…and it always has been dangerous. The difference right now is that the danger has been made increasingly more apparent.
Back then, I have pointed out that the radiation impact of nuclear disasters (e.g. Chernobyl and Fukushima) have often been exaggerated way out of proportion, often to such an extant that the fear of radiation has led to more public harm than the radiation itself. I also mentioned that nuclear power is among the safest and cleanest forms of producing power. Even if we look at single accidents in isolation, nuclear accidents don’t tend to be the worst. That reward goes to the collapse of hydro electric dams. Still, single accidents are far less dangerous to you than the mundane causes of deaths such as air pollution and climate change, which is why fossil fuels come out as the worst.
The safety of nuclear power has recently corroborated by reports from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, which assessed the life cycle impacts of each energy sources according to various metrics. It shows that nuclear power emits less GHGs, occupies less land, uses less mined materials than most renewables, incl. wind and solar.
Even looking only at radiation specifically (a big sticking point of anti-nuclear activists), nuclear power still comes out as relatively benign. We live in a radioactive world. Cosmic radiation continues to rain down from space that is mostly blocked by the atmosphere, which is why even nuclear plant workers receive lower doses of radiation than airline pilots. From the other direction, stuff under the ground is often radioactive too. Natural granite contains radioactive elements, such that being inside a large granite buildings like New York’s grand central station exposes you to more radiation than being inside a nuclear plant. Coal and geothermal also emit radiation by liberating these radioactive material from the earth’s crust. In fact, geothermal and coal causes more radiation exposure to the public than nuclear power, mainly because the latter produces very little waste volume and nearly all of it is safely contained and immobile. As far as I am aware of, not a single person has ever died or even harmed by spent nuclear fuel. A good example for why ‘hazard’ (potential of harm) does not equal ‘risk’ (likelihood of harm).
Of course, radiation isn’t the issue when it comes to the dangers of coal power. In fact, radiation is a rather weak carcinogen. The UN report also looks at the carcinogenic effects of each energy source. The main cause of which isn’t radiation, it’s heavy metal pollution. Once again, nuclear comes out among the best since it doesn’t use a lot of materials due to its high energy density. Even natural gas isn’t very carcinogenic because the gas is mostly pure methane. Coal is worse due coal being impure. However, the most carcinogenic energy is concentrating solar power because it requires significant quantities of steel, the production of which uses Hexavalent chromium.
But… if we look at the larger picture (combining all metrics) the most harmful energy sources to the environment and humans are… no surprise… fossil fuels. Regarding the environment, most harm comes from climate change and a tiny bit of land occupation and transformation. Regarding human health, most is (again) climate change, but a significant part are non-carcinogenic toxicity and air pollution that causes heart and lung disease, causing over 10.000 deaths every single day That’s greater than the total historical death toll of nuclear power. Looking at the big picture; nuclear, hydro, solar, wind and geothermal are all clean and safe power sources. Which means putting these against the other is silly.
So why did I start by pointing out that nuclear is (in some regards) better than (some) renewables? Well, I just wanted to make it clear that I am ready to burst the bubble of anyone who wants to make argue that renewables are always better than nuclear power. Still, I rather want to avoid that trivial debate and instead making it clear that the argument against nuclear power in this day and age is absolute madness.
As I have also mentioned before, nuclear power has contributed significantly to avoiding carbon emissions. Today, nuclear represents 10% of global electricity, about the same or a little more than solar and wind combined. The single largest sources of low-carbon energy second only to hydro power, and it has saved millions of lives by displacing dirty fossil fuels. The UNECE and climate scientists say that nuclear power is an important part to achieve our goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050. There are a few places around the world that consistently generate low-carbon electricity. The one thing they have in common is that all of them mostly make use of reliable low-carbon energy sources: Mainly Hydro and/or Nuclear.
Hydro is unfortunately mostly tapped out around the world. That leaves nuclear with both a proven track record of achieving our goals and still being able to scale up. It’s true that there are papers out there which conclude that scenarios without nuclear are possible, but it’s important to note that these studies tend to come to such conclusion by excluding nuclear power a priori. Most studies that consider all technologies conclude that most feasible scenarios include nuclear power alongside renewables and various other technologies.
But isn’t nuclear power just too slow and too expensive? You can definitely pick examples of projects with major cost and time overruns. However, plenty of nuclear reactors have been build on time and on budget, mainly because experience on the same design was build up over time. Construction experience has been lost in many places, which is why we see high cost overruns with recent construction, especially with first-of-a-kind designs. Furthermore, countries have seen faster deployments of low-carbon electricity from nuclear than from either wind and solar. Specific examples are France going from 10% to 80% nuclear in the years from 1974 to 1989; and Ontario, which successfully phased out all coal power in the years from 2003 and 2014.
