Another radioactive environmentalist

A co-founder of Greenpeace challenges the anti-nuclear orthodoxy.

In one of the early Democratic Presidential debates of 1992, when the late Paul Tsongas &#8212 then a Senator from Massachusetts with an impeccable environmental record &#8212 dared to express the opinion that nuclear power was preferable to coal on environmental grounds, Jerry Brown pointed at Tsongas and said to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are now looking at the world’s first radioactive environmentalist.”

Thanks in no small part to Ralph Nader, opposition to nuclear power has been a shibboleth of the environmental movement. I learned about the mendacity and the Inquisitorial fanaticism of the Nader-led anti-nuke forces thirty years ago, when I worked for a leading anti-nuclear Congressman, Les Aspin. First, I noticed the prevalence of unfacts in Critical Mass propaganda, even on the breeder reactor issue where the anti-nuke forces clearly had the better end of the policy argument. Then I discovered that the confident Naderite prediction of one meltdown per 1000 reactor-years was entirely made up out of whole cloth, and started to think through the nuclear/coal comparison. Then, when I persuaded my boss to switch sides on the question of a moratorium on light-water-reactor construction (he’d authored the first bill on the topic, but declined to re-introduce it in 1995) I learned how nasty and unforgiving the Naderites were in the face of heresy.

In the face of the global-warming problem, this particular smelly little orthodoxy is beginning to break down. At least, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, has come around, and he cites other high-profile heretics.

Opposition to nuclear power has always been based on a refusal to face the fact that, in the short-to-medium term, less nuclear power necessarily means more coal-fired power. But the truth is slowly sinking in, and leaking out, in part due to the global-warming problem and in part due to Nader’s self-discrediting antics in 2000 and 2004. (There’s actually a strong analogy between refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to Gore was Bush and refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to nuclear is coal.)

That’s not to say that the American approach to nuclear power generation makes any sense at all. It doesn’t. Having dozens of power companies operate one or a few reactors each is a recipe for inefficiency in construction and operation. The permitting process, which in effect requires a new design for each site, is a guarantee of expense and delay. If we’re going to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, we shouldn’t do so on forty-year-old technology. And we need a solution to the waste problem. (Mine would be to reprocess the spent fuel, recycling the plutonium into new fuel rods, separating the relatively small amount of very “hot,” short-half-life waste to be guarded for a few decades in swimming pools, and vitrifying the low-level waste into glass blocks out of which pyramids could be built somewhere in the desert.)

But even a dumb nuclear power program beats coal, which emits greenhouse gasses, particulates, and more radioactive material per kilowatt-hour produced (in the form of radon) than nuclear plants. Maybe &#8212 just maybe &#8212 the country is ready to learn that simple truth.

Hat tip: Kevin Drum.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

22 thoughts on “Another radioactive environmentalist”

  1. curious what your reaction to Schweitzer's proposals on coal are, and whether that changes the calculation on which you seem to be relying to any degree?

  2. I too have been slowly coming around to the idea of nuclear power but not with the current (40 year old) technology! I have been intrigued by something called a pebble bed reactor
    as it does not have have the problems associated with using water as a coolant plus the reaction process itself has inherent negative feedback which prevents the meltdown situation that has frightened so many, for very good reasons!

  3. At last we are starting to wake up. There is no way to "clean-up" coal. The idea to bury the CO2 underground is a pipe dream. If we are really going to address global warming nuclear power has to have a role along with wind, solar, and conservation.

  4. I have been coming around on this too & am happy to see from your post that there are possible solutions to the waste issue. I'm not very knowledgable in this area, but I do know that plutonium is one of the most toxic & persistent substances on the planet, which has made me resistant to nukes in the past. I could support a program such as the one you suggest to build nuclear plants. I'm not quite so sure that your statement that a dumb nuke program beats coal is right, though. Just imagine the sort of nuke program the Bush administration might cook up.

