Shutting down Nuclear dare they?!

Ever since I was interested in scientific topics, I learned about climate change and why we needed to address that. That was over a decade ago when I was in my early teens, but it wasn’t until about 4-5 years ago when I heard about nuclear. Well, I did hear about nuclear before, but not in the context of climate change. And when nuclear energy was brought up, it was very often put in a negative light. It’s absolutely dangerous…mountains of radioactive waste that will be with us for generations…you know what I am talking about. But despite this, I was mostly nuclear neutral. But this changed when in recent years after I learned a few things (apologies for the ranting).

Nuclear energy today produces more energy globally than solar and wind combined.

I was aware that nuclear fission did not emit greenhouse gases, but I did not know that the life-cycle emissions of nuclear is lower than that of solar energy per unit energy produced. And that nuclear is among the safest and cleanest sources of energy, despite of accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

In fact, one of the surprising findings of studies on these accidents is that the impact from fear was more severe to human health than the radiation itself.

Deep fear of nuclear radiation is widespread, yet research on radiation’s biological effects finds that the level of alarm far exceeds the actual danger. This “radiophobia”has roots in the fear of nuclear weapons, but has been significantly reinforced and inflamed by accidents at nuclear power plants. Radiophobia does far more harm to human health than the radiation released by nuclear accidents. In some cases, the harm results from disaster response. The influence of radiophobia on society’s energy choices poses great additional dangers. […] We didn’t have this knowledge in the 1950s and 1960s as the fear of radiation was becoming commonly accepted, but we do now, so we can compare harm from radiation at Chernobyl to the disaster’s non-radiological health impacts. Decades of research has established that fear of radiation did much more damage than radiation itself. As UNSCEAR reported, “Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure…Rates of depression doubled. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was widespread, anxiety and alcoholism and suicidal thinking increased dramatically…People in the affected areas report negative assessments of their health and well-being, coupled with an exaggerated sense of the danger to their health from radiation exposure and a belief in a shorter life expectancy. Life expectancy of the evacuees dropped from 65 to 58 years…Anxiety over the health effects of radiation shows no signs of diminishing and may even be spreading.”In Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts, a meta-analysis of 20 years of research, UNSCEAR said, “The mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem caused by the accident to date”(IAEA 2006)

And another shocking fact is that most of the relocation after Chernobyl was unnecessary and for Fukushima…none of it was necessary. In fact, the evacuation in Fukushima was rushed and botched such that it ended up killing more people than the radiation (could).

Since nuclear accidents (particular Fukushima and TMI) seem to have led to surprisingly low death tolls, you can actually make the argument that even the major accidents exemplify the safety of nuclear energy. Quoting from environmental activist George Monbiot:

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology. A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

Even Chernobyl is not actually the worst energy related disaster. The biggest comes from a renewable power source. The Banqiao dam failure in 1975 that resulted in a flash flood that killed somewhere between 85,600 to 240,000, destroying everything within an area of an 12,000 Km^2. In comparison, the most pessimistic figure provided by a EU green party funded study says Chernobyl killed 60.000, while the WHO gives a more conservative figure of 4000. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is 2,600 Km^2, about 4x less than Banqiao. Also, the exclusion zone today practically functions as a wild life refuge. So, if Chernobyl is a reason to shut down all nuclear plants, then surely we should be shutting down all hydro dams.

Of course, everyone is worrying about the waste, but the spent fuel waste is tiny. If you used nuclear energy for everything in your entire life including transportation, the spent fuel waste would be the size of a soda can. And all of it is contained, unlike the waste from fossil fuels that is dumped in the air and in the water. And the “spent fuel” is a rather misnomer since spent fuel can be “burned” further in fast breeder reactors, generating more electricity without having to mine more uranium and also reducing the amount of waste and how long it will stay radioactive.

Not only that, fossil fuels releases about 100 times more radioactive waste into the environment. If fossil fuels were regulated on the same standards as nuclear power, then all combustion plants would be shut down because of the radiation alone. So if you are worried about radioactive waste, it’s not nuclear energy that you should be looking at.

