Some skeptical questions
Is nuclear energy safe? What can we do about the waste? What about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima – don’t they prove that we can’t rely on nuclear reactors? Won’t a tiny amount of radiation kill you? Why are reactors so expensive to build with so many delays? Why don’t we just use renewables? Why don’t we just abandon dirty, wasteful industry and go back to the land?
These are some of the skeptical questions on the minds of progressives and even socialists. In this article I will try to answer them and make the case for a global program to replace fossil fuels with nuclear fuels in the interest of climate change mitigation and human well-being.
A promising start
Until the 1970s nuclear energy was generally recognized as the energy source of the future. Many industrial countries had started installing cheap, clean nuclear power plants to produce electricity. Although only 2% of electricity in the US was produced by nuclear power plants in 1970, they were already seen as an important alternative to the fossil fuel plants that dominated the market. In 1974, the far-sighted French government launched a program to diminish France’s reliance on imported petroleum by constructing nuclear power plants that today account for 75% of France’s electricity production. In the United States, President Eisenhower had in 1956 threatened King Saud of Saudi Arabia with disruption of oil markets by sharing nuclear technology with European countries.
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: BIG OIL CREATES FRIENDS OF THE EARTH
The oil industry quickly acted to protect its market share. In 1969 Robert O. Anderson, CEO and founder of Atlantic Richfield Oil, made a gift of $200,000 (half a million today) to David Brower to create Friends of the Earth, which became the leading voice internationally in creating opposition to nuclear energy and spreading inaccurate information about it. Soon the Council on Foreign Relations and the mass media, both of which have ties to the petroleum industry, jumped on the band wagon. Rapidly, a propaganda campaign that exists to this day was put together to denigrate nuclear energy to Big Oil’s benefit. Even Hollywood helped out at a critical moment with the film “China Syndrome”.
The lesson from this bit of history is that we have been had by the same capitalists whose propaganda machine leads us into war, tells us every day that there is no alternative to their insanely anarchic economy, and lies systematically about all the socialist countries. Everything that you think you know about the dangers of nuclear energy is wrong. It is simply the outcome of an advertising campaign that trashes the competition.
WHAT DO NUCLEAR REACTORS DO BETTER THAN FOSSIL-FUELED POWER PLANTS?
Nuclear reactors provide clean electricity at a reasonable price. They do not pump pollutants into the air that kill millions of people every year. They do not produce greenhouse gases that aggravate climate change.
By replacing fossil-fueled electrical plants with nuclear, we can eliminate 27% of current US greenhouse gases. As I will explain later, we can’t do that with solar and wind, which require fossil-fueled or nuclear backup plants to cover their down times.
By converting to all electric vehicles, we can eliminate an additional 28% of US greenhouse gases.
By converting to all electric residential and commercial heat we can eliminate most of the 12% of US greenhouse gases from that source.
By satisfying industrial energy needs with nuclear-generated electricity we can eliminate a significant portion of the industry’s 22% contribution to US greenhouse gases.
HOW CAN WE MAKE THIS CONVERSION HAPPEN?
Capitalism cannot do the job
A conversion project of the magnitude described above is beyond the capabilities of the global capitalist economy in its current state of decay. A cut in petroleum product consumption in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the price of oil negative for a while, and it is currently selling below $40/barrel less than production costs for many producers. The first large victim of this relatively minor disturbance has been ExxonMobil, which Dow Jones no longer lists. Imagine the effect on the oil industry, in particular, and capitalist economies in general were a decision to replace petroleum with uranium to become policy. Every oil company would have to write down the value of its assets, oil in the ground and equipment, and rapidly declare bankruptcy. It would be necessary to artificially maintain oil production during the interim period until it is no longer needed.
Not only is private capitalist finance manifestly incapable of supporting projects on this scale, but nor do capitalist priorities – putting return on investment before all else – sufficiently value human well-being to put it before the scramble for profit. Although the US government was once able to launch a program to land a man on the moon, it is politically impossible to launch a similar program to massively convert to nuclear energy as the levers of power are completely compromised by the petroleum industry and the economy would face near certain ruin.
Nuclear power under socialism
However, a socialist economy has massively different priorities and is impervious to the capitalist drive for profits. The first and essential priority of a socialist economy is the betterment of living conditions for all humans. In practice, this means:
- the elimination of poverty;
- provide adequate food;
- transportation; and,
In a planned economy, the active population deliberates on what it needs to accomplish with the material and intellectual resources at hand. We have plenty of examples of this from socialist history.
