The Nuclear Energy Debate among Friends: Another Round

On December 11, 2008, a report signed by ten national lab directors, Sustainable Energy Future: The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy, was posted on Its appearance confirmed again what the scientific and policy communities had long ago concluded: there is a need for expanded nuclear power, and Yucca Mountain is adequate for long-term waste storage. Among these experts, this settled consensus on the need for nuclear power is closely connected to another long-established consensus: the overriding seriousness of climate change.

I am disturbed when I hear Friends express less fear of climate change than of using nuclear energy to help head it off. Friends whose love of the environment finds its main outlet in fighting nuclear power may be robbing the real fight of their energy and activism and helping to reduce our already inadequate options.

In my article “A Friend’s Path to Nuclear Power” (FJ Oct. 2008), I shared feelings that arose when I read the latest reports on climate change—grief over the effects we can no longer prevent, and fear that we may lack the will and the clarity to save ourselves from the changes that are still preventable. Responses appearing in subsequent FJ issues assure me that my grief is shared, as is my dedication to doing all that can be done to slow or stop our movement toward ever more disastrous effects of climate change. I appreciate Carolyn Treadway’s eloquent call for greater efforts at conservation (“The dangers of nuclear power,” FJ Feb. 2009)—an essential part of any solution. In my workshops, participants learn how to measure and reduce their carbon footprints and inspire others to do the same. (One Friend blames me for the shipboard showers she takes even on cold mornings, another for the decision to cut her air travel in half. Both find joy in these choices, as do those who now monitor their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually, sharing with one another how to achieve even greater reductions.)

Treadway and others would like to believe that a combination of individual conservation, improved energy efficiency, and the expanded use of renewable resources—three major parts of any solution, all agree—will allow us to replace fossil fuels without any help from nuclear power. Yet I hear an insidious slackening of will in those who express premature optimism based on technical solutions and a few easily achieved behavioral changes. I hear it in letters and articles that say we have so many solutions, we can afford to throw some away.

Meanwhile, reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and elsewhere do not support optimism. In recent months, scientists have reported a speedup in changes caused by global warming: trees dying faster, ocean dead zones expanding, and coral and other ocean animals stressed due to increasing ocean acidity. Antarctic penguins have just been added to the list of expected extinctions this century. While most climatologists would like atmospheric levels of CO2 to stay below 450 parts per million (ppm), we are on a path to 550 ppm by 2035. Holding carbon emissions this side of 600 ppm becomes increasingly difficult. Between 450 and 600 ppm, dust bowls are expected over much of the Earth, including southwestern North America, this century. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu warns that both cities and agriculture in California (more than one-sixth of the nation’s) may be gone by century’s end.

These projections are based on assumptions many prefer not to make: that population will increase not decrease; that energy consumption will increase in less developed countries faster than it can decrease in the U.S. (if it can decrease here at all); and that technology for wind, hydro, and biomass can affordably deliver, at best, 30-35 percent of electricity by 2030, with solar not expected to come into significant play, according to the IPCC, until 2030 and after.

Assuming—as done by scientists for purposes of prediction—is not the same as accepting. The unavoidable conclusion policymakers draw from the research cited in IPCC reports is that roughly two-thirds of electricity needs projected for 2030 (needs that are expected to be much greater than current levels) must be met by some combination of fossil fuels and nuclear power. So far, predictions by scientists, based on the most sophisticated calculations they can make, have tended to underestimate the rate and extent of damage from climate change. Their aim is not to alarm but to realistically assess what will be needed to slow the coming changes. Acknowledging our current realities does not mean we slacken our efforts or our prayers. It does mean that we are in a better position to see where our efforts should be directed. In this context, I stand in solidarity with Friends who support conservation, efficiency, and subsidies for renewals. But I wonder at those who continue to oppose nuclear energy for its real and imagined risks, in spite of the far greater risks of failing to harness this strong horse to our wagon.


What are we thinking when we ignore the findings of the scientific community? How are we choosing which “scientists” to believe? It is important to examine the sources we choose and why we place faith in them, as fundamental differences in what we read and whom we trust affect where we plant the banner of our activism. For respondents who cite references, I ask: What encourages them to place their confidence in their sources? For instance, Ace Hoffman and Janette Sherman, in “Another View on Nuclear Power” (FJ Jan. 2009) trust “scientists who witnessed the (Chernobyl) catastrophe firsthand,” as if impressions of individuals on-site are a better path to knowledge than data and tests carefully gleaned over time.

Robert Anderson, in “Nuclear Power is not the answer” (FJ Jan. 2009), accuses a UN organization, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), of making suspect claims, while finding Greenpeace and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom to be reliable sources of scientific data. John Wright Daschke, in “The ‘advantages’ of nuclear power are illusory” (FJ Jan. 2009), relies on Amory Lovins, who studied physics, worked for Friends of the Earth, and is now a cultural icon. Carolyn Treadway trusts Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Helen Caldicott, Joseph Mangano and others for their understanding of science, and Arjun Makhijani and Lester Brown for policy, though none of these is cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, created by the UN and World Meteorological Organization to “provide . . . an objective source of information about climate change.”

Treadway also describes the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as “in the pocket” of industry, and Hoffman and Sherman say NRC is lying to us because it is “responsible for promoting” nuclear power. Actually, NRC was given the regulatory responsibilities of the Atomic Energy Commission, while the Department of Energy was given the promotion responsibility; these were separated when NRC was created. Perhaps Hoffman and Sherman’s quote comes from an old AEC description. Internationally, NRC is highly respected by scientists and governments who rely on the integrity of their research.

