Rapid Emission Reductions

Although a climate solution calling for rapid reductions in emissions may seem extreme, there are real-world examples of countries that have decarbonized their power sectors, while maintaining competitive prices for electricity. Hansen’s article 1 cites the example of governments in France, Sweden, and Belgium that achieved rapid emission reductions in the energy sector by deploying standard design nuclear power plants. The main driver of emission reductions was the oil crisis of 1973, and high oil prices during that period. Recent improvements in electric vehicles and biofuels now make it feasible to also phase out fossil fuels in the transportation sector.

But isn’t nuclear power too dangerous? The following chart shows the mortality rate from energy sources used to produce electricity. Nuclear is by far the safest.

Data from: How Deadly Is Your Kilowatt?, James Conca, Forbes, June 10, 2012

The Foundation supports keeping existing nuclear plants open and investing in new nuclear technology. Despite the perception that renewable energy is displacing fossil fuels, global greenhouse emissions continue to increase at an accelerating rate. 2 A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists confirmed previous studies reporting that power from the increasing number of closed nuclear plants is replaced primarily by natural gas. Natural gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that when burned releases carbon dioxide. 3

Nuclear power is a clean reliable alternative to coal and natural gas that provides always-on, baseload power. Despite public perception that nuclear technology is too dangerous, a scientific review based on over 50 years’ data clearly demonstrates the safety of carbon-free nuclear power compared to the alternatives. 4 Nuclear power has proven to be the safest, even compared to rooftop solar, and wind. Yet the public fears nuclear power. How could this be? One reason is a Hollywood movie that turned public opinion.

On March 16, 1979 the Hollywood thriller, The China Syndrome was released to theaters. The movie’s title fancifully refers to a sequence of events causing an overheated reactor to melt its way through the center of the earth, all the way to China. Twelve days after the movie’s release, reactor number two at Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania, suffered a partial meltdown. The accident was caused by a series of equipment malfunctions, and operator errors. The movie eerily predicted the real accident. However, unlike the fictional movie where the meltdown threatened to wipe out southern California, the real accident caused no deaths, and independent studies revealed no known health effects. 5

The false narrative of nuclear meltdowns threatening society are kept alive by public media. A popular animated sitcom, The Simpsons, has now aired for over 30 seasons. The show is set in the fictional town of Springfield, where Homer Simpson works as a safety officer at a nearby nuclear power plant. His boss, Mr Burns, routinely ignores safety in favor of profits. The show regularly portrays the nuclear power plant as poorly managed and on the verge of disaster. For example, in the illustration below the Simpson family is running for their lives after Homer dropped cherry pie into controls for the reactor. A whole generation has now grown up assuming that nuclear power is the most dangerous source of energy, when it's actually the safest.

The 1979 film, The China Syndrome spread public fear of nuclear power. Following the movie the animated sitcom, The Simpsons, kept fears of a nuclear power plant disaster alive. Even though the worst nuclear accident in the United States killed or injured no one, the movie and cartoon versions spread fears of nuclear power that linger to this day. 

Three Mile Island, the most severe nuclear accident in the United States, led to increased regulation of the nuclear industry and the cancellation of new nuclear plants. By contrast, regulations for coal and natural gas are far less burdensome despite a much higher death rate from those fuels. In the United States, coal kills around 13,000 people annually 6, and so-called “clean” natural gas is far deadlier than nuclear, causing 40 times more deaths per unit of electricity produced. 7

The radiation exposure from nuclear power is extremely low compared to natural background radiation from space (cosmic rays), the earth, and medical procedures. For example, living near a nuclear power station exposes a person to an additional dose of annual radiation of 1 millirem compared an average background exposure of 620 millirems. The radiation dose from a mammogram is 42 times larger than the extra exposure from living near a nuclear plant. 8 You increase your radiation dose by 1 millirem on a coast to coast airline flight, but no one proposes banning airline travel because of the increased exposure to radiation from cosmic rays. 9

Mortality from electric power production outside the United States is much higher. According to Forbes, “U.S. death rates are so much lower strictly as a result of regulation”. The average mortality rate for nuclear power globally is 90 compared to only 0.1 for the U.S. (deaths/trillion kWh). The main reason for the higher global average is due to the Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union, where a reactor moderated by flammable graphite (a form of carbon), overheated, likely causing a steam explosion, and caught fire. No U.S. reactors use flammable graphite, a cheap but dangerous way to build a reactor. A second vulnerability of the Soviet reactor was that it had no containment structure, as do all large U.S. reactors. Had the Russian government alerted the public instead of covering up the Chernobyl accident, the death toll could have been much lower. Despite the greater risks of some reactors outside the U.S., the risk should be put in perspective. For example, the global average death rate from renewable hydroelectric power, by far the largest source of renewable energy, is 1,400 compared to 90 for nuclear (deaths/trillion kWh). So although nuclear power does have risks, the risks are lower than any of the alternatives. 10