From its beginning, the Soviet Union created a national healthcare system where none had previously existed. At the same time, its leadership recognized early on that it would be attacked and obliterated by the capitalist powers unless it could create a modern industrial economy and build the weaponry of modern warfare in time. As we know it made the necessary decisions and destroyed the invading German army in WWII.
Early after the revolution, poverty-stricken Cuba decided that literacy was a priority and with the help of its school children virtually eliminated illiteracy in the adult population. Cuba also made it a priority to create a first-class healthcare complex, not only for Cubans, but for any people in the world who need its help. We know what Cuba’s success in this area has done for the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In about 1980 the Chinese Communist Party decided to eliminate absolute poverty. Since then 800 million Chinese have been lifted from the lowest internationally recognized category of poverty, and the last few Chinese citizens will be raised from absolute poverty in 2020. Current projects that the Chinese people are working tt to include achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 and evolving toward a totally socialist economy in 2049, the centenary of the Chinese Revolution. Nuclear energy looms large in the plan to achieve carbon neutrality. The current plan is to increase nuclear electricity production to six times the current level by 2050 – from about 70GW to 400GW.
Never, to my knowledge, has a capitalist economy been able to plan for national goals, nor achieve them, except in war. The best capitalists can do is to plan for individual enterprises, or perhaps even a few related enterprises. Even in a country like Germany, which was well on the way to conversion to full nuclear-generated electricity, opposition capitalists were able to sabotage the plan. Now, German nuclear installations are being shut down and replaced with coal-fired plants.
LET’S REFUTE SOME FALSE CLAIMS ABOUT NUCLEAR ENERGY
What is ?
Radioactivity is the emission, spontaneous or induced, of particles from decaying atomic nuclei. The particles can be electrons, protons, neutrons, ionized light atoms such as helium, photons, neutrinos, or antineutrinos. All these decay products together are called radiation. Some of them are ionizing radiation, since they carry enough energy to knock electrons off atoms as they pass near them. The neutrinos, however, can traverse the entire earth and touch nothing.
Radioactivity is not harmful in small doses
There is a lot of mystery, misunderstanding, and outright obfuscation about radiation. Let us be clear. Radiation, like many other things we encounter in nature — snakes, cyanide, some mushrooms and plants, lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) – can kill. This is a good thing. Radiation therapy kills cancers and saves the patient. It can also kill microbes and sterilize surfaces and foods. In large doses it can kill human beings. In small doses it is harmless.
In fact, you are being continuously bombarded with cosmic radiation and you are totally unaware of it. Radiation doses are measured in Sieverts (Sv). At sea level, you absorb about 0.1 micro Sv every hour of every day. At higher altitudes and during air travel, doses can be significantly higher — 2, 4, or even 9 micro Sv/hour. Cosmic rays account for about one tenth of the radiation that you absorb from nature. The rest enter your body from things you breathe in or eat, or things just around where you are. For example, by entering Grand Central Station in New York City, which is made of granite, you increase your radiation dose from the naturally decaying materials in the granite.
In our evolutionary history we have built up a certain degree of immunity
So, why haven’t you already died from radiation poisoning? Every living thing since the beginning of life on Earth has been subjected to all this natural background radiation. Every living species has ancestors who evolved mechanisms to repair radiation damage. Those species that didn’t don’t exist. Our species did. Congratulations to us. As a gift from our evolutionary forebears, we have natural immunity to a certain level of radiation.
How does a nuclear reactor work?
Nuclear reactors cause atomic nuclei to split in a controlled environment. When the nuclei split, they release energy in the form of moving atomic particles (atomic nuclei, protons, neutrons, electrons, etc.). Some of the neutrons go on to induce other nuclei to split. This is called a chain reaction. The other particles dissipate their energy, generating heat as they ionize atoms in the reactor. This heat is used to produce steam to turn electrical turbines. In the future, reactors still in the design stage may be able to perform other tasks such as generating hydrogen, producing reactor fuel, and neutralizing nuclear reactor waste products.
Why nuclear waste is not an uncontrollable danger
The simple truth is that nuclear reactors do not produce very much waste. After some months of operation, the fuel in a reactor is consumed. In order to sustain the reaction, uranium, for example, must be treated so that its fissile isotope, U-235, is concentrated (usually to 3-5%) to provide a sufficient number of targets to sustain the chain reaction.
An isotope is a nucleus with a specific number of neutrons. For example, U-235 has 92 protons, like all the different isotopes of uranium, but has 235-92 or 143 neutrons. Saying that the fuel is consumed means that the concentration of U-235 has fallen below the level necessary to maintain a chain reaction. There are still significant quantities of U-235 in the spent fuel, just not enough to do the job.
Fortunately, the spent rods can be recycled as raw material to produce new fuel rods. Another one of the byproducts of nuclear fission is the element plutonium, which can also be used as fuel in a reactor. At present the United States does not recycle spent nuclear fuel. However, France, the UK, Russia, Japan, and India do. In fact, France recycles waste for several European countries in its facility at La Hague on the Normandy coast. There is a very informative film about the La Hague facility here.
Other byproducts are just waste at our current level of technology. At some future time, they may turn out to be useful. If not, there may one day be reactors that can break them down into harmless material. In the meantime, these byproducts are embedded in glass pellets and stored.
What about nuclear accidents?
Well, there was the accident in 1979 at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, PA. A minor malfunction led, through a series of operator errors, to the partial meltdown of the nuclear core. At one time during the recovery process a small amount of radioactivity, well within the range of background radiation in the region, was released. During 17 years of monitoring, the Pennsylvania Department of Health found no deleterious effects on the health of the 30,000 people who lived near the reactor at the time of the accident. A lot of money was spent cleaning up the damaged reactor, while the other one on the site is in operation, certified until 2034. There is a detailed description of the accident and the aftermath here.
Fukushima: On March 11, 2011, a tsunami damaged three of five nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan. The three damaged reactors are a write-off. High levels of radioactivity were released to the environs at the time of the accident, but only insignificant amounts have been released subsequently. The local population was immediately evacuated and has suffered no deleterious effects from the radioactivity. Currently, some residents are being allowed to return. No deaths or injuries occurred due to the accident. A detailed report can be found here.
A great deal of radioactive water, used to cool the damaged reactor cores, has accumulated since the accident. It is stored on site after radioactive contaminants have been removed. One contaminant, tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, remains in the water. the Japanese government plans to dump the water into the ocean at the site. This decision has led to a great deal of adverse press, largely due to ignorance about what the contaminated water contains and the significance of the contaminant.
As tritium spontaneously decays into helium-3, a stable isotope, it emits a low energy electron. This particle can barely penetrate matter, so its ability to ionize, for example, human tissues is nearly negligible. However, in concentrated doses, it can be dangerous. No concentrated doses of tritium are stored at Fukushima. When the water is eventually dumped into the ocean, the tritium will be diluted to the point that the radioactivity will be hardly detectable at exit from the plant’s harbor. Here is an article about the current situation.
Chernobyl: In 1986 a reactor with a flawed design suffered a steam explosion. The accident was exacerbated by the presence of poorly trained staff. Twenty-eight people working at the plant died of acute radiation syndrome (ARS). Nobody off site suffered from ARS; however, some thyroid cancer deaths in people who were children at the time may have occurred.
In the area around Chernobyl 350,000 people were evacuated. Resettlement is ongoing, and it is possible to make tourist visits to the reactor site. A detailed report of the accident and the aftermath can be found here. As a condition for entering the European Union a number of countries have closed their Chernobyl-style reactors.
Nuclear construction projects so often incur cost overruns and delays in the US and Europe, but not everywhere
It is true that nuclear reactor construction in the United States has been plagued for years with cost overruns and long delays. Until recently, I thought that this problem was primarily political. Anti-nuclear activists, I thought, had thrown enough impediments, legal and regulatory, in the way that utilities were hamstrung in their efforts to build new nuclear capacity.
I recently discovered, to my surprise, in an article from Forbes Magazine that my assumption is wrong. It turns out that delays and costs are a problem in the US and Europe, but not in Asia and the Middle East. The article indicates that, according to a MIT study, the problem stems from poor project management:
- Construction is begun before site design is complete;
- Insufficiently committed management teams cannot adapt to changing conditions; and,
- Supplies are unreliable and trained workers are lacking.
