Is Nuclear Energy Sustainable? (Guest Post)

nuke.jpgBy Nathan Shedroff
Like the, now mythical, debate about Hummers vs Priuses, nuclear power is an issue who’s pros and cons largely can’t be addressed without an LCA (Life Cycle Analysis). Sure, Nuclear reactors, without a doubt, produce fewer carbon emissions than coal and other traditional power plants in their use phase – (actually, natural gas and hydro, both of which can be considered “traditional” as well, probably beat nuclear, not to mention renewable energy sources like solar and wind). But coal is the big, dirty source of power that makes nuclear look good so let’s stick with it, for now.
What this view of nuclear power doesn’t show us, however, is the massive impacts on the environment that nuclear has before and after its use phase. From the mining of the uranium and it’s sad, continuing legacy of heart-breaking heath effects and irresponsible history of safe-guarding local communities, to the refining and transportation of the fuel, to the building of the power plants themselves to the lack of viable, long-term options to deal with the waste – stretching into the thousands of years – nuclear powers’ impact vastly outweighs coal and dwarfs the impact of most other energy sources.

This isn’t an issue of engineering or safety. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard about “new nuclear technologies” that are vastly safer and more efficient. Yes, nuclear reactors can be run safely, whether pebble, breeder, or any other type. Simply one of these dirty little truths, however, is that there aren’t any running reactors with any of these promising new technologies – anywhere in the world. Why is that? If they’re so promising why isn’t a single reactor running somewhere in the world that uses one of them? Pro-nuclear pundits will point to a variety of research studies of new technologies but there are no reactors anywhere that currently use them. Even if these new technologies are safer, this isn’t even the real since just because a car can be driven safely doesn’t mean it will. More appropriately, in terms of safety, it would be better to look into how the nuclear power industry manages safety – if safety were the biggest challenge.
The issue isn’t so much whether nuclear energy and uranium mining can’t be done safely (though that’s still a question). Instead, the issue is will it be and if it is, can it possibly be financially advantageous (because the extra costs involved with reliable safety measures, including adequate bonds that protect against bankruptcy). Nuclear’s track record is terrible in this regard and there is little to indicate that it would take these responsibilities and concerns any more seriously this time around.
Instead, the nuclear debate is really about money. As with any other issue, those in favor (energy, engineering, and construction companies), stand to make a lot of money from nuclear power advancing. The problem is that they’re myopic, hypocritical, and aren’t honest about the fact that the only way to make money in nuclear power is to have your hand out for government subsidies, loan guarantees, risk coverage, and a host of other financial incentives that push the risk and costs onto the government (make that, you and me) instead of the companies who will be reaping the rewards (so much for free markets, “letting business do what it’s good at,” and laisse faire economics). Those opposed to nuclear power come from a variety of backgrounds, of course, some worried about safety, others about jobs and the economy, many about the environment, some about social issues like tribal and native rights.
What’s new to the debate, however, is the environmental angle. The nuclear energy companies have latched onto climate change as their latest hope to crack the blockade of opposition to nuclear power in this country. Even Patrick Moore, former head of Greenpeace, famously changed his mind to support nuclear energy three years ago.
The challenge is both in the definition of the problem and in the analysis of the solution. Forgetting nuclear power’s embarrassing track-record of abuses, when we look at the entire life cycle of the issue, climate concerns can’t be alleviated with nuclear power. In fact, they’re probably worse. In addition, the long litany of other problems makes nuclear an option not even worth considering. These include:
* Risk Mitigation
* Financial Viability/Profitability
* Jobs and the economy
* Safety
* Nuclear materials falling into terrorist’s hands
* Alternatives (like renewable forms of energy)
* Social issues
The top four or five of these issues are widely discussed routinely, so I’ll leave them out for this article. A great, in-depth discussion of the safety, risk, and economic issues can be found in KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasney’s April 10th, 2007 episode on the subject: –especially the comments by Ralph Cavanaugh from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Aside from the economic issues, one of the most important social issues rarely brought-up is that the majority of known uranium sources lie under native lands – and the tribes don’t want to sell access to their land for mining. On a walk through the Marin Headlands, my friend, an engineer, had an easy fix to this problem: pay the native tribes market rate for their land and resources. There. Easy. Done.
What isn’t so easy, of course, is that most native tribes (whether here in the USA or elsewhere in the world) don’t want to give over their land for any price! To many native cultures, the Earth is a deity. Nature itself is a source of not only physical but spiritual sustenance. They’re not interested in having their land scarred for any reason and at any price. In other words, despite how much we may want what they have, if they don’t want to sell it to us, it’s not ours to take – not that that hasn’t stopped us in the past but it won’t be so easy to decry “private property” and “market economics” as sacred to capitalism when the reality becomes clear that, really, we just take whatever we need from whomever has it and don’t look back.
There is a cultural war brewing, both between tribes (now joined by ranchers) and the outside world as well as sparking conflict between members within tribes. More on that here.
Largely, the nuclear industry sees tribes and their members as “poor” citizens outside the American ideal. They have astronomical unemployment, often low literacy, and don’t have the “modern” conveniences of American life today. To be sure, these tribes could use better jobs and better healthcare and some better infrastructure. However, they don’t see themselves as impoverished people, somehow less “American” for not participating in the materialism arms race of their neighbors. They may want a few more conveniences but they aren’t looking to become SUV-driving sub-urbanites living the Desperate Housewives lifestyle. The already have a deep, rich culture they aren’t willing to give up in trade for merely money. This is what the business world doesn’t see.
Lastly, as if the above issues weren’t enough, what makes the debate truly and terrifyingly laughable is the fact that we already have technologies that are better investments, with better returns, that can be implemented now, with no further development, for a fraction of the price, and that will help build a strong, resilient economy for many, not just one industry. These include efficiency technologies pioneered and in use in California since the 70s as well as new standards and technologies that can, right now, cut the energy demands of the USA by 30%. Add in the promotion and support of solar and wind and other renewables and we can get to 50% in the same amount of years it would take to design, approve, build, and service even one new nuclear power plant. It doesn’t take an economist to see the better investment? Or does it?
Nuclear energy, like the mythical “hydrogen economy” is a centralized solution proposed by centralized companies bent on maintaining their influence of the energy industry. This isn’t surprising since every industry tries to accomplish the same thing. What’s different is that this industry, which has been fighting the entire idea of climate change for 30 years or more is suddenly using it as its latest PR campaign to scare the public and public officials into accepting nuclear power as the only viable solution. It’s cynical, ironic, comical, and sad. Worse still, they’re proposing massive subsidies, public investment, and limitation of liabilities in order to make it feasible. That should be evidence enough that it’s not the right solution.
Should Microsoft be subsidized by the US government when it cries foul that UNIX is destroying its server market? Should IBM have gotten the government to take on the risks of its operations in order to make its portable computer business viable? The energy industry asking the public and government to support its ability to make money on a disastrous technology is like Google petitioning the US for support and indemnification to launch its own television network and infrastructure throughout the US just so they can expand into a new market and make gazillions more dollars.
BTW, if you want to truly understand the depth of trouble our economy is in due to lobbyist-promoted corporate welfare consisting of subsidies, rebates, and tax-incentives, just read the horrifyingly illuminating new book, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill), by David Cay Johnson. If you ever wondered why it’s getting more and more difficult to make a living in this country, despite two-income families and a rising GDP, and if you ever noticed that the middle class is dwindling, this book will clearly explain why. Not all industries or companies are bad, but when business puts its hands in your pockets, via the government, it’s pretty clear that it’s not good for you, the economy, or the country. The founding fathers knew this and built careful safeguards that have almost entirely been destroyed or bypassed. Everyone needs to how this works so that we don’t allow the nuclear power industry to simply fleece the nation like so many other companies and industries have already.
From Guest Blogger Nathan Shedroff:
Nathan is an entrepreneur, experience designer, and sustainability expert. He is the Program Chair of the groundbreaking MBA in Design Strategy program at California Center for the Arts and the author of numerous books on design, meaning, and business. You can learn more about him at You can reach him at nathan at nathan dot com.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

25 responses

  1. I have 2 comments. The first is that the same companies that build nuclear reactors are the ones that would be profitting from building wind turbines, ie GE. Does that suddenly make them acceptable to you?? There’s big money in wind too!! My second comment is that at least ten times more material goes into constructing wind turbines than nuclear generators on a per kilowatt generated basis, and wind turbines are replaced every 20 years, reactors every 60 years. Renewables don’t magically construct themselves!

  2. One other thing about nuclear: the plants are cooled with water — lots and lots of water. Which means nuclear plants must be located to take advantage of rising sea waters, since interior water supplies are drying up, cf the not-so-Great-Lakes, Georgia, et al. The last I knew, seashores were in the backyard of a whole lotta people. Should make for some interesting politics.

