“Draw me a picture of nuclear waste on a piece of paper.”
Mark Nelson, managing director at Radiant Energy Fund, an organization he founded to help protect nuclear plants around the world from closing, invites all opponents of nuclear energy to take him up on this challenge.
“I’ve tried this with people,” he says, almost exasperatedly. “They can’t do it. They realize they haven’t turned it into a physical reality. You quickly realize their concern doesn’t have an image to it, or if it does, it’s of Homer Simpson tossing a green bar of radioactive material around.”
Speaking in a recent interview with Interesting Engineering, Nelson calls attention to what he sees as a disconnect between the reality and the perception of nuclear energy in the fight against climate change.
According to Nelson, who earned his Master of Philosophy degree at Cambridge University’s Nuclear Energy program, the issue of storing nuclear waste is emblematic of the many misconceptions surrounding nuclear technology.
“Nuclear waste in canisters has never hurt anyone. No one even tries to claim [that]. But there are those whose profession and career it is to fight nuclear‚ for whatever reason. All we can hope to do is reach the public with the truth better and more frequently than they do.”
Few technologies are as divisive as nuclear power seems to be. The word is psychically linked to the disasters that occurred at Fukushima and Chernobyl, and with popular series dramatizing such events, such as Netflix’s Chernobyl Diaries; the nuclear specter looms large in people’s minds.
Alongside the potent, oftentimes antagonistic relationship the public has with nuclear energy is the fact that more and more environmentalists are beginning to take up its banner. Without it, they say, the fight against climate change will be lost before it can even get to its feet.
Climate activist change
According to Nelson, there is a wind of change upon the clean energy world, “more than renewable energy advocates realize.” So, why the change, and why now?
"I now think of the four problems the way an engineer does, as design problems. Define them, frame them in a way that is solvable, solve the damn things, and once you’ve got a solution, act on it."
Stanford-trained biologist Stewart Brand, something of a legend in the environmentalist movement, may be the best example of a convert. Between 1968 and 1972, Brand published the Whole Earth Catalogue, a magazine and product catalog that is now regarded by many as a counterculture classic that reshaped the environmental consciousness of that era. In those days, Brand had emerged as a strong advocate of solar power, advising the governor of California Jerry Brown on the issue during his first term in office.
In 2009, Brand published a new book entitled Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. In it, he argues for the use of transgenic crops, geoengineering, and nuclear power in the fight to preserve nature as humanity expands its reach. These positions came as a surprise to some. Elaborating on how his thinking on nuclear energy changed, he writes:
“Older environmentalists talk about nuclear power exclusively in terms of what they see as the four great problems that condemn the technology—safety, cost, waste storage, and proliferation. [...] I've learned to disbelieve much of what I’ve been told by my fellow environmentalists, and I now think of the four problems the way an engineer does, as design problems. Define them, frame them in a way that is solvable, solve the damn things, and once you’ve got a solution, act on it.”
Brand isn’t the only person who has noticed something amiss in the environmentalist movement over the years. Writing in The Guardian, journalist George Monbiot claims that anti-nuclear activists are often guilty of employing the same unscientific and dishonest rhetoric as do those who outright deny climate change.
“Failing to provide sources, refuting data with anecdote, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate-change deniers [...].”
Such disingenuous behavior, he argues, could bring great harm to the progress that all environmentalists have struggled for so long to achieve.
Compounding this is the fact that the public is beginning to notice the potential shortcomings of renewable energy technologies. In February, Texas saw a historic winter storm that left millions without heat and water for days. The storm taxed the power grid, drastically driving up demand for electricity in a short amount of time. According to a reporting by NPR, Texas utility operators allowed the price of electricity to go up to $9 per kilowatt-hour, resulting in electricity bills of thousands of dollars for many residents. In the wake of the crisis, much is being written about where to place blame.
Reuters calls any attempt to blame renewables outright “misleading.” Just last September, Forbes ran an opinion piece stating that critics of renewable energy in Texas had little to worry about from capacity failure or economic risk. “[There is] some consternation because low reserves lead to price spikes that can be over 100 times higher than average,” writes Joshua Rhodes. “But, again, this is how energy-only markets work, it is a design feature of the system, not a bug.”
“People are rightfully suspicious of any imposition of risks on themselves where they don't feel a sense of what benefits they're getting from taking on those risks.”
Those words now find themselves in the intense light of hindsight. According to Mark Nelson, this event did everything to expose fault lines in renewable technologies.
“In Texas, they thought they were achieving record-breaking renewables performance without increasing costs. The price of their energy was being subsidized, the bulk of their energy coming from cheap gas. It made it seem like you could add 60, 70 billion worth of wind and solar plus transmission over the last ten years and somehow prices wouldn't go out to consumers—until they did. There was a crisis. Four days, and all of that saving—gone. These are vulnerabilities in the system.”
As climate change increases the frequency of erratic weather patterns, and humanity deepens its impact on the natural world, the question of energy is on the minds of many. It is likely that nuclear energy will be a large part of some important conversations going forward.
Atomic energy safety: Chernobyl and Fukushima
Nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima paint a startling picture of what can go wrong when reactors malfunction, resulting in thousands dead and injured due to the wide and rapid spread of radiation.
But that picture may be a wildly distorted one. According to a 2005 press release by the United Nations regarding the Chernobyl disaster, “fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers.”
Of course, "directly attributed" is the key phrase here. There are qualifiers. Russia never counted those who died from cancer in the years and decades following the event. Moreover, the report goes on to say it is likely that at least 4,000 people died prematurely from the effects of radiation exposure. But there are no definitive figures available, so Nelson is correct in saying that much is just speculation.
