A World of Trouble: Untangling the Politics and Promise of Nuclear Power

This post was originally meant to appear over at The Curious Wavefunction as part of a debate between myself and Ash about the politics and perils of nuclear power. I was somewhat dismayed when I woke up this morning (timezones, remember) to find my response had been bracketed by editorial and response from Ash without my consent or knowledge. Ash agreed to take the post down, and my response without accompanying editorial is below. It is worth noting that, for me, this cuts to the heart of what I wrote on yesterday, in that when one has a platform—and here, editorial control over subject matter—one has to be exceedingly careful about how their input frames content.

In this specific matter, to take what I as an author consider quite a strong disagreement and begin my entry with a statement saying a) this is only a disagreement of degree rather than kind (as if that made the disagreement lesser), and b) that degree was not substantial, undermines the position I put forward here without giving me adequate room to respond. As such, I present my view here without editorial, and Ash’s response I trust will be in the usual place in due course.

On Tuesday, Ash over at Curious Wavefunction blogged about “Pandora’s Promise,” a new documentary about the intersection between nuclear power and the environmental movement.  I haven’t had a chance to see the documentary because despite the internet, Australia is still very, very far away in movie-miles. But Ash raises a number of interesting points about the state of nuclear power—and the institutions that surround nuclear power—that are worth talking about and investigating a little further.  In the interests of disclosure, I am pro-nuclear in principle, but I think that  a lot has to be done before nuclear becomes more credible as a solution to anything.

Ash is definitely onto something when he talks about how risk in nuclear science misunderstood, and what actually happens to people exposed to radiation beyond what we experience every day. He notes the complexity of assessing the impact of radiation: dosage, chemical variation, method of contact, decay products, and decay paths all create different results. Radiation physics is a menagerie of causes and effects, and it is too quick to make comparisons simply in terms of the quantity activity one is exposed to.

The problem is, this cuts both ways. The reason there is little—but not noevidence that low levels of radiation increase cancer risk is that safety standards have been kept high. But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and that uncertainty, not to mention the costs of finding out, has to be factored into our assessment of nuclear power.  Moreover, to claim that radiation is all about context, and then give examples of contexts where radiation is safe, is somewhat problematic.

That lead us into the next problem—new reactor designs, even those that show promise are still a ways off, and have some serious hurdles to contend with.  Liquid salt plants and so-called “breeder” reactors have been plagued with problems from their inception; they are not new ideas at all, but rather old ideas long in wait of feasible and successful engineering. Liquid salts run at exceedingly high temperatures, and may utilise highly reactive metals like sodium as cooling systems. The corrosive and highly flammable sodium is difficult to contain and can wear away containment vessels at a surprising speed.  The Monju reactor in Japan, for example, has been plagued by controversy and safety concerns for almost 50 years. This isn’t simply technological lock-in; making breeders cost effective, safe, and efficient enough to go into widespread use is and continues to be an immense technical challenge.

Most Gen-IV reactors will rely heavily on plutonium, as it is a far more efficient method of causing fission, and arises from the byproducts of irradiating uranium. But this introduces a new, unstated element of risk—In addition to being radioactive plutonium is incredibly toxic. It binds in calcium sites around the body such as bone marrow, and has long decay chains comprising of varied intensities of radioactivity. Storage of plutonium for civilian fuel projects presents a proliferation risk, a health and safety risk, and an environmental risk.

Now, I use “risk” here because the obvious reply from Ash, or anyone else, is that compared to the costs of not  pursuing nuclear power, the above dangers are deemed more than acceptable. In “Pandora’s Promise,” and Ash’s post, the costs take the form of anthropogenic climate change, and the costs of that clearly outweigh any costs of nuclear power.

Again, I want to make it clear that I believe that climate change is happening, it is human-influenced, and the costs of not acting are likely to be severe. It is just that in using such an—admittedly very real and scary—extreme cost without qualification as the reason to pursue nuclear power skews our risk assessment somewhat.  It is the same type of cost that motivates arguments for geoengineering on a large scale or human enhancement so that our bodies are better adapted to survive the pernicious effects of climate change. With a big enough catastrophe, anything is fair game.

But nuclear power isn’t simply a scientific or engineering puzzle. Its main drivers, in the end, have not been public fear—plenty of nuclear weapons have been built despite opposition. Part of what stymies nuclear power is that the science and technology have been tightly controlled from the outset. This has led to a dearth of skills in the right areas: many scientists who might have otherwise contributed to the nuclear sciences in civilian matters were either snatched up by the weapons industry, or denied clearance to work with fissile materials.

