“Anti-nuclear environmentalist.” That’s a phrase that doesn’t really raise any eyebrows. After all, people have been calling themselves that for decades. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s an oxymoron.
For a movement that’s been so enamored with calling out the “anti-science” mindset necessary to deny the existence of climate change, opposing the use of nuclear power is outright hypocrisy. Worse, it’s crippling the expansion of the one technology that’s most capable of actually combating climate change. That’s right: The simple fact of the matter is that nuclear power is totally clean, far safer than most other conventional sources of electricity, and lacks many of the serious shortcomings that limit the effectiveness of other renewable energy sources.
More to the point, if you consider yourself to be an environmentalist who is firmly committed to halting global warming, but don’t support expanding nuclear power, sorry to say, but you’re a complete poseur.
The Poor Logic of Worst-Case Scenario Thinking
In a lot of ways, nuclear power is like airline travel. The consequences of the worst-case scenario, no matter how rare that scenario really is, are so dire that they really capture the public imagination and lead to a level of fear that’s just not supported by the facts. Except that, since the advent of large jetliners in the 1950s, a little over 6,000 people have died from commercial flights in the United States and Canada and the death toll from nuclear plants in the United States is… three, a trio of operators killed at a Nuclear Reactor Testing Facility in Idaho in 1961.
Afraid of flying but not afraid of this? May want to rethink that logic, buddy…
No American civilian has ever been exposed to any real danger by a nuclear plant. Ever. Even a high profile accident like Three Mile Island failed to produce any long-term health effects for people living in the area. The simple fact of the matter is, like commercial airlines, the level of safety regulation guiding the operation of a nuclear plant is so high that it has effectively reduced the threat of malfunction to essentially zero.
But What About Fukushima?!
Yeah, let’s talk about Fukushima for a minute. It’s actually a pretty excellent example of how public hysteria can take hold and shape perception in ways that aren’t really connected to reality.
Clearly, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster of 2011 was bad. To this day, certain nearby areas remain uninhabitable, and people living nearby are estimated to have cancer risks that are potentially much higher. By no means do I intend to minimize the effects of what happened, they were pretty serious.
Nor do I intend to imply that the accident wasn’t preventable. It was. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the plant’s operator the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) were both negligent and failed to apply the acknowledged best practices that could have prevented the accident. Then, following the accident, Tepco repeatedly lacked the necessary transparency it owed the Japanese public. None of this was good, and plenty of people deserve a lot of blame in what happened. No question.
But let’s also keep things in perspective: that disaster was not the result of some sort of inherent flaw with nuclear power. It happened because the plant got hit by the fourth largest earthquake recorded in human history immediately followed by a 50-foot-tall tsunami. You know, the one that did stuff like this:
This was a once-in-a-lifetime event, a natural disaster of such enormity that it’s nearly impossible to appropriately categorize.
And in THAT context, you can argue that the Fukushima disaster is, if anything, proof of just how safe nuclear power really is. The 9.0 earthquake (to reiterate, the fourth largest ever recorded) did not cause the disaster. The reactors that were running at the time shut down automatically, as they were designed to do. It was only when the ensuing tsunami disabled the back-up generators that pumped coolant in and out of the reactor cores that things started to get rocky.
Just looking at what the international nuclear power industry considers “negligent” gives some pretty clear insight into just how safe nuclear plants are. Where Tepco went wrong was in failing to plan for an event that they had evidence happened every 1,000 or so years. Got that? For the nuclear industry, “once a millennium” is an event you have to be ready for. And it’s one that most nuclear plants ARE ready for. Again, even before Fukushima, the industry as a whole was implementing the sort of computer modeling and safety measures that would prevent a meltdown even if there was a “once in a millennium” event.
Ultimately, no one living outside of the immediate area surrounding the plant was exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. No one has died because of the nuclear disaster up to this point, and it’s estimated that only 130 to 640 people will ultimately die prematurely because of exposure to radiation. That’s clearly a tragedy, but in the context of a natural disaster that caused over 15,000 fatalities, displaced over 225,000 people, and had an estimated economic cost of $235 billion, the Fukushima meltdown was far from the most devastating result of the quake.
It was terrible. It was avoidable. It shouldn’t have happened. But if that’s the (second) worst thing that’s going to happen for every 5,000 years or so of plant operation worldwide, it’s hard to view nuclear power as being “unsafe” in any major way.
US Coast Hit by a Massive Wave… of Hysteria
The reaction to Fukushima here in the United States, though, would ultimately highlight the sort of bizarre, unfounded pseudo-science that gets thrown at nuclear power. You had people claiming that wave amplitude charts were in fact showing the spread of radiation from Fukushima. You had people insisting that no one on the West Coast should be eating fish. You had conspiracy theorists (who had, apparently, never heard of Bikini Atoll) positing that cancer rates would skyrocket because the people of San Francisco were a mere 5,000 miles from Fukushima.
You even had people like Senator Bernie Sanders, seen here in 2012 (about 17 minutes in), calling for a moratorium on renewing licenses for nuclear plants because the nuclear plant in his home state had a very similar design to the one in Fukushima.
Did that incidental fact place the good people of Vermont in serious danger? I dunno Bernie, what do you think the chances are of a concurrent 9.0 earthquake and 50-foot-tall tsunami hitting Southern Vermont? Not that it matters. Point it out in a grave enough tone and the science stops mattering.
