Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Nuclear Power and Global Warming

In an earlier post I suggested that one reason for skepticism about talk of catastrophic global warming was that it was mostly by people who were using global warming as an argument for things they wanted to do anyway, in particular environmentalists with a shiny new argument.

There is a very simple test of this claim. Nuclear power is the one energy source that does not produce greenhouse gases and, using current technology, can be expanded over the next couple of decades to replace many, arguably almost all, uses of fossil fuel. So anyone who believes that the great threat facing us, the threat we should be willing to pay large costs to deal with, is global warming due to greenhouse gases should be strongly inclined to favor nuclear power.

On the other hand, someone who is trumpeting global warming because he likes the policies advocated to deal with it: public transportation instead of automobiles, "smart growth" instead of "urban sprawl," limits to population and the like, has two reasons to oppose nuclear power. The first is that the environmental movement has long regarded nuclear power as a quintessential evil. The second is that if nuclear power makes it possible for us to continue expanding our current lifestyle while avoiding the dangers of global warming, it eliminates the argument he wants to use to persuade us to reform. We get to continue sinning without being sent to (anthropogenic) hell.

I am sure there are people who are both seriously worried about global warming and in favor of nuclear power. But how many of them are there? How many high profile spokesmen or organizations have taken that position?


Anonymous said...

James Lovelock springs to mind.

Modpod said...

Ok this is great but also it is bad logic. There are a few things that you have missed, Here is an exercise to use your logic on...

I have sold my car and am a seasoned public transport user now of 12 months as are my children (three under 15) and Husband, I earn more money in two months than a lot of people do in a year I am also a swinging voter but decidedly a Capitalist and also I am pro innovation R&D and anti nuclear. I like shiny new arguments whoever offers them, I am in my forties and I am looking forward to a cleaner future and also looking forward to my children having skills in occupations that I have never heard of, as any sane parent in this age should.

I also have an idea! why don't we all move our bedrooms into the room that gets the most moonlight and set up a small stereo at the head of the bed (a window sill works well) and learn with the help of our favorite music to not only make love with more kissing but also smile at each other and laugh at night instead of having all the rest of the power on? Truely I am hoping to God that someone that is smarter than me solves Global warming, and I know that they will!!! In the mean time conserving energy and living more simply is a reward in itself. Walk tall and spend time with your loved ones, this is being responsible! I like it that you are an economist, I like that, I am also responsible with money - I have rich friends that trust money with me - Did you like the Count when you where a kid? He was my favorite. I bet you can't guess what I look like can you? I am blonde and my husband after 13 years says I am hot even in the supermarket!!!! I think that you Americans should use more candles and kiss more and use your amazing brains to come up with clean technologies instead of stupid and bad logic.

I like you though. But God Ihope that you don't drive a stupid Yank Tank!!!!

Anonymous said...

I would tend to agree completly with this post, but I'll add a somewhat important detail. I believe Nuclear Power doesn't produce greenhouse gases in the common sense, but I think (and I might be wrong, because I did not take the time to check) Nuclear Power Plants produce steam, and in very large quantities.

And I believe water steam is one, if not the most important greenhouse gas there is, its impact on the Greenhouse effect is actually more important if - again - I recall correctly.

On this subject I would refer to a great documentary recently broadcasted in the UK on Channel 4, and called "The Great Global Warming Swindle" (inviting isn't it ?). It can be found easily on YouTube or such video sites.

Here's the channel's website for the documentary : http://www.channel4.com/science/microsites/G/great_global_warming_swindle/

And to my point, I don't precisly know what effect steam and the greenhouse phenomenon have on Global Warming. But if they do actually have one, then Nuclear Power Plants would need to recycle steam (by cooling it before it evaporates maybe ?) to be truly the most eco-friendly energy.

Forgive me in advance for any mistake, but do try to get your eyeballs on the aforementionned documentary.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to add several conditionals here.

1) Having read a lot of the primary literature in scientific journals, I think global warming is real.

