26 Mar 2012: Opinion

Shunning Nuclear Power
Will Lead to a Warmer World

A physicist argues that if we allow our overblown and often irrational fears of nuclear energy to block the building of a significant number of new nuclear plants, we will be choosing a far more perilous option: the intensified burning of planet-warming fossil fuels.

by spencer r. weart

A disaster began when a tsunami struck the Fukushima nuclear reactors a little more than a year ago — but not the sort of disaster that most people think of. Attention has focused on the threat that Japanese citizens may have received doses of radiation that will increase their risk of cancer. But there are worse consequences for the health of the Japanese, and serious long-term impacts on all of us.

Japan has shut down almost all its reactors, and it’s unclear how many will ever restart. Germany has decided to phase out its nuclear power industry, and Italy and other nations are canceling ambitious plans for expansion. In the United States, prospects for additional reactors hang by a thread. Other nations, including India and China, continue to press ahead with their nuclear programs, but there can be little doubt that the Fukushima crisis has been a setback to prospects for a nuclear renaissance.

These blows to the world’s nuclear industry will have severe unintended consequences, most notably because they will inevitably lead to more burning of fossil fuels. Over the past half-century, wherever a nuclear reactor was not built, a coal-fired power plant usually was constructed to
While nuclear reactors make me nervous, the consequences of fossil-fuel burning terrify me.
supply the necessary electricity. In future decades, the fewer nuclear reactors, the more coal, natural gas, and oil will be consumed. To be sure, there are promising alternatives like wind and solar, and increases in efficiency so that fewer power plants will be needed. Yet realistically these cannot meet the intense demand for rising economic prosperity, especially in China and other developing nations. And while nuclear reactors make me nervous, the consequences of fossil-fuel burning terrify me.

The harm done to human health and the environment by all the nuclear accidents and nuclear waste releases in history is minor compared with the harm caused by the mining and burning of coal, with other fossil fuels not far behind. And there is worse: global warming, caused largely by the emission of heat-trapping gases from fossil fuels. If emissions continue to increase in a “business as usual” fashion — let alone if they increase even faster as reactors are phased out — future generations will suffer as we destabilize the climate system that has supported human civilization for thousands of years. Rising sea levels, droughts in key agricultural regions, and ever-worsening heat waves will threaten people just as the world’s population is projected to expand from 7 billion today to 10 billion by 2100. We will see the impoverishment of some of the ecosystems on which our society depends. While nuclear power offers no magical solution, it could help us avoid the worst.

But wasn’t Fukushima a health disaster? Not in the way you’d expect. Thanks to the openness of Japanese society and prompt evacuation, nobody received the kind of radiation that struck Soviet citizens after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

So let’s look at Chernobyl as a baseline. The most visible harm there was due to ingestion of radioactive iodine, most commonly by children drinking milk from cows that had eaten radioactive grass in the contamination zone. Ingestion of radioactive iodine has caused nearly 5,000 children and young people to contract thyroid cancer in the ensuing 25 years, although most are doing well following surgery. The World Health Organization has projected that as many as 50,000 new cases of thyroid cancer could occur among young people affected by Chernobyl in the coming decades. But the Japanese were protected from this large-scale contamination, and few if any excess thyroid abnormalities are expected.

What about other health problems? Some scientists believe that radiation at the levels to which millions of people farther from Chernobyl were
Feelings of deep horror and dread have become the normal response to radioactivity.
exposed — moderately above the level of normal background radiation that we all receive — brings an increase in the rate of cancer. However, the increase, if any, has been too minuscule to detect amid the enormous number of cancers that afflict people anyway. Other scientists cite a variety of reasons to argue that low levels of radiation are completely harmless. We just don’t know.

It’s the uncertainty itself that has had the greatest impact on most of the Chernobyl survivors. Feeling themselves contaminated by mysterious and uncanny forces, millions became anxious and depressed. Many hesitated to have children, fearing their babies would be deformed. Adding to this were the dislocations of forced evacuation; no wonder psychosomatic illnesses proliferated. Overall, mental health problems caused far more harm for most Chernobyl survivors than the radioactivity. Even more after the Three Mile Island accident, it was not radioactivity but anxiety that caused health problems. The same problems are now being detected among the evacuees from Fukushima.

Feelings of deep horror and dread have become the normal response to radioactivity. Of course it is natural to fear anything that might cause cancer and birth defects. But ordinary elements like arsenic also act in these ways, and many widely used chemicals are still more potent in causing all sorts of dangers, without evoking the same widespread fears. For example, a recent National Academy of Sciences study reported that the smoke emitted by coal-fired power plants causes 10,000 premature deaths among Americans every year — yet agitation against existing plants is slight. Nor has severe pollution of water supplies in some areas resulted in large-scale evacuations.

Radioactivity gets special treatment for historical reasons. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings created a picture of horrid devastation. Then
Oil spills and the daily contamination from coal and gas burning have not inspired such visceral fears.
opponents of nuclear weapons fastened on the radioactive fallout from bomb tests, spreading stories of an entire world contaminated, even in the absence of war. Wouldn’t we face radioactive horrors like the gigantic insects that filled popular movies in the 1950s? These mythical fears actually began well before Hiroshima: Mad scientists and their monstrous radiation creations already were featured in science-fiction movies and stories in the 1930s.

