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The Irradiated Elephant in the Room

In viewing the evolving tragedy in Japan we have to guard against our tendency to narrowly focus only on the acute at the expense of the chronic. The world is quite appropriately anxious about the potential for multiple core meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan. The threat is grave, with each day bringing an ever-greater likelihood of a significant release of radiation. While a Chernobyl -like even is extremely unlikely even with a core meltdown, the situation remains critical. Even if the core should not be destroyed, steam containing radioactive forms of atoms like cesium, strontium and iodine must be released to prevent over-pressure in the containment building.

Of course the urgent problems in Japan deserve our deep sympathy and best wishes for the most favorable possible outcome. But the potential for a core melt is not the greatest problem facing the nuclear industry, only the most acute at the moment. While the current crisis focuses our attention on core melts, nuclear energy must overcome other equally troubling but more chronic problems to remain feasible: economic viability (beyond regulatory costs), operating safety, waste management and long-term storage, and weapons proliferation.

Until major safety and economic obstacles are overcome, the promise of nuclear energy will remain greater than the reality. What we are witnessing in Japan is just one potential downside of deriving power from the atom. We are collectively in denial, all agreeing to ignore the elephant in the room. Even if nuclear energy could becomes a viable component of our national energy strategy, the future lies with renewables (wind, solar, geothermal, fuel cell). Denying that reality will cost us our future.

The impact of the earthquake and tsunami on nuclear power plants in Japan provides us with an opportunity to re-examine and open for new discussions how nuclear energy might, or might not, fit into our energy future.

Nuclear energy offers , at least in theory, powerful benefits. The greatest incentive to revive the industry is climate change; nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. About one-fifth of our total electrical output in the United States is from 104 nuclear plants (which put out about 800 billion kWh in 2008). The painful and costly lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have yielded a good safety record since. Other benefits include potentially unlimited energy, energy independence, and the positive geopolitical implications of weaning ourselves from foreign oil. The allure of nuclear power is strong.

But real, perhaps insurmountable problems remain, even beyond the issue of core melt. We currently have no good way to treat and dispose of highly toxic and dangerous nuclear waste. Other problems include the high cost of plant construction (independent of regulatory demands), the potential of creating raw materials from which nuclear bombs could be made, risks of transporting nuclear waste from powerplants to storage facilities, and the low but not zero probability of radioactive releases and contamination (not caused by meltdown). We also need to consider that a good portion of the emissions benefits of nuclear power compared to fossil fuel use could be realized by investments in renewable green technologies like wind, solar and geothermal, all of which avoid the problems of nuclear waste.

The bottom line is that nuclear power has great potential, but until some of the major issues are resolved satisfactorily, any effort to expand nuclear power now would be premature. Japan reminds us that while we generally now view nuclear energy relatively safe, important vulnerabilities remain.

Note too that in the United States no nuclear power plants have been ordered since 1978, and the last one to go online was in 1995. Proponents of nuclear energy will blame this dearth of construction on regulatory constraints and hostile politicians. The reality is that nuclear energy is not economically viable without government support. What proponents do not want to discuss is the extraordinary life-cycle costs associated with decommissioning a spent plant, not to mention the other problems already listed and discussed below.

Waste Management and Yucca Mountain

Last year the federal government formally recommended that Yucca Mountain be terminated as a potential site for the nation’s nuclear waste. That ends a 23 year battle, and the expenditure of about $10 billion. Yet nuclear waste will continue to accumulate at the 104 nuclear reactors in cooling pools on site at each plant. We currently have about 55,000 tons of nuclear waste in those pools. Without Yucca Mountain, we are back to square one, with no place to store nuclear waste. That calls into the question the wisdom of promoting the construction of 10 new nuclear plants.

Nuclear Proliferation

One way to cut down on the volume of nuclear waste, and to recover useable fuel contained in the waste, is to reprocess the fuel. The idea is attractive because the so-called waste really contains about 95% of the energy of the original stock. But reprocessing creates the issue of weapons proliferation, because reprocessing can lead to the production of weapons-grade plutonium.

Even without the problem of proliferation, reprocessing does not solve the waste problem; we are still left with large volumes of high radioactive material that needs to be disposed of. Less than 20 pounds of plutonium is needed to make a nuclear bomb. A full-fledged reprocessing program in the United States would create 500 metric tons of plutonium. It would not be difficult to lose 20 pounds without knowing it. Reprocessing is also expensive; about six times the cost of using enriched uranium and then disposing of the waste. Reprocessing is not the answer to the waste problem.

Future Plant Designs

A number of designs (so-called Generation IV) are being considered with the express purpose of greatly reducing or even eliminating the possibility of core damage. Gas-cooled, water-cooled and fast-spectrum designs are all in the running. All have potential problems even if ideally built but the safety improvements are dramatic, particularly for the high-temperature gas-cooled reactors using a so-called pebble design with passive safety. But it is not bullet-proof and the encasing graphite is combustible and some designs do not include containment structures, meaning radioactive materials would spread in case of an explosion.

Economic Viability

The viability of nuclear power in the absence of incentives is really unclear. You have to account for the initial capital costs, operating at something less than 100% efficiency, and then decommissioning and dismantling a plant at the end of its useful life, and finally the cost of disposing of radioactive waste.

Given all that, one can make a good argument that all of our effort should go into ramping up green renewable technologies as fast as possible. In this proponents of so-called green technologies and nuclear energy can agree: we have a growing gap between our projected energy needs and the power we can actually produce.