2) I think most of the hysteria out there from folks like Al Gore is not very helpful (or accurate) on the topic.

3) I generally speaking do not think there is any point to government lead action on this. The price of fossil fuels is rising on its own, and the price of alternatives are either lower than those of fossil fuels already (see nuclear) or are on a clear trend where manufacturing scale-up alone would be enough to make them cheaper (see photovoltaics -- I'm happy to defend the position that no technological breathroughs are needed to make pv drop by enough to make it economical.)

4) I'm not a well known "personality", but from the above, it should be clear that I both think global warming is real and think nuclear is a reasonable alternative. As a free marketer, I don't "advocate" nuclear any more than I advocate any other market alternative.

Anonymous said...

In Europe we are currently discussing the use of nuclear energy as a mean to combat global warming. Despite the formal "neutrality" of the european commission on this issue some governments (like the french) have clearly stated they are in favor of this path.
and i say formal neutrality because bringing up the question is not a naive move, especially when you want a medium-term politics of emissions abatement.
with an open electricity market with certification of the energy source, it would be possible to identify the consumers preferences and have an all new perspective of where we stand on the nuclear issue.

Rick and Gary said...

Excellent point!

Anonymous said...

France is going all out nuclear. So France will produce a lot of Europe's electricity in the future.

A few European governments have decided to phase out nuclear energy. I often like to point out to people who support this policy that the real choice currently is not between nuclear and non nuclear, but between French nuclear and domestic nuclear...

BTW. Add Patrick Moore (co founder of Greenpeace) to the list of environmentalists supporting nuclear energy.

Anonymous said...

Modpod: I don't see the bad logic. You tell us what you think, very nicely I might add, but you don't give any reason why nuclear power might be something to oppose.

Mike Hammock said...

I was also going to suggest Patrick Moore. He's been outspoken on the subject.

Anonymous said...

"I think that you Americans should use more candles and kiss more and use your amazing brains to come up with clean technologies instead of stupid and bad logic."

Speaking of the latter: i am hard pressed to come up with a more polluting, in whatever sense, including CO2, per lumen, than candles.

Anonymous said...

As for steam generated by powerplants: its cannot be significant due to the relatively nonexistant residence time of water vapour compared to CO2. A few days versus a few deccades, off the top of my head.

Also, the often heard 'argument' of nuclear causing CO2 aswell in mining and other sideactivities: its completely insignificant per kilowathour aswell.

Anonymous said...

But back to the original topic: its a good idea, yes, to seperate those with a true concern for supposed warming from the general anti-progessivists.

But it does hinge on one critical assumption: that nuclear cant be ruled out for other reasons. Now you wont be hearing me arguing that, im a staunch supporter of nuclear, but you wont be doing much converting with this argument 'outside the choir' either.

Eric McErlain said...

How about Stewart Brand and the late Hugh Montefiore?

sierra said...

Oliver: My guess is that the amount of steam a nuke plant puts out would be minuscule compared to natural sources or conventional power plants.

Modpod: Whether you have your lights on at night is simply not worth talking about. Major household applicances like refrigerators, washers, dryers, dishwashers and air conditioners suck up the most power. If you're willing to do without all these things, I wonder if you'll still have enough energy at the end of the day to... ahem... pat yourself on the back so vigorously.

Anonymous said...

Some years ago I inquired about the amount of water vapor put into the atmosphere from the cooling tower of an 1100MWe plant being built next door. The amount is roughly equivalent to the natural evaporation from three square miles of lake (or perhaps it was a three mile square lake). Either way it does not amount too much.

Anonymous said...

I argue a similar position at We Support Lee.

Add MIT's Dr. Kerry Emanuel (hurricane climatologist) to the list.

Kerry Emanuel writes in Phaeton's Reins:
"Especially in the United States, the political debate about global climate change became polarized along the conservative–liberal axis some decades ago. Although we take this for granted now, it is not entirely obvious why the chips fell the way they did. One can easily imagine conservatives embracing the notion of climate change in support of actions they might like to see anyway. Conservatives have usually been strong supporters of nuclear power, and few can be happy about our current dependence on foreign oil. The United States is renowned for its technological innovation and should be at an advantage in making money from any global sea change in energy-producing technology: consider the prospect of selling new means of powering vehicles and electrical generation to China’s rapidly expanding economy. But none of this has happened.

Paradoxes abound on the political left as well. A meaningful reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions will require a shift in the means of producing energy, as well as conservation measures. But such alternatives as nuclear and wind power are viewed with deep ambivalence by the left. Senator Kennedy, by most measures our most liberal senator, is strongly opposed to a project to develop wind energy near his home in Hyannis, and environmentalists have only just begun to rethink their visceral opposition to nuclear power. NOTE======>Had it not been for green opposition, the United States today might derive most of its electricity from nuclear power, as does France; thus the environmentalists must accept a large measure of responsibility for today’s most critical environmental problem. <======

There are other obstacles to taking a sensible approach to the climate problem. We have preciously few representatives in Congress with a background or interest in science, and some of them display an active contempt for the subject. As long as we continue to elect scientific illiterates like James Inhofe, who believes global warming to be a hoax, we will lack the ability to engage in intelligent debate. Scientists are most effective when they provide sound, impartial advice, but their reputation for impartiality is severely compromised by the shocking lack of political diversity among American academics, who suffer from the kind of group-think that develops in cloistered cultures. Until this profound and well documented intellectual homogeneity changes, scientists will be suspected of constituting a leftist think tank."

James Aach said...

As someone who actually works at a nuclear power plant, I can see that one of the difficulties when discussing our electric energy future is that most of our citizens have little understanding of our electric energy present. It is difficult to make large amounts of electricity - whether by fossil, nuclear or solar power. [One good reason why conservation and better efficiency should be at the top of any energy plan.] With regards to the steam question above, the answers provided (it's not a big concern) sound reasonable. More to the point, the same issue exists with a fossil fuel plant - its not nuclear exclusive.

The real world of nuclear energy is little understood and bears little resemblance to what's portrayed in the media by its advocates and adversaries alike. I've worked in the industry over 20 years and have never seen a good profile of the people, the politics and the technology here in the United States. So I wrote one, in the form of the thriller novel "Rad Decision", available online at no cost to readers - who seem to like it, judging from their homepage comments. It's at RadDecision.blogspot.com. Rad Decision is also now in paperback as well at online retailers.

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand, noted environmentalist, internet pioneer, and founder of "The Whole Earth Catalog", who has called for a second look at nulcear power.

Brian said...

Nuclear power isn't a good test, because it has its own problems - but carbon sequestration is. You find relatively few enviros opposing sequestration, and it's a major component of the IPCC analysis of how to reduce emissions. I think that's a fairly decent proof against the argument that people are concerned with global warming only to the extent it advances their pet causes.

I will note that sequestration is still in testing phases, so there are some reasons to be tentative about it. Still it appears likely to be far cheaper than nuclear, without the vulnerability to terrorism.

My take on nuclear, by the way, is here: "A definite maybe on nuclear power"


It's not all that unusual in the community of people concerned with global warming. Sorry I don't fall exactly into one camp or another.

RobC said...

Brian, I think that's how we got in this mess in the first place. 30 years ago people said, "I dunno if nukes are safe, but we've got all these silver bullets that can solve the problem so let's keep using fossil fuels until one of them comes through."

None of them came through, so now we're pouring so much CO2 into the air we're actually changing the climate. That's on top of the deaths due to pollution, the cost of the health problems, the cost of importing oil & gas, and the danger of defending foreign kings from their own people.

Sequestration is another silver bullet. Is it even reasonable to believe CO2 can be pumped into the ground so it will stay there? It sounds dodgy to me. Anyway, it would take 50, maybe 100 years to really test it.

