Is nuclear renewable? Does it matter?

Renewable or not, here I come: Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Human use of fossil fuels is changing the climate of our planet. Fossil fuels are running out, but not fast enough. Long before oil and natural gas reserves are exhausted, climate change will be catastrophic and irreversible. We cannot rely on the law of supply and demand to price fossil fuels out of the market. We need to take decisive action, and we need to take it now.

As the sense of impending doom becomes stronger, and more and more people cry out for a solution, one voice has been coming through loud and clear. Advocates for nuclear energy are putting their technology forward as the answer to the climate change problem. When energy is produced from fission, no carbon dioxide is emitted, say the nuclear promoters. It is a proven technology with a half-century track record. Why grasp around frantically at wind, solar, and biomass when we already have the answer at our fingertips?

Often, this leads to a philosophical debate. Is nuclear energy renewable? Opponents say it is not. They base their argument on one key point: To be renewable, an energy source must not require continual addition of any fuel.

Wind, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, biomass, and geothermal energy sources do not require fuel. Virtually all of them are ultimately derived from the sun. The cause-effect relationship is obvious in the case of solar photovoltaic arrays, solar concentrators, and solar thermal systems.

In the case of wind, hydroelectric, and biomass, the relationship is indirect. The sun heats the earth, the earth releases this heat into the air, the heated air column rises, cooler air rushes in to replace it, and the energy of that moving air is harvested with wind turbines. The sun warms water bodies and causes evaporation, the water vapour moves to cooler areas and condenses into rain, the rainfall fills rivers, and the flowing river water turns hydroelectric turbines. The sun shines on plants, the plants use photosynthesis to convert the solar energy into sugars, and man-made chemical processes convert the sugars into biofuels. As long as the sun continues to shine, these energy sources will be inexhaustible.

Tidal and geothermal are a bit different, but are similarly inexhaustible. As long as the earth continues to revolve around the sun, and the moon around the earth, there will be tides, and tidal energy that can be harvested through a variety of means. As long as the radionuclides in the Earth’s crust continue to decay, there will be geothermal energy.

By contrast, nuclear energy, at least that supplied by conventional reactors, requires fuel – uranium, plutonium, or thorium. As the plant runs, the fuel is consumed. The spent fuel is unusable and must be stored indefinitely (unless more exotic means to extract additional energy from the fuel are available, such as reprocessing or fast breeder reactors).

So, philosophically at least, it is not possible to argue that nuclear energy is renewable. It isn’t. But that is answering the wrong question. Renewable or not, is it desirable? In other words, our current energy infrastructure is in crisis. We cannot simply stop using it, without causing a global economic collapse. But if we continue to use it as-is, we risk a global economic collapse. So the real question is, can nuclear energy lift us out of this Catch-22?

This is a three-part question. First, does nuclear solve the climate change problem? Second, is it sustainable, at least over a viable time frame? Third, does it create more problems than it solves?

The first question appears simple. A nuclear power plant produces electricity, waste heat, and spent fuel, but no CO2. That looks like a promising solution. However, the start and end of the reactor lifetime and the fuel life cycle are not nearly as innocuous. The plant must be built, and nuclear plants require a great deal of concrete. Manufacturing the cement in that concrete produces a lot of carbon dioxide – globally about 5% of CO2 emissions come from cement manufacturing, either directly from calcination of limestone or from the fuel that is burned in the kiln. Then there’s the emissions arising from manufacturing and transporting all the steel reinforcing bars, building and operating all the heavy construction vehicles, producing and shipping all the exotic materials used in the reactor itself, not to mention mining, milling, refining, enriching, forming, and ultimately storing the uranium fuel, and storing the low-level waste after plant decommissioning.

According to National University of Singapore research fellow Benjamin K. Sovacool, it all adds up to about 66 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour. That’s a huge improvement over coal-fired power generation, which produces 14 times the amount of greenhouse gases. However, that’s twice the carbon footprint of solar photovoltaic power, and six times as much as land-based wind power. From a carbon footprint perspective, nuclear does not have an advantage over the leading renewable energy technologies.

What about sustainability? The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that proven uranium reserves are enough to supply current levels of demand for 85 years. If nuclear proponents are successful, nuclear power usage would expand significantly above its current level of 6% of global energy supply, reducing the lifetime of uranium stocks. However, an increase in uranium demand would lead to greater exploration efforts, likely extending reserves significantly. In any case, technologies like fast breeder reactors could make the supply last up to 2,500 years. That’s a lot less than the 5 billion years that the sun is expected to continue to shine, but for practical purposes, the availability of fuel does not represent a real constraint.

Finally, there is the question of whether the cure is worse than the disease. Nuclear disasters such as Fukushima have produced significant fears in the minds of the public. The difficulty is that the harm caused by nuclear disasters is front-page news. By contrast, fossil fuel usage causes ongoing damage to property and public health which is much more significant, and grossly under-reported. By virtually any health, safety, or environmental measure – including worldwide release of radioactive materials – nuclear power is a significant improvement over fossil fuels.

However, we’ve already established that fossil fuels need to go. We’re not making a choice between them and nuclear. The choice is between nuclear and renewable energy technologies in the strictest sense. There is little or no credible, peer-reviewed evidence of negative health impacts from wind turbines – although the industry needs to make a dramatic change to the way it engages with communities, to avoid breeding the discontent that provides a fertile field for the anti-wind lobby. End-of-life solar panels may suffer the same environmental problems as obsolete consumer electronics like cell phones and MP3 players, but the problem is hardly immediate given that they last more than 20 years. Other renewable technologies are similarly benign.

The Achilles heel of nuclear is waste. A recent newsletter from the Ontario Clean Air Alliance had the eye-catching subject line, “You don’t build a house without a toilet”. That is precisely what the nuclear industry has done. Globally it produces 10,000 m3 of high-level radioactive waste per annum; this remains deadly for tens of thousands of years. As yet there is no solution to this problem. Until that changes, the nuclear sector will continue to have one shortcoming that outweighs all of its advantages.

In summary, nuclear energy has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels, but still much higher than wind and solar. There is enough fuel on the planet to keep the reactors going for a very long time. However, in that time those reactors will produce a vast amount of deadly waste.

If the nuclear industry can reduce its carbon intensity across the entire life cycle of the fuel and the reactors, and if it can solve the waste problem, it will indeed be a solution.

It will also be a miracle.


A new lease for nuclear?

Graphite core of the ORNL molten salt reactorI’ve focused on nuclear energy for the past three posts, and my appraisal is bleak. It looks cheaper than other options, but only if you ignore costs such as construction overruns, accidents, waste storage, and the inherent risk in long-term energy demand forecasting.  Chernobyl and Fukushima prove that the technology was and continues to be far from foolproof. And between the need for public financing and inevitable swings in public opinion, cost overruns are inescapable. Is that the end of the story? Is there any hope that nuclear energy can overcome these problems and recapture the public imagination the way it did back in the glory days of the 1950s?

There is hope. But we must change the fuel and change how it is burned.

Uranium is rare. Mining uranium ore is difficult and costly, as the mineral deposits are often deep underground. Separating the uranium from the rest of the ore leaves tailings ponds which are a huge environmental liability. The uranium must be enriched to separate out the usable isotope; the rest is wasted. The enriched uranium is then used as fuel, and all of it eventually ends up as waste. Some of that waste can be used to produce nuclear weapons. The waste will remain highly radioactive and deadly for tens of thousands of years.

It takes about 100,000 tonnes of low-grade ore to produce 250 tonnes of natural uranium, which then yields only 35 tonnes of enriched uranium. That’s enough fuel to produce 1GW of power, and 100% of the spent fuel ends up as waste. The nuclear industry produces 10,000m3 of high-level, long-lived waste each year.

However, uranium isn’t the only game in town. Thorium has the necessary properties to be a nuclear fuel. It is three times more abundant than uranium. It is already being produced and discarded as waste in the process of extracting rare earth metals. In any case it is often found in monazite sand deposits on the surface, so mining is much easier than it is with uranium. Thorium is usable as-is, so it does not require enrichment the way that uranium does. Thorium can be used as nuclear fuel in liquid form, so there is no need to form the fuel into rods or pellets as is required with uranium. A given amount of power can be produced with 3% of the amount of thorium compared to uranium. The waste cannot easily yield material for nuclear weapons, only 17% of it needs to be stored for the long term, and that for the comparatively brief period of 300 years.

