I was wrong about nuclear power

Many years ago, a young idealistic Physics graduate set out to make the world a better place. He perceived that one of the greatest technological challenges facing his generation was the need to replace fossil fuels with a clean energy source, to avoid the impending disaster of global warming. He saw the obvious solution to that problem – nuclear power – and decided to dedicate his working life to making nuclear power cheap, safe and abundant.

That young man was, of course, me. On leaving university, I joined the UK Atomic Energy Authority and spent 10 years studying the environmental impact of nuclear power. During that time, my idealism slowly faded, and I eventually realised that I had been wrong about nuclear power.

Nuclear power wasn’t going to provide cheap, abundant and clean energy in the future. Instead a terrifying alternative was emerging.

In place of a narrative in which technology was regarded as the solution to the world’s problems, it was being portrayed increasingly as part of the problem. More worryingly, the underlying cause of everything that was wrong with the world was supposed to be us, humans.

As the 21st century approached, the “environmental” movement was winning the propaganda war. Hollywood movies like The China Syndrome didn’t help. After all, who would you trust – an earnest Jane Fonda, or a bunch of guys wearing spectacles and lab coats?

By the time I quit my job, the UK government, while continuing to advocate nuclear power in principle, was quietly and timidly scrapping all its nuclear projects. Italy had held a referendum in 1987, voting to end the country’s nuclear power programme with immediate effect. In 2000, the Green alliance government in Germany announced the end of Germany’s nuclear programme. In 2011, Switzerland decided on a slow phase-out of the technology. In the United States, plentiful shale gas is leading to the cancellation of most proposed nuclear builds.

Now, in 2015, the world has largely turned its back on nuclear power. Instead, we are struggling to harness wind, hydroelectric and solar power, using technology that is only just beginning to deliver, has its own environmental problems, and is going to be very expensive.

As of last year, hydroelectric power stations (dams) generated 16% of the world’s electricity, wind power generated just 4%, with solar generating a measly 0.5%.

70 years after its invention, nuclear power accounts for just 13% of global electricity production. Around two thirds of electricity is still produced by burning fossil fuels. Worse, no one expects fossil fuels to be phased out for decades.

Tragically, fossil fuels could have been retired half a century ago, if the environmental movement hadn’t opposed nuclear power.

Nuclear power still thrives in a few countries – France, South Korea, and China, for example. In fact, France generates around 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, and fossil fuels account for less than 10%, making France probably the cleanest country in the world when it comes to its energy sector.

France is also the world’s largest exporter of electricity, selling clean, safe, nuclear-generated electricity to Britain.

Contrast that with dirty old Italy, which, having closed all its nuclear plants back in 1987, now generates 80% of its electricity by burning fossil fuels, imports more energy than any other European country,  and has one of the highest electricity prices in Europe.

So the alternative to nuclear power wasn’t renewables, it was burning fossil fuels. That’s what support for the “environmental” movement led to – CO2 and global warming.

But wait. Isn’t nuclear power dangerous?

The nuclear industry has made mistakes. There have been a number of accidents, most notably at Windscale in the UK, Three Mile Island in the United States, the Russian Chernobyl accident, and also the more recent Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Disasters certainly. But how many people died as a result?

No one was killed as a result of the Fukushima, Three Mile Island or Windscale events, despite hysterical claims that you may see on social media. Chernobyl resulted in the direct deaths of 31 people. In addition, the World Health Organization estimates that ultimately the total number of deaths may rise to 4,000 due to long-term effects of radiation (Greenpeace claims that more than 200,000 people will die.)

These 4,000 deaths are tragic and regrettable, but let’s put them into context.

An OECD report states that deaths from air particulate pollution due to burning fossil fuels kills as many as 300,000 people per year globally.

A recent study by NASA indicated that nuclear power prevented an average of over 1.8 million deaths worldwide between 1971-2009.

So why do people fixate on nuclear power? James Hammitt of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston writes, “From coal we have a steady progression of deaths year after year that are invisible to us, things like heart attacks, whereas a large-scale nuclear release is a catastrophic event that we are rightly scared about.”

What about renewables? They surely don’t kill anyone? Wrong. When, in 1975, about 30 hydroelectric dams in central China failed due to severe flooding, an estimated 230,000 people died.

I’m no longer angry or bitter that the world turned its back on nuclear power. That battle was lost a long time ago. But I do regret the fact that 25 years after I began my journey, thousands of coal-fired power stations are still in use around the world (China is building new coal-fired stations at the rate of one a week.)

I still sometimes dream of a world in which climate change was a theoretical possibility studied by climate scientists, instead of a stark reality. I dream of a world in which millions were lifted out of poverty by plentiful and safe electricity, and the world was safer as a result of nuclear power, not more dangerous.

And I dream of a world in which I was right about nuclear power, and the “environmental” campaigners and the millions of people they persuaded of their cause, were wrong.

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30 responses to “I was wrong about nuclear power

  1. It’s weird how people perceive risk. How many hundreds of thousands of people die annually in car accidents? Probably, more than die from nuclear power accidents. Yet, nobody is suggesting to ban driving, cars, and highways as dangerous. Thousands of people die from the common flu each year, a highly contagious disease. Yet, there is no panic about the flu. Instead, there is paranoia about ebola virus that killed (oh, my God!) 5 people in the U.S. and Europe out of 24 (twenty-four) treated. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/07/31/world/africa/ebola-virus-outbreak-qa.html.

    Now, how many public schools are there in the U.S.? About 100,000 (http://www.infoplease.com/askeds/number-us-public-schools.html). In the U.S., there has been one school shooting every 5 weeks in the 18 months after Sandy Hook (74 total) (http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/11/us/school-shootings-cnn-number/). If we methodically organize one shooting every 5 weeks in each of the 98,000 schools, the same school will be hit every 9,397 years – that’s how “frequent” shootings are in any given school. And even if there is a shooting in a school, the number of victims is only few people out of hundreds. I’m not saying that nothing should be done to prevent these. But is there sufficient reason to be afraid to send my child to his school?

    My point is that the level of anxiety about these issues is way out of proportion. While much bigger risks such as dying in a car accident are almost completely ignored.

    • People are notoriously bad at understanding risk. As your examples show, people are genuinely afraid of things that pose negligible risk, yet are brazen about things that will almost certainly kill them (most of us will die from heart disease or cancer.)

  2. What about the waste; isn’t that aspect of nuclear energy still a grey area Steve, both in terms of cost and safety?

    • Excellent question, Hariod. The safety of radioactive waste was in fact the field I worked in for 10 years.

      In the UK, waste is reprocessed to extract useful products, some of which can be re-used as reactor fuel; some of it is used for medical applications. This technology could have been developed much further – for example, the UK was a world leader in “breeder” reactors, which actually created more nuclear fuel than they consumed and were therefore extremely efficient and also vastly reduced the amount of waste produced – but this technology was scrapped in 1994 as the government withdrew funding for nuclear research and development.

      The dangerous waste (high level waste) is a very small percentage of the whole. In the UK, less than 0.1% of the total waste is categorised as high level. This waste is currently stored in secure facilities above ground. It is not particularly difficult to manage compared with many forms of toxic waste produced by industry; also its radioactivity reduces over time. However, it is the policy of most governments to seek long-term disposal of this waste in deep underground repositories. The design concept is typically an engineered repository perhaps 1km below ground in a stable geological system. The stability of natural uranium ore deposits underground for billions of years is sometimes used to illustrate the safety of such a system. I am personally not persuaded that this is better than long-term storage above ground, which would be much cheaper and allows the possibility of reprocessing the waste into fuel in the future..

      The bulk of radioactive waste (more than 95%) is low level waste. This is typically any material that has come into contact with a radioactive source – lab coats, medical equipment, smoke detectors, glow-in-the-dark watches etc. It isn’t particularly hazardous or difficult to deal with.

  3. I still think solar,and wind power are very under exploited.

    • I agree, and since we have thrown away the nuclear option, let’s hope that these can be made to work! Sadly, however, wind and solar will never generate 100% of our electricity requirements.

      Wind power is only economically viable in exposed windy locations, such as Scottish mountains, or offshore. It is usually opposed by environmental campaigners. Also wind power doesn’t generate reliable, predictable energy, and can therefore only be used as a relatively small component in a mix of energy sources.

      The cost of solar power is approaching parity with fossil fuels (at least before oil prices fell this year), but only for large-scale plants. Putting solar panels on people’s rooftops is hopelessly uneconomic, due to the high installation costs. There are other problems with solar – it generates electricity only during summer days, whereas most electricity is required in winter, and often after dark. The UK is far from ideal when it comes to solar power – large-scale plants in North Africa may supply our electricity in the future, but this will obviously require massive investment in infrastructure. So far nobody is talking about this, so the days of significant solar power are still decades away.

      I recently signed a petition in favour of the development of a solar park on farmland a few miles from where I live. Environmental campaigners had persuaded most of the local residents to oppose the development …

  4. The only nuclear plant we have here is in Bataan which never went into operation because it sits on a tectonic fault and volcano. What made our government choose that location is something I would no longer want to know 🙂 . They said It would take around $1 billion to make the plant operational — an amount which, of course, is impossible for people like us to have. So the last I heard: it might simply be turned into a tourist attraction.

    You mentioned very good points as to the advantages of harnessing nuclear power over the alternatives, Steve. Also, except for Chernobyl, I learned there are really not that many casualties caused by nuclear disasters compared to coal plant deaths annually.

    And because we don’t have such a power plant, electricity is unfortunately more expensive here than the more affluent South Korea.

    • I meant: Because we don’t use our nuclear power plant, the price of electricity here is higher than in South Korea that makes use of one.

      • I don’t know anything about the history of your nuclear power station, but clearly its location doesn’t sound ideal. South Korea is keen on nuclear power, and in fact I spend a month working in Seoul and Taejon. Happy days.

        • Yes, I read somewhere you’d been to SK — working for their power needs, I guess.

          The nearest I came to anything nuclear is belonging to a nuclear family.

          Steve, you’ve already had three consecutive posts having the title “I Was Wrong…”
          Now you have me worrying with your next post….

  5. A nuclear family – yes, that expression used to worry me, until I found out what it meant!
    For my next post I’ve been trying to think of something else I was wrong about, but I just can’t think of a damn thing 😉

  6. It’s tragic how we went from a world in which science and technology were viewed as saviors of humanity that would lift us out of the darkness to the present state of willful ignorance. I suspect that part of the issue is the increasingly complexity — people feel they will never understand it, so they don’t even try.

    What chemists still refer to as an NMI or NMRI machine is strictly called in more public settings (such as hospitals) an MRI machine. Because patients tend to freak out at the idea of being put in a machine with “Nuclear” in the name.

    As you suggest, back in the 1950s and 1960s we had a different take. Nuclear energy was a new magic (that brought us the Hulk and Spiderman), but fear-mongering by fearful, and often ignorant, groups destroyed all hope of its success. And it’s a damn shame.

    It’s happening again with GMO and even with wind power. In the latter case, people protest that windmills kill birds. Which is true. Cats kill far more, so let’s kill all the cats. Yeah, that’ll work.

    Sucks to be human sometimes. 😦

    • Totally agree. GMO is another catastrophe waiting to happen – by which I mean the possibility that we may ban it. How many other life-saving technologies are going to get banned? It deeply saddens me. As agridzinsky pointed out, people generally don’t understand risk.

  7. There are better options than nuclear power though. I’ve given up on researching (from a medical perspective) alternatives because no one cares anymore. This world is on a trajectory of self destruction and what’s worse is that they want to destroy themselves. What we have to remember is that in all those incidents of nuclear plants, it was human mistakes that caused catastrophic consequences, but alas, most humans are stupid and lack rational thinking these days with a lack of moral values of ethical practice. My friends from France will tell you the same thing and that is why they are in the process of phasing out their nuclear programs. In the US, that is why there is a huge balk from health insurance companies. Breast cancer has risen over 300%, with increase in childhood cancers for living within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor. Also, you cannot get covered for home insurance if something was to leak. But as we can see from the studies of radioactive wolves from Chernobyl, only some wildlife are actually deformed. But we shouldn’t take their word for it! Just ask the people of Belarus and Ukraine and their offspring. You’re from the UK so I’m sure you are familiar with this charity. http://www.chernobyl-international.com/

    Just to let you know, as a healthcare practitioner, I was exposed to alot of radiation for over 18 years. I now have severe thyroid problems along with other health problems. But I’m sure that when they put the used rods into a 5 gallon plastic bucket and place it in the shed that glows green and snow never accumulates on it, HAS to be perfectly safe at the Duane Arnold Energy Center.

    • You say there are a lot of better alternatives to nuclear power, but you don’t say what they are. I’ve listed some problems with wind power and solar in one of my replies above. I’m not sure what you’re suggesting as a replacement for nuclear.
      I don’t agree that the world is on a trajectory to self destruction. I know that’s a popular view, but it isn’t my opinion. I also don’t agree that most people are stupid and lack ethics. I think that most people are in fact highly intelligent and ethical.
      The current socialist government in France has said a lot of strange things about nuclear power. I think they are playing to the gallery. Let’s see what they actually do. If they do phase out nuclear, they will increase their CO2 output and have more expensive electricity too.
      There are plenty of reasons why breast cancer may have risen in the US, principally increased life expectancy. Nuclear power is not one of the reasons. No scientific study has ever demonstrated such a link.

  8. You’re a better man than I am woman because I used to be positive. The last few years beat that the fuck out of me! Stupid, stupid people! I imagine that the reason there isn’t a report out there (and I had a past United Nations employee email me that you will never find a public report on this) is because the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Committee) won’t allow it but they don’t inspect the nuclear plants on military bases and they continue to let major issues go because the life of a nuclear plant in the US is 40 years with a possibility of a 20 year extension but to phase out nuclear completely will leave the US in the dark..literally. We are on a path dependence for coal. It would break down the system for we are not set up to depend on renewables and Big Oil and Coal wouldn’t allow it either because they get nice huge welfare subsidies from the government. Why else would the Koch brothers spend 1 billion on campaign ads in the last election? Now I get people asking me if I really wore bread bags on my shoes when I went to school, just because I’m from Iowa. How embarrassing! But my cynicism is my problem, not yours. Now don’t get me wrong. Nuclear is clean and would be great but it’s a sleeping monster. One wrong move or lack of planning and it can set off a chain reaction. I think the greatest quote I ever heard was from Mark Kelly at NASA, ‘None of us is as dumb as all of us’. And hearing my state lawmakers actually say, “The NRC wouldn’t approve of a unsafe nuclear plan” then passed the stupid law without consideration to a year long study done by a committee, suggested. Just shows that greed controls this world, not rationality. (electric company donated to campaign funds) What’s worse is, and this sickens me, that humans don’t learn from past mistakes. They just want to cover their ass instead of fess up to their mistakes. Human nature. It’s a wondrous thing. Now I respect your point of view on this topic (and I suppose all my research still makes me one of the dumb people) and like I said, you’re a better man than I am woman, but as for addressing other sources of energy… you’re a physics major. I’ll let you figure it out! 😉 I’ll even give you a clue… it’s in California and it involves science! =) (really not trying to be a smart ass… ok, maybe a little.. but 6+3=9 but so does 5+4)

    http://www.nirs.org/radiation/radhealth/radiationharm2pg.pdf

    http://www.nirs.org/radiation/radhealth/untalk2015.pdf

    http://www.propublica.org/article/nrc-waives-enforcement-of-fire-rules-at-nuclear-plants

    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/radioactive-leaks-found-at-75-of-us-nuke-sites/

    • I appreciate you engaging with me. However, those first three links are from campaigning groups, not independent scientific bodies. The CBS article states that although tritium has been detected in groundwater on nuclear sites, there has been no contamination of any public drinking supply.

      As for the NRC supposedly blocking all scientific reports, that sounds like conspiracy theory thinking, and in any case the NRC operates within the United States only. Similarly with the Big Oil and Big Coal comments. This is a global issue.

      Even if the claims of these articles really were true, the safety record of the nuclear industry (including Three Mile Island) speaks for itself, when you compare it objectively with coal, oil and gas. I’m not claiming that nuclear power is 100% safe, but that when you weigh up all the factors it is a better option than continuing to burn fossil fuels.

      Solar power would be great, and I am a big fan of solar, but it is still decades away on the scale necessary to replace fossil fuels. As I said in my article, the alternative to nuclear wasn’t solar. It was fossil fuels.

  9. An interesting post Steve. It seems like a lot of environmentalists have changed their mind about nuclear power, as have a lot of people as the threat of global warming has become clearer.

    Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about nuclear power, even today. It seems like our energy choices are beset with problems and, as in so many areas in life, we’re faced with trying to find the lesser of evils. Nuclear power is much better for the environment, until something catastrophic goes wrong, then entire regions become uninhabitable for centuries.

    But we have a world with 7 billion people in it, and growing. As the world develops, many people want the lifestyle of the advanced countries. Who are we in the west to deny it to them? But that lifestyle demands energy. It has to come from somewhere. It seems that humanity is faced with choosing which devil to deal with.

    Long term, the sun provides tens of thousands of times more energy than any other source. The trick is figuring out how to harness enough of it.

    • Long term, solar looks like a good option to me. But that could all go wrong too. It’s a lot further away than people realise. Even in the US, so far solar generates just half a percent of electricity needs.

      Moving to 100% renewables is going to involve massive construction of solar parks and wind farms, and guess who is going to oppose those developments? My guess – environmental campaigners.

      • You seem to have it out for environmentalists. In the US, I know a substantial part of the reason for the turn away from nuclear is more primal: lots of people (environmentalists or not) don’t want a nuclear plant anywhere near them. It makes getting a building permit virtually impossible since any plant would have to be near someone.

  10. Mr. Morris, It appears that I will need your help as I’ve jumped back into the sea of despair that is called politics. Can you email me at hesacontradiction@gmail.com? It looks like you may have an answer to a question of mine.

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