Reprinted with permission of the author
by Richard Rhodes, author of Making of the Atomic Bomb and Nuclear Renewal
(Prepared for delivery at the Opening Session of the 34th Japan Atomic Industrial Forum Annual Conference, Aomori City, Japan, 25 April 2001)
Conferences such as this are appropriate occasions to remind ourselves of the deep connections between energy and the progress of civilization. The word “progress” has come under suspicion in the past half-century. First the rapid increase in world population that followed from improvements in nutrition and public health generated Malthusian fears. Then the expanding development of technology crossed a threshold and began producing global effects. Both improvements in mortality and developing technology added measurable years and quality to collective human existence, but like all human projects they produced unwanted side effects and unintended consequences.
A logical response – the majority response worldwide – has been to work to improve the systems and technologies, to make them more efficient and less polluting. Another response – in my opinion an unfortunate and even a
misguided response – has been to condemn industrial technology itself. Such condemnation has been most acute among the young in developed countries where lifespan nearly doubled in the twentieth century and material prosperity soared – that is, among those who most benefitted from the very technology they condemn. An American demographer, for example, estimated in 1996 that twentieth century improvements in mortality had doubled the United States’s population; without such improvements a quarter of the population would have died before reproducing, and another quarter would thus never have been born. Those 139 million people in the United States alone represent more lives saved than all the lives lost throughout the world in all the twentieth century’s terrible wars.
There is a direct relationship between per-capita GNP and life expectancy: as per-capita GNP increases, the expected length of life increases, up to a threshold at about 70 years, when the relationship levels off. That correlation is well known. Less well known is the equally direct relationship between human development and electricity usage, a relationship that puts into perspective just how challenging the next decades of international energy supply development are going to be.
Dr. Alan Pasternak of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory recently compared the United Nations’s Human Development Index to annual per-capita electricity consumption for 60 countries comprising 90 percent of the world’s population. He found that the Human Development Index reached a maximum value when electricity consumption rose to about 4,000 kilowatt-hours per person. That’s well below consumption levels for most developed countries. Japan uses 8,000 kilowatt-hours per capita, the US 13,000, Canada nearly 16,000. But 4,000 kilowatt-hours is well above the level for most developing countries. The 4,000 kilowatt-hour threshold quantifies the bottom line for efficiency and conservation in the developed countries. It also quantifies a much greater potential need for electricity in the developing world than most current estimates. For example, it represents one hundred percent more potential world electricity demand than U.S. Department of Energy projections for 2020 given low economic growth, and fifty percent more than DOE projections given high economic growth. Discrepancies in human development from nation to nation are measures of structural violence, which is ultimately the cause of social and military conflict within and between nation-states. It is difficult to see how the world can move toward material and economic equity – toward significantly reducing structural violence – while at the same time even controlling, much less reducing, air pollution and greenhouse gases – without developing every available low-polluting energy resource at hand.
And nuclear energy certainly is a low-polluting energy resource. Its only greenhouse gas production comes in uranium processing, at levels lower than the levels necessary to produce materials for comparably-scaled photovoltaic and wind systems. Those renewable energy systems collect diffuse energy, however, and compromise a much larger area of land. Nor are such renewable systems suitable for baseload generation, because the energy they collect – sunlight and wind – is available only intermittently. Nuclear power is ideal for baseload generation, which means it should properly be compared to the oil, natural gas and coal systems that presently supply most baseload electricity throughout the world. Compared to such fossil fuels, it has many advantages.
