Posted: March 18th, 2023
Nuclear Power the Best Alternative to Fossil Fuel?
Is nuclear energy the best alternative to fossil fuels in terms of the need for energy, taking into account the economy and the environment? This is an issue that embraces several other issues, in particular global climate change, the science behind climate change, the politics surrounding climate change and the continuing need for new sources of energy. This paper will address those issues using scholarly research and other data produced by worthy sources. Thesis: Available, credible research shows that nuclear power plants today are prohibitively expensive to build and moreover, the public has become increasing fearful and skeptical of nuclear energy following the tsunami and radioactive disaster in Japan. Hence, nuclear power does not appear at this time to be a valid alternative to fossil fuel notwithstanding the need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Global climate change — the latest research
There are still a few elected officials in the United States — and conservative talk show hosts — that do not accept the science that clearly shows the planet is heating up — and that human activities are causing the warming of the planet. These voices are important to recognize because they do influence the public’s thinking on climate change. For example, the radio listening audience of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh is estimated at fifteen to twenty million per week, and the far right host makes statements like, “They’re liberals perpetuating a hoaxâ€¦We’re not getting warmerâ€¦[it’s] a big fat lie” (rushlimbeaugh.com).
U.S. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma denies there is climate change or that humans are contributing to it. After President Barak Obama announced that his administration would set limits on emissions from coal-powered electrical generating plants, Inhofe said: “Their goal is not to protect the American people, it is to control them. They want top-down control, and carbon dioxide regulations will give this to them” (McAuliff, 2013). But notwithstanding the public personalities that deny climate change — and in the process cast doubts in the minds of citizens — the United Nations’ sponsored group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has issued its latest report asserting that the problem “â€¦is likely to grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control” (Gillis, 2014).
A news story in The New York Times reviews that latest report from the IPCC, which identifies the burning of fossil fuel as the key reason for the warming of the planet. “Ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying,” and many species (including some fish) are becoming extinct (Gillis, p. 1).
The oceans are rising which threatens many coastal communities around the globe, and oceans are becoming more acidic because they are absorbing the carbon dioxide that fossil-fueled power plants are emitting into the atmosphere, Gillis reports, based on the IPCC’s latest research. According to the IPCC, the world’s food supply as at “considerable risk — a threat that could have serious consequences for the poorest nations” (Gillis, p. 1). The report went on to explain that climate change will likely slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction “more difficult,” and that climate change is not just an event that may happen in the future.
Climate change scientist Michael Mann’s article in the Scientific American (April, 2014) posits that “â€¦if the world keeps burning fossil fuels at the current rate, it will cross a threshold into environmental ruin by 2036” (Mann, 2014). Mann, who contributes empirical research to the IPCC, notes that the preindustrial level of CO2 was about “280 parts per million (ppm)”; and in 2013 the CO2 “â€¦briefly reached 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history.”
Mann added that the 400 ppm level might have been reached “â€¦for the first time in millions of years, according to geologic evidence.” And the consensus among the hundreds of scientists that participate in and contribute to the IPCC is that if the CO2 levels cross the “threshold” of 405 ppm, “that will harm civilization” (Mann, p. 5) Moreover, if a level of 450 ppm is reached (which it will by 2036 if current rates of CO2 continue to be put into the atmosphere), the world’s atmosphere will be warmed by two degrees Celsius “â€¦human civilization will suffer dangerous harm” (Mann, p. 5).
How do fossil fuel & other greenhouse gases contribute to global climate change?
The Environmental Protection Agency explains that carbon dioxide is “the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities”; and albeit CO2 is “naturally present in the atmosphere as part of the Earth’s carbon cycle,” human-related sources have increased the concentration of CO2, which creates the “greenhouse effect” (EPA). The greenhouse effect is known to trap heat within the atmosphere, causing climate change.
The human-related sources, according to NASA, come from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and other land use changes. Another contributor to greenhouse gases is methane, which is produced by the decomposition of wastes in landfills and agricultural activities; nitrous oxide is another greenhouse gas contributor, which contributes through the “â€¦use of commercial and organic fertilizers, fossil fuel combustion, nitric acid production and biomass burning” (NASA).
The Union of Concerned Scientists explains that coal-fired plants are “the top source of carbon dioxide emissions,” and data presented for 2011 show that the 600 or so coal-fired plants in the U.S. contribute 3.5 million tons of CO2 annually (UCS). Coal-fired plants also contribute SO2 (sulfur dioxide) which “damages crops, forests, soils,” and “penetrates into human lungs” (UCS). Coal-fired plants also contribute nitrogen oxides (NOX), particulate matter, mercury, and “other harmful pollutants” (UCS).
Moreover, extracting coal from the land creates serious environmental and social consequences. In Kentucky and other Appalachian states like West Virginia, “mountaintop removal” is a strategy that literally scrapes away mountaintops to reach valuable coal deposits. “Over 500 mountaintops have already been destroyed and more than one million acres of forest have been clear-cut” in order to reach coal deposits in the cheapest way possible (Perks, 2011). Over a “â€¦thousand miles of valley streams have been buried under tons of rubble, polluting drinking water” and raising health and safety concerns for residents in the region (Perks, p. 1).
Nuclear as an alternative to coal-fired plants (i.e., fossil fuel plants)
Clearly, coal is a culprit when it comes to the reality of climate change worldwide. Indeed, coal is a major contributor to the warming of the planet, and because there is a great supply of coal under the surface of mountains and other lands in the U.S., it is understandable that it continues to be a major ingredient when it comes to the production of electricity in America. Although the Obama Administration would like to restrict the amount of greenhouse gases produced by coal-fired plants, no one is advocating shutting down the coal-fired plants because the daily lives of Americans — and U.S. industry — depend on those plants to continue producing electricity.
But, looking into the future, what are the alternatives to coal? This paper is focusing on whether nuclear is a workable alternative to coal — and fossil fuel burning per se, including natural gas — but there are other alternatives beyond the potential of nuclear power plants, and they will be reviewed and critiqued as well.
First, the facts about nuclear power will be covered in this paper. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) explains that there are currently 65 commercially operating nuclear plants in the U.S. In 31 states. Thirty six of the nuclear plants have two or more reactors, and the total estimated amount of electricity produced by these plants is 20% each year (EIA). Nuclear energy is that energy contained in the nucleus — or core — of an atom. There is “enormous energy in the bonds that hold the nucleus together,” and great amounts of energy is released when those bonds are broken” (EIA).
How do nuclear plants work — what powers nuclear energy?
Nuclear plants are powered by nuclear fission; the atoms are “split apart to form smaller atoms, releasing energy,” which is used to produce electricity (EIA). Basically, a nuclear plant goes through a fission process, fueled by uranium (U-235), which is manufactured into small, round fuel pellets. According to Duke Energy, one pellet is about an inch long but “â€¦produces the energy equivalent to a ton of coal.” The pellets are put into a fuel rod (“end-to-end”), and 200 rods are “grouped into what is known as a fuel assembly” (Duke).
When the uranium atoms are split through the process of fission, the neutrons (particles that result from the splitting of the atoms) collides with other neutrons which in turn creates a “chain reaction,” producing heat (Duke). In a pressurized water reactor, basically what happens is the heat produced by the chain reaction heats water which turns turbines which creates electricity. There are other processes leading to that heating of water and turning of turbines but that is essentially what happens. In a “boiling water reactor” the fission process actually boils water which turns turbines and produces electricity (Duke).
From time to time, about “one-third of the fuel assemblies in a reactor must be replaced,” but that “spent fuel” remains highly radioactive that “must be managed to protect workers, the environment, and the public” (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission – NRC). The NRC explains that the spent fuel assemblies are stored in “fuel pools” outside the plant, are “robust,” and “have large safety margins, including about 20 feet of water above the top of the fuel” which gives those operating the plant “time to correct any problem that may arise” (NRC). The NRC asserts that health risks arising from loading and from storing spent fuel “are very small,” and that “no known radiation releases” have negatively impacted public health since the first casks were stored in 1986.