Meanwhile, nukes have a better safety record and a better environmental record than any other energy source.

REFLEX: Everybody says "The waste! The waste!" Waste, my foot. That's all good fuel. In 25 years, if we make the effort, all that waste could be burning up in special reactors.

That takes care of 40% of the greenhouse gases. Next week we'll do transportation.

Brian said...

Robc, my concern about nukes are the cost and the vulnerability to terrorism, and neither problems have easy solutions.

My concern about sequestration is cost also - whether it really will add only 30% to the cost of coal power. Other than that, it seems very promising, has been tested and is in the process of being tested.

The water vapor issue is meaningless, btw. Human-produced water vapor is tiny compared natural amounts in the atmosphere (CO2 is a different case) and extra vapor rapidly cycles out of the atmosphere (also not true with CO2, which will take decades/centuries to get rid of most of the human-caused excess).

Anonymous said...

"Robc, my concern about nukes are the cost and the vulnerability to terrorism, and neither problems have easy solutions."

What are you talking about? The cost of nuclear is very competitive, and what vulnerability to terrorism? Ever been to a nuclear powerplant? You already need a nuke in the first place to do it any damage, and if youre a terrorist and you have nukes then what are you doing at a powerplant?

RobC said...


Sequestration has been tested? Okay, I'm willing to learn. I've only heard of CO2 being pumped into oil fields, and no effort is being made to find out if it's migrating toward the surface. Actually, how could a person check that, anyway? But if you know of a real test, please explain.

If cost is really a problem, then nukes won't be built anyway: that's a non-issue. But they're being built in other countries. Japan and France have been building them right along and they have the impression nukes are cheaper and more dependable than fossil fuels.

When the US was building them, they cost 25% more than coal-burners, and made up the difference in cheaper fuel. So if someone tells you they're too expensive, ask him where that comes from.

You probably should be more specific about the threats of terrorism. Those things are built so securely that large airplanes can be flown into them without release of any dangerous materials. You could make a long list of targets that are much more vulnerable than nukes.

If the alternative is an economy that shuts down when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining, then not building nukes will do more harm than terrorists could ever do.

Brian said...


"Those things are built so securely that large airplanes can be flown into them without release of any dangerous materials."

I'd very much like to see a cite for that statement.

"You could make a long list of targets that are much more vulnerable than nukes."

I don't know about a long list- dams maybe, chemical plants definitely. But neither has the potential casualty rate of a meltdown. And that's no excuse for unnecessarily increasing vulnerability.

For too much info on sequestration:


For less info:


montestruc said...

With regard to Oliver's comments about steam.

Water is so abundent on the earth that water in earths oceans, lakes and rivers outweighs the "ocean of air" by many thousands to one. Water vapor as a rule quickly returns to the earth's surface as rain.

In fact global warming causes more hurricanes and tornados by a process of convection where the water vapor being made on the earth's surface being much lighter than air (the density ratio of water vapor to air is 18/28.8) so high concentrations of watervapor in air rise (fast) and when they do they are transported up above most of the atmosphere (IIRC 50% by mass of the atmosphere is at an altitude of about 10,000 - 15,000 ft) and so above most of the greenhouse gasses too, where it is free to release it's heat to space (which is liquid Helium cold in terms of radiation).

Water vapor being much more "black" in terms of radiation heat transfer than oxygen or nitrogen, means that it quickly loses it's heat to cold of space by infrared radiation, and makes rain or snow and falls back down again.

So point of fact, it is not a bad thing at all from cooling being good point of view. Bad greenhouse gasses do not rain out when the get high up like that, they stay and keep the lower levels warm, like CO2 or CH4.

RobC said...

Brian, here's the link for the plane crash study.


NEI hired EPRI to do the study. The details on that and who did the study and the methods used are described.

I didn't download the document you referenced because the geologic storage part is 5.4 MB and---well, life's too short. I'm guessing IPCC didn't describe any actual testing of experimental sequestration projects. The Wikipedia article doesn't mention testing.

