Monday, August 16, 2010

Climate Change Activists: For or Against Nuclear?

On one hand, if you look at France, nuclear has a track record of being inexpensive, safe, environmentally sound (in the sense that much less radiation is released into the environment by a nuclear power plant than a coal power plant), and has an overall low CO2 footprint. I'm going to state sources below for each one of these statements as a matter of course, even though my impression is that most of my readers are well aware of these characteristics of a nuclear power.

On the other hand, this great track record hinges on having a very high level of trust in the quality of the regulation apparatus. In a country like France, where the political system is somewhat healthy, and on the whole accountable to the people, it is easier to support nuclear. In the country that gave birth to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it's harder. Furthermore, this judgment call on the quality of the political system has to be made for now, and for far into the future. For some people, no political system can uphold such a demanding long-term guarantee of stability. Again, I'm confident that everyone here is well aware of this dynamic.

Thus, whether one supports for opposes nuclear energy depends on a careful weighting of of three somewhat subjective impressions: How much do you trust your politicians?, versus how dire is the climate situation?, versus what alternatives are there? If you would like to see the difficulty of resolving these three questions play out in a large conference room, amongst a crowd of smart, well-informed people of all specialties, I'll recommend the following TED Talk:

TED Talk Debate: Does the world need nuclear energy?

In short, a well-informed environmentalist can come to either conclusion, for or against nuclear power; that's what's happening in our group. I don't think it is possible to resolve this diversity of opinions. I doubt the world can come to a consensus, no matter how much time we spend.

Thankfully, I do not see the need to come to a consensus. Not now at least. There is plenty of solutions to global warming calling for our considerations before the questions of nuclear energy becomes unavoidable. I would humbly suggest we focus everyone's efforts on these other solutions.


Projected costs of generating electricity: 2005 update By OECD Nuclear Energy Agency

Their investigation of the cost of numerous power plants identified the following cost brackets for different technologies.

Nuclear: 21 to 31 $USD/MWh
Coal: 25 to 50 $USD/MWh
Gas: 35 to 50 $USD/MWh
Wind: 35 to 95 $USD/MWh
Micro-hydro: 40 to 80 $USD/MWh
Solar: 150 to 300 $USD/MWh


Deaths per TWh for all energy sources: Rooftop solar power is actually more dangerous than Chernobyl. (Construction workers fall off the roofs all the time)

Environmentally sound:

Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste. By burning away all the pesky carbon and other impurities, coal power plants produce heaps of radiation.

Low CO2 footprint

Carbon emissions from electricity generation: a life-cycle analysis.

Table 1. Total lifetime releases of CO2 from electricity generating technologies

Coal Gas Solar PV Nuclear Wind Hydro

kg CO2/MWeh
ExternE [1] 815 362 53 20 7 -
UK SDC [2] 891 356 - 16 - -
U. of Wisconsin [3] 974 469 39 15 14 -
CRIEPI, Japan [4] 990 653(a) 59 21 37 18
Paul Scherrer Inst. [5] 949(b) 485 79 8 14 3
UK Energy Review [6] 755 385 - 11–22 11–37 -
IAEA [7] 968(c) 440(c) 100(c) 9–21 9–36 4–23
Vattenfall AB [8] 980 450 50 6 6 3
British Energy [9] 900 400 - 5 - -