Nuclear power remains a bad idea

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday June 25, 2005

Over the 26 years since the accident at Three Mile Island, dangerous and costly nuclear power has seemed a technology on the way out. Now, thanks to the power-industry friendly Bush administration, there is a renewed push for the construction of nuclear power plants. Both area utilities, Duke Power and Progress Energy, are exploring expansion of their nuclear operations. Nuclear power is a cash cow for the utilities with huge profits from construction, state-guaranteed profits from operations and federal protection from liability.

Of particular concern locally is the possibility of additional capacity at the Shearon Harris plant. Originally designed to support four reactors, thanks to the changing economics and politics of nuclear power, the plant was built with only one. Even so, it has been among the worst performing in the nation.

In recent years, Shearon Harris has appeared regularly on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's watch list because of its high rate of emergency shutdowns.

The plant is plagued by design flaws that increase the risk of reactor core meltdown. Locals should be concerned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not required the correction of persistent problems involving fire protection and the emergency cooling system.

Unknown to the general public, safety is already a serious problem at the nation's 100-odd nuclear reactors. According to Public Citizen, the NRC has documented tens of thousands of mishaps at nuclear power. Many of these had the potential to become major accidents.

Over a third of the United State's nuclear plants have appeared on the NRC watch list of plants with a serious record of safety violations.

The problems stem from lax regulation, use of substandard parts, construction defects and inadequate training.

Nuclear power is also terribly expensive, which explains why there has not been an even stronger push from the utilities for new plants. The Critical Mass Energy Project reported that almost half of the nation's nuclear plants are more expensive to operate and maintain than the cost of replacement power in their own regions. Building new nukes will require massive government subsidies and likely prove misguided, according to S.A. Sherif, an energy expert at the University of Florida.

"Energy from nuclear power plants remains very expensive," Sherif said, adding that if the U.S. government had not invested more than 200 billion dollars in research and development, there would not be a nuclear industry.

Proponents of nuclear power gloss over the problem of radioactive waste disposal. The fact is that no one knows how to safeguard these wastes for the required tens of thousands of years. No one knows how to safely decommission and store the radioactive reactors of old nuclear plants. In continuing with nuclear power, we not only risk our own health, but that of countless generations to come.

There is a tragic irony in nuclear power, one of the most environmentally destructive technologies, being touted not only as a future energy source but as a solution to an even more daunting environmental problem, global warming.

Although industry PR suggests otherwise, the only way nuclear power can be considered part of a solution to global warming is by failing to take a life-cycle view of the nuclear process. In comparison to renewable energy, nuclear power releases four to five times more CO2 per unit of energy produced taking account of the whole fuel cycle.

After an exhaustive review of the case for nuclear power, the United Kingdom concluded that it is one of the least cost-effective ways to cut CO2 emissions. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit energy research organization, has calculated that improvements in energy efficiency are six times more cost-effective than nuclear power and could eliminate the need for all existing nuclear plants as well as any future ones.

Last week, a coalition of 300 environmental groups, including US-PIRG, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and Public Citizen, announced that they "reject nuclear energy as a global warming solution [and] urge Congress to choose clean energy path, not embrace dangerous and dirty nuclear power."

The question remains: Why gamble further with nuclear energy when safer, more economic, cleaner alternatives are available?

According to Jim Warren of NC WARN, "Atomic energy plants are more dangerous than ever -- for technical and security reasons. Nuclear power cannot solve global warming, and can't be revived without soaking taxpayers even more."

Warren points out that existing technologies for smart energy usage can cut demand sufficiently to speed the transition to readily available clean electricity generation. "The only thing lacking is public awareness and political will."

Those living as close to a nuclear power plant as we do to Shearon Harris are well advised to keep our awareness and our will on alert. NC WARN had hoped to turn its attention from nuclear power to global warming. Unfortunately, while promoting a clean energy future is germane to both struggles, the fight against more nukes seems likely to continue.



Basically, I agree with the point of view expressed above. However, I would like to make the point that you really are discussing power generation using conventional fission nuclear reactions. Generating power using fusion reactions is a very different proposition and in the long run may prove to be an important source of clean energy. I don't know how close we are to this potential energy source but I was encouraged by the news today (yesterday) of the six nation consortium that has agreed to work cooperatively in France on this potential energy source. I think it is important to make this distinction.

Jim, lest we get too "encouraged," here is an article on the Greenpeace reaction to announcement on the French plant:

France: Nuclear fusion project senseless stupidity
Wednesday, 29 June 2005, 8:45 am
Press Release: Greenpeace
Nuclear fusion reactor project in France: an expensive and senseless nuclear stupidity

Paris, 28 June 2005 - Greenpeace deplores the agreement by the Representatives of the Parties to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) (1) to construct one of the world's largest nuclear fusion experiments in Cadarache, Southern France. The project, estimated to cost 10bn euros, will not generate any electricity, instead it will need massive amounts of energy to heat up.
"With 10 billion, we could build 10,000MW offshore windfarms, delivering electricity for 7.5 million European households," said Jan Vande Putte of Greenpeace International. Advocates of fusion research predict that the first commercial fusion electricity might be delivered in 50 to 80 years from now. But most likely, it will lead to a dead end, as the technical barriers to be overcome are enormous.

Today, the nuclear industry presents itself as the solution to climate change in a massive green-washing drive. Far from being a solution, the nuclear option stalls real action to combat dangerous climate change. It is taking away the money for real solutions that are ready and economically available at a large scale, such as wind energy.

Fusion energy - if it would ever operate - would create a serious waste problem, would emit large amounts of radioactive material and could be used to produce materials for nuclear weapons. A whole new set of nuclear risks would thus be created.

"Governments should not waste our money on a dangerous toy which will never deliver any useful energy," said Jan Vande Putte of Greenpeace International. Instead, they should invest in renewable energy which is abundantly available, not in 2080 but today"

I don't disagree with your anti-nuclear sentiments, but do we have any better alternatives that can be implemented NOW? Duke Power's other option is to increase their usage of coal--not any better of an option IMHO.

Amory Lovins will be here in the fall to speak at an NCWARN event. He is one of the world's experts on how energy efficiency is the least-cost & most effective strategy for meeting future demand.

One factoid: If all the lighting in the United States were energy efficient (using current available technology), the amount of power it would save is more than all 100+ nuclear plants generate.

Check out

Thanks for the insight, Mark. Sounds like there's a lot of talk about green practices and only a small minority on either side of the builders/local government aisle is doing something about it.

I think it's great that you are doing your part. It bothers me a lot that your colleagues are not. And it bothers me that our local governments have failed to create a level playing field by incentifying and disencentifying in concert with our environmental values.


I second and third what mothernature (?!) has to say. After exams and the holidays I'm going to sit down at the law library and find out the limits of Dillon Rule, or the anti-home rule as you call it. I want to know precisely what we really can and cannot do in this respect.

After living with the 'spin' of the massive power industries, we've decided to go it alone, not only are we involved in a wind, with future biomass link up, energy co-op, I've started a forum giving a 'one stop shop' for energy solutions, from community based energy cooperatives, to stand alone domestic systems. Clive - declare your energy independence!

I for one would love for Duke and CP and L to shut off all of their Nukes for a month. Talk sure is cheap around here!

John, Clive, Dan and whoever else is lurking:

I am glad this thread resurfaced because, since it first appeared I have been trying to do some informal research on this subject and am getting nowhere. While I am not complaining about the rest of the Greenpeace statement Dan quotes above, I have been trying to understand and get an explanation of the next to last paragraph “Fusion energy - if it would ever operate - would create a serious waste problem, would emit large amounts of radioactive material and could be used to produce materials for nuclear weapons. A whole new set of nuclear risks would thus be created.” I have been in touch with Greenpeace twice, asked a number of scientist working in closely related fields and thought about it myself and I can not justify the “serious waste problems”, “large amounts of radioactive material” and “used to produce materials for nuclear weapons”. I am not an expert but am capable of understanding these issues and I haven't been able to find justification for these statements. I was under the impression that the deuterium-tritium cycle was relatively clean and the higher energy deuterium-helium3 cycle even more so. If anyone can explain this to me or at least point me in the right direction, I would appreciate it.

I think you've got the point. Duke Power and Progress Energy should turn off their fission nuclear power plants. They, really all of us, should be working to decrease demand and find less dangerous replacements so they can be turned off in a timely manner.

While the problems with nuclear are well-dcoumented, I'd like to share another perspective on why we are likely to see an increased push towards nuclear in the coming years, and it has to do with the overall supply of different resources in our energy portfolio, and their ability (or inability) to be substituted for others.

A quick rundown:

Nuclear power - generates electricty. Cannot be used for anything else.