What the NRC does not explain in its “Fact Sheet on Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel” is the fact that most of the spent nuclear fuel (radioactive waste) will be dangerously radioactive for up to 250,000 years. And while there is no known safe repository for all the waste, more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste materials are produced each year by the reactors in the U.S. (Biello, 2009). Biello’s article in the Scientific American goes on to point out that in 1987 the U.S. determined that Yucca Mountain in Nevada — about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas — would be a safe repository for highly radioactive nuclear waste. However, that site (notwithstanding the spending of an estimated $11 billion in public tax money) has not been proven to be safe, and has been abandoned as a potential site for the spent fuel (Biello, p. 2). Hence, the radioactive waste is being stored in repositories on or near the sites where the nuclear plants are operating.
Short of storing the estimated 70,000 tons of nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, or elsewhere, there is the possibility of “reprocessing” the spent fuel, according to Forbes writer Ken Silverstein. Actually reprocessing of spent fuel is not a new idea; in fact the first nuclear reactors built in the U.S. after World War II were designed to produce plutonium — for the “sole purpose of making weapons” (Silverstein, 2013). In 1976 President Gerald Ford ordered that the reprocessing be discontinued and during the Jimmy Carter Administration it was banned altogether due to the fear of the proliferation of nuclear weapons (Silverstein, p. 1).
One possible solution to the problem of what to do with the spent fuel is the “massive salt formation in southeastern New Mexico that has been accepting waste from nuclear weapons for 14 years,” Silverstein explains on page 2 of the Forbes article. The Waste Isolation Pilot Program (WIPP) uses 16 square miles of that salt formation — which is 10,000 square miles in size — which is considered “â€¦the tightest rock on earth” (Silverstein, p. 2). And even though the WIPP is likely a better repository than Yucca Mountain, transporting it from all the states that have nuclear power plants would entail serious “political resistance,” Silverstein continues (p. 2).
What are the positives of nuclear power — as an alternative to fossil fuel?
First of all, with regards to the high-level radioactive waste issue, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, because the U.S. Department of Energy has not yet provided a “viable program for the management of used nuclear fuelâ€¦nearly all commercial used fuel is stored safely and securely” on the reactors’ sites (NEI). The on-site storage facilities include “â€¦steel-lined concrete pools filled with water; or in air-tight steel or concrete-and-steel containers” (NEI). The NEI criticizes the U.S. federal government, saying it has “â€¦defaulted on its legal obligation” (agreed upon in 1998) to establish a system that can dispose of the spent fuel from all commercial reactors in the U.S.
The NEI also minimizes the actual volume of high-level radioactive waste, saying if all the spent fuel produced by nuclear plants over the past fifty years were “stacked end to end” those fuel rods would “cover the size of a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards” (NEI).
Nuclear energy and climate change
As to global warming / climate change and the need to produce energy that does not contribute greenhouse gas emissions to the already over-heated planet, the NEI points out that nuclear energy facilities “â€¦produce no air pollution that could threaten our atmosphere.” And because about 40% of the carbon dioxide emissions come from “burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, more nuclear energy means less air pollution” (NEI). The Nuclear Energy Institute believes that nuclear energy “â€¦is part of the climate change solution.” Independent, objective organizations that have studied the issues surrounding climate change and energy production have shown that “â€¦reducing carbon emissions will require a diverse energy portfolio,” and as for nuclear energy, it is “the only low-carbon option to help meet forecasted global electricity demand” (NEI).
Radiation and safety concerns
Citizen concerns about radiation are also addressed by the NEI; yes, the NEI agrees, a small amount of radiation is emitted through the fission process that drives nuclear energy’s electrical generation cycle. “Very little radiation is released” during normal operations, the NEI maintains, and in fact “multiple independent studies” have determined that “no health effects” have been found in neighboring towns and cities. There are monitors that measure the amount of radiation that nuclear plants emit, the NEI explains; those monitors examine “â€¦air, food, and water supplies” on a “real-time” basis. The fact is that there has “never been and event” in America that resulted in “harm from radiation exposure” (NEI).
Claims and counterclaims about nuclear power plants
In the website authored by The Energy Collective, Dartmouth College engineering professor Dr. Robert Hargraves makes claims about nuclear power and Glenn Doty (energy entrepreneur with WindFuels, a subgroup of Doty Scientific) responds with caveats that editorially contribute to Hargraves’ remarks. Hargraves: nuclear plants generate power “less expensively than wind or solar power plants.” Doty: “In some regions” that is true, but wind energy in regions with consistent strong winds is “less expensive.” Hargraves: there is ample uranium for the “foreseeable future.” Doty: maybe so, but the uranium mined today is “1/10th the quality ofâ€¦30 years agoâ€¦and the cost goes up by 10-fold every generation.”
Hargraves: today coal and natural gas generate electricity “less expensively than nuclearâ€¦” Doty: coal and natural gas do produce electricity more cheaply than “new” reactors, but existing plants produce “incredibly cheap energy” (The Energy Collective).
The cost of nuclear plants today
On the subject of the cost of producing energy using nuclear plants, an article in Bloomberg Businessweek notes that in 2008, the U.S. Congress authorized “â€¦$18 billion in federal loan guarantees” for the building of new nuclear plants (Phillips, 2013). Following that, 24 American utility companies submitted applications, thinking that Congress would likely put a “price on carbon with a cap-and-trade bill” that would supposedly make coal-fired plants “less profitable” (Phillips, p. 12). But several things happened to put a damper on the optimism, including: a) the “shale energy boom” and the falling prices of natural gas and coal; b) the demand for electricity went down during the recession; c) the 2009 stimulus package (part of Obama’s strategy to jumpstart the economy) put “billions of dollars into renewable energy (especially wind energy); d) “cap and trade never happened”; e) the Fukushima in 2011 “â€¦reminded the world just how dangerous nuclear power can be”; and f) 4 U.S. reactors were shut down in 2013, “a record for the industry” (Phillips, p. 12).’
Meanwhile Phillips asserts that the nuclear industry “â€¦hasn’t done itself any favors” because there have been radioactive steam leaks and a “botched repair job” that closed down two reactors in California (Southern California Edison) and a Duke Energy nuclear plant in Florida (p. 12). Also, of the 28 applications to build new nuclear plants, only four have resulted in new construction, and Daniel Eggers, a utilities analyst with Credit Suisse, said that in a competitive market “â€¦you can’t even come close to making the math work on building new nuclear plants” (Phillips, 12). “Natural gas is too cheap, demand is too flat, and the upfront costs [of building a new nuclear plant] are way too high” (Phillips, 12).
Cases in point vis-a-vis the cost of new nuclear plants, post-Fukushima
An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists points out that in February, 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license to build two new reactors, “for the first time in more than 30 years” (Cooper, 2012). Those two reactors would be built in Levy County, Florida, where the utility, Progress Energy Florida (PEF), reached an agreement with the public utilities group that allows PEF to tap into ratepayers’ wallets for $350 million over the next five years “as a down payment” on the building of the reactors (Cooper, p. 61).
But because the estimated costs to build those two nuclear plants hovers between $17 billion and $22 billion — which doesn’t include finance charges and “cost overruns” — they may never be built, Cooper explains on page 61. The cost of new plants is just one challenge facing the industry, Cooper continues; there is the challenge of “keeping its fleet of old reactors online.” The Crystal River reactor in Florida (at the time this article was published) had been offline since 2009, when engineers sliced into the containment building to “replace steam generators” only to discover “structural flaws” in the concrete panels (Cooper, p. 62). In the process of repairing flaws in the reactor that work “only created new cracks,” and subsequent to those events, Duke Energy announced it was retiring Crystal River.
“The decommissioning process is a well-defined, structured lengthy process,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Heather Danenhower (Cascio, 2014). It is also an expensive one for ratepayers, wrote journalist Ivan Penn with the Tampa Bay Times. Customers of Duke Energy will be asked to pay $100 million to “stabilize the reactor’s broken concrete containment building” (that workers are blamed for causing) but Duke Energy will “pocket roughly 7%” of that $100 million (Penn, 2014). Moreover, “while Duke profits from its blunders, customers will be forced to pay upward of $2 billion for the worthless upgrades, repairs, replacement power and company profits related to the Crystal River Plant” (Penn, p. 1).
U.S. Representative Dwight Dudley, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, was vocal about the public having to pay for Duke Energy’s mistakes. “In what universe, in what reality, do you make egregious mistakes — some would say rising to criminal negligence — and still make a profit?” (Penn, p. 1). “You have a multibillion dollar asset destroyed and we’re on the hookâ€¦we have an open wallet, an open pocketbook and it continues to be filched by Duke Energy” (Penn, p. 1). The other part of the story is that up to 600 workers at the Crystal River plant will be out of work and Citrus County will lose “â€¦millions of dollars in lost tax revenue” which negatively impacts public school budgets, Penn continued (p. 2).
Overview of nuclear plant repair costs
Cooper points out that “about half” of all nuclear reactors either ordered or docketed by the NRC have been “canceled or abandoned”; but of those reactors that were brought online, “13% were retired early, 19% had extended outages of one to three years, and 6% had outages of more than three years” (p. 62). Outages are not cheap, according to Cooper’s data; typically an outage at a nuclear plant costs “more than $1.5 billion” but those costs can increase to $11 billion, Cooper writes on page 65. And since the first nuclear power plants were built in the U.S., “â€¦one-quarterâ€¦have had outages of more than one year” either to replace worn-out parts, or to retrofit to meet new standards, or to recover because components failed (Cooper, p. 65).
Fukushima: the disaster and the aftermath
No research into nuclear power plants in 2014 would be complete without an assessment of what happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Nuclear reactors do not “age gracefully,” Cooper explains, and events that occur over time reveal design issues that were not addressed during construction. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists (noted for tracking safety issues at nuclear plants) has discovered that “â€¦leakage of radioactive materials is a pervasive problem at almost 90% of all reactors” (Cooper, p. 67).
And three issues related to nuclear plant safety have been “highlighted by Fukushima: seismic risk, fire hazard, and elevated spent fuel storage” (Cooper, p. 67). Upwards of 80% of nuclear reactors face at least one of those risks, and a disaster like Fukushima “â€¦calls into question the entire technology” Cooper continues (p. 69).
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has allowed some residents (360 of the 80,000 that were originally evacuated after the meltdown) to return to their homes in a portion of the Miyakoji district of Tamura, about a dozen miles inland from the Fukushima plant. According to the Harvard Health Blog, measurements of radiation levels a week after the accident in Miyakoji were “â€¦as high as 80 to 170 microsieverts per hour” (Kiger, 2014). A typical chest x-ray produces around 100 microsieverts, Kiger writes in The National Geographic.
Why were about 360 residents allowed back into their homes three years after the meltdown at Fukushima? Workers had removed “â€¦tons of surface soil, grasses, and plants” that had been severely contaminated by radiation from Fukushima’s meltdown and explosions, according to Oregon State University professor of nuclear engineering and radiation health physics, Kathryn Higley. The materials that were collected were packed in “plastic sacks and sent to storage facilities” while other workers “hosed down the exteriors of buildings” where heavy doses of radiation were apparent (Kiger, p. 3). Notwithstanding those efforts by workers, it is likely that the radiation at Miyakoji is “much higher than it was before the accident” (Kiger, p. 4). Given that the testing at Miyakoji shows that residents will be exposed to up to 4,380 microsieverts per year, those residents will be dosed with “ten times the normal background radiation level” in that region of Japan (Kiger, p. 4).
Conclusion: Renewable Energy and Conservation
As to the question — is nuclear power a viable alternative to the burning of fossil fuels (coal-fired plants) — the research presented in this paper casts doubts on the future of nuclear power in terms of replacing fossil fuel as an energy source. Indeed, nuclear plants do not pour tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — as coal-fired plants are known to do — but the economics of nuclear energy at this time indicate that building new plants is prohibitively expensive. Moreover, as the references used in this paper indicate, the cost of maintaining nuclear plants — and the frequency of leaks and other problems that can produce hazardous situation — adds to the argument that instead of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels, there should be a push for renewable, including wind, water power, solar, geothermal and biomass.
In fact the U.S. lags far behind in tapping into the sun, wind, and other renewable sources. To wit, 55% of electrical power in Sweden comes from renewable; 40% of electrical power in Denmark comes from wind; 47% comes from renewable in Portugal; 30% comes from renewable in Spain and 21% comes from renewable in Germany (www.nytimes.com). In the U.S., just 13% of electrical power derives from renewable energy. The answer to the question posed in this paper then has to be no, nuclear isn’t a viable alternative to coal at this time. And yet both of those sources will be phased out in the future when engineers and elected leaders spend the effort to develop renewable sources and in the process greatly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that are causing global climate change.
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