Is Nuclear Power A Clean Energy Source?

The U.S. saw a boom in nuclear energy plants in the 195’s, when nuclear energy was widely regarded as the wave of the future. In 1979, however, the core reactor meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, changed the nation’s optimistic views on nuclear power.

Lately, however, there’s been a resurgence of interest in nuclear energy as a renewable energy source, and the Obama administration has even gone so far as to approve two new nuclear reactors for the state of Georgia. If built, these plants will be the first nuclear plants started in the US since the 1970’s, according to the New York Times.

Is nuclear energy a viable alternative to to fossil fuels, foreign oil and global warming? Or is it a form of energy that creates as many environmental problems as it aims to solve? In order to get a handle on both sides of the debate, we spoke with Steven Kerekes, spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Jim Riccio, nuclear energy campaign manager for Greenpeace. You can already guess who has opinions on what side of the issue.

Nuclear Plant

image via Climate Change Connection

The Argument for Nuclear Energy

Kerekes highlights nuclear energy as a technology with the power to reliably and affordably provide large amounts of electricity on virtually a non-stop basis. He points out that nuclear power has been proven over the course of 3,500 combined reactor-years of operation in the United States and 14,000 combined reactor-years of operation worldwide.

According to Kerekes, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates U.S. demand for electricity will increase 23 percent by 2030 – the equivalent of 200-plus full-scale power plants – and all independent analyses of climate change (including studies conducted by the National Academies of Science, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and DOE) conclude that meeting demand while at the same time reducing carbon emissions requires a clean energy technology portfolio in which nuclear energy plays a prominent role.

As far as safety goes, Kerekes believes we’ve come a long way since Three Mile Island. “First, this isn’t 1979 or 1989 or even 1999,” he told us. “Reforms put in place after the Three Mile Island accident have led to vast improvement in the training of nuclear plant personnel, in the sharing of operational information throughout our industry, and in the efficiency, reliability and cost-effectiveness of our facilities.”  He highlights changes in the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the success of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, which were created to create greater oversight on nuclear plants following Three Mile Island.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.

    • Phil Lusk

      Nuclear is neither green nor clean, and the projections for increased electricity demand are vastly inflated.

      Despite more than 65 years of government subsidy, nuclear technology cannot compete in the market. Massive increases in governmental support, including loans made directly from the federal Treasury, are required to overcome the reluctance of Wall Street to privately finance the technology. Thus, the business model is French-style corporate socialism.

      Real Prospects for Energy Efficiency in the United States, published by the National Academies of Science in 2009 states, “With an accelerated effort to employ a variety of efficiency technologies in the buildings, transportation, and industrial sectors, the United States by 2030 could reduce its energy use by 30 percent while saving money. This reduction would lower total U.S. energy use below the 1990 level. Most of these efficiency technologies are available today and deliver the same services as their less effi cient counterparts, and many have already been demonstrated in other developed countries and some U.S. states.”

      The efficiency path can be delivered for a third of the cost of a nuclear build-out, but without the risks. As efficiency improvements can create 4 times the numbers of jobs than nuclear, all communities can benefit from truly clean energy.

      Just say, “Nuclear Power, No Thanks…”

      SEE: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/Energy/index.htm

    • L.P.Baldwin

      We have to wean ourselves from the over-use of electricity. We have lost the efficiencies developed over centuries on how to perform simple tasks MANUALLY, and rely on electric gadgets to do these tasks, often with poorer results.

    • http://thoriummsr.wordpress.com Rick Maltese

      I agree that conserving energy is an important first step. But seriously that is a baby step. It happens to be the only way we as individuals can help prevent wasted energy consumption. Since so much of our energy comes from coal we need to replace coal plants with something that produces energy of a similar magnitude. Nuclear energy is the only “clean” way to do that. We need to make the transition to new nuclear reactor designs. We have the knowledge but not the courage or resolve. Reprocessing the “waste” that everyone says needs to be stored is the best solution. The forgotten about Molten Salt Reactor using Thorium happens to be one of the best solutions available.

