Today’s post is by frequent un-Denial visitor and friend Monk who does a wonderful job of explaining why nuclear energy is not a useful response to overshoot.
With increasing energy prices and sanctions on Russia, people are once again considering how we can power the global industrial machine with significantly less oil and gas. Alongside this, environmentalists are getting more savvy in spotting the critical problems with the likes of wind and solar and other green hopium nonsense (green hydrogen anyone?). But for some reason, many people struggle to make the final step and admit that nuclear is not going to save us from peak oil and / or climate change.
In this article, I would like to briefly layout what I see as the high-level problems with nuclear. This is just a summary of my own personal reasons for why I’m not convinced. It is by no means a thorough technical analysis!
What I’d like us to consider is this: is it DENIAL stopping our smart and critical thinkers from admitting the problems with nuclear? People who do become aware of the problems with our system tend to jump to nuclear as a last bastion of hope. Modern commentators like to tell themselves nice stories about nuclear. This prevents them from having to seriously consider energy collapse. How often have you heard these affirmations?
- Nuclear energy is cheap
- Nuclear energy is safe
- Nuclear energy is clean and green
- Nuclear energy is a low carbon energy source
- Nuclear energy can meet our energy needs when fossil fuels run out (peak oil)
- New innovations will make nuclear energy better, such as micro plants, newer generations, sustained fusion etc.
We shouldn’t just believe in nuclear like it’s a fairy godmother who is going to save us from our poor energy planning. We should thoroughly interrogate claims about nuclear through the lenses of environment, energy, economy, and safety.
Nuclear energy may have a negative energy return
If we accept money (currency) as a proxy for energy units, then it is pretty clear that nuclear plants are incredibly energy expensive to plan, build, maintain, and decommission. Nuclear plants are some of the most expensive projects undertaken. The capital costs are horrendous. What that should tell you is it takes a shed load of energy just to build a nuclear power plant.
To see if this upfront energy spend is worth it, we need to see how much energy we get back. Utility providers will look at costs as a ‘cost per electricity unit’. If you compare nuclear to other electricity sources, you are spending a lot more to get nuclear. Here is an example of that type of comparison looking at just the capital cost per kilowatt:
|Type||Capital cost per kilowatt (kW)|
|Nuclear||$7,675 to $12,500|
|Coal plant||$3,000 to $8,400|
|Gas combined||$700 to $1,300|
Source (well worth a read): https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/economic-aspects/economics-of-nuclear-power.aspx
By the time we factor in all the other costs associated with nuclear – that other electricity generation doesn’t have – I’m not convinced nuclear is generating a net return at all. If that’s true (I’m happy to be wrong), you might ask why countries continue to build them? A few possibilities include:
- Accepting burning existing fossil fuels now to get longer lasting consistent electricity in the future.
- To support ongoing research.
- To support the military.
I often hear pro-nuclear people talk about how much energy we can get from such a small volume of uranium. I think that is disingenuous considering all the energy we have to burn in setting up a plant before we even get a single unit of energy from uranium.
Please note that net energy studies are notoriously difficult, because it’s up to the researcher how much of the supply chain and lifecycle they factor in. That’s why I find looking at currency a useful way to approximate EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). Of course, the nuclear industry will say they generate a very positive EROEI. Here’s a good example with references: https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/energy-and-the-environment/energy-return-on-investment.aspx. However, academic “meta-analysis of EROI values for nuclear energy suggests a mean EROI of about 14:1 (n of 33 from 15 publications)” (Hall et al., 2014) NB this was looking at traditional nuclear only.
Nuclear produces electricity, not liquid energy, not coal, and not gas
Our predicament is not one of electricity, but of diesel, natural gas, and coal. These are critical energy and resource sources that cannot be replaced by electricity (or at least not with a positive energy return). A couple of simple examples:
- We can’t make silicon wafers or industrial steel without coal.
- We can’t move stuff around or dig it out of the ground without diesel.
- We also have the issue that the world vehicle fleet is already built and requires petrol or diesel for the most part. There are no longer enough minerals left to build an entirely new electric vehicle fleet – a fact that surprising few anti-car new urbanist types are unaware of.
- Natural gas provides us with nitrogen fertilizer (essential for feeding billions of people in the modern agricultural system) and plastics with many uses.
Another challenge is that if nuclear was to replace all energy from fossil fuels, we would need a better way to store excess energy. Although nothing like the intermittency problems of wind and solar, nuclear has a related type of problem in that it likes to always be running and producing a steady-ish amount of electricity. Currently this doesn’t matter where nuclear is part of the total energy mix, but if it were the bulk of the energy mix, storage would become a major consideration. There are a whole lot of issues with electricity storage that have been well-explained in the issues with wind and solar, namely finite amount of materials to build batteries, expense, and battery storage capacity.
One potential upside of nuclear energy could be to replace natural gas as the main electricity generator that balances out wind and solar intermittency. But due to the costs of nuclear compared to gas this hasn’t been done. Moreover, gas generation is preferred because it is easier to switch off and on.
Nuclear is entirely dependent on fossil fuels
A nuclear power plant could not even be built without fossil fuels:
- Coal to make the steel
- Diesel to mine the uranium
- Diesel to mine the sand for concrete
- Diesel to mine the copper to make the electric components
- Gas to make the plastics for componentry and systems
- Gas to make the food to feed the workers
- I could go on and make this a very long list, but hopefully you get the point.
Because building a nuclear power plant is impossible without fossil fuels, that also means we will not build new nuclear power plants after the end of oil. Just like wind turbines and solar panels cannot make more of themselves, neither can a nuclear reactor.
Nuclear is not zero emissions
Obviously to build a nuclear power plant you are going to need a lot of diesel-powered plant and equipment. There is also concrete to factor in, which is a massive emissions source, accounting for approximately 8% of total global emissions.
With all those fossil fuels going into making a nuclear power plant, it should be obvious that nuclear is not and will never be net “zero emissions”. The focus on operating or tailpipe emissions is pointless when you’re still making an overall net positive addition to emissions. And arguably the world already has more than enough electricity, so building nuclear is possibly a complete waste of emissions.
Inputs to nuclear power plants are also reaching peak
As the capital costs suggest, nuclear energy plants are massive construction projects. They require vast raw materials – all of which have their own supply limitations. It is not just oil that is reaching peak, but many other raw inputs from copper to even boring old sand. Yes, peak sand is a thing. If you look at a picture of a nuclear plant, you’ll see a lot of concrete. That is sand! Concrete also requires other raw materials including calcium, silicon, iron, and aluminium. Is there even enough sand left in the world to build enough nuclear power plants to meet our energy needs? And the concrete needs will still be there for a hypothetical fusion plant, or any such other “innovative” nuclear power generation.
The story is the same for any other rare (or getting rare) earth element. There’s approximately 17 years left of zinc, 21 for silver, 35 for nickel and 64 for cobalt. Even if these numbers are wrong, it still shows that physical limits are approaching. This provides a real limit to the number of nuclear plants that it is even feasible to build. Moreover, if our system is going to rely on more electrified plant and equipment, these minerals will run out much sooner.
Uranium is finite
It’s kind of ironic that some people see nuclear as a solution to peak oil when the actual feed for nuclear is also reaching peak. How much proven uranium reserves are out there is hotly debated. Really, I don’t care because if there’s 10 years left or 100 years, it’s the same result – our industrial system runs out of power. Apparently, proven uranium reserves would last 90 years at the current rate of use (Murphy., 2021 he has lots of references).
What we can know for certain is that uranium will peak at some point and then reach a diminishing point of return where it is no longer economically viable to get it out of the ground. Bear in mind, most (some?) of the value in mining it is for weapons – with electricity just being the side gig!
Uranium is often in hard-to-get areas (including Russia, now embargoed). We can’t mine the uranium out of the ground once we run out of diesel, which would put the end of uranium to 40 years, not 90. The only hopium here is to hope they’ll invent some amazing electricity-powered mining plant and equipment, but then we are back to the peak mineral problem. For now, we are stuck with diesel and the associated carbon emissions.
Making nuclear power plants degrades the environment. This includes:
- Mining all the materials required.
- Burning all the diesel, gas, and coal in the manufacturing and construction phases.
- Building all the roads and parking required for the plant.
- And polluting the environment for hundreds of thousands of years with radioactive material that causes birth defects, genetic degradation, cancer, and death.
Michael Dowd regularly asks us to contend with the question of radioactive waste. What right do we present day humans have to pollute the world for thousands of years, just so we can run another dishwasher? It is highly likely that some, if not most, nuclear reactors will meltdown, because they will not have been safely decommissioned due to peak oil production. What an inheritance for our descendants, if we have any left!
What do we do with the waste?
Nuclear waste is incredibly dangerous to human health and the environment. Waste can also be utilised by terrorists (or bad state actors) to create a dirty bomb. So based on these problems, we need to be very careful where and how we store the waste. Not surprisingly, this is another thing humans seem determined to f-up. For starters, a lot is stored at or near sea level – great for getting water to keep it cool – not so great when you get a sea-based disaster. Sea water corrodes infrastructure at a faster rate, increasing the likelihood of failure of the waste containment. Plus, what happens with rising sea levels from climate change?
When digging more into this topic, you’ll see humans are running out of places to put this waste and the costs of waste-storage projects are increasing. This makes it less likely that a company will be 100% focussed on quality for a capex project that generates no returns.
Alice Friedemann has argued that burying nuclear waste should be a top priority, as after peak oil production, oil will be rationed to agriculture and other essential services. Spent fuel from nuclear lasts a very long time. According to Archer (2008): “… there are components of nuclear material that have a long lifetime, such as the isotopes plutonium 239 (24,000 year half-life), thorium 230 (80,000 years), and iodine 129 (15.7 million years). Ideally, these substances must be stored and isolated from reaching ground water until they decay, but the lifetimes are so immense that it is hard to believe or to prove that this can be done”.
Once the containment for nuclear waste starts to degrade, the waste can leak into ground water, contaminating drinking water and getting into the food system. Where waste gets into the ocean, the currents can travel it all over the globe. This is happening in our lifetime, forget about a thousand years from now.
Are nuclear plants really safe?
Taken at face value statistically, nuclear plants are very safe. But I think this is a sneaky statistic because this is old data from when nuclear plants were young and well-resourced. We really don’t know how the safety stats will hold up as the plants age out. Once they are over 40 years old, the risk of disaster is much higher. This risk is heightened by very old systems and componentry and the specialised nuclear workforce retiring and not being replaced.
Many nuclear plants are built close to the sea, exposing them to natural risks including sea level rise, tsunamis, typhons / hurricanes, and erosion. Near misses are surprisingly common, often a result of human error and the just mentioned old systems. There is evidence that significant near misses are underreported officially, leading to misconceptions about the safety risks posed.
There have been two major nuclear power plant disasters that I’m sure you are familiar with. The first is the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl where a design flaw, triggered ironically by a safety test, led to a reactor meltdown. The second was the 2011 Fukushima disaster, where an earthquake-triggered tsunami damaged the emergency diesel generators, leading to a loss of electric power. By the way, look there’s another essential use of fossil fuels in operating nuclear plants!
Here are two minor anecdotes to show you the environmental outcomes. Following the Chernobyl disaster, a farm in Scotland had all their new-born lambs born without eyes and they had to be culled. As a result of Fukushima, across the Pacific, there is plenty of scientific evidence of radioactive contamination in fish and shellfish – tasty!
When we look at total confirmed human deaths from these nuclear incidents, we are looking at around 100 people. Total deaths from COVID-19 thus far is around 6.6 million. So how can we say nuclear is unsafe? Well, what the official incident deaths don’t tell us is how many people are dying from cancers years after a nuclear incident. Moreover, there’s little incentive for a government to try and track each death that could be attributable to a nuclear disaster – that will only make them look bad. Considering nuclear waste is toxic for 100,000s of years, we can’t even account for the untold future suffering of humans and non-humans.
Maybe the initial risks of nuclear have been overstated, but what would happen if most or all of them failed? For example, a risk that you barely ever hear mentioned is if multiple reactors were hit by an EMP or solar flare? If the grid is wrecked, so are the nuclear reactors. Maybe that might never happen, but it does seem likely that most plants won’t be properly decommissioned (due to peak oil), which will see most of them melting down over this century.
Nuclear plants are a target for terrorism and potentially could be used to inflict massive damage to people and the environment. From Alice Friedemann: Plutonium waste needs to be kept away from future terrorists and dictators for the next 30,000 years. But world-wide there’s 490 metric tons of separated plutonium at military and civilian sites, enough to make more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. Plutonium and highly enriched uranium are located at over 100 civilian reactor plants. In addition, there’s 1,400 tons of highly enriched uranium world-wide. A crude nuclear bomb can be made from as little as 40 to 60 kilograms of U-235, or roughly 28,000 nuclear bombs.
Decommissioning is fraught with challenges
Decommissioning is essential as once plants age out, they become too radioactive and are likely to decay. You would then get a full or partial meltdown. Like everything else to do with nuclear, decommissioning too is a very expensive and lengthy process, often exceeding budgets. Decommissioning also requires experienced nuclear engineers who are retiring. Younger engineers no longer see nuclear as a viable career path, so the next generation of skilled nuclear workers is not there. As the nuclear plants reach the end of their design life, it will get harder and more expensive to safely decommission them. And when has a large corporate ever been good at cleaning up after itself?! Moreover, us poor taxpayers will be increasingly impoverished by peak oil economic destruction, leaving governments with less funds to pick up after the energy companies.
