Point - Counterpoint

Our response to Co-op America’s Ten Strikes Against Nuclear Power

Co-op America’s view

Summarized from Co-op America

Co-op America has posted 10 reasons why nuclear power can’t help with our energy problems. We briefly summarize their views here for comparison with ours, but you would be best off reading directly from their site.

Our view

There’s no doubt that nuclear power has drawbacks. All of them have feasible technical or political solutions that enable nuclear power to be sustainable for several thousand years without adversely affecting the environment. Nuclear power is not the ultimate power source. It is the best of our current options.


1. Nuclear waste

Nuclear waste remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. We do not know how to deal with the waste safely, so building thousands of new plants is a horrible idea. Recycling technology has not been proven. Communities should reject allowing it to be even transported near them. The Bush administration thinks that Yucca Mountain will work, but it is over budget and unsafe. Again, even transporting the waste is dangerous.

Our response

Nuclear waste will be toxic for hundreds of thousands of years, unless we recycle it. There is enough Uranium in the current US stockpile of nuclear waste to power the entire US for about 90 years at current demand. However, to do this today would require a huge investment in fuel-recycling infrastructure and would not be commercially viable. If we don’t recycle it, it will remain as it is: a hot and dangerous solid rock contained inside a double-layered steel can. No one’s saying this is perfect, but we do have to choose the lesser of several evils. If you got all of your electricity from nuclear power as an average American in 2006, you would produce 40 grams of waste in a year. Compare that to how much soot, CO2, sulfur, mercury, carcinogens, etc. being emitted directly into the biosphere and inhaled by all that you would have to account for using something like coal. According to EIA data, you’d have 10,000 kg of CO2 to your name.


2. Nuclear proliferation

Each nuclear weapons issue has been associated with a nuclear reactor program. We can’t develop domestic nuclear power without confronting proliferation in other countries. We need to stop talking about nuclear plants as a solution to global climate change if we are serious about keeping nuclear material out of the wrong hands.

Our response

Reactors can indeed be used to create material for nuclear bombs. However, nuclear bomb material can also be made without any reactors. If shutting down all reactors on Earth would somehow eliminate nuclear weapons, we should do it. The material in nuclear reactors can and should be carefully protected and monitored. The concern of proliferation is real, but it does not outweigh the capability of nuclear power to reduce our dependence on coal and foreign oil.


3. National Security

Nuclear reactors are a target for terrorist attacks. Robert Kennedy Jr. found that there are 8 relatively easy ways to cause a major meltdown at a nuclear plant. He also was able to sail boats right up to nuclear reactors to prove that they are not secure. Imagine what a nuclear terrorist disaster would be like.

Our response

Roger Cohen said it best when he said that “jihadist terrorists should only dictate western energy policy to the degree that the United States and its allies try to cut dependence on Middle Eastern oil.” We cannot find a list of the 8 easy ways to cause meltdowns anywhere, so that is hard to respond to properly, nor has Robert Kennedy Jr. responded to our questions. Nuclear containments have undergone airplane impact tests. Even if an airplane struck a containment, it is made of reinforced concrete. The actual reactor is deep inside the containment in a steel pressure vessel. Perhaps terrorists would find it easier to cause far more disruption and harm in our water supplies and other utilities.


4. Accidents

Terrorism aside, human error and nature can cause horrible nuclear disasters. Chernobyl caused the evacuation of 400,000 people and poisoned thousands with radiation. The cleanup of the Three Mile Island accident in the US lasted 15 years and cost over a billion dollars. If we build more nuclear reactors, the probability that one will meltdown will go up. Since reactors are usually near urban areas, evacuation would be impossible.

Our response

Chernobyl was an unmitigated disaster stemming from a complete disregard for safety and a fundamentally flawed design (far inferior to currently operating US reactors). The workers at Chernobyl shut down multiple safety systems that were trying to shut down the plant while they attempted a dangerous experiment. The reactor did not have any kind of containment structure to speak of. It was designed to heat up when the coolant boiled, leading to an out-of-control power excursion. These things resulted in the worst nuclear disaster of all time, one that has been confirmed to have killed 34 people, initiate a massive evacuation, and cause 4,000 cancer cases. Reactors in the western world are built very differently. They have an excellent safety record, and even the worst accident in US history (Three Mile Island) caused 0 deaths and dosed the nearby public with no more than a standard chest X-ray. There has never been a radiation related death due to commercial nuclear power in the USA.