    • Michael Mann

      Nuclear power, is the cleanest, safest, most reliable, current technology to provide energy. The operating plants are safe and the new designs are even safer. Three Mile Island did not injure anyone and 30 years later it’s still used to scare people, dozens of people were killed by natural gas in 2010 and it barely makes the news.
      Building 100’s of new nuclear power plants would improve the economy, reduce dependence on foreign oil, create jobs, reduce pollution, and provide for future technological advancement.
      I have been working with nuclear power for 30 yrs, I would be glad to have a new Nuclear power plant or used fuel storage facility in my community. My family and I live in a home within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant. (Where I work) I understand the risks involved and I’m completely comfortable with a plant “in my backyard”. I have confidence that our kids will be smart enough to treat the nuclear “waste” as a valuable resource, or at least handle it safely. If the cavemen thought their children would be too stupid to use fire safely, where would we be now?
      Nuclear power has the smallest environmental impact of any current energy production method per unit of energy produced. One fuel pellet about the size of a pencil eraser produces the same energy as burning 1 ton of coal, and if reprocessed most of what’s left can be reclaimed. Nuclear power is our best option for reliable, environmentally friendly base-load electrical power.

    • BlueRock

      > The facility was supposed to start receiving high-level nuclear waste in 1998, but $13 million and 12 years later, it has all but been abandoned…

      $13 *million*? Not quite – it’s $13 *billion* for this hole in the ground.

      P.S. Interesting article:

      – Compared Gram for Gram, Solar is Ten Times More Powerful than Nuclear. http://cleantechnica.com/2010/12/23/compared-gram-for-gram-solar-is-ten-times-more-powerful-than-nuclear/

    • http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/blog/robertsteinhaus robert_steinhaus

      It is not necessary to leave a mountain of Spent Nuclear Fuel as a legacy for our children’s children. Better, safer, and less waste generating nuclear power technology exists and has already been proven to work.
      Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) is Nuclear power done the right way, and produces only one hundredth the amount of nuclear waste per gigawatt of power output as conventional Light Water Reactors as are used today.
      For those of you concerned about nuclear safety and waste products there is a much better alternative. Thorium based (rather than uranium based) nuclear power. This technology was demonstrate in the 50′s and 60′s but was abandoned because it was much harder to produce weapons grade material (compared to uranium). The military considerations favored the uranium fuel cycle.
      More specifically LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactors) compared to uranium reactors burn fuel 100x more efficiently without reprocessing, result in ~100x less waste [1] and are inherently safer and should cost less to build.
      In addition, since LFTR is a high temp low pressure process it can use water or air cooling. Thus in Utah or Nevada etc, where water is scarce, people could replace coal fired plants with low cost, clean thorium power plants. This would be much more cost effective and reliable than the wind and solar plants that California is building. (fyi, California’s electricity currently costs 2x Utah’s and recent California Energy Commission rulings insures that California is on a trajectory to keep it that way.)
      LFTRs are good science [2] and could be a key technology to get the USA off of use of fossil fuels (coal and oil) while providing additional safety and less waste than current nuclear reactors.
      [1] Le Brun, C., “Impact of the MSBR concept technology on long lived radio toxicity and proliferation resistance” – http://bit.ly/bLqIxB
      [2] Dr. Edward Teller and Dr. Ralph Moir – Underground Mounting of Thorium Nuclear Reactors – http://bit.ly/cnjjrp

    • http://www.mdconservationcouncil.org NDMSouth

      Jim Riccio is wrong on three counts. First, Riccio is obviously thinking of renewables as the competitor to nuclear power, because he, and I, assume that the use of fossil fuels has to be eliminated as soon as possible. The assumption that the high cost of constructing a reactor results in a higher cost of its electricity is incorrect, and is based on omission of the back-up capacity necessary to compensate for the intermittency of wind and solar power. Also. the cost of renewable electricity to the consumer is often calculated by omitting the substantial tax breaks to the owners of renewable facilities. When these are included (in analyses called Levelized Cost of Electricity), nuclear power is significantly less expensive than that from renewables. This is the conclusion of both the American Physical Society and Maryland’s Public Service Commission.

      Second, the technical problems with Yucca Mountain are the result of the ban on reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, which forces the storage of large volumes of material most of which is not highly hazardous. The Health Physics Society has recommended storage of used fuel above ground in sealed stainless steel casks, protected by reinforced concrete bunkers until the most highly radioactive isotopes decay, after which the fuel can be reprocessed almost as readily as newly mined uranium, leaving only a tiny volume of material needing long term storage.

      Third, since it is well understood that the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island caused no health harm, had the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant failed, and further, had this resulted in a meltdown, there is little reason to conclude that any significant harm to health would have resulted. Reactors are not particularly good targets for terrorists, because it is very difficult to breach the structures containing highly radioactive material, and even if this unlikely event occurs, dispersal of enough radioactive material to harm the health of nearby residents is an additional unlikely event.

