A Friend’s Path to Nuclear Power

The October 2008 Friends Journal focuses on Energy, Climate, and Building Community, and includes my article, A Friend’s Path to Nuclear Power. The footnotes were too many and too long for the print article, so we are posting the article here. Comments on this or other articles in this issue?

Update: The Nuclear Energy Debate Among Friends: Another Round is the response to the responses to this article.

17 Responses to “A Friend’s Path to Nuclear Power”

  1. Jeremiah says:

    Very thoughtful, well-argued and passionate article. Thank you. I’ve long been opposed to nuclear power but am reconsidering my position.

    It’s hard, because of the very close association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons (in Britain, both civil and military nuclear programmes occupy the same site at Sellafield). Hard too, as you suggest, because the nuclear path is a centralising, technocratic one, and contradicts the small-is-beautiful Gandhian dream dear to many of us.

    What convinces me is the danger that runaway global heating with positive feedbacks could well lead to an apocalypse as bad as a big nuclear war, and that less extreme scenarios bear most heavily on the poor countries that have not been responsible for most of the emissions but can’t afford to defend against their consequences.

    If we could cut our energy use to the point where we could replace fossil fuels with renewables and not have to build nuclear power stations that would be better, but even if technically feasible – which you seem to be suggesting it isn’t – it would require lifestyle sacrifices that would be political suicide for any party proposing them.

    So I suppose we just have to swallow our worldly pride and accept that ecotopia is not going to happen, that technical fixes are going to be necessary to avoid disaster. Simple lifestyle remains an essential Quaker and Christian witness, but it’s not a viable political programme. There are parallels here with pacifism.

    I’m sure that fossil fuel burning with carbon capture and storage is going to have to be part of the mix, too. It’s going to be very hard to persuade governments to leave fossil fuels in the ground – like saying ‘you’ve got billions in the bank but you must never every spend them’.

    For a British Green who agrees with you see Mark Lynas at http://www.marklynas.org/2008/9/19/why-greens-must-learn-to-love-nuclear-power. For another who seems to be coming round to this position, but is still concerned about nuclear waste, see George Monbiot at http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2008/08/11/picking-up-the-gauntlet/ (his opponent Arthur Scargill was the leader of the UK coalminers’ union).

  2. Karen Street says:


    Thanks for the referrals, particularly Lynas. I had never read him before.

    The longest comment on his article came from someone who devoted much time and effort to showing that no one wants to invest in nuclear power and that it’s market share will continue to decline, as it apparently has been. (Some of us would read this as destructive construction worldwide of new coal plants, 100 GW in China in 2006.) My favorite argument: why does anyone need to go to all that work if nuclear power is doomed in the market place?

    I don’t see Monbiot’s concern about nuclear waste in that article, but it was the concern that I carried when I began reading about the topic. I was surprised at what I learned. Obviously.

    You say that simple lifestyle is an essential Quaker and Christian witness. In Britain, do Friends fly less?

  3. Jeremiah says:


    George Monbiot on nuclear waste – see http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2006/07/11/thanks-but-we-still-dont-need-it/

    Mark Lynas has written a couple of books on climate change. I read one of them, ‘Six Degrees’, last year – a popular-science presentation of current scientific thinking, and very alarming.

    Don’t know whether UK Friends fly less than US ones, but I suspect the answer is yes. There seems to be a high level of awareness of the issue among British Quakers. Since the UK is a relatively small country, air travel isn’t used so much for getting around, unless you’re in a great hurry or are crossing the sea, e.g. to Northern Ireland. Travelling to continental Europe is more of a problem – rail is quicker these days thanks to the Channel Tunnel but very expensive compared to flying. It’s crazy…

  4. Karen Street says:

    Jeremiah, thanks for the Monbiot reference. His one person/year for a million years sounds a little high, perhaps he has looked at more recent analysis?

    Rephrase, sorry! Do British Friends fly less than their neighbors? I have collected for group spreadsheets perhaps 90 – 100 GHG footprints for US Friends. Those who have given me information on energy use—in the home, driving, flying, cruises, and taxi—score around the American average, in a country where perhaps 60% of people have below average emissions (does anyone have a source?) Air transportation and cruises make up for decreased driving among the people I’ve worked with, who more often than not live in cities with good public transit.

  5. Susan says:

    Usually in the US transportation, whether by automobile, bus, taxi or airplane, is in response to the need to make a living (as, commuting, shopping) or the desire to see distant family members. I live in the San Francisco Bay area, and certainly I don’t drive for pleasure; the experience is anything but pleasurable.

