Apr 2nd 2016

Spring Fever: Nuclear Energy Madness

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

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 IslandChernobyl, andFukushima.

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 o f350,000 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 peoplewithin 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 economicallyand 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 guaranteefor 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 enormouscosts 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.





Dr. Jeff Schweitzer
 is a marine biologist, consultant and internationally recognized authority in ethics, conservation and development. He is the author of five books including Calorie Wars: Fat, Fact and Fiction (July 2011), and A New Moral Code (2010). Dr. Schweitzer has spoken at numerous international conferences in Asia, Russia, Europe and the United States.Dr. Schweitzer's work is based on his desire to introduce a stronger set of ethics into American efforts to improve the human condition worldwide. He has been instrumental in designing programs that demonstrate how third world development and protecting our resources are compatible goals. His vision is to inspire a framework that ensures that humans can grow and prosper indefinitely in a healthy environment.Formerly, Dr. Schweitzer served as an Assistant Director for International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President Clinton. Prior to that, Dr. Schweitzer served as the Chief Environmental Officer at the State Department's Agency for International Development. In that role, he founded the multi-agency International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program, a U.S. Government that promoted conservation through rational economic use of natural resources.Dr. Schweitzer began his scientific career in the field of marine biology. He earned his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He expanded his research at the Center for Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. While at U.C. Irvine he was awarded the Science, Engineering and Diplomacy Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.Dr. Schweitzer is a pilot and he founded and edited the Malibu Mirage, an aviation magazine dedicated to pilots flying these single-engine airplanes. He and his wife Sally are avid SCUBA divers and they travel widely to see new wildlife, never far from their roots as marine scientists..To learn more about Dr Schweitzer, visit his website at http://www.JeffSchweitzer.com
.

To follow Jeff Schweizer on Twitter, please click here.

For Jeff Schweitzer web site, please click here.

Below link to Amazon for Jeff Schweitzer's latest book.


TO FOLLOW WHAT'S NEW ON FACTS & ARTS, PLEASE CLICK HERE!





 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos."
Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Brood with me on the latest delay of the full release of the records pertaining to the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. That was 58 years ago." -----"Mark my words: ...... No one who remembers 1963 will live to see the US government admit the full truth about Kennedy’s murder. And the American people’s faith in democracy will continue to fade. There is only one way to prevent this, and that is to release every record, withholding nothing – and to do it now."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."
Oct 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "So much of Succession holds a mirror to real life, and the way that Logan Roy’s hand-picked board members allowed these abuses to continue by turning a blind eye to them is a good example. We have just published research that shows that public companies whose directors are chosen by their CEOs are statistically more likely to be involved in corporate misconduct, along with various other shortcomings. So why does this happen, and what should be done about it? "
Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."