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How Green Was My Atom
Joel Makower, 20 Feb 05

Joel Makower is a widely respected writer and consultant on issues of sustainable business, clean technology and green markets. His essays on environmental business and technology are a regular feature of Sustainability Sundays. Take it away, Joel:

A feature story in the current issue of Wired magazine has received surprisingly little attention in the blogosphere, though it seems to be a topic of conversation at recent conferences and meetings I’ve attended. [On WorldChanging, Alex posted a brief entry on it, and we have touched on the general issue before. -ed.]

The article -- Nuclear Now! How clean, green atomic energy can stop global warming -- was written by Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss. Schwartz is well-known as founder of Global Business Network and a bestselling author on books on societal trends (The Art of the Long View, Inevitable Surprises, others); Reiss is a features editor at Wired.

The piece is, essentially, a Valentine to nuclear power, which Schwartz and Reiss maintain is climate friendly, safe, and gaining in popularity -- assertions that are (in order) true, false, and, at best, optimistic.

A sampling of the giddy prose:

. . . nuclear energy realistically could replace coal in the US without a cost increase and ultimately lead the way to a clean, green future. The trick is to start building nuke plants and keep building them at a furious pace. Anything less leaves carbon in the climatic driver's seat.

Schwartz’s and Reiss’s arguments might be deemed credible but for the obvious disdain they have for efficiency and renewable energy and their advocates:

The granola crowd likes to talk about conservation and efficiency, and surely substantial gains can be made in those areas. But energy is not a luxury people can do without, like a gym membership or hair gel. The developed world built its wealth on cheap power -- burning firewood, coal, petroleum, and natural gas, with carbon emissions the inevitable byproduct.

Wind, biomass, and other renewables are “capital- and land-intensive, and solar is not yet remotely cost-competitive,” claim the authors, while nuclear power is -- well, not quite “too cheap to meter,” a hollow promise the industry made back in the 1950s, but mere pennies a kilowatt-hour, they swear. That’s true . . . if you don’t count the high security costs of protecting nuclear plants, the environmental damage of uranium mining, and the incalculable costs of safely storing nuclear wastes -- something we haven’t yet figured out how to do. It’s like saying that the real price of gas is whatever we pay at the pump.

Schwartz’s and Reiss’s arguments that nuclear power is nothing less than our energy savior would be easy to laugh off if they didn’t play directly into the hands of the nuclear industry, whose advocates have been licking their chops at the potential spoils of a nuke-friendly Bush-Cheney administration -- and of the lucrative potential of dozens of new nuclear power plants in China and elsewhere. It’s a future that promises more of the same: large, centralized power plants creating security risks and environmental damage, feeding electrons into a grid that’s barely holding its own.

There may be a role for nuclear power, but it’s hardly the energy source of our dreams. The promise of a renewable energy future is not, as Schwartz and Reiss maintain, “attractive but powerless.” It’s real and it is coming on strong.

Say the authors about their beloved nukes:

The best way to avoid running out of fossil fuels is to switch to something better. The Stone Age famously did not end for lack of stones, and neither should we wait for the last chunk of anthracite to flicker out before we kiss hydrocarbons good-bye. Especially not when something cleaner, safer, more efficient, and more abundant is ready to roll. It's time to get real.

Ironically, it’s one of the best arguments for solar I’ve heard.

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If we did not know how to store nuclear waste safely, it would be perplexing that throughout the world, over decades and hundreds of sites, exactly this has been accomplished.

The safety of spent nuclear fuel storage has, of course, been relative; spent hydrocarbons routinely kill, as for instance when the 18 Spanish backpackers recently were killed by CO because of the apparent economy of using a butane heater rather than an electric one.

But it has also been absolute: throughout the world, over decades and hundreds of sites, no neighbour of a spent nuclear fuel store has ever been injured by it in the slightest degree.

It is true that the butane that killed the backpackers brought in taxes that cannot reasonably be expected from its heavy-metal competition. Tax-dependent persons may perceive in nuclear waste a toxic legacy of We Weren't Paid Our Due.

