Spring Fever: Nuclear Energy Madness

03/26/2016 06:41 pm ET | Updated Mar 27, 2016
  • Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in neurophysiology
Craig Ferguson via Getty Images

Spring Fever is upon us. Search not for scantily clad students roaming white sand beaches with yard-long margaritas; no, look instead to the madness of politics gone wild with crazy beyond what anybody could have imagined. While extremist statements on immigration, terrorism, torture and surveilling Muslim neighborhoods make headlines, we quietly observe almost without notice important anniversaries that have gotten lost in the noise of the absurd: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

In passing over important milestones in nuclear energy, we squander an opportunity to have an adult conversation about climate change and strategies to address the issue. We can hardly debate the proper role of nuclear power in those strategies, or the meaning of these anniversaries, when the problem of climate change itself is denied by every Republican candidate for president, the chairmen of the Science Committees in both the House and Senate, and leadership in both chambers. Here is a feeble attempt to energize the conversation.

Dates to Remember

In the wee hours on the morning of March 28, 1979, Unit #2 at Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pennsylvania, partially melted down. The accident exposed serious flaws in plant design, employee training, emergency procedures, and regulatory oversight, but in the end little radiation was released. Seven years later, on April 26, 1986, also early in the morning, nuclear reactor Unit 4 at Chernobyl blew its lid, spewing radioactive waste into the atmosphere, eventually requiring the evacuation of an area exceeding 1200 square miles and the resettlement of 350,000 people. Thirty years later much of that area remains uninhabitable. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit northeastern Japan, followed by a towering tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people, destroyed 128,000 buildings and damaged more than one million. The twin disasters also led to meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and the evacuation of 160,000 people within an exclusion zone of about 310 square miles; these people have not yet returned home, and may never. March and April are not good for nuclear energy.

Moving Forward

How do these events inform us about the future of nuclear power, or its place in addressing climate change? The answer turns out to be highly dependent on the perspective from which the question is posed. One view is that nuclear power is safe and cost-effective, with long periods of stability and reliability interrupted infrequently by accidents. The other view is that power from the atom is unsafe and costly, with catastrophic accidents separated by periods of stability leading to a false sense of security. In the first view, safe operation is the norm and accidents an anomaly; in the second view accidents are the rule and stability is the exception. Which view is a better reflection of reality? The best answer to this is found in "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable" by Nassim Taleb. Taleb explains that a black swan is any event deemed improbable but one that causes huge consequences -- like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Why black swan? In the mid-17th century Europe, scientists noted that all swans were always white; so a truth was born that all swans are white. The odds of seeing a swan of different color were deemed extremely improbable (or impossible). Yet in 1697 explorers discovered a black swan (Cyngus atratus) in Australia. Seeing just one black swan proved wrong all other claims that all swans are white, no matter now improbably the discovery might have been. Disasters at a nuclear power plant are the black swan of the industry: seeing just one proves wrong all other claims that nuclear energy is safe and economical.

If we include the cost of containing and cleaning up a nuclear accident, and the human cost of evacuating homes and businesses, and land rendered uninhabitable, nuclear energy quickly becomes too pricey. But proponents of nuclear energy externalize those costs, so the safety and economy of nuclear power are deemed reasonable. Proponents discount the importance of the black swan. But in highly technical terms, excluding the impacts of accidents is bat-dropping crazy. The cost of the Fukushima disaster is estimated to be between $250 billion to $500 billion. Even beyond these incredible financial costs, the environmental and social consequences are enormous and long-term. According to the report from the Physicians for Social Responsibility, we face tremendous long-term and costly challenges, which include at least the following.

Of the 160,000 displaced people, many still pay mortgages on properties they will never see again; hundreds of square miles of valuable land, once worth billions of dollars, are rendered worthless.

Fukushima resulted in history's largest ocean discharge of radioactive material. Fifteen months after more than 700,000 curies of cesium were dumped into the ocean, more than half of all fish caught off the Japanese coast were found to be contaminated with the radioactive element.

