This post follows on directly from part 1, which you can read here. Here, a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) on climate change and nuclear energy are answered. These are quite deliberately not technical – you won’t find explanations of adiabatic lapse rates, actinide isotopes or Brayton cycle efficiency here! Nope… these are ‘big picture’ questions. I hope you find them stimulating, easy to understand, and appropriate to their target audience – the average ‘Joe’ and ‘Josephine’. Once again, this material was authored primarily by Marion Brook, in collaboration with various other BNC commenters. Thanks to you all for your efforts in developing this everyman’s guide.
We hope to add to this list, and refine the answers (these are very much first drafts, and some certainly need a little filling out). Eventually, I hope that this becomes a static top banner page on BNC, and, I hope, a pamphlet for you to distribute among friends and colleagues. So, feedback is very welcome – let’s work together on this.
Increasingly urgent. The longer we delay on the move away from fossil fuel energy sources, the more we will ‘lock in’ the build-up of long-lived greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.
To have a 50:50 chance of avoiding 2°C or more global warming, carbon emissions must be slashed by around 80% by 2050 and essentially eliminated in the few decades after that. It will take time to make this massive, worldwide transition to new energy sources. We have no time to lose!
No. Renewables are very expensive and cannot meet our needs all the time (see below).
Unfortunately, non-hydro renewables are proving to be slow and ineffective.
For the last 20 odd years, Denmark has been aggressively pursuing wind power, yet it still still only supplies between 5% and 20% of their electricity needs. In twenty years the Danes have been unable to replace a single coal fired power station with renewables.
At 650 g CO2 per kilowatt hour, Denmark’s emissions are more than 7 times greater than nuclear-powered France. And remember, no country has done better with wind then Denmark.
Conversely, in just ten years, France almost completely replaced their old coal-fired power stations with 34 nuclear power plants. Nuclear power currently supplies 77% of electricity to the French grid. At just at just 90g CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity, France now has the lowest emissions from electricity generation of any non-hydro/geothermal, developed nation in the OECD.
Ten years! Nuclear power is the fastest response we have.
For more details, read Danish fairy tales – what can we learn? (by Tom Blees)
No. Effectively replacing just one coal power station involves a massive overbuild at huge costs.
Australia’s largest wind farm is the 192 MWe Waubra plant at $450 million. To match the nameplate capacity of Hazelwood (1675 MWe) we need 8 of these wind farms (or solar equivalent) spread across state. That’s $3.6 billion. But because weather can vary across the state, this variability means wind and solar combined produce at best only about a quarter of their capacity. So we quadruple our first calculation and blanket the state in 24 Waubras at $14.4 billion. But, wind can also drop off over huge areas. To account for this we need to spread another 24 Waubras interstate. $28.8 billion and we’ve lost our energy independence right there. Theory is, when our wind and solar are out, NSW should be operating and vice versa. Assuming the whole of NSW is experiencing ideal conditions and doesn’t need the power themselves (big assumptions), they should sell it to us. Then there’s transmission lines, more $, and transmission loss, more MW… and so it goes on. Or, we could replace it with one nuclear power plant at a quarter or less of the cost. Old power station out, new power station in, MWe for MWe.
The 100% renewable option is neither fast nor affordable.
[R]enewable sources tend to be alternative rather than additive. Therefore it is not a matter of having each renewable source carrying a fraction of the load all the time. If we build one unit of wind power and one unit of PV power we would not necessarily have two more units of renewable energy capacity; sometimes we would have no more, e.g., on calm nights. This means we might have to build two or even four separate systems (wind, PV, solar thermal and coal [or]nuclear) each capable of meeting much or all of the demand on its own, with the equivalent of one to three sitting idle much or all of the time.
A video on the high cost of Danish wind:
Does wind power reduce carbon emissions? (by Peter Lang)
Wind and carbon emissions – Peter Lang responds (by Peter Lang)
Solar power realities – supply-demand, storage and costs (by Peter Lang)
Solar realities and transmission costs – addendum (by Peter Lang)
In a continent a dry as Australia our hydro capacity is extremely limited and could not by itself fulfill the storage requirements of a 100% renewable grid. Pumped hydro in Australia is also prohibitively expensive, geographically limited and, to pump water, requires the kind of guaranteed steady power supply variable wind/solar cannot supply. Pumped-hydro energy storage – cost estimates for a feasible system (by Peter Lang)
Concerning solar thermal:
Plant capable of delivering 1000 MW in winter would need 100+ million square metres of collection area. At the estimated SEGS cost of $800/m (Trainer 2008) the plant would cost $80 billion.
The climate data seems to show that despite their storage capacity solar thermal systems would suffer a significant intermittency problem and in winter would either need storage capacity for four or more cloudy day sequences once or twice each winter month, or would need back up from some other sources. This means they could not be expected to buffer the intermittency of other components in a fully renewable system.
