Madness in rush to abandon nuclear power

Tokyo Electric Power Co's Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant, the world's biggest, is sitting idle in the wake of the Fukushima disaster 20 months ago. Photo from Reuters.
Tokyo Electric Power Co's Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant, the world's biggest, is sitting idle in the wake of the Fukushima disaster 20 months ago. Photo from Reuters.
After the loss of 10 million American lives in the Three-Mile Island calamity in 1979, the death of two billion in the Chernobyl holocaust in 1986, and now the abandonment of all of northern Japan following the death of millions in last year's Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, it is hardly surprising that the world's biggest users of nuclear power are shutting their plants down.

Oh, wait a minute ... This just in! Nobody died in the Three-Mile Island calamity, 28 plant workers were killed and 15 other people subsequently died of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl holocaust, and nobody died in the Fukushima catastrophe. In fact, northern Japan has not been evacuated after all. But never mind all that. They really are shutting their nuclear plants down.

They have already shut them down in Japan. All of the country's 50 nuclear reactors were closed for safety checks after the tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant, and only two have reopened so far. The Government, which was previously planning to increase nuclear's share of the national energy mix to half by 2030, has now promised to close every nuclear power plant in Japan permanently by 2040.

The new Japanese plan says that the country will replace the missing nuclear energy with an eightfold increase in renewable energy (wind, solar, etc), and "the development of sustainable ways to use fossil fuels". But going from 4% to 30% renewables in the energy mix will take decades, and nobody has yet found an economically sustainable way to sequester the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

The truth is that as the Arctic sea ice melts and grain harvests are devastated by heat waves and drought, the world's third largest user of nuclear energy has decided to go back to emitting lots and lots of carbon dioxide.

In Germany, where the Greens have been campaigning against nuclear power for decades, Chancellor Angela Merkel has done a U-turn and promised to close all the country's nuclear reactors by 2022. She also promised to replace them with renewable power sources, of course, but the reality there will also be that the country burns more fossil fuels. Belgium is also shutting down its nuclear plants, and Italy has abandoned its plans to build some.

Even France, which has taken 80% of its power from nuclear power plants for decades without the slightest problem, is joining the panic. President Francois Hollande's new Government has promised to lower the country's dependence on nuclear energy to 50% of the national energy mix.

But you can see why he and his colleagues had to do it. After all, nuclear energy is a kind of witchcraft, and the public is frightened.

The Greens prattle about replacing nuclear power with renewables, which might come to pass in some distant future.

But the brutal truth for now is that closing down the nuclear plants will lead to a sharp rise in greenhouse gas emissions, in precisely the period when the race to cut emissions and avoid a rise in average global temperature of more than 2degC will be won or lost.

Fortunately, their superstitious fears are largely absent in more sophisticated parts of the world. Only four new nuclear reactors are under construction in the European Union, and only one in the United States, but there are 61 being built elsewhere. Over two-thirds of them are being built in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), where economies are growing fast and governments are increasingly concerned about both pollution and climate change.

But it's not enough to outweigh the closure of so many nuclear plants in the developed world, at least in the short run.

India may be aiming at getting 50% of its energy from nuclear power by 2050, for example, but the fact is that only 3.7% of its electricity is nuclear right now.

So the price of nuclear fuel has collapsed in the past four years, and uranium mine openings and expansions have been cancelled.

More people die from coal pollution each day than have been killed by 50 years of nuclear power operations - and that's just from lung disease. If you include future deaths from global warming due to burning fossil fuels, closing down nuclear power stations is sheer madness.

Welcome to the Middle Ages.

• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London journalist.

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Response to CO2 comment

First off, waste is being safely stored throughout the entire world, due to high regulation. As far as disposal goes, there is a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, built in a salt deposit, that is currently testing the idea that geology can contain waste completely and indefinitely. For geologists, the results of this test are obvious. There are waste-recycling methods that soon make this obsolete, including accelerator transmutation, breeder reactors, and thorium reactors.

In actuallity, the fact that 5% of energy generation from nuclear is a common figure for a lot of countries does not logically imply its "ability to curb CO2 emmisions is minimal." The reason is obvious. The installed capacity of nuclear versus other energy sources is small. It is true that nuclear, with its 439 publicly reported reactors, is a zero-carbon source generating 6% of the world's energy. It's not exactly a figure that is evidence for the dismal performance of nuclear in offsetting carbon.

For instance, the Palo Verde plant in Arizona generates effectively carbon free roughly 35 megatons TNT of energy a year, has offset roughly a half-gigaton of CO2, and generates electricity including capital costs for the same price as coal.

France's (80% nuclear) carbon-per-capita is roughly three times less than an American's.

Narrowing window of opportunity

According to the IEA , Japan's electricity in the years before Fukushima was 27% nuclear; not 5%. 

If the goal is to curb greenhouse gasses before it is too late, the best way would be to expand the natural gas windfall we are seeing in North America to buy time to build scores of nukes, eg the Westinghouse AP1000, as the Chinese are now doing. Then use natural gas and nukes to replace coal and buy time to find the miracles needed to make renewables competitive with coal and gas. We have a narrowing window of opportunity. Frankly I think it is already too late, but we should try.

John Chase, Dunedin, Florida, U.S.

Contribution to CO2 emissions

Before the Fukushima nuclear disaster nuclear power plants were contributing to 5% of the total energy consumption of Japan and similar figures hold for many other countries.
Once you consider this, it is easy to see that the ability of nuclear energy to curb CO2 emissions is minimal.
On the other hand one nuclear reactor produces 100 ton of highly radioactive "spent" fuel every year that no one knows how to safely dispose of. Worldwide there are about 400 reactors operating.
Nuclear energy receives about $US5 billion of subsidies every year in Japan alone, besides other indirect subsidies like taxpayer money poured in when plants explode, guarantee that nuclear waste will be disposed at the country expenses, liability caps (in the US) etc. It is time to stop this nonsense.

Gwynne Dwyer for the win

I totally agree with John34Chase, keep writing Gwynne! I found this article searching inside Google News, hopefully one day your voice will be on the front page instead. Imagine that world?

Germany renewable energy

Germany produces more energy (25%) from renewable sources than it does from nuclear (17%.

Gwynne Dwyer, a voice of reason

Japan and Germany will soon realize that shutting down nuclear so fast will crash the economy, never mind global warming. Re global warming, most governments in the developed world are afraid to tell their voters that, if real, it will destroy civilisation. Global warming may not be real, but if it is we won't know for sure until it's too late. Rational minds would look for a middle ground between inaction and panic, something like laying a tax on fuel-borne carbon and building scores of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor. Unfortunately rational minds are mostly silent in the developed world. Gwynne should keep writing.