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Myths and Facts about Nuclear Power

September 23, 2010

Before bringing in further discussions of electrical power generation from nuclear energy, it is necessary to establish a level playing field concerning misunderstood aspects of nuclear energy.

This discussion is brought to you in its entirety compliments of “A Solution for Pollution.” Facts will be presented for each of these Myths:
• MYTH: Uranium is running out
• MYTH: Nuclear is not a low-carbon option
• MYTH: Nuclear power is expensive
• MYTH: Reactors produce too much waste
• MYTH: Decommissioning is too expensive
• MYTH: Building reactors takes too long
• MYTH: Leukemia rates are higher near reactors
• MYTH: Reactors lead to weapons proliferation
• MYTH: Wind and wave power are more sustainable
• MYTH: Reactors are a terrorist target
• MYTH: Anti-nuclear campaigners claim that nuclear power plants are unsafe and a dangerous working environment.

MYTH: Uranium is running out
FACT: According to Greenpeace, uranium reserves are ‘relatively limited’ (1) and the Nuclear Consultation Working Group claimed that a significant increase in nuclear generating capacity would reduce reliable supplies from 50 to 12 years (2).

In fact, there is 600 times more uranium in the ground than gold and there is as much uranium as tin. There has been no major new uranium exploration for 20 years, but at current consumption levels, known uranium reserves are predicted to last for 85 years. Geological estimates from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that at least six times more uranium is extractable – enough for 500 years’ supply at current demand (3). Modern reactors can use thorium as a fuel and convert it into uranium – and there is three times more thorium in the ground than uranium (4).

Uranium is the only fuel which, when burnt, generates more fuel. Not only existing nuclear warheads, but also the uranium and plutonium in radioactive waste can be reprocessed into new fuel, which former UK chief scientist Sir David King estimates could supply 60 per cent of Britain’s electricity to 2060 (5).

In short, there is more than enough uranium, thorium and plutonium to supply the entire world’s electricity for several hundred years.

MYTH: Nuclear is not a low-carbon option
FACT: Anti-nuclear campaigners claim that nuclear power contains ‘hidden emissions’ of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from uranium mining and reactor construction. But so do wind turbines, built from huge amounts of concrete, steel and plastic.

The OECD analyzed the total lifetime releases of GHG from energy technologies and concluded that, taking into account mining of building materials, construction and energy production, nuclear is still a ‘lower carbon’ option than wind, solar or hydroelectric generation. For example, during its whole life cycle, nuclear power releases three to six grams of carbon per kiloWatthour (GC kWh) of electricity produced, compared with three to 10 GC/kWh for wind turbines, 105 GC/kWh for natural gas and 228 GC/kWh for lignite (‘dirty’ coal) (6).

Greens, exemplified by the Sustainable Development Commission, place their trust in ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) to reduce the GHG emissions from coal and gas plants (7). But carbon capture is, at present, a myth. There is no functioning power station with CCS in the world – not even a demonstration plant – and if it did work, it would still greatly reduce the energy efficiency of any power station where it is installed.

MYTH: Nuclear power is expensive
FACT: With all power generation technology, the cost of electricity depends upon the investment in construction (including interest on capital loans), fuel, management and operation. Like wind, solar and hydroelectric dams, the principal costs of nuclear lie in construction. Acquisition of uranium accounts for only about 10 per cent of the price of total costs, so nuclear power is not as vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of fuel as gas and oil generation.

Any new designs will be pre-approved for operational safety, modular to lower construction costs, produce 90 per cent less volume of waste and incorporate decommissioning and waste management costs.

A worst-case analysis conducted for the UK Department of Trade and Industry (now the Department of Business and Enterprise), which was accepted by Greenpeace, shows nuclear-generated electricity to be only marginally more expensive than gas (before the late-2007 hike in gas prices), and 10 to 20 times cheaper than onshore and offshore wind. With expected carbon-pricing penalties for gas and coal, nuclear power will be considerably cheaper than all the alternatives (8).

MYTH: Reactors produce too much waste
FACT: The largest volume of waste from the nuclear power program is low-level waste – concrete from outbuildings, car parks, construction materials, soil from the surroundings and so on. By 2100, there will be 473,000 cubic meters of such waste from decommissioned plants – enough to fill five Albert Halls (11).

Production of all the electricity consumed in a four-bedroom house for 70 years leaves about one teacup of high-level waste (12), and new nuclear build will not make any significant contribution to existing radioactive waste levels for 20-40 years.