This last problem is a direct result of western lack of commitment to installing nuclear power plants in recent decades.
Why regressing to pre-industrial times will not work
What are we trying to achieve as we abandon fossil fuels? Clearly, we want to halt the climate change associated with increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. That said, what kind of society do we want once we no longer depend on fossil fuels?
In advocating in favor of nuclear energy over several decades, I have been struck by a remarkably naïve line of argument. Radical environmentalists sometimes claim that humans are a blight or a cancer on the planet. Our industrial society, they say, is nothing but an assault on Nature, and we must return to a more natural, simple agrarian economy.
This cannot occur, and here is why. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800, world population is estimated to have been between 800 million and 1.1 billion. Current world population is about 7.8 billion.
That increase in population is due, among other major achievements, to our success in defeating disease and hunger, increasing crop yields, providing safe drinking water, making possible moderately livable urban environments, creating a global division of labor, and neutralizing religious rejection of science and education. By continuing in this direction, world population will soon peak, and before the end of the century it will decrease to about 8.8 billion.
Were we to return to a pre-industrial life, the world population would have to decrease to a billion or fewer people. We cannot do that in a humane way. Furthermore, why would we want to?
Pre-industrial societies suffered from high infant mortality, for example. We would not be able to provide the energy-intense health environment to maintain current low infant mortality rates. We would not be able to maintain highly energy-intensive production of medications for otherwise mortal diseases for people of all ages. Life expectancy would severely decline. We would not be able to produce fertilizers and pesticides that protect crops and increase their quantity and quality. Famine would become commonplace, as it always has been in pre-industrial societies. We would have to abandon the use of electricity production, which depends on energy-intensive materials such as steel for both generation and transmission equipment. In any real and politically acceptable sense, there is no way to go back to a not so idyllic pre-industrial past. That leaves us the imperative to work out the political and technical means to achieve a sustainable industrial future.
Why wind and solar energy are not enough
In fact, there is not a single solar, wind, biomass or other “renewable” energy source capable of matching the power density that nuclear reactors provide. That means that any of these “green” options gobble up vast amounts of the earth’s surface simply for energy production, leaving less space available for, say, agriculture or natural habitats. What are the numbers? The best we can hope for is desert solar photovoltaic farms, which can produce electricity at the rate of up to 20W/m². By contrast, both nuclear and fossil fueled plants achieve outputs in excess of 1000W/m² — at least 50 times more power density than the best-case green solution. In practice, this means that some countries like Germany and the UK would need to cover half their area in wind turbines to supply energy at current consumption rates. Other industrial countries, Japan and South Korea, are too small to supply their own electricity needs. Both nuclear and fossil fuels can easily meet the density constraint, and nuclear energy meets it without greenhouse gas emissions.
There is no need to invoke the effects on the environment of massive electricity generation from low intensity solar and wind farms. Nor need we critique the short mean time between failures of these technologies, their short life span or the significant pollution problems caused by disposal of failed equipment.
In this article, I focus on the energy needs for a sustainable industrial future. Two criteria suffice to determine how to go forward:
- We will need to be able to guarantee stable base-line electricity production for both home and industrial/commercial needs; and,
- We will need to provide high temperature process heat for industry.
Today baseline electricity comes from a mix of fossil fueled generators (coal, oil, natural gas), hydroelectric facilities, and nuclear fueled reactors. To achieve sustainability, we will need to remove fossil fuels from this mix. Electricity generated by direct solar and wind energy cannot fill that gap. Quite simply, they are, and always will be, unreliable. When the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, electricity production stops.
Process heat is today provided both by fossil fuels and electricity. For example, iron and steel production require high temperatures to purify and manipulate the final product. Both glass and ceramics require high temperature ovens. Production often continues around the clock and furnaces can be damaged or destroyed if the internal temperature drops. Because neither solar nor wind powered generators can meet this constraint, they are unsuitable.
In some cases, furnaces heated with fossil fuels can be replaced with electrical furnaces. Nuclear reactors are currently used as well. For information about this technology see this article. In short, nuclear energy can replace fossil fuels both generating reliable base-line electricity and producing industrial process heat.
The upshot of our history of nuclear accidents is that they are uncommon, but can cost the utility owner a lot of money, and they rarely cause radiation injuries. The more we use nuclear reactors, learn from mistakes, and improve them, the fewer accidents will occur and the less significant they will be. That is the general history of the development of any technology. Consider, for example, what has occurred with automobiles and airplanes.
