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U.S. should reconsider nuclear power

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Nuclear power generation produces no carbon dioxide.

On Monday, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled the latest Obama administration program to combat global warming: new rules to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing power plants, especially coal burners, the country's single largest source of the heat-trapping gas.

The new program bypasses Congress and uses the president's authority under the Clean Air Act to achieve greenhouse gas reductions. It will raise threats of lawsuits, claims of job losses and higher energy prices, and references to the recent pause in global temperatures dating from the beginning of the 21st century. The Obama program on climate change stresses extreme weather events as a primary motive for action on climate. Such events include storms with “heavy downpours as well as an increase in wildfires, severe droughts, permafrost thawing, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise.”

The EPA directives will apparently allow states to set up their own systems to achieve mandated cuts in CO2 emissions, including setting an overall “carbon budget” for states and leaving it up to them to meet the limits. 

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said last week the rules will give states “flexibility to develop plans on how to achieve those reductions in a way that’s economically beneficial to them.” The rules will let states “establish their own energy policies as long as the carbon pollution reductions that we are going to require in this rule actually are achieved,” she said. 

Cap and trade

The new EPA rules will apparently give rise to cap and trade plans where emitting facilities will receive and buy tradable credits to allow a certain amount of CO2 emissions. Facilities which can lower emissions will have extra credits which they can sell to others who need them to continue operating.

This type of plan worked well in controlling the occurrence of acid rain from high levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) being emitted from coal burning electric plants across the Midwest. Beginning in 2000 the sources were capped at 9.5 million tons of SO2 (compared to 1980 emission levels of 17.3 million tons), and the plants were held responsible for lowering their levels to those standards. The EPA issued each plant a certain number of credits, or allowances with each equal to one ton of SO2 emissions. At the end of every year, a plant would have to report to the EPA whether or not they had enough credits for their emissions, (i.e. a plant that emitted 1,000 tons of SO2 would need to hold 1,000 credits). Those under the cap could save their excess credits for the future, or sell them to other plants that were in danger of going over their limit.

If a plant went over its limit and was unable to purchase or trade for other credits, it would have to pay a fine to the EPA for each additional ton of SO2 emitted into the atmosphere. The acid rain program has been successful in lowering annual SO2 emissions.

Oceans absorbing heat

The current 21st century pause in global surface warming has given ammunition to skeptics who will oppose the EPA rules as not necessary. But climate scientist John Abraham of St. Thomas University explains the reason for the current global warming pause. Much of the missing heat is being absorbed by the oceans, he notes, so that the earth overall is still warming. Warmer oceans will warm us in the future much as the periodic El Nino induced warmer Pacific surface causes a warmer earth. Abraham summed up the issues in a recent letter, “What we are concerned about is that temperature increases, ocean acidification, a rise in sea levels, and more droughts and floods will come at tremendous human costs.”

I suggest that we humans are engaged in a great environmental experiment as we burn millions of years worth of stored hydrocarbon fuels, releasing CO2 to the atmosphere from which it came at a thousand of times nature’s carbon storage rate. The risks from this are uncertain, but given the points raised by Abraham, they are not worth taking. I would feel better if I heard more about measures like using new, safer nuclear plants, such as the Westinghouse AP 1000. A nuclear plant like that produces 8 billion around-the-clock kilowatt hours per year, without emitting any carbon dioxide.

Four of those plants are under construction in Georgia and South Carolina and many more in China. We also need many more.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and is a guest faculty member on energy subjects for the University of Minnesota's Lifelong Learning programHis spring quarter class was "Our Renewable Energy Future; Making It Work."

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Comments (34)

SO2 versus CO2

The SO2 cap and trade plan worked because there are limestone scrubbers that can remove the SO2.
There is no effective and economic way to separate and sequester the CO2, which is why there is no large base load power plant doing it.

So which is it, Rolf?No

So which is it, Rolf?

No significant effects from human-released CO2 or a dangerous experiment in climate change?

A science based solution for a problem of which you regularly deny as being proven by science.

You might be a more effective spokesman for one or the other if you decided what you believed.

Riding the fence has its own effects.

Nukes

Nuclear power may be good from a technical point of view, but no one has solved the insurance side of the equation. So far no insurance companies will cover a nuke plant, so the federal government has to step into the mix and cover them instead. That amounts to a huge subsidy that should be moved off to the free market instead hiding the costs behind the government's skirts.

Once again

For a feature entitled "Community Voices", one might expect to not hear from the same member of the community so many times. ;-) And no disrespect meant towards Mr. Westgard, but one would have to think that there are qualified climatologists and nuclear physicists somewhere in the state who could speak with authority on issues like these.