It takes less than 20 tonnes of monazite to yield one tonne of thorium. That’s enough to produce 1GW of power. Of the resulting one tonne of spent fuel, only 17% requires long-term storage. The technical and anthropological challenge of storing waste for 300 years is anything but trivial, but it is not nearly as daunting as planning a dump that has to last longer than the span of recorded human history.

That’s the fuel. Now let’s look at the engine.

In a typical uranium-fuelled reactor, fuel rods in the reactor core undergo fission reactions to produce heat. Control rods, which stifle the fission reaction by absorbing neutrons, are used to modulate the amount of heat being produced. Circulating water carries the heat away to turn a turbine, thereby generating electricity.

The big problem with these types of plants is that the coolant is water. If the water gets too hot it becomes steam, expanding in volume a thousand fold. Because the coolant water is in direct contact with the core, it is radioactive, and must be contained in the event of a leak. That means that the containment vessel around the reactor must be a thousand times larger than the reactor itself. That is why commercial nuclear power plants are so massive.

One of the most promising thorium-based reactor designs is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, or LFTR. In the LFTR, the fuel is dissolved in the working fluid itself, and that working fluid is a molten salt rather than water. The system operates at atmospheric pressure, and never approaches the boiling point of the fluid. As a result, the containment structure only needs to be slightly larger than the reactor itself, allowing for very small plants. One experimental reactor produced 2.5MW of power and was designed to be small enough to power an aircraft.

A particularly compelling design feature of the LFTR is its safety. At the bottom of the reactor is a plug made of a material which melts at ambient temperature. The plug must be constantly cooled; if the power goes out, the cooling stops, the plug melts, and the working fluid – which includes all of the fuel – drains out of the reactor and into a reservoir where the fission chain reactions stop.

In summary, a thorium-fuelled molten salt reactor such as the LFTR offers some very promising advantages over traditional uranium-fuelled, water-cooled reactors. The fuel comes from a raw material that is cheap, abundant, and high-yielding. A given amount of fuel generates much more energy, and produces much less waste. That waste is less susceptible to covert diversion toward nuclear weapons programs, and does not need to be stored for an unimaginable time frame.

The reactors can be made much smaller and therefore much faster and cheaper, rendering public sector financing unnecessary. Build-out plans can also be adjusted over time if electricity demand turns out to be different from what was predicted.

There are just two problems. Uranium is an elephant, and thorium is a flea on its backside. And LFTRs are pie-in-the-sky.

According to the European Nuclear Society, there were 435 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide as of February 2012 with a total output of 368GW. Of these, eight were thorium-fuelled, with a cumulative power of less than one GW. All eight are in India, where abundant thorium deposits have made the fuel very attractive. For all intents and purposes, all of the worldwide industry expertise and experience is in uranium and not thorium. Changing the industry over to the thorium fuel cycle would be a mammoth undertaking.

For all its apparent advantages, the LFTR is theoretical. The only one ever built, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was shut down 43 years ago. Those involved have long since retired and their knowledge has been lost. Any new LFTR initiative will start from scratch. Some state-funded initiatives are doing just that, as is at least one private company (Flibe Energy), but they will need a great deal of time and money before they will have anything to show for it.

Proponents of LFTRs have their work cut out for them. Thorium may well be all that they claim. However, they face an uphill battle. Uranium-based fission did not live up to its potential. Neither did thermonuclear fusion, nor cold fusion. The history of nuclear energy is littered with broken promises. I won’t be a bit surprised if thorium, for all its possibilities, never gets the chance to prove its case in the court of public opinion.

Many thanks to my readers Steve Dyck and Dr. Alexander Cannara for inspiring this week’s post.

The nuclear option

No turning back

Two weeks ago, I showed how the cost and risks of nuclear energy stack up against the competition. Last week I delved deeper into risk, examining past nuclear accidents to see what we can learn about the future of the technology and the industry. This week, we’ll look at the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry as it is currently constituted.