Cooling the melted reactors requires water, lots of water, all of which is highly contaminated after use; to date there are 750,000 tons of water stored on site in hundreds of 10-meter-tall tanks, so many that there will soon be no room for more (Science, March 2016, v351, Issue 6277, p 1019). This is the tip of the iceberg: this same article notes that the "most daunting" task at Fukushima is recovering fuel debris since all or nearly all the fuel in the Unit 1 reactor burned through the pressure vessel, fell to the bottom, and possibly ate into the concrete base. We suffer these caveats of "possibly" and "nearly" because nobody has actually seen the damage except in a few isolated places. In another article on page 20 of that same Science issue, we learn that only now, five years after the disaster, are robots able to enter into the damaged reactors. Up until this year only one Japanese robot called Quince entered one ruined building, and a modified U.S.-military robot got a glimpse inside. Much remains unknown even now.

Decommissioning the plant will take 30 to 40 years, at a cost of at least another $9 billion; and that figure could go much higher depending on what the robots ultimately find.

Faulty Risk Management

Nuclear power survives on our inability to effectively evaluate risk; as a society we tend to discount the importance of the black swan, and instead designate periods of stability as the norm. We are lulled by those long periods of safe operation, and then seem shocked in the face of catastrophe that could have and should have been anticipated. Here is the hard truth: nuclear energy is not viable economically and never will be because of the terrible consequences of low probability high consequence risk. While bad events are rare, when they happen, the political, economic and human costs are much too high to absorb, even amortized over long periods of calm. And this does not include the problem of disposing of on-site nuclear waste or the life cycle costs of decommissioning a spent plant. Nuclear energy sounds good, but only if most of the true costs are externalized. Trapping the true cost of nuclear energy in the price of electricity would render the industry useless because the actual cost of electricity is prohibitive when not masked by subsidies and externalities. Only massive taxpayer support keeps nuclear power alive. Not long ago President Obama proposed a $36 billion federal loan guarantee for nuclear power plants. The magnitude of public largess can be seen in this summary from a study completed by the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC):

In the USA alone roughly $100 billion has been spent on nuclear power plants that were never completed or finished over budget. Most if not all of this cost will be placed on the public (emphasis mine) without their knowledge. Unfortunately, since the life span of a nuclear power plant is only around 35 years, the 82 reactors operating will need to be decommissioned by 2014. If decommissioning costs 9% to 15% of the initial capital costs,13 the total cost to decommission these 82 nuclear reactors could reach $1 trillion. Of all the costs listed above this does not even include the spent fuel disposal costs, which have totaled to $18 billion in the USA alone.

And here we see a deep irony. Those who wholeheartedly support nuclear energy are often the same folks who want a small government to get out of the way of business, allowing the magic of the market to work its glory. And yet the moment we have a Chernobyl or Fukushima, these very people expect the government, and taxpayers, to bail out the industry, when the market no longer works in their favor. This is further skewed from economic reality when we consider, finally, waste management and nuclear proliferation.

Waste Management

With Yucca Mountain dead, or at least moribund, the United States has no viable site for the nation's nuclear waste. 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. After an expenditure of about $10 billion, we have nothing to show for it - but those costs must be included in the price of nuclear energy.

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. Again we must include in the cost of nuclear power the enormous costs of storing and moving nuclear waste.

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. Some of the new designs would clearly be safer, and may make the emergence of a black swan less likely, but the catastrophic impact of an accident would remain a reality. And we still are burdened with waste and the potential for weapons proliferation.

The Illusion of Good: A False Promise

Nuclear energy offers, at least in theory, powerful benefits. 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 yielded a good safety record since... up to Fukushima. Other benefits include potentially unlimited energy, energy independence, and the positive geopolitical implications of weaning ourselves from foreign oil.

Yes, the allure of nuclear power is strong, but ultimately illusory. Insurmountable technical and economic problems ensure the industry will never be viable, even beyond the already sufficiently catastrophic issue of core melt or another Fukushima disaster. There are also other life-cycle costs that need to be considered, including the high and rapidly growing cost of plant construction (independent of regulatory demands). 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 in theory, but not in reality. The on-going disaster in Japan reminds us that while we generally now view nuclear energy as relatively safe, the occasional outlier kills the industry. The inherent costs of an accident are too high to absorb. Imagine the cost of electricity if Japanese consumers paid the price of Fukushima in their utility bill. Unfortunately, the industry survives because we fail to evaluate properly low-probably high-consequence events. Nuclear power is with us only because we have inherent flaws in our ability to evaluate risk. That inherent imperfection is blinding us to the simple reality that nuclear power is dead; we just don't see it yet.