Coal is the worst offender environmentally. Recent studies at the Harvard School of Public Health indicate that particulates from coal burning are responsible for about 15,000 premature deaths annually in the United States alone. To generate about a quarter of world primary energy, coal burning liberates a burden of toxic wastes too immense to bury in secure repositories. Such waste is either dispersed directly into the air or solidified and dumped or even mixed into construction materials. Besides noxious particulates, sulfur and nitrogen oxides (which are components of acid rain and smog), arsenic, mercury, cadmium, selenium, lead, boron, chromium, copper, fluorine, molybdenum, nickel, vanadium, zinc, carbon monoxide and dioxide and other greenhouse gases, coal-fired power plants are also the major world source of radioactive releases to the environment. Uranium and thorium are both released when coal is burned, and radon when coal is mined. A thousand-megawatt-electric coal-fired power plant releases into the environment about one hundred times as much radioactivity as a comparable nuclear plant. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission actually investigated using coal as a source of uranium for nuclear weapons in the early 1950s when richer ores were believed to be in short supply; burning the coal, the AEC concluded, would concentrate the mineral, which could then be extracted from the resulting coal ash. Worldwide releases of uranium and thorium from coal burning total about 37,000 tonnes annually. More radioactive heavy metal is released into the environment every two years by coal burning than the total spent fuel waiting to be buried from all U.S. nuclear power production and most U.S. nuclear weapons production. Since uranium and thorium are potent nuclear fuels, burning coal also wastes more potential energy than it produces.
Natural gas has many virtues as a fuel compared to coal or oil, and its increasing share of world primary energy across the first half of the twenty-first century is assured. But its supply is limited and unevenly distributed; it is expensive as a power source compared to coal or uranium; it has higher value as a feedstock for materials and as a substitute for petroleum in transportation, particularly for fuel cells; and it pollutes the air. Natural gas fires and explosions are significant risks and an uncounted externality. A single mile of gas pipeline three feet in diameter at one thousand pounds per square inch pressure contains the equivalent of two-thirds of a kiloton of explosive energy; a million miles of such large pipelines lace the earth. A thousand-megawatt natural gas power plant also releases about 29 tonnes of sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulates into the environment every day – about 5.5 billion tonnes of waste in the United States alone in one recent year.
The great advantage of nuclear power is its ability to wrest enormous energy from a small volume of fuel. Nuclear fission, transforming matter directly into energy, is several million times as energetic as chemical burning, which merely breaks chemical bonds. One tonne of nuclear fuel produces energy equivalent to two to three million tonnes of fossil fuel. This spectacular difference in volume largely determines the differing environmental impacts of nuclear versus fossil fuels. Generating a thousand megawatts of electricity for a year requires two thousand train cars of coal or ten supertankers of oil, but only one ten-cubic-meter fuel assembly of uranium. Out the other end of such fossil fuel plants even with abatement systems operating come hundreds of thousands of tonnes of noxious gases, particulates and heavy-metal-bearing (and radioactive) ash plus solid hazardous waste. In contrast, a thousand-megawatt nuclear plant releases annually no noxious gases or other pollutants and trace radioactivity many times less per person than airline travel, a home smoke detector or a television set. It produces about thirty tonnes of spent fuel and eight hundred tonnes of low- and intermediate-level waste – when compacted, about twenty cubic meters in all: roughly the volume of two passenger cars. All the operating nuclear plants in the world produce some 3,000 cubic meters of waste annually. By comparison, all U.S. industrial operations generate annually about fifty million cubic meters of solid toxic waste.
Spent fuel is intensely radioactive, of course, but its small volume and the significant fact that it has not been released into the environment allow its meticulous sequestration behind multiple barriers. Toxic wastes from coal, dispersed across the landscape in coal smoke or buried near the surface, retain their toxicity forever. Radioactive nuclear waste decays steadily, losing 99 percent of its toxicity after six hundred years, leaving material with no more radiotoxicity than a high-grade uranium ore deposit. Nuclear waste disposal is a political problem because of widespread nuclear fear disproportionate to the reality of relative risk, but it is not an engineering problem. Waste disposal experts from twenty countries agreed collectively back in 1985 that disposal of nuclear waste could be done safely using available technology. The World Health Organization has estimated that indoor and outdoor air pollution from fossil fuel burning causes some three million deaths per year worldwide. Substituting small, sequestered volumes of nuclear waste for vast, dispersed volumes of toxic wastes from fossil fuels would be an improvement in public health so obvious that it is astonishing that physicians throughout the world have not demanded such a conversion.