      The mendacious radiophobia being promulgated by groups like Greenpeace is impeding the development of nuclear power and by doing so is postponing the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation, because nuclear reactors can do this faster and more reliably than renewables. The back-up required by renewables will use natural gas, thus producing carbon dioxide.

    • suzanne

      Nuclear power will never be clean as long as the waste is radioactive. Radiation is not green. We should all try and generate some of our own power. The Organic Mechanic has solar components and wind turbines. I’ve had great luck with them, and their customer service is wonderful.
      http://www.organicmechanic.com/product/micro-wind-turbine

      • Jim Hopf

        “Radiation is not green.”

        You seem to think that nuclear power (and other nuclear technologies) are the only source of radioactive material, and that the world is otherwise completely non-radioactive. My god…..

        The world is a sea of (naturally occurring) radiation, with virtually all materials having some level of radioactivity. Everyone gets a significant annual radiation dose from natural sources, along with medical exposures. Public radiation exposure from nuclear power is negligible, with nobody getting more than ~0.1% of what they get from natural sources. Natural background exposures can vary by a factor of several, and yet no correlation between background exposure level and the rate of any type of disease has ever been seen. Thus, the tiny (0.1%) exposures from nuclear power clearly have no impact.

        Nuclear is about the only industry that is required to fully contain all of its wastes, and ensure that they remain contained for as long as they remain hazardous. Nobody is getting any radiation exposure from nuclear waste, and there is almost no chance anyone ever will. Other industries just dump their wastes right into the environment.

        Even solar cells (which contain significant amounts of toxic elements that never decay away) probably represent a larger ultra-long-term health hazard than nuclear waste does, given the larger volume of waste, the longer (infinte) lifetime of the toxins, and the fact that the waste will not be disposed of with anywhere near as much care as nuclear waste is.

    • Tom Kauffman

      Jim Riccio’s points against nuclear energy are lame.

      His assertion that nuclear plants can’t compete in the marketplace is disproven by the fact that four new reactors will be built in Georgia and South Carolina (all of which are supported by the states’ public service commissions) and more new plants are in the queue.

      What he calls “waste” is the used nuclear fuel that is an energy rich resource. The used fuel can be safely stored indefinitely (relocated if desired) and through recycling the quantity and toxicity of the final waste products will be greatly reduced while providing clean energy to future generations.

      By the way, the amount of used fuel produced each year by the average U.S reactor can fit in the bed of a standard long-bed pickup truck. As compared to burning 4 million tons of coal or 62 billion cubic feet of natural gas to make the same amount of electrcity. And where does Riccio think the millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other emissions including lead, mercury, arsenic, uranium, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and piles of ash go? They won’t fit in a pickup.

      Riccio almost always brings up terrorism saying nuclear reactors “can pose threats to national security.” This is simply a scare tactic. Considering that reactors have protective measures similar to high-security military installations, they are among the most highly protected facilities in the nation’s industrial infrastructure. It is because of their fortifications and multiple layers of security that nuclear plants present a strong deterrent to potential threats.

      I suggest you check out “Myth & Facts About Nuclear Energy” at http://www.nei.org/newsandevents/nei-backgrounders/myths–facts-about-nuclear-energy/ that addresses some of Riccio’s misleading and inaccurate claims.

    • Jim Hopf

      The real truth is that nuclear is somewhat more expensive than fossil fuels, whereas renewables are a lot more expensive than fossil fuels. It is also true that whereas renewables are limited by intermittentcy, and will therefore never contribute more than ~25% of our total electricity, nuclear has no such limitation (just ask the French, who get ~80% from nuclear).

      People like Riccio routinely make intellectually dishonest arguments, like saying that nuclear is not competitive “in the market” (and needs subsidies) while renewables are succeeding (i.e., are being built). They’re trying to imply (but not directly state) the false notion that renewables are cheaper than nuclear. They deliberately do not point out that it is fossil fuels that nuclear is not quite competitive with (necessitating relatively small subsidies), whereas the only reason renewables are being built is due to outright govt. mandates that they be built (regardless of cost or practicality), as well as massive govt. subsidies (much larger than those given to nuclear).

      Meanwhile, these groups fight tooth and nail against any policies that would allow renewables and nuclear to compete on a fair, level playing field (such as including nuclear in portfolio standards, or recieving the same subsidy treatment). Kinda says it all…