Myths And Facts About Nuclear Power

››› ››› SHAUNA THEEL

Media coverage of nuclear power often suggests that environmentalists are illogically blocking the expansion of a relatively safe, low-carbon energy source. However, in reality, economic barriers to nuclear power -- even after decades of subsidies -- have prevented the expansion of nuclear power. While nuclear power does provide meaningful climate benefits over fossil fuels, economic factors and the need for strict safety regulations have led many environmentalists to focus instead on putting a price on carbon, which would benefit all low-carbon energy sources including nuclear.

MYTH: Nuclear Power Is Cheaper Than Renewable Energy

  • In a Forbes op-ed, the Heartland Institute's James Taylor claimed that nuclear power does "not impose nearly as much economic punishment... as prohibitively expensive and unreliable wind and solar power," and that nuclear is "substantially less expensive than wind and solar, and will remain that way for the foreseeable future." [Forbes, 11/7/13]
  • The Wall Street Journal's Holman Jenkins stated "I'm impressed with the prospects for cheaper, inherently safe nuclear power, like in the new [CNN] documentary, 'Pandora's Promise' (go see it!)." Yet Jenkins has previously said that "any chance of wind and solar becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels" is "hopeless." [Wall Street Journal, 6/28/13] [Wall Street Journal, 1/25/12]
  • A Wall Street Journal op-ed by an American Enterprise Institute fellow ignored historical subsidies to suggest wind energy is more subsidized than any other fuel source, "The costs of wind subsidies are extraordinarily high -- $52.48 per one million watt hours generated, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By contrast, the subsidies for generating the same amount of electricity from nuclear power are $3.10, from hydropower 84 cents, from coal 64 cents, and from natural gas 63 cents." [Wall Street Journal, 12/25/12]

FACT: Expanding Nuclear Not Economical After Decades Of Subsidies

New Wind Generation Is Cheaper Than New Nuclear Generation. The chart below was created using data from the nonpartisan Energy Information Administration (EIA) on estimated total system levelized cost, which EIA states is a "convenient summary measure of the overall competiveness of different generating technologies," of new generation from solar photovoltaics (PV), advanced nuclear, conventional coal, hydropower, onshore wind, and conventional combined cycle natural gas-fired power in 2018. Wind is much cheaper than nuclear, while solar is expected to be more expensive in the near-future. However, solar costs are dropping rapidly, while analyses suggest that nuclear has actually been getting more expensive.

[Energy Information Administration, 1/28/13] [Climate Progress, 4/6/11]

Nuclear Power Has Received More Historical Subsidies Than Renewables. A September 2011 paper by DBL Investors included this chart showing that oil and gas and nuclear power have received far more subsidies in the long-run than renewables have:

Source: DBL Investors[DBL Investors, September 2011]

2005 Act Provided Potentially Hundreds Of Billions In Liability Subsidies For Nuclear. In addition, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 included billions of dollars in direct subsidies to nuclear power, and extended the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, which has sharply limited the nuclear industry's liability for accidents for decades. The conservative Taxpayers for Common Sense outlined the "billions in subsidies" for the nuclear industry under the 2005 act:

  • Price-Anderson limits the liability of nuclear power plants to $10.7 billion in the event of an accident.
  • A 1997 study by DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated that a reactor spent fuel pool fire could result in as many as 143,000 cancer deaths, and cause as much as $599 billion in property damage.
  • Reauthorizing and extending Price-Anderson shields proposed new reactors from liability, leaving federal taxpayers, not nuclear operators, on the hook for as much as hundreds of billions of dollars in damages in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. [...]
  • $100 million for two additional demonstration projects for hydrogen production at existing nuclear reactors.
  • Up to $2 billion paid to industry to cover cost overruns due to construction delays. [...]
  • Forks over $1.25 billion in government money for planning and constructing a nuclear reactor in Idaho that also generates hydrogen. [Taxpayers for Common Sense, 5/24/05]

Cheap Natural Gas Has Made Many Nuclear Plants Uneconomical. The Economist reported that the "culprit" behind nuclear power plants that have been shut down or called off is the low price of natural gas, due to an expanded supply from fracking:

Far from building new reactors, utilities are closing existing ones. Also in May, Dominion power shut a nuclear plant in Wisconsin that was licensed for another 20 years, "based purely on economics".

