You’ve seen them in every comment thread. Hit-and-run or determined nay-saying, they will repost the same objections no matter how much breadth of detail is provided by the article author or by follow-up comments. These are my responses; I’ve intentionally focused on aspects of nuclear because it is quite capable of standing up for itself, despite how stark comparisons with certain other diffuse generation methods are. Have I missed any?
1. Yes actually, we have learned a lot from Fukushima, and we can all benefit if we dare venture out of our ideological comfort zone.
– We learned that it takes direct impact by constructively interfering, 15 metre high once-in-a-1000-year tsunamis to cause partial meltdowns in 70s era light water reactors after they survived an unprecedented magnitude 9 earthquake intact and shut down safely as designed.
– We learned a lot about design deficiencies as most countries with nuclear power sensibly reviewed the safety and design of their reactors.
– We learned that a gigantic exclusion zone definitely protects the population from any short term medical effects of radiation release, and probably from any statistically significant long term impacts. We unfortunately learned anew the cost of this caution, as 1605 residents lost their lives as a direct result of the evacuation. Given the questionably strict exposure limits demanded by the Japanese government and the increasingly untenable evidence-base for enforcing them, let us hope we learn that the price in human lives is not worth paying for unrealistic paranoia over radiation (a realistic treatment of exposure limits).
– We learned that the politically opportunistic shut down of a country’s nuclear reactor fleet results in a surge in fossil fuel use, record trade deficits, withdrawal from greenhouse gas emissions targets, and plans to build coal-fired power stations. In Germany – not a country known for its tsunami activity – the reactionary early retirement of most reactors has coincided with rapid expansion in lignite-fueled generation, alongside increasing strip mining, to fill the baseload void which the efforts of Energiewende have failed to do.
– Incidentally, no one likes Chernobyl but there ain’t no plans to build any new RBMK-type reactors, funnily enough. And it turns out that Three Mile Island actually proved the safety of the containment vessel design in the event of meltdown.
2. Not every article, opinion or comment is necessarily obligated to account for the cost, methods, volumes and limitations of disposal of nuclear ‘waste’, and the main reason is that I guarantee the solutions were elucidated by an informed nuclear energy proponent in the very comment thread following the very article or blog post prior to this one. The capabilities of Generation IV reactors are well established, and in particular metal-cooled fast breeder reactor-advanced recycling facilities, such as Argonne Laboratory’s Integral Fast Reactor, are essentially ready to be built and demonstrated. Not even a fool would dismiss the potential danger of spent nuclear fuel remaining highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years, and by reprocessing it and consuming it in breeder reactors we can instead be left with a fraction of the material which will decay to safe levels in mere hundreds of years – and generate ample energy in the process.
Handling, storing, blending and recycling spent nuclear fuel is currently an expensive, unpopular exercise, despite the relatively minor quantities involved. So, if you reject all nuclear power, what exactly is your solution for all the “nuclear waste” which exist today? Not to mention all the really dangerous, extra-enriched stuff still in nuclear weapons which, incidentally, the above-described reactors can also use as fuel?
3. “There’s not enough uranium for more plants”? See above.
4. No, reactors cannot explode like nuclear bombs. Nor can the fuel be removed and used to make weapons. OK? Hans Blix has possibly more experience in dealing with weapons of mass destruction than anyone reading this blog, and he’s pretty comfortable with nuclear.
5. Insurance for nuclear plants? The 104 viable reactors in the United States are comprehensively covered by insurance as legislated in the Price-Anderson act. A component of this insurance is underwritten by American Nuclear Insurers – a group of “some of the largest insurance companies in the United States”.
Similarly, loan guarantees are not multi-billion dollar handouts to reactor manufacturers.
6. Nuclear reactors are capital intensive, though to what degree depends somewhat on where they’re built. They actually run rather competitively. But if your primary concern is the pricetag, you can always just insist on building more coal or gas plants, right? Heck, many of the same companies who build nuclear and renewables will do it for you. Oh, so it’s not about the cost? Fossil fuels are bad for the environment? It was substantial pressure from self-described environmental NGOs which helped ratchet costs for nuclear up so high over the last few decades, largely with no clear benefit. The demonstrable benefit to humanity and the environment of the nuclear capacity which has been achieved has been determined and peer-reviewed.
8. Yeah, some reactors unfortunately take a while to build. Sometimes not helped by certain organisations, rather than anything intrinsic in the construction and commissioning of sophisticated industrial equipment which, odds are, will supply entirely safe, reliable electricity for decades – possibly up to eight of them! And after all, nuclear became the dominant form of generation in France in only 15 years.
9. While it may occur to terrorists to attack nuclear plants, it’s conceivable that the sensationalised worst-case scenarios of such events is more terrorising to people than any likely reality. Apart from an instance of unilateral action by a soverign country, the only terrorist activity directed towards nuclear plants to date has been from militant “environmental” campaigners.
10. How could I forget the old fall-back of accusing any and all commenters who fail to denounce nuclear power of being shills and members of some manner of funded, coordinated nuclear lobby, if not, indeed, in some way deficient in humanity? I guess it’s not even argument, more so a declaration of refusal to consider any and all presented evidence. If I were to dignify it with a hyperlink, there are quite a few contenders here. It smacks of desperation every time, and distracts suspiciously from the sober discussion which is ever increasingly being demanded.
Advocates are people too!
11. There was approximately one guy who said energy could be “too cheap to meter“, and it’s unclear if he specifically meant nuclear fission. This would have to be the most classic strawman argument used by nuclear opponents.
12. When nuclear power is dismissed as an old technology, I have to wonder what it is old in relation to? In any case, this recent campaign video gives a taste of how innovative the industry has actually become:
13. There seems to be this rare but stubborn notion among some institutional environmentalists that nuclear power is elitist, undemocratic and imperialistic, to the detriment, specifically, of native peoples. I hope I have worded that right as it is hard to rationally grasp. It seems to take nuclear exceptionalism to a whole new, morally indignant level. I wonder if the root cause is at all related to some groups apparent desire to compel developing peoples and nations to choose from only the low-density, intermittent energy sources, plus efficiency and conservation, which are seen as environmentally acceptable.