How We Blew Our Energy Future

A half century ago, we were going to be carbon free by now. What happened?

By Bill Budinger

Tagged ClimateClimate Changeenergynuclear energypollution

It has been one hell of a summer. Heat, drought, fire. Historic floods. Ninetydegree heat waves above the Arctic Circle. Sea levels rising at an ever-faster pace. Most of the world’s ocean reefs dead or dying. And while the ideological war still rages for some, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that global warming and climate change are real, and that atmospheric carbon is the primary culprit. Most frighteningly, all this is a sneak preview of the catastrophic consequences yet to come.

Why are we letting this happen?

We had the technology to stop these trends years ago. And we could have.

A half century ago, the United States was on a path that could have given us 100 percent carbon-free energy by the end of the last century. We were going to do it by rapidly expanding the fleet of nuclear power plants, eventually replacing fossil-fuel plants. Then we stopped. What happened?

Fear. Many of us, this author included, were terrified of nuclear anything: weapons, plutonium, isotopes, proliferation, waste. So it seemed to us that if a bunch of crazies succeeded in building more nuclear power plants, it would be global catastrophe just waiting to happen. We had to stop those plants. To do that we used fear. While it is true that cost and supply issues were factors, fear was the single most effective weapon against nuclear energy. We demonstrated, held rock concerts, wrote books, sponsored symposiums, predicted tens of thousands of cancers and sued.

We even made a movieThe China Syndrome. The campaign had already started to work when God sent Three Mile Island to answer our prayers. At Three Mile Island, He showed us that our greatest fear—a melt-downcould really happen. Fear had a new ally. We let all the World know we’d just barely escaped Armageddon. We predicted tens of thousands of cancers. Fear spread, and the scare worked. “Not In My Backyard” became the mantra of politicians (and citizens) everywhere. Most of the planned nuclear plants got cancelled. Even better, we massively up-regulated to make licensing and building future nuclear plants impossibly time consuming and expensive. And, of course, the country kept building more coal plants to feed its growing economy.

But did we make the right choice? What is it about nuclear that we were so afraid of that made us prefer, in effect, polluted air, acid rain, poisoned seafood, and even global warming? Our fears of nuclear were real, but were they justified?

Now, with more than 60 years of real-world experience behind us, 60 years of using nuclear power for ships, submarines, and some 440 nuclear power plants around the world, we do not have to guess. The most fearsome accidents imaginable have actually happened. We no longer need to rely on speculation. We have real data, we can see what actually happens in the worst nuclear accidents. Those data suggest we need to take a new look at the basis for our fears.

The fear of nuclear seems to fall into five categories:

Nuclear power is dangerous.

Of course it is. But dangerous compared to what? Burning fossil fuels? In the more than 60 years since we began using it, nuclear turns out to be saferin fact, far saferthan any other form of propulsion or power generation. We believed that a nuclear accident would kill thousands of people and make large swaths of land uninhabitable. Turns out reality was different. Lets look at the three major accidents that actually did happen and their aftermath:

Three Mile Island, 1979Lots of angst but no fatalities. Contrary to dire predictions, 40 years later there may be a small increase in treatable thyroid cancers, but the evidence is mixed (EPA and NRC say there are none). Compare that to coal. In that same year, 144 Americans died from coal accidents. Indeed until 2016 dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of Americans died from coal accidents every year (MSA figures). Yet there were no fatalities from the nuclear accident. None. 

Chernobyl, 1986OMG! A badly built reactor created the worst nuclear nightmare imaginable: total meltdown, the reactor destroyed, radioactive fallout covering thousands of square miles, predictions were made of up to a million deaths from cancer. Now, 32 years later, we know the score: fewer than 50 eventual deaths from radiation, all of them plant workers or untrained first responders. Since then, cancer levels above normal in the affected population have been extremely difficult to document. A slight uptick in cancer in exposed children, but the incidence is much smaller than predicted and at worst a tiny fraction of the children harmed by coal dust and pollution. 

Fukushima, 2011A freak tsunami killed 15,000 people and knocked out four nuclear reactors. Three reactors melted down and the 24/7 media coverage was terrifying. Sadly, 1,600 people died from panic and the poorly executed evacuation. But no one died from radiation exposure. And there has been no clinical indication of increased cancers in the surrounding population.

This is not to say there are not dangers. The point is that safety is relative. Nuclear is more dangerous than what alternative? Once again, the data: In the 60 plus years the world has been operating nuclear plants, less than 50 people have died from radiation and none of them were Americans. In that same time period, over 7,500 Americans died in coal accidents. 50 vs. 7,500. Why exactly did we think coal was safer? Compared to other methods of generating electricity, for every kilowatt hour dispatched, nuclear has proven to be orders of magnitude less dangerous than anything else we know. Even renewables are significantly more dangerous.

Yes, it is. And because it is invisible it is particularly scary. When we were first trying to scare people away from nuclear, talking about “the invisible killer” worked really well. But we had to fudge the data to make it work. We had to forget that humans evolved on a radioactive planet and under cosmic rays—and therefore developed a built-in tolerance. We also had to forget that for generations people have been bathing in radioactive sandsfor their health! So, although too much radiation can be lethal, more and more evidence suggests that in moderation it is not necessarily harmful. Many experts have concluded that it was a mistake to evacuate most of those evacuated at Fukushima.

Nuclear is too expensive.

Yes it isbut it has been deliberately made so. As an intended and successful result of the fear campaign, nuclear in the United States has been intentionally made uneconomic. But do nuclear plants really need to be so much more expensive or take that long to build? No. Not even close. Korea is building well-designed nuclear plants for half the price of a modern coal plant. By using experienced crews and a standard design, the Koreans greatly simplified the licensing and construction, something we have never done in the United States.

Nuclear waste is dangerous and forever.

This is the big one. And it is another issue we hugely exaggerated when we were trying to scare people away from nuclear. Of course waste is a problem. And it has to be intelligently handled and managed. But again, all problems are relative. The real question we should be asking is how does the nuclear waste problem compare to other waste problems? For starters, there is not much nuclear waste. Sixty years of waste from all the U.S. nuclear power plants together would fit inside a two-story building covering one city block. Compare that to mountains of toxic ash next to a single coal plant. The waste from just one coal plant operating for just one year would fill 11,000 freight cars. And, by the way, most coal ash is slightly radioactive. It is definitely time to take another look at what we believe about waste. Nuclear waste is a problem. But it is a very manageable one. We have all the technology needed to easily, safely, and economically handle it.

Nuclear is not natural.

Most folks see burning stuff like wood and coal as natural. But actually, so is nuclear. Half the Earth’s heat comes from natural nuclear activity. In the geologic past, there were several areas of the Earth beneath what is now Africa where natural uranium concentrations created active nuclear reactors (Oklo, in Gabon). Looked at objectively, nuclear is just as natural as coal. It has just taken humans longer to learn how to use it.

Stepping back and looking at the evidence, we made some well-intended but unfortunate decisions in the last part of the twentieth century. We are now learning that perhaps our biggest mistake was to decide that nuclear energy was worse for the planet than burning fossil fuels. At the time, it was a decision most people accepted without challenge. We did not understand nuclear and we did not know that the real danger was global warmingor that by opposing nuclear power we would be making global warming much worse.

We’ve learned a lot since then. Now we know that, if we don’t stop throwing carbon into the atmosphere, our great grandchildren will have good reason to hate us. Their planet will become increasingly unpleasant, ocean acidification will kill off much marine life, and rising seas will drown coastal cities and force hundreds of millions of people to migrate to other places.

Finally, could renewables, solar and wind, solve the problem? It’s a lovely idea but, sadlynot by themselves alone. As renewables become a larger share of a nation’s electricity generation, the problems of scale become almost insurmountable. There is a reason fossil companies promote solar and wind and oppose nuclear. Because of intermittency, the more dependent a nation is on renewable energy, the greater the requirement for some kind of backup. Without nuclear, that backup will have to be burning fossil fuels. Indeed, in spite of the popularity of renewables, the world’s growing need for energy is being mostly met by new coal plantsalmost two new ones a week! So while renewables might help, there is no total energy plan using renewables alone that puts an end to the burning of fossil fuels. The only large-scale solution is the deployment of nuclear power. Until we start licensing small, compact nuclear power plants, the world will keep building more coaland the atmosphere, the oceans, and the planet will suffer.

It is time for all of us to take a new look at the real threat to humanity and consider that it just might be atmospheric carbon, not nuclear power.

Read more about ClimateClimate Changeenergynuclear energypollution

Bill Budinger is a physicist, author, the founder and former CEO of Rodel, Inc., a global manufacturing company, and a lifetime trustee of the Aspen Institute.

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