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Ten reasons not to nuke the climate

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Nuclear Monitor #792, 2 Oct 2014,

NM792. 4417 #1 − Too many reactors, not enough carbon reductions: Major studies (from MIT, Commission on Energy Policy, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, for example) agree that about 1,500−2,000 large new reactors would have to be built worldwide for nuclear power to make any meaningful dent in greenhouse emissions (less than 400 reactors now operate globally). If all of these reactors were used to replace coal plants, carbon emissions would drop by about 20% worldwide. If used entirely as new capacity instead of sustainable technologies like wind power, solar power, energy efficiency, etc., carbon emissions actually would increase.

#2 − Too much money: New reactors cost some US$7−15 billion (€5.5−11.8b) each. Construction of 1,500 new reactors would cost US$10.5−22.5 trillion (€8.3−17.7t). Use of resources of this magnitude would make it impossible to also implement more effective means of addressing global warming. Energy efficiency improvements, for example, are some seven times more effective at reducing greenhouse gases, per dollar spent, than nuclear power.

#3 − Too much time: Construction of 1,500 new reactors would mean opening a new reactor about once every two weeks, beginning today, for the next 60 years − an impossible schedule and even then too late to achieve necessary carbon reductions. Since reactors take 6−10 years to build (some U.S. reactors that began operation in the 1990s took more than 20 years), a nuclear climate plan is already years behind schedule and would fall farther behind. Addressing the climate crisis cannot wait for nuclear power.

#4 − New reactor designs: too slow, no demand: Some otherwise knowledgeable climate scientists advocate using new, supposedly safer, reactor designs as a climate solution. These untested designs, such as the IFR (Integral Fast Reactor), PBMR (Pebble Bed Modular Reactor), thorium reactors and others, including 'small modular reactors', won't help either. The designs − all of which have been around for decades − exist only on paper and it would take decades to bring them to commercial operation. The Generation IV International Forum says it will take "at least two or three decades before the deployment of commercial Gen IV systems" ... which is just what the industry was saying two or three decades ago.

Utilities show little interest in developing radically new reactor types. Their costs would be even higher than current reactor designs − one reason utilities aren't interested. Safety-wise, the designs are unproven and would require extensive and time-consuming testing before licensing. Waiting for such reactors to materialize would forestall much faster and cheaper climate solutions.

#5 − Too much waste: Operation of 1,500 or more new reactors would create the need for a new Yucca Mountain-sized radioactive waste dump somewhere in the world every 3-4 years. Yucca Mountain was under study for nearly 20 years and was dropped by President Obama as a non-viable waste solution. International efforts to site radioactive waste facilities are similarly behind schedule and face substantial public opposition. For this reason, some countries are attempting to increase reprocessing of nuclear fuel as a waste management tool − a dangerous and failed technology that increases proliferation risks.

#6 − Too little safety: Odds of a major nuclear disaster are said to be on the order of 1 in 10,000 reactor-years, but experience shows accidents occur even more frequently. Operation of some 1,500 reactors could result in a Fukushima-scale nuclear accident every five years − a price the world is not likely to be willing to pay. Over 250,000 people were displaced because of the Chernobyl disaster; over 150,000 people remain displaced because of the Fukushima disaster. With 1,500+ reactors, there would be millions of nuclear refugees at any point in time. And more reactors means more terrorist targets.

#7 − Too much bomb-making material: Operation of 1,500 or more new reactors would require a dozen or more new uranium enrichment plants. Over a 50-year lifespan, 1,500 reactors would produce over 20,000 tons of plutonium, enough to build over two million nuclear weapons. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change maps out a scenario whereby nuclear capacity would grow nine-fold to 3,300 gigawatts by 2100 and the accumulated plutonium inventory would rise to 50-100 thousand tonnes − enough to build 5−10 million nuclear weapons.

Former US Vice President Al Gore has neatly summed up the problem: "For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program. And if we ever got to the point where we wanted to use nuclear reactors to back out a lot of coal ... then we'd have to put them in so many places we'd run that proliferation risk right off the reasonability scale."

Running the proliferation risk off the reasonability scale brings us back to climate change − a connection explained by Alan Robock in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "By our calculations, a regional nuclear war ... using less than 0.3% of the current global arsenal would produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history and global ozone depletion equal in size to the current hole in the ozone, only spread out globally."

#8 − Nukes are not carbon-free: While atomic reactors themselves are not major emitters of greenhouse gases, the nuclear fuel chain produces significant greenhouse emissions. Besides reactor operation, the chain includes uranium mining, milling, processing, enrichment, fuel fabrication, and long-term radioactive waste storage, all of which are essential components of nuclear power. At each of these steps, transport, construction and operation of nuclear facilities results in greenhouse gas emissions.

Academic Benjamin Sovacool states: "To provide just a rough estimate of how much equivalent carbon dioxide nuclear plants emit over the course of their lifecycle, a 1,000 MW reactor operating at a 90 percent capacity factor will emit the equivalent of 1,427 tons of carbon dioxide every day, or 522,323 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. Nuclear facilities were responsible for emitting the equivalent of some 183 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2005."

Life-cycle greenhouse emissions from nuclear power will increase as relatively high-grade uranium ores are mined out. In 2009, mining consultancy firm CRU Group calculated that the average grade of uranium projects at the feasibility study stage around the world was 35% lower than the grades of operating mines, and that exploration projects had average grades 60% below existing operations.

#9 − Not suited for warming climates: Unlike solar power, nuclear power does not work well in warming climates. Reactors require vast quantities of water to keep their cores and steam condensers cool; changes in water levels, and even water temperatures, can greatly affect reactor operations. Reactors in the U.S. and elsewhere have been forced to close during heat waves, when they're needed the most. Ever-stronger storms, like Hurricane Sandy, also threaten to inundate both coastal and inland reactors. More frequent and more powerful tornados, ice storms and related loss-of-power accidents, and other indicators of climate change also imperil reactors. The Fukushima accident was caused primarily by loss-of-power, not damage from the earthquake/tsunami. Rising sea levels threaten coastal reactors with flooding even without mega-storms.

#10 − A nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system is safer, cleaner, cheaper and faster at reducing carbon emissions: Just a few years ago, solar and wind power weren't competitive with either nuclear power or fossil fuels. Now, both are usually cheaper than the polluting power choices. Increasingly, it is both feasible and economical for homeowners to install their own solar power plants on their rooftops. Smart grids, distributed generation and other 21st century technologies enable the large-scale use of renewables despite their intermittent nature. And advances in battery and other electricity storage technologies mean that both rooftop solar and larger-scale renewable power plants increasingly and affordably provide power 24/7. Numerous studies show conclusively that a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system is both attainable and affordable before mid-century.


Nuclear Information and Resource Service, 2014, 'Nuclear Power and Climate: Why Nukes Can't Save the Planet',

Choose Nuclear Free, 2011, 'Nuclear power and climate change',