Natural Gas - used for heat and electricty. Since policy has moved away from building coal-fired power plants because of emissions, natural gas has been the primary fossil fuel energy source for most electric plants built in recent years.

Oil and distillates (diesel, gasoline, jet fuel, tar, asphalt) - mostly used in transportation, powering 90-95% of transportation in America, but also used in home heating. (i.e. my childhood home in greater Boston)

Coal - used primarily for electricity in modern times. Has been previously used for heat and in limited cases, such as WWII Germany, oil through the process of coal gasification.

While the newspapers are not reporting them as "peak natural gas stories," there is an increasing amount of evidence that we may be approaching or IN a multi-year period in which natural gas production peaks and begins to decline worldwide. We are already in decline in the US, and are beginning to look at increased imports of natural gas, which compared to importing oil, is VERY dangerous at the port where gas is unloaded in liquid form off ships.

Natural gas--the next fossil fuel shortage? (Energy Bulletin)

Examples of Stealth "Peak Natural Gas" Stories:

Hurricane Damage Leads to Rise in Plastic Prices (National Public Radio)

One-third of Gulf Of Mexico Natural Gas Still 'Shut In' (News and Observer)

Now, take into account the trends in China and India, where over 2 billion people want American motorization to happen as quickly as possible. We have 41,000+ miles of Interstate, built over 40 years. India wants the same done in 15 years! It is unlikely oil supply can keep up with this type of demand.

India's superhighway to the 21st century (International Herald Tribune)

Now, considering substitution, here's a scenario I have seen detailed before which I don't think is unrealistic.

1. Demand for oil continues to rise worldwide while the world approaches peak oil and Saudi Arabia can no longer add capacity to match demand. Oil prices spike to triple digits per barrel.

2. Our political leaders declare (again) that the American way of life is non-negotiable, and work to increase production (massive drilling ramp-up in ANWR and deepwater, maybe off the NC coast)

3. However, all the drilling projects will take years to bear significant fruit, and we happen to be the Saudi Arabia of coal, so in the short term, because we have coal lying around that is cheap and easy to get, coal gasification projects are undertaken en masse to help slow the rise in gas prices at the pump.

4. Estimates suggest the US can cover its own coal needs, including growth, under current use patterns, for over 250 years. Some calculations suggest large-scale coal gasification projects would reduce the supply to 50-80 years. I'm not sure if this is right, but we can agree we'd go through our coal supply faster.

So- now you're a politician, and natural gas is declining, oil has gone through the roof, but we can't substitute natural gas or nuclear for transportation use, so we can't use oil for electricity generation because we need it for transport. Coal is now being enlisted in transport, and its priority for electric generation is falling.

If you're a moderate of either major party, are you going to go with nuclear or renewables?

The point of all this is that fighting nuclear power expansion is usually a very focused fight- target the utility that plans the reactor, and try to prevent construction. Prevent them from building in your region, and you have a visible victory-TODAY.

If we continue the overall trend in society toward incredibly high energy use per capita, which frankly, is attached at the hip to 4500- sq ft houses and auto-dependent land use planning-- it is quite possible that in 5-10 years, given the choice between a two new reactors at Shearon Harris and having rolling blackouts, the Triangle will pick the former very quickly.

Brilliant, Patrick. IMHO, you've left some stuff out, but I agree with your trending analysis. I think this is the model for the next quarter century, at least until the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) starts to pan out. I'm not holding my breath on that, though.

There will be an increasing push for conservationism and non-renewables, but we have learned that the elasticity of demand for energy is such that people are willing to pay a lot of money to maintain the status quo.


I agree with you on many points. But the problem is, we haven't gone renewable or compact-growth for more than 30 years since our first national energy crisis. Furthermore, thousands of jurisdictions control the zoning. I'm not holding my breath for it to happen under current momentum.

September 11 gave environmentalists the opportunity to present energy policy in security terms. I've seen a few tiny attempts to do that. Dems should push this hard in federal elections, a massive federal program to convert us to renewables, especially solar homes and solar-derived hydrogen for fuel-cell cars.

