Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter. ~ Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, in 1954
The devastating intensity of nuclear reactions was understood from striving to make horrendous bombs during the 2nd World War. The potent sway of beta decay was then applied to boiling water – a humbling comedown from being Hell incarnate but offering the prospect of steady employment.
Russia built the first nuclear power reactor in 1951, followed by the British in 1956, and the Americans in 1957.
As so little raw material was needed for fuel, there was tremendous optimism from the late 1950s to the end of the 1970s that nuclear power would offer salvation from man’s unquenchable thirst for energy, which before could only be slaked by burning prodigious quantities of fossil fuels.
Nuclear power plants globally bloomed in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1973 the US had 42 reactors. By 1990 there were 112. 432 nuclear plants were operating worldwide in 2013.
France gets 75% of its electricity from water heated by decaying uranium. France made its decision about electricity generation in the 1970s. The country has quite limited fossil fuel resources and scant uranium. But former French colonial countries in Africa had uranium, and it was readily available on the world market; so the French government ambitiously built reactors.
Both coal and uranium are suitable fuels for base-load generation. The mining of either invariably entails grotesque pollution on a horrendous scale.
Using coal involves burning dangerously dusty lumps which horrifically pollute the air. In contrast, handling radioactive uranium requires extensive safeguards, but nuclear power generation is almost emission-free.
The sanguine scenario of atomic power to the rescue was dashed as the nuclear plant construction suffered stunning cost overruns. The promise of nuclear power was exhausted by insufficient technical skill, and further compounded with the unreasonably unexpected dilemma of storing spent fuel.
Nuclear power’s problems begin with lack of foresight and planning. Owing to uranium’s toxicity by proximity, atomic power is a much more complex undertaking than other electrical generation. Compared to dirty coal, nuclear energy is a high-risk venture which pays off only if you disregard sound economics and ignore radiation, both of which are admittedly invisible.
Power generation is the most capital-intensive enterprise on the planet. To make a bad situation worse, a nuclear power plant can easily cost over twice as much to build per kW output as a comparable coal-fired plant.
Ignoring subsidies, which are considerable, constructing a 1,000 MW nuclear plant runs to $8 billion (2010 dollars) if construction goes according to plan, which it never does; and that cost does not capture the complete life-cycle cost of operating and decommissioning a nuclear plant and safely storing the waste.
(Westinghouse, which claimed to be “the world’s leading supplier of nuclear technology,” went bankrupt in March 2017. Westinghouse built the 1st commercial nuclear reactor in 1957. Since then Westinghouse built half of the nuclear power plants in the world, more than any other company; but it never learned to construct plants on schedule or within budget. Cost overruns on plants under construction finally felled the company.)
History shows that the expense involved in nuclear power will never change. Past construction in the United States exhibited similar cost increases throughout the design, engineering, and construction process. The technology and the safety needs are just too complex and demanding to translate into a facility that is simple to design and build. ~ American nuclear power regulator Gregory Jaczko
Total direct life-cycle cost of nuclear energy is easily 4 times that of coal-fired electricity, though that figure ignores the indirect but extensive damage of pollution caused by burning coal. Which means that coal and nuclear power are ultimately twin devils to choose between.
Coal often contains uranium from the mined ore. Operating a coal-fired power plant emits more radioactive material in its exhaust than an operating nuclear power plant. ~ American physicist Charles Ferguson
The other part of the nuclear energy equation is that spent fuel must be stored so as not to leak deadly radiation for hundreds of thousands of years. This was never realistically planned for, and so its cost never figured in.
A typical nuclear plant generates 20 tonnes of spent fuel each year. As of 2010, the nuclear industry had chewed through 270,000 million tonnes of enriched uranium worldwide since the dawn of the atomic power age.
Nuclear waste can be contained indefinitely in certain geological formations. There is no engineering roadblock to do so. Numerous appropriate sites are known, and several used.
In some countries, politics has prevented long-term nuclear waste storage. The US has been notably negligent in letting petty politics prevent decent siting for radioactive waste disposal. This dereliction has increased the cost and risk associated with nuclear energy.
Private generation of nuclear power is subsidized by governments across the globe. The US government pays for over 1/3rd of the costs associated with nuclear power while power companies profit off consumers. From 1947 to 2015 the US government gave its nuclear industry over $3 trillion.
It’s just like a mule. A mule is a docile, patient beast, and he will give you the power to pull a plow for decades, but he wants to kill you. He waits for years and years for that rare, opportune moment when he can turn your lights out with a simple kick to the head. ~ Jerry Poole, referring to nuclear power
History has shown that humans are neither methodical nor careful enough to be messing around with radioactive material. Of course, that logic is easily extended to dangerous substances all sorts, from toxic chemicals to DNA.
Globally, there have been many thousands of radioactive mishaps. As a result, the atmosphere and waterways have been irradiated, and soil irredeemably contaminated. Statistically, Americans and Russians have been especially careless, though the Japanese have also been frequent fumblers in the nuclear realm (which is strange, since the Japanese are the only people to have had massive radiation inflicted upon them, and so should be most acutely aware of its devastation potential).
There have been at least 115 severe nuclear plant accidents 1942–2015. This does not count the other several hundred foul-ups where beta decay made for a very bad day. That withstanding, the pollution from coal-fired power generation has been much more damaging to the environment and human health.
The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, with a partial meltdown of the plant and modest radioactive gas release, galvanized anti-nuclear sentiment in the US. Public panic was abetted by the movie The China Syndrome being in theaters at the time. The movie dramatized a nuclear plant mishap and subsequent cover-up, which the Three Mile Island foul-up made seem all too plausible.
The safety of the environment and even workers was not exactly a primary concern in the Soviet Union. ~ American research scientist James Mahaffey
In 1986, a reactor vessel at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine ruptured during an unauthorized test by inept operators, causing the core to catch fire, with extensive release of radioactive steam into the atmosphere.
It did not help that the reactor had a dangerous design: a Soviet-made reactor built to produce both electricity and plutonium for bombs. The plant also lacked the common concrete containment structure that would contain a core meltdown.
The Soviets tried to cover the incident up, which made matters much worse: people were unknowingly exposed to lethal doses of radiation.
The Chernobyl disaster caused lasting environmental and political damage. Chernobyl was instrumental in changing government policies toward more transparency, termed glasnost, which culminated in the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989.