MYTH: Decommissioning is too expensive
FACT: New nuclear plants are expected to have a working life of 40 years so the cost of decommissioning is spread over a longer period. Current government subsidy of decommissioning costs is approximately £1 billion annually (for 20 per cent of Britain’s electrical supply) – half the subsidy to ‘sustainable’ energy (two per cent of Britain’s electrical supply).
MYTH: Building reactors takes too long
FACT: The best construction schedules are achieved by the Canadian company AECL, which has built six new reactors since 1991; from the pouring of concrete to criticality (when the reactors come on-line), the longest build took six-and-a-half years and the shortest just over four years (14).

The UK government expects pre-licensing of standard designs and modular construction to reduce construction times significantly – to about 6 years (15). New nuclear build could certainly start making significant contributions to UK carbon reduction targets by 2020.

MYTH: Leukemia rates are higher near reactors
FACT: Childhood leukemia rates are no higher near nuclear power plants than they are near organic farms. ‘Leukemia clusters’ are geographic areas where the rates of childhood leukemia appear to be higher than normal, but the definition is controversial because it ignores the fact that leukemia is actually several very different (and unrelated) diseases with different causes (16).

Men who work on nuclear submarines or in nuclear plants are no more likely to father children with leukemia (or any other disease) than workers in any other industry (18).

MYTH: Reactors lead to weapons proliferation
FACT: More nuclear plants (in Britain and elsewhere) would actually reduce weapons proliferation. Atomic warheads make excellent reactor fuel; decommissioned warheads (containing greatly enriched uranium or plutonium) currently provide about 15 per cent of world nuclear fuel (19). Increased demand for reactor fuel would divert such warheads away from potential terrorists. Nuclear build is closely monitored by the IAEA, which polices anti-proliferation treaties.

MYTH: Wind and wave power are more sustainable
FACT: If, as greens say, new nuclear power cannot come on-line in time to prevent climate change, how much less impact can wind, wave and carbon capture make?

Environmentalists claim offshore wind turbines can make a significant contribution to electricity supply. Even if that were true – which it is certainly not (20) – the environmental impact disqualifies wind as ‘sustainable’. The opening up of the North Sea continental shelf to 7,000 wind turbines is, essentially, the building of a huge industrial infrastructure across a vast swathe of ecologically sensitive seabed – as ‘unsustainable’ in its own way as the opening of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.

MYTH: Reactors are a terrorist target
FACT: Since 11 September 2001, several studies have examined the possibility of attacks by a large aircraft on reactor containment buildings. The US Department of Energy sponsored an independent computer-modeling study of the effects of a fully fuelled Boeing 767-400 hitting the reactor containment vessel. Under none of the possible scenarios was containment breached (21).

Only the highly specialized US ‘bunker busting’ ordnance would be capable – after several direct strikes – of penetrating the amount of reinforced concrete that surrounds reactors. And besides, terrorists have already demonstrated that they prefer large, high visibility, soft targets with maximum human casualties (as in the attacks on New York, London, Madrid and Mumbai) rather than well-guarded, isolated, low-population targets.

Any new generation of nuclear reactors in the UK will be designed with even greater protection against attack than existing plants, and with ‘passive’ safety measures that work without human intervention or computer control.

MYTH: Anti-nuclear campaigners claim that nuclear power plants are unsafe and a dangerous working environment.
FACT: According to the United States Department of Labor Census 2006, there were 190 fatalities related to mining, while the nuclear power industry had no fatalities. Mining fatalities increased 19 percent in 2006, fatal work injuries in coal mining more than doubled in 2006 due in part to the Sago mine disaster and other mining incidents. A total of 47 coal mining fatalities were recorded in 2006, up from 22 in 2005, due in part to 4 multiple-fatality incidents in coal mining in 2006, claiming a total of 21 workers. The fatality rate for coal mining jumped 84 percent in 2006 to 49.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers, up from 26.8 in 2005. Oil and gas extraction fatalities were also higher in 2006 (22).

 Footnotes:
(1) See The economics of nuclear power 2007 on the Greenpeace website
(2) Nuclear Consultation: Public Trust in Government Nuclear Working Group 2008
(3) International Atomic Energy Agency
(4) World Nuclear Association
(5) Nuclear waste could power Britain, The Observer, 23 December 2007
(6) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(7) The role of nuclear power in a low carbon economy, SDC, 2006
(8) Nuclear Power Generation Cost Benefit Analysis, DTI
(11) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(12) Energy: the answer is not blowing in the wind, by Rob Johnston, 11 December 2007
(14) Construction of CANDU in China
(15) The Energy Challenge, DTI, 2007
(16) Leukemia Clusters, Leukemia Research Foundation
(17) Leukemia Clusters, Leukemia Research Foundation
(18) Leukemia Clusters, Leukemia Research Foundation
(19) World Nuclear Association
(20) Energy: the answer is not blowing in the wind, by Rob Johnston, 11 December 2007
(21) Electrical Power Research Institute: Probabilistic Consequence Analysis of Security Threats – A Prototype Vulnerability Assessment Process for Nuclear Power Plants
(22) United States Department of Labor Census 2006