Nuclear energy suffers from a fundamental economic paradox, which follows inevitably from three facts. First, building a new plant takes a long time. Second, building a new plant takes a lot of money. Third, because of the time and money involved, such projects cannot proceed without financial support from the voting and taxpaying public. Finally, because the public is fickle by nature, it is inevitable that plans will change so that new plants take even longer and cost even more, resulting in even more of a financial burden on the public purse.

Just how long does it take to build a nuclear plant? The Vogtle Electric Generating Plant near Waynesboro, Georgia has two reactors, one of which took eleven years to build, the other thirteen. Last week, for the first time in 34 years, the United States’ Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved construction of two additional reactors; the build began in 2009, with one unit expected to take seven years and the other eight. Of the four reactors at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ontario, one took nine years, another took eleven, and the last two took twelve. In France, construction of the Flamanville Unit 3 reactor is expected to be completed in 2016 after nine years.

What about the cost? Vogtle was originally supposed to cost US$660 million, but ended up with a US$8.87 billion price tag. The newly-approved reactors planned for that plant are estimated to cost US$15 billion, but how much they will actually cost is anybody’s guess. The initial estimate for Darlington was C$3.9 billion, but the final cost was C$14.4 billion. Flamanville estimates started at €3.3 billion but are now thought to reach €6 billion, and construction has barely passed the halfway mark.

And how does the taxpayer get involved? At first glance, Vogtle looks like a private venture. Georgia Power, the principal project shareholder, is a subsidiary of Southern Company, a literal powerhouse in the US electricity generation sector. Southern is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is part of the S&P 500 index, and had revenues of US$17.46 billion in 2010. However, Georgia Power’s US$6.1 billion stake in the Vogtle project has a loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy in the amount of US$3.4 billion. Other project shareholders have loan guarantees totalling US$4.9 billion, meaning that more than half of the project cost is underwritten by the US taxpayer. Darlington is owned by Ontario Power Generation, a provincial crown corporation (meaning the Province of Ontario is the sole shareholder). Flamanville is wholly owned by EDF; while EDF is listed on the Paris Stock Exchange, 85% of its shares are owned by the French government.

When called to account for its history of astonishing construction cost overruns, the nuclear industry is quick to point the finger elsewhere – mainly at elected officials, and by extension the taxpayer. And they are justified in doing so. In response to nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the public demanded stricter regulations on plant designs. This led to massive cost increases for all plants already under construction, to say nothing of any remediation measures at completed plants.

Here’s the rub. Nothing has changed. Nuclear plants aren’t getting any cheaper. Building them isn’t getting any faster. Taxpayers aren’t being relieved of the burden of underwriting the construction cost. Taxpayers have not suddenly acquired a blind faith that nuclear energy is the answer to all their prayers.

The industry will continue estimating costs assuming no change to regulations, and no revisions to electricity demand estimates – in spite of the clear evidence that such assumptions are a pipe dream. Politicians will continue taking industry estimates on faith, and moving ahead with new plant construction. The public will continue being as fickle as it always has been, moving the goalposts in the middle of the construction game. Construction costs for new plants will continue to be revised to multiples of the original estimates. And John Q. Public will be left with the bill.

Back in the days of the cold war, the so-called nuclear option was a terrifying one. It was a choice from which there was no turning back. The commander-in-chief would have to launch the entire arsenal at the enemy, or nothing at all.

In matters of national energy policy, the nuclear option is not that different. Once construction starts on a plant, the commitment is made. Few politicians have the stomach for cancelling a project once it is in progress, even when it is evident that the costs are spiralling out of control. And once the plant is built, few politicians would have the guts to shut it down.

In political terms, the ten years it takes to build a nuclear plant is an eternity. The typical term of public office is four years. An elected representative that decides to press the nuclear button is almost guaranteed to be long gone by the time the electorate realizes the enormity of their mistake.

Throughout its history, nuclear power has proven itself to be the greatest rip-off on Earth. The only way to avoid getting fleeced is for everyone to vote against it, and to kill it before it ever gets off the drawing board.

So vote early, and vote often.

Sifting through the ashes

The ashes of Fukushima

Last week I described the economic barriers to nuclear power as a solution to our future energy security. Today I’ll examine the big three nuclear disasters – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima – and what they can tell us about this technology.

