Making Nuclear Power an Environmental Topic

Written by Christopher Bergan

I have recently had my suspicions reinforced that all people can be like sheep (sheeple?) – and to be perfectly frank, I have sometimes been in that category also. I am not talking specifically about work or politics here, but just being a member of society. None of us really has time to become an expert in all things so we take mental shortcuts, which psychologists and philosophers call heuristics. No this isn’t an academic paper – more of a lament that many important issues like the environment, energy infrastructure, and climate change are only superficially understood by otherwise well informed people. Most will nearly always trust simplistic ideas or even gut reactions rather than explore any topic deeply for themselves.

What I’m trying to describe are issues in which a person is willing to donate time, money, or become otherwise proactive. Yet few ever take the initiative to actually learn about these issues on their own and confirm the information being presented to them. Generally people will make a conscious decision to trust what a knowledgeable person says, with little regard as to whether there might be any bias or hidden agenda. The hard questions almost never get asked.

There’s a local group in Iowa which is very passionate about the environment, called 100 Grannies. Several members are well educated and many are semi-retired. They are willing to travel several hours to a protest, just to show solidarity with oppressed groups and occasionally get arrested. I do admire them for that tenacity. I found a post on their website about another environmental arrestee: Dr. James Hansen. The Grannies entry concerned Hansen’s trip to the COP21 meeting in Paris and his promoting of the Carbon Fee & Dividend as proposed by the Citizen’s Climate Lobby. The Grannies don’t mention Hansen’s views on nuclear energy – neither does the CCL site, even though they also quote him from COP21 – which is where he & three scientist friends specifically stated that nuclear power must be part of the solution.

I’ll add that the 100 Grannies usually meet only a few blocks from the Van Allen building on the University of Iowa campus, named after the university professor that mentored Hansen back when he was a student at U of Iowa. Ironic.

What did Hansen & friends actually say about nuclear at COP21? That video can be found with Energy for Humanity, a group co-founded by award winning documentary film-maker Robert Stone. EFH Director Kirsty Gogan introduced these Four Climateers (if I may be allowed to co-opt Victor Hugo’s term), and here are some of their statements:
There’s really only one technology that I know of that can provide carbon free power when the sun’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing at the scale that modern civilization requires – and that’s nuclear power.” Dr. Ken Caldeira

There are a lot of people who see this as an opportunity to advance one agenda or another….; but why are four climate scientists, who don’t have strong backgrounds in nuclear physics, here today talking to you about nuclear energy? It’s because we are scientists and we can do the math. If we truly are sincere about solving this problem – unless a miracle occurs – we are going to have to ramp up nuclear energy very fast! That’s the reality.” Dr. Kerry Emanuel

But the decisions we make in the next 5, 10, 15 years will determine what’s possible after 2030. So this initial period – ratifying the INDC, making sure we don’t just look for a Renewable Energy targets but we look for a clean energy target future – that’s the primary concern of this particular meeting.”
Dr. Tom Wigley

We have to use all of the things that we have at our disposal, and clearly nuclear power – next generation nuclear power especially – has tremendous potential to be part of the solution.” Dr. James Hansen

We can scale up solar and wind pretty quickly up to a certain limit, and then we run headlong into the barriers dictated by intermittency.” Dr. Kerry Emanuel

We shouldn’t be building new fossil fuel power plants. It doesn’t make sense.”
Dr. James Hansen

Sweden, for example, they have carbon free electricity. That’s the solution to the climate problem. If we had carbon free electricity in all countries, you solve the problem! Because we can make liquid fuels for transportation from energy if you have abundant, carbon free electricity.”  Dr. James Hansen

CO² / KWh

There’s also a blogger named Paul Beckwith who attended COP21 and filmed a different talk Dr. Hansen gave there. Mr. Beckwith is a physicist/engineer from Canada. I can almost understand Beckwith not mentioning any energy source as, in the three part video (which Beckwith recorded himself), Hansen doesn’t really talk about any energy source except to say that fossil fuels are bad for the climate. What is discussed in these videos is the magnitude of climate change, CCL’s Fee & Dividend proposal, and socio/political implications. So actually Hansen might be partly to blame for confusing his message by not mentioning nuclear energy as one of the climate solutions at every opportunity. But it has been a part of his climate change message for awhile now – just as carbon fee & dividend is. In my opinion it is only those that turn a deaf ear that can’t hear the nuclear aspect which many of the best informed & honest environmentalists advocate.