Further, the strict nature of nuclear secrecy, among other regulatory levers, creates an environment in which—even once civilian nuclear energy became a plausible pursuit—vested interests had the ability to control the market in all sorts of problematic ways.  According to one source, today 10 utilities own 70% of the total nuclear capacity of the USA.

Changing these institutions, allowing innovation to happen securely, and introducing competition into the nuclear marketplace are as much social and political changes as they are technical.  These are some of the very real challenges to wider adoption of nuclear power, and these changes, I fear, are where we the industry may falter.

This shouldn’t be a deterrent, but it outlines the challenges associated with the nuclear power industry. The clicks heard by Szilard and Fermi on that fateful day in 1942 in Chicago had potential, and still do.  Everything after, I contend, has been as much hindrance as help. The truth about nuclear energy, if there is any, is that it is as much a complex political case as it is a scientific one. Ash does, to his credit, note this, but I think he downplays precisely the type of gap we are talking about. It would be a shame to let the promise of nuclear power pass untapped. Yet one only has to look at the state of the nuclear energy industry today to know that the current system needs a radical overhaul, and that will require a significant amount of capital and civic participation. When we consider the cost-benefit analysis of a project, political costs have to figure in somewhere.  And right now in the world of nuclear energy, those costs are exceedingly high.

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2 thoughts on “A World of Trouble: Untangling the Politics and Promise of Nuclear Power

  1. John ONeill

    The political case has changed before, and will again. After the first oil price shock in the seventies, Belgium and Sweden built enough nuclear to provide half their electricity, and France, eighty percent of theirs – all in about twenty years.The US built enough to equal Saudi Arabia and Kuwait’s annual energy exports. Those plants are mostly still in operation, often running at eighty or ninety percent capacity, and have, over the last thirty odd years, helped avoid the production of billions of tons of carbon dioxide. The spent fuel would fill a few swimming pools. No bombs have been made from it ( it’s too high in Pu 240 and Pu 238 for that anyway ).
    The Chinese know what the real alternative to nuclear is , they’re breathing the byproducts. At the rate they’re going, they should soon be able to make a one gigawatt AP1000 in three years for less than a dollar a watt. If they can do third generation faster and cheaper, all the better.

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  2. John Hartshorn

    Concerns about the health effects of low dose radiation exposure are complex, but extensive research to date (except for some questionable findings like the cancer clusters reported near nuclear reactors by German researchers, which are deficient in multiple regards) have been unable to demonstrate any negative health effects of consequence. To the contrary, a growing body of literature exists supporting a hormetic dose-response relationship such that workers exposed to chronic low levels of radiation demonstrate improved mortality and other beneficial health effects. Some types of cancers clearly can occur in elevated exposure situations at higher than expected rates, but other much more common and deadly cancers are actually reduced. There is also strong evidence of an enhancement of general immune function under conditions of modest increases in exposure, such that other common diseases occur at lower than expected rates. Skeptics dismiss studies in nuclear and shipyard workers showing zero harm as demonstrating a “healthy worker effect” but a careful reading of the research exposes this idea as unsubstantiated or disproved. Here is a good overview of this area with links to source materials. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2889508/

    The principle obstacles to a rapid expansion of nuclear at this time seem to be political and technical.
    The technical problems are solved or close to solution now and only need a few demonstration and scale-up projects to validate the economics and safety of fourth generation designs, meanwhile the generation 3+ reactors like the AP1000 and EPR (European Pressurized Reactor) have been certified, are being build around the world, and have better economics and much better safety parameters than the aging fleet of current US plants.

    Perhaps we would be wise to overcome our reflexive objections to government management and ownership of industries in this instance and emulate the French experience, which has led to the safest, lowest cost and best managed reactor fleet extant. A unified government run program, either with or without private corporate participation, could guarantee that the highest standards of engineering, design, construction, operation, and management consistent with the goals of reliability, safety, and minimal proliferation risk predominate.

    Of course the first job to enable all this is to convince legislators and the public to re-evaluate nuclear power in light of current realities. Nuclear can be the fastest and least costly way to decarbonize our economy. We need to be sure it is done with the greatest attention to planning, safety, and cost, as well as public acceptance.

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