But to everyone else, the fact that it could all be dumped in the ocean with no possibility of making the water radioactive, just as all the salt at Goderich couldn't make seawater brackish, is persuasive numerical evidence that nuclear waste has never been a real problem.
Posted by: Graham Cowan on 20 Feb 05

I thought the same thing about the article not getting much attention. In my mind Nuclear is a pretty good option when considered next to coal. That nuclear power creates no greenhouse emissions is obviously a nice thing, but just as nice is that it creates highly concentrated (highly dangerous) waste. It seems so much better than letting dangerous but diffuse waste be distributed over the entire world.

Of course the ideal would be to reduce energy consumption through conservation and provide for an increasingly energy efficient world with renewables. Unfortunately, we need to do something now about emissions (both greenhouse and particulate/smog forming) and Nuclear goes a long way towards that goal. I think the goal of the renewable/green/etc community could then be to make sure that as many nuclear plants are built that are needed to offset coal burning plants on the one hand, and as few nuclear plants as possible overall via renewable generation and conservation on the other.

I don't at all discount the issues involved with storing nuclear waste, but I think the author of the Wired article said it best:

Radiation containment, waste disposal, and nuclear weapons proliferation are manageable problems in a way that global warming is not.

Posted by: Ben on 20 Feb 05

We must not think about the short-term with nuclear, because that's probably not when the problems would surface.

Just creating more and more nuclear waste, and accelerating the rate at which it's produced by building more and more plants all the time, is fairly similar to how at the start of the industrial revolution people thought that they could dump waste in the rivers and oceans because they were so big anyway and all these little things would never amount to a big problem.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 20 Feb 05

We've had some pretty serious debates about this over at the "Alternative Energy Action Network" (, or click my name) - more on the mailing list than on the website, but we did cover the Wired article pretty promptly here:

The mailing list discussion focused on a recent series of articles in "Physics and Society", by Richard Garwin and other senior physicists, on whether nuclear fuel reprocessing would be necessary, how dangerous it is, and general prospects for nuclear power to help with the energy problem.

The key issue is that, without reprocessing, nuclear is only a short-term solution due to likely limits on uranium supply, and with reprocessing the dangers, and costs, are expected to be much greater. The dangers from mining, waste, and the chance of reactor accidents would in any case need to be scaled up from today's levels by almost a factor of 100, to really meet world energy needs over the next few decades. More coal-fired plants are scheduled to be built in the next few years (by China, India, and the US) than the total number of operational nuclear plants in the world.

Can we really afford a world with 20,000 GW-scale nuclear facilities (or several hundred at tens-of-GW scale, as Graham Cowan has suggested) when there are perfectly valid alternatives - solar in particular?

The history of losses in recent spending on nuclear facilities (at least in the US) also adds a huge risk premium to realistic financing, which coupled with the high capital costs already, makes a nuclear reactor unlikely to be commercially competitive with any current alternatives. The smart investment money is going to wind and solar right now - there's no valid reason to push governments in the other direction.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 20 Feb 05

If the key is that nuclear without reprocessing is only a short-term option, it is a false key. Reference is sometimes made to Hoffert et al as if they had tried to defend the notion, but in fact they don't, as this paraphrase shows:

Ores whose uranium content makes them thermally equivalent, if the uranium is fed to burner reactors and never reprocessed, to seven to 28 times their mass in petroleum are considered recoverable ...

Since getting uranium out of an ore and making it into nuclear fuel are not particularly energy-intensive processes compared to hydrocarbon preparation, the Alberta oil sand operations provide a clear refutation of the idea, if anyone were fool enough to abstract it from its non-statement above (*1), that ores thermally equivalent to much less than their weight in petroleum should not be considered recoverable. The Alberta oil sands are only six percent oil, yet by presently commercial processes two-thirds of that oil's energy is net yield.

So what uranium mass fraction would an ore have to contain to meet the six-mass-percent oil equivalency criterion? Since in once-through practice one mass of uranium yields as much heat as 14,000 masses of petroleum, just divide six percent by 14,000: 4.3 parts per million by mass.

It is commonly misunderstood that only for breeder reactors is it easy to find places on Earth where, within a furlong of any place one might choose to stand, there are two cubic furlongs of potentially net-energy-yielding uranium ore. In fact this is true for conventional reactors too. If an evil wizard were to quietly annihilate every uranium atom in every bit of rock on Earth that now contains more than 4.3 mass ppm of it, leaving the rest of the rock in place so as not to completely remodel the planet (*2), the present nuclear industry's costs would rise, but it could still continue.

