Avoidable Problem of the Wrong Answer for Climate Change

The recent article in the New York Times by Eduardo Porter, “Unavoidable Answer for the Problem of Climate Change,” is a sad example of the faulty conclusions being reached by many people who want to think of themselves as environmentalists.

By marginalizing renewable energy and ignoring altogether conservation and efficiency, this article frames our choice for the future as one between carbon and uranium, and then by selective use of data and logic designates uranium as the lesser evil, or even as a happy alternative.

Its basic premise is that energy usage is going to continue to rise, that fossil fuels must be abandoned at any cost, that renewable energy sources cannot make up the difference, and that building new fleets of nuclear power plants is the only option.

There is plenty that is wrong with his assumptions. Energy consumption does not necessarily have to grow by half over the next 30 years and we should not assume that the marginal difference in carbon emissions due to an expansion of nuclear power will do anything more than make a marginal difference in the climate crisis. If there is one lesson that we can learn from the Japanese public in the wake of the Fukushima disaster it is that they have been more than willing to refrain from using the air conditioner on hot days and make various other conservation efforts, but they are very resistant to their government’s efforts to restart nuclear power plants.

Moreover, if the author is so fearful of climate catastrophe then why does he focus so much on the price differentials between the energy sources? It is not as if we don’t have the resources to invest in solar, wind, geothermal, a better grid, and efficiency. We waste trillions on the wars and Wall Street rip-offs his employer (the New York Times) supports. Also, while he proposes a carbon tax to offset the environmental costs that otherwise would not be factored into coal and petroleum-based energy, he gives uranium a free-pass on the environmental costs of nuclear power, including the still unresolved issue of waste disposal.

Also, he makes the claim that acceptable locations for wind are growing scarce. Where is his backing for this statement? The entire agricultural Midwest could follow the example started in the Texas Panhandle. All that is needed is upgraded transmission lines. The expansion of nuclear power the author is calling for would require the construction of a fleet of new plants, a financial risk that the private sector has never been willing to underwrite. Furthermore, acceptable locations for the disposal of nuclear wastes are not scarce, they are non-existent. That is why all our waste is being stored in temporary locations. Why shouldn’t a government that represents our interests make the proven safe technology of wind a priority over the proven deadly technology of nuclear energy?

He reveals the scoop that “the sun doesn’t shine at least half the time. The wind doesn’t always blow.” While the sun and wind are intermittent sources, they are not unpredictable, and even if they were not used at all, the grid, which must match electricity production to consumption in real time, still has to account for the weather because consumption is dependent on the weather. The author points out that we don’t know how to store electricity generated on hot summer days to use on cold winter nights. First of all, we use more electricity on hot summer days than cold winter nights, so we wouldn’t be squirreling it away for the winter anyway. Moreover, a nuclear fleet faces the exact same challenge in reverse: nuclear is only baseload, which cannot meet peak usage. Japan had a nuclear fleet that produced about 30% of their electricity, and even then they needed to make use of relatively expensive pumped hydro energy storage systems because their nuclear fleet produced more baseload than their grid needed. The only reason that France can have such a large nuclear fleet is because they can sell the excess baseload to neighboring countries. Furthermore, the author ignores the potential of other renewable energy sources like geothermal, which can provide baseload electricity.

Regarding the health and safety risks of nuclear power, the author mentions a study from eight United Nations agencies. Presumably, the author is citing “Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts,” which was authored by eight international agencies including the World Health Organization and led by the International Atomic Energy Agency as part of the Chernobyl Forum, 2003-2005. What that report states on pages 7-8 is the following:

It is impossible to assess reliably, with any precision, numbers of fatal cancers caused by radiation exposure due to the Chernobyl accident — or indeed the impact of the stress and anxiety induced by the accident and the response to it. Small differences in the assumptions concerning radiation risks can lead to large differences in the predicted health consequences, which are therefore highly uncertain. An international expert group has made projections to provide a rough estimate of the possible health impacts of the accident and to help plan the future allocation of public health resources. The projections indicate that, among the most exposed populations (liquidators, evacuees and residents of the so-called ‘strict control zones’), total cancer mortality might increase by up to a few per cent owing to Chernobyl related radiation exposure. Such an increase could mean eventually up to several thousand fatal cancers in addition to perhaps one hundred thousand cancer deaths expected in these populations from all other causes. An increase of this magnitude would be very difficult to detect, even with very careful long term epidemiological studies.

There are two points that must be emphasized. First of all, they did not say that a maximum of 4000 people would die from cancer due to Chernobyl exposure. They said that “among the most exposed populations” an increase of even several thousand fatal cancers would be difficult to detect over the expected baseline of cancer deaths from all causes. This does not mean that more cancers will not occur in this group, just that it would take more than several thousand Chernobyl-caused cancer deaths for the cause to become statistically detectable.

Another important point is that the report does not say that only 800,000 people were exposed to radiation. The above paragraph is discussing “the most exposed populations (liquidators, evacuees and residents of the so-called ‘strict control zones’).” The report states on page seven that 600,000 people were registered as liquidators (emergency and recovery workers). On page ten it states that 116,000 were evacuated in the spring of 1986 from the strict control zone that was home to 400,000 people. But this does not mean that they were the only people exposed to radiation. As the report states, “[m]ore than five million people live in areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine that are classified as ‘contaminated’ with radionuclides due to the Chernobyl accident (above 37 kBq m-2 of 137Cs).” These people were exposed to lesser amounts of radiation, but the majority view among specialists is that low level doses of radiation will still elevate cancer deaths proportionally, an effect known as the “linear no-threshold model.” In other words, whether the dose is concentrated in one million people or spread out over hundreds of millions of people, it will produce the same number of cancers. And of course, the fallout from Chernobyl reached much of Europe and Asia at measurable concentrations.

Finally, the comparisons between atom bombs like the one dropped on Hiroshima and nuclear power plants demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of nuclear physics, different types of radiation, and how they impact health. The Hiroshima bomb produced a flash of gamma rays, which induce acute radiation sickness, but did not produce much in the way of fission products that release alpha and beta rays over time, which kill primarily by cancer. The Hiroshima bomb only contained 64 kg of Uranium, and less than one kilogram actually underwent fission. It therefore left very little behind in the way of nucleotides. By contrast, the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant has 460 tons of spent fuel just in the storage pool of reactor number four. The Fukushima Daiichi plant will likely continue to leak nuclear waste into the ocean for decades.

The point is that if the author wants to ignore the generally accepted science of the linear no-threshold model and embrace the most minimalist estimates of the dangers of nuclear power, then fine, but it puts him in the same category as those who want to reject the science behind anthropogenic climate change and the dangers that it poses.

This article is an example of the fundamental logical weakness that plagues so many of the analyses of the energy/climate crisis we face. There is a constant use of double standards regarding assumptions and evidence. The author is willing to accept serious or even worst case scenarios of diffuse, anonymous deaths from air pollution or climate change and ascribe them to coal or other hydrocarbons, but is unwilling to apply the same logic to the diffuse and anonymous damage caused by nuclear pollution. Similarly, he decries the investment in energy storage systems necessary to allow an increased usage of intermittent energy sources to be applied to baseload needs, but completely ignores the need to build the EXACT SAME SYSTEMS to allow baseload-only nuclear plants to be applied to the intermittent needs of the grid. He also has double standards regarding costs and investments needed to expand reliance on renewable compared to nuclear power. Finally, while insisting that climate change poses an existential threat to the planet, he is unwilling to consider lifestyle changes (conservation) that would be the cheapest way of reducing reliance on dangerous energy sources, but rather wants humanity to simply accept increasingly greater health risks.

At the end of the day, the real definition of progress is not how many governments make promises or enact taxes, but it is getting people to use energy less wastefully and utilizing more benign sources of energy.

  • For a more complete analysis of the dangers of nuclear power, please refer to my article from March 2012 entitled “Media, Academia Join Forces to Downplay Dangers of Nuclear Power.”
    Titus North is the Executive Director of Citizen Power, a non-profit research and advocacy organization in Pittsburgh, PA. Dr. North has an M.A. in International Relations from Sophia University in Tokyo and a Ph.D. in International Political Economy from the University of Pittsburgh. Before joining Citizen Power, he taught at the University of Pittsburgh for five years and covered the Japanese financial markets for Thomson-Reuters for 20 years. Read other articles by Titus.