Sunday Commentary: Have We Come Full Circle on Nuclear Power?

Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

It caught my attention yesterday when Max Szabo, a PR consultant associated largely with progressive prosecutors tweeted, “A formal effort was launched today to stop closure of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.”

“The plant is CA’s largest source of clean energy,” he wrote.  “Closing it will significantly increase emissions & undermine CA’s ambitious clean energy goals.”

Local San Luis Obispo news station KSBY reported, “Plans to shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant near Avila beach are still underway. It is the last nuclear plant left in California, and clean energy activists are fighting against the closure.”

The regulatory licenses of the 40 year old plant are set to expire in 2024 and 2025 and plans have been made to shut it down.

But in an ironic twist, the station reported, “Environmental activists, scientists, and elected officials made their voices heard today against the closure of Diablo Canyon.”

“California’s climate future matters a lot and Diablo Canyon is the single largest source of clean energy in California,” said Dr. Seaver Wang, senior climate and energy analyst. “Most importantly, if the Diablo Canyon is closed as scheduled, it will throw a major wrench into California’s decarbonization plans.”

“We again are in a climate and energy crisis,” said Isabelle Boemeke, founder and executive director of the Save Clean Energy organization. “The state needs more energy not less and we need more clean energy not less of it.”

Not everyone agrees.  Some believe that “nuclear energy leaves a hidden carbon footprint when looking at the production behind it.”

“When you think of the mining of uranium, the milling, the enrichment, the building of the nuclear plant with hundreds of tons of cement and concrete,” said Linda Seeley, the spokesperson for Mothers for Peace organization (who I have known for about 40 years and whose organization was formed to oppose Diablo Canyon).

Still it’s an interesting debate now.  I was a small child in the late 1970s when Diablo Canyon was first proposed.  I remember marching against it.  I remember Governor Jerry Brown in his first go round coming to speak.  And I remember countless people being arrested for blockading the power plant, and then released and coming to our home to shower up and go back to the front.

Of concern at the time, what to do about nuclear waste, the potential for a radioactive leak – Three Mile Island had just occurred, Chernobyl was in the near future – and then there were California specific concerns about the proximity to an earthquake fault.

Despite the protests the issue of nuclear power seems to divide both the environmental and scientific community.

Daniel B. Poneman is a Senior Fellow with the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School argued in a 2019 article in Scientific American that we can’t solve climate change without nuclear power.

“Nuclear energy is the largest source of carbon-free energy in the U.S. by a huge margin and it has a major role to play in confronting the global climate challenge,” he wrote warning about the need for vigilance about the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue regimes.  “

He said, “The threat of nuclear proliferation abroad should not lead us to abandon nuclear energy at home. Indeed, American nuclear leadership has always been critical to guiding the safe, responsible use of civilian nuclear energy around the world.”

Not everyone agrees with that.

Consumed fuel rods remain a problem with “hundreds of radioactive waste sites in many countries that must be maintained and funded for at least 200,000 years, far beyond the lifetimes of any nuclear power plant.”

Mark Jacobson in research from Cambridge University published by the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation argues, “new nuclear power costs about 5 times more than onshore wind power per kWh (between 2.3 to 7.4 times depending upon location and integration issues). Nuclear takes 5 to 17 years longer between planning and operation and produces on average 23 times the emissions per unit electricity generated (between 9 to 37 times depending upon plant size and construction schedule).”

In addition, he argues, “it creates risk and cost associated with weapons proliferation, meltdown, mining lung cancer, and waste risks. Clean, renewables avoid all such risks.”

BBC summed it up in a 2019 analysis: “Nuclear is good for the environment. Nuclear is bad for the environment. Both statements are true.”

The issue of waste storage is not insignificant with the BBC pointing out, that in Great Britain for instance, “contaminated material has been held in a temporary store at the Sellafield site in Cumbria.”

“The government has been trying for years to secure a site with the right geology,” they write.  “So far no permanent dump has been agreed – that is after 70 years of nuclear power in the UK.”

The big question: can we get by without new nuclear?

“The UK policy identifying the need for nuclear to play a role alongside renewables has been supported by numerous independent studies,” said a spokesperson for EDF.  “Nuclear provides low-carbon electricity when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.”

“The issue has caused a bitter divide between environmentalists, with some arguing that the risk from climate change is so severe that it’s worth supping nuclear fuel, albeit with a long spoon,” the BBC continues.  “Others argue that the technology is dead and that renewables and other options can supply the UK’s needs without the danger of nuclear accidents and waste.”