IPCC has also stated that nuclear has to be part of the energy mix to reach the goal of limiting warming below 1.5 Celsius. And a recent UNECE report concluded that nuclear is - in many aspects - even cleaner than many renewables, as it takes up less land and needs less raw materials per unit energy. However, the point is not “nuclear good, renewables bad”. That’s a complete distraction. The issues are the GHGs and particulate pollution from fossils fuels that kills people by the hundreds of thousands every year. To put this in perspective, fossil fuels - working “perfectly” as intended - is like a Chernobyl going off every few weeks/days.

Let’s look at which places in the world who have low GHG emissions. There are a few that did so with renewables, although only with hydro and/or geothermal. There is not a country that has low carbon intensity of its electricity with just solar and wind alone. There are also a few that have a significant proportion of its grid generated by nuclear.

And this also addresses the common “nuclear plants take too long to build” argument. Ontario replaced coal power with nuclear, the biggest fossil fuel phase out in North American history. In response to the oil crisis, France build a fleet of reactors, with peak construction between 1978 to 1989. France’s relative electricity production went from 20% nuclear to 80% nuclear. Not only that, this also DOUBLED their total absolute electricity output.
Similar situations can be seen in other countries as well.

However, when you listen to discussions on clean energy, you will most often hear about Germany who has invested over 500 billion euros on solar and wind. Yet, it’s electricity remains dirtier (and more expensive) than that of countries like France. The big problem is that Germany is actively shutting down their nuclear power plants. They are trying to reduce their GHG emissions, but they are literally swimming against the current of their own making. One that leads to over 1000 deaths annually from air pollution that could’ve simply been avoided if Germany kept its nuclear plants.

And then you have situations like this, where environmentalist NGO’s are bragging about their accomplishment of shutting down a nuclear plant, WHILE patting themselves on the back for opposing fossil fuels at the same time.

Meanwhile, thanks to the shut down of Indian Point, New York’s GHGs emissions has spiked because the gap left was filled by methane combustion. And this isn’t the only occurrence. Everytime a nuclear power plant is shut down, the gap is filled mostly (if not entirely) by fossil fuels. And even if I were to grant that you could replace it by renewables (which I highly doubt), that’s renewable energy that won’t replace fossil fuels. We need MORE carbon free power, not replace one low-carbon energy source with another one. No point in mincing words. Shutting down nuclear plants prematurely is a crime against the environment. This should be infuriating to anyone who dares to call themselves an environmentalist.

Fortunately, I have noticed that attitudes have been changing in recent years. I have noticed several popular science communicators on Youtube publishing videos that are pro-nuclear (or at the very least pointing out that nuclear is carbon free and safe, and its thus better to keep nuclear power in the fight against fossil fuels), like kurzgesagt, which is ironically German. In fact, just this past month there was a pro-nuclear rally in Germany joined by James Hansen, one of the first scientists to raise public awareness of climate change and (unsurprisingly) a big advocate of nuclear power.

Hopefully, more people will listen.


Nuclear energy should have a future.


That would be nice. But I am not optimistic.

It has been all too obvious that homo sapiens is a species of irrational apes.

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Nuclear energy is now not viable. Not because of fear or safety, but because renewables are simply cheaper and rapidly getting cheaper, while nuclear is expensive and getting more so. Nuclear power stations also take on the order of 10-15 years to build and commission, and we need to act more quickly than that on climate change.

Lazard is a merchant bank that produces an annual comparison report of the costs of energy, energy storage and more recently hydrogen. This most recent report clearly shows that wind and solar are both cheaper than nuclear:

Global nuclear provides >10% of the electricity. If nuclear is “not viable”, then by the same standard, solar and wind (combined 8%) aren’t viable.

Of course, I understand that - by “not viable” - you meant to say “new plants are too expensive”. But to flat out state that “nuclear is not viable” is misleading as there are entire countries/regions, which have decarbonized their electricity grid with the help of nuclear power, e.g. the aforementioned France, Sweden and Ontario (in contrast to the anti-nuclear/coal-extracting Germany).