The culprit is the price of natural gas, which fell from over $13 per million British thermal units in 2008, when many of the applications to build new nuclear plants were lodged, to just $2 last year. Although it has since recovered to over $4, America's huge reserves of shale gas should stop it from rising much for years to come. That makes some old nuclear plants costlier to run than gas-fired ones. Factoring in the massive expense of building new reactors--the pair at Vogtle will cost around $15 billion--makes nuclear power even less competitive. David Crane, the boss of NRG Energy, which scrapped plans to build two reactors in Texas in 2011 after sinking $331m into the project, estimates that new gas-fired generation costs $0.04 per kilowatt-hour, against at least $0.10 for nuclear. [The Economist, 6/1/13]

InsideClimate News reported that the first nuclear power plant closures in 15 years were "primarily" due to the economics of an aging fleet in a market where no price on carbon is in place and natural gas is increasingly cheap. The article included the following map of U.S. nuclear plants:

Source: InsideClimate News

[InsideClimate News, 9/24/13]

Putting A Price On Carbon Could Make Nuclear More Competitive. A 2009 update of an oft-cited interdisciplinary MIT study found that the economic situation for nuclear is the "same" as it was in 2003 -- that is, "[i]n deregulated markets, nuclear power is not now cost competitive with coal and natural gas." This chart created from data in the 2009 report illustrates that nuclear would be more competitive with fossil fuels with a price on carbon:

MIT

MYTH: Environmentalists Have Stopped Nuclear Power

  • The Wall Street Journal's editorial board wrote that "more than other energy sources, nuclear plants have had their costs increased by artificial political obstacles and delay." [The Wall Street Journal3/14/11]
  • Then-Fox Business host Eric Bolling stated, "Here's the problem. No one can get the permit to build the reactor. They have to jump through literally thousands of hoops." [Fox Business, Follow The Money with Eric Bolling3/11/11]
  • In a Fox News op-ed, Alex Epstein of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights claimed that as a "consequence of the anti-nuclear hysteria in [the 1970s], the U.S. government made it either impossible or economically prohibitive to build new plants, in the name of 'safety.'" [FoxNews.com, 7/23/11]

FACT: Economics, Not Environmentalists, Has Blocked Nuclear Power

Cato Institute: There's "Zero Evidence" That Environmental Opposition Is Preventing New Nuclear Plants. Jerry Taylor of the libertarian Cato Institute stated in a post for Wall Street Journal's "The Experts" that "Nuclear proponents like to dodge the cost estimates and assert that it is environmental opposition preventing new plant orders. But there's zero evidence for this proposition":

Nuclear power simply cannot compete with gas-fired power. And absent some major technological breakthrough, it's unlikely to do so in the future.

This is not a matter of opinion. This is a matter of economic fact. Even with all of the production tax credits, loan guarantees and a battery of other direct and indirect subsidies, nuclear power remains the most expensive source of conventional electricity on the grid once capital costs are plugged into the equation. That's why no one has ordered a new nuclear power plant in decades. That's why nuclear power plants are being retired today in the face of cheap natural gas for as far as the eye can see.

Nuclear proponents like to dodge the cost estimates and assert that it is environmental opposition preventing new plant orders. But there's zero evidence for this proposition. The regulations governing new plant licensing and construction were overhauled in the 1990s at the behest of industry, and the Nuclear Energy Institute--the trade association for the industry--today offers no such complaints about federal regulation. We'll only know about environmental opposition once new plants are able to clear the economic hurdle. And so far, they haven't.

Nor does one find more favorable economics abroad. Construction costs in France--the most "nuclear friendly" free market economy in the world--are just as high as they are here. The same holds true in Japan prior to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

The Council on Foreign Relations' Michael Levi agreed, stating:

Right now, nuclear power isn't being kept down by safety rules, public opposition or waste problems. It's stalled because it's expensive--a problem exacerbated by cheap natural gas. [Wall Street Journal, 4/17/13]

Nuclear Power Emits Very Few Of The Greenhouse Gases Driving Climate Change. The following chart created by Josh Nelson with data from OECD/NEA shows that renewable and nuclear energy emit significantly fewer greenhouses than coal, oil and gas:

[Washington Post2/22/10]

NRDC: No One Should "Close The Door To The Prospect" Of Competitive Nuclear Power. In response to an open letter from four top climate scientists calling on environmentalists to support nuclear power, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) countered that they do not think that nuclear power is as economical as energy efficiency and renewables, but that they support putting a price on carbon pollution and then letting nuclear compete on a "level playing field":

[T]he open letter suggests that that it is the environmental community that is somehow holding back a nuclear power surge. Nothing could be further from the truth. A US "nuclear renaissance" has failed to materialize, despite targeted federal subsidies, because of nuclear power's high capital cost, long construction times, the lower demand for electricity due largely to improvements in energy efficiency, and competition from renewables. Unless Hansen, et al. want the US to join the society of planned economies, the better approach to which we can all agree is to internalize the cost of carbon emissions and let energy efficiency, renewables and nuclear compete on a level playing field. We and the Hansen group obviously disagree on who the winners are likely to be, but let's not delay further in finding out.