(*1) The exact words,

[Ores with 500 to 2000 parts per million by weight (ppmw) U are considered recoverable (59)]

can be read at A little farther on, they acknowledge that getting 10 terawatts of primary power from 235-U from crustal ores and/or seawater would be "a big stretch". The mining industry that now gets 1 TW from these sources is a two-billion-dollar one, about equal in size to the cell-phone ring-tone industry, so while they don't say the stretch would be big only for that industry -- the mining one -- and not for society as a whole, they certainly ought to.

(*2) Annihilating the rocks along with the atoms would leave Phobos-sized holes all over the continents, cf., figure 2.

Posted by: Graham Cowan on 21 Feb 05

It's not a case of either/or, as any serious consideration of the PRC and India would demonstrate in about five minutes. There are a few billion people who want into the 1st world lifestyle and, frankly, conventional sources of power are not sufficient to do it at current rates of efficiency even if you used all available energy sources including renewables and including nuclear. Clearly there is a great deal of gain to be made in making inefficient 3rd world economies run as efficiently as the 1st world. But even if that is accomplished, the amount of energy available via renewables is insufficient for them to handle the job alone. The same goes for any "silver bullet" solution.

This is why hydrogen is so important. Hydrogen provides, not energy per se but, a middleware that allows most types of energy sources to plug into the same major infrastructure and go into the same end user markets, making all sorts of energy sources more economical.

This will lead us all to a future that is persistently multi-fuel. That means that everybody's pet energy source has a place and if you want to drive out all "bad" competitors, your clean/moral/ultra-nifty energy source just has to be the lowest cost producer that can scale to supply everybody. Oh, you can't do that? Back to the lab for you boy scout and let us know when you solve those problems.

In the end, we won't end up back in the caves where Luddite fantasy would like us to go. We also won't end up with the oligarchic Seven Sisters of previous decades either. The energy business will be fed by a large number of small, medium, and large firms that, as a side effect of their other businesses, also produce hydrogen or something that converts very easily to it. Sewage plants, agriculture (all up and down the chain), and various manufacturing concerns will all dip a toe into the energy markets because they all have the potential to turn current waste streams into energy profits. No doubt even "green gyms" will show up with little generators attached to workout machines instead of iron plates. Generate enough energy and your membership is free!

What is not worthwhile, however, is wasting a great deal of time attacking somebody else's favorite form of energy. Sure, we don't want hidden subsidies to distort energy markets but everybody can point to subsidies from petroleum to nuclear to renewables. Let's not have the pot calling the kettle black but figure out a way to fairly unwind them all.

Posted by: TM Lutas on 21 Feb 05

Subsidies to petroleum and other fossil fuels are negative: users pay much more in special taxes than the producers ever get back. Millions of tax-dependent people who have no other connection with power production are supported.

Posted by: Graham Cowan on 21 Feb 05

1. "...if you don’t count the high security costs of protecting nuclear plants, the environmental damage of uranium mining, and the incalculable costs of safely storing nuclear wastes..."

Not to mention the cost of decommissioning nuclear power plants. How much you want to bet that "capitalist" utility companies try to foist that cost off onto taxpayers?

2. The "nuclear is better than coal" argument is another specious example of the trap of binary thinking that so plagues "advanced" societies.

3. I fear we will need to get ready for a flurry perverse, eco-flavored assaults on our reason. Next, how about tax penalties for fuel efficient cars? I kid you not.

Posted by: Gil Friend on 21 Feb 05

I spent quite a few years working on nuclear power plant siting studies back in the 1970's. One thing stands out that few discuss in these debates. Nuclear plants waste incredible amounts of heat. They require consumptive access to uninterruptible supplies of fresh water. Has anyone noticed that these supplies are increasingly challenged in the very spots where electricity is most needed? Will downstream citizens want to see direct discharge of secondary cooling water? Plenty of social issues to handle before there are large scale additions to nuclear power outside of current licensing (and water consuming) limits.

Posted by: John Laumer on 22 Feb 05



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