    Most of us live where we live and work where we work out of necessity. We can say that our situation should be more like that of my daughter in the Netherlands, who can and does bicycle to work. Certainly I would desire that. But both the economic and the physical geography of my situation (Amsterdam and its suburbs sit on land literally flat as a table!) make that vastly more difficult for me than it is for her, and I am not in control of most of the factors involved.

  6. This is a passionate article Karen but there are some points you may not be aware of. It is not true that “nuclear power has an impressive track record for safety.” We have still not solved the waste problem and never a month goes by without some nuclear accident occurring in these plants. I direct you to the Calendar of Nuclear Accidents and Events.[i]

    Further, the claims made by the IAEA are suspect as its primary objective is to promote nuclear power globally. On 28 May1959, an agreement was signed between the IAEA and the World Health Organisation in which the WHO was barred from expressing or publishing the health effects of radiation.[ii] This agreement forces the WHO to get the IAEA’s sanction on everything that concerns nuclear matters. The result of this agreement was especially obvious after the Chernobyl disaster, where IAEA (not WHO) took the lead in reporting radiation health effects, and these were grossly downplayed.[iii] The IAEA, enforcing the philosophy of the International Commission for Radiation Protection (ICRP), denied that any of the catastrophic health problems in the exposed population were related to radiation.

    The blatant misinformation frequently used by the IAEA is one of the reasons for so many petitions being made to alter this agreement between the IAEA and the WHO; e.g. the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom petitioned the US president[iv] concerning the seeming silence about the effects of radiation on the health of people by the WHO.

    To promote nuclear energy as a form of power is imprudent. Uranium resources, like those of fossil fuels, are very limited. The world currently uses 67,000 tons of mined uranium a year. At current usage, this is equal to only about seventy years of supply and, according to a Brinkley mining report, by 2000 the uranium industry had made no significant uranium discoveries in a decade and met only about half of global demand. Also, the astronomical cost of building, and then decommissioning these plants, makes the whole concept of nuclear energy moribund. Those financial resources should go into sustainable energy.

    In friendship
    Bob Anderson
    Tauranga Meeting for Worship
    New Zealand

    [i] http://archive.greenpeace.org/comms/nukes/chernob/rep02.html

    [ii] www10.antenna.nl/wise/index.html?http://www10.antenna.nl/wise/521/5111.html

    [iii] The Chernobyl Catastrophe. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/press/reports/chernobylhealthreport


  7. […] Friend’s Path to Nuclear Power Here’s a very thoughtful piece, written by the author of A Musing Environment. Certainly an article that is worth reading. The […]

  8. Brian Mays says:

    I’m sorry, but Dr. Anderson has spent too much time reading propaganda from unreliable sources, such as Greenpeace and WISE, and thus, there are many errors and much misinformation in what he has written. He has essentially just dragged up a bunch of the usual false statements that float around in the anti-nuclear community, all of which are easily debunked.

    First, it is unfair to examine accidents of one industry in isolation. Nuclear power, like all commercial electricity generation, is a heavy industry, and as anyone who is familiar with industry knows, accidents can and do happen. Nuclear power is a technology that, today, generates over 300 GW, on average, so only 365 “accidents” in a world-wide history spanning over half a century is actually a pretty good record. Most of the “accidents” cited by Greenpeace are trivial. A few of them concern nuclear weapons and thus have nothing whatsoever to do with electricity generation.

    A more important question is what are the public health consequences, and on that score, nuclear’s record is superb. I challenge anyone to find a heavy industry with a better record overall. Nuclear does not have to be perfect; it just has to be better than everything else, which it is.

    Next, it is simply not true that the World Health Organization is “barred from expressing or publishing the health effects of radiation.” For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has recently published a study of nuclear industry workers from 15 countries to estimate the risk of cancer death from low-level exposure to radiation. This study led IARC to conclude that their results are compatible with those used by the International Commission for Radiation Protection (ICRP).

    IARC is part of the World Health Organization.

    Finally, Dr. Anderson’s claims about uranium are sadly out of date and very misleading. The reason that “the uranium industry had made no significant uranium discoveries in a decade and met only about half of global demand” in 2000 was because very few people were looking for it. There was already plenty of uranium already available in known resources, and by 2000 a significant amount of uranium fuel was being provided by down-blending high-enriched uranium from nuclear weapons to fuel commercial reactors — essentially “burning up” weapons to make electricity, which I think is something that we can all agree is a good thing.