A Dutch acquaintance of mine named Joris van Dorp recently found a similar problem in his country. He wrote:

I had a discussion recently with some members of the Dutch Green Party. Here are my findings. The party has just unveiled its party program for the 2017 elections. It has made the immediate shutdown of Dutch nuclear power a central part of its political program, as well as a ban on new nuclear power plants.

As such, the Dutch greens have clearly torn-up the IPCC AR5 assessment of climate science, which states that a quadrupling of nuclear power is consistent with most assessed pathways to the timely and sufficient reduction of co2 emissions. They do this while continuing to claim that climate change is a priority issue for them. Obviously, it is not.

Interestingly, the party members I discussed this with eventually admit that they don’t personally agree with their party’s insistence on shutting down nuclear power.

In the past, I’ve grudgingly accepted the Green party’s open assault on nuclear power, because I knew that quite a few party members didn’t support the party line. In fact, the majority of the party’s scientific committee was in favour of new nuclear, even after Fukushima. I calculated that the 2017 elections might well include the greens on a pro-nuclear platform, especially since the IPCC made the importance of nuclear for climate clearer than ever before in its history.

Now that my hopes have been proven naive, and given the fact that there is no more time to wait for action on nuclear for climate, I feel I must now drop my traditional tolerance of the Dutch green party’s antinuclearism. In the coming months, during the political discussions I’m going to have, I’m going to be recommending that people do NOT vote for the greens, if they value the environment.

Any other party is better than the greens, where climate is concerned. Even the nationalist brown party is a better choice, mostly because they (alone) are actively pushing for an ambitious nuclear power program. They deny that AGW is a problem, but they do believe in the value of environmental protection and they fully accept the superior environmental performance of nuclear power.

This avoidance of clean & powerful nuclear energy by environmental groups has become de rigueur. No doubt most find it easier to delete “uncomfortable subjects” rather than twist the truth. This is likely why the well known anti-nuclear advocate Helen Caldicott has said, “We don’t need to talk about nuclear as we all know it’s dangers”. I am not claiming any of these groups are actually evil or have nefarious agendas, but a few who are considered environmental leaders are also being disingenuous by ignoring nuclear as part of the solution. They should acknowledge and discuss all aspects of climate change instead of burying some topics under cheap and often unsupported assumptions. There are several environmentalists who have been through this process already.

A June of 2015 article in The New Yorker had a great phrase; “Conservation requires conversation; protecting nature while still using it to meet human needs is a paradoxical mission, …”. People tend to trust what organizations say, and when messages are severely edited proper solutions can become hidden for decades. It’s time to tell the whole message, whether gently or blatantly. Let’s move past the hand wringing and empty gestures to begin implementing solutions. If the human race can assess any progress along the way with honest and critical evaluations, poor solutions can be weeded out and the better ideas will remain. In the meantime the Energy Reality Project will try to share this whole message as best we understand it. It’s “the rest of the story”, as news commentator Paul Harvey used to say; and there are often a few more bits of vetted information that can be added to the tale. So please, leave any insightful comments below and be part of the solution.

It’s time to create an abundance of objective discussions. As Dr. Hansen recently wrote on his CSAS blog, “There is a dearth of objective discussion of the role of advanced nuclear power in the future of clean power and the phase-out of fossil fuels.”

Let’s include nuclear power as an environmental topic.

Additional Information:
http://ecolo.org/index.html
http://cravenspowertosavetheworld.com/
http://www.environmentalprogress.org/clean-energy-crisis/
https://jmkorhonen.net/2016/05/17/what-is-ecomodernism-a-lecture/

https://youtu.be/Yy5f5RMR8Xc James Hansen Lecture at Univ. of Iowa Oct. 2014
www.sfen.org/en/le-blog-des-energies/cop21-world-needs-nuclear-end-energy-poverty-address-climate-change

www.dailykos.com/story/2016/03/18/1503359/-Wind-and-Solar-s-Fukushima-The-Methane-Meltdown-at-Porter-Ranch

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About ChrisB

A lifelong "armchair scientist", I have previously spent 19 years in management and systems analysis, with some conflict resolution. For the last few years I have worked as a cab driver - and enjoyed it.