  3. Thank you for bringing attention to the connection between future nuclear power plants and potential tribal land takeovers. This is a side of the debate that I haven’t heard before. It’s a very important aspect to consider. Well-done.

  4. Solar and Wind are great, but they are not reliable when looking at 24/7. We have to have a base load generation capacity. For base load you have a choice of Coal, Hydro, Nuclear or Geothermal. I prefer Geothermal, but it has a ways to go, both in technology and in infrastructure, before it can generate the kinds of power need to ‘energize’ the nation. Coal is dirty and nuclear has cost and waste issues, but they currently are the only technology that can produce LARGE amounts of electricity per plant. Soooo, either you get on the nuclear bandwagon, or when prices get high enough, the public will scream for coal and it will be ‘damn the ecofreaks’.

  5. Finally someone who recognizes the ‘centralized’ part of the nuclear debate. It’s indeed the fact that nuclear energy is centralized and a few people and companies can make a load of money from it, while leaving the rest of humanity out to dry.
    WInd and solar energy promise that power will land in the hands of all of us. That’s why it’s opposed by the industry, it means they will lose control.

  6. If the efficient technologies pioneered and in use in California since the 70s are so great, why does California occasionally suffer from rolling black-outs?
    Like it or not nuclear power is the only clean source that can deliver the baseload energy that is required.
    And speaking of subsidies, is the ethanol industry not subsidised to the eyeballs? Subsidising the burning of food which does little to clean the air we breath!! And not to mention the rising cost of food because of it.
    Fossil fuels will not last forever and burning coal will kill you faster than nuclear energy ever will (just look at the health stats from China).
    Let’s learn from South Africa and don’t they now wish they had been as wise as the French and started building a few nuclear power plants a few years ago.
    And not only can’t wind deliver the required baseload that nuclear can, but waking up every morning and looking out your window at endless miles of wind turbines I bet is not something you want. But I suppose you’re ok with that as long as it’s in someone else’s back yard.
    Ooohh! that’s gotta hurt…Goose chow mein anyone?

  7. What if the nay sayers are right and global warming is the result of natural geological processes, and man is not as important as he thinks he is as the source of all evil. What if the extra CO2 in the atmosphere is helpful in promoting the growth of forests and providing the needed oxgen we need to breath and we stop it form self balancing by reductions in CO2, and we run out of air to breath. Okay, maybe that one is far fetched. What if we go nuclear, do all this damage in mining the rare elements needed, and we did not need too? Fossil fuels are running low, and the big industries are trying to drive the heard to the a new big industry, so they can insure their dominance. Lets face the reality that global warming, while real, may not be cuased by man, and act accodingly by not overreacting. Adapting to the new reality and the Darwin way. Do we all not dream about beach front property and a warmer climate to retire too? I’m just going to pull out my beach chair and wait for it to get warmer and for the ocean to come to me.

  8. Steve, if Global Warming isn’t real, then we will still have built a massively more efficient infrastructure and lifestyle that will get us off foreign oil more quickly, supercharge our economy, reduce terrorism, clean-up our water, air, and land, and make for a more resilient country. Aren’t those all things we should be doing anyway, regardless of the Global Warming debate?

  9. George, it would be easier to respond to you if you weren’t so purposely disingenuous but here goes:
    >If the efficient technologies pioneered and in use in California since the 70s are so great, why does California occasionally suffer from rolling black-outs?
    While we had these back in 1995, we haven’t had them in any significant number (certainly compared to other states) since then. These were due to the manipulation of the power plants and energy market, not to the efficiency technologies California implemented. In fact, they lessoned the damage and inconvenience considerably during the black outs. Otherwise, they would have been even worse. California has had plenty of power (that is when power companies don’t illegally take 1/3 of the power plants offline for “maintenance” in order to jack up prices) for a near doubling of its population despite building any new plants in the past 30 years. THAT’S what its efficiency technologies and regulations has bought it. The result isn’t just more power for less construction, but cleaner air and water which helps both our agricultural industry and tourism industry, not to mention our healthcare industry.
    >Like it or not nuclear power is the only clean source that can deliver the baseload energy that is required.
    I don’t agree. California already generates more power via solar, wind and hydro than from nuclear and these are, mostly, older technologies. Look it up.
    >And speaking of subsidies, is the ethanol industry not subsidised to the eyeballs?
    What makes you think I’m in favor of ethanol anyway? I clearly didn’t say I was and, in fact, it’s a terrible solution. If you follow the very first link in the article, you can read my opinion on it. If we’re going to subsidize anything (and, in principle, I’m not against subsidizing the future we want to see happen), than we should be subsidizing renewables.