NRDC is a long-time advocate for expanded research spanning a wide range of energy technologies. No one can or should close the door to the prospect of improved nuclear power technology. But in a world with constrained capital resources and an urgent need to find the lowest cost ways to cut carbon pollution, nuclear power ranks far down the list of promising or likely solutions. [Natural Resources Defense Council, 11/5/13]

Many Do Argue That Renewable Energy And Energy Efficiency Is A Better Investment. InsideClimate News reported in 2009 on an Environment America report that found that investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy could prevent twice as much pollution as investing in nuclear energy:

A new era of nuclear power wouldn't be "up to the job" of shrinking America's greenhouse gas pollution fast enough to stop the most damaging consequences of global warming, according to a new report from Environment America.

Nuclear power advocates in the United States have championed the idea of constructing at least 100 new nuclear plants by 2030 as a strategy against climate change.

Not only would that timeframe be logistically nearly impossible to meet, but building a new generation of reactors would be far more expensive and far less effective at reducing emissions than other sources of carbon-free power, Environment America said in its report, "Generating Failure."

The up-front capital costs of 100 new nuclear reactors would be roughly $600 billion and could leap to $1 trillion.

If that same money were "invested in energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy instead," it "could prevent twice as much pollution over the next 20 years," the report said. [InsideClimate News, 11/30/09]

And Others Point Out That Nuclear Power Uses More Water Than Most Renewable Sources. One environmental argument for supporting renewable energy over nuclear power is that it uses a lot of water, potentially straining areas with water shortages, as this image from KQED shows:

Source: KQED

[KQED.org via Environmental Defense Fund, 7/25/13]

MYTH: Nuclear Power Is Prohibitively Dangerous

  • Yahoo News ran an article titled "Fukushima fallout may be causing illness in American babies: Study" based on a study that had clear signs of data fixing from anti-nuclear authors that have distorted data in the past. [Yahoo News, 4/5/13] [Depleted Cranium, 4/10/13] [Scientific American, 6/21/11]
  • The international version of the New York Times published an op-ed by anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott arguing that Chernobyl showed that we should stop nuclear power use, without noting any of the unique failures that led to that disaster. [The International Herald Tribune (now known as the International New York Times), 12/2/11]
  • The Huffington Post suggested that you should "avoid bluefin tuna" as they are "Still Radioactive Years After Fukushima," even though the levels of radiation were well below those that would threaten human health. [Huffington Post, 2/21/13] [Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 8/28/13]
  • U-T San Diego published an op-ed claiming that each San Onfre reactor "produced enough weapons-usable plutonium annually to make 100 A-bombs," without noting that the plutonium at San Onfre is not weapons-grade. [U-T San Diego, 6/19/13]

FACT: Fossil Fuels Behind Far More Deaths

IEA: Nuclear Is The Least Deadly Major Power Source. A 2002 review by the International Energy Agency (IEA) compared the fatalities per unit of power for major energy sources, examining their full life cycles from extraction to post-use including deaths from accidents. They found that nuclear resulted in the least number of deaths, and coal had the highest. The New Scientist created this chart of the results:

[New Scientist, 3/23/11]

NASA Scientists: By Replacing Fossil Fuels, Nuclear Power Has Prevented 1.8 Million Air Pollution-Related Deaths. Scientists from NASA studied the effects of using nuclear power in place of fossil-fuel energy sources over the past four decades. They found using nuclear power has prevented around 1.8 million air pollution-related deaths, in addition to reducing global carbon emissions by 64 gigatons, from 1971 to 2009. [Chemical & Engineering News, 4/8/13]

Coal Ash Is More Radioactive Than Nuclear Waste. Scientific American reported that "the fly ash emitted by a power plant--a by-product from burning coal for electricity--carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy." However, the scientists emphasized that "health risks from radiation in coal by-products are low," and that other consequences of coal pose greater health risks. As this chart shows, nuclear power is a miniscule part of most people's exposure to radiation, far outweighed by natural sources:

[Scientific American, 12/13/07] [How It Works, 3/15/11]

Power Reactors Like That In Chernobyl Could Not Be Licensed In The U.S. PBS Frontline reprinted an excerpt from the 1993 book Nuclear Renewal by Richard Rhodes, explaining why a disaster like Chernobyl's could not happen in the U.S.:

No commercial reactor in the United States is designed anything like the RBMK reactor. [Physicist Bernard] Cohen summarizes several of the differences:

1. A reactor which is unstable against a loss of water could not be licensed in the United States.

2. A reactor which is unstable against a temperature increase could not be licensed here.

3. A large power reactor without a containment [structure] could not be licensed here.

The absence of a containment structure is especially important. As Cohen point out about Chernobyl, "Post-accident analyses indicate that if there had been a U.S.-style containment, none of the radioactivity would have escaped, and there would have been no injuries or deaths."

[...]

Three Mile Island and Chernobyl represent extreme instances of the problem that seems to trouble the American public more than any other about commercial nuclear power: its apparent danger. But risk is always relative. [Nuclear Renewal, 1993, via PBS Frontline]

It Is Physically Impossible For Nuclear Reactors To Become Nuclear Bombs. The expansion of nuclear power to countries that do not currently have a nuclear bomb worries some security experts as they could potentially enrich the uranium to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb. However, for a country such as the U.S., nuclear power poses no nuclear bomb threat because, as University of California, Berkeley physicist Richard Muller explained, it is impossible for a nuclear reactor to become a nuclear bomb:

For their fuel, reactors use primarily U-235, just as in a nuclear bomb. But the uranium is not enriched to bomb quality. Recall that natural uranium has only 0.7% U-235; the rest is U-238. For use in a bomb, the U-235 has to be enriched to about 80%. But for a nuclear reactor, it only has to be enriched to about 3%.

[...]

Can a reactor turn into an atomic bomb?

No. The real reason is that a reactor depends on slow neutrons. If the chain reaction begins to run away (because the number of absorbed neutrons in each generation becomes greater than 1) then the fuel heats up. Pretty soon it is hot enough to explode. This will happen as soon as the fuel is a few thousand degrees. That will blow up the reactor, but the energy released will be about the same that you would get from TNT. It's an explosion, but it is a million times smaller than an nuclear bomb.

In the atomic bomb, they had to use fast neutrons (not moderated) in order to have the entire 80 generations over with before the bomb blew itself apart. After 80 generations, the temperature was many millions of degrees. The only reason is hasn't yet blown apart is that there wasn't enough time! With moderated neutrons, the chain reaction is much slower, since the neutrons are slower. [Physics for Future Presidents, 2001] [NPR, 10/14/13]

MYTH: Nuclear Power Is Harmless

  • In a Fox News op-ed, Alex Epstein of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights claimed the "one danger of running a nuclear plant is a large release of radiation," which is "extremely unlikely." [FoxNews.com, 7/23/11]
  • Then-Fox Business host Eric Bolling said that "not a death" came from Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster while "dozens" have died from wind turbines. [Fox Business, Follow The Money with Eric Bolling, 3/11/11]
  • The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed suggesting that "low radiation doses may immunize the body against cancer and birth defects by stimulating these repair mechanisms into greater responsiveness, just as vaccines stimulate the immune system." However, the National Research Council states that the "weight of the evidence" does not support a positive impact from low doses of radiation. [Wall Street Journal, 3/6/12] [National Research Council, 2006]

FACT: Regulations Needed To Prevent Accidents, Attacks

Scientists: Fukushima Showed Need To Reevaluate Regulations On Nuclear Energy. Discussing Japan's nuclear crisis in the New York Times' Room for Debate blog, Frank N. von Hippel, a nuclear physicist and professor of public and international affairs at Princeton, wrote that the accident at Japan's Fukushima reactor suggests that "rejected suggestions like the filtered vent system should be considered again." Other scientists and experts suggested similar reevaluations of public safety regulations. From von Hippel's piece:

In 1982, a colleague and I pointed out that not all U.S. reactor containments would have survived the T.M.I. [Three Mile Island] accident, and we suggested that all U.S. reactors be retrofitted with a robust filter system made of sand and charcoal that could filter the gases that would have to be released if a containment was approaching its failure pressure. The nuclear utilities resisted, however, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as usual, did not press for change.

