Global Warming: Is Nuclear Energy the Answer?

Every March 28, I celebrate Three Mile Island day. I was in Baltimore on that day in 1979, less than 100 miles from the nuclear power plant as it teetered on the edge of catastrophic failure, and the anniversary of that day always reminds me of just how close we came to our very own Chernobyl.

In truth, nuclear power fascinates me, even given the risks involved. Could nuclear power be the way -- at least partly -- to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels? And, consequently, could it help in the fight against climate change?

Mark Hertsgaard, author of Nuclear Inc., argues that no, nuclear energy is not the answer. "The truth is that nuclear power is a weakling in combatting global warming," he says. And that's not because of the safety concerns, but rather the economic ones. Construction of plants is subsidized heavily by the government, as it would have to be given the astronomical cost and the decade or so it takes to get each plant running. Another problem, he says, is that nuclear power plants produce only electricity, which is just a third of our energy usage. It doesn't make a dent in bigger pollution problems like automobile exhaust. Energy efficiency, he argues, is far more cost effective and makes a bigger impact in less time.

Aussie blogger John Quiggin also takes note of the high cost of nuclear -- it might be cleaner emissions-wise, but it's still much more expensive than coal or gas. Glen of the Climate Change blog points out that nuclear power production "does release carbon dioxide -- albeit at lower levels than other energy sources." Beyond that, he's surprised nuclear energy is being discussed as a viable option when the waste disposal question has not been adequately resolved.

In The Commons blog Amy Ridenour quotes a letter published in the Financial Times that reads, in part, "Contrary to popular misconceptions, nuclear power is safe, environmentally benign and sustainable for many thousands of years." Nuclear power is safe if done correctly and with the utmost care, and sure, it's definitely sustainable. But environmentally benign?

How is burying highly toxic, radioactive nuclear waste that takes 50 to 1000 years to degrade just by half environmentally benign? A paper published on the City University of New York's Web site explains that "one has to plan storage and protection for the public on a time-scale of thousands of years. We cannot be very confidant [sic] about guaranteeing this protection reliably. ...Isotopes with intermediate half-lives (say from 10 to 100 years), need only be secured on a time-scale of a few hundred years, although they are likely to be more intense."

This article intro in National Geographic offers a glimpse of the scale of the nuclear waste storage problem. (Sorry, a subscription is required to read the whole thing.) For more information on nuclear waste, the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board and the Sierra Club are good starting points.

So what's the solution? Australian columnist Piers Ackerman invites the world to dump it's nuclear waste in his backyard. "Australia could easily store nuclear waste from the rest of the world because it has the space to safely warehouse such material in a stable geological surrounding," he writes, summarizing the argument made by former prime minister Bob Hawke. Furthermore, he says, "As Australia is home to about 40 percent of the world's uranium reserves it even makes some moral sense for Australia to have a role in the safe disposal of nuclear waste."

(Memo to my Australian mother-in-law: Sorry! I promise we'll still come visit you even if your country is turned into one giant Superfund site.)

Alex Scoble, posting in the Computerworld blog back in June, went off topic to wax eloquent about the necessity of nuclear power. His solution to both high oil prices and global warming from the combustion of fossil fuels is to build more nuclear power plants.

In A Musing Environment, Karen Street blogs about a recent poll suggesting that such support for increasing the use of nuclear energy is on the rise. She's dismayed, though, that "2/3 believe that conservation is not as important as developing new energy sources, a misunderstanding that all of us need to confront."

By Emily Messner |  October 4, 2005; 10:37 AM ET  | Category:  Looking Ahead
Previous: Global Warming: U.S. Policy Goes International | Next: Can Global Warming Be Stopped by Technology Alone?


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Why don't I ever see anyone examine the French solution to the energy mix? I believe they have over three-quarters of their energy generation in nuclear. And they have avoided Chernobyl-like problems. Doesn't it suggest that there are correct ways to do it?

Posted by: | October 4, 2005 04:52 PM

Nuclear energy....SIGH.

I live in the area where the last nuclear reactor in the US was built. Back in the late 1990's a water testing site picked up radioactive material in the well water it was monitoring -- from MILES away.

Then last year of a potential crisis with the fuel rods. >:(

Compound that with personel problems (like what was cited locally of a supervisor in HIRING was caught being a drug abuser), and how shoddy the construction was (it wasn't so uncommon that contractors, to extend their contracts, to sabotage gauges and more to keep their coffers full), I can't see the appeal of nuclear energy. It's just not the radioactive waste folks have to worry about, it's the whole package.

On top of it all is, all that money spent by local taxpayers and power customers goes to fund/fuel out of state energy buyers. This reactor here fuels TEXAS, even though we in GA paid for it. >:(

No, you don't need blog reports or Think Tank analysis about the pros and cons of nuclear power, you just need to read the day-to-day reports of a local nuclear plant to understand the headaches such reactors brings.

Here's some various news reports about the mishaps and problems of having a nuclear power plant...

First keep tabs on the whole industry's safety report card...

Thought Three Island was bad? Ever heard of this (I doubt it!)...

"In 1990, as a result of diesel generator failures, Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Georgia was within hours of a meltdown. On March 20, 1990, a truck accident at the plant caused a loss of offsite power.39 (APPENDIX E) Each reactor is required to have two emergency diesel generators that restore power in case of such an emergency. However, there was only one functional diesel generator at the reactor, the second generator was being fixed at the time of the accident. The functioning generator failed to perform its intended safety function for thirty-six minutes after the plant lost offsite power. During the time that Vogtle Unit 1 was without power, the temperature of the reactor coolant system rose significantly (46 degrees Farenheit in 36 minutes) and was on its way toward meltdown.40"

And the treatment of whistleblowers by the same company that seeks 2 more reactors at Vogtle today ("Silkwood" wasn't just a movie ya know?)...

"These violations are of very significant regulatory concern because they involved acts of discrimination by senior corporate management. The NRC places a high value on the freedom provided to nuclear industry employees to raise potential safety concerns to licensee management or to the NRC. Section 210 (now 211) of the Energy Reorganization Act and 10 CFR 50.7 establish strict requirements for the protection of employees against discrimination for raising nuclear safety issues and the NRC Enforcement Policy calls for significant enforcement action in cases where senior corporate management violate these requirements. Therefore, these violations have been categorized in accordance with the "General Statement of Policy and Procedure for NRC Enforcement Actions" (Enforcement Policy), NUREG-1600, at Severity Level I."

Is the MSM asleep at the wheel again?


Posted by: SandyK | October 4, 2005 05:52 PM


Some folks already dissected why the French love nuclear power (which ironically the technology came from the US, the French threw up their hands at building their own -- extremely ironic for such a "French First" society)...

And a little bit about why they are so loving to nuclear energy...

"For example, while French citizens cannot control nuclear technology anymore than Americans, the fact that they trust the technocrats that do control it makes them feel more secure. Then there is need. Most French people know that life would be very difficult without nuclear energy. Because they need nuclear power more than us, they fear it less."

Americans are too free spirited to take any group's POV as gospel, be that they're physicists or hold a degree in medicine. Since we also distrust the government (even far left Liberals don't trust their government) we look at nuclear energy with great suspicion (especially when we read of safety violations and the same level of red tape that goes with nuclear regulation -- French love red tape).

So no, the energy answer isn't with nuclear energy (at least not in it's current form). What IS an answer is to gather background radiation and use it instead (abundant and it's everywhere). :)

Posted by: SandyK | October 5, 2005 12:14 AM

There is no clean answer to our energy-pollution problem, save for the holy grail of fusion. Nevertheless, the only viable argument against nuclear fission power is the waste/contamination issue. Hertsgaard's high cost for nuclear is limited to the capital building cost, but how many years do we average this over? He tellingly doesn't say. And conservation isn't mutually exclusive with fission power. In fact, the high cost he ascribes to nuclear would be the very thing to motivate conservation expense. Then you would, in fact, seriously dent the carbon problem, because those nuclear plants could then enable electric or fuel cell vehicles. In any case, conservation isn't a source of energy; it's worthwhile, but it just postpones fossil fuel exhaustion. Equally, the uranium supply problems mentioned in some of the other citations aren't real either. It can be captured from the ocean, and there are reactor designs capable of using U-238 or thorium.

But the waste problem presents us with a true dilemma, if we are certain of catastrophic global warming effects. Ackerman's offer of dumping everything in Australia is well received: better to heavily pollute one, infertile area than less heavily pollute so many fertile ones. And that still assumes everyone behaves responsibly at the plants, as SandyK points out.

Posted by: Eric | October 5, 2005 12:49 AM

What is needed is a multi-pronged approach. For electricity, nuclear is not the full answer, not only are there safey concerns, but it is still natural resource based. Some day we will fight wars over plutonium and uranium.

As for fuel for cars, biofuels seem to make the most transitional sense. They can be grown on our soil, refined on our soil, generate few environmentally damaging by products (if any), they are carbon neutral (the plants consume any CO2 produced by combustion), and they can be used in almost every car on the road today with few modifications.

Biodfuels are certainly an alternative that with some tweakage of refining capacity would be an enormous dent to oil consumption.

More here:

Posted by: media in trouble | October 5, 2005 11:33 AM


Posted by: george | October 5, 2005 08:12 PM

Mark Hertsgaard says that nuclear power plants produce only electricity, which is just a third of our energy usage. It doesn't make a dent in bigger pollution problems like automobile exhaust.

Without making a statement pro or con Nuclear Energy, I would say that of all the forms of Energy, Electricity is the easiest to convert to other forms. The electricity produced by NPower can be used to charge batteries, which can be used to run our automobiles, especially for inner city use, where most of the pollution usually occurs.

Posted by: Krishna | October 7, 2005 11:30 AM

The Frence are simply pragmatic. No coal, no oil, no choice. Works great for them!

Posted by: Larry Harmon | October 8, 2005 10:03 AM

How much economically recoverable uranium does Larry Harman think France has?

France was not listed in the top 10 list of world uranium suppliers in the latest figures released to the World Nuclear Association (WNA)annual gathering of the global uranium industry last month in London.
In 2004 France was reported to have produced only 7 tonnes of uranium, compared to 11,597 t from Canada, or 8,982t from Australia, the top two globally. The US meanwhile produced 878t, according to the WNA 2005 Market Report.

So there is very little energy security provided in France from indigenous uranium.

Posted by: dr david lowry | October 13, 2005 11:20 AM

A painless (and cheap) way to learn about nuclear power in the US is to read "Rad Decision", a techno-thriller novel about the industry wrtten by a longtime nuclear engineer (me). The book covers radiation, Chernobyl, and what an accident would realy be like, all within a tale of intrigue. And its available at no cost to readers at

James Aach
20+ years in the nuclear industy

Posted by: James Aach | November 12, 2005 05:29 PM

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