Nuclear Power Isn't A Solution

To achieve a 20 pecent reduction in carbon emissions from coal, 1,000-megawatt reactors would need to be built at a rate of 85-90 plants per year this century.

Published: 14-Jun-2005

In separate articles in Wired magazine and MIT's Technology Review, Peter Schwartz and Stewart Brand argue that the environmental community should reconsider its opposition to new nuclear power plants because of global warming. Both authors are respected futurists and longtime environmental advocates. Both had a hand in the Pentagon study of abrupt climate change that inspired the movie "The Day After Tomorrow." They deserve respect and consideration. But their arguments and recommendations have little merit.

There are 439 nuclear plants operating worldwide, about one quarter in the United States. The last completed plant was ordered in 1973, well before the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island or the 1986 accident at Chernobyl. Construction costs -- the dominant element in producing power -- averaged about four times original estimates, and left many utilities and the investment community with sour memories.

Changes in electric market structure -- generally termed deregulation -- have only added to the risks that utilities and investors must consider. In a deregulated market, there is no certainty that costs incurred will be recovered. Even in fully regulated markets, utilities must consider the possibility that any number of technologies -- fuel cells, photovoltaics, coal with carbon sequestration, gas-fired combined cycles, geothermal, conservation or wind -- could undercut their investments long before the capital costs are recovered. Peter Bradford, former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member, argues that nuclear power is fundamentally incompatible with a deregulated industry, and he is probably right.

Global warming deserves our urgent attention but it pays to think about what nuclear power can and cannot contribute. One respected global energy scenario developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates a three-fold increase in carbon emissions between 1997 and 2100, even with an eight-fold increase in nuclear generation. If coal replaced all the nuclear generation in this scenario, carbon emissions in 2100 increase a mere 20 percent. Working the other way, if nuclear power were to replace all coal, carbon emissions would fall 20 percent. To achieve that goal, 1,000-megawatt reactors would need to be built at a rate of 85-90 plants per year this century.

Neither Schwartz nor Brand considers the weapons proliferation risks. If uranium limits force a shift to breeder technology, the amount of weapons-usable plutonium circulating in global commerce would be about 5 million kilograms per year; only 10 kilograms are needed to make a nuclear weapon.

Perhaps we will find more uranium and not require breeder technology. In that event, this scenario would require 2,000 uranium enrichment facilities around the world. If they were making fuel for pebble bed reactors, each plant would be doing about 84 percent of the enrichment necessary for producing weapons grade uranium. Suppose a plant chose to start with the pebble bed fuel and make weapons grade uranium instead -- each facility could make 875 bombs per year. Weapons grade uranium bombs, in sharp contrast to their plutonium cousins, are almost foolproof to design and require no testing, an important distinction for diplomatic intervention.

At one point, the technology for uranium enrichment -- gaseous diffusion -- was a closely guarded secret, and the plants use so much electricity that their existence was impossible to conceal. A major reason the United States invaded Iraq was concern that Saddam Hussein had acquired a much smaller and concealable technology -- gas centrifuges from Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Khan. This technology is out, and its existence makes the transition from nuclear power to nuclear weapons essentially unstoppable.

A variety of countries, including our own, are reconsidering nuclear power. Some nations will no doubt build new reactors. Many will not retire existing plants, and will find ways to extend their commercial life. But the answers to global warming lie elsewhere -- in improving energy efficiency, adding wind, solar, geothermal technologies, and perhaps coal with carbon byproducts into stable geologic formations.

Jim Harding, until recently, served as director of external affairs for Seattle City Light. Denis Hayes is president of the Bullitt Foundation.

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