In contrast, the only country with >50% of its electricity being generated by solar + wind is the Denmark, mainly because it’s able to make use of a lot of wind by being a small country where everything is near a coast. Yet, Denmark’s electricity still remains rather carbon intensive, and it’s electricity prices are rather high, partially due to the intermittent nature of its electricity. And more renewables isn’t always good. Denmark periodically produces way too much wind than it can use. When this happens, Denmark exports electricity at a very low prices (sometimes negative), mainly to Norway which stores the electricity with pumped hydro. When wind drops and prices are high, Norway sells the electricity back to Denmark.
Germany is the prime example of a country who genuinely wants to decrease its GHG emissions, but they have their priorities completely screwed-up with (1) their decision to kill nuclear AND (2) the decision to kill nuclear before killing fossil fuels. The plan to phaseout nuclear power by 2022 was first announced way back in the year 2000 by the German cabinet led by Gerhard Schröder, and several plants were shut down in the following decade. Although Schröder successor, Angela Merkel, had decided to extend the use of nuclear beyond this deadline in 2010, this became politically untenable in the wake of the Fukushima accident in 2011. Merkel changed her position and the plan to phaseout nuclear by 2022 was officially announced and nuclear plants were shut down in rapid succession in the following years.
However, due to the rapid shut down in response to Fukushima, Germany funded the construction of new coal and gas plants in 2012 using a fund that was intended to promote clean energy to combat climate change.
If we want to exit nuclear energy and enter renewable energy, for the transition time, we need fossil power stations. At least 10, more likely 20 gigawatts [of fossil fuel capacity] need to be built in the coming 10 years
Chancellor Angela Merkel, during her parliamentary declaration to phaseout nuclear power in 2011
German politicians promised this wouldn’t damage the goal of reducing emissions by 40% in 2020, but this just ended up being a hot puff of methane gas. While Germany did deploy a substantial amount of renewable energy, a good fraction of that was completely wasted to replace nuclear rather than fossil fuels. Germany is just making it harder for themselves to achieve their climate goals. A 2018 report from the EU commission concluded that:
The GHG emission target 2020 is not likely to be met. Simultaneous phase-out of nuclear energy and growing energy demand has led to unchanged levels (same level as 1990) of energy generation from gas, coal and lignite leading to a slower decrease in GHG emission levels.
While Germany did reduce emissions by 40% in 2020 relative to 1990, this dip in emissions was largely due to the pandemic. Germany’s emissions went back in 2021 missing its 2020 target, and emissions are set to be even greater for 2022 for obvious reasons.
German EU lawmaker Udo Bullmann spelled out the problem explicitly.
We are the only highly industrialised country, which at the same time wants to get rid of nuclear energy and coal. Those who use a huge amount of nuclear energy, such as Macron, have an easier task to replace fossil fuels
Udo Bullmann, German EU lawmaker SPD party, 2021
Of course, this begs the question for WHY one would keep doing this if it makes things more difficult, a question that 25 intellectuals asked themselves before they urged the German government to stop with this madness.
The increased reliance on fossil fuels resulting from nuclear phaseouts should not be even slightly surprising. Time and time again, we have seen that the premature shut down of nuclear power has been replaced (predominantly, if not entirely) by the increased use of fossil fuels. To provide a few examples: First, the Japanese nuclear phaseout after Fukushima.
The increased air pollution resulting from this resulted in an estimated 21,000 deaths between 2011 and 2017. In contrast, “No adverse health effects among Fukushima residents have been documented that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure from the accident, nor are any expected to be detectable in the future” according to reports from UNSCEAR.
Additionally, in the USA we have the shut down of Vermont Yankee in 2014 which led to a spike in emissions in the following year due to an increased use of natural gas. More recently, Indian Point plant in New York was shut down, in big part due to the actions of the NRDC (an anti-nuclear NGO), who shamelessly bragged about their involvement AND in the same breath congratulated themselves for their oppositions against fossil fuels… which is so offensively ironic, because their actions in fact has led to an increase in the use of fossil fuels.
And Germany is no exception to this trend. Germany could’ve have avoided a lot of economic and environmental harm by simply keeping the nuclear power plants online. The social cost of the phase-out has been estimated to range from €3 to €8 billion per year, mostly due to increased mortality risk associated with exposure to the local air pollution emitted when burning fossil fuels. According to a paper published in 2019, if Germany kept the nuclear plants that were still operational just prior to Fukushima, they could’ve prevented up to 4,600 deaths between 2011 and 2017. And if they kept the nuclear plants that were still operational in 2017, an additional 16,000 deaths could’ve been avoided between 2017 and 2035. If Western Eruope and the USA would follow Germany’s example, this would lead to 200.000 preventable deaths by 2035. In contrast, Chernobyl could eventually lead to an estimated 4,000 deaths in total according to the WHO.
To make matters worse, since Germany was phasing out domestic nuclear and domestic coal at the same time, the only reliable energy source that could fill in for intermittent renewables was foreign natural gas. This is one significant reason why Germany sought out cheap natural gas directly from Russia via the construction of the Nord Stream pipelines.
We will have phased out nuclear energy by 2022. We have a very difficult problem, namely that almost the only sources of energy that will be able to provide baseload power are coal and lignite. Germany has now phased out its own coal production. That means that subsidies have been discontinued. Lignite isn’t subsidised and is thus a relatively cheap but very CO2‑intensive source of energy. We’ve therefore set up a commission which is examining the phasing‑out of coal-based power in Germany and is now in the final stage of its work. Naturally, we cannot do without baseload energy. Natural gas will therefore play a greater role for another few decades. The dispute about where our natural gas comes from is thus a bit over the top. For, on the one hand, it’s perfectly clear that we’ll continue to obtain natural gas from Russia. However, it goes without saying that we want to diversify. We’ll therefore also purchase liquid gas – perhaps from the United States and other sources. We’re thus expanding infrastructure in all directions. However, I believe we would be well advised to admit that if we phase out coal and nuclear energy then we have to be honest and tell people that we’ll need more natural gas. What’s more, energy has to be affordable.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Speech at 49th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos on 23 January 2019
This is also reflected by their opinion about the EU green taxonomy. Back in 2021, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) published a lengthy report concluding that nuclear power should be included in the taxonomy for green investment, because…
There is no science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies already included in the EU Taxonomy as activities supporting climate change mitigation. The impacts of nuclear energy are mostly comparable with hydropower and the renewables, with regard to non-radiological effects“.
As you might imagine, this isn’t an easy pill to swallow by anti-nuclear activists who have learned for decades to see nuclear and ‘green’ energy as different as oil and water. Unsurprisingly, Germany (along with other countries anti-nuclear governments) vehemently opposed this proposition, while at the same time they argued for natural gas to be included in the green taxonomy. So yeah, a fossil fuel is green but nuclear isn’t according to Germany. Oh, and remember Gerhard Schröder, the guy behind the idea of phasing out nuclear by 2022? Well, after leaving office, he became a Russian fossil fuel lobbyist, and has worked for Nord Stream AG, Rosneft, and Gazprom. And he even referred to Putin as a “flawless democrat” in 2004.
This madness isn’t limited to Germany. It seems that the green party in Belgium has plans to follow German by phasing out its own nuclear power (which provides 50% of Belgian’s total electricity) by 2025. The Federal Energy Minister Tinne Van der Straeten explicitly proposed to replace nuclear with natural gas, and she also erroneously claimed that replacing nuclear with natural gas does not increase emissions.
Now, that was before the start of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, when gas supply became increasingly insecure and prices soared to all time highs. Since then, it has been incredibly frustrating to hear the same bullshit excuse again the again from anti-nuclear greens. I have been hearing these exact arguments personally on twitter (not a convenient medium to argue on). These people will readily assert that the Russian gas issue in Germany has nothing whatsoever to do with the nuclear phaseout. Natural gas is mainly for heating while nuclear power is for electricity, thus keeping nuclear wouldn’t help. Meanwhile, Germany reactivates coal power plants.
So… electricity from nuclear doesn’t help because gas is only for heating, but electricity from coal does help… apparently?? Yeah, this was all utter crap, merely spouted to further justify the ideological nuclear shut down. And if this wasn’t obvious enough, we have this piece from STEAG (a German power company) bragging that they are able to deploy a new gas power plant just in time to benefit from subsidies and to replace the last nuclear plants to be shut down.
…the German cogeneration law offers subsidies for such highly efficient and low-emission plants. However, only plants that are in a so-called commercial continuous operation by the end of 2022 are entitled to them. This means that an ambitious timetable is required: the new gas and steam power plant must be connected to the grid by no later than the end of December 2022 in order to benefit from these subsidies. It is also precisely at this point in time that the last nuclear power plants are to be removed from the grid, so that the Herne gas and steam power plant could benefit from rising wholesale electricity prices. “One more reason to implement this project,” says Oliver Welling. "Both ecologically and economically, this is the right decision.
After months of excuses, reality has finally broken through ideology with Germany postponing the nuclear phaseout until the end of this winter in March 2023. Optimistically speaking, this a step in the right direction, but to me it’s just the depressing to realize that the anti-nuclear movement is only willing to budge barely an inch when faced with a devastating war and a major energy crisis.