The fact is that the large costs associated with nuclear plants comes from their construction. When they are already build, they are dirt cheap to operate. So, if you want to go down the “it’s too expensive” argument, you should be aware that this logically implies that nuclear plants shouldn’t be shut down prematurely. The longer you run a plant, the more cheaper the life cycle cost of electricity would be. Just another reason to NOT shut down nuclear plants.

The “it’s too expensive” argument has always baffled me, especially when it comes to climate change. Think about it for a moment. When solar and wind were very expensive, what was the usual attitude? It went something like this: Sure, renewables are expensive right now, but let’s look at the big picture. Fossil fuels emits GHGs that distrupts the climate and pollutes the air and water, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths annually. These facts aren’t taken in to account when you point out how expensive renewables are compared to fossil fuels. So, if we want to save lives and the environment, we should support renewables. With enough investments, policies and subsidies, the prices would eventually come down.

Well then, since the IPCC, UNECE and climate scientists have stated that nuclear is a crucial part to tackle climate change…then surely…we should also support nuclear just like we do with renewables in order to make it cheaper. Right? Nope…when the topic has turned to nuclear power, then - for some odd reason - the aforementioned attitude makes a bizarre 180 turn. Suddenly, any idea of saving human lives and the environment has completely dissipated from the mind. If it is solar/wind, sure let’s throw billions of subsidies and energy incentives at them, but when it comes to nuclear we should call it a day. Just to give an example of this blatant hypocrisy, here is George Monbiot again, talking about a conversation he had with a leader of the UK green party.

Last week I argued about these issues with Caroline Lucas. Caroline is one of my heroes, and the best thing to have happened to Parliament since time immemorial. But this doesn’t mean that she can’t be wildly illogical when she chooses. When I raised the issue of the feed-in tariff, she pointed out that the difference between subsidising nuclear power and subsidising solar power is that nuclear is a mature technology and solar is not. In that case, I asked, would she support research into thorium reactors, which could provide a much safer and cheaper means of producing nuclear power? No, she told me, because thorium reactors are not a proven technology. Words fail me.

Now let’s get into the costs of nuclear. You’ve cited the Lazard, which often provides lower LCOE values than EIA and the IPCC, and there are several issues with it. For one, they assume very generous capacity factors for wind (38-55%) and solar (21-28%) in the USA, in contrast to the figures provided by the EIA. Secondly, the Lazard relies on discount rates of like 10%. Discount rates are values used by investors to prioritize quick returns on investments. Basically, they see production value in the distant future as less valuable than those in the near future. This especially hurtful to the value of nuclear since a plant provides electricity for over half a century, but by that point, the discounting would reduce the production value substantially. In other words: The future production of clean electricity for our children and grand children by plants that are constructed today becomes virtually WORTHLESS.

Although this makes sense from a private investment perspective, e.g. a merchant bank like Lazard. I would argue that this has no relevance when it comes to tackling long term issues, such as climate change.

Another issue is the capital cost that Lazard estimates for nuclear. I will put here some figures showing the historical construction costs. I will also put the historical construction durations of USA’s plants..

This shows that construction costs of nuclear power plants are generally far cheaper than Lazards estimates. Perhaps they only want to estimate the future costs of new plants in the USA specifically, where the cost of construction have drastically increased. As you can see, nuclear has been very cheap in the past. In the late 1960s, new nuclear plant was actually cheaper than today’s gas. The reason for the drastic increase in cost is largely due to the public backlash from TMI. After which, the issues of licensing, regulatory delays, and back-fit requirements contributed to an inflated cost and construction time. So, yes. The fear of safety DID lead to an increase in cost. This didn’t happen in countries like South Korea where consistency in regulation and reactor design allowed for a more efficient roll-out of reactors and at consistent low cost in recent decades. South Korean nuclear actually experienced similar cost reduction rate as that of solar. All of this shows is that nuclear CAN be (and HAS been) cheap…when we allow it to be.