Nuclear power plants are based on the fundamental principle that when atoms are split apart, a tiny portion of matter is turned into energy according to Einstein’s famous E = mc2. These so-called fission reactions produce heat in the core of nuclear reactor. The heat turns liquid water into steam, the steam drives a turbine, and the turbine produces electricity. The concept is simple enough.

However, nuclear power plants are anything but simple. They are a complex, intricate, interconnected web of systems designed to produce power while ensuring that radioactive materials are not released into the environment. The problem is that the people who design the plant aren’t the people who run the plant. The designers don’t necessarily build the plant so that it is easy to run, and the operators don’t necessary run the plant in the way that the designers intended.

The Three Mile Island accident in March of 1979 was not caused by one of the plant’s systems failing catastrophically. It was a cascading series of unrelated failures, including a temperature indicator positioned where operators couldn’t see it, a relief valve that failed to close again after emergency venting, an indicator that led the operators to believe that the valve was closed when it really wasn’t, auxiliary pumps that had their supply disconnected and so were pumping air instead of water, and operators that succumbed to a group mentality which prevented them from truly understanding what was happening as the disaster unfolded.

Any one of these failures by itself would have been innocuous. However, the system as a whole was incredibly complex – too much so for any one operator to understand it in its entirety. What is more, there was little room in the plant design for a problem to occur without having knock-on effects. Both of these factors are chronicled in disturbing detail in Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents. Successive layers of protection fell like dominoes, the reactor melted down, and radioactive material was released into the environment.

There were no fatalities as a direct result of the accident, and estimates of the broader effects of radioactivity on public health and property are varied and disputed. The cleanup lasted twelve years and cost $1 billion, and TMI remains the worst civilian nuclear accident in the history of the United States. National enthusiasm for nuclear power fizzled. The growth in new plant construction faded, with dozens of new plant projects cancelled.

Elsewhere in the world, the severity of Three Mile Island was discounted. Construction of new reactors continued. It wasn’t until the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 that the global nuclear industry reached a turning point.

The difference in knowledge between those that designed the plant and those that operated it was even more pronounced in Chernobyl than TMI. The reactor design made it very unstable at low power levels, but plant operators did not understand this. They embarked on an experiment intended to help improve the safety of the facility, by reducing the time that critical cooling water pumps would be without power in the event of a grid outage.

The experiment produced an explosion that destroyed the reactor and set fire to neighbouring buildings. 31 people died immediately or in the days following as a direct result of the explosion and radiation. A radioactive plume of smoke rose into the atmosphere and drifted far and wide, causing an estimated number of premature cancer deaths ranging from 30,000 to a staggering 985,000.

Initially, human error was blamed for the disaster. Over time, it became clear that the design of the reactor was fundamentally unsafe, from the way the graphite moderating rods functioned to the lack of secondary containment. Despite this, at least 11 reactors of the same design were still in operation in Russia as of 2010.

The Chernobyl reactor was designed at the height of the cold war, in a nation obsessed with economic superiority regardless of the human cost. A modern reactor should be safer. Shouldn’t it?

At first blush, the Fukushima disaster of 2011 was caused by a one-two punch of natural disasters. The plant shut down in response to an earthquake, but the resulting tsunami knocked out power to the cooling water pumps – the exact risk that the Chernobyl experiment was intended to mitigate. Deprived of coolant, the reactors overheated and melted down.

Designers make mistakes. They assume that failures will be isolated rather than cascading. They assume operators will run the plant within the specified parameters. They fail to imagine scenarios that take into account all the possible eventualities. These are all problems that can be overcome, if we only have the humility to learn from our mistakes.

However, there is one limitation that designers cannot avoid, no matter how adept they might be. The entirety of modern records on extreme weather events and natural disasters covers only the tiniest sliver of the planet’s history. These records become the basis for designs. An earthquake of a particular magnitude, based on available data, may be expected to occur once in fifty years. A more intense quake would occur once in a hundred years. These statistics are then used to establish a so-called design event.

This is where the disciplines of statistics and economics meet. The more extreme the design event, the more costly the design required to withstand it. At some point, the decision-makers have to quantify their tolerance for risk, and give that to the designers. No plant can be disaster-proof. It simply isn’t affordable.

Each year we roll the dice. Whatever happened last year is irrelevant. You could have two 100-year earthquakes one after the other. The probability is low, but it is not zero.

