The Nuclear Option

Like the majority of the public, the trustees originally assumed that nuclear waste, and limited supplies of uranium, made nuclear power unsustainable and dangerous. Faced with the transport of nuclear waste on a rail line near his house, one of the Walker Foundation trustees set out to convince public officials that nuclear power was too risky. However, an investigation into the facts revealed that, despite public anti-nuclear sentiment, nuclear power was safer and cleaner than the alternatives.

Foundation site visit to nuclear Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, GA. The plant has two existing nuclear reactors, with two more under construction. When the new reactors are completed, Plant Vogtle will become the largest nuclear plant, and the largest power plant of any kind in the country. When completed, the new reactors will double the plant’s capacity to power a total of one million homes. Faced with cost overruns, construction contractor Westinghouse Electric Co. filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and Southern Company division, Southern Nuclear took over construction. Plant Vogtle is the last remaining nuclear plant under construction in the U.S.

Storage of nuclear waste in dry casks at Plant Vogtle in Georgia. Used fuel is first stored in pools underwater until it cools and then transferred to dry casks for storage on site. A reactor (IFR) designed and tested by the U.S. government, but cancelled after the nuclear scare at Three Mile Island, could be powered by this used fuel, while greatly reducing the volume and radiation level of the residual waste. Photo by Barrett Walker.

In 2010 the Foundation provided the initial seed funding for a feature-length documentary about the history and development of nuclear power and the current debate surrounding its revival as a means of averting a climate catastrophe. Robert Stone, the producer, had previously produced a film critical of nuclear weapons testing, and was regarded as being anti-nuclear. He went on to raise $1.2 million from Silicon Valley donors and in 2013 produced the film titled “Pandora’s Promise”.

The film featured leading environmentalists and energy experts who, faced with the risks of climate change, reversed their opposition to nuclear power and became proponents. The film addressed the heated debate surrounding nuclear power as a vehicle for taking a realistic and comprehensive look at the worlds energy dilemma. The movie examined the true costs of our current addiction to fossil fuels, and relative merits of the alternatives from an economic, technological and environmental perspective. (In 2018 the film was available for viewing via Amazon and iTunes.) 

The Walker Foundation provided the initial funding for this feature-length documentary on the debate surrounding nuclear power as an energy source for eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels. An ounce of uranium contains two to three million times the energy equivalent of the same weight of oil or coal. Size matters. For the amount of energy they produce, nuclear power plants are very compact and take relatively little material to construct. For example, “The land needed for wind energy to produce the same amount of electricity in a year as a typical 1,000 MW nuclear plant is 260 to 360 square miles” *, and wind turbines require far more concrete and steel to construct. * How Much Land Does Nuclear, Wind and Solar Really Need?, NEI Nuclear Notes by Mark Flanagan July 2, 2015.

“Because of its high energy density, uranium’s mining impacts are miniscule compared to coal, oil and natural gas. Few material inputs mean very small amounts of waste outputs. And, replacing nuclear with solar and wind requires 100 to 700 times more land.” 1 So why is the public so afraid of nuclear power. A leading reason is the justified fear of nuclear weapons. Doris Sloan, an antinuclear activist in northern California said, “If you’re trying to get people aroused about what is going on ... you use the most emotional issue you can find.” 2 This included publicizing images of victims of Hiroshima and photos of babies born with birth defects. Millions were convinced a nuclear meltdown was the same as a nuclear bomb. Environmental groups seized on the public’s fear of all things nuclear to promote 100% renewable energy.

Germany vs. France - A Case Study Compares Renewables to Nuclear

Germany provides a real-world case study of why massive investment in renewables is failing to adequately reduce carbon emissions. 3 The country’s strategy of phasing out carbon-free nuclear plants and replacing the power with wind, solar, and biofuels has increased the country’s reliance on carbon-emitting fossil fuels because of the intermittent nature of renewables. Although renewables briefly met 100% of the country’s power needs, they only provided 36% of total power needs in 2018. 4

Germany’s push to replace nuclear with renewables fails to meet climate goals. France generates 75% of its electricity from nuclear power and has one of the lowest electricity prices in Europe. Neighboring Germany is aggressively investing in solar and wind power while closing existing nuclear plants. On average Germany’s electricity was 11 times dirtier than France’s in 2018 because dirty coal and natural gas plants were brought online during periods when the sun didn’t shine and the wind didn’t blow. See the following article for more information:

Furthermore, a Foundation site visit revealed that so-called sustainable biofuel exported from the U.S. to Germany is actually unsustainably produced wood pellets. Forests in the Southeast U.S. are being clear-cut, the wood ground into pellets, and then shipped to Germany for burning in power plants. Another Foundation-supported project showed that although natural forests absorb and store carbon, industrial forests are massive carbon emitters. 5

Unsustainable and sustainable uses of wood compared. On the left, a German wood pellet plant in Urania, LA. German Pellets is one of the largest producers in the world. Wood pellets are renewable, but not carbon neutral. According to Dogwood Alliance, a past Foundation grantee, the industry clearcuts southeastern U.S. forests, turning the trees into pellets shipped across the Atlantic to Europe, where they are burned for electricity. Touted as “green” energy, this biomass is actually a dirtier fuel than coal. On the right, workers at Columbia Forest Products Company show off sustainably certified premium plywood. Foundation director, Barrett Walker, observed manufacture of the plywood, from harvesting of the trees to production of finished lumber. Photos: left: Woodworking Network adv. 2015; right: Barrett Walker 2011.

Concerned that the costs of transitioning to clean energy may be too high for the economy to afford, and therefore that it may be too late to avoid stopping the worst effects of climate change, the Foundation estimated how much it would have cost to meet emission goals by replacing fossil fuel plants with nuclear power. We compared France and Germany as a case study. Beginning in 1974, France built 56 nuclear reactors over a 15 year period using a standard plant design from Westinghouse (at that time, a U.S. company). France derives about 75% of its electricity from nuclear. By comparison, Germany has invested in renewables while beginning to close its existing nuclear plants. In 2016, German electricity was nearly 10X dirtier than France’s and almost twice as expensive. 6 When the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, Germany must rely on natural gas and coal, because electricity can only be stored affordably for short periods.

Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France. According to Environmental Progress electricity in France has 1/10 the carbon emissions of neighboring Germany, despite that country’s heavy investment in renewables. France generates approximately 75% of electricity from nuclear power. The majority of plants use cooling towers to avoid discharging warm water into rivers, thereby reducing their environmental impact. The towers in the photo are discharging evaporated water vapor. France reprocesses nuclear fuel with final disposal planned underground. Photo: Stefan Kühn 2005 Creative Commons.

We concluded that had Germany bet on nuclear instead of renewables, the country would already have 100% clean power. The Foundation trustees asked one of its grantees with energy expertise to confirm their back-of-the-envelope calculations. The result was an article from Environmental Progress, published by Forbes, that concluded “Had California and Germany invested $680 billion into new nuclear power plants instead of renewables like solar and wind farms, the two would already be generating 100% or more of their electricity from clean (low-emissions) energy sources”. 7 Furthermore, nuclear plants produce excess electricity at night when electricity demand is low, providing plenty of power to charge electric vehicles when they are idle. The study concluded that Germany could have decarbonized its transportation sector with nuclear.

Fossil fuel companies support renewables but oppose nuclear power.  Here is the message from a thirty-second TV commercial supporting wind power paired with natural gas.  “BP welcomes you to Fowler, Indiana, which is said to be one of the windiest places in America, and home to three BP wind farms … In the off-chance the wind ever stops blowing here, the lights can keep on shining because our natural gas is a smart partner to renewable energy.”  The problem with this vision for a clean America is that “renewable” wind and solar power are very intermittent, requiring reliable back-up power. Natural gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas that escapes production facilities, and burning natural gas releases carbon dioxide.  Electricity from every closed nuclear plant has been replaced by fossil fuels, primarily natural gas.  So closing nuclear plants expands the market for natural gas and results in more greenhouse emissions.  100% renewable energy is not the answer to climate change.  Nuclear power needs to be expanded along with renewables.

  1.  Why Clean Energy is in Crisis, Environmental Progress, 2018
  2. Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California 1958-1978, Thomas Raymond Wellock, The University of Wisconsin Press, ©1998, p. 46
  3. Why Aren't Renewables Decreasing Germany's Carbon Emissions? James Conca, Forbes, Oct. 10, 2017.
  4. Renewables cover about 100% of German power use for first time ever, Sören Amelang, Clean Energy Wire, 1-5-2018.
  5. Report: Climate Legislation Must Include Big Timber, by John Talberth, Center for Sustainable Economy, Dec. 11, 2017.
  6. German electricity was nearly 10 times dirtier than France's in 2016, Mark Nelson, Environmental Progress, Feb. 11, 2017
  7. Had They Bet On Nuclear, Not Renewables, Germany & California Would Already Have 100% Clean Power, Michael Shellenberger, Forbes, Sept. 11, 2018.

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