What if they do experiment and wait 50 years or whatever it takes and we find out it doesn't work? Does that mean we'll have burned fossil fuels for 50 years and the sequestration effort didn't accomplish anything? Don't you think we (or whoever is around) will really be screwed?

Oh, no. The Three Mile Island accident showed what happens when a US reactor has a meltdown accident. No injuries, no fatalities. That's 0% of the deaths due to ordinary coal mine accidents or smog alerts caused by thermal inversions or any moderately-successful terrorist attack.

The list of targets more vulnerable would be offices, schools, hospitals, factories, churches, theaters, shopping centers, skating rinks, stadiums, national parks----do you see how this list can keep on growing?

Anonymous said...

A nuclear reactor core has about a meter of reinforced concrete over it. There is no way you are even so much as going to scratch it with something as flimsy as an airliner. Youd need specialized militairy equiment for that. But if a hostile force is capable of invading your airspace and dropping massive bombs on you, there are other things to worry about.

Because even if you succeed in destroying it, then what? There is neither theoritical nor empirical reason to believe that even if something goes wrong it will be a problem for anyone not standing right next to it.

Anonymous said...

"There is neither theoretical nor empirical reason to believe that even if something goes wrong it will be a problem for anyone not standing right next to it."

Isn't the worry here that such an attack would release all kinds of radiation?

Anonymous said...

"Isn't the worry here that such an attack would release all kinds of radiation?"

Yeah, thats indeed rather probably, except that its nothing to worry about. So what if you increase background radiation with a few percent? It has a natural variability of orders of magnitude, which all happens to be in the range of no measurable adverse effects.

Brian said...

Al Gore on nukes:

"Many believe that a responsible approach to sharply reducing global warming pollution would involve a significant increase in the use of nuclear power plants as a substitute for coal-fired generators. While I am not opposed to nuclear power and expect to see some modest increased use of nuclear reactors, I doubt that they will play a significant role in most countries as a new source of electricity. The main reason for my skepticism about nuclear power playing a much larger role in the world’s energy future is not the problem of waste disposal or the danger of reactor operator error, or the vulnerability to terrorist attack. Let’s assume for the moment that all three of these problems can be solved. That still leaves two serious issues that are more difficult constraints. The first is economics; the current generation of reactors is expensive, take a long time to build, and only come in one size - extra large. In a time of great uncertainty over energy prices, utilities must count on great uncertainty in electricity demand - and that uncertainty causes them to strongly prefer smaller incremental additions to their generating capacity that are each less expensive and quicker to build than are large 1000 megawatt light water reactors. Newer, more scalable and affordable reactor designs may eventually become available, but not soon. Secondly, if the world as a whole chose nuclear power as the option of choice to replace coal-fired generating plants, we would face a dramatic increase in the likelihood of nuclear weapons proliferation. During my 8 years in the White House, every nuclear weapons proliferation issue we dealt with was connected to a nuclear reactor program. Today, the dangerous weapons programs in both Iran and North Korea are linked to their civilian reactor programs. Moreover, proposals to separate the ownership of reactors from the ownership of the fuel supply process have met with stiff resistance from developing countries who want reactors. As a result of all these problems, I believe that nuclear reactors will only play a limited role."


Sorry if that also doesn't fit an easily-designed category. Opponents of global warming don't have to be enthusiastic supporters of every potential solution.

Johan R. Sjöberg said...

I have a friend who is seriously worried about global warming, and strongly in favor of nuclear power. He believes that Norway should start building nuclear power plants.

I am sceptical to global warming, but I am undecided.

Anonymous said...

A fair number that I've seen, but I'm afraid your logic has a hole in it. If someone is worried about global warming and favors nuclear power as a way to deal with it, that *either* means that they are genuinely concerned about global warming -- or they have a pro-nuclear agenda, and are using global warming to support it.