  10. BTW, George, I would LOVE to have a micro turbine on my property. I also wouldn’t mind living near a wind farm. I find the turbines to be as beautiful as the Eiffel Tower, which was also called an industrial eyesore when it was first built. However, to use your own logic, I applaud you for being willing and eager to move next door to a nuclear plant with its run-off pipe aimed at your yard. That’s just not me.

  11. PC: While nuclear may outweigh renewables in the amount of construction material, you’re still forgetting the disposal phase and only looking at the manufacturing and use phases. I don’t have the figures but I’m willing to bet you that nuclear’s energy and materials requirements for the disposal and, potentially, any recycling phase outweigh renewables 10 to 1 on a per kilowatt generated basis–and that’s over hundreds if not thousands of years. In fact, it’s probably more like 100 to 1.

  12. Perhaps it is possible to solve the problems of reactor operator error, waste, and terrorist attack. I support nuclear, and think it will be expanded in the future. But let’s keep in mind the economics. These things are expensive, take a long time to build, and only come in one size: extra large.
    Yes, the pyrometallurgical system of electrorefining in the Integral Fast Reactor mixes actinides in with plutonium in such a way that fuel is dangerous to handle and not suitable for bomb production. Yes, centrifugal separation of IFR fuel is almost impossible. Yes, the IFR’s 300-600 MW modular design could allow it to be emplaced in our existing coal plants and use their grid infrastructure. But 4th generation nuclear is a symbol.
    Clinton said it himself in his 1994 state of the union speech: unnecessary. A solar panel 100 miles on a side in the desert could power the U.S. RepoWEr America—WE can!

  13. The Three Ways Out
    Any prudent observer would consider the possibility that fossil fuels might run short within years and very short within decades. Given that we depend on oil, natural gas, and coal for 90 percent of our energy, we could be facing the most catastrophic change in modern history. Equally scary, even should more fossil fuels be discovered, burning them without storing away the carbon dioxide they produce could cause global warming.
    The False Ways Out

    Many purported ways out are false hopes, either because they are too small to matter or because they have a fatal flaw.

    – Hydroelectric power is low-cost, but cannot be expanded.
    – Geothermal is available in only a few locations, and likewise cannot be expanded.
    – Wind has huge potential capacity, but even in the best locations only blows fast enough to turn the windmills one-third of the time. Its fatal flaw is that we have no storage mechanism for electricity today, and none of the proposed ones would return more than 25 percent of the energy that goes in. The electricity produced by windmills could be used to make liquid fuels, but such transformations are very wasteful. If battery technology improves enough, hybrid-electric or pure electric vehicles may be the wave of the future, and full-time electric power plants (such as coal or nuclear) would avoid the conversions required by intermittent ones, such as wind or solar.
    – Photovoltaic solar is many times more expensive than competing technologies, and will remain so indefinitely because sunlight is weak, the physical infrastructure costs are huge, and the sun delivers only about two thousand effective hours per year (25 percent), even in the desert. Plus, solar has the same flaw as wind: we can’t store it. Thus, while it may address peak electricity demand on a summer afternoon, it would not be reliable enough to power the world.
    – Biomass as currently practiced – corn ethanol or soybean diesel – produces such small net gains in energy that no amount of farmland could ever replace a meaningful portion of our fossil fuel consumption. Corn ethanol is just a way to convert natural gas (through fertilizer and steam) into a liquid fuel. It has only gained traction because of the temporary availability of natural gas at prices lower than oil, state-level mandates, and federal-level subsidies (of 75 cents per gasoline-equivalent gallon). Soy diesel, in contrast, can be produced at a small profit, but only because we need the soy protein first. Even so, net production of 35 gallons per acre would yield less than 1 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption (2.5 billion gallons) even if all 75 million acres of soybeans were utilized. The only biomass that hasn’t been discredited as a serious energy source is cellulosic alcohol – because the proposals for it are so poorly defined no one can say what they mean. We should be skeptical because cellulose is far more difficult to break down than corn or soybeans, and the lignin that cellulose advocates propose to use for process heat is as little as 20 percent of fast-growing plants.
    – Finally, while both the world and the U.S. have a lot of coal, we have yet to demonstrate even one case of large-scale long-term storage of CO2.