Nuclear Fears Helping Climate Change to Advance
Why does this matter? Well, much like how driving is considerably more dangerous than flying, the threats posed by using conventional fossil fuels instead of nuclear power are enormous.
Firstly, the growing threat of climate change cannot be underestimated. All other environmental concerns have to take a back seat to this one, singular issue. The long-term effects of carbon pollution could include mass displacements of population centers, increasing frequency of severe weather events, and mass die-offs of sea life due to increased ocean acidity, just to name a few. It all points to the potential for severe famine and refugee disaster that would cost tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of lives. If we could expand nuclear power enough to eliminate all electricity generation from burning fossil fuels, but the cost was a Fukushima-level nuclear disaster once a year, that would arguably still represent a net positive for the environment. Sounds crazy, but that’s how dangerous climate change really could be in the end.
Graph from the Nuclear Economics Consulting Group.
But the very immediate consequences of coal power, our primary source of electricity until mid-way through 2015, are also pretty heinous. Burning coal releases arsenic, lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and a variety of other nasty stuff into the air, causing a whole host of health problems for Americans. It’s estimated that American coal power kills 15 people for every terawatt hour produced, or over 20,000 people in 2015 based on the 1,356 twh of coal power produced (which is, by the way, WAY below its peak). That’s compared to a rate of 0.04 per TWh for nuclear.
What’s more, coal-fired power plants expose people to 100 times as much radiation per megawatt generated than nuclear plants. You read that right. Coal is full of uranium and thorium and other radioactive isotopes, which get spewed into the air when it’s burned. So, to review, the thing that we're using because people are afraid about radiation is exposing us to more radiation than the thing people are afraid would expose us to radiation. By a wide margin. Great work, everyone.
Solar and Wind Continue to Lag
So, replacing coal plants with renewable energy would save lives and eliminate huge amounts of pollution. Sure, but does the replacement have to be nuclear? After all, nuclear does produce nuclear waste, which has to be stored for decades. Wind and solar don’t. That’s why every good environmentalist is pro-solar and pro-wind but not pro-nuclear, right? Not so fast.
Let’s be clear, solar and wind can never replace all of our fossil-fuel-fired power plants. It would be great if they could, but they just can’t. They can, and should, become a much larger piece of the energy puzzle, but there’s a fundamental flaw that prevents them from being anything more than supplemental: they’re intermittent.
At the end of the day, solar power stops working because, not to get too scientific, but at the end of the day the sun goes down. Solar also stops working when it’s cloudy. And wind power only works when the wind is blowing. That matters. A LOT. No one is really interested in electricity becoming an intermittent resource, not being able to charge your Apple iPhones (AAPL) because it’s cloudy is just a non-starter for most people.
Nuclear power, however, is a “baseload” source of power, meaning you can call on it whenever it’s needed, day or night. That’s invaluable to an efficient power grid where reliability is key. As far as zero-carbon sources of energy go, nuclear is one of the only ones that can reasonably be expected to backstop a system that dramatically builds out its reliance on solar and wind power.
The Circular Logic of Nuclear Paranoia
Unfortunately, decades of (totally unfounded) fear has left the public opinion on nuclear power flagging. And that’s no good. Not only do we all need to collectively get over the fact that nuclear power gives us the willies, we need to start really showing strong support for the industry’s expansion.
Building a nuclear plant is extremely expensive and takes a very long time. On some level, that’s a good thing. It’s a sign of the strong regulations in place to ensure that nuclear power remains as safe moving forward as it has been before now. But from an economic perspective? Not good at all. Investing billions of dollars in a project that’s going to take years to finish is never easy, and it’s that much harder when you’re talking about something that makes the general public so squeamish. If your multi-billion project gets canned a few years in because of a public outcry, well, that’s a pretty nasty hit to anyone’s bottom line.
The result is that our nuclear infrastructure is aging fast, with relatively few nuclear plants being added to replace those that are getting decommissioned. As of 2015, there were only five new nuclear plants under construction, with 22 due to see their licenses expire before the end of the next decade. This comes at a time when nuclear technology has advanced at a rapid rate and could be implementing new designs and functionality that would dramatically improve the efficiency and safety of an already safe power source.
The new generation of nuclear reactors would utilize passive cooling systems that don’t require human intervention in the event of an “out-of-design” incident (like, say, a huge earthquake and then a massive wave) to prevent melt down. Fast breeder technology appears to be able to allow a reactor to make plutonium from uranium as they work, creating more fuel than they consume and improving efficiency by a factor of 50. Used nuclear fuel can also be reprocessed to make waste much safer, recover plutonium and uranium and stretch a fuel source farther.
Go Green by Going Nuclear
All told, investing in the continued evolution and expansion of nuclear energy would pay enormous dividends in the long run. However, it’s all a moot point if we continue to allow baseless fears about radioactivity to seep in. Worse still, we continue to rely heavily on sources of electricity that are unquestionably more dangerous in both the short and long term because of these fears.
So, folks, it’s time to take a stand, cozy up to reality, and realize that nuclear power isn’t just a non-threat to the environment, it’s a pretty essential piece of any viable solution for fighting climate change. Not only do we need to stop standing in the way of expanding nuclear power, we need to start looking hard at government policies that would actively support it.
Don’t be a poseur, folks. Be the real environmentalist we all need to be, and recognize that nuclear power is where it’s at.