The Fukushima accident suggests once more that the "defense in depth" design of current nuclear reactors may not be deep enough and that previously rejected suggestions like the filtered vent system should be considered again. [New York Times3/13/11] [Media Matters, 3/14/11]

AP: Poor Handling Of Expanding Nuclear Waste Poses Threat In Case Of Accident Or Attack. The Associated Press reported that current storage of an expanding amount of nuclear waste puts the U.S. at risk of a release of radiation, as occurred in Fukushima, while alternatives such as storing the waste in Yucca Mountain or reprocessing the spent fuel pose their own risks and political backlash:

The U.S. has 71,862 tons of the waste, according to state-by-state numbers obtained by The Associated Press. But the nation has no place to permanently store the material, which stays dangerous for tens of thousands of years.

Plans to store nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain have been abandoned, but even if a facility had been built there, America already has more waste than it could have handled.

Three-quarters of the waste sits in water-filled cooling pools like those at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Japan, outside the thick concrete-and-steel barriers meant to guard against a radioactive release from a nuclear reactor.

Spent fuel at Dai-ichi overheated, possibly melting fuel-rod casings and spewing radiation into the air, after Japan's tsunami knocked out power to cooling systems at the plant.

The rest of the spent fuel from commercial U.S. reactors has been put into dry cask storage, but regulators only envision those as a solution for about a century and the waste would eventually have to be deposited into a Yucca-like facility.

The U.S. nuclear industry says the waste is being stored safely at power-plant sites, though it has long pushed for a long-term storage facility. Meanwhile, the industry's collective pile of waste is growing by about 2,200 tons a year; experts say some of the pools in the United States contain four times the amount of spent fuel that they were designed to handle.

[...]
Safety advocates have long urged the NRC to force utility operators to reduce the amount of spent fuel in their pools. The more tightly packed they are, the more quickly they can overheat and spew radiation into the environment in case of an accident, a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

[...]

Some countries -- such as France, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom -- reprocess their spent fuel into new nuclear fuel to help reduce the amount of waste.

The remaining waste is solidified into a glass. It needs to be stored in a long-term waste repository, but reprocessing reduces the volume of waste by three-quarters.

Because reprocessing isolates plutonium, which can be used to make a nuclear weapon, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter put a stop to it in the U.S. The ban was later overturned, but the country still does not reprocess. [Associated Press, 3/22/11]

GAO: Nuclear Waste Fire Could Lead To "Widespread Contamination." The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that if a fire were to occur in a spent fuel pool (containing nuclear waste), the probability of which is "difficult to quantify" but may be "low," there could be "widespread contamination":

Studies show that the key risk posed by spent nuclear fuel involves a release of radiation that could harm human health or the environment. The highest consequence event posing such a risk would be a self-sustaining fire in a drained or partially drained spent fuel pool, resulting in a severe widespread release of radiation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which regulates the nation's spent nuclear fuel, considers the probability of such an event to be low. According to studies GAO reviewed, the probability of such a fire is difficult to quantify because of the variables affecting whether a fire starts and spreads. Studies show that this low-probability scenario could have high consequences, however, depending on the severity of the radiation release. These consequences include widespread contamination, a significant increase in the probability of fatal cancer in the affected population, and the possibility of early fatalities. According to studies and NRC officials, mitigating procedures, such as replacement water to respond to a loss of pool water from an accident or attack, could help prevent a fire. Because a decision on a permanent means of disposing of spent fuel may not be made for years, NRC officials and others may need to make interim decisions, which could be informed by past studies on stored spent fuel. [Government Accountability Office, 8/15/12]

Study: More Protections Needed To Protect Against Terrorist Attacks On Nuclear Plants. Reuters reported that none of the U.S.'s 104 nuclear reactors is protected against at 9/11-style attack:

U.S. nuclear power plants are not adequately protected from threats, including the theft of bomb-grade material that could be used to make weapons and attacks intended to cause a reactor meltdown, a University of Texas report said on Thursday.

Not one of the country's 104 commercial nuclear reactors or three research reactors is protected against an attack involving multiple players such as the ones carried out by 19 airplane hijackers on 9/11, said the report by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, or NPPP, at the University of Texas, Austin.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) only requires power plants to protect against attacks carried out by five or six people, according to the report, entitled Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack. In addition, the NRC does not require plants to protect themselves against attacks from high-powered sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. [Reuters, 8/15/13]

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.