'TJH' has added an excellent comment to my recent post on nuclear energy options and raised some issues which I think need to be explored a bit more. Basically, he makes three points:
- The nuclear waste disposal problem is not being solved,
- the cost of new nuclear generation is not competitive with coal without massive government subsidies, and
- the comparison of deaths due to nuclear energy to deaths due to coal is not a valid measure of nuclear safety.
He also asserts that carbon sequestration is likely to be available before the solution to nuclear waste disposal problem. Let's look at each of these.
Nuclear Waste It's true the nuclear waste disposal problem has not been solved - at least in the United States. The problem seems to be as much a political problem as an engineering problem. Currently the standard which the engineers are supposed to meet would limit radiation exposure to 350 millirem for ONE MILLION YEARS taking into account the effects of climate change, earthquakes, volcanos, asteroids falling from the sky and other, unknowable, factors. It's worth noting in this context that the entire recorded history of the human race is about four thousand years. If such a standard were applied to other kinds of industrial waste, including carbon dioxide, most modern industry would shut down immediately.
Other countries seem to have solved the problem. Canada has developed a system for burying nuclear wastes in batholiths some 500 to 1000 meters beneath the surface within the Canadian Shield - one of the most geologically stable formations on Earth. The batholiths were formed some one to two billion years ago and have been stable since then. Sweden has developed a method called KBS-3 which, after some interim storage during which the radioactivity is sharply reduced, buries the waste in bentonite clay some 500 meters beneath the surface. The Finnish government has begun building a similar site. France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Russia reprocess spent fuel.
Cost What will be the cost of electricity from a new generation of nuclear plants? No one can say for certain. The primary difficulty in estimating the cost is that a large part of the eventual costs are the up-front capital costs of the plant, and that depends largely on how long it takes the plant to be built. The nuclear power industry does not have a good record in this regard. They argue, however, that with standardized designs which are pre-approved, the time required to build new nuclear plants will be shorter and more predictable.
The evidence is mixed. A plant being built in Finland is significantly behind schedule and over budget. Several others under construction in Japan, however, are both on time and under budget. A study completed by MIT in 2003 found that nuclear power would be about 60 percent more costly than coal or natural gas power. Another, by the Royal Acadamy of Engineering in 2005 put the cost of new nuclear energy at 2.26 pence per kilowatt-hour vs. 3.64 for natural gas power and 3.33 for coal. This report has been disputed by many, though who argue it doesn't account for government subsidies to the nuclear industry and understimates disposal costs. Nuclear power does receive some subsidy from the government. Of course, coal, natural gas and renewables all receive signifianct government subsidies.
I believe that with experience, problems with the construction of nuclear plants will be resolved and the construction period will become shorter and more predictable leading to a cost per kilowatt that is competitive with coal. Of course I have no data to back that up, but neither do those who say the cost will be much higher. We won't know until we build a few plants.
Safety Of course, the number of deaths is only a rough indicator of the relative safety of nuclear power vs. coal. And certainly, as TJH points out, the accident at Chernobyl devastated a significant amount of land. But coal mining devastates a significant amount of land every year. And coal is not only unsafe to mine, it's unsafe to burn. Coal-fired power plants spew out an amazing amount of pollutants - 59% of total US sulfur dioxide pollution, 18% of total nitrogen oxides, 50% of total particulate pollution and 40% of total US carbon dioxide emissions. These pollutants contribute to smog that threatens the health of tens of millions. According to the Sierra Club, particle pollution from power plants alone causes some 30,000 deaths a year in the US. Coal-fired power plants are the largest single man-made source of mercury pollution.
There's lots else I could say about coal. Sure, nuclear power has safety issues but they pale in comparison to what we're doing now. We need to stop building new coal plants and get rid of the ones we have. The only feasible alternative at the moment is nuclear. Effective carbon sequestration from coal plants is making little progress- the Department of Energy recently pulled the plug on the FUTUREGEN demonstration project saying it did not make fiscal sense.
Sure, nuclear power is dangerous. The eventual costs are only rough estimates and the waste disposal problem has not been resolved. But where are the alternatives to generating the reliable quantities of electricity we need to allow us to retire the coal plants that are killing us.
[The photo is of the Bruce Nuclear Plant in Canada - the second largest in the world]