13 thoughts on “Making Nuclear Power an Environmental Topic

  1. Bas

    The problem is that nuclear generation emits also a lot of CO2eq/KWh when you consider the whole nuclear cycle (uranium ore mining, transport, enrichment, fabricating fuel rods, guarded nuclear waste storage for centuries (underground trial in Asse became a big failure), etc.

    All in all sound reasoning delivers that it’s substantial more than biomass and at least 3 times more than 3 times cheaper PV-solar…

    Reply
      1. Bas

        Just use common sense. .
        As new Hinkley nuclear costs 3-9times more per KWh than wind & solar, it will also emit about 3-9 times more CO2eq/KWh than wind & solar.

        Worse:
        – Hinkley will also insert significant new heat to the atmosphere: ~3 times the produced electricity = ~10GW! While renewable (wind, solar, etc) operate without generating new heat!
        – If we also calculate the many subsidies (liabilitiy limitation subsidies, guarantees, etc) that Hinkley get, the difference is more like 5-15 times!

        And the situation becomes even worse for nuclear as it increases in price (Hinkley may even cost £24Billion according to EU accountants) while wind & solar continue their price decreases of 4-10%/a. Due to efficiency improvements = less CO2!

        The idea that nuclear is low carbon is from the past, when wind & solar were many times more expensive and climate scientists (not knowing anything about nuclear nor the effects of its radiation) thought it was necessary to promote nuclear in order reduce CO2 emissions.
        So they adapted unrealistic figures such as James Hansen etal who estimates 40 deaths for Chernobyl, while UN nuclear promotion organization states 8,000death!

        Reply
        1. Joris van Dorp

          “As new Hinkley nuclear costs 3-9times more per KWh than wind & solar, it will also emit about 3-9 times more CO2eq/KWh than wind & solar.”

          Nope. Hinkley project costs are almost entirely soft costs. People behind desks processing paperwork. Only a fraction of the cost is in raw materials and manufacturing. Conversely, solar/wind are extremely material intensive – at least 5 times as much per kWh as nuclear. So financial costs and co2 emissions are not related and not intercomparable between nuclear and solar/wind.

          “Worse:
          – Hinkley will also insert significant new heat to the atmosphere: ~3 times the produced electricity = ~10GW! While renewable (wind, solar, etc) operate without generating new heat!”

          Wrong. Wind converts about 50% of the wind energy into electricity (Betz’s law). The other 50% of the energy in the wind gets converted into heat (it is dissipated in turbulence). That makes wind power only marginally more thermally efficient than nuclear.

          For solar, the situation is different. Efficient solar panels convert 20% of the sunshine into electricity, and most of the remaining sunshine into heat. They are thermally far less efficient than a nuclear power plant. On the other hand, the sunshine captured by the panels would otherwise hit the ground or a roof and also partially get converted into heat. In practice, a (non-iced) surface will reflect between 20% and 50% of the suns energy without turning it into heat, whereas a solar panel surface will reflect less than 5% of the sunshine, and turn up to 80% of it into heat. On average, summing all components and including conversion losses particular to solar technology, this means a solar panel effective thermal efficiency is about the same as that of a nuclear power plant.

          “– If we also calculate the many subsidies (liabilitiy limitation subsidies, guarantees, etc) that Hinkley get, the difference is more like 5-15 times!”

          The size of these subsidies and guarantees are far smaller than you imagine. However, it doesn’t matter how many times you are shown the evidence, you keep repeating your nonsense. You also keep ignoring that wind and solar require significant natural gas backup, far more than nuclear power would need. The co2 emitted by this required solar/wind natural gas backup must be included in the co2 intensity of solar/wind. It cannot be ignored, despite the fact that you always ignore it.

          Reply
          1. Bas

            @Joris,
            Hinkley project costs are almost entirely soft costs.
            Project costs are only a fraction of Hinkley’s cost. For the emissions you should look at the costs per MWh produced.

            Even when your assumption about soft costs would be true (it isn’t), it makes little difference as in the end near all costs for wind & solar are also labor costs. Even the costs that are not labor, e.g. the license to mine steel, generate a similar amount of emissions as that money is spent similar as workers do. So it also generate similar emissions.