The challenge with nuclear power is not that it has killed a lot of people. It hasn’t, at least not in the direct cause-and-effect way that, say, coal plants have through respiratory ailments. The challenge with nuclear power is that one single event can make headlines and evoke fears – reasonable or not – of mushroom clouds on the horizon, of hair and fingernails falling out as radiation sickness takes hold, of children with horrific birth defects, of vague and varied estimates of deaths due to cancer, of mutated animals and insects, of nuclear waste lying deadly and festering for thousands of years.

As long as humans design the plants, plant designs will have flaws. As long as humans run the plants, plants will be operated incorrectly. And as long as humans are dependent on statistical data covering less than one ten millionth of the planet’s history to decide what is safe and what is not, nature will continue to surprise us in the most unpleasant of ways.

Snake oil

Step right up, and have your cash in hand.

“Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter,” predicted Lewis Strauss, Chair of the US Atomic Energy Commission in 1954. The fusion power that inspired his comment remains only experimental to this day, and the best guess is that commercial fusion generation facilities will not be online before 2050. An entire industry should not be condemned for the hubris of one person, but this particular industry has a long history of over-promising and under-delivering, whether the technology in question is fission, thermonuclear fusion, or cold fusion. Members of the public, and their elected representatives, would do well to take the claims of nuclear proponents with a grain of salt.

Comparing nuclear power to competing technologies such as fossil fuel-fired thermal generation and renewable generation is nightmarish. The reasons are the fundamentally different characteristics of cost of capital, initial capital outlay, demand risk, design risk, accident risk, externalities, and sheer project scale. Still, each of these factors can be broken down and quantified, and intrepid experts have done so. For simplicity’s sake I’ll stick to a qualitative comparison.

First, nuclear power is now and ever will remain a state-owned enterprise during construction, and will retain a heavy level of state support during operation and final decommissioning. The state has a different cost of capital than the private sector; it is meaningless to make a direct comparison between a project undertaken with public funds and one financed by the private sector.

A new nuclear power plant requires a massive amount of capital for initial construction, and that capital generates zero return until the build is complete. The timeframe of construction is long, and can have significant variances (more on this below). A project requiring a huge investment that sits idle for an unknown period of time before it produces the first dollar of revenue is a project that will send private investors running in the opposite direction. A new plant must be financed using taxpayer dollars, because the private sector won’t touch it.

Then there is the risk that electricity demand will shift dramatically during the course of construction. The longer the construction timeframe, the greater the risk that the facility will turn out to be too much or not enough. Of all energy generation technologies, nuclear has the longest timeframe between committing to the project and producing the first kilowatt. What’s more, the construction process is extremely sensitive to any mid-stream changes. If it becomes clear that demand predictions are off base, it is hugely expensive to change course partway along. The final construction cost of Canada’s Darlington Nuclear Generating Station was nearly double the original estimate, principally because two of the four reactors were postponed. It is almost better just to build according to the original plan come what may.

However, a damn-the-torpedoes approach may well be impossible. In addition to demand risk, there is also design risk. This the possibility that, partway through construction of the new facility, the government may be forced to respond to new public concerns. A major nuclear disaster like Chernobyl or Fukushima can lead to huge outcry, a significant tightening of standards, extensive design changes, and staggering cost increases. It is like trying to change a tire on a car that is still barrelling down the highway.

Once the plant is built and in production, there is the risk of catastrophic accident. No private company can secure the amount of insurance necessary to offset this risk. This means that the state must assume the role of insurer, with taxpayers paying the bill if something terrible happens.

Another consideration during plant operation is fuel. Uranium must be found, mined, processed, and transported. After it is used up, the spent fuel must be stored – more on that below. Like oil, uranium deposits tend to be found in countries with a nasty political climate. These countries have yet to band together to squeeze prices in the way that the OPEC nations have, but you can bet it will happen if industrialized nations make a significant new commitment to nuclear power. This will significantly increase operating costs for nuclear plants, and may necessitate military intervention to secure supplies in the same way that we have seen repeatedly with petroleum.

