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Global Warming’s Magic Bullet?

Almost three decades after three mile island, nuclear power is gaining support as a clean source of electricity and as a means to halt climate change


By Thomas F. Armistead

That green glow on the horizon is radiating from the nuclear energy institute (NEI).

Global Warming’s Magic Bullet?
Image courtesy Hadley Hooper
Global warming has moved to the top of the environmental worry list, changing the definition of clean.
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The Washington, D.C.–based lobbying organization has a print-ad campaign selling nuclear energy as an environment-friendly way to generate electricity. You’ve seen the ads—clean-cut young women and men sitting by pristine ponds with a nuke in the background visible through sparkling-clear air. The copy describes their pride in working at a power plant that generates gobs of clean electricity.

Nukes? Clean? That goes down hard for a generation that saw Unit 2 at Three-Mile Island (TMI), near Middletown, Pennsylvania, suffer a partial meltdown in its reactor core in 1979. And, in 1986, a sudden surge of power during an ill-advised test destroyed the Unit 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine.

Although the scientific community is largely in agreement that the health effects at TMI were minimal, Chernobyl was a different story. There, fire spewed massive amounts of radioactive material. Boron and sand had to be air-dropped on the reactor to stop the fire and prevent an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. A concrete sarcophagus entombed the unit to limit further release of radioactive material, and a square mile of pine forest surrounding the plant was cut down and buried. Finally, access was closed for 18-miles around the plant, and 346,000 people were evacuated. Thirty workers died within four months of the accident, and officials estimate that 4,000 people eventually will die of radiation-related cancer.

Clean? Well, surprisingly, you can make that case.

Global warming, caused by greenhouse gases emitted as a result of human activities, has moved to the top of the environmental worry list and changed the definition of clean. Plenty of people still object to the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, especially in Nevada, proposed site of the only U.S. repository for spent nuclear fuel. But the country as a whole has become alarmed by the threat of climate change.

Even a few high-profile environmental advocates (former comrades call them eco-Judases and shills) support nuclear energy as a clean source of electricity. James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, which posits the Earth as a self-regulating organism, is one of the best-known. Two others are Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, and Patrick Moore, cofounder of Greenpeace. With former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, Moore heads the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, an advocacy group funded by NEI. But it’s worth noting that the public relations firm coordinating the campaign behind the “coalition” is Hill & Knowlton, which represented Big Tobacco in its fight to keep America smokin’.

As far as they go, the nuclear industry’s claims are accurate. Nukes split atoms, they don’t burn carbon, so there are no emissions to go up the stack. What about nuclear power’s “life cycle” emissions, from plant construction—making the steel, cement, and other materials—to processing uranium, and disposal of spent fuel? Actually, nukes’ life-cycle emissions are pretty low. Paul J. Meier, associate scientist in the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, produced a study in 2002 comparing life-cycle emissions for a range of generation technologies. Emissions related to nuclear energy were 17,000 tons of CO2 per megawatt-hour, slightly better than for hydropower (18,000) and less than half of those for photovoltaic (PV) generation (39,000).

Meier attributes the gap between the life-cycle emissions from nuclear and PVs to the two technologies’ capacity factors: the percentage of time a plant’s capacity is used. Nuclear plants run almost continuously, while PVs only generate power when the sun is shining. Meier stresses the differences among the life-cycle emissions from various non-emitting energy sources are insignificant when compared with those from fossil fuels. Natural-gas-fired plants emit 622,000 tons of CO2 per megawatt-hour, and coal a whopping 1,041,000.

So nuclear is better for emissions. But that doesn’t make it the stake through the vampire heart of global warming. There’s the problem of process water. A reactor can use 2 billion gallons of water per day; what is returned to the environment can be 25 degrees warmer. That’s a major shock to the ecosystem. Today’s reactors have incorporated the lessons of 50 years of commercial generation and are designed to solve the known safety problems. But generals famously prepare to fight the last war. Nuclear power plants are enormously complex, full of surprises and lessons yet to be learned.

Finally, there’s cost and industry capacity. Utilities are pricing new reactors around $3,000-$6,000 per installed kW, so a 1,500-MW nuke would cost at least $4.5 billion. Did you hear the one about the credit market’s collapse? That’s no joke for big-ticket items like a nuke. Capital cost for a coal-fired plant is closer to $2,000-$2,500 per kW; a gas-fired plant is half that. Last year the Keystone Center for Science and Public Policy, in Colorado, reported we would need five new 1,000-MW reactors every year for the next half-century to significantly reduce the U.S. carbon-emissions profile.

In 2006, coal-fueled plants generated 50 percent of the electricity in the U.S., and gas plants supplied 20 percent more. Nuclear plants generated just 19 percent. There’s no way we could build enough nuclear plants to replace all those generating electricity from coal, gas, and petroleum in the U.S., let alone in the world, quickly enough to address the threat of climate change.

We have driven our energy market into a quagmire and kept pushing forward when we should have stopped to reconsider. We must become a lot more willing than we have been for many decades to compromise and sacrifice to get out of this fix. Nuclear power may be one part of the solution. But it’s not the only solution.

Thomas F. Armistead is Energy Editor at GreenSource’s sister McGraw-Hill publication, Engineering News-Record.

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This article appeared in the July 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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