    The price of uranium was so low then that there was not any economic incentive to look for new uranium resources. That has changed very recently, however.

    The latest data from the IAEA shows that “new discoveries and re-evaluations of known conventional uranium resources will be adequate to supply nuclear energy needs for at least 100 years at present consumption level.” This estimate assumes that we continue using uranium in our current wasteful fashion — essentially throwing away over 90% of the energy that is available in the fuel.

    With advanced technology, which is already used in France and Japan today, we can recycle the “spent” fuel, recovering this lost energy that would otherwise be discarded and thereby greatly reducing the amount of waste. With even more advanced technology, we can use the energy available in uranium-238 (the more common, nonfissionable isotope of uranium) or in thorium (which is several times more plentiful than uranium) and thus be able to provide reliable energy nearly indefinitely. Certainly, the calculations that I’ve seen demonstrate that enough energy from these sources would be available for thousands of years.

    Nuclear power has been around for only a little more than 50 years. We have a century to develop these new technologies.

    The picture looks different when one’s sources don’t come from Greenpeace, WISE, and other organizations who have a strong financial incentive (from donations) to maintain a state of fear regarding everything nuclear.

  9. The world’s oceans contain four billion tons of dissolved uranium. Recent studies in Japan have demonstrated that we can precipitate this uranium out of the ocean water at a cost that is about ten times the current price. This is well within a range that delivers inexpensive energy through fission. Moreover, as we take this uranium out from the surface of the ocean more will dissolve from the floor. The supply of uranium is essentially infinite. And thorium is even more abundant. There is lots of fuel. The shortage that threatens our life style is knowledge. We have the resources that will give us lots of energy, but we dont have the understanding and wisdom needed to make it happen.

  10. Why do people think that walking is a good mode of transportation, and air travel is bad, from an environmental point of view?

    When I look at the human body as a transportation machine I see a slow, inefficient, short range device that cannot carry any significant load, and offers no prospect for improvement in the near future. It is fueled with food, a material that is produced by cutting down trees, building roads, trucking material long distances, refrigeration, cooking, and landfilling. All these procedures are green house gas intensive, and extremely destructive to animal habitat. And walking is just not possible for a significant number of people – do they just miss out on all the public events? I think we are much better off using cars for transportation, especially the clean, quiet electric ones that are on the drawing boards now.

    As for air travel – why is it bad? It does not require roads. Roads destroy animal habitat, kill lots of animals directly, and require lots of maintenance using green house gas producing machines. Air travel is fast and safe compared to cars. And it uses material more efficiently if you think about one driver per car versus three hundred passengers per plane. And it just has to be cleaner fueling planes at a few locations compared with trucking car fuel around to hundreds of thousands of outlets every week. All those trucks spew out lots of fumes.

    It seems to me that the environmentalists have it completely backwards. If I was asked to rate modes of transportation based on environmental damage potential, my list from best to worst would be: planes, ships, trains, trucks, cars, bicycles, animals, human walking.

  11. Karen Street says:

    Susan, thanks for sharing on the difficulties of doing good. Are you responding to a particular article in Friends Journal?

    Brian, thanks for your sources.

    Thanks to Bob and Randal, and I have a question for both. In the article, I emphasize that I have come to rely on peer review sources for science and policy information. Neither of you do: Bob’s citation of Greenpeace, for example, and Randal’s idea that air travel is somehow better for the environment than muscle power. What reason do you have to believe that your current thinking is correct? You don’t say—Bob says that IAEA can’t be trusted, but I’ve never seen that concern in peer review material.

    To me this is part of our integrity testimony, to know that our yea is yea and our nay nay. Are we careful to only repeat information that we have good reason to believe is true? A useful discernment process for Friends: which sources of information do we trust, and why?

  12. I grew up living about120 miles from a Nuclear Power plant (Kolzodui in Bulgaria) and close enough to Chernobyl to have nightmarish associations with nuclear power. Even the faint possibility of an accident seems too scary-millions of people could be exposed to radiation that they can’t hide from or escape. As a result, I have been deeply suspicious of anyone (even Friends) making a case about the benefits of that technology. Like most people, I am interested in harmless ways to satisfy our human needs rather than hurtful ones.

    As clerk of the Environment Committee of Berkeley Friends Meeting, I have heard Karen speak on climate change. I found her facts and figures reliable and convincing and I respected the scientific sources she used. Yet, when she spoke at our forum on nuclear energy, I felt much resistance to what I was hearing.

