Essay:Arguments against nuclear power
- 1 Nuclear waste
- 2 Uranium supply
- 3 Reactor safety
- 4 Economics
- 5 Climate change mitigation potential
- 6 Footnotes
The anti-nuclear movement is preoccupied with the problem of nuclear waste and its possible impact on the environment and health. Generation of nuclear waste, which is dangerous to all known forms of life, is a valid concern about nuclear power, and the problem must be addressed in an environmentally sound way. However, there is no reason to believe this problem is insoluble. Here are some claims made by the anti-nuclear movement in reference to the waste issue.
- More: Nuclear waste
There is no solution
The validity of this claim is highly dependent on your definition of "solution". If the "solution" is for the waste to magically disappear with no trace at zero cost, then that is indeed impossible, but that's also an unreasonable definition of a solution.
If we define "solution" as something that lets humanity forget about the waste without adverse consequences at a cost that is a small portion of the price of generated electricity, then there are a few options. The most popular of them is deep geological disposal, which is currently the best researched method. The method puts the waste deep underground in a geologically stable rock formation, with several layers of defence against water intrusion. Several such repositories have been built, but the results have been a decidedly mixed bag: out of six such repositories that went into operation, two have since turned out as failures. These were the two repositories for intermediate and low-level nuclear waste (e.g. not spent fuel) that were built in Germany: Asse II and Morsleben. They reused the sites of former salt mines, and previous mining work led to structural stability problems in the salt domes. Both are in poor condition and leaking contaminated brine. Four projects seem to have succeeded, for example, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in USA is already operating and began accepting military transuranic waste in 1998. So far no issues have been identified. Two other projects, the planned final storage facilities at Gorleben in Germany and Yucca Mountain in the USA, were cancelled or put on hold indefinitely.
It will remain toxic for millions of years
The extremely long lifes of waste are usually obtained due to a misapplication of a rule of thumb for short-lived isotopes, which says that a sample is no longer radioactive after 10 half-lifes. However, this is not applicable to long-lived nuclides, which cease to be dangerous once their radioactivity approaches ambient levels. The correct answer is 10 000 years. After this period, the waste is less radioactive than the uranium ore it was ultimately produced from. Since the 65 trillion tons of uranium in the Earth's crust are not a big concern for public health, neither would be such decayed waste.
Reprocessing can dramatically reduce the lifetime of nuclear waste - from 10 000 years to about 300. Additionally, it extracts unused uranium and plutonium for reuse. Currently it's uneconomical on its own as means of producing more nuclear fuel, but makes sense from a long-term waste management perspective. The anti-nuclear movement opposes reprocessing, because it believes it could lead to more nuclear proliferation (see further below) and that it pollutes the environment with radioactivity (wrong).
Certain designs of reactors that are not cost effective yet, but known to be practical, can reuse high level waste as fuel, because it still contains around 95% of its energy. Two of them are already operating in Russia and Japan. This option is also unpopular with the anti-nuclear movement. This might be due to teething problems of the technology, such as sodium leaks and fires (altrough not all waste burning reactors use sodium coolant).
There are vast amounts of it
According to the Department of Energy, the total amount of spent fuel produced by nuclear power stations in the U.S. between 1968 and 2002 was 47 023.4 metric tons. Most of that total is stored at reactor sites. It would cover a football field to a depth of 6.5 meters. At first this might sound like a lot, but compare this to e.g. 71 100 000 tons of fly ash produced every year at U.S. coal plants.
It is a burden on future generations
This claim is a popular soundbite, but it actually requires quite a lot of assumptions. Detecting radioactive contamination is far easier and cheaper than, for example, detecting chemical contamination. Nuclear waste would become a problem to our descendants only if:
- They lived in a sufficiently close future in which the waste has not decayed yet (10 000 years).
- They did not understand any of the warning signs we might put up.
- They did not have any means of detecting radioactivity.
- They had enough technical sophistication to intrude into a geological repository
The last point assumes that waste will be put into underground repositories before we fall off the radar. An interesting subversion of the argument is that since most high-grade deposits of uranium would not be available to our descendants, as we have already mined them, discovering a nuclear waste repository could lead them to rediscover radioactivity and nuclear technology.
The public will pay for its disposal
The situation differs between countries. In the U.S. there is a 0.1c/kWh levy on nuclear generated electricity that goes into the Nuclear Waste Fund. So far the fund has accumulated $31 billion. The federal government has not yet managed to create a permanent waste disposal facility using this money.
In the United Kingdom, the situation is different. Decommissioning is paid for by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, a government-funded entity. Dividing its total budget by the nuclear electricity generation gives a large subsidy of 2.3p/kWh. However, this agency also manages military waste from UK's nuclear weapons program, which is much more noxious and difficult to handle - the actual cost of managing civilian waste is much lower.
The public typically pays for protests related to nuclear waste transport, for example the costs of providing security. But it's also the public that stages and participates in those protests.
Uranium will run out soon
When you divide world reserves of uranium by the current consumption, you get about 70 years as the time horizon for uranium depletion. However, this calculation is too simplistic, as it ignores two key facts.
- Reserves are defined in economical terms: "uranium that is worth mining", not "all uranium there is".
- Exploring for uranium costs money. It's pointless to find more if you already have 70 years of backlog.
Analyses that take the above into account have considerably longer depletion timelines, usually in the vicinity of 200 years. Breeder reactors can utilize uranium-238 as well as uranium-235, effectively expanding the supply of fuel 100-fold.
Uranium depletion can theoretically be avoided by extracting uranium from the sea, which is constantly replenished by erosion (rivers). This technology was experimentally demonstrated in Japan, but no large scale facility was built so far.
- See: Peak uranium
In addition to uranium, thorium can also be used as a nuclear fuel in future nuclear reactors. There is three times more thorium than uranium on Earth.
Outside of the Soviet Union, no member of the public ever died because of nuclear power. In the Soviet Union, Chernobyl was the only exception to this rule. Anti-nuclear activists are highly concerned about the safety of nuclear reactors, as well as the possible effects of their operation on the health of neighboring populations.
Reactors emit deadly radiation!
Normally operating nuclear power plants emit small amounts of radioactive gases arising from the fission of fuel into the atmosphere. Anti-nuclear organizations usually maintain that even the lowest dose of radiation is harmful. This is a somewhat distorted interpretation of the linear no-threshold hypothesis, which says that health effects of ionizing radiation are directly proportional to the dose, and are exactly none only at zero dose. The hypothesis is supported by extensive data for radiation doses above 100 mSv, but using it to quantitatively predict cancer risks for lower doses is discouraged.
The problem with this argument is that nearly everything on Earth is slightly naturally radioactive. Even with no nuclear power, people would be exposed to small doses of radiation. This is called background radiation (not to be confused with cosmic microwave background). Radiation from natural and artificial sources has the same biological effects. The usual background dose is 3 mSv per year, but there are considerable variations. Many places have higher levels of about 10 mSv/year, and record spots can have up to 240 mSv/year. These variations do not cause any statistically significant differences in cancer rates or other radiation-related illnesses between low- and high-radiation areas. The dose from normally operating nuclear power plants is many orders of magnitude smaller than the variations in the background, so logically the minuscule additional dose is completely harmless.
In order to circumvent the above considerations, some fringe anti-nuclear groups attempt to use pseudoscientific theories to prove that low level radiation is more harmful than implied by the LNT hypothesis, or that man-made radioactivity is much worse than natural radioactivity. One of them is the second event theory proposed by Chris Busby.
Chernobyl could happen again
The Chernobyl disaster was no doubt a very severe accident, with wide reaching consequences. Anti-nuclear groups claim that any reactor can explode just like Chernobyl and render a large area uninhabitable for many centuries.
This ignores the following facts:
- The Chernobyl reactor design, called RBMK, was very different from reactors used in other countries. For example, it had no concrete containment shell. Nobody is proposing building more of them.
- The accident was the result of a combination of poor staff training, poor reactor design, an unnecessary experiment which would not be attempted in more safety-oriented regulatory regimes, and unfortunate timing of a failure at a coal power plant which forced a rescheduling of the experiment to a night shift. If even one of those elements was missing, e.g. the staff were better trained or the control rod design wasn't defective, the accident would not happen.
- Every remaining reactor of this type has been modified to prevent this scenario from happening. All of them are in Russia.
- Health consequences from radiation releases that resulted from the Chernobyl accident were largely limited to emergency response workers. Health problems in the general population were due to intense fear of radiation and psychological trauma rather than radiation itself. In other words, the hype did more damage than the explosion.
- Chernobyl area is not a dead zone. It is a de facto wildlife preserve.
Reactors could be attacked by terrorists
Some anti-nuclear activists join others in claiming that nuclear power stations are vulnerable to terrorist attack. Armed assault on the plant or a plane crash is the usual scenario.
Terrorists assaulting a nuclear power plant would have a tough job, because the guards are armed with automatic weapons and are trained to withstand attack from multiple groups coordinating with each other. Slamming an aircraft into it would probably cause a lot of damage, but would not destroy the reactor, because its containment building is essentially a very sturdy bunker designed to withstand airplane hits, missiles and earthquakes.
There is a related issue of terrorists stealing something very radioactive and spreading it in a city using explosives. This is not very dangerous, but would have a giant psychological impact. See: dirty bombs.