Prof Jim Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre, told BBC News: “Most analysts now have accepted that we don’t need 30% of energy from nuclear – renewables can take a substantially bigger share.

“But taking any option off the table makes the job of meeting essential carbon targets even harder. It would certainly be hard to do without nuclear altogether.”

I have tended to oppose nuclear power throughout my lifetime in part between the cost and problematic nature of the waste.  But the climate emergency needs to make all of us re-think our calculations and that probably means that nuclear at least has to be in consideration as a potential piece of the solution.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 Comments

  1. Keith Olson

    Some believe that “nuclear energy leaves a hidden carbon footprint when looking at the production behind it.”
    “When you think of the mining of uranium, the milling, the enrichment, the building of the nuclear plant with hundreds of tons of cement and concrete,”

    Personally I feel if we’re really serious about reducing carbon we need to produce much more nuclear energy.  It’s not like green energy doesn’t leave a giant footprint either:

    Among the material realities of green energy:

    Building wind turbines and solar panels to generate electricity, as well as batteries to fuel electric vehicles, requires, on average, more than 10 times the quantity of materials, compared with building machines using hydrocarbons to deliver the same amount of energy to society.

    A single electric car contains more cobalt than 1,000 smartphone batteries; the blades on a single wind turbine have more plastic than 5 million smartphones; and a solar array that can power one data center uses more glass than 50 million phones.

    Replacing hydrocarbons with green machines under current plans—never mind aspirations for far greater expansion—will vastly increase the mining of various critical minerals around the world. For example, a single electric car battery weighing 1,000 pounds requires extracting and processing some 500,000 pounds of materials. Averaged over a battery’s life, each mile of driving an electric car “consumes” five pounds of earth. Using an internal combustion engine consumes about 0.2 pounds of liquids per mile.

    Oil, natural gas, and coal are needed to produce the concrete, steel, plastics, and purified minerals used to build green machines. The energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil is used in the processes to fabricate a single battery that can store the equivalent of one barrel of oil.

    By 2050, with current plans, the quantity of worn-out solar panels—much of it nonrecyclable—will constitute double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic waste, along with over 3 million tons per year of unrecyclable plastics from worn-out wind turbine blades. By 2030, more than 10 million tons per year of batteries will become garbage.
    https://www.manhattan-institute.org/mines-minerals-and-green-energy-reality-check#:~:text=For%20example%2C%20the%20mining%20of%20indium%2C%20used%20in,grid%29%2C%20will%20need%20to%20rise%20more%20than%202%2C000%25.

  2. Ron Oertel

    I believe that UC Davis owns the site of a proposed nuclear power site, in which construction was started some decades ago – around the time that the movie “The Birds” was being filmed a few hundred/thousand feet away – which is also now UC Davis property.  (The location of “Mitch Brenner’s house”.)

    https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/bodega-bays-hole-in-the-head-has-a-rich-history/

    https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/lebaron-looking-back-50-years-after-battle-of-bodega-head/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodega_Bay_Nuclear_Power_Plant

  3. Alan Miller

    Expanded nuclear is an inevitability, though it will be decades.  There are so many environmental concerns with ‘clean’ energy that are being ignored.  Exactly what the person calling against nuclear is doing – looking at the full cycle and full effects – which can be warped for argumentative purposes to satisfy any point of view by where one sets their limits.  My concern is not with the technology itself, but with politics.  Due to politics, we have placed our ‘final resting grounds’ in SW Nevada, in a geologically active area.  This is due to Nevada having so few votes congressional votes and drawing the short stick.  An area of geologically inactive salt flats in SE New Mexico are a far superior final resting spot.  With nuclear, politics cannot be allowed to win, yet it has, and as a result we still have ‘temporary’ waste waste sites scattered throughout the country.  The improved safety of the newer ‘small’ nuclear technology is well documented but not mentioned here.  But Bogeda Bay, really?  That a site just a few miles from the San Andreas and along the ocean in a tsunami zone was ever considered as a nuclear site . . . insanity.  I do believe in nuclear power as green technology.  It’s human beings that I do not have much faith in.

  4. Ron Oertel

    I was a small child in the late 1970s when Diablo Canyon was first proposed.  I remember marching against it.

    And nowadays, you “march for” freeways, sprawl, and nuclear power.

    Full-circle, indeed.  🙂

      1. Ron Oertel

        Some people discard the logical positions of being a liberal, while doubling-down on the illogical positions.

        It’s as if they make two poor choices, in one. (Actually, there’s a whole group of them like that.)

        And some don’t really believe either of those positions (and never did), but pretend that they do for other reasons.