Despite the inherent risks of the reactor used at Chernobyl, Russia still operates eleven reactors of this design, and four smaller reactors of a similar design. Called RBMK reactors, this is the oldest commercial reactor design still in wide operation. 11 Although some of the design flaws in this type of reactor have been corrected, the design is inherently dangerous. The Foundation’s director believes the main risk of a serious reactor accident in the future is from Russian graphite-moderated reactors of the type that melted down and caught fire at Chernobyl.

In 2011 Japan suffered the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the nation. The earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami with waves reaching heights of 133 feet that traveled miles inland. The tsunami breached a sea wall at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, flooding the plant and its backup diesel generators. Without power to operate coolant pumps, the reactors overheated and melted down. An independent parliamentary investigation concluded that Fukushima was a “man-made” disaster caused by poor regulation and collusion between the government and the industrial and safety agency. 12 Although no deaths or health effects have been linked to the resulting release of radiation, reporting of the disaster misleadingly led the public to believe that deaths from an ill-advised evacuation were due to radiation exposure. 13

Prior to the Fukushima accident Japan generated 30% of its electricity from nuclear power, but public fears led Japan to embark on a program of closing several nuclear plants and replacing them with renewable wind and solar backed up by fossil fuel generation. The result is predicted to be an increase in deaths because fossil fuels cause far more deaths than nuclear power. 14

The Foundation recognizes that, despite conservation efforts, global demand for electricity is accelerating. Global warming is increasing the demand for electricity as countries turn to desalination to supplement dwindling supplies of fresh water. Developing countries want improved living conditions, including power-hungry air conditioning and refrigeration.

Demand for electricity is further increased by a shift from petroleum to electrically-powered transportation. The announcement by Volkswagen, the world’s second largest car company, that it plans to go all-electric 15, along with industry-wide investments in electric vehicles, signals that electricity demand will increase several fold. This emerging shift to electrically powered vehicles has the potential to dramatically reduce emissions, but how can clean power production be dramatically scaled up in less than a generation? Many environmental groups promote closing nuclear plants while scaling up renewables. Is this a workable strategy?

Tesla Model 3 all-electric car at a charging station. Limited production of the Model 3 began in 2017 and by 2018 the Model 3 topped global sales of plug-in electric cars.* “In Jan. 2019, the Model 3 passed the Tesla Model S to become the best selling all-electric car in the U.S. ever.”* Many analysts consider the performance and low-maintenance of electric cars to be better than gasolinepowered cars. Barriers to wider adoption are the limited number of changing stations, the limited number of models meeting specific buyer needs, and price. *Wikipedia. Photo: Barrett Walker
  1. Hansen, et. al., Earth System Dynamics.
  2. Annual Global Fossil-Fuel Carbon Emissions, US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Berkeley Lab, Annual Global Fossil-Fuel Carbon Emissions, archived data
  3. The Nuclear Power Dilemma, by Steve Clemmer, Jeremy Richardson, Sandra Sattler, Dave Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists, 2018
  4. Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power, Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen, Environmental Science and Technology, March 15, 2013
  5. Three Mile Island, History, Aug. 21, 2018
  6. End Coal - Health Impacts
  7. Coal and gas are far more harmful than nuclear power, NASA Global Climate Change News, 4-22-13
  8. Radiation Sources and Doses, EPA from National Council on Radiation Protection & Measurements (NCRP), Report No. 160.
  9. Radiation Exposure Examples, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Georgia State University
  10. It goes completely against what most believe, but out of all major energy sources, nuclear is the safest, by Hannah Ritchie, Our World in Data, July 24, 2017.
  11. RBMK, Wikipedia article
  12. Japanese government held liable for first time for negligence in Fukushima, by Justin McCurry, The Guardian, March 17, 2017.
  13. The Fukushima Disaster Wasn't Disastrous Because Of The Radiation, by James Conca, Forbes, March 16, 2015.
  14. Japan's coal-fired plants 'to cause thousands of early deaths', by Justin McCurry, The Guardian, May 17, 2016.
  15. Bet everything on electric: Inside Volkswagen's radical strategy shift, Edward Taylor and Jan Schwartz, Reuters, 2-6-19

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