Brad Plumer on Nuclear Learnings from France & South Korea

Brad’s excellent essay on Vox interprets the recent Energy Policy paper by Jessica Lovering, Arthur Yip, and Ted Nordhaus. I have really just one quibble with Brad’s “Four broad lessons” summary where he wrote:

1) Stable regulations are essential for nuclear power to thrive. More than, say, solar or wind, nuclear will always need strict safety and environmental regulations. No way around that. The risks are inherently higher.

That’s an example of the “see I’m not pro-nuclear” positioning that we often notice even in informed commentary on how nuclear power fits into the menu of low carbon options. The relative risks of nuclear power are not inherently higher! In his marvelous “Sustainable energy without the hot air” David Mackay’s Chapter 24 Nuclear? examines nuclear power. From that chapter I extracted following graphic. This is David’s computation of deaths per GWy (gigawatt-year), which he has extracted from two of the studies we’ve previously referenced: the EU ExternE research, and the Paul Scherrer Institute.David MacKay relative risks of energy options

  • Our goal is to substitute low-carbon for fossil, especially coal, and especially in the developing fast-growing nations.
  • Amongst the low-carbon options, nuclear has proven to be the safest and really the only scaleable option that can displace coal and natural gas.
  • Nobody is proposing to build more unsafe Chernobyl RBMK unsafe. Yet Chernobyl deaths dominate the tiny comparative death-print statistics of our generation options. Take away Chernobyl and commercial nuclear’s death-print is effectively zero.

When I first studied the relative risks of our energy options I quickly realized that my fears of nuclear catastrophe were based entirely on media mythology. The media don’t report on the thousands of people killed by fossil fuels every year. Even major accidents like the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion are not widely reported or investigated (this 2010 accident was in a suburb of San Francisco: 8 fatalities, 52 injured). Fossil energy causes real people to die every year – real deaths versus theoretical nuclear deaths.

San Bruno gas pipeline explosion

We have a civilizational choice to make: whether we organize political support to scale up construction of advanced nuclear plants that are both economical and orders of magnitude safer than the existing safe 3G plants. If we fail to do that we are going to squander our wealth on the renewables dream – only to find ourselves blockaded by the economics when we are only halfway to our goal of zero emissions energy.

Mike Shellenberger: How one of world’s cleanest & greenest technologies became viewed as bad for environment

Pro@MichaelBTI just posted a nineteen-point Tweetstorm on Storify explaining the history of how certain environmentalists discovered their true calling as anti-nuclear activists. Because I wasn’t following energy policy during this period, it has long been a puzzle to me how an “environmentalist” would turn against the cleanest, safest source of energy. To oversimplify a bit, what happened is that a few well-placed people with a strong “Small is Beautiful” and anti-corporate ideology invented issues that could be used very effectively for fear-mongering. Amory Lovins continues today to be an effective purveyor of these anti-nuclear myths. 

Here’s a plain-text recap of Mike’s history – please reply at the Storify page or directly to @MichaelBTI. Emphasis is mine.

1. As pro-nuclear ranks grew among people who care about climate & environment, we were treated as something of a novelty — but we weren’t.

2. Alvin Weinberg & other post-war scientists saw nuclear as huge breakthrough in pollution-free, low-impact source of electricity.

3. While California & others embraced nuclear, faction in Sierra Club saw cheap power as opening door to more people & more development.

4. Nuclear was so obviously superior environmentally to all other energy technologies that opponents had to invent new concerns.

5. Amory Lovins worked with David Brower @sierraclub (against Ansel Adams) to make up various reasons to be against nuclear energy.

6. They made up & publicized scary myths about proliferation & waste that notably had nothing whatsoever to do with the environment.

7. Anti-nuclear env. leaders of 1970s knew they couldn’t win on scientific or environmental grounds so they had to start fear-mongering.

8. But because it was “environmental leaders” who were doing fear-mongering, media misreported concerns as “environmental” — they weren’t.

9. Nuclear waste is deemed the environmental problem, but from environmental point of view it is exactly the kind of waste you should want.

10. From environmental point of view, production you want is highest output using fewest inputs & least amt. of waste: that’s nuclear.