In other words, one can be precisely as suspicious in this case as one can in the general environmentalist case, for basically the same reasons. It's tough, trying to tease apart peoples' personal agendas and beliefs, and the environmental movement has no lock on using one agenda to support another...

Anonymous said...

It's tough, trying to tease apart peoples' personal agendas and beliefs...

If someone had an agenda, and the agenda rested on false premises or unwarranted conclusions, don't you think that that would come through when they talk about the issue? Do we gain anything searching for their biases?

It does little good to search for agendas people have for the purpose of discrediting them. I have a professor who says "well, this researcher was given money by the oil lobby, so what he says must be complete crap." Maybe it is, but we won't know until we hear it, and we shouldn't discredit it prior to hearing it.

Anonymous said...

Good point, David. For years I was a petroleum industry analyst. One thing that people don't seem to realize is that the vast majority of hydro-carbon consumptions results not from SUVs but from the generation of power. The petroleum industry fears Nuclear power because Nuclear power is cleaner, less expensive and a huge threat to petroleum producers.

Opponants of Nuclear energy often cite the Three Mile Island disaster - in which nobody died and there have been no measurable lasting ill effects. Even Chernobyl hasn't had nearly the predicted devastating ill effect. Yet, fear of anything nuclear allows anti-nuclear power campaigners to manipulate public opinion.

There's a sticky little problem with Nuclear energy, though. We are not eager to allow countries like Iran to develop nuclear energy (and for good reason) and we would have to get around the logical problem of the double standard. For me, the fact that the Iranian regime is insane is enough of an explanation, but it will be a political thorn in our side.

The measures the Goracle and other environmentalists would like to impose on the rest of us amount to a vast curtailment of personal freedom. The few would decide for the many - something the same few have been trying to achieve for decades. All this in response to global warming which is surely happening but the cause of which may be unstoppable at any cost.

I immigrated here from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It never ceases to amaze me how people here take their freedoms for granted. What amazes me even more is how academics seek the position of the new American Nomenklatura. I came from a land where the few ruled the many. The result is exactly that which Marx wrongfully attributed to Capitalism - the oppression of the masses. Only, it wasn't Capitalism that was doing the oppressing, it was socialism. It's very difficult to oppress a free people in a free country as their freedom puts them out of the sphere of control of the nomenklatura. Having once paid the price of dictatorship, I am resistant to paying it again under the guise of environmentalism. Freedom costs (people naturally change the environment in many ways by their very existance) but it is much less expensive.

Kevin Carson said...

If the appeal of an idea is heightened by encouraging people to do what they want to do anyway, then principled libertarians ought to have a viscerally positive reaction to the anti-global warming and anti-nuclear movements.

Eliminating state subsidies to the consumption of energy and transportation would lead to a drastic reduction in CO2 emissions. And libertarians are against state-created externalities, right?

And you'd think libertarians would be instinctively hostile to nuclear power, considering the extent to which the state subsidizes every step of the production chain--and even assumes or indemnifies much of the liability for nuclear accidents.

Anonymous said...


You might be particularly interested in Singer and Avery's book, "Unstopable Global Warming" because they outline evidence that suggests an association between centuries long oscillations in temperature and the advance and retreat of civilizations - with Iceland as a leading indicator to the far north. See especially Chapter Sever: "Warming and Cooling in Human History".


The book is already on the Amazon and New York Times best seller lists. From flooding, to plagues, to species extinction, and environmental refugees, the book debunks a large number of the most prominent global warming myths.

At 234 pages plus end-notes, the book is a quick read.

Anonymous said...

There is not many real solutions nowadays if we want to stop using fossil fuels our alternatives will have some other downside, nuclear power as you have explained, wind power people complain about being too noisy and not looking very pleasing to the eye.

As far as I am concerned any that dousnt cause greenhouse gasses is good.

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D'Lacey said...

Im I concerned about Global Warming?...........I live in WI.....take a look outside