Having not so long ago written a letter in my local community paper arguing that the so-called "pause" in global warming casts doubt on the theory as a whole, the prolific Mr. Westgard now seems content with an explanation of that pause inasmuch as it advances the case for nuclear power. Among his other posts to this same "Community Voices" section, Mr. Westgard also recently posted an argument in favor of designating a portion of outstate MN as a nuclear waste dump. Having a particular viewpoint on a subject is fine and well, but should we be hearing so much from the same voice in this section of MinnPost?

And could MinnPost bring in a qualified scientist to speak on issues related to global warming and nuclear and renewable energy? Neil deGrasse Tyson's "Cosmos" program seems like it might present a good and timely chance to bring in some scientifically authoritative viewpoints on these issues.

Assumptions

This argument is based on the assumption that the need for energy will steadily and inevitably increase. If this is so, then nuclear energy should certainly be considered, particularly as part of a cap and trade mix where nuclear plants can be sited in low risk locations (both geographically and demographically).
And we should certainly increase the funding for thermonuclear power generation by at least an order of magnitude.

However, we can also question the assumption of inevitably increasing demand, and instead put more resources into reducing our energy usage, as well as into alternatives to coal, petrochemical and nuclear power.

Pul's comment on energy demand

US electric demand has been stable at about 3800 billion kwh since 2004. Transportation fuel demand is also stable to slightly down. This is the result of high fuel prices and resulting conservation efforts in transportation, building efficiency, etc. That energy demand stability is also evident in other OECD countries. This is not true in the developing world, especially in China, Indonesia, India, etc. where demand continues upward.
Fossil fuels and the binding energy in the atomic nucleus(e=mc2) are concentrated energy gifts of nature. so it is difficult to find effective and economic alternatives.

Minor quibble

This 'stability' is partly the consequence of 'offshoring' manufacturing.
If you totaled the energy cost of all goods and services -consumed- (rather than produced) in the United States, I suspect you'd find an increase.
We push the energy use and pollution across the Pacific to China, but still pay for it in the long run.

Good point

Paul is right on here.

Low risk nuclear locations - everywhere

Our 102 nuclear reactors have operated safely for decades. 3 Mile Island made a billion dollar mess of the central reactor, but nobody was injured. Short of avoiding the San Andreas Fault you could put a new reactor any place there is enough water.
Dept of energy is actually supporting the new small modular reactors. Several private groups are doing the same including one which includes Bill Gates. Those units are essentially commercial versions of the 50-100MW units that are on our submarines and aircraft carriers. They are very safe for the thousands of US seamen who man those vessels.

low risk, really?

"Our 102 nuclear reactors have operated safely for decades." Really? You're either a shill for the nuclear power industry or gravely deluded. 60% of all operating reactors have leaking cooling pools, contaminating ground water. There are accidents, near misses, all the time, at every reactor around the country. Ionizing radiation is cumulative. In all likelihood the cause of our epidemic of soft tissue cancers, like thyroid and breast cancer, clusters all around nuclear facilities.

survey

A 20 year OSHA survey rated nuclear power the safest of all US industrial activity.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

OSHA, that's Occupational Safety and Health Administration! That means the fewest workers are harmed in the nuclear power industry. Except it doesn't take into consideration the long term health cost to these workers. The data on cancer rates among nuclear workers is impossible to study because they are sealed by the industry! If workers talk about it, they lose their pension. There's also very few nuclear workers, since once a plant is built, it only takes a few dozen people to operate it, unless of course there's a major accident, in which case it takes a nation to contain the mess.

"you could put a new reactor any place there is enough water"

They put the Fukushima Daichi plant where there was plenty of water. So it's not just the availability of water.

It's the complex systems required to sustain the continued and effective use of that water for cooling, along with the additional complex systems to control the activity and heat in the reactor. In the long run, reality will find any and all overlooked system design weaknesses.

The only way we find these design shortcomings is through the well-known disasters. Until then, the industry, like yourself, trumpets its safety.

When we find a truly safe way to exploit this magnificent power source, we can set aside most of our consumption of fossil fuels, to the benefit of all. Many of us are supporters of nuclear energy, but with grave reservations about its safety, given the half-life of the fuel and spent fuel.

The problem with claims of safety is that the industry and its cheerleaders have ALWAYS proclaimed the safety of nuclear power.

LEDs

It's true that electrical consumption is going down, not up, all over the country, like California and New York state, due in great part by the introduction of LED lighting. Lighting consumes 20% of electrical generation, so since LEDs are 90% more efficient than conventional lighting, the reduction has been dramatic.