11. Anti-nuclear leaders turned a huge strength of nuclear — its small amounts of highly manageable waste — into a weakness.

12. Grossly exaggerating nuclear waste risks was critically important to undermining its reputation as an orders-of-magnitude cleaner tech.

13. Much of “environmental” attack on nuclear had nothing to do with tech per se but paranoia of “large systems” e.g. the electrical grid.

14. Fear of big systems & utopian views of small communities underlay anti-nuclear movement rejection of both big government & companies.

15. Today anti-nuclear activists routinely talk of “nuclear industry!” but mostly are referring to public or heavily regulated utilities.

16. In truth, nuclear’s biggest advocates weren’t profit-motivated private companies but publicly-minded scientists & utilities…

17. … their motivation & excitement was around vision of powering California & world with pollution-free low-footprint energy.

18. In sum, it was the environmental benefits that were *the main motivation* of pro-nuclear advocates like Weinberg in the 1960s…

19. … while it was highly ideological *non-environmental* concerns that drove fear & opposition to nuclear energy starting in the 1970s.

The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 2

This is a sequel to The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 1, where I promised to look at the relative nuclear support amongst print and TV media, scientists and the public. A personal favorite technical source on nuclear power is prof. Bernard Cohen’s textbook The Nuclear Energy Option. While the book is out of print there is a very well-executed online version. For this post we need Chapter 4 Is The Public Ready For More Nuclear Power?

Prof. Cohen analyzed a broad range of opinion surveys that were available at the time of writing ~1990. Here I just want to focus on the hypothesis that “The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it.” If we collected fresh surveys today we might find the absolute levels a bit different, but I claim the relative proportions should be very similar. Here’s the relevant paragraphs from Chapter 4:

While public support of nuclear power has only recently been turning favorable, the scientific community has always been steadfastly supportive. In 1980, at the peak of public rejection, Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, social scientists from Smith College and Columbia University, respectively, conducted a poll of a random sample of scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science, The “Who’s Who” of scientists.1 They received a total of 741 replies. They categorized 249 of these respondents as “energy experts” based on their specializing in energy-related fields rather broadly defined to include such disciplines as atmospheric chemistry, solar energy, conservation, and ecology. They also categorized 72 as nuclear scientists based on fields of specialization ranging from radiation genetics to reactor physics. Some of their results are listed in Table 1.

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From Table 1 we see that 89% of all scientists, 95% of scientists involved in energy-related fields, and 100% of radiation and nuclear scientists favored proceeding with the development of nuclear power. Incidentally, there were no significant differences between responses from those employed by industry, government, and universities. There was also no difference between those who had and had not received financial support from industry or the government.

Another interesting question was whether the scientists would be willing to locate nuclear plants in cities in which they live (actually, no nuclear plants are built within 20 miles of heavily populated areas). The percentage saying that they were willing was 69% for all scientists, 80% for those in energy-related sciences, and 98% for radiation and nuclear scientists. This was in direct contrast to the 56% of the general public that said it was not willing.

Rothman and Lichter also surveyed opinions of various categories of media journalists and developed ratings for their support of nuclear energy. Their results are shown in Table 2. [which I’ve rendered in chart form]

Click to embiggen

We see that scientists are much more supportive of nuclear power than journalists, and press journalists are much more supportive than the TV people who have had most of the influence on the public, even though they normally have less time to investigate in depth. There is also a tendency for science journalists to be more supportive then other journalists.

In summary, these Rothman-Lichter surveys show that scientists have been much more supportive of nuclear power than the public or the TV reporters, producers, and journalists who “educate” them. Among scientists, the closer their specialty to nuclear science, the more supportive they are. This is not much influenced by job security considerations, since the level of support is the same for those employed by universities, where tenure rules protect jobs, as it is for those employed in industry. Moreover, job security for energy scientists is not affected by the status of the nuclear industry because they are largely employed in enterprises competing with nuclear energy. In fact, most nuclear scientists work in research on radiation and the ultimate nature of matter, and are thus not affected by the status of the nuclear power industry. Even among journalists, those who are most knowledgeable are the most supportive. The pattern is very clear — the more one knows about nuclear power, the more supportive one becomes.