            Same with financial costs. Those who receive that money will in the end (directly or indirectly) spend it generating similar emissions!

            Wind turbines are not responsible that ~50% of wind’s energy is converted into heat.
            If there are no wind turbines than 100% of wind’s energy is converted into heat. Mainly via friction with obstacles & the surface (which is the also reason that there are waves),
            So wind power is >100000 times more thermally efficient than nuclear!

            solar panels
            From NASA:
            ~29% of incoming solar energy is reflected at the top of the atmosphere.
            ~23% is absorbed before reaching the surface (never reaches it).
            ~48% is absorbed by the surface.
            There is hardly any energy (~1%) that is reflected by the surface and then reaches space again.
            So the absorbing surface of solar panels do not contribute to the warming-up of the earth (if, it is negligible).

            solar panel effective thermal efficiency is about the same as that of a nuclear power plant.
            That may be true. But nuclear generates new heat which is then inserted into the atmosphere (electricity also end as heat), while solar panels use part of the existing heat (radiation)..

            ..wind and solar require significant natural gas backup, far more than nuclear power..
            For the next 10-15 years the share of wind & solar will be so low that it plays no role (some grid enlargements and load adaptation is enough). There after:
            – battery storage will be cheap (70% of German rooftop installations already contain a battery to cover the night)
            – P2G (1GW in Germany in 2022, expanding further) will take long term dips (cheap storage in earth cavities)

            Nuclear can deliver only base-load, so it can never exceed a share of 80%. And even that becomes very expensive (poisoning of fuel rods at lower capacity). So France is now reducing nuclear towards <50% in 2025. Replacing it with renewable..

            nuclear’s subsidies
            The different nuclear accidents caused an estimated damage >$2000billion! Those accidents occurred in 15000 reactor years. That is $133mln/reactor year. The av. reactor produced in 2015 7000GWh. So that subsidy is ~$20/MWh, invisible until disaster strikes then the citizen & government has to pay as nuclear laws restrict liability to ridiculous low amounts!
            Similar calculations for decommission & nuclear waste deliver another $10/MWh subsidy!

    1. ChrisB Post author

      Bas can always be counted on to bring up common misconceptions, though occasionally he does bring up valid points of consideration. A shame his comment above is the former.

      While I don’t generally prefer to confirm assertions by repeatedly using the same source (as many WWS advocates do), Joris’ link to a previous ERP article is appropriate since it was written by a different author and has excellent information from several sources including IPCC & NREL.

      The science is straightforward, it is implementing policies to mitigate the climate change threat which is difficult. If excellent, science rooted policies are implemented well, then the changes to the climate just might be reversed before the 23rd century. If not, ….look for extinctions of half the biodiversity once the base of the food chain crumbles in a few decades.

      Reply
      1. Bas

        Chris,
        Let’s keep things smart and simple, and first compare operating nuclear with operating wind and solar.

        Operating Nuclear emits >10 times more CO2eq/KWh than operating wind & solar as shown by independent studies.
        Following similar course as the tobacco industry, nuclear facilitated studies that nuclear is low carbon (forgetting factors). The result is that study results easily differ a factor 10 (as occurred with health harm through smoking studies),

        As discussion about studies don’t solve the issue easily, let’s use sound reasoning.

        Per dollar, costs are near always associated with about the same amount of carbon emission as costs are in the end always labor. And workers spend their money more or less the same.
        So wind, solar, nuclear electricity all emit ~X grCO2eq/cent KWh.

        The operating or marginal costs of nuclear are more than $50/MWh as shown by the new (ZEC) NY-state subsidies. To those we should add the ~$20/MWh worth of liability subsidies operating nuclear get*)

        The marginal costs of wind and solar are smaller than $5/MWh.
        Which is (50+20)/5 = 14 times less.

        So sound reasoning implies that existing, depreciated nuclear emit at least 14 times more CO2/KWh than comparable solar and wind!

        Btw.
        It’s also clear why old studies on which IPCC & NREL are based are so far off present reality.
        Before 2010 wind and solar were more expensive than nuclear.
        Since then nuclear became >50% more expensive (more security as Fukushima showed nuclear is unsafe => more CO2) and wind & solar decreased a factor 2 – 4 in price due to efficiency improvements (=also less CO2).
        ____
        *) The nuclear liabilities limitations acts limit nuclear’s liability for the costs of accidents and nuclear waste to unrealistic low amounts.
        The value of the accident liability limitation act:
        In ~15,000 years of reactor operations accidents (Fukushima, etc)
        created a damage of ~$2Trillion. A subsidy of $133mln per reactor year, which translates to ~1.7cent/KWh.
        Nuclear waste liability limitation add another ~0.5cent/KWh.

        Reply
        1. ChrisB

          Smart & simple is about my level Bas, but I don’t mind knowing where more detailed information can be found. You have not named actual sources for your suppositions. Some of my many sources are http://euanmearns.com/, http://canadianenergyissues.com/, http://www.energy.gov/, and http://www.GAO.gov.

          Also, are you talking about RE on the grid? If so we should include any majority-of-the-time backup energy sources for wind & solar. That would make them a hybrid power source. Natural gas is generally considered the best at load following, so please include CO² emissions from gas as part of the emissions of wind or solar. Unless you are proposing that the grid be randomly intermittent – which would be horrible for any town, city, or even most households.

          There is an excellent video series about the grid, in three parts.
          http://yesvy.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-grid-power-and-policy-introduction.html
          http://yesvy.blogspot.com/2016/05/payments-on-grid-what-every-citizen.html
          http://yesvy.blogspot.com/2016/05/the-distribution-grid-christine.html

          Reply
          1. Bas

            RE on the grid? If so we should include any majority-of-the-time backup energy sources for wind & solar. That would make them a hybrid power source.
            It is quite similar with nuclear, as nuclear :
            – cannot load follow (only at very high costs due to the fuel rod ‘poisoning’ at low power);
            – nuclear power stations can, and do sometimes, fail totally within a few seconds.

            With wind+solar the issue becomes only important when wind+solar share is >40% (so for Germany after 2025).
            Against that time:
            – battery costs are so low that everybody will use them.
            In Germany ~70% of new rooftop solar installations has also a battery;
            – Stored gas from Power-to-Gas is then an accepted option to cover long periods without wind or solar, as mass production is decreasing its price.

          2. ChrisB Post author

            Mr. BasG;
            I’m not sure why you continually spout incomplete information, though I do understand why you don’t cite your sources.

            While nuclear would be very poor at load-following erratic RE, both naval & civilian nuclear plants can and have followed the more gently changing grid. From what I understand advanced nuclear will also be capable of following the grid. http://ansnuclearcafe.org/2013/02/14/responding-to-system-demand/

            Nuclear plants have the highest capacity factor of any source. Their down time (typically 4-10%) includes the scheduled refueling & maintenance every 18-24 months. Unscheduled down time is usually due to a storm knocking down power lines out in the community so that there is no where to sent the electricity. At these times nuclear reactors are shut down quite easily – to wait for utility companies to repair their infrastructure.

            Current grid level storage with batteries would involve huge amounts of mining – some believe there aren’t enough minerals in the crust to make wide-spread grid storage viable.

            Finally P2G. I don’t know as much about that, though storing tiny hydrogen atoms for long periods can be quite the challenge. Do you have a reliable study on the ERoEI of P2G, Bas? Personally I look for the commercialization of synthetic fuels once advanced nuclear gains a foothold within the next two decades. https://bravenewclimate.com/2013/01/16/zero-emission-synfuel-from-seawater/

          3. Bas

            @Chris,
            You linked a nice sales promotion story. But the simple fact is that they don’t go below 70% of max. capacity. Even when electricity prices are negative. As shown clearly at sh.9 of this presentation: https://goo.gl/FmClzY
            The reason: it’s extremely expensive due to fuel rod ‘poisoning’.
            As AP1000 has similar physics, it won’t be different.
            For MSR I cannot judge. No need as that reactor type became obsolete ~1972, and nowadays there is even no experimental / test reactor of that type (the huge Chinese project seems stalled).

            Sorry I stopped checking your links when I saw the site of Steve Aplins (CanadianEnergy) with many clear lies. Such as:
            “why German electricity keeps getting dirtier”.
            Check at AGEB for the figures. A summary:
            Year . . Fossil . . Renewable
            2000 . 360(62%) . 38(6%) .
            2010 . 361(59%) . 105(17%)
            2015 . 338(56%) . 196(33%)
            Amounts are TWh and % of German consumed electricity.