Doug and Neal get personal

Please address the substance of my comments rather than baseless cheap shots on my competence. Actually I haven't had that much material in MinnPost compared to the Twin Cities Dailies.
I support the major study which suggests Minnesota's granite as an appropriate site to replace Yucca Mountain. It will be particularly effective if we replicate the French reprocessing facility at La Hague.
And insuring our 100+ nuclear plants hasn't cost the government anything as there have been few insurable accidents. As to the government's financial skirts, they surround wind, solar and biofuels not nuclear. Even with our high upfront costs, nuclear is profitable on its own.
It is also the best way to replace a big coal plant like Sherco.
REW

Personal?I'm questioning the

Personal?

I'm questioning the message of a messenger that changes their message from day to day.

Is human forced CO2 change a serious problem, or is it a non-issue?

Your comment on another article related to climate change on this site pooh-poohed the predicted effects of climate change and concluded with, "Don't sell your winter coat".

When you hop back and forth over the fence, you should expect to get splinters.

CO2; peril or panacea?

We don't really know the consequences of returning CO2 concentrations to the levels of the distant past.That is why I get splinters. REW

What a deal!

$4 Billion to build for a 40 years life span - $10 Billion and 60 years to decommission. Wow, what a bargain! Think of all the solar and wind you could have installed for that obscene amount of cash. The nuclear power industry has been a rip-off since day one. It will doom us if we don't deal with it.

solar and wind joke

Try running a city during a quiet night with no wind or solar. Every traffic light, every hospital, every factory, every home goes dark. Good for health tho, as everyone who lives in a high rise gets good stair climbing exercise.

coal and nuke joke

Storage, hydro, natural gas, geothermal... there's plenty other baseload sources. Nuclear only provides 10% of our electrical production in the US, easily dispensed with when you consider the ridiculous cost, the potential for disaster, and chronic accumulation of radiation.

You can't insure nukes!

"insuring our 100+ nuclear plants" You can't insure nuclear power plants, that's what the Price-Anderson Act is all about. The nuclear power industry is not liable for catastrophic failures!

Baby & bath water

I share the same frustration as some commenters on this page regarding Rolf's frequent fence straddling, and have called him on it previously. Nevertheless, I find this to be the most reasoned and positive such article he has written (that I have seen). It's fine to attack issues in the article if you disagree with them, but bashing based on previous utterances seems unhelpful. Perhaps his opinion has evolved? If not, it will become apparent in future articles & letters, and then by all means, bash away.

I do believe that, with developments in the latest generation of nuclear power technology, it can be done safely. What happened in Japan was a result of stupidity; siting nuclear plants in tectonic fault zones and areas that are vulnerable to inundation by tsunamis is simply stupid. The biggest problem is finding a long term solution to nuclear waste. Reprocessing is part of the answer, but settling on a geologically stable repository is the big bugaboo ( and I will admit to enough NIMBY-ism that choosing Minnesota leaves me cold). But it does need to be done, somewhere.

These issues aside, the environmental lobby (and I am a fervent environmentalist) needs to get over the knee-jerk opposition to nuclear energy as part of our long term energy plan; greenhouse warming is not your grandfather's environmental issue - it is worse. I for one do not waffle on the threat of human-induced global warming. It is the single greatest environmental threat facing us - and that is saying a lot, as the threats are myriad and daunting - and while we need to develop and deploy renewables as widely as possible (and I am quite happy with public subsidies of same), nuclear emits zero CO2 during operation (not to forget about mining/manufacture/construction) and provides the large scale and reliable energy production that the world demands. I would be ecstatic if there were a 100% green solution that met all the world's energy needs, but there is not. It is not wise to refuse to use part of the toolkit when the threat is severe, and already upon us.

Parenthetically, I was once also absolutely opposed to nuclear power. My opinion was changed by material published by James Lovelock (noted environmentalist and proponent of the "Gaia Theory") in the 90's. He was ignored in his call for construction of nuclear power plants to replace fossil fuels plants, even while atmospheric CO2 has risen past 400 ppm. The world's fever rages while we fight amongst ourselves.

It's a struggle Lance

to talk science to the few people who don't grasp the reality of E=MC2. I'll stay with the more than 600 readers who like my article.

just wondering about the cost

Rolf is talking about newly constructed generation plants, then there ought to be some information about what the cost of energy will be from this new generation. No principled educator would propose something without a handle on what impact it would have on a pocketbook, eh?
And if pumping CO2 into granite is worth a strong look from Rolf why doesn't anyone talk about that cost? Like the cost you will see every month on your bill, that cost.
Lets get the cost on the table and then quibble about what amount of risk it is worth. We might just forget about new nukes if we knew the actual cost of new nukes, a much more efficient way to run a discussion.

maybe I'll lose

Maybe I'll lose my pension over this (oh wait, I don't have one) but I worked for a large nuclear company for years that built refuelers and spent fuelers. They (nuclear plants) "could be" a lot safer and nuclear waste could be reconstituted, but don't bet on either. Many, if not all, of the nuclear plants need major league overhauls. However, as usual, both reconstituting and major overhauls require that money be spent. And the government does not own the nuclear power plants.