I am further dismayed when Friends align themselves with those who make it a habit to distrust the UN as a source of information. Hoffman and Sherman call IAEA “biased,” and Robert Anderson accuses IAEA of blatant misinformation, even of denying that “any of the catastrophic health” effects from Chernobyl were due to radiation because its primary objective is to “promote nuclear power.” Yet under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), IAEA’s responsibility is to implement international safeguards through invasive inspections in order to assure that treaty states do not acquire or develop nuclear weapons. IAEA also has the explicit obligation to assist non-weapons states that sign the NPT in acquiring peaceful nuclear technology, mostly for medical and agricultural uses. IAEA has no conceivable conflict of interest that would incline them to deny documented health effects of a nuclear accident.

I believe that among the most reliable sources available are the IAEA, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The information they publish is rigorously peer-reviewed, widely respected by scientists and policy experts, and relied upon by governments and industry. When a report arouses disagreement in the science and policy communities, which does happen, it is covered in magazines like Science. Those specializing in alternative analyses that conflict with IAEA, IPCC, or NAS, often present arguments that do not make sense to people trained in science. (For example, Lovins celebrates that more micropower than nuclear power was built in 2006, ignoring that micropower is usually fossil fuel power.)

For those wanting more information on nuclear power, I highly recommend David Bodanasky’s Nuclear Energy, 2nd edition. This book is written for physicists and engineers and is trusted to characterize accurately what is known and not known in the field. Large parts are accessible to people without any training in the field.

Lying Radiation Researchers?

I am sometimes baffled at the degree of distrust of the mainstream scientific community among Friends. Some of this comes from media stories of “bought” scientists and industry-controlled research in which unfavorable results are suppressed, mostly regarding drug testing, and the rare “tobacco is OK” article in peer-reviewed journals. Hoffman and Sherman appear to imply that most research on radioactivity is paid for by industry, and that funding is stopped if the data appear to show a problem, as they claim occurred with tobacco. I believe the opposite is true: essentially all articles published in the scientific peer review journals contained damaging results pertaining to tobacco, and certainly the general discernment of the science community, based on the articles published, is that tobacco is dangerous, which is why the government was able to act to control tobacco use. Similarly, the strongest interest of the scientific community is to discover as much as possible about actual radiation effects on human health. Too many scientists are working on this problem for their work to be easily suppressed by industry or politics. (In spite of attempts by the George W. Bush administration to suppress scientific reports on a variety of topics, the research got out.)

Scientific research on radiation effects is the only reliable way to establish safe limits of exposure; the problem becomes enforcement of these limits. Public concern might usefully focus on oversight of known dangers rather than on distrust of the validated research, which sometimes tells us the dangers we fear most are not real. In addition, it is important to focus on reducing the large risks. These include the dangers of alternatives to nuclear power and the potential consequences of not enough energy in poor countries. By all measures, the risks from current practices with nuclear power are very small in comparison.

Incompetence at Every Level?

Anderson says that we are close to running out of uranium, and Treadway says that if the entire fuel cycle is considered, nuclear power contributes to global warming. In addition to accusations of massive conspiracy with no clear motivation, these are accusations of sheer incompetence—that tens of governments, hundreds of site managers, tens of thousands of scientists and policy analysts made plans to expand nuclear power, and no one bothered to check life-cycle emissions and the supply of uranium?

Claims about low quantities of uranium probably refer to the relatively small category, “reasonably assured” uranium reserves. A temporary increase in uranium prices with actual and proposed expansion of nuclear power led to small-scale exploration, which increased the amount of known uranium reserves 15 percent between 2005 and 2007, but there still is little motivation for a thorough search. This is because there is more than enough uranium for today’s actual and planned nuclear power in mines already located and easily found. Uranium prices have only a tiny effect on the price of nuclear power because, unlike fossil fuel and biopower plants, the price of the fuel is small compared to the cost of the plant. There is certainly enough terrestrial uranium (not counting uranium in seawater) to increase the number of today’s reactors by 2-4 times for expected plant lifetimes of 50-75+ years. Designs for later reactors will be Generation IV: they will operate at higher temperatures (so provide more electricity per input), or/and use other fuels such as U-238 (more than 100 times as common as U-235), plutonium, and thorium (more than 3 times as common as uranium).

Claims about high GHG costs of nuclear power, such as provided by the oft-cited work of Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith, are based on dubious numbers. In Part F of Nuclear Power—The Energy Balance, the authors ignore data, and instead assume energy cost of construction is (cost of construction) times (energy/unit gross domestic product), at a time of huge costs due to long delays and high interest rates, with no justification for this formula. The energy cost of mining was also obtained without resort to data: the prediction for a Namibian mine was 60 times actual energy use, and greater than the energy use of the entire country.

IAEA’s A guide to life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electric supply technologies provides a range of GHG emissions (g/kWh) for the complete life cycle of major electricity sources based on the results of a number of studies from a variety of countries. In summary, nuclear (2.8-24 g/kWh, with larger values for the older method of enriching uranium) is comparable to wind (8-30 g/kWh, ignoring fossil fuel backup), somewhat cleaner than biopower (35-99 g/kWh) and photovoltaics (solar panels,

Karen Street

Karen Street, a member of Berkeley (Calif.) Meeting, continues to work on climate change. For references and footnotes for this article, visit Karen's blog, A Musing Environment: