What Will Work

Kristin Shrader-Frechette of the University of Notre Dame is rigorous in the presentation of her argument in What Will Work: Fighting Climate Change with Renewable Energy, Not Nuclear Power. In recent times a number of leading environmentalists have concluded nuclear power has to be employed to enable the transition away from fossil fuels. Shrader-Frechette disagrees. There is no “devil’s choice” between expanding nuclear fission and enduring climate change. Nuclear power is not needed, and it’s certainly not desirable.

Not that the author in any way downplays the need to give up the use of fossil fuels. She fully accepts the science of climate change and what is needed to avoid climate-related catastrophe. Objections to taking action are listed in detail and briskly dismissed. The people who deny climate change for profit are categorised and exposed for their role in misleading the public. Among them, sadly, are the American politicians who repay campaign fund donations from fossil-fuel companies by denying or delaying climate change issues.

But Shrader-Frechette rejects the argument that nuclear power is necessary in the energy mix if we are to address climate change quickly enough to be effective. A substantial part of the book is devoted to showing that nuclear energy is not only undesirable but also diverts much-needed investment and government subsidy from energy efficiency and renewable energy development. Far from being part of the solution it gets in the way of solution.

Nuclear generation is not carbon free if all the stages in its production are counted. The author agrees that the greenhouse gas emissions component of nuclear power is considerably lower than coal and lower than gas. Nevertheless it is higher than solar and wind. That’s with high-grade uranium ore. But when lower-grade uranium is employed nuclear generation’s emissions profile rises to be level with that of gas, and very much higher than wind and solar.

Rapid implementation of nuclear is offered as one of its advantages over renewables, but the author explains why she considers that claim is flawed. Reactors have typically taken many years to build and though claims are made that future reactor construction times will decrease, the newer reactor designs are untested.  Renewable technologies already offer the prospect of speedier implementation.

In the matter of cost the author claims nearly all nuclear-fission estimates are well understated. In many cases full-liability insurance costs are excluded, interest rates and construction times are underestimated, reactor load factors and lifetimes overestimated. Nuclear power by her analysis is far more expensive than the combination of energy efficiency programmes and renewable energy sources that she favours.

In a closely-argued chapter looking at the health effects of nuclear accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island she considers studies and hypotheses which she concludes demonstrate that nuclear fission is an extremely risky technology for human health.

She wraps up her case against nuclear generation with a consideration of environmental justice, noting amongst other things that indigenous people and minorities are most exposed to radiation danger, that in the US commercial reactors are disproportionately sited in the poorest parts of the country and that regulation standards protect US children less well than adults.

The author’s case is impressively and carefully documented. I’m in no position to evaluate the relative merits of the many studies she refers to and I’m well aware that the arguments are fiercely contested. I’ve tended to think that if a measure of nuclear generation is the only way of successfully stopping the burning of fossil fuel then we may regretfully have to take it. So the question in my mind in reading a book like this is whether renewable energy alone can really suffice.

Shrader-Frechette refers throughout the book to that question but towards the end turns her full attention to it. Typically, she provides a comprehensive list of reasons. Heading the list is the employment of energy efficiency and conservation as the cheapest ways to address climate change. These measures are both comprehensive, covering a wide range of emissions, and profitable. The book estimates that every dollar invested in energy efficiency displaces 6.8 times more carbon-equivalent emissions than investments in nuclear power.

Turning to renewables, she focuses particularly on wind and solar. Wind energy is inexpensive, plentiful, and easier to implement than atomic power. One of the reasons it is not now more available lies with the successful lobbying of campaign donors in the fossil fuel and nuclear industries resulting in billions of dollars misspent on nuclear energy subsidies in the US. Those same industries have misleadingly emphasised the need for baseload power. Solar PV, like wind, is an inexpensive and plentiful alternative to nuclear.

Markets are recognising the economic advantages of renewables over nuclear. Renewables are getting cheaper while nuclear is getting more expensive. Renewables also have the capacity to supply all global energy needs as nuclear does not. The book sets out the guidelines that many scientists and international energy agencies have proposed for the transition from fossil to renewable non-nuclear energy, a transition which the author considers can be made easily and smoothly.  As to the question of whether it can be made quickly enough to adequately address climate change, she points to the commitments in the past which produced rapid changes, including the 25-year phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons. Similar commitment can see the phasing out of both fossil fuels and nuclear energy, replaced by renewable technologies, conservation and efficiency programmes.

My country New Zealand thankfully does not have to even think about nuclear power. Our renewable energy resources are ample to replace fossil fuel use, if we ever find the resolve to do so. But it’s a live issue for many countries and Shrader-Frechette’s advocacy bears on a question of major importance for policy makers. The author supports her case with a wealth of detailed and tightly-packed reference.  Her treatment is exhaustive, but always clearly signposted with frequent overviews and summaries. The result is a book clearly worth respect in the melee of opinion on the makeup of a low-carbon future.  If indeed that is the future we embrace soon enough to avoid the direst consequences of continued burning of fossil fuel.

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7 thoughts on “What Will Work”

  1. Interesting. The claims and counter claims about the human health impacts of Chernobyl make it hard to know what to think, but some of the statements about ‘millions’ of deaths seem impossible to credit. I wonder if this book gets us any closer to the truth.