The mythology did not go away when the Cold War ended. If you play a popular computer game like Fallout you will battle shambling post-apocalyptic zombies. On top of this is a fear of terrorists with “dirty” bombs, who might use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials around a neighborhood, triggering panic, wholesale evacuation, and costly cleanup efforts.

Because this imagery has piled on top of the genuine risks of nuclear radiation, the nuclear power industry has been far more closely scrutinized and tightly regulated than other energy source. Oil spills, with their widespread contamination, and the daily contamination from coal and gas burning, have not inspired such visceral fears. Nor has climate change, although it poses the gravest threat of all.

Why doesn’t this prospect alarm the public more than the risk from nuclear reactors? One main reason is that there has been nothing like the same deployment of horrific imagery.

Television features pictures of ice falling from glaciers, or worried Pacific Islanders and Alaskan natives. But such images — and threats — seem remote in space and time. Indeed the most common icon of global warming
We must not let mythical exaggerations prevent us from staving off the all too real danger of a global climate disaster.
is the threatened polar bear — and not everyone cares deeply about this far-away predator. Other common images come from hurricanes battering shorelines and drought-parched farms. But such pictures are nowhere near as dreadful as a looming mushroom cloud. To date, nothing in popular culture has presented a true, vivid picture of what global warming will likely bring, including the ruin of coral reefs and refugees fleeing low-lying coasts or drought-parched lands.

For the time being, economics is doing as much as public fears to prevent widespread deployment of nuclear reactors. Only if the true costs of fossil fuel burning are taken into account would reactors look cheap. Nevertheless some nations, notably China, are pushing ahead with nuclear reactor programs. The Chinese are literally choking on their smoke, and rightly worry that climate change can throw them back into abject poverty. Their reactors will not be prohibitively expensive. France, which gets most of its electricity from reactors, long since showed how to sustain an economically sound nuclear industry.

But what about nuclear wastes? Certainly we need to guard them carefully. But the tremendous fear of these wastes comes only from the dread of radioactivity, nourished by myths, that puts nuclear reactions somehow on a plane separate from chemical reactions. All the harm ever done by the wastes from the nuclear power industry is tiny compared with the harm done by the wastes from coal, which are vastly more widespread and more difficult to contain. Just in terms of radioactive elements, coal burning releases more into the environment than the world’s nuclear industry.


As Fukushima Cleanup Begins,
Long-term Impacts Weighed

As Fukushima Cleanup Begins, Long-term Impacts are Weighed
The Japanese government is launching a large-scale cleanup of the fields, forests, and villages contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. But, as Winifred Bird reports, some experts caution that an overly aggressive remediation program could create a host of other environmental problems.
Sometime in the next couple of decades the reality of global warming will become too obvious to ignore. At that point, people will demand a massive deployment of renewable energy sources, huge gains in efficiency... and nuclear power as well. We won’t solve our energy problem by picking and choosing solutions; we will need “all of the above.”

But it takes decades to reconstruct an energy system. We do not want to rely in the future on the Chinese for reactors, especially given their record of indifference to safety. The United States and other developed nations need to immediately support the nuclear power industry at a reasonable level. Besides maintaining technical expertise, we can experiment with new types of reactors, which are inherently safer; today we know how to build reactors that are physically incapable of suffering the kind of accidents seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima. We must not let mythical exaggerations prevent us from staving off the all too real danger of a global climate disaster.

POSTED ON 26 Mar 2012 IN Biodiversity Climate Energy Forests Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Asia North America North America 


"Thanks to the openness of Japanese society and prompt evacuation...." Openness? For example:

Cabinet kept alarming nuke report secret Fearful of scaring public, existence of document was denied for months: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20120122a1.html

Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012

But wasn’t Fukushima a health disaster? Yes it was. 160,000 people in Japan were evacuated from the 20 kilometer no go zone around Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant where 3 reactors of 6 went into meltdown. Today here in Japan 4 prefectures in that region reported on the deaths caused by extreme stress of evacuation of the citizens of Japan from those areas including the exclusion zone:

1521 people died in 4 prefectures: http://www.kahoku.co.jp/news/2012/03/20120325t73025.htm

90percent Fukushima - Fukushima-related cause of deaths of the victims was the forced evacuation of hospitals and for each facility by the Fukushima nuclear accident after another first, pushed up the percentage.

You are not here, you have not lived with the Japanese people who you so knowingly write about. You have not been here as we have day by day living with the reality of nuclear disasters and the mental suffering this has inflicted in the hearts and minds of so many millions of people (yes, millions, 2 million in Fukushima prefecture alone). Have you been here even once? Over 80percent of the people of Japan oppose restarting nuclear reactors in a country that experiences 20percent of the worlds Magnitude 6 and above earthquakes. Well over 80percent of mental health professionals in Japan have seen the mental stress of this baseline unprecedented meltdown of 3 nuclear reactors at the same time and warranting an IAEC Level 7 nuclear disaster rating, Chernobyl is a Level 7 too, and Level ' is the highest rating for nuclear disasters.

"Today we know how to build reactors that are physically incapable of suffering the kind of accidents seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima"? Titanic Arrogance.

You were not here, you are repeating only what they want you to repeat.

Kind regards from Tokyo.

Posted by Andrew Grimes on 26 Mar 2012

"Today we know how to build reactors that are physically incapable of suffering the kind of accidents seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima" - quite true, but tends to obscure a point that is not often enough made: by the early 1950s we knew how to build, and - outside the Soviet Union - invariably did build, reactors that were physically incapable of suffering the kind of accident seen at Chernobyl.

That is because a number of physicists led by Dr. Edward Teller saw exactly what happened at Chernobyl, in all but name, decades before the fact. As written in Judith L. Shoolery's biography of him,

"... reactors that are both water-cooled and graphite-moderated can have a particularly dangerous flaw. The Hanford reactors that were built during the war, like the reactors later built at Chernobyl, contained so much graphite that water had no further effect in slowing the neutrons. Therefore, loss of water in the cooling system of the wartime Hanford reactors resulted in the capture of fewer neutrons and thereby increased the fission process. In such a reactor, if one pipe loses water, the neighbouring pipes overheat, which converts the cooling water to steam, thereby forming a void in the cooling system, which in turn increases the fission, thus producing more heat and more steam–a situation that continues until the reactor explodes [2] ...... [2] The RSC recognized that danger, called a positive void coefficient, before 1949, and information about that design flaw was disseminated throughout the world by 1955."

("Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics", p. 361)

Posted by G.R.L. Cowan on 26 Mar 2012

I am sure that Dr. Weart has the best of intentions, and he raises good points. But arguing that nuclear energy COULD make a contribution to the climate-change problem does not imply that nuclear energy is the BEST way to address climate change. What we do at the margin, in the short term, has to be the best allocation of resources, the most scaleable and rapidly-deployed option, and the most readily adapted at many scales, from household to nation. By those criteria, increasing energy efficiency is much more effective, powerful, rapid, scaleable and affordable. If addressing climate change is a marathon, then efficiency improvements will be nearing the finish line before nuclear has even laced up its shoes.

Posted by David Foley on 26 Mar 2012

Well thought-out article.

Some (most?) of the stress of the affected people is indeed largely attributable to the irrational fear (that the whole world has) of radiation. While some areas must appropriately be evacuated and remediated, the scope of the evacuation was probably excessive (IMHO). The scientific basis for risk to low-dose-rate and low-level irrradiation supports this.

Posted by Mark on 26 Mar 2012

G.R.L. Efficiency does NOT decrease the use of energy (Jevon's paradox). It's immoral for people living in comfort in a fully-developed country to deny the billions who need LOTS of energy to improve their standard of living.

Posted by SteveK9 on 26 Mar 2012

I don't see why society wouldn't be better off using less energy. What is the escalation of energy use worldwide leading to? What are the projected benefits for human kind?

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 26 Mar 2012

A physicist argues that if we allow our overblown and often irrational fears of nuclear energy to block the building of a significant number of new nuclear plants, we will be choosing a far more perilous option: the intensified burning of planet-warming fossil fuels.

This is the most myopic views I've ever seen written. It's laughable. You're just like the other corporations that go to Congress with hat in hand telling them "this is it," "it's all we have," "there's no other solution," "get it now or you'll loose out."

We want rooftop solar at the source of use. No more transmission lines, puc, utility companies, no more strangling utility bills or more charlatans. Nuclear energy is over. Get over it.

Posted by sandcanyongal on 26 Mar 2012

With respect to the person posting from Tokyo, many studies on thousands of people in your own prefecture have shown no significant elevation of radioactivity. Your stress is due to nature, not your power source.

Here's the Real Aftermath of the Japanese Disaster:

20,000 died from the tsunami and earthquakes.

millions were left without homes.

As far as the "Nuclear Disaster"?

There were no deaths or even illnesses from radiation following the Japanese nuclear plant crisis.

The Wall Street Journal said this at the year anniversary: "A year after the Fukushima nuclear accident, the emerging consensus among scientists is that its effects on physical health and the environment have so far been minimal. There have been no reported radiation-related deaths or illnesses from the accident, even among workers who faced very high exposure." (From: "In Japan, Relief at Radiation's Low Toll" http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203961204577271152728725214.html)

After a month of research on over 5,000 people in the Fukushima prefecture immediately following the accident, only 10 people were found to have significantly elevated levels of radiation, and those levels were still far below the threshold at which acute radiation syndrome sets in. Geiger-counter readings categorised all others in the area at a "no contamination level". (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21181-radiation-levels-in-fukushima-are-lower-than-predicted.html)

Let's remember the Japanese people as they continue to rebuild their lives after these major natural disasters, and keep their loss of life and property in perspective versus the sensationalized media on radiation.

Posted by ENGRCHARLIE on 26 Mar 2012

The only thing that might be less than spot on with this article is that it is an understatement, i.e., it understates how much worse fossil fuels are than nuclear power.

