UCS: Nuclear Power and Global Warming

Someone sent me a recent position paper from the Union of Concerned Scientists. I ran out of energy part way through responding to their points.

Over time we accrue a lot of worries about nuclear power, I certainly did. Then we need to ask ourselves, are these concerns legitimate? How do they compare to the dangers of not using nuclear power? So it’s reasonable to have a lot of questions! I was personally surprised at what I learned when I began looking into what I “knew”.

Nuclear waste is also addressed here.

Nuclear waste is a pretty insignificant problem whether or not a permanent site has been chosen. More than any other fact about nuclear power, this stunned me when I learned it. I was quite skeptical, and spent a lot of time checking that statement. I had thought the dangers of nuclear waste were serious, but I could find no justification for that belief in scientific literature.

I went to sites like Union of Concerned Scientists, as well — what did environmentalists say? It turns out that UCS and other say “large amounts of radioactive waste”, “lasts a long time”, etc. They never told me that anyone would die from it—I filled in the “how many” blank myself. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Americans die yearly from coal waste, including from coal power plants CA owns (21% of CA electricity), hundreds of thousands of Chinese, etc. Each year. Coal waste from CA electricity kills several hundred people each year, not counting the effects of climate change.

Coal power plants expose us to 4 times as much radioactivity as a nuclear power plant will over its complete life cycle, from mining to hundreds of thousands of years of waste decay. And if the radioactivity in nuclear waste were such a problem, why are those who are worried not launching major campaigns to get people to move from areas with very high radioactivity, such as Denver, Portland, Pennsylvania, where the increase in radioactivity over a place like SF is of much more importance than living near a radioactive waste site, much more importance? Or even more, Ramsar, Iran, where background radiation is 100 times the maximum exposure to anyone anytime from nuclear waste (about 300,000 years from now, after the waste has had time to migrate through Yucca Mountain, exposure will peak) without any apparent increase in cancer rate?

Background Radiation

Radiation Exposure varies. The average exposure from TVs is more than the living directly outside a nuclear power plant, but both are considerably smaller than from other choices.

From the Department of Health:

The exposure of an individual to cosmic rays is greater at higher elevations than at sea level. The cosmic radiation dose increases with altitude, roughly doubling every 6,000 feet. Therefore, a resident of Florida (at sea level) on average receives about 26 mrem, one-half the dose from cosmic radiation as that received by a resident of Denver, Colorado, and about one-fifth of that by a resident of Leadville, Colorado (about two miles above sea level). A passenger in a jetliner traveling at 37,000 feet would receive about 60 times as much dose from cosmic radiation as would a person standing at sea level for the same length of time.

If you smoke one cigarette/day, add 280 mrem to your exposure (typical US exposure is 360 mrem). It seems to me that if worried about radioactivity, first address smokers and people who live in areas with high natural background radioactivity.

EPA Map of Radon Zones
EPA Map of Radon Zones

Zone 1: predicted average indoor radon screening level greater than 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter); Zone 2: predicted average indoor radon screening level between 2 and 4 pCi/L; and Zone 3: predicted average indoor radon screening level less than 2 pCi/L.

I have never seen any indication in the scientific literature that nuclear waste is a difficult technical issue, see National Research Council Disposition of High-Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel: The Continuing Societal and Technical Challenges (2001). It is a social issue.

What are the Union of Concerned Scientists arguments?


Prudence dictates that we develop as many options to reduce global warming emissions as possible, and begin by deploying those that achieve the largest reductions most quickly and with the lowest costs and risk. Nuclear power today does not meet these criteria.

Well, we can spend $3 billion in CA subsidies for solar, in addition to federal subsidies, between now and 2017, and by then we will have as much electricity from solar as from 40% of the nuclear power plant that could be built with the same money. Hopefully we’ll do BOTH. But calling solar or/and wind quick is probably overstating the case. One solar panel or windmill doesn’t take much time to build, but to construct a nuclear power plant’s worth does.

Nuclear power is not the silver bullet for “solving” the global warming problem.

True — we need every possible solution and then some.

A major expansion of nuclear power in the United States is not feasible in the near term. Even under an ambitious deployment scenario, new plants could not make a substantial contribution to reducing U.S. global warming emissions for at least two decades.