  5. Alan Miller

    If You Are Not a Liberal at 25, You Have No Heart. If You Are Not a Conservative at 35 You Have No Brain

    What’s not discussed is this context is those that become more progressive as they get older . . .

    Thoughts, My Minions?

  6. Richard_McCann

    I have been through many iterations of the debate over Diablo, starting in 1985. Here’s what I wrote in the Davis Enterprise as a guest on John Mott-Smith’s column:

    https://mcubedecon.com/2021/11/16/what-to-do-about-diablo-canyon/

    And here’s several other links to what I’ve posted on the problems for nuclear power going forward. It’s always about “we’ll fix that soon…”
     Which brings us to the biggest problem—that nuclear is very costly compared to the alternatives. I wrote about this problem here:
    https://mcubedecon.com/2019/12/26/nuclear-vs-storage-which-is-in-our-future/
    As I posted earlier, the about to be completed Vogtle nuclear plant will cost ratepayers in Georgia and South Carolina about $100 per MWh–more than 30% more than the assumption used by MIT. PG&E withdrew its relicensing request for Diablo Canyon because the utility projected the cost to be $100 to $120 per MWh. Another recent study found nuclear costs worldwide exceeded $100/MWh and it takes an average of a decade finish a plant.
    Notably, another study showed that nuclear costs have been rising while the costs almost all other technologies have been falling.
    Cost overruns are a continual problem for the industry, and at least 3 large engineering firms have gone into bankruptcy due to this problem.
    https://mcubedecon.com/2019/04/26/the-two-problems-to-be-addressed-head-on-by-nuclear-power-advocates/
    And this relates to a second problem—it’s not clear if the storage costs that France has incurred are rolled into electricity prices or financed in some other hidden manner.
    The other problem is the catastrophic risk posed by an accident (and these happen on a fairly regular basis.) I wrote about that here:
    https://mcubedecon.com/2020/02/04/calculating-the-risk-reduction-benefits-of-closing-germanys-nuclear-plants/
     
    The risk adds 1.2 to 2.7 cents/kWh to listed cost.
     

  7. Jim Frame

    For me the deal-killer with nuclear is that the inevitable accidents have the potential to immediately affect the health of millions and render large areas of land uninhabitable for thousands of years.  Nuclear is the energy equivalent of short-selling:  limited upside potential, unlimited downside potential.  And the huge cost of the plants and their engineering/construction complexity renders them susceptible to defects from corrupt practices.

    The new small reactors address some of these problems, but I’m not sure they go far enough for my comfort level.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Jim… your concerns are NOT unwarranted… I share them,., as I have serious concerns with geothermal, wind, solar, hydro-electric, coal-fired, NG-fired, coal-fired, etc…. until a ‘perfect’ alternative (Fusion?  which is decades away), we should keep all the tools in the toolbox, and know  when, how, location, (time, place, manner) to utilize them to meet an obvious need, “energy”…

      TINSTAAFL… all problems have solutions… all solutions have problems… we need to look at “total” cost, including all long term risk (human, wildlife, environmental), including magnitude of the risks, whether we can avoid/mitigate those risks… it is NOT simple… but as you point out, it is important, and you offered a great litmus test…

      …  is the energy equivalent of short-selling:  limited upside potential, unlimited downside potential.  And the huge cost of the plants and their engineering/construction complexity renders them susceptible to defects from corrupt practices.

      That could be well said for all of our alternatives… depending who you ask, the hydro-power is problematic… wind, same… solar, same… geothermal, same… coal/NG fired, same (but more on point if you only look at carbon [and, we are ‘carbon-based’ beings])… cost and environment impact (different sectors/different timeline) applies to all ‘alternatives… I say again, it is not simple… there is no ‘panacea’ that I can see… only ‘trade-offs’… someone else pointed out, very correctly,

      There are so many environmental concerns with ‘clean’ energy that are being ignored.  Exactly what the person calling against nuclear is doing – looking at the full cycle and full effects – which can be warped for argumentative purposes to satisfy any point of view by where one sets their limits.

      My concern is not with the technology itself, but with politics

      As an engineer, I fully agree with that.. spot on!  Politics, ruled by those who are oft not even cognizant of science, except the “Poli” kind don’t seem to realize that they can ‘win the battle’ but ‘lose the war’…

      This is serious stuff… as is the practical matter of giving preference to “the low bidder”… the architects/engineers in Pisa got the “low bid” submission for designing the famous tower… in Europe, the tradition was (is?) to throw out ‘low bids’, ‘high bids’, and evaluate the bids on their merit/expertise (value)… in the US, we are slowly getting there…

       

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