Tom Karas and Todd Hints find the real problem

The problem with nuclear energy in the end, is the cost. These things end up being too expensive to build and maintain. You can hide some of the costs as Todd points out by getting the government to insure them, but potential builders still back away because because the liabilities are still huge. It's funny, they claim these things are safer than safe, but they won't build them unless their liabilities for accidents are capped at their preferred levels, so what does that tell you about their confidence in the real safety of these reactors? This is why we don't have 40 reactors under construction at the moment in this country even thought the moratorium was lifted years ago.

The nuclear industry has also been claiming that nuclear power has reached "near" parity with coal for a few years now. However they can only make claim by ignoring the nuclear waste problem, which they promised would never be a problem in the first place. We've spent something like $80 billion on storage and we're still not storing, billions more will have to spent and in the meantime casks are sitting outside all 105 reactors waiting for somewhere to go.

When you add this up, you find that the main reason we're not building nuclear power plants is that they're the most expensive kind of power we could buy. Funny they're not arguing: "sure, it's expensive but it's worth it".

By the way, there have been hundreds of accidents at nuclear power plants, and thousands of "incidents" recorded by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the decades, everything from leaks to excessive radiation. And when you look at injuries and fatalities you can't just look at the plants themselves, you have to look downstream at the mining and processing of nuclear fuel, THAT's another expense the industry gets to bow out of because it's done by the government ( the DOE in particular). Look at the nuclear processing facilities, the cancer rates among workers and surrounding communities, and the contamination and clean up (look at the Hanford site for instance) etc., the vaneer of safety quickly tarnishes. By the time your done you find out that only coal is more dangerous to work with, and that's because of the dangers of the mining process.

Nukes cost

In the US plants like the AP 1000 run about $5-6 billion each.The Chinese are building them for half that.
An AP 1000 will produce upwards of 500 billion kwh over 60 years which is about a penny per kwh for the plant.
Fuel cost for a nuke is about .6 cents per kwh.
Once built they are low cost to operate in part because of their 90% capacity factor.

Nuke costs.... really? No not really

What Mr. Westgard fails to mention is the fact that no "AP 1000" reactors are up and running or will be until maybe 2016. These cost projections are just that- projections. Nuclear plants in the US are notorious for cost overruns and delays. These reactor designs have not been without their controversy by the way. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AP1000 We won't know how much this nuclear energy costs until these things are up and running. And again, when calculating the costs you don't just look at the plant, you have to look up and downtstream from the plant as well.

Try using good information

Control room testing on the AP 1000 at Sanmen China is complete, and the reactor will be operational in 2014, not 2016. Three more AP 1000s will be operational in China in 2015.
Nuclear energy is high density, reliable, and continuous. It is the low emission future.

Good information?

Yes Rolf, let's start with the fact that China is not the United states. None of these reactor designs is scheduled to go live in the United States until 2016. As for China, this is the country that put a little anti-freeze in our toothpaste in order to save a few bucks... I'm sure their nuclear reactors are built with just as much safety in mind. The Chinese have such a good safety record... nothing to worry about there.

Zilch from solar and wind this morning

As I write this(5 AM Sunday) it is dark and there is no wind. Thousands of heavily subsidized MN solar and wind devices produce nothing.
Yet all over the cities traffic lights function, hospitals have power as do water delivery and purification systems. No one in a high rise is trapped without elevators. Machinery which needs power at a steady voltage continues to hum.
Because down river at Prairie Island four giant turbines are turning 60 times/second, providing billions of kwh at the lowest cost of any power source at Xcel Energy. It's time to get real about energy.

Spoken like a true climate change denier

There's no wind at my house, so there can't possibly be any wind out where the wind turbines are actually located. One of the characteristics of the region where the turbines are being placed is that there is very rarely actually "zero" wind, and it doesn't take much to turn the blades on those things.

Wow...no wind.

currently, there's no light emanating from my flashlight, yet when I push a button, low and behold, light appears from this device that is not connected to any AC power source. Science....what a rush.

From

From what I understand, electricity can be stored in batteries from both solar and wind power and returned to the grid if necessary.

Anyway, I do believe nuclear power plants can be safe. They'd have to be maintained and regulated far more stringently than they are today. I designed refueling systems for 4 plants in China and if well maintained and operated those plants will be safe for decades. A lot depends on the training the individuals who operate the plant and the machinery.

Using all three, wind, solar and nuclear, makes the most sense.

Recently the electric company wanted to raise rates because the use of the new light bulbs had lowered the power usage and their income. Lower demand, higher prices.