And the “10-15 year to build a plant” argument. Again, see the previous images. The USA used to build new nuclear power plants often in less than 8 years. Furthermore, what this argument completely overlooks is the fact that when a plant is build, it produces an enormous amount of energy and reliably for over half a century. This is relevant when you want judge whether nuclear can tackle climate change fast enough. This figure below is from a paper co-authored by James Hansen (widely referred to as the godfather of climate change). They looked at several countries and see in which particular 10 year period each country has installed the largest amount of carbon-free power (peak scale-up), and calculated the average added kWh/capita per year for solar, wind and nuclear.

As you can see, even when putting solar and wind together, you still get MORE carbon-free electricity from nuclear within the same time period. And this doesn’t include Ontario’s nuclear rollout, the largest greenhouse gas reduction initiative in North America to date. Hence, nuclear energy has been historically proven to be a viable way to install large amounts of low-carbon electricity capacity in a short period of time.

The last thing I want to point out is the absurdity of comparing LCOEs, and conclude that solar and wind are cheap. Ask yourself, if solar and wind are so cheap, cheaper than nuclear…then why are the electricity prices of solar/wind countries like Germany and Denmark far more expensive than that of nuclear countries (with lower carbon emissions) like France? This is because the LCOEs value of electricity doesn’t translate directly to how the electricity costs at the system level as a whole. This is especially the case for intermittent renewables like solar and wind. Their electricity production value drops when they take up a significant percentage of the grid. The market value for wind reduces by about 40% when it takes up 30% of the grid, while solar reduces by 50% when it only takes up 15% of the grid. There are several reasons for this. One, they need to be build in places with high wind/sunlight, often far away from residential areas where it is needed, which requires extending grid lines. And if you are adding more, you are forced to build in less than ideal places where solar/wind will have lower capacity factors, since the ‘sweet spots’ are already occupied. Their intermittent nature also means that the sudden dips and peaks in electricity supply become drastic and more difficult to handle with more installed capacity. This is seen in California where electricity prices become negative when solar produces too much. Thus, solar/wind requires more back-up (mostly in the form of gas plants) and/or you build solar/wind at different places across the country in order smooth out the variability of local weather conditions (extending the grid even more, i.e. more cost) or you add more storage (also more costs). This is why an electricity mix mostly composed of solar and wind becomes very expensive.

Instead of looking at the LCOE per tech, you have to look at different energy mixes and see which combinations of different technologies are better. This is exactly what this study and this MIT study did.

Their conclusion? The first study concludes that low carbon energy mixes are cheaper when they include ‘firm’ (base load) power like hydro, geothermal and nuclear. The MIT study in particular concludes that nuclear specifically is required for a more cost effective energy transition. This isn’t very surprising since the only countries that have decarbonized have relied on one or a combination of hydro/geo/nuclear. I will reiterate, there is not a single country that has a low-carbon electricity mix composed of mostly wind and solar, let alone one that did it with lower costs compared to those that did it with nuclear (or hydro/geo).

Done for now.
For more details, will leave you all with this excellent presentation by one of the authors of the aforementioned study.


And there is the safer option of Thorium reactors


Forgive me if someone has already mentioned

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Canada is not Australia. The Nordic countries, which we are told produce reliable, surplus power from renewables even during frosty still nights, must have tricks we do not know. The last windmill farm I drove past stood proud along the mountain ridge, with no wind, no breeze, no breath - as idle as painted turbines upon a painted landscape. Winter sees the sun at low angle for less than eight hours. What storage can practically supply energy for potentially weeks of no generation?

But uranium? That we have.

Then we best get promptly started.


And they used several numbers that are either incredibly inaccurate or intentionally unfavorable to nuclear. Key on that list is the assumed discount rate, with higher rates favoring wind and especially solar. If governments are building them, the rate is effectively 0%, but even at 2-3% nuclear competes favorably with solar. They also completely ignore the cost of storage, and including that makes nuclear the undeniable best option.


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