    Naturally, I was at first suspicious of Karen’s passionate enthusiasm for nuclear power — a technology I had learned to fear. I felt there were two possibilities- either she was unaware of the damaging effects of radiation and dangers of nuclear accidents or she must know something that I did not know.

    I found her article for the October 2008 issue of Friends Journal “A Friend’s Path to Nuclear Power” very moving and revelatory–it describes Karen at a time when she was against nuclear power herself and what made her change her position.

    I appreciate her diligent research and choice to evaluate and compare energy technologies such as coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar based on benefits such as actual amount of energy they could supply and the downsides such as human lives and monetary cost. I was surprised to learn that coal technology is causing the deaths of 6 Chernobyls per year in the US alone. My reaction was: if this is really true, how come there is no public outrage?! Then I remembered that, from the invasion of Iraq to our response to obesity, the knowledge of unpleasant truths does not necessarily lead to fast change in reality. It is hard and slow to change course once we have set infrastructure and habits.

    Karen is bringing to our attention the unpleasant news that climate change caused by activities of the industrialized nations could exacerbate human conflict and add conflict over survival related resources such as water in addition to eradicating most of other species on earth only in the span of next century.

    I do not know what is the answer for how to resolve the climate change crisis but I know that I am more and more interested to hear what Karen’s diligent research points her to. I also find myself more and more open to consider nuclear power expansion as necessary to avoid the worst climate change scenarios for my son’s generation.

  13. Chris Roberts says:

    Hi Karen,
    Just skimmed your article in Friends Journal and think you will be interested in some French experience – http://www.ecolo.org/. You’ll see there is a US section. I have corresponded with Bruno Comby who introduced me to the issue of grid stability. I think he said you need 80% of your supply to be reliable to protect against outages. In no way do I want to relax on safety but, having visited India, I wonder if we in the US could relax on reliability a little we could gain a lot of flexibility allowing the use of more renewables like solar and wind etc. Obviously we also need to do lots more on the conservation front and our storage capabilities are close to abysmal.

    Peace, Chris

  14. Karen Street says:

    Chris, thanks for your comments.

    I have two reactions.

    First, why would we want to sacrifice grid reliability so that we can buy more expensive electricity (wind and solar cost more than nuclear power)? Would people really be willing to give up favorite TV shows if the wind doesn’t blow? Stop using the computer near sunset as both the sun and wind fade away? Etc

    Second, how much of what we need do we really need? You point out grid reliability, but there is also the sheer size of our electricity (and other energy) use.

    I can’t see too many people, including me, volunteering for an unreliable grid, but I do see many people, including me, finding ways to use less, with both higher efficiency and lower consumption. Turning off the light when we leave the room, etc.

    Is anyone hearing a willingness to give up reliability?

  15. Chris Roberts says:

    Hi Karen,
    Why would we want to … buy more expensive electricity? To save the planet from global warming. Bruno Comby – http://www.ecolo.org/ can write about grid stability much better than I.

    Have you considered the nuclear waste hazard? Not so much the final resting place but also transporting such material across the nation and through communities?

    I agree with you about conservation.

    Regarding unreliability: in Bhopal I found an unlit Internet cafe at 8 a.m. Two cheery chaps welcomed me in and told me precisely when power would be restored – same time every day. My question is, with all the technology available to us, does it have to be uncontrolled? Also can Americans can learn to accommodate some inconvenience? Does the idea relate to the Quaker Testimony on Simplicity?


  16. Karen Street says:

    Chris, why would we opt for more expensive renewables over nuclear power, is what I meant! And check out the article on line for what I learned about nuclear waste, that being the issue I brought into the room.

    Thanks for the Bruno Comby site, also I like the United Nations site, http://www.iaea.org/

    Re Friends Testimony on Simplicity, living so we can hear God’s voice…

    I find that when I slow down, do less by not using a car or airplane, that I am better able to hear God’s voice. It helps when I live with somewhat less than what I want immediately—fewer possessions, putting on a sweater rather than turning up the heat. Both shift me away from a sense of entitlement towards figuring out what I value and putting that first.

    For me, the simplicity testimony also includes a willingness to understand energy and environmental issues. Figuring out what is true, what is important, and what is mine to do. One reason I write about nuclear power so often is because I was SO wrong. Another, is because many of those I hang out with have the same misunderstandings I once did. So opposing nuclear power is our sin.

    What is true, what is important, what is mine to do? Definitely part of the simplicity testimony for me.

  17. Chris Roberts says:

    Hi Karen,
    This is in today’s paper together with my response

    Happy New Year, Chris