Remember Ford’s Model T? Probably not. You would likely have been terrified to ride in one. There were no seat belts or air bags. The windows were not shatter proof. There were hardly any paved roads. The steering wheel and front axle were held on with cotter pins! To complete the picture of how vehicle safety has improved as the technology evolved, look at the chart “Deaths and MV rates” here. The point is that for any technology, the same thing happens. As it is introduced, innovations make it work better with less danger to people who depend on it.
One word about airplane evolution: Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic with no navigation system other than the seat of his pants.
People often fear novelty and are easily manipulated to reject it. When I see the fear-mongering that the anti-nuclear movement carries out, I am reminded of an editorial in the New York Times. At the time of the debate about electrification in New York City, the Times ran a fear-mongering editorial claiming that power lines would collapse in the first storm, leaving electrocuted horses in the streets. No comment.
REFUTING FRIENDS OF THE EARTH PROPAGANDA ABOUT NUCLEAR ENERGY
Now that we have explained what nuclear energy is all about, let’s see what Friends of the Earth says today, half a century after it was created to crush the nuclear power industry.
After 60 years, despite massive subsidies, the nuclear industry is dying of its own accord.
— Not true. It is flourishing in Asia and provides much of the electricity in Western Europe.
Because it’s too expensive, too dangerous and dirty, and takes too long to deploy.
— Not true. If you have read this article diligently, you can refute Friends of the Earth and their friends.
Reactors are closing across the country, and major corporations have declared bankruptcy.
— Misleading. Despite efforts of the petroleum industry and its allies like Friends of the Earth who have done everything they could to sabotage the nuclear power industry, nuclear reactors have supplied about 20% of US electricity since the late 80s. In order to do so, more reactors have had to come online to maintain that level as electricity demand has increased. Without The petroleum industry’s sabotage, nuclear reactors would probably provide an even greater proportion electricity today.
Nuclear power simply cannot compete against safer, cleaner and cheaper renewable energy.
— Not true. Nuclear power doesn’t need a backup energy source for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. In fact, nuclear energy provides the backup, when it isn’t a fossil fuel burning plant.
Nuclear power is also expensive.
— Not true. Whole countries depend on nuclear energy to supply their electricity. Some even sell their excess electricity to their neighbors at competitive prices.
Nuclear’s subsidies have been buried in hundreds of spending bills, it’s [sic] costs externalized to the environment and future generations, and its bills literally unpaid, defaulted on or passed to taxpayers. Conservative estimates suggest that the nuclear industry has received more than $85 billion in subsidies. A centrist estimate might double that.
— So what? Go find out how much the petroleum industry receives in subsidies. Spoiler alert: Lots. This is a feature of a capitalist economy that applies to every industry, even pork.
For 60 years, nuclear power has posed a serious risk to people and our planet.
— Not true. Friends of the Earth is confusing nuclear with the fossil fuel industries, whose pollution kills millions of people every year. Review the discussion of nuclear accidents.
It will be the same for the next 10,000 years. Our children and generations of their children will be forced to endure the radioactive pollution and fallout from devastating accidents like 3 Mile Island, Fukashima [sic] and Chernobyl, and the permanent waste that no one can safely store.
— Not true. Review the section on nuclear waste storage and recycling of nuclear fuel. Then take a guided tour to Chernobyl.
The risks of nuclear proliferation and the spread of dangerous weapons and technology only adds to this.
— Partially true. Nuclear proliferation is a byproduct of capitalist warfare. Nuclear fuel cannot be used for nuclear weapons since the concentration of radioactive material is far too low. If capitalist nations want to build atomic bombs, they won’t use reactor fuel; they will directly enrich the materials they need.
This whole screed from the Friends of the Earth website reminds me of advertising. One soap manufacturer insinuates that his competitor’s product leaves a ring around your collar. If you are naïve enough to fall for it, you buy his product. At the beginning of this article, we reviewed the role of Robert O. Anderson, CEO of Atlantic Richfield Oil, in providing the money to create Friends of the Earth. He gave about half a million current dollars for this advertising campaign in 1969. Boy, has he gotten his money’s worth!
• First published in Planning Beyond Capitalism