AN INTERESTING DEBATE is taking place on the pages of CommonWealth about decarbonization. One commentary by Arnold Wallenstein suggested Massachusetts should scale back its decarbonization efforts, which prompted a sharp response from Joseph Curtatone, Daniel Sosland, and Larry Chretien that the state must move aggressively to decarbonize by eliminating its reliance on fossil fuels.
We at Eco-Nuclear Solutions, a local nonprofit, agree decarbonization is important and support efforts to reduce fossil fuel use. But we wonder why the authors failed to even mention nuclear power as a clean energy option. Nuclear power is superior to solar and wind in the most important characteristics required of an electricity-producing energy source.
Nuclear power provides a strong, steady supply of CO2-free baseload power capable of meeting even the demanding requirements of industrial applications. The weak, intermittent energy produced by solar and wind cannot meet these needs.
Unlike solar and wind, nuclear power is reliable, requiring no backup energy supply. It has a 90 percent capacity factor while wind and solar are providing only about 25 to 40 percent of their nameplate capacity. Currently, an equal amount of natural gas-generating capacity is required as backup for days without sufficient sun and wind. Battery backup will not solve this problem because batteries are charged using excess power, which is in short supply when there is a reduction of sun or wind.
The intermittent characteristic of solar and wind unnecessarily complicates grid operation, requiring minute-to-minute acquisition of power to meet demand. This is accomplished through energy auctions and requires constant monitoring to assure that demand is met regardless of supply interruptions. These auctions distort the energy marketplace, resulting in higher consumer electric bills.
Solar and wind also have unintended consequences that are generally not acknowledged. For instance, to meet the global demand for electricity, huge swaths of trees and wilderness will need to be converted to solar and wind farms. The footprint of a nuclear power plant is far less than 1 square mile, while to produce an equivalent amount of electricity by solar requires up to 75 square miles and wind requires up to 360 square miles. Think of how this will change the beauty of our natural landscape.
Material and mining requirements per unit energy output for solar and wind are 10 to 20 times larger than for nuclear power. In addition, nuclear power plants have lifespans that are two to three times longer than solar and wind installations. This translates into far greater ecological damage to the earth from the production of solar and wind farms.
Cost and time for construction is a negative often associated with nuclear power plants. In the US, delays due to regulatory uncertainties, as well as financial and administrative issues, have significantly increased costs and construction times. However, this is not the case in the rest of the world, where plants are being competitively built in five to eight years. Globally, more countries are looking to nuclear power to solve their clean energy issues.
Costs and time projections for solar and wind often do not include completion of transmission lines that are required to bring the energy from the sunny/windy locations to the population centers. Transmission line construction is often delayed (rightly so) by NIMBY concerns of local residents. Nuclear plants do not require extensive new transmission lines as they can be built near population centers and at retired coal/fossil fuel plants, utilizing the existing structures.
Waste is always cited as a negative for nuclear power, yet little attention has been paid to the waste streams of solar and wind. Solar panels have a lifespan of 20-30 years. So there will eventually be an endless stream of solar panels being disposed of. We do not yet have good methods to recycle panels or to handle their toxic elements. Windmills are huge mechanical structures that last about 25 years. They are too large to be disposed of in landfills.
By comparison, handling the waste stream from nuclear power has been design-engineered for ultimate safety and containment. Because of the high density of nuclear power, its waste stream is small. All of the nuclear waste produced in this country in the past 60 years can fit inside a Walmart. Furthermore, it is totally sequestered and can be reprocessed to provide more fuel and require less space.
Finally, let’s look at the safety record of nuclear power. The deaths from nuclear, solar, and wind are approximately the same and very low at 0.02-0.04/TWh. There have been three significant accidents in the history of nuclear power: Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011). The only accident resulting in harm or death from radiation was Chernobyl, a disastrously-designed and poorly-operated plant in Russian-occupied Ukraine.
Even at Chernobyl, the UN Scientific Committee reports that the general population surrounding Chernobyl received a total body dose of radiation equivalent to one CT scan. Approximately 6,000 thyroid cancers were diagnosed in children who drank contaminated milk because the Russians failed to inform the public. Thyroid cancer is preventable and curable; the 15 children who died could likely have been saved with proper medical care. Among the plant workers, there were 28 immediate deaths (out of 134 workers with radiation sickness) and perhaps an additional 20 deaths since then, though not all attributable to radiation. According to the UN report, there is no evidence of public health impact other than the thyroid cancers.
Clearly, the dangers of radiation have been overblown.
We are embarking on a massive project to convert to clean energy. Let’s be sure we think through all of the benefits, risks, and unintended consequences associated with each option. Worldwide prosperity depends on reliable, abundant, cheap energy. Our decisions now will have a longterm impact. We believe nuclear power offers the best mix of desirable clean energy characteristics with the least risk of negative impact to the environment and the economy.
Eco-Nuclear Solutions is a non-profit group of scientists, engineers, climate activists, tree-huggers and ordinary people that cares deeply for the future of the planet and is dedicated to educating the public about the benefits of nuclear power.