Why nuclear power is not an option

Richard Parncutt 

2022 January


To advance their cause, the nuclear lobby has been spreading lies and distortions with remarkable success. Amazing numbers of people believe the following.

"Hardly anyone ever died from nuclear accident"
Not true! Many nuclear accidents caused many fatalities. The death toll is often unknown because it’s hard to determine whether cancer is caused by a given radiation source. Chernobyl could have indirectly caused 100,000 premature deaths from cancer. Coal may be even worse, but coal has no future anyway. The interesting comparison is with sustainables, which are much safer.

"Nuclear reactors produce large amounts of power cheaply"
Large amounts of power, yes. Cheaply, no. Today, s
olar is the cheapest. Per unit of energy, nuclear is very expensive and certainly  more expensive than sustainables, especially when you include the cost of closing down old reactors and dealing with the waste. If you’re not seeing the total cost of nuclear power in your electricity bill, it’s because government subsidies are filling the gap.

"Nuclear is sustainable"
Not true! There are 250,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste in temporary storage worldwide. Every new reactor increases our toxic legacy to future generations. Only a tiny fraction of that waste is needed for research.

"Nuclear is more reliable than sustainables"
Geothermal energy runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is virtually inexhaustible. The enormous amounts of money being spent on new nuclear reactors is generally better spent on new geothermal. 

"To tackle global warming, we need new small modern nuclear power plants"
Not a good plan, I'm afraid. Apart from all the other problems, new nuclear power plants typically take ten years to build. Global warming is too urgent for that. We need to make radical changes in the next few years. Sustainables can be deployed more quickly.

"Nuclear power is inevitable for long-term, large-scale sustainability"
Really? I'm no expert, but surely experts have prepared detailed long-term plans for sustainable energy without new nuclear power plants in most countries and regions of the world. It's a matter of implementing such recommendations. Take for example the European Green Deal.

These are not the only myths. I have tried to focus on the simplest and most obvious ones.

If those points are so obvious, why have the nuclear lobby’s lies been so influential?
There are good reasons for that:

1. The nuclear lobby has plenty of money and good government connections. You need big money to build reactors, and the link to defense (nuclear weapons) creates an additional strong financial and political foundation.

2. Like the fossil fuel industry, the nuclear lobby thinks neoliberalism is normal. Those people tend to regard short-term profit as more important than the health and survival of future generations. Distortion of the truth is normal and ok if necessary to increase one's capital on the quasi-free market. It's part of freedom.

3. Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2 gives the impression that since c2 is such a very large number (the square of the speed of light!) you can get a very large amount of energy E from with a very small amount m of nuclear fuel. Therefore, the amount of waste will be very small. Therefore, the cost per unit energy will be low. Or will it?

Point 3 is a good example of misleading argumentation. First, the mass converted to energy in fission is only about 0.1% of the actual mass of fuel (fusion, 0.7%; more). More important, Einstein’s equation says nothing about

Can sustainable sources produce enough power?

It is true that nuclear power can produce large amounts of electricity. Current global nuclear capacity is at about 394 GW from 442 reactor units, and it could be increased to over 600 GW (more). Global geothermal power generation potential is currently only 13 GW and estimates of the potential range from 80 GW (more) to 256 GW (more).

But these numbers depend on how deeply one is prepared to drill. When nuclear-sized budgets are applied to geothermal projects, more energy will become available. In the long term, geothermal energy is practically inexhaustible. The deeper you drill, the more you get.

Meanwhile, the solution is to mix larger and smaller sustainable sources of electricity in decentralized, resilient networks.(more; more; more). We also need to reduce wastage and improve efficiency. All such goals can be achieved most efficiently using only sustainables.

What about nuclear fusion?

This text is about fission reactors. In future, fusion power could become a viable option. There are some scary question marks, but given the urgency of stopping global warming, it's a good idea right now to throw a lot of money at research and development of fusion reactors. More

The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at gmx dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage