start thinking about abrupt, catastrophic, or runaway climate change scenarios.

An alternative objection seems a bit more meaningful: perhaps nuclear is an expensive distraction. The money we spend on it may not get us the zero-carbon energy we need, or may do so more slowly and ineffectively than investing in other fossil-fuel alternatives would. In particular, energy conservation to avoid the need for more power plants is likely a more cost-effective strategy than building new fission reactors. It may also be the case that renewable forms of energy like concentrating solar eventually become cheaper per kilowatt of output than new nuclear plants. If so, they may be able to provide the same energy output without the fuel costs or the accident, contamination, and proliferation concerns.

All that said, my personal sense is that climate change activists should be open to nuclear power at least in theory. The finance and safety concerns associated with particular projects must certainly be contemplated, but it seems reckless to reject a proven low-carbon energy option like nuclear power, no matter how nasty its side effects may be, and no matter how intertwined civilian and military nuclear programs have been in the past.

Back in 2009, I had a more extensive consideration of the pros and cons of nuclear power (PDF) published in the peer-reviewed St. Antony’s International Review.

18 thoughts on “Coal versus nuclear

  1. GreenHope

    Our first knee-jerk reaction to Obama’s recent decision to build the first US nuclear power plant in 30 years was “no more nukes!”

    To some, nuclear power is the face of the future; to others the ticking time bomb of the past. Are the facts that you know three decades out of date? We were surprised to find out ours were.

    Published author and EcoHearth staff writer, Steven Kotler, examines the evolution of nuclear technology and explains the new generation of nuclear power that is cleaner, safer and less vulnerable to terrorist attack in Meltdown or Mother Lode: The New Truth About Nuclear Power.

    Revisit the complex issue and update your nuclear power information.

  2. Colin

    Your electricity use for the year produces a portion of nuclear waste the size of an aspirin pill. Your job at the end of the year is to safeguard it. Not very hard with a small lead container. That is the nuclear waste “problem”.

    Scale that up from one person to one region of the USA, and you reap the benefits of an economy of scale. A region creates a truckload worth of waste, and it needs to go to a protected, safe area. Not very difficult, given the scale.

  3. Milan Post author

    You may be thinking of only spent fuel rods, which are definitely not the totality of nuclear waste. There are mine tailings from uranium mines, very nasty uranium hexafluoride from enrichment, and then all the facilities themselves that must eventually be decommissioned. Sites where nuclear materials have been processed are among the most contaminated in the world. For instance, the Hanford Site in the United States and Mayak in the former Soviet Union.

    On a per-capita basis, Canada produces more high level nuclear waste than any other state – a total of 1,300 tonnes in 2001.

    Nobody has brought a commercial long-term storage facility online yet, and Yucca Mountain is looking dead as a project in the US. Personally, I would be more comfortable with new nuclear plants if they were obliged to build the waste facilities they require before they go into operation.

  4. Milan Post author

    That said, depleted uranium hexafluoride could eventually be used to fashion fuel rods for fast breeder reactors, if anyone ever comes up with an affordable way of building them.

  5. Christine

    I understand your argument regarding nuclear power being a better alternative than runaway climate change, Milan. At the risk of being labeled an “older environmentalist” I just don’t agree that those are the only two options available. While the threat of climate change is very real and will be devastating if we can’t wean ourselves off our fossil fuel addiction, I think there’s a strong argument to be made (a la George Monbiot and Al Gore) that there are much better avenues than nuclear to pursue on the way to a low-carbon society. You mention the high cost of nuclear – remember that every household in Ontario, a province of over 12 million people, pays a “debt-repayment” surcharge on their monthly Hydro One bill, for cost over-runs on the last nuclear plants that were built decades ago. Luckily the Ontario government, which was recently exploring the idea of building more nuclear power plants, changed its mind due to the huge costs associated with them – according to Climate Progress, it was estimated to be $10,800 per kilowatt! (

    There are so many better options for energy production than nuclear, and the technology is there to implement them at a much lower cost both in dollars and environmentally (see Al Gore’s “Our Choice” for more on this). We are just lacking the political will.

    Finally, I’ll end with a quote from “No Impact Man” Colin Beavan (another middle-aged environmentalist, alas) on the risk management aspect of nuclear power:
    The insurance industry considers the nuclear industry an unsafe bet. As a result, the nuclear industry must self-insure, with help from the government. My view on nuclear is that when it becomes safe enough for commercial insurers, I’ll seriously consider it. But even then, only if the shareholders, investors, and executives who stand to benefit are confident enough in the safety that they are willing to keep the spent nuclear waste from the plants in their own basements.

  6. Milan Post author

    What we need is a suite of technologies. If you really want to reject nuclear, you need to find something to fill the gap.

    For instance, David Mackay has one plan that relies on a lot of nuclear. 40 GW, just for the UK, which is akin to 40 major reactors.

    He has another plan with no nuclear, but it requires a huge amount of coal-with-CCS and imported solar energy to compensate. His whole book is free online, and very much worth reading.

    While it is probably possible to develop a low-carbon energy system without nuclear, none of us is in a position to design the whole system for a country or continent. As such, I wouldn’t want to stop people from building nuclear plants, given that the likely alternative is coal in many places.

  7. Tristan

    “My view on nuclear is that when it becomes safe enough for commercial insurers, I’ll seriously consider it.”

    This is probably more safety than we can afford to expect. Also, wherefrom this theological faith in markets? (i.e. if the market thinks it’s safe, then it’s safe enough for me).

  8. Milan Post author

    If they had to cover climate change risks as well, private insurers would be unwilling to take on fossil fuel fired power plants, either.