For the 2014 perspective, please read Geoff Russell’s wonderful new book GreenJacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change

Geoff articulates how Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club and the like thwarted the substitution of clean nuclear for dirty coal. Those organizations could not admit today what will be completely obvious after reading Greenjacked!: that if they had supported nuclear power from the 1960s to today, then all of the developed world could easily have been like France, Sweden and Ontario province — powering advanced societies with nearly carbon-free nuclear energy.

The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 1


Image and caption credit Chattanooga Times Free Press: Houses in the Hunter Trace subdivision in north Hamilton County are within a few hundred yards of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant near Soddy-Daisy. Neighbors to the nuclear plant say they don’t mind living close to the TVA plant. Staff Photo by Dave Flessner

In 2002 I started looking into our low-carbon energy options. Over the next two years I learned there is no perfect-zero-carbon energy option. I learned that realistic low-carbon energy policy is about deploying scaleable and affordable electricity generation. To my surprise, like the five environmentalists of Pandora’s Promise, I discovered that my anti-nuclear view was based on fictions. I had carried around “The Washington Post accepted” wisdom for decades without ever asking “Why is that true?”

As I was studying the nuclear option, it became blindingly obvious that the people who feared nuclear knew essentially nothing about the subject. Conversely the people who were most knowledgeable about nuclear supported large-scale nuclear deployment as a practical way to replace coal.

And, very interesting, the people who live in the neighborhoods of existing nuclear plants tend to be very favorable to building more nuclear. Including new nuclear plants to be constructed literally “In their own back yard”, a reversal of the expected NIMBY attitudes. Of course there are economic benefits to the neighbors of a plant, including the taxes paid to the regional government entity. The economic incentives gave people a reason to want to be there, so it motivated them to ask some serious questions:

  • “Should I buy a home near that nuclear plant?”
  • “Will my children be harmed?”
  • “What if there is an accident?”

From reading the recent NEI annual polls I developed an untested hypothesis: the more contact you have with people who work at a nearby nuclear plant, the less you fear nuclear and the more you appreciate the benefits of clean electricity. It’s easy to informally ask your neighbors “what’s the truth?” about things that worry you. And you learn the people who operate the plant are just as devoted to their children as you are.

Here is another encouraging trend: there are significant numbers “voting with their feet” by moving into nuclear plant neighborhoods.

USA 2010 census: the population living within 10 miles of nuclear power plants rose by 17 percent in the past decade.

And if you read the same surveys that I did you will see how strongly the neighbors’ attitudes contrast to the typical media fear-mongering. Examples:

Neighbor of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant “This is a safer neighborhood than most areas and I really don’t think much about the plant, other than it provides a great walking area for me,” said Blanche DeVries, who moved near Sequoyah three years ago.

NEI 2013 survey similar to 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011 “familiarity with nuclear energy leads to support.” 

NEI 2013 survey “80 percent agree with keeping the option to build more nuclear power plants in the future”

BBC Living near a nuclear power station

  • Q: “What’s it like to have a reactor on the doorstep?”
  • A: “I live not more than 100 yards…and it doesn’t worry me.”

NEI survey 2009: “Eighty-four percent of Americans living near nuclear power plants favor nuclear energy, while an even greater number—90 percent―view the local power station positively, and 76 percent support construction of a new reactor near them, according to a new public opinion survey of more than 1,100 adults across the United States.”

NEI survey 2013 [PDF]: “81 percent of residents near commercial reactors favor the use of nuclear energy, 47 percent strongly.”

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UK 2013 Why we love living next to a nuclear power plant: “It’s cheap, it’s quiet and, say the residents of Dungeness, blissfully safe”. “Here, by contrast, everyone I talk to enthuses about a strong feeling of security and a rare kind of community spirit. Put simply, they live in houses that happen to be next door to a nuclear power station because it makes them feel safe.”

Next we will look at the relative nuclear support amongst print & TV media, scientists and the public The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 2.

Why is nuclear power the core climate change solution?

[For accessibility, I’ve bumped the time-stamp on this post from Jan 2010 to May 2011. Ed.]

Here’s an email from critical-thinker friend and paleo oceanographer Will Howard:

January 2010: Trying to get my head around nuclear power issues. I would describe myself as a nuclear “agnostic.” But the more I read the more I can see the merits of Barry Brooks’ (and your) point of view, and realizing we’ve lost a lot of time bringing nuclear power online.