Fukushima is the only significant release in non-Soviet nuclear power's entire 50+ year history, and even the Fukushima event has caused no public deaths and is not projected to have any measurable public health impact in the future. Even the most pessimistic projections, based on the (highly questionable) linear no-threshhold theory (which at a minimum is extremely conservative), project less than ~1,000 eventual deaths.

According to the World Health Organization, fossil-fueled power generation causes hundreds of thousands of deaths every single year, i.e., on the order of ~1000 every single day. In the U.S. alone, the toll is ~10,000-20,000 annual deaths. And this doesn't even consider global warming.

Think about it, even the post pessimistic projections of Fukushima's total eventual health impacts are less than that caused - every - single - day - by fossil fuel power generation. And yet, the Japanese want to replace nuclear with fossil fuels. It's beyond ignorant. It's immoral.

Posted by JimHopf on 26 Mar 2012

Energy audits of nuclear power programs show that year after year in modern civilization(mc) the nuclear industry consumes more energy than it produces, leaving no electricity for society. Thus the cost of electricity per unit is infinity. The more energy has to come from coal. Thus the corrupt policy will go on adding more and more nuclear capacity using coal to produce them. This is the Indian and the Chinese scenario in mc. Even during 'normal operations' every year more than hundred Bhopals of deaths in the form of cancer death loads are being added (each Bhopal death unit is 2,259 immediate deaths after the Bhopal disaster). This follows after Gofman's analysis of nuclear power programs assuming 0.1\% leak of Cs137 inventory in the nuke fuel cycle. Now since Cs 137 remains murderous for more than 300 years, the cancer death load alone will be an unheard of epidemic, which is a fact of life in the West. This is a nuclear war against life itself.

Stop this nuclear terrorism, which is already a crime against all life for all time. Add to this the periodical catastrophes like Fukushima, we can see that the nuclear safety probelm including its wastes is insoluble. Be sensible, apply the precautionary principle and adopt an energy efficient life style and maintain health and cooperation in harmony with the Biosphere.

Posted by Ramaswami Kumar on 27 Mar 2012

CO2 from fossil fuels = death

nuclear waste & inevitable accidents = death

The one solution = power-down

...See the work of Richard Heinberg & Herman Daly.

Posted by dan allen on 27 Mar 2012

Re: Dan Allen

Yes. Power down is good. That goes hand in hand with radical conservation, morally-driven technology, and radical transformation of values.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 28 Mar 2012

Excellent article. Yes. Nuclear energy has its own role to play in the energy mix to supplement the conventional energy. Though Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents raised world wide debate on nuclear power, one should admit that all efforts should be made to generate power. Of course in the case of nuclear with adequate safety.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 28 Mar 2012

Interesting article. Cesium isn't 'deadly' for any amount of time. It's a probabilistic hazard. It isn't dangerous until the instant of decay.

Nuclear definitely has its hazards, solar would be ideal. Solar won't work in high population density areas, for obvious reasons. Nuclear is simply the lesser of the evils.

Beside, what else do we use U235 for? Paper weights? Make a damn good one. Bombs and energy. May as well harness it, right?

Posted by Kyle N on 28 Mar 2012

Everyone, including Spenser Weart, should read the article Public Trust in Nuclear Power by Wade
Allison, Professor emeritus of physics, Oxford University.

http://www.radiationandreason.com/ [See the first listed download in the right hand column on that website]

This article can provide an antidote to the irrational fears expressed here and elsewhere regarding nuclear power and nuclear radiation.

I quote Prof. Allisons credentials, cited in the article referenced:

"Born in April 1941 I have spanned the nuclear age, although I have never worked for, or had any contract with, the nuclear industry, commercial utilities or government. My concern as an academic has been to understand the physical world through experiment, mathematical calculation, statistical inference and computer simulation. I have lectured and taught much of the subject of physics and its application for 40 years, in particular the areas of radiation, nuclear and medical physics. In 2006 I published "Fundamental Physics for Probing and Imaging", an advanced textbook on medical imaging, radiotherapy and safety, among other matters. Discussions with practising radiologists and others lead to concern about the mismatch between radiation levels, first as used carefully and properly in clinical medicine to further patients' health and second as proscribed as dangerous by environmental regulations, often a thousand times lower.…"

Posted by M. K. Brussel on 29 Mar 2012

Spenser Weart makes many strange claims here, but let me focus just on this passage: "Over the past half-century, wherever a nuclear reactor was not built, a coal-fired power plant usually was constructed to supply the necessary electricity. In future decades, the fewer nuclear reactors, the more coal, natural gas, and oil will be consumed. To be sure, there are promising alternatives like wind and solar, and increases in efficiency so that fewer power plants will be needed. Yet realistically these cannot meet the intense demand for rising economic prosperity, especially in China and other developing nations."