Nuclear power will lead to nuclear proliferation
Nuclear reactors produce a small amount of plutonium during their operation. This plutonium can be extracted and reused as fuel. However, plutonium is also the material used in most nuclear bombs. Therefore, say the activists, more nuclear power, and more nuclear reprocessing in particular, will naturally lead to more nuclear weapons. And we wouldn't want that. A more extravagant version is that "nuclear power industry is a fig leaf on the nuclear weapons industry".
The main flaw in this argument is that there are different kinds of plutonium, varying in their isotopic composition, and they have vastly different weapons potential. Nuclear weapons typically require plutonium that is at least 93% 239Pu. To obtain it, rods made of 238U (aka depleted uranium) have to sit in the reactor for only 30 days. Longer irradiation causes a buildup of 240Pu and 242Pu, which are not fissile. Typically, nuclear fuel sits inside a power reactor for five years. The plutonium in spent fuel has only about 60% 239Pu. It also contains up to 1% of 238Pu, which emits large quantities of heat and gamma radiation. This is completely useless for weapons.
It is possible that very elaborate weapon designs could make even reactor-grade plutonium explode. However, this has never been achieved in practice, and it would be a challenge even for existing nuclear powers. It would be absurd for a proliferate state to spend its resources on a very dubious route of obtaining nuclear weapons, when there are more affordable ways that are known to work. Those include constructing a plutonium production reactor or using high enriched uranium.
There are some civilian technologies that do have genuine proliferation potential. Uranium enrichment is one of them, which is why enrichment facilities are closely controlled by international bodies. Another possible route are research reactors, which are designed for easy insertion and removal of samples. India has manufactured some weapons-grade plutonium in a research reactor called CIRUS, supplied by Canada. Yet another possibility are obsolete dual-use reactors, such as Magnox or RBMK, which have on-line refueling systems. However, none exist outside of states that already have the bomb - the last RBMK outside of Russia (Ignalina in Lithuania) was closed at the end of 2009.
It should be noted that none of the countries that have obtained nuclear weapons so far did it using existing civilian infrastructure. In fact, none of them had any at the time their first weapons were built. As of 2010, 26 nations have nuclear power stations but no nuclear weapons; 2 have nuclear weapons but no nuclear power.
These arguments claim that nuclear power is unprofitable and exists only because of government intervention, and would be replaced by other sources if the interventions were stopped.
Nuclear power is expensive
In absolute terms a nuclear power plant is indeed expensive. Costs of a new reactor are measured in billions of dollars. It is also expensive when compared in terms of dollars per kilowatt of capacity - from 1600$/kW to over 7000$/kW depending on the technology and location. However, these figures tell us little about the thing that matters, the price of the electricity from the reactor. Because of the long operating life of reactors (currently 60 years), high capacity factor and low cost of fuel, nuclear comes out less expensive than solar and comparable to wind and coal, but more expensive than natural gas when gas prices are low.
Nuclear is unfairly subsidized
Anti-nuclear activists argue that nuclear power would make zero economic sense were it not for massive subsidies, tax breaks and ceilings on insurance liability given to it by the government. If the subsidies were removed, they contend, renewables would quickly displace nuclear power and fossil fuels.
There are two errors common in this kind of argument:
- Conflating government spending on nuclear weapons and environmental remediation programs associated with weapons sites with nuclear power subsidies.
- Comparing market subsidy in absolute terms, instead of relative to the amount of power produced.
In the case of U.S., the total amount of direct market subsidies for nuclear through the year 2003 were comparable to those given to hydro and twice as big as those for non-hydro renewables. However, nuclear power produced far more energy than either of them, so renewables received much more money in terms of dollars per unit of produced energy. Federal R&D expenditure was also lower for nuclear power than other technologies: over the period 1994-2003, non-hydro renewables and coal each received roughly twice as much R&D funds as nuclear.
For the liability ceiling claim, see below.
Liability limitation laws give the nuclear industry an unfair advantage
Many countries have laws that limit the liability of nuclear operators in case of an accident, including Britain, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and the U.S.
In the United States, the relevant law is the Price-Anderson Act. It specifies the conditions under which operators (e.g. utilities) are held liable for nuclear accidents. It sets up three tiers of insurance. The first one is $375 million of individual insurance on each facility. The second tier is a shared pool of $12.6 billion funded by the nuclear industry. The third is the government. In the event of an accident, liabilities are satisfied first from individual insurance on a given facility, then from the shared pool, and finally the government covers the rest. In exchange, the insurance is no-fault - that is, the company cannot defend itself by putting the blame on other entities or natural causes.
