Thursday April 24th, 2014, 4:31 am (EDT)

Dear Reader,

We place these articles at no charge on our website to serve all the people who cannot afford Monthly Review, or who cannot get access to it where they live. Many of our most devoted readers are outside of the United States. If you read our articles online and you can afford a subscription to our print edition, we would very much appreciate it if you would consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

On Nuclear Power

Response to John W. Farley’s ‘Our Last Chance to Save Humanity’

Monthly Review has long been on record as opposed to the expansion of nuclear energy.1 Most recently, some of the dangers of nuclear power, both in its present form and with continuing new technological developments, were spelled out by Robert D. Furber, James C. Warf, and Sheldon C. Plotkin of the Southern California Federation of Scientists, in their article on “The Future of Nuclear Power” (MR, February 2008).

Nevertheless, we recognize that many scientists, including climatologist James Hansen and our friend, physicist John W. Farley, now see a place for nuclear energy as a kind of last resort, given the dire planetary threat raised by the burning of fossil fuels—made even more dire by the current shift toward even dirtier, more carbon-emitting fossil fuels, such as lower grades of coal, oil from tar sands, and shale oil. If nuclear power presents great dangers to the human population and the earth, it also cannot be denied that the continuation of “business as usual” with respect to carbon emissions will lead to eventual social, economic, and ecological collapse, threatening civilization and most species, including our own. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that some are looking at nuclear energy as a lesser, or more remote, evil. Moreover, the prospect, though still at the theoretical/experimental stage, of revolutionary developments in nuclear power technology, namely Generation IV plants, which could greatly increase the efficiency of nuclear fuel use, reducing the nuclear waste generated, is also changing the nature of the controversy for some.

Yet, in our view, none of this alters the essential nature of the problem: the crossing of planetary boundaries by an economic system that, as long as it exists, must continually produce more and more goods, and thus degrade the environment. In this context, a turn to nuclear energy as a solution is both myopic and a Faustian bargain. The development of alternative energy sources coupled with conservation, in the context of radical transformations in social relations, constitutes the only real, long-term solution.

The following correspondence consists of a letter from Brian Lindquist, Walt McCarron, Robert D. Furber, and Sheldon C. Plotkin associated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists, writing in response to John W. Farley’s review, in the September 2010 issue of MR, of James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren. This letter and Farley’s response offer two widely divergent perspectives on this critical issue.

—The Editors

Response to John W. Farley’s ‘Our Last Chance to Save Humanity’ by Brian Lindquist, Walt McCarron, Robert D. Furber, and Sheldon C. Plotkin

Limiting the rising atmospheric temperature, as James Hansen suggests (and as explained by John Farley in his review) is excellent except for the building of new nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is not good for humanity as noted in “The Future of Nuclear Power.”2

We are grateful to Hansen for all his scientific work attempting to save humanity from almost certain catastrophe in the near future resulting from the effects of global warming.

Arguing whether coal power is worse than nuclear power or vice versa is a waste of time. They are both disastrous for different reasons, so both have to be replaced with sustainable alternative energy. The replacement efforts will be expensive and require many years to implement. Natural gas as a replacement in the interim as well as emergency backup in the future is almost certainly the best course of action.

Of course utility executives would agree that alternate energy and improved efficiency will be inadequate so nuclear power is needed. However, suppose these utilities had to pay for the entire cost, including insurance, decommissioning, and waste monitoring for thousands of years. Then would they still favor nuclear power? We all know they couldn’t afford it.

What needs to be pointed out is that any long-range planning requires that both coal and nuclear power be phased out. The massive effort to provide alternative energy is the direction required to save humanity.

John W. Farley Replies

The four authors at Southern California Federation of Scientists (SCFS) say that nuclear power is “disastrous.” James Hansen gets a lot of emails from environmentalists who agree with everything else he says, but disagree with his support for nuclear power. The SCFS authors cite “The Future of Nuclear Power” that shares two authors (Furber and Plotkin) with the present SCFS letter.3 Their February 2008 MR article concludes that “the future of nuclear power is dim at best,” based on the intractable problem of nuclear waste.

The SCFS authors have a valid point about nuclear waste being an unsolved problem. But have developments since the publication of their 2008 article confirmed or refuted their prediction that the future of nuclear power is “dim at best”? In his recent (2010) book, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century, Nobel-prize-winning physicist Burton Richter explains that “Nuclear power is having a growth spurt. At the end of 2008 there were 435 nuclear reactors operating in 30 countries, producing 16% of world electricity….There are 28 more reactors under construction, mostly in Asia, and more than 200 more in the planning stage, including 30 in the United States.” The World Nuclear Association cites more recent and even larger figures: 440 nuclear reactors in operation and 58 new nuclear reactors under construction. (http://world-nuclear.org.)

Likely the main reason for the recent growth of nuclear plants is the impending exhaustion and possible disruption of the supply of petroleum, as well as environmental considerations. Solar power and wind power are intermittent sources of power: the sun does not shine at night, and the wind does not blow all the time. Solar and wind do not supply “base-load power,” electricity available 24 hours a day. “Nuclear power is the only large-scale carbon-free system that now can produce this base-load power,” Richter points out.

Richter argues that “France, with 80% of its electricity from nuclear reactors that emit no greenhouse gases, should be the poster child of the environmental movement. The country emits less than half of the world average of greenhouse gas per unit GDP. If the entire world were like France, we would reduce carbon emissions by half…and would have much more time to bring global warming under control.”

Nuclear power is unpopular in the United States, and is anathema to many U.S. environmentalists. The SCFS authors express opinions that are commonly held by U.S. environmentalists. The situation in the rest of the world is more mixed. Asian countries have embraced nuclear power. In Europe outside of France, opposition to nuclear power has been softening, while opposition to nuclear power remains firm only in Germany.

It is worthwhile to mention another commonly voiced objection to nuclear power, although the SCFS authors do not discuss it in their letter or article: radioactivity is commonly believed to be very dangerous. At high doses, radioactivity is indeed dangerous, but at low doses it is not a significant problem. I think that environmentalists and the left have been misled by a handful of experts whose views are extreme, and in my opinion not justified.

Many people are surprised to discover that most of the radioactivity we experience is natural. We live in a naturally radioactive world. Typical radiation doses annually for a person in the United States are 73 percent natural, 9 percent “natural in body,” and 18 percent medical. The “natural in body” radiation comes from traces of potassium-40 and carbon-14 in our bodies. A person who sleeps in a double bed gets a small dose from the body of the partner. By comparison the radioactive dose from a normally functioning nuclear power plant is tiny: the dose from living next to a nuclear power plant is 50,000 times smaller than the dose from natural sources.

Nuclear power has a political problem, at least in the United States. The problem of nuclear waste persists, at least in the United States (Other countries have plans to deal with nuclear waste.) Despite these two problems, the environmental problems caused by nuclear power are small compared with the environmental impact of an unchecked global warming, which threatens to melt the polar ice sheets and flood coastal cities around the world.

Notes

  1. See Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, “No Nukes!” Monthly Review 20, no. 2 (June 1978): 47-49 (reprinted in the February 2008 issue of MR).
  2. Robert D. Furber, James C. Warf, and Sheldon C. Plotkin, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” Monthly Review 59, no. 9 (February 2008): 38-48.
  3. Ibid.