    The Real Ways Out

    Fortunately, we won’t have to live in the dark or melt all the glaciers. Conservation, efficiency, and nuclear power are real ways out.

    Cutting demand (conservation) won’t be popular, but we could take at least one significant step – by curbing population growth. By 2050, the path we’re on will add 150 million people to the 300 million we reached in the U.S. this year. But the growth is driven almost entirely by immigration levels set by Congress, which Congress has the power to reduce. They just haven’t made the connection between population and energy.

    Increased efficiency, particularly in transportation, space heating, and electric appliances, could generate huge savings, and many observers claim the first 50 percent reduction could be achieved with little impact on quality of life. Higher-mileage cars, better insulation, and more efficient lighting could go a long way.

    But after all that, we will still need a massive source of reliable, long-lasting, low-pollution energy. And, except for a huge piece of luck, there might have been none. But we’re lucky, and one exists – nuclear fission. If, over the next 50 years, we built a thousand one-gigawatt nuclear power plants in the best known way, we could simultaneously: 1) meet all of our energy needs at reasonable cost, 2) operate them more safely than any other large-scale technology ever deployed, 3) reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a fraction of their current rate, 4) solve the waste disposal problem, 5) have a fuel supply that would last forever, and 6) add nothing to the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

    The fundamental reason is that nuclear forces are vastly stronger than chemical bonds – about 3 million times stronger, if you compare the weight of uranium to the energy-equivalent weight of coal.

    The way to unlock uranium’s full potential while minimizing its harmful by-products is to change from today’s open fuel cycle to a closed one, and from today’s fleet of light-water reactors to one containing at least some so-called fast reactors. A closed fuel cycle means reprocessing the spent fuel, in order to send the unused uranium and the created undesirable trans-uranium elements back into the reactor to be split apart, thereby releasing more energy. Only the fission products – the smaller atoms created when large ones break – would be sent to a repository. Fast reactors, which are named after the higher-energy neutrons they utilize, would serve two purposes – to burn up the trans-uranium elements and to breed new fuel (hence, the name breeder reactors) by converting the 99 percent of uranium which will not normally split into plutonium atoms which will. Light-water reactors do this, too, but on too small a scale to keep the process going. Thus they require far higher quantities of fresh uranium.

    The differences would be dramatic – over 100 times more energy per ton of uranium in, and 20 times less waste per gigawatt-year of electricity produced. Even more important, the waste stream would contain so little radioactive material that after 500 years it would be no more radioactive than uranium ore in the ground. Repositories such as Yucca Mountain could be simplified or even eliminated.

    How could these claims be true, you ask, since we rarely hear anyone talking about them? Because after Three Mile Island, the nuclear industry had to improve its procedures and designs, nuclear power’s opponents stopped all rational discussion, and natural gas was plentiful and cheap for a couple of decades. Nuclear power genuinely had a problem, but that’s changed.

    Let’s look at these claims. Nuclear is safe enough, because even an accident which caused a large economic loss, such as Three Mile Island, harmed no one. The defense-in-depth design did what it was supposed to do, and the industry learned and applied many lessons to reduce the chance of a similar accident. We would have greenhouse gas reductions, because nuclear fission emits none. And there would be non-proliferation, because all the proposed fuel cycles mix materials in ways which would make recycled fuel undesirable for weapons design and dangerous to handle.

    Nuclear power can be had at reasonable cost because: 1) the 2005 energy bill solved the unpredictable licensing process by mandating a single license for construction and operation, 2) because fast reactors will keep nuclear fuel inexpensive, and 3) because nuclear waste can be reduced to a small problem by reprocessing steps that would cost less, some say far less, than one cent per kilowatt-hour (about 12 percent of today’s average retail price).

    Not that all of this will be simple. The development of closed fuel cycles and fast reactors is not yet finished. But what’s left is engineering, not the discovery of new solutions. It will take decades to build a thousand reactors, but that just underlines the task’s urgency. We can’t wait until there’s a crisis to start developing solutions, and we can’t afford to waste time on false hopes.

  14. LOL… wow…
    maybe the greens have it wrong after all. What with, like, civilization’s collapse imminent and everything, and only nuclear being sustainable…

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