Nuclear Power or Fossil Fuels?

Here an update Nuclear Power or Fossil Fuels?, Revisited, including a changed attitude toward the problem.

I already almost have specialized in commenting on articles by Bjørn Lomborg, the (in)famous “Skeptical Environmentalist”. Today I will do it one more time.

It is a sad true that we often have to choose between alternatives which we don’t like – deciding on what is better, not what is good. In his recent article my favourite politologist argues that we have to make a decision: do we want to rely on electricity generation from nuclear power or from fossil fuels?, since renewables are still too expensive and cannot close the gap if we would like to abandon both. As one can think, I don’t agree with Mr Lomborg – otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this post. I will argue that, first, we cannot but abandon both, and, secondly, it is not necessarily true that we cannot afford a switch to renewables.

Let’s start with the question of whether we can afford to choose. Lomborg argues that, yes, nuclear power is dangerous and rather expensive, but fossil fuels are still more dangerous. This is not quite right. To back up his claim that fossil fuels are more dangerous, he compares an estimate of the deaths due to Chernobyl disaster in 1986 with an estimate of deaths due to fine-particle outdoor air polution (caused directly by burning fossil fuels). In this comparison Chernobyl doesn’t look that bad. But there are at least two problems with it: first, the reliabality of the first estimate, and second – the fact that Lomborg picked out two possible impacts of the respective power generation alternatives, without considering any others.

There are a lot of studies questioning the methodology of the (very difficult) estimations of post-Chernobyl deaths by the WHO (quoted by Lomborg). Alternative, broader approaches arrive at estimates up to 200 times as high as these. Furthermore there is evidence that the Chernobyl meltdown had huge negative impacts on the ecosystems surrounding it. So, it is not as straightforward as Mr Lomborg seems to be believing that a nuclear meltdown causes less deaths than fossil fuel use.

Then there is the second problem: the selectivity. Of course, Chernobyl was terrible, but neither was it the only serious nuclear accident in the history, nor is a possible meltdown the only danger nuclear power imposes over people and nature (consider, e.g., the ecological damages from uranium mining or the unsolved problem of nuclear waste). On the other hand, fine-particle pollution is not the only danger from fossil fuel burning (do not forget global warming, coal mining, Deepwater Horizon etc.). The comparison chosen by Lomborg is impressive, but it tells nothing about the issue of whether we should abandon nuclear power and/or fossil fuels or not.

As I have written elsewhere, there are many other critical issues of nuclear power – not only the danger of a GAU. Our skeptical environmentalist has named some of them (but at the same time he has suggested that the waste disposal problem is solved already – have I missed something?), but in the end he concentrated on relative costs of nuclear energy (as compared with renewables and fossil fuels) and thus reached the conclusion that since we cannot afford a “fossil” future we have to keep using nuclear power – at least the power stations already built, since new ones are highly expensive. Strangely, he hasn’t added that a big part of the existing nuclear power stations are very old and will be phased out in the near future.

An important flaw of Lomborg’s argumentation, a frequent one, is the way of cost considerations. This brings us to the second point: since, as I have argued here and elsewhere, nuclear power is not the solution, and fossil fuels are the problem, the only alternative left is renewables. Mr Lomborg argues that they cannot close the gap caused by a rapid outphasing of nuclear power, and that they generally are much too expensive. Thus, his argumentation goes on, we must choose between bad and worse. But must (and can) we really?

I must admit that the outphasing of nuclear power would cause big problems in many countries (notably in France, where over 80% of electricity generation takes place in nuclear power plants). But, at the same time, I am deeply convinced that we cannot afford to keep utilizing nuclear fission as a source of energy. Abandoning it (gradually, where needed), and the simultaneous gradual transition from fossil fuels to renewables would have a cost. In monetary terms. But let me point out to two issues showing that this cost is not necessarily as huge as Lomborg and others claim.

First, the “skeptics” are considering market prices only. When you look at the price paid for 1 kWh coal vs. 1 kWh nuke vs. 1 kWh solar electricity in the market, it is clear that the latter is very expensive. But there is a huge “but”: market prices don’t necessarily express real, i.e., social costs. In the case of energy prices, they extremely underestimate the real cost. Would we account for the costs of global warming, pollution, risk of accident etc., the picture would look quite distinct. For us, as citizens, as people, it is the full social costs that should count. Not the prices generated in imperfect markets.