The historic pattern he describes no longer prevails, because big new steam plants — coal, nuclear, or gas — now all have costs and financial risks too high to attract investors. All are fading while renewables (and efficiency, demand response, and combined-heat-and-power) soar. In each year starting 2008, half the world's additions of generating capacity have been renewable, now predominantly in developing countries. China is the most aggressive renewable-builder and is now the world leader in five renewable technologies, including windpower (doubled in each of the past five years) and photovoltaics. In contrast, China's net additions of coal-fired capacity halved during 2006–10 by 2010 the net additions were still 59\% coal, begun years earlier, but 38\% renewable and 2\% nuclear. In 2006, China's distributed renewables (excluding big hydro) had 7x the capacity of its nuclear plants and were growing 7x faster by 2010 this gap had widened despite a huge nuclear acceleration. In 2010, alone, global renewables other than big hydro dams added >60 GW (~20x nuclear's net additions) and won $151 billion of private investment (vs zero for nuclear). In 2011, India, which has more wind than nuclear capacity, quadrupled its renewables target and aims to add at least 20 GW of photovoltaics by 2022, all displacing coal.

In the U.S., none of the 34 proposed nuclear projects was able to attract any private construction capital despite the past seven years of 100+\% federal subsidies, including three years of unprecedented political and policy support and strong capital markets, and four concurrent years of high natural-gas prices. Globally, all 60-odd nuclear units under construction were bought by central planners. These two data points confirm new nuclear plants have no business case. Indeed, they would reduce and retard climate protection because they're so costly and slow to build that their opportunity cost is to save ~2-10+ less carbon, ~20-40x slower, than if the same dollars were instead invested in the best buys (efficiency, renewables, and CHP) as the marketplace is actually doing.

Nuclear power's lingering death of an incurable attack of market forces is thus good for climate protection as well as for nuclear nonproliferation, public health and safety, and global development. Anyone interested in what to do instead and why it will work better and cost less is invited to read Reinventing Fire (www.reinventingfire.com).

Posted by Amory B. Lovins on 29 Mar 2012

The article is little different from pretty much every pro-nuke article I've ever read. Lots of attention to easily argued fears of radioactivity and safety, a fair amount of finger-pointing (with some justification) at coal, and the false choice between nuclear and the lights going out/climate hell.

What's interesting (and familar) is the relative lack of coverage of the economics of nuclear. There is just one paragraph, and the quote which reveals more than the author perhaps wished is 'economics is doing as much as public fears to prevent widespread deployment of nuclear reactors'. The economics are the problem. Only today, German companies have withdrwn from building new reactors in the UK, on grounds of cost. Since the UK govt has been extremely welcoming to the industry, and have promised a fair amount of sweeteners, the economics must be really bad.
The following line is also interesting. 'Only if the true costs of fossil fuel burning are taken into account would reactors look cheap.' I agree that fossil fuels are underpriced, but increasing their price to their true levels makes renewables look even cheaper. As for the French nuclear industry, French taxpayers pay twice for their power, since EDF is a state owned company with huge liabilities and massive overruns on new builds in France and Finland. Nuclear waste is still a problem, since almost no major nuclear power has yet found a way to dispose of their high level nuclear waste. When Yucca Mountain does open, let us know.

The Japanese no longer have any faith in their nuclear industry, or the government, with good reason, since the regulators were far better at supporting the industry than policing it. If I was an investor, the second I saw the footage of one of those reactors going up was the time when I decided that nuclear was not for me. If you add to that the constant lying over over costs, safety and security, you end up agreeing with Goldman Sachs, that under no circumstances should you invest in nuclear.

Costs too much, and is a lot of hassle to boil water. We have cheaper, quicker and safer ways of carbon free energy generation - lets use them first.

Posted by MBrit on 29 Mar 2012

Excellent article from Spencer Weart, though he fails to mention the disconnect between increasing co2 levels and nil significant rise in world temperature records over last decade. As for David Allen 's comment about "power down"- he is obviously living in a modern western country, with piped reticulated water and electric power at the touch of a switch. probably has cable tv and wireless internet as well. I used to work in Africa, and have backpacked India and a lot of Southeast Asia. The vast majority of these people have no electricity, and have to carry water from the nearest creek. Childhood mortality is as high as 20\%, they cook food over a fire inside their huts, and you suggest that "powering down" is an option for the world.

The arrogance and ignorance of the green ideologues is astounding, but from the green point of view, if all those "suffering in poverty" in third world countries were to die it deceases the plague of people on the planet. They still believe in Ehrlich's Population Bomb that was supposed to have caused mass famines in the world, [USA included] in the end of the last centuary. Check out the website or book-'Green EcoImperialism" for more information.

Posted by ian hilliar on 29 Mar 2012

Amory Lovins, well known physicist and environmentalist, cannot even spell Dr Weart's name. Let us allow him a misprint. Lovins has spent the last 20 years promoting alternative energy-[did you advise Lehman Bros on green investment opportunities?} and cannot admit that alternative energy fails to provide baseline power. He talks at length about renewables "generating capacity", but fails to note that this is a theoretical capacity that is very unlikely to be achieved on any of the 365 days we have in an earth year. The example in Australia is South Australia, which has a theortical wind generating capacity of 21\% of power for SA, which is closer to 1 or 2\% in the real world, and mostly just idles along, annoying the grid engineers.

Posted by ian hilliar on 29 Mar 2012

@Spencer r. weart

Climate change is much in the news these days, but one important reason for it is never even mentioned: the “nuclear industry”.