I replied:

I too was “agnostic”, but leaning against more nuclear generation. I was concerned about all that long-lived “waste”. Why do we need nuclear power — my optimistic-self wanted to believe Ray Kurzweil that “nanotechnology” would somehow enable solar to become the answer for clean, affordable energy. Or geothermal, wind, tidal, or bio-something.

As I studied energy policy it became clear that a necessary condition that must be satisfied by carbon-free energy is that it must be “cheaper than coal“. Otherwise, the dominant future polluters, the developing world, will continue building coal power stations. After 25 years of government subsidies, the results for “renewables” just don’t add up — not even close. Certainly, there are geographic niches where the free market will adopt wind or solar, but on a global basis, pushing for such “renewables” just prolongs the dominance of coal (and gas). The Big Green NGOs and Green parties have lost the plot — they have forgotten that the goal is to achieve zero emissions, not to promote particular popular technologies.

As you say “we’ve lost a lot of time bringing nuclear power online”. Instead of being coal-dependent, both America and Australia could easily have adopted the French model, which with almost entirely nuclear-based electricity generation, makes France the standard for other developed countries to achieve (the challenge for the rest of the planet is to catch up to where France is today!). Sigh… The good news is that China does not seem to be that stupid.

So — what solid information can we offer that is useful to our friends? For foundation reading I recommend David MacKay’s famous energy policy book “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” . Dr. Mackay is now Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. You can follow some of David’s efforts here, and you can find Seekerblog posts on MacKay’s work with this search.

Next, I recommend Australian environmental scientist Prof. Barry Brook (Adelaide University). Barry and colleagues have created a remarkable resource — the BraveNewClimate.com blog, where Barry has been applying his considerable critical-thinking skills to the energy policy issue. His September 2009 post “A necessary interlude” is a concise summary of why Barry eventually shifted his focus to concentrate on the nuclear solution. I recommend a careful read of the short essay. In brief, Barry wants the conversation focused on energy policy that will work in the real world. Near the end of the post Barry succinctly summarizes his view of the energy options — this is so good I have reproduced that segment here [the emphasis below is mine]:

(…) It is my conclusion, from all of this, that nuclear power IS the only viable FF [fossil fuels] alternative.

I am vitally interested in supporting real solutions that permit a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, especially coal (oil will, at least in part, take care of itself). If the conclusion is that wind/solar cannot meaningfully facilitate this transition, why bother to promote them? Now, I should make one thing quite clear. I am not AGAINST renewable energy. If folks want to build them, go for it! If they can find investors, great! Indeed, I’m no NIMBY, and would be happy to have a conga line of huge turbines gracing the hills behind my home, just as I’d be happy to have a brand spanking new nuclear power station in my suburb. But why should I promote something I have come to consider — on a scientific and economic basis — to be a non-solution to the energy and climate crisis? That doesn’t make sense to me.

To your questions:

1. Coal with CCS — doomed to failure. Why? Because the only thing that is going to be embraced with sufficient vigour, on a global scale, is an energy technology that has the favourable characteristics of coal, but is cheaper than coal. CCS, by virtue of the fact that it is coal + extra costs (capture, compressions, sequestration) axiomatically fails this litmus test. It is therefore of no interest and those who promote it can only do so on the basis of simultaneously promoting such a large carbon price that (a) the developing world is highly unlikely to ever impose it, and (b) if they do, CCS won’t be competitive with nuclear. CCS is a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

2. Natural gas has no role in baseload generation. It is a high-carbon fossil fuel that releases 500 to 700 kg of CO2 per MWh. If it is used in peaking power only (say at 10% capacity factor), then it is only a tiny piece in the puzzle, because we must displace the coal. It it is used to displace the coal baseload, then it is a counterproductive ’solution’ because it is still high carbon (despite what the Romms of this world will have you believe) and is in shorter supply than coal anyway. Gas is a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

3. The developing world lives in Trainer’s power-down society already, and they are going to do everything possible to get the hell out of it. The developed world will fight tooth and nail, and will burn the planet to a soot-laden crisp, rather than embrace Trainer’s simpler way. Power down is a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

4. It is nice to imagine that renewables will have a niche role in the future. But actually, will they? They don’t have any meaningful role now, when pitted in competition with fossil fuels, so why will that be different when pitted fairly against a nuclear-powered world? I don’t know the answer, and I don’t frankly care, because even if renewable energy can manage to maintain various niche energy supply roles in the future, it won’t meet most of the current or future power demand. So niche applications or not, renewables are peripheral to the big picture because they are a non-solution to the climate and energy crises.