We might ask, where is the proof that decommissioning is happening currently and where are the government budgets put aside for decommissioning? Countries like France and the USA are also delaying decommissioning plants at the moment, possibly worried about electricity shortages and unwilling to take another source offline.
As citizens, why should we support the building of new nuclear plants when there’s barely any proof that the current ones are being safely dealt with at their end of their life?
Investors are not keen on nuclear power projects. They have a habit of blowing out budgets and timelines and failing to return investment (a big clue that they are negative EROEI). There’s also a bit of a wait of 7 to 10+ years for project completion before you can even hope to start seeing a financial return. Remember the cost of construction is only ever going to get more expensive now due to peak oil. Oh, and there are uninsurable liabilities!
Governments often need to invest in electricity infrastructure, and especially for nuclear, to make up this shortfall in private investment. Citizens quite rightly should demand proof that nuclear plants are worth spending energy on. They should demand Governments provide detailed risk management against all the criteria we’ve just discussed. Because nuclear is not popular with the average citizen, democratic governments are increasingly unwilling to invest in nuclear. Moreover, governments are encouraged by their populations to keep electricity prices affordable. Wind and solar are much more popular and tend to get more of the subsidies. They have also damaged the profitability of nuclear with wind and solar going first to sell to market (government policy in parts of Europe).
Replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy is a pipe dream
In a 2019 Forbes article, Roger Pielke ran a thought experiment on how many nuclear plants the world would need to get to the 2050 net zero goal. “To achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy 3 [brand new] nuclear plants worth of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050. At the same time, a nuclear plant’s worth of fossil fuels would need to be decommissioned every day, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.”
We can already see that this just isn’t happening, and for the reasons laid out in this article it’s clear this can never happen. It looks like 2022 saw just 53 nuclear reactors under construction world-wide – that’s not finished by the way, just in some stage of construction.
But what about innovation
Honestly each ‘innovation’ to nuclear reactors could be an article all on its own. I have to confess I have a lazy heuristic: I just write off all of these as nonsense and don’t really give them fair consideration. But if I had to provide a high-level critic, this would be it. I have just noted the additional problems with these “innovations” – they still have all the same problems described elsewhere:
- Fusion – The gold standard of hopium. As the idiom goes, sustained fusion is just 20 years in the future and always will be.
- Breeder reactors – Recycling costs more energy than you get back. Also, more expensive than regular reactors, which are already too expensive.
- New generation – Less safe and more toxic (go ask Alice).
- Thorium – Perhaps it could have worked but looks like it’s too expensive now. That’s a good hint it would be negative EROEI. Might not be viable in reality.
- And this goes for lots of things: just because something is feasible in a lab situation or theoretically possible, does not mean it will ever be a viable solution. You can do a lot if you have oodles of energy and billions of dollars to waste. We might ask, is indulging the fantasies of scientists really a good use of our last remaining surplus resources?
Well, that’s bleak, what does the future of electricity look like
Humans already have access to more electricity than we ever imagined 100 years ago. If we had a stable or reducing population (shout out to Rob), then we wouldn’t even need to worry about bringing on new electricity generation.
Categorically all forms of electricity generation have their negative drawbacks. Eventually, all the hydroelectric dams will silt up – this can take hundreds of years – and finally they will all fail. Wind turbines last for 30 years, though in reality production efficiency reduces much earlier. Coastal wind turbines will decay after 10 years due to erosion from salt water. Solar panels will last 30+ years, but the associated systems and batteries to collect and store the electricity fail much sooner and need replacement parts. Nuclear plants last for a design life of 40+ years minimum and then should be decommissioned over the following 20 years. With natural gas shortages due to the Russian Invasion, countries are delaying decommissioning their plants. Most western nuclear is aged out.
Humans could continue to produce electricity by burning coal and natural gas. There are approximately 400 years left of coal and 150 years left of natural gas. But (and it’s a big but), there is only 40 years left of oil (BP Statistical Review). Without oil we don’t have diesel powered equipment, which will make it all but impossible to extract coal and natural gas. Without coal, we can’t make industrial wind turbines, solar panels, or nuclear reactors.
What this means is that by the year 2060, we are looking at a world with much less electricity production and eventually moving to almost zero electricity as the hydro dams fail in the coming centuries – and no we can’t build new ones of scale without diesel. Perhaps some smart individuals can maintain rudimentary electricity where they live, but the days of large electric grids are numbered.
By the way, if you do want to dive into the technical details, I can point you in the direction of plenty of useful references. Just let me know 😊