5. Cancer

The thought that living near nuclear power plants increases cancer is becoming more popular, even if the reactor doesn’t have any accidents. Two studies show this is true. Many toxic materials are created in reactors. We should use the safe and healthy solar and wind power today instead of risky nuclear power.

Our response

Uranium, Thorium, and their radioactive daughters are found in all of the Earth’s crust, including in coal. When coal burns, those radioactive daughters are emitted into the atmosphere. As an effect, the radiation levels near a coal plant can be 200 times as high as those near a nuclear plant, according to Scientific American (Dec 13, 2007). The EPA tells us that you get 0.001 mrem/yr from living near a reactor. To put that in perspective, you get 0.01 mrem from eating a single banana (in contains naturally radioactive potassium). You get 1 mrem/yr from sleeping next to someone. So if this thought is getting more popular, that must mean the populous is becoming more and more duped by false scare tactics.


6. Not enough sites

Nuclear plants need to be near water for cooling, but there are too many droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters to allow any significant number of plants to be built safely. Over 24 plants are at risk of being shut down due to drought. Many communities ban reactors from being built. There just isn’t enough room.

Our response

This claim is simply untrue and will be worked out by the free market. If fresh water is a concern in your coastal area, maybe you should look into building a nuclear plant. The process heat from nuclear power is ideal for multi-stage flash desalination. The sun hits the northeastern US with about 4.5 kWh/day/m2 so the equivalent area of a standard nuclear plant required by 33% efficient solar panels is over 6 square miles, not including the chemical storage facilities needed to store power through the night. Nuclear powered submarines work great in the ocean, so a nuclear power plant can certainly operate on the ocean.


7. Not enough uranium

Uranium is so scarce that if we ran the entire world on nuclear power, uranium would be gone in less than ten years. As supply runs out, costs will rise, as will carbon emissions from mining.

Our response

We already mentioned that fuel is recyclable. If we recycle Uranium, the supply is certainly a non-issue. If we don’t, the 2005 Uranium report from the OECD suggests that we have over 200 years of cheap uranium at the current demand. Thorium can also be used for nuclear fuel, and although it hasn’t been used, Thorium is about 4 times more abundant that Uranium on Earth. There are thousands of years of Uranium available in sea-water, granted at very low concentration. Also, we are not proposing that the whole world be powered by nuclear power. Where wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal can be used, they should. Nuclear power can sustainably provide the 24/7 baseload required to augment the renewables.


8. Costs

Nuclear power becomes more expensive as more plants are built because of lack of space and lack of uranium. Nuclear power doesn’t bring in as many green-collar jobs into a community as solar and wind power do. The US is planning billions of dollars of subsidies to nuclear energy when it could be much better spent on solar and wind power. Large corporations take the profit out of communities with nuclear power.

Our response

Recently, nuclear power was given subsidies to encourage construction of new reactors. This was done to stimulate new reactors to help us get off of fossil fuels, just as subsidies were given to renewable energy forms. There are 104 operating commercial nuclear power plants in the USA. China just ordered 4 reactors. Three companies in the USA are looking to build nuclear power plants within ten years. If nuclear energy weren’t profitable, we wouldn’t be seeing this.


9. Private sector unwilling to finance

The private sector will not accept the risks of nuclear power. The government has to provide loan guarantees paid for by taxpayers.

Our response

Financial risks associated with nuclear power are a reality the industry has faced since Three Mile Island. However, with carbon taxes looming, burning coal may start to be an even bigger financial risk.


10. No time

Since we only have 10 years to mount an effort against climate change, there simply is not enough time to build the thousands of reactors needed to offset greenhouse gasses.

Our response

There is no single option that can reduce CO2 emissions alone within a short time frame. Just because one may not be able to do it completely is no reason to disregard it. China is planning on increasing their nuclear capacity (11 reactors) fivefold by 2030. The Apollo project got men on the moon within a decade, and there’s no reason not to shoot for sustainable energy within the same kind of time-frame. This type of ramp-up would, like the Apollo project, certainly require non-commercial assistance. Besides, the resources, raw materials, and labor required to build the same amount of generating capacity from other energy sources (renewables) would be substationally larger.


By Nick Touran, February 2008. Other contributors: Eric Baker, Prof. Ron Fleming, Brian Wagner, Jesse Cheatham