  9. .

    The nuclear industry
    Unexpected reaction
    The handful of firms that build nuclear reactors face new competition

    Feb 4th 2010 | NEW YORK, PARIS AND TOKYO | From The Economist print edition

    THE nuclear industry got an unexpected boost from Barack Obama in his State of the Union address last month. The president pledged to build a “new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants”. On February 1st he followed that up in his proposed budget for 2011 by tripling to $54 billion the value of loans for new nuclear plants the government is offering to guarantee. Elsewhere, too, prospects for the business look good: the United Arab Emirates (UAE) completed a tender for four nuclear plants in December, Vietnam is planning a similar deal this year and many other countries, from Italy to Indonesia, are hoping to build new reactors soon.

    Yet the $40 billion contract in the UAE, won by a consortium led by Korean Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO), South Korea’s largely state-owned electricity monopoly, has caused consternation among the six big firms that have dominated the industry for decades: GE and Westinghouse of America, Areva of France, and Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan. Russian and Chinese firms hope to follow the Koreans’ lead. Suddenly the incumbents are confronted by emerging-market “national champions” with the full backing of their governments—an invaluable asset in a high-liability business like nuclear power.

    “If you find out how they won, let me know,” quips Hirotada Nagashima, a senior executive in the nuclear division of Hitachi, whose joint venture with GE lost out to Kepco, as did a consortium of Areva and other French industrial behemoths, including Electricité de France (EDF), Total and GDF-Suez. But there is little mystery. The South Korean consortium, which includes the heavy-industry arms of Doosan, Hyundai and Samsung, three of the country’s biggest conglomerates, and uses some of Westinghouse’s technology, has worked together for decades, building and operating most of South Korea’s 20 reactors. It offered not just to build the plants, but also to run them and even to find the fuel they will need—at a fixed price, for the most part. “It was very easy to bring them together and offer the UAE a complete package,” says Mark Yoon of CLSA, a financial-research firm.

  10. Peter


    “But even then, only if the shareholders, investors, and executives who stand to benefit are confident enough in the safety that they are willing to keep the spent nuclear waste from the plants in their own basements.”

    Deep River lobbied to be included in the selection process for the Canadian nuclear storage site (only to be excluded from the process). It is the only community that wanted the facility to be built (in their backyard). The initiative was later scrapped due to political opposition. The attitude of this nation’s experts on nuclear reactors has been made clear. Please stop pretending that self-interest leads to a minimization of the drawbacks of nuclear, when it is really education that leads to a proper understanding of the associated risks.

    Ontario’s refusal to purchase new nuclear reactors represents a bad faith effort to force the federal government to discount the sale. In the same press conference where McGuinty said that the province would not purchase new reactors citing cost as a factor (even though the bid met all criteria previously outlined by the province), he also noted that we are still on track to shutdown the coil-fire power plants, as he promised. Please answer the following simple question: How?

  11. Pingback: Bill Gates on nuclear power

  12. Peter

    You don’t have to link me to my own posts. It was a “discussion” I left because I don’t consider a lack of engagement followed by anonymous mass postings of semi-related news reports to be a discussion. Certainly pointing to a report or an article can be very useful (as well as pointing to someone’s previous posts), unfortunately it isn’t so useful when it is the only means of offering a response to direct questions or points. My previous post (directly above) was minimally about A.E.C.L. and contained a legitimate point in direct response to Christine’s concerns about self-interest. The abandoned Canadian nuclear storage site is not related to the sale of reactors. The link is somewhat relevant to my comments about McGuinty’s motivation in rejecting the bid, but hardly necessary. Lastly, it isn’t useful (at all) in relation to the simple and straightforward question I asked.

  13. .

    Sweden to replace existing nuclear plants with new ones

    The Swedish parliament has approved the replacement of old nuclear reactors with new ones, marking a change in policy on nuclear power.

    The plan, proposed by the government, passed narrowly by two votes.

    In 1980, a Swedish referendum decided to phase out reactors by 2010, although the target was later abandoned.

    Sweden’s 10 reactors, at three power stations, supply as much as half of the country’s electricity.

    The plan allows for new reactors to be built at the same site as the country’s existing plants, but forbids the approval of new sites. The number of reactors is not allowed to exceed 10.

    It passed by 174 votes to 172 against, with three MPs absent.

    The centre-left opposition said they would rescind the law if they win the next election, due in September.

    “Of course we will tear it up,” said Tomas Eneroth from the Social Democratic Party.

  14. .

    Fresh (unirradiated) light water reactor fuel typically consists of UO2 with 1 to 5 atomic percent fissile 235U. When such fuel is removed from a reactor, its radioactivity is 1017 becquerel/metric ton, about a factor of a million higher than that of fresh fuel. A year later, the dose rate 1 m from a fuel assembly is about 1 million millisieverts (mSv) per hour (natural background ≈ 3 mSv/year), which will give a lethal dose to a human in less than a minute. The bulk of the penetrating β and γ ionizing radiation arises from short-lived fission products (e.g., 131I, 137Cs, 90Sr) and activation products of components of the fuel assemblies (e.g., Co, Ni, Nb). Alpha radiation is mostly from the transuranium elements (e.g., 239Pu, 237Np, 241Am), some of which are long-lived (e.g., 239Pu and 237Np with half-lives of 24,100 and 2.1 million years, respectively). After about 10,000 years, the total activity of fuel is less than 0.01% of the activity a year after removal from the reactor. Tremendous heat is generated by radioactive decay initially, about 2 MW per ton immediately after removal from the reactor, declining to about 20,000 W per ton after a year.

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