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2010 9:17 PM

    Simon Dowdeswell (Letters, October SR ) calls for a proper debate on nuclear power. Computer Power Supplies

  2. September 24, 2010 1:22 PM

    Comment posted in LinkedIn on this discussion.

    LinkedIn Groups
    • Group: Linked:Energy (Energy industry expertise)
    • Discussion: Myths and Facts about Nuclear Power

    A lot of assertion few proofs

    Posted by Dominique BERNARDINI

  3. September 24, 2010 1:25 PM

    @Dominique,

    Saying there are a lot of assertions with little proof without citing any valid reference to contradict the Facts, is an empty can and damaging. Talk with proof and don’t shoot at the hip with an unloaded gun.

    I support solid debates, but debates without proof are not debates at all but belief discussion that are ill-structured and usually go no where.

    If you have valid sources to contradict any of the Facts, please post for all to see.

    In closing, hope you read the entire posting. I would suggest looking at the footnotes at the end of the discussion, i.e., reputable sources. Conduct your own reach from these sources.

    Barry

  4. September 24, 2010 1:26 PM

    Comment posted in LinkedIn on this discussion.

    LinkedIn Groups
    • Group: Solar Energy Professionals – PV & Thermal
    • Discussion: Myths and Facts about Nuclear Power

    An excellent example of nuclear reasoning! Let’s see the arguments a bit closer to some of the arguments:

    MYTH: Nuclear power is expensive
    - “nuclear-generated electricity to be only marginally more expensive than gas (before the late-2007 hike in gas prices), and 10 to 20 times cheaper than onshore and offshore wind.”
    Last time a nuclear power plant was offered to Ontario government the price tag was around $11 per watt of capacity. This is before O&M, fuel, decommissioning, traditional budget overruns. Even with 24/7 availability of nuclear, which is not true due to maintenance, it is really hard to see how the output nuclear kWhs are 20 time cheaper than wind ones.

    MYTH: Reactors produce too much waste
    “Fact”: “Production of all the electricity consumed in a four-bedroom house for 70 years leaves about one teacup of high-level waste”. I wonder what’s the volume of storage facility to be build and contain this teacup for 10,000 years?
    “By 2100, there will be 473,000 cubic meters of such waste from decommissioned plants – enough to fill five Albert Halls” – if this is not too much, what is?!

    MYTH: Decommissioning is too expensive
    “Current government subsidy of decommissioning costs is approximately £1 billion annually”. And this is cheap, right?

    MYTH: Reactors lead to weapons proliferation
    So Iran is a myth too, right? Tell this to the Pentagon.

    Actual myths:
    - Nuclear industry is insured against disaster. Fact: it is not insured at commercial market. No insurance company is willing to take such risk.
    - Nuclear energy is cheap and profitable to produce. Fact: Not a single privately funded nuclear reactor has been built in North America within last 20 years. Perhaps American investors should read this article to educate themselves.
    - Nuclear energy generation and nuclear arms are not related. It’s probably not even a myth, but a nuclear mantra, since hardly anybody outside nuclear industry takes it seriously.
    Posted by Anatoli Naoumov

  5. Marc Brenman permalink
    September 24, 2010 4:17 PM

    Barry, on this one, at least, “Reactors produce too much waste,” I think you downplayed the issues too much. You didn’t mention the radioactive by-products and waste produced by nuclear plants. It has a half life of tens of thousands of years, and no viable solution has been found for safely disposing of it and keeping it safe and away from people and the water supply for that time. You’ve downplayed the cost also. I remember in the early 1960′s, when we were promised that electricity from nuclear plants would be “too cheap to meter.” That didn’t happen. As to the safety risks, a more realistic view is shown by Congress’s having indemnified nuclear plants for anything over $1,000,000. If the plants weren’t risky, this insurance limit wouldn’t be necessary. As shown by the recent experience in Vermont, radioactivity can get into the ground water supply from nuclear plants. Your comment on nuclear plants not leading to nuclear weapons is being disproved by Iran as we speak. Iran is developing nuclear weapons under cover of developing nuclear power. Worker safety has also been a long-standing issue for uranium miners, for example on the Navajo Nation. And decades after decommissioning, the Hanford Nuclear Reserve in Washington State is still struggling with radioactive materials on the site and what to do with them. I myself saw barrels of nuclear waste sitting in ditches at Los Alamos with nothing over them but an aluminum roof, like a pole barn. Billions have been invested to try to find solutions. The full life (and death) cycle of nuclear facilities has to be considered and accounted for. While it is true that nuclear plants can be operated safely, as in France and Japan, there is also a history of unsafe operation, as at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The downside risk is very great.