A final operational factor is responsiveness. Starting up and shutting down nuclear plants is very costly, not to mention potentially dangerous – it was experimentation with emergency shut-down procedures that led to the Chernobyl disaster. Hence, nuclear reactors are best left running even when demand isn’t there. This leads to the perverse situation where the utility actually pays its customers to consume power, to avoid having to dial back output from nuclear generators during off-peak periods.

No plant lasts forever. Once its usable life has ended, a nuclear plant must be decommissioned. The high level waste, such as spent fuel, is relatively small in quantity but astoundingly dangerous and remains so for thousands of years. Low-level waste, such as plant structural components and worker safety equipment, is less dangerous but there is a lot more of it. Plant operating companies are mandated to set aside a reserve fund to pay for storage of this waste for mind-boggling timeframes, but the evidence is that they are failing to do so. Once again, that cost will eventually fall on the taxpayer.

Let’s look at how each of these factors stack up for fossil fuels and renewables.

Fossil fuel-fired thermal plants require a much more modest capital outlay and have far shorter construction timeframes than nuclear, and the private sector finances these projects with enthusiasm. These projects rarely appear on the radar of the public at all, and if they do they can be re-jigged or delayed with comparatively minor costs (as was seen recently in Ontario, where construction of a natural gas plant was halted in response to public outcry).

Geothermal plants have a similar capital profile, so too large wind and solar farms. Wind projects can scale right down to a single turbine owned by a village co-operative and erected in a few weeks, while solar installations are within reach of an individual homeowner and can be built in a day or two. Wind has seen some public opposition in North America, but these issues have nowhere near the financial impact of delays and design changes in the nuclear sector. In any case, the costs are borne by the private developer and not the taxpayer.

Thus, thermal and renewable power do not require the implicit subsidy of long-term state financing. Further, the short construction timeframes and small project scale mean that projects can be initiated and completed in almost direct response to changing electricity demand, and the shifting winds of public opinion are rarely a consideration. Nuclear is a ponderous, clumsy, lumbering beast by comparison.

Fossil fuel plants and renewable generation facilities diverge where fuel, responsiveness, and decommissioning are concerned. The cost of fossil fuels is rising, with the notable but temporary exception of natural gas. The price of these fuels does not reflect their total cost, as the damage caused by respiratory disorders, acid rain, and global climate change is borne by the public at large rather than the consumer of the fuel. Fossil fuels – principally coal – are thought to be responsible for thousands of premature deaths annually, exacting a human toll far higher than anything that can be attributed to nuclear energy, even considering the effects of major nuclear accidents.

Renewable energy, by definition, requires no fuel. It does have a carbon footprint associated with initial construction and operation, but this is orders of magnitude smaller than that of fossil fuels. It will decrease further in a “breeder” scenario where renewable energy is used to power the manufacturing of renewable energy technologies. There is no credible evidence linking renewable energy technologies to human health issues.

Fossil fuel plants have the most attractive characteristics of responsiveness. They can generally be fired up and shut down in real-time to address fluctuations in demand. Wind and solar, by comparison, provide power intermittently – when the wind blows or the sun shines. This means that large-scale integration of renewable energy must go hand-in-hand with deployment of energy storage technologies. Geothermal energy is the notable exception, which provides base load similar to that of nuclear without the exorbitant start-up and shut-down costs.

Finally, decommissioning of a clapped-out thermal power plant has modest costs. Some site remediation of local soil contamination is likely, but the risk is miniscule compared to the millennia-long liability of nuclear waste. Renewable energy systems can be decommissioned at near-zero cost and environmental impact.

To sum up:



Fossil fuel


Initial capital outlay

Very high; public financing only

Moderate; funded by capital markets

Moderate to very low; funded by capital markets, co-ops, individuals

Construction timeframe/demand risk

Very high


Moderate to very low

Design risk

Very high


Moderate to low

Operational accident risk

Very high; taxpayer-insured

Moderate; privately insured

Moderate to low; privately insured

Fuel commodity price risk


Very high




Moderate to high

Non-existent; requires energy storage technology

Public health cost




Decommissioning risk

Very high; waste must be stored for thousands of years


Low to non-existent

From a risk perspective, nuclear is a bad bet. Fossil fuels are better, but my money is on renewable energy. So when the nuclear power industry makes the claim that it can solve the world’s energy problems, we have every right to be sceptical.