Beware of the nuclear lies
Don't let them trick you

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. Chernobyl could have indirectly caused 100,000 premature deaths from cancer (more). Several independent studies have confirmed that elevated background radiation, of the kind produced by a nuclear accident, increases the incidence of cancer (more more), leading indirectly to many thousands of premature deaths. If, in general, 15% of all people die of cancer (more) and for a given generation a nuclear accident increases this figure to 16% (which is an absolute increase of 1% and a relative increase of 7%; more), and this applies to 10 million people (say, 1/4 of Ukraine), the accident will have killed 100,000 people -- and that is only part of the story. Of course, other forms of power generation can also kill, but that does not make nuclear any better. Coal may be worse, but coal has no future anyway. Whether hydroelectricity is sustainable is an interesting question given the emissions from construction and concrete, biodiversity loss, and methane from stagnant water; in addition, dams can collapse, killing large numbers of people.
Whatever -- "true" sustainables such as solar, wind, and geothermal 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. Whereas a private heat pump might cost $30,000, a nuclear reactor might cost $7 billion. Of course, the nuclear reactor will serve a large number of homes and industries. But in the end, when you include all costs over the lifetime of the power source including waste management, geothermal is cheaper per unit of energy. Governments should, therefore, subsidize geothermal rather than nuclear. The enormous amounts of money being spent on new nuclear reactors should instead be spent on sustainables. 

"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.

"Nuclear waste is less dangerous than other forms of waste"
Believe it or not, one lobbyist tried to explain this to me. There are certainly many forms of hazardous waste, and it is crucial that we stop and reverse the growth in its production. But comparing nuclear waste with other forms of waste does not make nuclear waste any less dangerous. That's a logical fallacy. The long-term insidious dangers of nuclear waste are well-known. If we humans don't watch out, we will contaminate large regions and perhaps even the entire surface of the planet. How future generations would live with that is anyone's guess. 

"Nuclear is more reliable than sustainables"
Geothermal energy runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is virtually inexhaustible.

"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 temperature in the earth's core is about 6000°C. The deeper you drill, the more energy you get .

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

What about existing nuclear reactors?

The dangers of nuclear power should be kept in perspective and not exaggerated. While no new nuclear power stations should be built, that does not necessarily imply the old ones should be shut down early. In that case, we can argue that stopping climate change is even more important (more).

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