Misleading — do we want to build coal plants that will last for decades, or nuclear power plants, or natural gas? Also, we could have new nuclear power plants as early as mid-decade, possibly as much as 30 GW in plants by 2020, close to double that by 2025.

Until long-standing problems regarding the security of nuclear plants—from accidents and acts of terrorism—are fixed, the potential of nuclear power to play a significant role in addressing global warming will be held hostage to the industry’s worst performers.

I’m not sure what they are talking about, though these are frequent themes of UCS—nuclear power plants are on 90% of the time, including one month for refueling every 12 – 18 months. What are they talking about? Why are acts of terrorism at Diablo Canyon anywhere near as likely or as likely to be terrifying as at the Richmond oil refineries?

An expansion of nuclear power under effective regulations and an appropriate level of oversight should be considered as a longer-term option if other climate-neutral means for producing electricity prove inadequate.

Um, the analysis has been done — they sound a lot like the VP at my first high school: she would order books, then see if there was money left before ordering the next set of books, then see if there was money left before ordering the next set, then…. People pretty good with calculators have already done the calculations, and the other methods alone (and, I think, other methods WITH expanded use of nuclear power) come off inadequate. WITHOUT nuclear power, they are highly inadequate indeed.

Spent fuel rods can, however, be stored safely in aboveground steel cylinders (“dry casks”) for at least 50 years.


Etc, etc, etc. Which of their points has particular resonance with you?

I don’t see UCS changing its views until its subscriber base does. They are so highly associated with their position, that not only do the people in charge have to change their views, but they risk subscription donations. The Economist suddenly changed its views on climate change by changing one of the VPs, maybe UCS and nuclear power will go through a similar transition. Scientists worked hard with UCS over a very long period to get it to be first, as interested in climate change as in nuclear power, and now, even more interested.

UCS is only a good source of information to the extent that their understanding represents that of policy experts and scientists. Statements such as “begin … deploying those that achieve the largest reductions most quickly and with the lowest costs and risk” with the idea that any of the sources they promote are lower cost than nuclear power (some efficiency solutions are, though not all, but wind, solar, etc. cost more), that the amount of net GHG reductions we could usher in over 2 decades with all non-nuclear solutions together equal what we could achieve with nuclear power alone, the let’s wait to see what works argument — to the extent that UCS is able to slow down the introduction of nuclear power, people will die. I don’t know if people will die from the lack of shifting to nuclear power in the millions or more — it depends on how much time we have to stop some of the worst excesses of climate change. Well, except that today’s US coal plants over 40 years killed more than a million people, ignoring the effects of climate change. So the direct problems of coal are also bad.

Expressing concerns about nuclear waste necessarily promotes solutions that create fossil fuel waste.

2 Responses to “UCS: Nuclear Power and Global Warming”

  1. Joffan says:

    There has been a shift in arguments of some traditionally anti-nuclear orgs but in many cases it looks to me like a fallback to a second layer of anti-nuclear trenches. The combination of “nuclear takes too long” and “Let’s wait and see if we need it” is particularly annoying, since the two positions are so obviously in conflict. But it is a typical stance of those who no longer feel they can back up the bald assertions of yesteryear. Those scary statements have finally been challenged in a widespread way in public with some serious reviews of the range of options to combat climate change. Nuclear power is so obviously a strong candidate for reducing CO2 emissions. Vague hints of nuclear disaster that have no true foundation are now simply a quick way to lose scientific credibility.

  2. Excellent post. Nuclear waste is not really waste at all. Most of the potential energy in the so called nuclear waste has not been taped yet. Even of we do not user run spent reactor fuels through breeder reactors. as we should, we can still run the “spent” fuel from light water reactors through a CANDU reactors. Many of the radioisotopes found in “spent” nuclear fuel, have medical and other uses.

    I recently was able to identify of battery backups costs for wind or solarvotaic power. It turnd out that 16 GWh of NAS battery backup, that is enough to provide 1 GW of power for 16 hours, a minimal requirement for reliable electricity, would cost $9 Billion. For the same money you could purchase 7 or so AP-1000 reactors that will produce close to 8 GW for as much as 95% of the time. You can see why solar and wind power with battery backup are not presently in the running to replace coal fired electrical plants.