No technological system is immune from accident. Recent dam failures in Italy and India each resulted in several thousand fatalities. Coal mine accidents, oil- and gas-plant fires and pipeline explosions typically kill hundreds of people per incident. The 1984 chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India, caused some three thousand prompt deaths and severely damaged the health of several hundred thousand people. By comparison, nuclear accidents have been few and minimal. Even Chernobyl, the worst possible nuclear accident, took remarkably few lives compared to the annual toll for coal-burning alone. The worst result of Chernobyl was thyroid cancer in about a thousand children. Thyroid cancer is treatable, but several children have died. I learned recently from the former head of state of Belarus, the nuclear physicist Dr. Stanislav Shushkevich, that every fallout shelter in the former Soviet Union is stocked with iodine tablets to prevent thyroid uptake of radioactive iodine. The children of Belarus and Ukraine would have been protected, Dr. Shushkevich told me bitterly, if the Soviet government had not denied that there was risk. Which means that most of the human damage from Chernobyl is attributable to bad government, not to nuclear power.
The other charge against nuclear power is its potential for proliferation of nuclear weapons materials. Of course nuclear materials need to be policed, controlled and accounted. But with that stipulation, proliferation is a political problem, not a technological problem. Although U.S. nuclear weapons experts confirm that power reactor plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons, no nation has done so, nor is it clear why one would want to. Alternative means to proliferation are better, faster, surer, cheaper and secret. No nation that has ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-weapon state has then proceeded to become a weapon state. Eliminating all the nuclear power operations in the world would not prevent proliferation. Doing so might even encourage it by increasing structural violence.
One of the great success stories of the post-Cold War years has been the dilution of former Soviet Union weapons-grade uranium to reactor fuel by the United States Enrichment Corporation. One hundred thirteen metric tons, enough to make about five thousand nuclear weapons, have been diluted so far, with about four hundred tons left to process. As reduction in nuclear arsenals proceed, weapons plutonium will also need to be converted to civilian use. If necessary, such conversion should be subsidized as a part of national defense; it’s hard to imagine a better investment of defense money.
An international system to recycle and manage such fuel would prevent covert proliferation. Such a system might combine internationally monitored retrievable storage, processing of all separated plutonium into MOX fuel for power reactors and, in the longer term, advanced integrated materials-processing reactors under international control that would receive, protect and fission all fuel discharged from power reactors throughout the world, generating electricity and reducing spent fuel to short-lived nuclear waste ready for permanent geologic storage.
Working to develop an international spent-fuel recycling system could create the trust and transparency necessary to solve the deep, difficult problem of nuclear disarmament. Japan, with its unique neutrality and its increasing experience with reprocessing, could lead the way. Knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons will always be with us unless civilization itself collapses. Abolition of nuclear weapons, which sounds so unlikely and utopian, therefore means simply that delivery time from base to target would be extended from its present thirty minutes to something like three months – the time required to manufacture such weapons if one or more nations went rogue. International spent-fuel recycling centers located in several different countries would replace nuclear weapons as deterrents.
David Lilienthal, the first chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, wrote that “Energy is part of a historic process, a substitute for the labor of human beings. As human aspirations develop, so does the demand for and use of energy grow and develop.”
Satisfying human aspirations is what our species invents technology to do. Some people, secure in comfortable affluence, may dream of a simpler and smaller world. However noble such a dream appears to be, its hidden agenda is elitist, selfish and implicitly violent. Millions of children die every year in the world for lack of adequate resources – clean water, food, medical care – and the development of those resources is directly dependent on energy supplies. The real world of real human beings needs more energy, not less.
The share of final energy supplied by electricity is growing rapidly in most countries and worldwide. This development parallels the historic decarbonization of dominant fuels from coal (dominant from 1880 to 1950, with one hydrogen atom per carbon atom) to oil (dominant from 1950 to today, with two hydrogen atoms per carbon atom). Natural gas (four hydrogen to one carbon) is rapidly increasing its market share, but nuclear fission produces no carbon at all.
It is these facts of physical reality and common sense that ought to support decisions vital to the future of the human world. Because diversity and redundancy are important for safety and security, renewable energy sources ought to retain a place in the energy economy of the century to come. But nuclear power should be central. It is environmentally safe, practical and affordable. It is not the problem – it is one of the best solutions.