Magnitude of the Energy Problem

Resource Depletion and Scarcity

The United States consumes 25% of the world’s oil supply but boasts only 5% of global reserves. The industrialized world needed 140 years to consume the first trillion barrels of oil. We will double that in just the next 30. More than 800 of the world’s largest oil fields are past peak production. To maintain the current daily output of about 85 million barrels as those fields decline over the next two decades, the world will need to find new sources of crude to produce an additional 45 million barrels per day to make up the difference. That means that in the next 20 years, we need to find four more oil fields equivalent to the vast reserves under the boiling sands of Saudi Arabia, just to break even with today’s production levels.

The Dilemma of Short and Long-term Perspectives

Our national security, economy and environment will all benefit significantly if society can shift to renewable energies. Yet the market, responding efficiently to shorter-term signals, cannot bridge the gap to the future, where the payoff is great, but distant. The government can provide support where market mechanisms are weak, with tax incentives, subsidies and appropriate laws creating a regulatory environment conducive to alternative energy development.

Practical Steps to Sustainability

The energy problem can be tackled from two different angles simultaneously: creating new clean forms of energy, and reducing energy consumption through improvements in efficiency. In both cases there are realistic, practical and economically sound steps we can take right now to meet our moral obligation to promote sustainability. One megawatt saved or one newly generated can power 750 to 1000 homes.

Clean Sources of Energy

Solar Energy

People talk about solar energy as an industry, but it is really divided into two primary divisions: photovoltaics and concentrated solar power. Concentrated solar power uses mirrors to focus sunlight on receivers, usually designed to produce steam to run turbines, but other designs are exploring a variety of thermal storage systems like molten salt. Photovoltaics convert sunlight directly to electricity. Solar only provides about 29 gigawatts of power, about 1% of our energy needs today. Of that about 357 megawatts are from photovoltaic. That has been growing by about 50% per year, and will exceed 1 gigawatt in 2010.

Wind Energy

The U.S. wind energy industry in 2008 installed about 42% of all the new electric generating capacity added last year and created 35,000 jobs. Not widely know, in 2008 the United States surpassed Germany as the world’s leader in wind power. The U.S. has the world’s fastest growing wind market, increasing by 8.6 gigawatts in 2008, raising the total of 25.5 gigawatts. The current goal is to have wind supply 20% of the nation’s energy needs by 2030, compared to about 1% today.


As with wind, the U.S. is a world leader in geothermal energy. The current total capacity remains small at 3 gigawatts but with current and projected growth that is expected to reach 15 gigawatts by 2025.

Hydrogen and Fuel Cells

When solar, wind and geothermal energy progresses to a certain point of maturity, we will have the renewable resources necessary to convert to a hydrogen economy, using those other energy sources to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.

Transportation sector consumes about 30% of all energy in the United States. Hydrogen is the only potential on-board renewable energy source that can meet that demand as a purely renewable resource. Electric cars using conventional technology still require the production of electricity and create toxic waste with battery disposals. Fuel cells emit only water as waste.

Currently about 9 million metric tons of hydrogen are produced in the U.S. annually. That is enough to power 20-30 million cars or 5-8 million homes. Overcoming the “chicken and egg” problem of building cars with no filling stations or building filling stations with no cars will require government intervention.

Energy Efficiency

Building Design and Improvements

Lots of low lying fruit is to be found in making buildings more energy efficient. The U.S. alone could save $1.2 trillion in energy costs through 2020 by investing $520 billion improvements as simple as sealing leaky buildings and replacing inefficient household appliances. That investment would cut energy use in the U.S. by 23% — saving more energy than is used by Canada. Of those potential savings, homes account for 35%, industrial sector 40% and commercial sector 25%. Compact fluorescent bulbs are 4 times more efficient, last 10 times longer than incandescent and use up to 80% less energy. If every American home replaced just one 60 watt bulb with a CFL we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes. LEDs coming to market last yet again 10 times longer than CFLs, are mercury free, are cool so do not cause heat build up, and because they are solid, are not prone to breaking. White LEDs will likely soon be on the market. By replacing conventional bulbs, white LED lights would save the U.S. $115 billion in lighting costs by 2025, eliminate the need for 133 power stations and prevent the release of 258 metric tons of CO2.

Energy Grid Enhancements

We desperately need to update the country’s energy grid, integrate demand-response equipment and analyze, develop and implement smart grid technologies. These improvements are critical if we wish to integrate more wind and solar power into the grid due to the nature of those sources.


It takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminum than it does to make it from raw materials. Manufacturing cans from recycled aluminum produces 96% less air & water pollution than manufacturing cans from raw material (bauxite). Making recycled steel saves 60% in energy use, recycled newspaper 50%, recycled plastics 70%, and recycled glass 40%. These savings far outweigh the energy created as by-products of incineration. In 2005, recycling conservatively saved the amount of energy used in 9 million homes (900 trillion BTUs). Another great aspect of recycling is that we can all do it; the effort does not require a massive infrastructure investment at a national level to have a truly significant impact.

New Tax Structure and Incentives

The real solution to our problem is in fact embedded in long-term thinking. We need to tax what we burn, not what we earn. We solve many of our most pressing problems if we tax carbon, and offset that tax increase with an equal decrease in income tax. The restructuring would be revenue neutral, but would have a huge impact on the environment and on our national security. That tax would reveal the true cost to society of burning fossil fuels. Doing so would level the playing field and naturally create an environment in which alternative energies could more readily compete. The cap-and-trade system for reducing carbon emissions is worthy of support only in the sense of realistic political compromise until society comes around to a more fundamental solution. We should tax consumption, not production.

While nuclear energy in an ideal world would be an attractive option, reality is uglier. The problems greatly exceed the benefits. We need to shelve nuclear power as a viable option, and devote our attention to renewables. We ignore that elephant in the room at our own peril.
Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World (Jacquie Jordan, Inc)( Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.


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