The criticism of liability limitation laws focuses on two issues:
- If there is a very serious nuclear accident (damage exceed $13 billion), the citizens will have to pay for it.
- The laws are an indirect subsidy, because otherwise the operators would have to buy full insurance against the worst possible accident.
Both of these criticisms assume that other industrial facilities also have to buy mandatory liability insurance. They don't. For example, hydro dams in the U.S. are not required to be insured against catastrophic failure or terrorist attack, and if the owner did not buy insurance, the only compensation available to victims would be from the government. Same goes for chemical processing plants and paper mills, which may cause widespread environmental pollution as a result of their operation, but are not legally required to carry pollution insurance.
Only $151 million (1.2% of the current liability cap) was ever paid out from the Price-Anderson fund, around half of it related to the Three Mile Island accident. It covered the living expenses and lost wages of people who voluntarily evacuated, even though there was no real danger.
Climate change mitigation potential
These arguments question the feasibility of using nuclear power to combat climate change.
Nuclear can't be built fast enough to make a difference
Here the claim is that nuclear power plants are slow to build, so they will be late to the party and fail to avert catastrophic climate change.
This is true when one considers current construction rates in the West. However, the required build rates are comparable to the highest historic rates. To replace all fossil fuel electricity with nuclear power and not be late, we would need to construct 3000 new reactors over 60 years, which is equivalent to 50 GW per year or one new 1 GW reactor per week. The highest historical rate of construction was 34 GW per year.
There is also a past empirical counter-example to this argument. France went from virtually 0% of nuclear energy in the power grid to 80% in just 25 years (from 1975 to 2000). This is faster than most proposed renewable energy transitions, which operate with 30-50 year timeframes for achieving comparable penetration.
There is a supply bottleneck for pressure vessels
One of the more advanced arguments is that pressure vessels for modern nuclear reactors are very large and can only be forged by only a few manufacturers. Sometimes the claim is that only Japan Steel Works can do it, and it has a capacity of only four vessels per year.
The current capacity for large forgings might be insufficient, which is mainly because there was a stagnation during the 80s and it made little sense to invest in heavy forging capacity that would be unused. It doesn't mean that new forging capacity can't be installed if needed. Despite the long lull in nuclear construction there are several suppliers for the heaviest components: Japan Steel Works, China First Heavy Industries, and OMX Izhora (Russia). New manufacturing capacity is being built in Korea, France and India.
Some designs of nuclear reactors, such as CANDU, do not require heavy forgings of the size needed for light water reactors. The pressure vessel in CANDUs is composed of a multitude of small tubes, which can be manufactured using more common industrial methods.
- WNA: Radioactive Waste Management
- Greenpeace International - Reprocessing
- U.S. DOE Energy Information Administration, Spent Nuclear Fuel Data, Detailed United States as of December 31, 2002, at 
- [http://www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/nuclear_statistics/nuclearwasteamountsandonsitestorage/ NEI: Nuclear Waste: Amounts and On-Site Storage
- Gregory Benford. 1999. Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia. New York: Bard. ISBN 978-0-380-97537-8.
- Atlanta Business News: Billions in nuclear waste funds in limbo
- David MacKay, Sustainable energy - without the hot air, page 167
- HPS - Radiation Risk in Perspective
- HPS - China High Background Radiation Study
- Monfared et al. Living in high natural background radiation areas in Ramsar, Iran. Is it dangerous for health? International Congress Series, Volume 1276, February 2005, pp. 438–439
- INSAG-7: The Chernobyl Accident pg. 23
- GreenFacts - Health effects of the Chernobyl accident. This is a summary of the WHO / Chernobyl Forum report.
- BBC News: Wildlife defies Chernobyl radiation
- Video of an F-4 fighter plane crashing into a nuclear containment building wall. Larger planes don't do much more damage, because their airframes absorb more energy on impact.
- Depleted Cranium: Why you can't build a bomb from spent fuel
- It's hard to say what the real operating life of reactors will be. Reactors built in the 70s are now expected to operate for 60 years. They might work for 80 or 100 years, but we don't know yet, because nuclear power is only 63 years old.
- WNA: Nuclear Power Costs
- Issues in Science and Technology: The U.S. Energy Subsidy Scorecard
- Anthony Heyes and Catherine Liston-Heyes. "Capping Environmental Liability: The Case of North American Nuclear Power." Geneva Papers on Risk & Insurance. April 2000. Vol 25, No. 2, pl. 196-205.
- NRC: Fact Sheet on Nuclear Insurance and Disaster Relief Funds
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- www.waterpowermagazine.com - The insurance job
- David MacKay, Sustainable energy - without the hot air, page 171
- Nuclear Engineering International: New nuclear build – sufficient supply capability?