Population increase, a switch to electric vehicles, climate change adaptations (eg desalination) and the continuing electrification of the developing world will all conspire to make conservation little more than a smoke screen – empty action that allows even weak adherents to feel a dangerously misplaced confidence while the planet continues to die. They cannot be relied upon as anything more than peripheral emissions reduction strategies.
Our foremost reason for pursuing renewable energy is to avoid dangerous climate change. Therefore the 100% renewable option can only be considered our safest option if it adequately addresses climate change. Unlike nuclear power, renewables have so far proven unable to prevent new fossil fuel stations being built, and unable to replace existing coal and gas . We are deeply concerned that placing our sole faith in technologies, yet to prove their efficacy in replacing fossil fuels, is a climate disaster waiting to happen. Effective action is our safest option.
Germany – crunched by the numbers (by Tom Blees)
Unnatural Gas (by Tom Blees)
When generating electricity, nuclear power emits no CO2.
When construction, mining and decommissioning of the various technologies are accounted for, nuclear emits far less CO2 than any other electricity generation technology, or mix of technologies, that can meet our demand for electricity.
If we ignore the emissions from the back-up generators, wind power emits roughly the same as nuclear generators. When we include them, wind power emits about the same as efficient gas generation.
Yes. Nuclear is about the safest of all the electricity generation technologies.
Compare Chernobyl with Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. Chernobyl didn’t have a containment dome, Three Mile Island did. Not a single person died or fell ill as a result of the Three Mile Island meltdown. Containment domes work.
Risk assessment studies show that nuclear power is the safest of all the electricity generation technologies. Nuclear is 10 to 100 times safer than coal electricity generation. Coal plant safety varies but nuclear power is at least 10 times safer than the safest coal power plant. This has been demonstrated by 55 years of nuclear electricity generation. Nuclear power is the only universally deployable, zero emissions technology that has proven able to replace a fossil fuel power station. This alone makes it a safer bet than intermittent renewables such as wind and solar.
Current generation III nuclear power stations are even safer than the already incredibly safe current designs. They have passive safety systems, controlled not by human operators but by the laws of physics, unless the laws of physics – which have been running the universe since the beginning of time – ‘decide’ to change, then these designs are fail safe. They cannot melt down. If something goes wrong and there is not a single human operator in the plant they simply shut themselves down. Not a single human operator need be present in the plant for this to occur.
Radiation is all around us. People, animals, plants, water, rocks and the sun all emit radiation. The average radiation dose we receive each year is 360 millirems. But depending on where you live in the world, what your life style is like, what your favourite foods are etc you may be exposed to a natural and completely harmless background radiation dose of anything from, about 200 millirems per year, to more than 5000 millirems/yr. For example:
Poland is low at – 240 millirem/yr
Grand Central station, NY – 540 millirem/yr (It’s built from granite.)
Kerala, India – 900 millirem/yr
Pripyat, Chernobyl (1992) – 2500 millirem/yr (non-natural levels)
Certain beaches in Brazil – 3000 millirem/yr.
Tamil Nadu, India at – 5,300 millirem/yr
A nuclear power station’s radiation is indistinguishable from natural background radiation levels. At about 0.005% of our average radiation dose it’s equivalent to the radiation dose we’d receive from eating one banana per year and around 100 times below that emitted by our current coal plants.
The developed nations with the highest reliance on nuclear power have life expectancy, under 5 year old mortality, and infant mortality rates equal to any other developed nation. There is little evidence to suggest nuclear power stations pose increased health risks. Numerous studies have been undertaken to determine the effects of living near nuclear power plants and the overriding evidence demonstrates no rise in cancer rates, or other problems, for communities who live close to nuclear power plants, compared to those who do not.
Ask yourself this: If we accept the science on climate change, why shouldn’t we accept the science on nuclear power? (See also Q12,17 & 18).
Nuclear power produces a tiny amount of waste. To put the volume of waste into perspective, this is all that remains from a now decommissioned nuclear power station which generated power for 31 years.
This is a minuscule amount compared to the waste from fossil fuel power stations, which release the equivalent of 5000 Gulf of Mexico oil spills into the atmosphere every single day.
All technologies create waste – even wind and solar require the disposal or recycling of long lived toxic waste such as cadmium and arsenic. Many of these waste products have no half life, they are toxic forever, yet, instead of concluding we must abandon renewable technologies, we find ways to manage their waste. We can, and do, use the same approach for nuclear waste. Indeed new Generation IV nuclear power plants (eg IFR) have solved the nuclear waste issue. In reality, nuclear waste is much better thought of as ‘once-used-nuclear-fuel’, of which only about 1% to 10% of the energy has been used. The brilliant thing about Generation IV nuclear power plants is that they use this ‘waste’ as fuel, using over 99% of the remaining energy. In fact, Generation IV nuclear power plants are the ONLY way we can get rid of the long-lived nuclear waste we have already generated, by burning it as fuel. If ones concern is nuclear waste, the solution is Gen IV nuclear power.