    Despite being a great supporter of renewables even I wonder if it will be enough for the likes of India and China. It’s easy for us in NZ to imagine being 100% renewable, but in a country that is flatter, dryer and much much more densely populated, there’s no doubt it would be much more difficult and costly.

    I want to hear more about thorium reactors as these seem to answer questions around nuclear proliferation/security (i.e they can’t be used to make weapon’s grade plutonium), safety (they can’t explode or melt down) and fuel scarcity (the stuff is apparently plentiful, unlike uranium). Plus retrofiting them to an existing coal plants would make the most of existing infrastructure/sunk capital.

  2. I’d suggest the jury’s still out on nuclear reactors.ITER’s Tritium plasma- based Tokamak fusion reactor sounds very promising,and should be ‘clean’.It’d be good to go to Aix-en-Provence for a sniff around.In any case,the scientific consensus is that fushion is ‘on’ within 20 years or so.The media is very good at whipping up a frenzy over the occasional tragic nuclear accident but the record is that coal has killed millions more than nuke;and looks like it may do many millions more again if we don’t get on top of Global Warming very,very soon.

    Peter Cummins

  3. There is a lot of hysteria surrounding things nuclear. Day after day following the Japanese Tsunami the news started with Fukushima Daicho, how many radiation related deaths have there been? None, compared to the thousands that died in the Tsunami, but guess what is deemed more newsworthy.
    My grandmother was religious in tuning off and even unplugging electric devices, I remember having to plug in her VCR to play a tape and being told “be careful”. She grew up in a world of kerosene lamps and coal ranges. Electricity to her was a dangerous thing. I grew up always knowing electricity, so it holds no fear for me.
    It is our unfamiliarity with nuclear power that leads us overreact. Imagine if during a typhoon a Japanese airliner had an accident, but no-one was killed still that led to Germany banning all air travel. Ridiculous right?
    But a nuclear power station has an accident, no-one was killed and Germany shuts down its nuclear power industry.
    I’ve got to wonder how much hysteria pads out the “full-liability insurance costs” of nuclear plants.
    My great frustration during the Fukushima crisis was the dearth of useful data from the news media. “Radiation found outside of nuclear plant”. Meaningless, there is background radiation everywhere. Radiation not being found outside a nuclear plant would actually be newsworthy. What they never said was the levels of the radiation, because msv/hr would be meaningless to nuclear illiterate NZers.

  4. Yes there has been exaggeration — on both sides. But it is not true to say that Fukushima killed nobody — the ‘nice’ thing about nuclear accidents is that they kill anonymously.
    Just like there are no death certificates that read ‘tobacco’, there are none that read ‘long-term effects of radiation’. But that doesn’t mean that these dead don’t exist.
    There are as yet no good estimates for this from Fukushima, but we have the numbers, more or less, for Chernobyl. For an area around the site where 6M people live, the estimate is 4000 according to the reports of WHO/UNSCEAR.
    These organizations refused to provide estimates for the rest of the world, but others have done so using the same statistical methodology. They find for Europe: 13000 (Elizabeth Cardis), and globally: 27000 victims, within very wide uncertainties.
    …and yes, those estimates of ‘millions’ are poppycock.
    Now one cannot directly scale this to Fukushima, as the nature of the accident was very different, as was the Japanese emergency response. Yet it seems safe to assume that there will be hundreds to thousands of people contracting cancer during their lifetime and dying, that wouldn’t have without Fukushima. They’ll never know what hit them, and they won’t stand out from the general cancer statistics.
    A few of them will be new zealanders.
    Is this reason enough to be afraid of nuclear power? Probably not. But the lack of openness and honesty by industry supporters are a legitimate source of fear. Large-scale, safe nuclear deployment will only find acceptance if there is an open, pro-active safety culture. That is precisely the difference with what we have in aviation: the dumb blunders of TEPCO throughout this disaster would be unthinkable in an aviation setting.

  5. The average annual death rate per GW of installed electricity generation capacity attributed to fossil fuel use vastly outnumbers any nuclear deaths.

    A good overview over the risks of energy production was last year given in Scientific American:


    So on a purely rational basis Nuclear seems like a very safe option.

    We fear the risks of unfamiliar dangers such as Nuclear radiation far more than those of common dangers such as smog and soot from coal fires or travel by car. We fear shark attacks and airplane crashed yet get into the car each day without much hesitation…. Our brains seem conditioned to fear the unfamiliar and the invisible.

    However, the nuclear industry has much to answer for especially for being unimaginative about risks (as seen in Chernobyl and Fukushima) and for not having solved the waste disposal problem despite have a century and more of planing time.

    The loss of useful land for habitation and cultivation in Japan will be very costly and future cancer rates remain as yet to be seen. However when taking the two nuclear bomb drops over Japan as a guidance, the later day cancer death were generally much lower than most people would expect, which is good news for the survivors according to a life span cancer risk study published in Japan.

    Under the linear hypothesis, which is far from proved for any form of cancer, except perhaps leukemia in Hiroshima, the estimated absolute risk for all forms of cancer, including leukemia, would suggest that the A-bomb survivor population of 285,000 registrants at the time of the 1950 census may have experienced 400 or 500 deaths from cancer induced by radiation in addition to perhaps 69,000 naturally occurring deaths in the interval 1950-1974.
    source: http://www.rerf.or.jp/library/scidata/lssrepor_e/tr01-77.htm

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