            Most of the renewable increase is used to close nuclear prematurely (11 of their 19 reactors are closed now), as that is considered by German scientists and people to be most dangerous by far, Check e.g.: http://goo.gl/RzZwcV
            and: http://goo.gl/p0aUGk

            Nuclear is too expensive for hydrogen generation. To compete in the market the electricity price level should be ~3cent/KWh, which is more than the O&M costs of nuclear.
            For an overview of the fast developments: http://www.powertogas.info/
            Germany plans >1GW in 2022 and expanding further.

            One the idea’s is to refuel hydrogen cars with unmanned P2G plants at normal refuel stations. Those plants are housed in a standard sea-container. It saves expensive gas distribution trucks. The station only needs electricity and water to produce the hydrogen.

        2. HarryDutch

          France VS Germany on CO2eq/KWh
          France = Carbon Intensity 132(gCO2eq/kWh
          Germany = Carbon Intensity 499(gCO2eq/kWh)

          Nuclear = 12(gCO2eq/kWh)
          Wind = 12(gCO2eq/kWh)
          Solar – 45(gCO2eq/kWh)

          Bas forgot to mention the cost saved from the 2,000,000 lives saved by nuclear power generation, otherwise caused by coal fired power plants.

          Reply
  2. Ronald

    To answer your question about dosimetry…
    Dosimetry is the scientific process of measuring the absorbed radiation in tissue and matter due to radiation exposure.
    The most common and highly accurate method of reading and recording radiation exposure is with thermoluminescent (TLD) dosimeter. While the thermoluminescent phosphors are heated the energy that was previously absorbed from radiation exposure is then re-emitted in a light form. That re-emitted light is accurately measured with the help of a fancy tool called a photo-multiplier tube. The photo multiplier tube produces a signal which caluculates the dose that the TLD had absorbed. With the use of specific chemical compounds and filter types we can determine the actual dose of radiation as well as the radiation source.

    TLD radiation badges contain two phosphors which make it the most tissue equivalent dosimeter in the market. Lithium borate is considered the most tissue equivalent unlike aluminum oxide which is used by several other companies. Tissue equivalence is the determining factor that equates our readings to the actual doses of human tissue and skin. We provide four types of readings: shallow tissue (outer layer of skin), deep tissue (internal organs), eye tissue and exposure to neutrons. ​
    The history of dosimetery:
    http://www.​DosimeterBadge.com has been setting standards of dosimetry and customer service for years — We work among the first in the industry from its earliest days in the late 1940’s.

    We were the first to offer reports in an user-friendly, accessible format. We were the first to offer Customized logos on our badges and the first to partner with a reseller of our products to comply with their company mandate to go entirely green. DosimeterBadge.com was first to have a significant web presence and the first to make regular reports available electronically to our customers in pdf format – many of our customers now prefer to receive Electronic Reports only, saving time and paper. It’s good for the environment and it’s good for business.

    Many of these initiatives have now been adopted by other companies in our industry and have become the accepted norm… we are happy to have been the first. And, in May 2010, http://www.DosimeterBadge.com partnered with our supplier to release a mobile app making dose reporting accessible from mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads. You all know that electronic medical records are no longer the future – they are here now. Why should an RSO or Oncologist have access to all other medical records electronically, but have to go back to their office for a dose report? Now you can have the records you need immediately and manage many of the most needed functions right from your mobile device.

    Our dosimetry products themselves are built on the Panasonic & Harshaw platform, accepted around the world as the benchmark for these applications. We have configurations available for every diagnostic and therapeutic medical need.

    Panasonic so valued our relationship with them that we now represent the Radiation Safety Product line for them around the world and have recently added a variety of Panasonic Healthcare and Harshaw products to our offerings. Many of these are more in the nature of consumer rather than institutional offerings, but medical practices and hospitals have found them useful offerings to their own employees. Institutional, FDA approved devices were offered by Panasonic in this country starting in 2011. http://www.DosimeterBadge.com and their supplier will be the primary distributor of these.

    ~Info found on http://www.DosimeterBadge.com ~

    Reply

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