A radioactive gas, Krypton 85, is released into the atmosphere by the reprocessing of nuclear reactor fuel rods. It is considered harmless because it rises to the upper atmosphere and will not come into contact with any life. There is now several million times as much KR85 as in 1945, at the start of the Atomic Age.

KR85 is a radioactive gas, and radioactive gases consist of charged particles. When charged particles enter a magnetic field, they migrate to the poles. The earth is a giant magnet, so the KR85 ends up equally at the North and South poles. There it interacts with the charged stream entering the earth's atmosphere from space, known to astronomers as the Wilson Current, a part of the Wilson Circuit, which keeps the earth charged up.

The discharge portion of the Wilson Circuit is lightning, most of which is in the belt of constant thunderstorm activity that circles the earth at the Equator. As the inflow of charge at the poles weakens, so does the amount of lightning decrease everywhere on earth.

And lightning is essential to plants. Plant life cannot use the nitrogen in the atmosphere unless it is "fixed" into compounds, which can be done by two processes: certain types of bacteria, and lightning strikes.

There are some plants that have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots and do not need lightning, but many plants, especially in tropical forest areas where there is normally a lot of lightning, are lightning-dependent, and cannot get enough nitrogen to thrive without lightning.

So the widespread use of nuclear power is decreasing the amount of lightning all over this planet, and causing deterioration of forests, especially in the tropics, from nitrogen starvation.

And that is the worst form of climate breakdown currently happening. The mass extinction of countless species of plant life all over the world is much more significant than all other effects of climate destabilization combined.

The increase in both frequency and severity of storms in the temperate and polar zones is also being augmented by the build-up of charge at the poles from KR85.

The strong tropical storms that form along the Equator are highly-charged systems. How far they travel from their birthplace along the Equator toward the poles is determined by two factors: The strength of the charge of the storm itself, and that of the pole that is attracting it. As KR85 builds up at the poles, these strong tropical storms are drawn farther from their normal home in the tropics and sub-tropics toward the poles, bringing with them tropical heat, as well as more frequent and stronger storm activity to areas not formerly accustomed to such weather.

The observations of decrease of ice in the polar zones and more frequent and severe storms in the polar and temperate regions is only one more symptom of the build-up of charge at the poles caused by radioactivity from the nuclear industry.

Another side-effect of particular consequence in the Arctic is the damaging ultra-violet radiation that has been observed reaching the surface of the earth from above. It seems to be from beyond the atmosphere, and is conventionally thought to be from outer space, and reaching the surface because of a thinning of a filtering layer of ozone, but is actually being produced in the upper atmosphere by the interaction between the influx of charge of the Wilson Current, and the layer of KR85 that now exists there.

The conventional explanations being thought up to explain what is happening in the atmosphere fall far short of the mark. So far, none of the mainstream scientific community has dared to mention the possible role of radioactivity in causing the breakdown of the climatic regime that has prevailed for the last 5,000 years or so. A large part of the reason for this glaring omission is the lack of any mechanism understood by orthodox meteorology that could account for the observations.

There IS a well-worked out theory that explains all the manifold observations, and is supported by enough solid evidence to be convincing to anyone who examines it objectively. But the history of this theory, along with the personal reputation of it's originator, ensures that it will not be examined at all. That, however, is a defect in the education of the scientific community, not a defect in the theory.

Posted by 肖雲良 (Xiao Yunliang) on 01 Apr 2012

Promotion of nuclear power is one of the most blind and cruel actions possible. It represents a fundamental denial of the exothermic destructive and endothermic beneficial energies of nature, the cycle of life and the harmony of the earth organism.

Also, please consider this:


Posted by Consider on 04 Apr 2012

A big missed opportunity in nuclear power would have been to place reactors in submarine hulls. This would allow the entire reactor to return to a central factory for decommissioning, and it minimizes the environmental impact & water usage. It is not a new idea, but rather is a path we did not take that would have been much better than what we did do.

The cost of decommissioning a reactor can easily exceed the cost of building it.

Posted by roger faulkner on 04 Apr 2012

Sixty years on from Hiroshima and nothing it seems can dim the deep fear brought on by the nuclear fuel cycle. I don't think any amount of time will. I can say that, but also know that we love our cars yet they kill and maim people every year in the hundreds of thousands. Human nature is strange indeed.

It would be very helpful if the nuclear debate were to split it into two separate debates. Orthodox Nuclear (as per the 400 or so nuclear reactors in the world today) and New Nuclear (as per some promising new technologies, including thorium and Integrated Fast Reactors). None of the latter are yet quite at commercial stage but appear to be very close to it.

Persisting with attempts to make people feel comfortable with uranium based fission reactors is a lost cause. One serious accident per 20 years is enough to lock in a belief that such technology is intolerably unsafe.

It is also rather silly to be investing in such old technology when newer, much safer, nuclear technologies appear to be on the cusp of production.

Opponents of nuclear fission should be asked a simple question: "Would you still oppose nuclear power if an alternative nuclear technology is proven to be viable and safe and ready to go into production?"