The final waste product from an IFR Gen IV nuclear power plant (ie: with once-used-fuel recycling) has a half-life of just 30 years. A half life is the amount of time it takes for radioactive isotopes to degrade into non-radioactive isotopes. A half life of 30 years for Gen IV waste means in 30 years it’s radiation levels will drop to 50% of original levels, in 60 years this 50% will have halved again, a drop to 25% of original levels, in 90 years only 12.5% of original levels will remain, and so on until, in about 300 years, this tiny amount of waste will be less radioactive than the granite walls of Grand Central Station in New York City.
Lastly — and this is ironic — we are currently living with 5-50% more nuclear waste being pumped into our atmosphere every year in the fly ash from our coal stations than an IFR would produce capture and store away over the same time frame. By going nuclear we would in fact be reducing our nuclear waste.
…not if they actually wanted to do some damage.
Nuclear power is not a precursor to nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons were developed before nuclear power, evidently nations do not need nuclear power in order to develop nuclear weapons.
None of the weapons that currently exist will disappear with a dismantling of our nuclear power fleet.
There are many nations (Japan, for example) who have nuclear power, yet do not have nuclear weapons.
Nuclear power can replace coal in all nations who currently have nuclear reactors, nuclear power or nuclear weapons without increasing any imagined proliferation risk, and that would take care of more than 90% of our stationary energy emissions worldwide.
Banning nuclear power because of nuclear weapons proliferation concerns is akin to banning medical research because of biological weapons proliferation concerns. In other words, absurd! The connections are too tenuous and the positives too great.
No, it isn’t. Atoms don’t have prejudices, and energy is not selfish. The universe is naturally awash with radiation, and nuclear fission is not black magic. Nuclear reactors have even occurred naturally in Earth’s history. Ever heard of the Oklo reactor? Look back over a billion years, and find out more…
Yes. There is enough uranium to provide all the world’s energy indefinitely.
Australia holds a quarter of the world’s known reserves, if any nation can rely on nuclear power, we can.
Using advanced reactor technology an individuals entire energy need for a whole year (electricity, synthetic jet fuel, electric vehicles etc.) can be supplied from the uranium and thorium that could be extracted from half a cubic metre of ordinary dirt. Over an individuals entire lifetime the amount of extracted nuclear fuel involved would be no bigger than a golf ball. Indeed, we’ve already mined enough uranium to power the whole world using next-generation nuclear power for 700 years!
It’s much cheaper than 100% renewable energy — basically wind and solar and the little hydro we can muster.
Once up and running, nuclear power produces some of the cheapest electricity in the world.
It can be made more expensive (but still cheaper than 100% renewables) wherever there is an unsupportive public. Public demonstrations, legal stalling, superfluous or conflicting regulation changes mid-build, all cause delays and cost overruns. The simple answer is to:
1. Support nuclear power as our surest carbon mitigation strategy.
2. Get the appropriate regulations in place before building begins and stick by them.
Nuclear power can be the least cost electricity where there is a ‘level playing field’ for all types of electricity generation.
It’s the fastest option we have. With a supportive population, and a little inspiration from France, we could replace our coal base load with nuclear power in 15 years. At its peak, France was building 3,500 MWe of nuclear power, or around four to six nuclear power stations, per year. Despite valient attempts in countries like Germany and Denmark, no nation has ever come close to installing this much wind or solar in such a short time frame.
No. Because they know nuclear power is the only zero emissions electricity generation system capable of displacing coal, the coal lobby is fighting hard to keep nuclear power out of Australia. This is a real advertisement produced by the coal industry in Australia.
In the developed world? Because they are needlessly afraid of modern nuclear power for any number of obsolete or unsubstantiated reasons. (see Q20) Still, 19 of the world’s top 20 economies either use nuclear power, or are building it for the first time. The only one missing from that list is… Australia.
The developing world is attempting to lift itself out of poverty and inequality — aiming to enjoy the standard of living of those in the West. Their priorities are development first, climate change second. They will build what’s cheapest. At the moment that’s coal, but they are successfully reducing the up front cost of nuclear power and as they do so nuclear builds are expanding. At the moment nuclear power is expensive to build (compared to coal), but cheap to run. Hence their perseverance on reducing capital costs.
For many greens, opposition to nuclear power is automatic. Nuclear power stands for war, sickness, invisible radiation, toxic waste, an apocalyptic symbol of technology gone awry.
The idea of nuclear energy as a kind of modern day evil is an indulgence we can no longer afford. It is not some mysterious malignancy. It is a mature, safe, unremarkable technology that provides carbon free electricity for many communities. The real consequences of climate change beginning around us are set to become far worse than the imagined perils of nuclear power.
It is time to set aside the mythology and theatre of anti nuclear sentiment. Nuclear power is still a core environmental issue today, but this time around, we support it as strongly as it was once opposed.