  6. September 27, 2010 8:37 PM

    Our New E2E tech shall make the need for any Nuclear Power plants OBSOILITE around the globe ! And you can quote me on that one.

    Thank You,

    Sarah Angelina DeLagostti
    http://www.DeLagostti-Industries.com
    CEO Extreme Engineer
    Manhattan NY City & TN
    United State Territories
    Skype: SaraAngelina007
    TN 713 593-0076
    NY 646 620-0881
    DeLagostti@aol.com

  7. September 28, 2010 7:54 AM

    Comment posted in LinkedIn on this discussion.

    • Group: The Renewable Energy Network
    • Discussion: Myths and Facts about Nuclear Power
    Ha! A lot of key points made here are simply not true, or are only partial truths that don’t tell the full story.

    First of all, most of your points come from a single source, which does not make any of this true. For example, the low carbon point – I can show you many studies that have different results, all depending on what methodology was used and how life cycle costs were calculated, which can be a difficult thing to do. I’ve seen a lot of shoddy work, even from the OECD.

    Similarly with your cost assumptions. Please show me a nuclear plant that is currently operating that has been successfully built for less than 20 cents/kWh and whose insurance hasn’t been publicly subsidized. Sure there are lots of studies on costs (again the single source is big problem), but real data in this industry is actually hard to come by. Our experience in Ontario has been that it cost us about 20-22 cents/kWh. We’re building wind farms for 13 cents and still getting 11% ROI. We can also build concentrated solar for 19 cents. Nuclear, in practice (not theoretical build), hasn’t shown itself to be cost competitive, yet.

    Localized cancer – there is evidence to suggest this is exactly the case, but it’s not conclusive. This research has really just begun in earnest. It would help if the WHO was actually allowed to do any research on this, but it’s not. Also, the definitions and levels used to assess the human health risks are quite outdated. To say that nuclear doesn’t have harmful human health effects is simply not true. The truth is that we really don’t know the full effects, simply because of poor research and proper access. The little bit of quality research out there has some scary results that deserve attention.

    More importantly, you forgot a few key reasons why we oppose nuclear.

    1. It violates the one the key principles of sustainability – closed loop design. Sure there’s technology in R&D that will change this, so lets hold off on new build until those technologies are commercialized and cost competitve

    2. It goes against the principle of resilience. We are pushing for a distributed generation system because centralized generation makes people and communities extremely vulnerable to grid disruptions, which are going to increase in frequency.

    3. Similar to distributed generation, we’re fighting for a democratized energy system where the capacity to produce energy and operate generation facilities rests at the community-level. We don’t even have the human resource capacity to seriously ramp up nuclear development – look at the number of engineers we’re producing, and how few of them are nuclear engineers. This alarm bell has been ringing within the industry for a while now.

    4. Economic development – there is more direct employment as a result of a distributed system as opposed to a centralized one. This has been evidenced by Europe ‘s experience with both.
    Posted by Matt Zipchen

  8. September 28, 2010 7:55 AM

    Comment posted in LinkedIn on this discussion.

    LinkedIn Groups
    • Group: U.S. GOVERNMENT CONNECTIONS
    • Discussion: Myths and Facts about Nuclear Power

    Read Scientific American’s recent pubs on pros and cons versus coal and natural gas. Very sound arguments for nuclear, also read about the Nuclear programs in France. US administration has work to do, but long term prospects of Nuclear are beneficial to the country’s independence.
    Posted by Dese Cirelli

  9. September 28, 2010 7:56 AM

    Comment posted in LinkedIn on this discussion.