  5. I've never been as opposed to nuclear power as most environmentalists… I'm approximately as worried about it as I am about coal…
    But one point:
    Partially because of how (ahem) heated the issue of global warming is, I have some doubts about whether the standard reports about consensus among climatologists et. al. are quite accurate. (Note that some have lost funding for denying human contributions to GW…etc., etc.)
    That is, I'm not as convinced as most liberals are that global warming is caused by humans to a significant degree. Of course I'm not convinced that it's not, either. But there's non-trivial evidence against the claim, so far as I can tell.
    In the past I've reasoned roughly like this: we might as well work to phase out fossil fuels, esp. coal, since there's much to gain even if we're wrong about human contributions to GW…which we're probably right about.
    If fears about GW drive us to look for fast solutions and one of those is nuclear…well, then I'm given pause. I'm not knee-jerk anti-nuclear…but I'm not wild about it, and if we're being driven in that direction, that's even more reason to make sure about the climatological science that's driving us there.

  6. I'm not knee-jerk anti-nuclear, either, but I wish that regs on nuclear be made tighter, especially for whistle blowers.
    In 1975 I was living in Huntsville, AL. There was a major fire at the nearby Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant. What caused it? Inspectors were searching for leaks in a vacuum tube by using a candle.

  7. I'm certainly not opposed to "clean coal," if it's really clean and if someone knows how to do it in practice (including regulatory practice as well as engineering) rather than only in theory. If Schweizter is right technically, and if he can convince the coal companies and the power companies to accept adequately tight standards, more power (including the Presidency) to him. But we're not there yet.
    It doesn't matter where in the coal cycle the radon (and thorium and uranium) get released; releasing them is one of the costs of burning coal. The amount of radioactivity involved isn't enough to worry me compared with the other problems; I mention it only to show that nuclear power is the preferred option even if you're very concerned about radioative releases. The right standard for nuclear waste disposal shouldn't be zero exposure to ionizing radiation, but rather less exposure than would result from making electric power via the alternative technology.

  8. Crossposting my reply from Drum's comments:
    n terms of cost of nuclear. France pays more per kWh for electricity than surrounding nations. Also, there was a scandal in France when it came out that these thing are not being done as cheaply as everyone thought. There is no significant environmentalist anti-nuke movement in France, but there are people who are not thrilled with the cost. In terms of cost of breeder. No one has built one cheaply yet. One indication that it won't be easy is the pebble bed reactor in South Africa. Pebble bed reactors have been touted for years as the path to cheap decentralized nuclear electricity. Only it turns ou the the current project cost of the South African one is $8000+ per KW of capaicity and rising.
    In terms of world energy demand and "conservation". First unlike some of the bicycle riders here, I favor efficiency over conservation. Conservation is turning down your thermostat.Efficiency is insulating you attic.
    And the point of efficiency is not to lower energy use in absolute terms. There is sufficient potential to do that in rich nations like the U.S., but China is still poor per capita, does not want to stay poor per capita and is going to increase energy consumption in absolute terms, as will any other poor nations thtat can manage it. With really effective efficiency measure though, world energy consumption can be 22 TW in 2050 instead of 42.
    So why is efficiency important? In part of course it is a question of picking the low hanging fruit. But other reason is that *all* alternatives to coal are expensive (including "clean" decarbonized coal – which is a nightmare in terms of water use). But if can squeeze more GDP out of a unit of energy then we can use more expensive sources, whether we increase or decrease energy use, and still keep total energy costs at the same percent of world GDP (or less) than it is now.
    And the only energy source that there is plenty of is solar energy.
    Mind you wind, geothermal, wave power, hydroelectric, biomass and so forth will all play and important part. But about a quarter to a third of energy consumption worldwide is low temperature heat – space heating, space cooling hot water heating and so on. We could provide that with low temperature thermal solar panels and store it (seasonally if needed) in low temperature zeolites. With modern evacated tube collectors this possible even in cloudy and rainy climates, in fact where 99%+ of humans live. While such low temp solar is competive with fossil fuels now when providing 65%+ of needs, once you add the storage and extra panels to provide all or most, it is more expensive per unit of energy than coal or natural gas. But that is why you need the kind of efficiencies (and in new buildings passive solar) the Amory Lovins has described. Let efficiency and passive solar cheaply reduce your need for sources, and you can afford to buy slightly more expensive sources.
    Ok, what about electricity? This is where I move away from the "small is beautiful" crowd. Wind, geothermal, hydroelectric power can all provide a portion of our needs. But we do need more, and currently PV cannot do it. But commerical solar thermal plants provide electricity at 11 cents per kWh now. And heat, unlike electricity is something we know how to store comparatively cheaply. Solar thermal with molten salt storage cost 15 cents per kWh – and at that price is 100% dispatchable. That is about the same price as non-dispatchable PV power, and cheaper than breeder and other heavy water reactors. It would take about two percent of desert land world-wide – something I'm not happy about, but am happier about that than massive coal and uranium mining, the building of tens of thousands of breeder reactors. I'm happier about solar thermal than than using biomass beyond the point where it is sustainable – to the point where energy competes with food for land, or youu convert the rain forest to palm trees for biodiesel.
    Photovoltatic is still too expensive even with efficiency, especially when you add storage. (There are exceptions, but PV at current prices is not going provide more than a percent or two of consumption.) But if that were solved, the land use objection is a red herring. You don't have to confine PV deployment to buildings, though it is a good start. You can put in on highway walls, roof over parking lots and if need be roads, In short the human race as paved over enough land one way or another that we could generate all our electricity needs from land we humans have already covered with stone and asphalt. So research on PV and electricity storage should be a priority. Because if costs can be lowered, that really is a much more desirable and attractive way to produce electricity. Because you can deploy PV it dual use configurations – on buildings and parking lots and highway walls and roads, if the costs were reasonable it would be the lowest footprint energy source – period.
    Until then, efficiency combined with low and high temp solar will remain the best choices, with wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, sustainable biomass, and various minor sources playing important roles in lowering average cost of power, and improving reliability.
    The nuclear option is a fuzzy headed attempt to avoid making hard choices; efficiency and solar supplemented by other renewable sources is the realistic option.

  9. The big problem with nuclear power, though, is not so much the threat of meltdowns (which is pretty minimal), but rather the much more mundane matter of where to put the nuclear waste, which remains hazardous for a few thousand years and has to be carefully contained for about as long.

  10. So, if you don't like nukes, you're a Naderite, one of the people who put Bush in office. If you do like nukes, join the crowd of ex-Greenpeacers.
    Well, not exactly- Moore left Greenpeace in 1986 to join the family firm that brings you farm-raised salmon, otherwise known as S*** on a Shingle if you use the old plank method of roasting.
    In spite of Moore's 20 year effort to persuade us farm-raised salmon won't hurt the environment, the verdict is in- they do.
    So, just based on Moore's real track record, I feel entirely comfortable about rejecting anything he has to say about nuclear power.
    As for the 'meat' of Mark's post, it appears to be this: We don't have a good design, and we still don't know what to do about the waste. But it's better than coal.
    Well, maybe it is, but is it better than conservation? The first car I bought, 40 years ago, got better gas mileage than 90% of the cars on the road today. The first house I bought had NO insulation. Surely we can do better.

  11. Actually, we've known what to do with nuclear waste for a long time. It was under discussion when I was in graduate school (and some friends of mine wrote dissertations on accelerated testing mechanisms related to the problem.)
    Here's another plus for nuclear reactors. According to National Geographic, high-temperature helium gas-cooled reactors can produce H2 as a by-product. Let's see a coal-fired plant contribute to a Hydrogen economy.
    But the bottom line on nuclear power is this: it doesn't emit CO2. True, some CO2 is released in the building and mining cycles, but it's a small fraction of what a coal-burning plant will emit over its life-span. Besides which, Clean Coal is just another Bushism, like Healthy Forests or Clear Skies or No Child Left Behind.

  12. "You did not address a single one of the sophisticated, hard-headed anti-nuke arguments being made now by people that have nothing to do with Nader."
    What are they? With modern design the meltdown question is overhyped (actually it was overhyped even in the 1960s.) The disposal issue is overhyped (the difference between 'radioactive' and 'radioactive to a hazardous degree' is not well maintained in the anti-nuclear literature). What are the hard-headed anti-nuclear arguments?

  13. These aren't arguments, but here are some questions I'd like answered before I would support more nuke power:
    1. Why are there no private companies willing to build nuke plants unless there are big government subsidies available?
    2. How much does nuke power really cost, when you factor in the subsidies, the necessity of govt-provided insurance, the cost of waste disposal, etc? There seem to be lots of costs associated with this type of power, and I'm not confident that those costs are openly discussed and factored in.

  14. Sebastian, costs are one of those hard headed arguments. When you figure in the massive subsidies, construction costs, and environmental costs of uranium mining, nuclear does not look so good. If you read more of the posts here I think you would have seen that. It's far more than operational safety.

  15. Cost compared to what? Everyone knows it will cost more than coal. More than solar or wind? That seems doubtful since even the old nuclear reactors are cheaper than solar or wind. Furthermore solar and wind both have peak use problems which can't be overcome without a new battery technology which has unfortunately evaded us for the past 100 years.
    See for example here on costs.
    Since Mark's audience is people who believe carbon emissions cause global warming, it seems appropriate to count the carbon credit cost. With that included, nuclear power is competitive.

  16. Re: "..more radioactive material per kilowatt-hour produced (in the form of radon) than nuclear plants."
    It had never occurred to me! Thanks for the info.

  17. Re:cost – the biggest issue related to cost is uncertainty. Nuclear power comes under so many different regulatory processes and also comes under a lot of scrutiny. It's good that nuclear power plants are monitored carefully by the public and by regulatory authorities, but that also leads to a lot of uncertainty since nuclear power plants need such long lead time and have to go through a long approval process. As an example, one nuclear plant had to have all of its electrical wiring, piping, etc. torn out and reinstalled because the regulations associated with quality records changed befor the plant was completed. Prior to that time, the requirement was only that a record exists that the inspection was performed. The new requirement was that the record shows not only that the inspection was performed, but also what was done and how the installation was determined to be acceptable. Needless to say, this type of thing adds considerable cost. Furthermore, nuclear plants are long-term investments, and as most people know, investors usually favor short-term investments. Not too long ago, there was a boom in construction of combined combustion plants, with their low up-front costs. Not anymore, with natural gas costs going through the roof.
    In any case, people can sneer all they want at government subsidies, but just about everything gets subsidies of some form. The recent subsidies to the nuclear industry are fairly limited compared to some subsidies that other industries receive, and are focused primarily on the uncertainties mentioned above.
    New technology is continuing to be developed, but for the present time, new reactors in the US are going to be second-generation "passive" reactors such as the AP-1000, ESBWR, and similar ilk, simply because the US has more expertise in similar technology… just about all other nuclear power related research programs were scrapped due to pressure from the "anti-nuke" lobbies.
    As for the comment about France not producing electricity cheaply, I'm not sure where that data comes from, but as far as I can find, France has some of the lowest electricity costs in Europe, and is the world's largest net exporter of electricity. Presumably that means their electricity is competitively priced, or other countries would be more interested in building their own electrical capacity. There were some issues in the past about EdF (France's utility) carrying such large debt burdens, but they have changed that situation in a hurry since then.
    There is a report out, ExternE, which assesses the external (environmental, etc.) costs of different forms of power. In addition, various research groups (predominantly European) have assessed "total" costs for power production. Nuclear comes out looking pretty favorable in all cases.
    Do I say that nuclear power is perfect, or ideal? No. But no single source of power is perfect. Diversification is important; becoming overly reliant on one thing isn't a good thing, especially when electricity is essentially a necessity in the modern world. But I certainly consider nuclear power to be preferable above some of the other forms out there.
    Finally, there is an initiative started by Bush, GNEP, that has reprocessing as one of its aims. Thankfully, Bush will be out of office before even the most basic infrastructure is developed for this program, assuming that it makes it out of the study stage…

  18. Nuclear reactors do not produce any waste. The slightly used and highly reusable fuel that has passed through the reactor once is not waste. Waste is something that has no value and you throw away. This slightly used fuel can be used again and again, each time releasing just as much energy as it did during the first pass. During the first pass less than 3% of the potential energy is released. All of it can be released in subsequent cycles. Slightly used fission fuel is not waste.
    Question: why have people been lying to you about it and calling it waste when it isn't?

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