The Case For Nuclear Power

The Case For Nuclear Power  by Peter Burrows 1/1/18

For over ten years, there has been a growing realization among environmentalists that the best way to both eliminate poverty and “save the world” from carbon dioxide emissions is not with renewable energy, e.g. wind and solar, but with nuclear energy.

You haven’t heard about this because it runs counter to the entrenched, well-subsidized solar and wind industries’ interests.  Nuclear advocates present an argument that is reasoned, scientific and compassionate, the latter meaning it exposes the unaffordability of solar and wind.  How novel, coming from environmentalists.  

The most visible nuclear power advocate is Michael Shellenberger, who is running for governor of California.  I wrote about him in my blog, “A Progressive Environmentalist I’d Vote For,” 12/26/17.  I don’t think he has much chance to win, but he will be campaigning on why nuclear power is better than solar and wind, and that’s a start.  

If you want to see him in action, he gave a presentation last November, before he had declared his run for governor, “Why I Changed My Mind About Nuclear Power,” available on You Tube, about 20 minutes: I’ll try to summarize his arguments, with only a little editorializing.

To put nuclear powered electricity at the front of preferred power sources, you have to convince people that it is SAFE.  For the typical consumer, the reliability and cost of electricity are the most important criteria, AFTER safety.  

I don’t think CO2 emissions are an important part of the equation, but they are to Shellenberger and other “atomic humanists.”  They can give the solar and wind folks a good whuppin’, something coal backers simply cannot do if CO2 is part of the argument. (I don’t think it should be, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend, don’t cha know.)

Shellenberger uses data from the two biggest nuclear power disasters in world history to show that the mortality from the resulting radiation was either extraordinary low, as in the case of the Chernobyl, or non-existent, as in the case of Fukushima.

Chernobyl is the biggie. It is the worst nuclear accident to date, and probably the worst that will ever happen. Nobody will ever again build such a poorly designed nuclear power plant.  It had no containment dome. When the reactor exploded, it rained radiation everywhere.  Twenty eight people died from acute radiation exposure, and over the next 25 years, another 15 from thyroid cancer.

That’s all. In fact, an increased incidence of thyroid cancer is the only serious consequence of Chernobyl that has been detected in the last 30 years. Of the 16,000 people who got thyroid cancer from Chernobyl, an estimated one percent, 160, will die from it.  This is not a trivial concern for those 160 people, but they are far, far fewer than the predicted fatalities.  

Chernobyl has been intensely researched by hundreds of scientists over the years. They have found no evidence of effects on fertility, infant mortality, birth defects, heritable defects or any increase in any cancer other than thyroid.  What is most surprising, “ there’s no evidence of any increase in non-thyroid cancer including among the cohort who put out the Chernobyl fire and cleaned it up afterward.”

One of the scientists Shellenberger cites claims that breathing passive smoke is almost twice as dangerous  as being a Chernobyl liquidator, and living in a big city’s air pollution is almost three times as dangerous.  He says all this data is available on the web, “but nobody knows it.”

Deaths from particulate matter and other air pollution such as passive cigarette smoke are suspect in my opinion, but they are always cited to oppose coal power.  If used to justify nuclear, I’m good with it. Shellenberger even quotes the sainted CO2 warrior James Hansen who says “nuclear power has actually saved 1.8 million lives.”  

His biggest surprise is when he shows a graph and says, “–look at how much more materials are required to produce energy from solar and wind compared to nuclear. As a result, solar actually produces 200 to 300 times more toxic waste than nuclear.”  This is all pollution from the hard stuff, no mention of carbon dioxide emissions.  

I won’t bore you with Shellenberger’s economic case for nuclear vs. renewables.  I do a better job of that in my blog, “Dear Public Service of New Mexico, I’m still waiting for an answer,” 11/30/17.

The fact that he thinks the economics of energy are important sets him apart from the typical apocalyptic environmentalist.  I suspect he is no longer welcome at The Church of Global Warming because an article he co-wrote in 2013 claimed that “energy poverty causes more harm to the poor than global warming.”

More harm than global warming? Yes!  No moral grandstanding for Mr.Shellenberger. He has traveled the world. He has seen a lot of poverty, and people trying to escape poverty by moving to the cities for jobs, education, opportunity.  He thinks such urbanization is a good thing, because it “allows the natural environment to come back.”

Modern urbanization means skyscrapers, which take “a huge amount of energy,” and he asks, “how do you get plentiful, reliable electricity without destroying the environment?”  By that I think he means, “How can we simultaneously reduce poverty AND carbon dioxide emissions?”

Wind and solar are NOT the answer.  They are too expensive, too unreliable, and even too polluting vs. nuclear.  Good luck, Governor Shellenberger!


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