The Uncertain Future of Nuclear Power

Here is another paper on nuclear power that I wrote for my ENGR 140 class in April of 2019. I cheated slightly and reused most of the content from my nuclear power essay, “Nuclear Power Subsidies: Are They Worth It“, that I wrote for my English 102 class around the same time. So there is only a little new content in this one, but I thought I’d share it any. Any critiques would be much appreciated.

Nuclear power is a huge industry comprised of about 450 nuclear reactors around the world that together supply eleven percent of global electricity demand (“Nuclear Power”). However, this vast enterprise that he world has come to depend on was not always here. In fact, nuclear power is a relatively recent development compared to other energy sources. The first nuclear reactor to deliver electricity to the power grid began operating in the Soviet city of Obninsk in July of 1954. It was a five megawatt electric (MWe) reactor called AM-1, standing for Atom Mirny (Peaceful Atom). The name alludes to its peaceful use as a power generator as opposed to the weapons-focused atmosphere under which nuclear power was developed. The year before it was built, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower had enacted a program he called “Atoms for Peace,” the purpose of which was to reallocate research funds from weapons development to electricity production. It bore its first fruit in 1960 with the Yankee Rowe, a 250 MWe pressurized water reactor (PWR). Throughout the 1960s, Canada, France, and the Soviet Union developed their own nuclear reactor systems, with Canada devising a unique reactor type called CANDU, France beginning with a type similar to the Magnox design developed in Britain in 1956, but then settling on the PWR reactor design, and the Soviet Union with two small reactors, a PWR and another type called a boiling water reactor (BWR). Britain later settled on the PWR design, as well. By the end of the 1960s, the US was manufacturing 1,000 MWe reactors of PWR and BWR design. The Soviet Union lagged a little, but by 1973 it had developed its first high power channel reactor (RBMK) rated at 440 MWe, a design that was later superseded by a 1000 MWe design.  Kazakhstan and Russia went on a brief tangent developing so called fast neutron reactors, but other countries almost invariable embraced the light water reactor (LWR) design, which includes the BWR and PWR designs. (“History of Nuclear Energy”).

            Despite all of this growth, however, during a period from 1970-2002 nuclear power underwent a “brown out” in which demand for reactors declined and previous orders were cancelled (“History of Nuclear Energy”). During this period, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster struck. However, the stagnation did not last for long, and by the 1990s nuclear power was blossoming again, beginning with the Japanese Kashiwazaki-Kariwa 6, a 1350 MWe Advanced BWR. In the 2000s, some new reactors were built in Europe and North America, but the bulk of construction occurred and is ongoing in Asia. (“History of Nuclear Energy”).

This revival in nuclear power can be attributed to several factors: policy makers around the world began searching for a sustainable, reliable, low-cost, limited carbon and secure power source to address the global energy crisis (Sovacool, “Second Thoughts” 3) and provide their countries with energy security (“History of Nuclear Energy”). These considerations continue on to the present; because of concerns about conventional energy sources like coal and oil, the need to stabilize harmfully volatile energy prices, and a growing fear of global warming, nuclear power is being considered as a possible answer to global energy exigencies (Sovacool, “Second Thoughts” 3). These ideas have garnered significant support, as an effective and well-organized effort to increase public investment in nuclear power to unprecedented levels is ongoing (Koplow 11). Nuclear power is receiving strong support from organizations like the US Department of Energy (DOE), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the International Energy Agency (IEA) (Sovacool, “Second Thoughts” 3). All of these policy makers seek great benefit for society from nuclear power, but it is worth considering its drawbacks, too.

            Since the development of nuclear power, there have been many tragic accidents. In fact the most recent accident was one of the worst in history. A 15-metre tsunami caused by a magnitude 9 earthquake off the Eastern coast of Honshu island shut down power and cooling to three reactors at the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear site on March 11, 2011, causing all three reactor cores to melt down over next three days and release 940 PBq radiation, giving it a 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). 100,000 were evacuated from site, of which 1,000 died as a result of extended evacuation. (“Fukishima”). According to Swiss bank UBS, this catastrophe was more damaging to the reputation of nuclear power than the more severe Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1968, because it occurred in Japan, a highly developed economy (Paton 2011). Even Japan was unable to control the inherently risky nature of nuclear power.

