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

Added 14.05.2018
During the first century of modern art, Paris was a magnet for ambitious artists from all over Europe. Remarkably, the current exhibition at Paris’ Petit Palais tells us that “Between 1789 and 1914, over a thousand Dutch artists traveled to France.” Prominent among these were Ary Scheffer, Johan Jongkind, Jacob Maris, Kees van Dongen. But of course most prominent were Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian.
Added 10.05.2018
The Jewish Museum in New York City is currently presenting the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), featuring just over thirty paintings by one of the most distinctive and significant artists of the early twentieth century. Focusing on still life paintings, of which he was a master, "Chaim Soutine: Flesh" includes his vigorous depictions of various slaughtered animals - of beef carcasses, hanging fowl, and game. These are dynamic works of great boldness and intensity, and taken together they constitute a sustained and profoundly sensuous interrogation of the flesh, of carnality - of blood, skin and sinew.
Added 08.05.2018
The impact of air pollution on human health is well-documented. We know that exposure to high levels of air pollutants raises the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is growing evidence to suggest that air pollution does not just affect our health – it affects our behaviour too.
Added 05.05.2018
 

The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century.

Added 01.05.2018
Quote from the article: "Who is talking about how globalized the world was between 1880 and 1914 -- until war broke out and fascists subsequently determined the course of history -- and the parallels between then and now? Globalization always had a down side, and was never meant to last forever -- but the gurus chose not to talk about it. It is always just a question of time until economic nationalism reappears, but the gurus have done a poor job of addressing the nexus between economics and politics, and its impact on business, which is the real story."
Added 29.04.2018
"......if we did manage to stop the kind of ageing caused by senescent cells using telomerase activation, we could start devoting all our efforts into tackling these additional ageing processes. There’s every reason to be optimistic that we may soon live much longer, healthier lives than we do today."
Added 29.04.2018
Many countries have introduced a sugar tax in order to improve the health of their citizens. As a result, food and drink companies are changing their products to include low and zero-calorie sweeteners instead of sugar. However, there is growing evidence that sweeteners may have health consequences of their own. New research from the US, presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, found a link with consuming artificial sweeteners and changes in blood markers linked with an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in rats. Does this mean we need to ditch sweeteners as well as sugar?
Added 25.04.2018
Female doctors show more empathy than male doctors. They ask their patients more questions, including questions about emotions and feelings, and they spend more time talking to patients than their male colleagues do. Some have suggested that this might make women better doctors. It may also take a terrible toll on their mental health.
Added 25.04.2018
The English-born Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is arguably America's first great landscape painter - the founder of the Hudson River School, the painter who brought a romantic sensibility to the American landscape, and sought to preserve the rapidly disappearing scenery with panoramas that invoke the divinity in nature. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings" is an astounding exhibition featuring a painter of extraordinary power and vision, underscoring his environmentalism and the deep sense of loss that pervades many works as he reflects on deforestation, the intrusion of the railroad, and the vanishing beauty of the untrammeled wilderness.
Added 23.04.2018
Quantitative evidence from three independent sources — auction prices, textbook illustrations, and counts of paintings included in retrospective exhibitions — all pointed to the fact that some important modern artists made their greatest work late in their careers — Cézanne, for example, in his 60s, and Kandinsky and Rothko in their 50s. But the same evidence indicated that other important artists produced their greatest work very early — Picasso, Johns, and Stella, for example, all in their 20s. Why was this was the case: why did great artists do their best work at such different stages of their careers? I couldn’t answer this question until I understood what makes an artist’s work his or her best.
Added 19.04.2018

People of all ages are at risk from diseases brought on by loneliness, new data has revealed.

Added 09.04.2018

I was a senior university student in Baghdad, Iraq. It was March 2003, and over the past few months, my classmates had whispered to each other about the possibility of a US-led invasion and the likelihood that 35 years of dictatorship and tyranny could be brought to an end.

Added 26.03.2018
In 1815, 69-year old Francisco de Goya painted a small self-portrait. Today it hangs in Madrid’s majestic Prado Museum. Next to it are the two enormous paintings of the uprising of May, 1808, in which Madrid’s citizens had been slaughtered by Napoleon’s troops, that Goya had painted in 1814 for King Ferdinand VII, to be hung in Madrid’s Royal Palace. One of these, of the execution of Spanish civilians by a French firing squad, is now among the most famous images in the history of Western art.
Added 15.03.2018

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking.

Added 03.03.2018

A lack of essential nutrients is known to contribute to the onset of poor mental health in people suffering from anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and

Added 27.02.2018

Mindfulness is big business, worth in excess of US$1.0 billion in the US alone and linked – somewhat paradoxically – to an expanding range of must have products.

Added 23.02.2018

Reverend Jonathan Arnold, dean of divinity at Magdalen college, Oxford, has written about the “seeming paradox that, in today’s so-called secular society, sacred choral music is as

Added 16.02.2018

Orson Welles was a flamboyant showman: Andrew Sarris observed that “Every Welles film is designed around the massive presence of the artist as autobiographer…The Wellesian cinema is the cinema of magic and marvels, and everything, especially its prime protagonist,

Added 08.02.2018

Almost all of us have experienced loneliness at some point. It is the pain we have felt following a breakup, perhaps the loss of a loved one, or a move away from home. We are vulnerable to feeling lonely at any point in our lives.