5. Smart grids will provide better energy supply and demand management. Fine, great, that will help irrespective of what source the energy comes from (nuclear, gas, coal, renewables, whatever). Smarter grids are inevitable and welcome. But they are not some white knight that will miraculously allow renewable energy to achieve any significant penetration into meeting world energy demand in the future. Smart grids are sensible, but they are not a solution to the climate and energy crises.

To some, the above may sound rather dogmatic. To me, it’s the emergent property of trying my damnedest to be ruthlessly pragmatic about the energy problem. I have no barrow to push, I don’t get anything out of it — other than I want this problem fixed. I don’t earn a red cent if nuclear turns out be the primary solution. I don’t win by renewables failing. The bottom line is this — if this website is looking more and more like a nuclear advocacy site, then you ought to consider why. It might just be because I’ve come to the conclusion that nuclear power is the only realistic solution to this problem, and that’s why I’m ever more stridently advocating it. This is a ‘game’ we cannot afford to lose, and the longer we dither about with ultimately worthless solutions, the closer we come to endgame, with no pawn left to move to the back row and Queen.

So what can you expect from BNC in the future? Much more on nuclear power (both Gen III and Gen IV), obviously, since I now consider this technology to be the core climate change solution — whilst openly acknowledging the yawning gulf between the scientific understanding of nuclear power and the public’s perception. This must change, and I hope, in my modest way, I can be an agent for that attitudinal shift. I also plan to launch an extended series on renewable energy, with an aim to break down the often complex and multifaceted critiques being made, into simpler, single-issue chunks, which can be more readily pinned down and understood. I will also profile some of the less well-developed low-carbon technologies, such as tidal, wave, microalgae, and geothermal, and speculate on their possible future roles. I hope in this way that I’ll be able to reinforce people’s understanding of why I no longer hold renewable energy to be a primary solution — and yet, by the same yardstick of maintaining intellectual honesty, I’ll also try my very best to keep an open mind to unconsidered possibilities and caveats that are raised by commenters (be these against nuclear energy, and/or for renewables). As I said, healthy thought should never cease to evolve.

When you see anti-nuclear propoganda, always ask yourself “Who Benefits?” And yes, the following is exactly our objective — to kill all coal fired generation (except for CCS plants, if they can make it work).

Nuclear power will kill coal

Summary of developing world nuclear planned and under construction:

China already has 9 GWe operating, with 61 GWe new reactors planned, including some of the world’s most advanced. Their goal is least 60 GWe (total) by 2020, and 120-160 GWe by 2030. China demands aggressive technology transfer in their contracts — e.g., in return for the large commitment to Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, China will be building and supplying most of the components after the first two plants are completed.

India expects to have 20 GWe nuclear capacity on line by 2020 and 63 GWe by 2032. It aims to supply 25% of electricity from nuclear power by 2050 [I think this goal is much less than India is likely to achieve]. India is a leader in Thorium Fast Breeder (FBR) technology and could turn out to be a major global supplier of new nuclear plants.

(…) India has uniquely been developing a nuclear fuel cycle to exploit its reserves of thorium.

Now, foreign technology and fuel are expected to boost India’s nuclear power plans considerably. All plants will have high indigenous engineering content.

India has a vision of becoming a world leader in nuclear technology due to its expertise in fast reactors and thorium fuel cycle.

Russia is producing some 22 GWe in 31 plants, including the BN-600, one of the longest operating fast breeder reactors in the world. Russia has another 37 GWe of new capacity under construction, planned, or proposed.

Brazil has about 2GWe power by two Siemens plants at Angra, and 8GWe more planned for 2030 and 60GWe total by 2060. The bad news is that there will be many megatons of coal burned before this turns around.