Long-term effects have been similarly overblown, says Nelson. “What we’re seeing around Chernobyl,” he adds, “is that scientists who are going there to find abnormalities resort to weirder and weirder proxy metrics for trying to show that there's something wrong, ignoring the fact that there's a ton of beautiful plants and animals that have returned after the people were, in my opinion, unjustly kicked out of their home territory.”
As for Fukushima, it seems that evacuation, panic, and poor decision-making were responsible for the majority of the harm that resulted from that incident. Financial Times reported in 2018 that “There were 2,202 disaster-related deaths in Fukushima, according to the government’s Reconstruction Agency, from evacuation stress, interruption to medical care and suicide; so far, there has not been a single case of cancer linked to radiation from the plant.” That number has since grown to one person after a worker died of radiation exposure related lung cancer, Time reports.
Writing in Scientific American, Senior Editor Mark Fischetti notes that the Chernobyl accident was the result of faulty design and operation, and that newer and safer nuclear technology is already being developed. The new technology could phase into existing nuclear plants with some degree of ease, even. We’re also beginning to see investment in the development of small modular reactors (SMR) that could reduce overall costs of the technology. The BBC reported in early 2020 that SMRs might be a practical way to reduce nuclear meltdown probability.
As strident as Nelson is in his position on nuclear power, he is well aware of people’s reluctance to adopt it. “People are rightfully suspicious of any imposition of risks on themselves where they don't feel a sense of what benefits they're getting from taking on those risks.” So, what are those benefits?
"The interesting thing here is that there are some endangered species that rely for their life on the heat coming from nuclear plants."
Technical safety and disaster mitigation aside, according to the scientific literature, nuclear energy can save lives. James E. Hansen is the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He is also regarded as one of the top climate scientists in the world.
Writing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, Hansen and his colleague Pushker A. Kharecha argue that between 1971 and 2009, nuclear energy prevented almost two million air pollution-related deaths. The technology, they claim, also kept 64 gigatons—that’s 64,000,000,000 metric tons—of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere.
It’s not just the lives of humans that nuclear can save, either.
“Like all power plants based on thermal generation,” Nelson explains, “nuclear plants put out some amount of waste heat. Most plants are located on oceans, where they have an essentially unlimited supply of low-temperature water that they return to the ocean slightly warmer. The interesting thing here is that there are some endangered species that rely for their life on the heat coming from nuclear plants. Manatees in Florida, and American crocodiles. Both are populations kept alive by Floridian nuclear plants.”
Another kind of green
The energy strategies of Germany and France are a good place to look for hints on how the economics of nuclear power play out in reality. France, for example, generates around 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, according to the World Nuclear Association, and exports energy surpluses to a handful of European nations, Germany included. Germany is an interesting case, having invested heavily in renewables in the past decade. This technology even accounted for 46 percent of the country's electricity consumption in 2020, according to Foreign Policy. On top of this, the cost of renewables has hit record lows in recent years. All of that sounds like it should lead to lower energy costs.
Why, then, does the official statistical office of the European Union report that electricity in France was almost 40 percent cheaper than in Germany as of the first half of 2020?
Writing in Forbes in 2019, Michael Shellenberger, founder and president of Environmental Progress, explains such trends saying, “Because solar and wind are inherently unreliable and energy-dilute, Germany has had to spend 27% more on things like transmission lines from distant solar and wind farms spread all throughout the country.”
“Lowering the cost of solar panels and wind turbines is only lowering the cost to either the middleman or the utilities that are buying power and accumulating it in order to make sure they have enough to send the customers,” Nelson elaborates. “That is a very particular thing. It's like saying, “We just found a way to make electric cars cheap because we've lowered the price of the hubcaps and the seat covers.”
“One of the poorly understood things about the German energy transition,” he emphasizes, “is that over the last two decades, their fossil fuel generating capacity has gone up, not down.”
Reducing carbon emissions will be a key component to the fight against climate change. So, how environmentally friendly is nuclear energy? Writing in Yale Environment 360, Richard Rhodes underscores just how carbon-cutting nuclear technology is: “Switching from coal to natural gas is a step toward decarbonizing since burning natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide of burning coal. But switching from coal to nuclear power is radically decarbonizing, since nuclear power plants release greenhouse gases only from the ancillary use of fossil fuels during their [lifetimes].”
The International Atomic Energy Agency reinforces this point. “Annual CO2 emissions of the global electricity sector,” the organization writes, “would have been around 2 gigatonnes higher over the past decade if electricity from nuclear power plants had instead been supplied [...].”
With great power comes great electricity
Energy capacity is a metric that shows how often a plant runs at full power. The US Energy Information Administration recently assessed the electric power energy capacity of geothermal, hydroelectric, solar, wind, gas, and nuclear power plants in the States between 2010 and 2020. The numbers show that the capacity of nuclear power plants is statistically in a class of its own, with US reactors operating at full power a minimum of just over 86 percent of the time and a maximum of over 92 percent. Those numbers equate to stability in energy availability.
Availability in the face of volatile weather could be of significant value as climate patterns become more unpredictable, a trend that has been underestimated according to Rob Jordan, associate editor at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. And as humanity’s numbers grow, we will consume more and more energy. The IAEA estimates that electricity needs are set to rise as much as 330 percent worldwide by 2050. That energy will have to come from somewhere. Will nuclear energy be a part of the solution for the problems that humanity will soon face? Many feel that leaving out clean nuclear power is a gamble that we can’t afford to take.
“You can weatherize wind turbines,” Nelson says, highlighting a vital point. “You can subsidize. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it won't make the wind blow.”