Jim, I found this at the NIRS site:

200,000 years of nuclear waste
Proponents of nuclear fusion point out that while one of the two fuel components (tritium) is radioactive, the principal waste product (helium) is non-radioactive. This is true, but some then draw the false conclusion that nuclear fusion does not produce nuclear waste. In fact, the neutrons produced by the nuclear fusion reaction would irradiate the reactor vessel and surrounding components just as in the more familiar fission-based nuclear reactors. Activation products would make these components radioactive, and they would need to be dealt with as nuclear waste when ITER is decommissioned. ITER's own web site admits that it would take “about 200,000 years for the worst isotopes to decay to levels at which the material can be re-used with direct human contact”

They suggest that the best way to capture fusion energy is with photovoltaics which keeps the fusion process and its by-products a safe 93 million miles away.

Wireless fusion - can't beat it.

The corporate-controlled mass media haven't really reported on the massive gains made by renewables - especially wind. And of course, the Democratic Party can't lead its way out of a wet paper bag on any issue so its no surprise that it's been worthless.

I know there are a lot of people out there who can answer this question. If you would rather do it privately, that's ok, too.

If I wanted to build a 2000 sq.ft., 2-story house in Carrboro using the best green practices, what would that add to the cost of the house, and could I expect to get a return on my money in the long run, and how long is that run?

I know there are too many variables here, so assume modest use of utilities, average occupancy, etc. Take into account subsidies that may exist.

I guess I'm looking at the bottom line. Also, how does greening affect upfront affordability.

I know the answers to most of these questions, but I'm hoping someone might give me some new perspective and a new pitch for solar, etc. that I haven't heard yet.

If you are a lurker and don't want to answer publicly, you can email me at ddm-at-duke-dot-edu.

Thank you!

David, are you willing to look at rammed earth or straw bale construction?

Yes, Will, I am. I've actually looked at straw bale but not at rammed earth.

Using best green practices would result in a lower life-cycle cost of the house. Using on-site energy sources would also have the added benefit of convenience & comfort when the grid goes down. Green practices also have the added benefit of better indoor air quality & lighting, resulting in better health and thus lower health care costs.

If you put a solar water heater on your house and lump the cost in with the mortgage, you will save more money per month than it will add to your mortgage.

There are many design strategies that can off-set the costs of higfher-end green components. Also, a basic "green" house can be built for the same cost as conventional.

"There are many design strategies that can off-set the costs of higfher-end green components. Also, a basic “green” house can be built for the same cost as conventional."

Mark, What would you say is the single biggest reason why builders and developers are not building each home using green practices. I know you are, but what's the excuse of those who are not, especially here where such practices would be embraced?

I think it is because there is such inertia in the construction industry from standard practices & materials. The basic house that makes consistent money for builders & developers is built to a formula with cheap labor that is trained to minimal standards and materials that the consumer has been trained to accept. And the myth of "green" costing more has been kept alive by the mainstream building community who like the simple formula that works for them. It certainly can cost more, but so can so many components of a house. It's all in the choices.

Can our local governments require developers to build green? Would that be a good idea?

Local governments in other areas have instituted various ordinances. Santa Monica has some sort of energy-use reduction ordinance, among others. I think focusing on energy use is good and probably keeps it somewhat simple. Things like efficiency of heaters and air conditioners. I think Orange County should allow people who install solar (PV & water) & wind to deduct the cost of these syatems from their property tax evaluation and get a modest tax break out of it.

Orange County has a construction waste ordinance that has improved things. A interesting thing happened though as a result of banning loads of mixed construction waste at the landfill. Since only Orange County did this, an unintended consequence is that the majority of builders & waste haulers now haul their same-old mixed construction waste out-of-county. Revenues at the landfill took a hit, but this waste reduction is a huge part of the overall waste reduction that Orange County publicizes when they tout their state- leading percentage. So those of us who do the proper job of sorting, separating, and recycling construction waste bear more cost than those who simply say fuck it and head for the border with their mixed loads. This of course has implications for so-called "affordable housing".

I could go on & on, but I guess I think it would be a good idea for some regulations to be passed, but from the standpoint of a builder who stands to have time & money wasted if it's not done thoughtfully, I would like it to be well thought out. Of course, on the other hand, if everyone were required to build the way I do, I'd be a market leader right away. Which is why the Home Builders Association supports green building with lip service and a few modest projects while digging their heels in to slow inevitable progress on this to a crawl so their members don't have to change too fast.

And then what about the NC Leg and their iron grip on local governments? This might not be "allowed" under the anti-home rule system.

David - Let us know what you discover. I believe the lack of home rule in NC is the single biggest impediment to progress.

And thanks, Mother. I always knew I could count on your love...


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