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.



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

Apr 23rd 2019


“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own. 
Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."
Jan 9th 2019
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.