Posted by Chris Harries on 05 Apr 2012

I agree with Chris Harries, we need to separate uranium from thorium.

Thorium has promise not only as base load production for electricity but also as transportation. A proof-of-concept reactor was built in 1954 at Oak Ridge called the Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE). After the success of the ARE, the reactor was baselined for the nuclear aircraft project, but the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles led to cancellation of the nuclear aircraft in 1960. ~ energyfromthorium dot com/history.html

This means that thorium can potentially be used to power not ownly aircraft but trains and ships. Laser Power Systems (LPS), is working on a turbine/electric generator system that is powered by “an accelerator-driven thorium-based laser.” that could be used to power cars! ~ txchnologist dot com/2011/the-thorium-laser-the-completely-plausible-idea-for-nuclear-cars

The best part is that thorium reactor will automatically shut down in the event of an accident and it can "burn up" the nuclear wasted from the Uranium powered plants.

If we want to continue as an industrialized society we have no choice but to pursue something like thorium. Wind and solar are erratic and just not "energy dense" enough to power civilization.

The other option is subsistence level farming using animal power, child labor and 70\% to 90\% of the workforce. Without diesel/ gasoline and factory made farm machinery it is 250 to 300 man hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat from 5 acres instead of 3 man-hours from 3 acres of land

I rather put up with the problems from industrialization than live a short brutal life.

Posted by Gaia on 10 Apr 2012

"I agree with Chris Harries, we need to separate uranium from thorium." (Gaia).

Thorium is not fissile, and requires uranium or plutonium to jump start the reaction. Some sources place this start-up inventory (enriched to 20\% U-235 or 12\% U-233) in range of 3,000
kg/GWe, and an estimated cost of around $0.7 billion (at $240/g).


So it appears the cost of uranium is a major consideration for this type of reactor. This problems are compounded in a graphite moderated LFTR, since the reaction has to be shut down every year or so to replace the graphite (which breaks down with neutron bombardment). Graphite also contributes to this reactor having a slightly positive feedback coefficient (against claims to the contrary):


So there is a lot of hype about this reactor, but very little in the way substantive science, modeling, or testing (and certainly not for the demanding 40-60 year operating lifetimes in civilian nuclear energy sector). In addition, the experimental reactor at Oak Ridge was a uranium fueled MSR, and not a LFTR. So the current serious development interest in this design is close to 0, and is unlikely to change in the near term. Everyone likes to cite the Chinese research effort on LFTR. But this program was a pet project of the son of former President, Jiang Zemin, and he was recently removed from his post at Chinese Academy of Sciences after a massive bribery and embezzlement scandal. So counting this as a viable development pathway is a bit of a non-starter at the moment.


Posted by EL on 11 Apr 2012

One of the greatest threat to humankind survival and progress is losing faith on science. As long as people as Spencer Weart will be heard as a scientist, that's the risk. Where is the rationale in saying that if we don't build a nuclear plant we must build the equivant using fossil fuel? Did he discover a phisic law obliging us to a exponentially growing use of energy? Are we slaves of the nuclear and fossil fuel industry? Even accepting such a vision I would opt for a warmer planet as scientific evidence suggests that during warmer eras was more livable than during cold ones, while the use of nuclear energy increasingly and unavoidably contaminates the planet for periods far beyond what our civilization is expected to last.

As a scientist he sells us certainties (harms to human health caused by nuclear energy) as equivalent to invented ones (harms from living in a warmer planet tell it to our ancestors freezing in the Ice Age!) hiding the fact that we can switch off at any moment fossil fuel plants while nuclear plant will be there forever once switched on. Unfair and revolting. "Droughts in key agricultural regions"? Paleonthological evidence tell us that warmer eras were wetter than cold ones how will the next one be dryer? Without considering that retreating permafrost will allow agricultural expansion on a huge belt of land in Canada and Russia.

People have always been moving from place to place according to climatic economic and social changes without our species and civilization suffered on the contrary history shows that we have gained from such experiences. So, what's the problem if my children (yes because rising sea-level according to the most catastrophic scenarios will be so slow that I will be able to sun-bathing on the same beach for the rest of my life) will have to move to the hill? While I had no escape when suddenly the Chernobyl cloud came on me and contaminated for ever the soil. More and more land, water and air is contaminated (and cannot be otherwise): where will we have to move?

Real criminal psicology, trying to acquit nuclear crimes saying that fossil fuel ones are the actual crimes as a lawyer Spencer would have not progressed much...

Posted by Carlo Castellani on 15 Apr 2012

Nuclear energy (power) is neither safe, nor clean and not cheap at all. So far? But, with new and/or emerging sciences and technologies (bio-cognitivie/geoengineering/informative/nano) products, processes and materials we should be in much better position than today to cope with human made environmental problems. i.e. consumerism, lifestyle, values, and bad habits.

So, promote the responsible, sustainable research, development and innovation. RD&I.

Posted by NILE DE LEUT on 17 Apr 2012

What are you saying? That exsopure to radiation will cause immediate and obvious genetic changes. That no rabbits or anything else has ever been born or hatched with birth defects? I agree that the Japanese government has not truly been forthcoming about the radiation leakage. Considering their recent history (if you consider 1945 recent, they do) I am not surprised at their reticence. But I expected something more logical and scientific from you.

Posted by Aronse on 29 Apr 2012

Are you kidding me?? Fukushima is 40 times WORSE then Chernoble was....I dont know where you are geting your info from, seems maybe the twilight zone? But Fukushima is STILL spewing radiation into the ground water, sea, and air...MOX fuel EXPLODED and landed up to 30 miles from the plant...number 4 is about to fall over and start an extinction protocol beyond anything living could survive through...and TEPCO and Japan's government are saying it will take years, perhaps 20 years, or more, to remove current spent fuel rods and find the China Syndrome "fuel" that is buring into the ground from 3 reactors that BLEW UP. Please publish this so that people around the world will know the truth about Fukushima....

I found a website that is against the media black-out fukushimadiary.com or just use your browser to look for yourself...this is very real and affects the whole world...Vermont Dairy are testing positive for radiation in the milk, hot particles were found, after the disaster, in Boston...yes people that the USA...and many other countires are finding radiation levels elevated above "back ground" radiation levels...know what the governments are doing?? Raising the "normal level of allowable radiation levels" instead of warning their citizens....yeah, nothing to see here, move along people...go back to watching the Simpson's....so tired of the lies!

Posted by Sue Allen on 28 Jun 2012

It's time the people responsible for the panic and terror at Fukushima were called to account. The response to the Chiba oil refinery fire which burned for 12 days and spewed carcinogens into the surrounding regions wasn't panic and terror. Why is one carcinogen at low levels worthy of panic and another isn't? The Japanese used to have 20,000 bowel cancers annually, but with the westernisation of the diet and the introduction of red and processed meat, they now have more than 100,000 new bowel cancers every year. Why is there no panic and terror over 80,000 additional cancers each year (3 million over the next 40) but panic over a minor increase in background radiation? Blame Helen Caldicott and the rest of the anti-nuclear fear mongers. If radiation was treated rationally, the evacuees of Fukushima would have been living their lives normally ... drinking, smoking, breathing diesel fumes and eating themselves to death like everybody else in Japan. We don't have time to worry about trivial risks like minor increases in radiation, we have much bigger problems to worry about and the anti-nuclear movement is fast become the biggest friend the coal industry has in avoiding significant action on climate change. Who needs climate deniers when you have the anti-nuclear brigade doing their job for them?

Posted by Geoff Russell on 08 Aug 2012

We here in Finland are living above 60 degrees North and sun is going down at 15 hours. Sun energy is not a big opportunity, but nuclear is.

Thus Finland has selected nuclear power and four plant in operation, has one plant under construction and is just now evaluating bids for the next two plants. If all these three new plants will be in operation by 2025, Finland will number one country in nuclear power generation. It will generate 11.000 kWh nuclear per capita. Finland will have six plant in a country with 5,5 million people or more than one plant per million.

Nuclear will definitely need until 2050, because the renewables can really make big change only after 2050. If new nuclear plants will not be constructed, CO2-emissions of the world will be increasing until 2050. Nuclear has 30 \% share of electricity in EU and 20 percent in US. Stopping this 30 percent will mean huge investments in coal and gas plants and huge CO2-emissions.

The new plants in Finland will have core catcher to cope with reactor core melt down accidents. Actually the first core catcher was built in China, in Tianwan 1 and 2 plants, using Finnish engineering.

Nuclear plants have been a success story in Finland, while the companies owning the plants are very profitable and have collected also money for spent fuel disposal. All the spent fuel will be disposed in copper capsules 400 meters underground. The Olkiluoto disposal plant will start capsuling fuels in 2020 as the first plant in the world. The average electricity prices in Finland are 20 percent lower than the average prices in EU.

Finland will try to be a coal free state by 2025 in electricity generation. Nuclear share will be 50 percent by then. Renewable share is now 24 percent and will be 36 percent by 2025.

I hope that the new EPA emissions standard 1000 lb/MWh, will be adopted in all states in US. It will make US coal free by 2040. If US is following the Finnish model, they should have 300 operating nuclear plants by then. It would not be impossible task, only 10 plant in a year starting from 2020.

Posted by Asko Vuorinen on 27 Nov 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
spencer r. weartABOUT THE AUTHOR
After receiving a doctorate in physics and astrophysics, Spencer Weart worked on solar physics before he turned to the study of the history of science. From 1974 until his retirement in 2009, he was director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics. He has published numerous papers and books, including The Discovery of Global Warming and The Rise of Nuclear Fear, which was published last year.



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The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.

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Proponents of this nuclear technology argue that it can eliminate large stockpiles of nuclear waste and generate huge amounts of low-carbon electricity. But as the battle over a major fast-breeder reactor in the UK intensifies, skeptics warn that fast-breeders are neither safe nor cost-effective.

Japan at a Crossroads Over
Nuclear Revival or Greener Path

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Japan has idled all 50 of its nuclear reactors. While the central government and business leaders are warning a prolonged shutdown could spell economic doom, many Japanese and local officials see the opportunity for a renewable energy revolution.


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