            The processes that occur inside of a nuclear reactor are just the same as those that operate inside an atomic bomb, only slower and, usually, more controlled. While everything is designed to function nicely under ideal conditions with some margin for error, sometimes reactors are struck with more than they can bear, natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. When this happens, the reactions in the reactors can “runaway” with devastating results. A report by the Guardian shortly after the 2011 meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, counted thirty-four nuclear and radioactive accidents and incidents since 1952, the year the first one occurred “Nuclear Power Plant Accidents”).  Later in 2011, another incident occurred (“Factbox”), this time in France, bringing that total to thirty-five. A 2010 estimate by energy expert Benjamin K. Sovacool placed the number at ninety-nine, but he used different criteria; Sovacool expanded the definition of a nuclear incident to something that causes property damages in excess of 50,000 USD (“A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power”). He estimated that these incidents’ total costs in property damages exceeded twenty-billion USD, and this was before the extremely expensive Fukishima incident that occurred a year later. Even with all of these accidents, however, some still argue that nuclear power is one of the safest forms of power generation.

           The World Nuclear Association defends the nuclear industry with the following statistics: only three major accidents have occurred in over 17,000 collective reactor years of nuclear plant operation; a terrorist attack via airplane would be ineffective; few deaths would be caused by reactor failure of any magnitude; other energy sources cause many more deaths: fatalities per TWy for coal (597), natural gas (111), and hydro (10,285) all dwarf the figure for nuclear (48 (“Safety of Nuclear Reactors”). However, this does not consider several important factors: thousands have been killed either as a direct result of conditions caused by the incidents or indirectly as a result of evacuations (“Fukishima”). Another important factor that some ignore or underestimate is that there have been very significant numbers of cancer deaths attributed to nuclear accidents, not including unquantified irradiation from regularly produced nuclear wastes (Sovacool et al.); little is known about fuel cycle safety (Beckjord et al. ix). Nuclear weapons expert Lisbeth Gronlund has estimated with ninety-five percent confidence cancer deaths of 12,000-57,000 from the Chernobyl accident alone (Gronlund). It is clear, then, that nuclear power has had a much greater negative impact on society than many suppose.

            In addition to the risk of irradiation, there is the unique risk of nuclear proliferation. Several countries have successfully managed to covertly advance their nuclear weapons programs behind a clever guise of nuclear power (Sovacool et al). Because of this, nuclear power will always require government oversight to oversee waste management and control proliferation risks. According to the authors of a 2003 interdisciplinary MIT study, if the nuclear industry is to expand new international safety guidelines will be needed to overcome proliferation risks. (Beckjord et al. ix).

            These same authors of the MIT study suggest that a once-through fuel cycle where a significant amount of fissionable (although expensive to recover) uranium is wasted is the best option in terms of cost and proliferation and fuel cycle safety. The only disadvantages, they say, are in long-term fuel disposal and resource preservation considerations (Beckjord et al. 4-5). However, this, as the authors admit, leads to more toxic waste and a faster consumption of limited resources. They propose a model in which by the year 2050 1,000 new LWR reactors will be built to help displace CO2 emissions by dirtier forms of energy production. They are willing to accept the predicted four nuclear accidents that would occur during this expansion. (Beckjord et al.). To consider what the full impact of such a proposition would be on society, it is worth looking back at all of the impacts of the current nuclear industry.

            The nuclear power industry has several other ill effects, social and environmental, not previously discussed. First of all, it causes direct environmental damage: it kills much wildlife through water filtration and contamination (Sovacool, “Second Thoughts” 6), as well as creating such damage at certain sites that environmental remediation expenses sometimes exceed value of ore extracted at uranium mills (Koplow 6). It also causes indirect environmental damage by contributing to global warming.

            Nuclear power produces significant carbon dioxide emissions. This is contrary to the claims of some that nuclear power is carbon-free (Beckjord et al. 2). This common misconception arises from the fact that nuclear reactors themselves produce no emissions, but if one includes the entire nuclear fuel cycle in the calculations, this misconception is exposed. One estimate ranked greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for power plants per unit of electricity generated in order of highest to lowest: industrial gas, lignite, hard coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, photovoltaic, wind, nuclear, and hydroelectric. Although hydroelectric is ranked at the bottom, hydroelectric plants operated in tropical regions can be 5-20 times higher than in temperate regions making their emissions on the same level as biomass. (Dones et al. 38). In this list nuclear is ranked second best, but later estimates contest this figure: Sovacool analyzed 103 studies of nuclear power plant GHG equivalent emissions for currency, originality, and transparency. He found that the mean value for nuclear power plants is 66 gCO2e/kWh, placing nuclear power above all renewables (“Greenhouse Gas Emissions” 1). And the prospects for nuclear power emissions will only get worse as time goes on. Quality of ore used can greatly skew estimates of GWH emissions (Storm van Leeuwen). As high-quality uranium reserves are depleted, the nuclear power industry will be forced to turn to lower and lower grades of uranium ore, which will drastically increase the energy required to produce fissionable nuclear fuel. Since refinement processes are powered by fossil fuels, this will also significantly increase the carbon footprint of nuclear power. Thus, emissions from the nuclear fuel cycle will match those of combined-cycle-gas-fired power plants in only a few decades. Although advanced fast-breeder or thorium reactors could potentially reduce this problem, they are not likely to commercially available for at least a couple of decades. This combined with the long deployment times for nuclear reactors effectively proves that nuclear power is not a viable long-term solution for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. (Diesendorf 8-11). Nuclear power is a significant environmental burden, but it is also a significant social burden.

            From its beginnings, the nuclear power industry received heavy subsidies from governments, meaning the general public was forced to fund this private industry. On September 2, 1957, the Price-Anderson Act, designed to limit the liability incurred by nuclear power plant licensees from possible damages to members of the public, attained force of law in the United States. This first of nuclear power subsidies was intended to attract private investment into the nuclear industry by shifting liability for nuclear accidents from private investors to the public, making it pay for damages incurred upon itself. (“Backgrounder on Nuclear Insurance”). Since then, subsidies in various forms have continued. One form of subsidy that the nuclear industry receives comes in the form of research and development funds. Out of the total energy research and development fund of International Energy Agency (IEA) member countries of about 12.7 billion USD, nuclear power received twenty percent in 2015; one third the 1975 figure (“Energy Subsidies”). Other subsidies can be categorized as follows: output-linked, production factors, risk and security management, intermediate inputs, and emissions and waste management. Output-linked subsidies grant financing based on power produced. Subsidies to production factors help cover construction costs. Risk and security management subsidies shift liability for accidents either to consumers or the government. Intermediate input subsidies lower the cost of obtaining resources necessary for generating power such as fuel and coolants. Emissions and waste management subsidies either eliminate or reduce the cost of waste disposal. (Koplow 12-13). Examples of such subsidies can be found in every aspect of nuclear power in the form of federal loan guarantees, accelerated depreciation, subsidized borrowing costs for publicly owned reactors, construction work in progress (CWIP) surcharges to consumers, property tax reductions, subsidized fuel, loan guarantees for enrichment facilities, priority access to cooling water for little to no cost, no responsibility to cover costs of potential terrorist attacks, ignored proliferation costs, lowered tax rates on decommissioning trust funds. (Koplow 5-8). Governments also covered the 70 billion dollars needed to defray excess capital costs of nuclear power plants in recent years. Furthermore, the nuclear industry is not forced to pay the true cost of the numerous accidents, some which have been estimated to exceed 100 billion dollars. (Bradford 14). If the projected model from the MIT study of 1,000 new reactors by 2050 becomes reality, the immense cost to taxpayers of the nuclear industry will only increase proportionally.