    LinkedIn Groups
    • Group: U.S. GOVERNMENT CONNECTIONS
    • Discussion: Myths and Facts about Nuclear Power

    Barry, on this one, at least, “Reactors produce too much waste,” I think you downplayed the issues too much. You didn’t mention the radioactive by-products and waste produced by nuclear plants. It has a half life of tens of thousands of years, and no viable solution has been found for safely disposing of it and keeping it safe and away from people and the water supply for that time. You’ve downplayed the cost also. I remember in the early 1960′s, when we were promised that electricity from nuclear plants would be “too cheap to meter.” That didn’t happen. As to the safety risks, a more realistic view is shown by Congress’s having indemnified nuclear plants for anything over $1,000,000. If the plants weren’t risky, this insurance limit wouldn’t be necessary. As shown by the recent experience in Vermont, radioactivity can get into the ground water supply from nuclear plants. Your comment on nuclear plants not leading to nuclear weapons is being disproved by Iran as we speak. Iran is developing nuclear weapons under cover of developing nuclear power. Worker safety has also been a long-standing issue for uranium miners, for example on the Navajo Nation. And decades after decommissioning, the Hanford Nuclear Reserve in Washington State is still struggling with radioactive materials on the site and what to do with them. I myself saw barrels of nuclear waste sitting in ditches at Los Alamos with nothing over them but an aluminum roof, like a pole barn. Billions have been invested to try to find solutions. The full life (and death) cycle of nuclear facilities has to be considered and accounted for. While it is true that nuclear plants can be operated safely, as in France and Japan, there is also a history of unsafe operation, as at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The downside risk is very great.

    Posted by Marc Brenman

  10. September 28, 2010 7:57 AM

    Comment posted in LinkedIn on this discussion.

    LinkedIn Groups
    • Group: Solar Energy Professionals – PV & Thermal
    • Discussion: Myths and Facts about Nuclear Power

    An excellent example of nuclear reasoning!
    Let’s see the arguments a bit closer to some of the arguments:

    MYTH: Nuclear power is expensive
    - “nuclear-generated electricity to be only marginally more expensive than gas (before the late-2007 hike in gas prices), and 10 to 20 times cheaper than onshore and offshore wind.”
    Last time a nuclear power plant was offered to Ontario government the price tag was around $11 per watt of capacity. This is before O&M, fuel, decommissioning, traditional budget overruns. Even with 24/7 availability of nuclear, which is not true due to maintenance, it is really hard to see how the output nuclear kWhs are 20 time cheaper than wind ones.

    MYTH: Reactors produce too much waste
    “Fact”: “Production of all the electricity consumed in a four-bedroom house for 70 years leaves about one teacup of high-level waste”. I wonder what’s the volume of storage facility to be build and contain this teacup for 10,000 years?
    “By 2100, there will be 473,000 cubic meters of such waste from decommissioned plants – enough to fill five Albert Halls” – if this is not too much, what is?!

    MYTH: Decommissioning is too expensive
    “Current government subsidy of decommissioning costs is approximately £1 billion annually”. And this is cheap, right?

    MYTH: Reactors lead to weapons proliferation
    So Iran is a myth too, right? Tell this to the Pentagon.

    Actual myths:
    - Nuclear industry is insured against disaster. Fact: it is not insured at commercial market. No insurance company is willing to take such risk.
    - Nuclear energy is cheap and profitable to produce. Fact: Not a single privately funded nuclear reactor has been built in North America within last 20 years. Perhaps American investors should read this article to educate themselves.
    - Nuclear energy generation and nuclear arms are not related. It’s probably not even a myth, but a nuclear mantra, since hardly anybody outside nuclear industry takes it seriously.
    Posted by Anatoli Naoumov

  11. September 29, 2010 9:44 AM

    Comment posted in LinkedIn on this discussion.

    LinkedIn Groups
    • Group: Linked:Energy (Energy industry expertise)
    • Discussion: Myths and Facts about Nuclear Power

    “Production of all the electricity consumed in a four-bedroom house for 70 years leaves about one teacup of high-level waste (12), and new nuclear build will not make any significant contribution to existing radioactive waste levels for 20-40 years.”

    20 to 40 years is very short-term thinking isn’t it? I hope to be around in 20 years and my children, grandchildren, and all that follow come to mine. The waste is not containable by any known means as all containers have a shelf life that is far shorter than the toxicity of the waste. Nobody wants to live near the waste dump. Why can’t we all focus on clean renewables that don’t have to be dumped ocean trenches or buried under mountains?

    Americans have decided that nuclear = bomb, so unless the lights all go off and we can’t keep our beer cold, I would not spend my short life trying to sell nuclear power. The USA is run by a myriad of conflicting laws and a political system that is funded by special interests. Big oil is not going anywhere soon and they will allow a few of their friends to dabble in alternatives as long as there is absolutely no chance of anything (besides nuclear) able to deliver energy at a lower total cost.

    I do like the Yankees, but I left NY/NJ 20 years ago and my son’s hate them. All I hear is “the finest team money can buy.”

    Posted by Don Nasca

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