            However, there are doubts about whether this plan is even feasible. According to a 2003 interdisciplinary MIT study, there is enough uranium to fuel 1000 new reactors for forty years (Beckjord et al. 4), leaving no sustainability issues for nuclear power in the near future. However, this figure does not include an important factor: the quality of the uranium. As uranium ore quality decreases, energy costs to extract increase exponentially (Storm van Leeuwen 23). Factoring in uranium quality, energy expert Benjamin K. Sovacool estimated that global uranium reserves could only sustain a two percent increase in nuclear power production and would disappear after a mere seventy years (“Second Thoughts” 6). Furthermore, the most economical uranium ore deposits have already been discovered and nearly all are currently being mined. New deposits such as these are very unlikely to be discovered for many geologic reasons. (Storm van Leuuwen 71). Additionally, nuclear power may become a non-viable option if climate change significantly increases water demand, since according to energy researcher Doug Klopow, nuclear power is “the most water-intensive large-scale thermal energy technology in use” (7). Another sustainability concern for nuclear power plants is waste disposal. Health and environmental risks posed by spent fuel from nuclear reactors last for tens of thousands of years (Beckjord et al. 22). To date, even the authors of the favorable MIT study admit that “no nation has successfully demonstrated a disposal system for these nuclear wastes” (22). If this is the case, how can the world expect to support an over 200% increase in the number of nuclear reactors?

            In short, although nuclear power experienced intense growth throughout the 1950s and 60s and then into the beginning of the 21st century, when the true costs are considered, it seems that it may have done more harm than good. It has proven to be unsafe in many ways from the numerous accidents which have caused great direct property and environmental damage as well as indirectly caused thousands of fatalities, not to mention the risks of nuclear proliferation and the day-to-day environmental destruction involved with running nuclear power plants. The authors of the MIT study sum it up well; if new technological solutions to current problems are not developed, “nuclear power faces stagnation and decline” (ix), similar to in the later quarter of the 19th century. Thus, nuclear power is not likely to play a significant long-term role in power generation in the foreseeable future, at least not in its current state.

Works Cited

“Backgrounder on Nuclear Insurance and Disaster Relief.” United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, January 17, 2018,                              Accessed April 26, 2019.

Beckjord, Eric S. et. al. “The Future of Nuclear Power.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003,                                                                       Accessed April 25, 2019.

Bradford, Peter A. “Wasting Time: Subsidies, Operating Reactors, and Melting Ice.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 73, no. 1, Jan.                      2017, pp. 13–16. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00963402.2016.1264207.

Diesendorf, Mark. “Is Nuclear Energy a Possible Solution to Global Warming?” Social Alternatives, vol. 26, no. 2, 2007 Second Quarter                      2007, pp. 8–11. EBSCOhost, Accessed April 26, 2019.

Dones, R., Heck T., and S. Hirschberg. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Energy Systems: Comparision and Overview.” Paul Scherrer                        Institute, 2004, Accessed April 25, 2019.

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Gronlund, Lisbeth. “How Many Cancers Did Chernobyl Really Cause?—Updated Version.” Union of Concerned Scientists, April 17, 2011,            Accessed April 27, 2019.

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Koplow, Doug. “Nuclear Power: Still not Viable without Subsidies.” Union of Concerned Scientists, February 2011,                                                Accessed                     April   26, 2019.

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Paton, James. “Fukushima Crisis Worse for Atomic Power Than Chernobyl, UBS Says.” Bloomberg, April 4, 2011,                                                            says. Accessed April 26, 2019.

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Sovacool, BenjaminK. “A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia.” Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 40, no.             3, Aug. 2010, pp. 369–400. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00472331003798350. Accessed April 26, 2019.

—. “Second Thoughts About Nuclear Power.” Research Support Unit (RSU), Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of                 Singapore, January 2011,                   2nd_Thought_Nuclear-Sovacool.pdf. Accessed April 26, 2019.

—. “Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey.” Energy Policy, 2008,                             content/uploads/climate/background/sovacool_nuclear_ghg.pdf. Accessed April 25, 2019.

Storm van Leeuwen, Jan Wilhelm. “Nuclear power- the energy balance: Part D: Uranium.” Ceedata Consultancy, October 2007,                          Accessed April 25, 2019.