Secondly, a great fear is the so called “energy gap” – what if we turn off all the nuclear power stations and there is too little electricity in the grid? Then we may be forced to realize and to decide which of our energy consuming activities are really needed and which are not. A few years ago we consumed much less energy (since total energy consumption is rising) – were we less happy because of that? I don’t think so. (I am writing mainly about the richer countries – most of the developing world don’t face these problems, since they don’t use nuclear fission, with few – richer – exceptions.) See it from the other side: it would be a highly potent incentiveto seek innovations in the renewables sector. So, maybe it would be not as bad if we shut them down? No nuke and no fossil fuels, Mr Lomborg?

Related post (including a reconsideration of my own arguments): Is Nuke the Lesser Evil?

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16 thoughts on “Nuclear Power or Fossil Fuels?

  1. So Easter is upon us, however, before I get to the niceties let me add a number of comments to your article.
    1. You are right that so called “market prices” do not reflect material value of products. However they do include costs related to manufacture ( in a very broad sense) of the goods. And there is no hiding the fact that the “green” energy is very expensive. Not to mention many technical aspects which, somehow, are conveniently not discussed.
    2. To justify many of the dubious statements so called “social cost” is thrown in. How those costs are assessed is open to debate. Numbers of victims of Chernobyl accident have been discussed and queried since day one. WHO figures are inflated and the rate of inflation is directly proportional to the views on nuclear energy issue. How those figures are generated is not that clear.
    Let ma quote something:
    “…. said residents object to to the giant turbines being placed in their backyard because of the noise they make, their visual impact and their effect on the natural and historical heritage.”
    Without going into techncal details of building 200 wind turbines, one may ask if these are “social costs”? If so, are they somehow counted when considering “green” energy?
    3. The biggest stumbling block in the mass use of wind or solar energy is our inability to store electric energy efficiently. Yes we may contain growth in the demand but still with the growing populatin denmand will grow. More so if the needs of the developing world are taken into account.

    May I wish you a nice and happy Easter.

    vandermerwe

  2. Short (since Easter comes upon us;-):

    What is called “Social costs” is relatively clearly dfined, even in mainstream economics. In the case of fossil fuels it is, as I have written, e.g. the costs of damages to natural environment – mostly not accounted for when prices are created. I.e., social costs include the costs/prices of “externalities”, viz. effects on third parties, which are not included in any market transaction.

    And, yes, renewables have their external effects as well. But, I would claim, they are far smaller than those of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. And often of a rather subjective kind (e.g. your example with wind turbines).

    • “But, I would claim, they are far smaller than those of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. And often of a rather subjective kind (e.g. your example with wind turbines).”

      Are they really smaller? As it happens, the external effects are moved somewhere else and simply not considered ( I will not bore you to death with technical details). You say subjective – possibly for you. But not for the people affected for whom the dimension is well defined. But let me quote something else:
      ” Urban dwellers will have to become accustomed to the idea of new technologies influencing the urban landscape. Wind turbines can visually distinguish town edges and be effective buffer against urban sprawl.”
      Well, very little concern for our well being. Are we entering times of authoritarian rule in the name of happiness and a beautiful green world where we will have to accept “absolute wisdom” of “divine authority”. Somehow it starts becoming more of an ideological vision than anything else. Come hail and rain the vision will be implemented irrespective of the cost and logic.

      Regards,

  3. I recognize fully that there are negative aspects of wind turbines, and hydropower etc. But are you really eager to claim that this is worse or even comparable to the dangers of global warming, lung diseases, cancer…?

  4. “..comparable to the dangers of global warming, lung diseases, cancer…?”

    Are we sure that the solutions proposed will produce better results than the old ones? Why do we assume that “green” energy will not cause all those things mentioned by you? There is a basic practical problem here. While several thousands of wind generators may produce the same amount of energy as a single “conventional” power station, the net effect, in terms of supply and operation is not the same. The unfortunate thing is that the latter one is more efficient in every respect – less energy is used to produce and build, less waste is generated and the operation more cost effective. And this is where we are at the moment. Are we assuming that the increased amount of waste generated while building “green” energy system will be less dangerous than for conventional systems? If suddenly we are forced to use batteries to accummulate electric energy, are we saying that the production and disposal will not have any effect on the environment and us? What about the infrastructure which will have to be developed to allow maintenance and operation of significant number ( running into hundreds of thousands) of small power generating units ( roads, vast electrical grid with all needed components)? Where do we get an increased number of spare parts from? Let’s not be naive.

    Regards,

  5. The unfortunate thing is that the latter one is more efficient in every respect – less energy is used to produce and build, less waste is generated and the operation more cost effective.

    Without being an expert in this field, a few counterarguments: first, a wind turbine has an energetic amortization time of a few months. In the case of a coal power station it is much more. Second, while a wind turbine only produces waste while built and disposed, a conventional power stations does through its whole life cycle.

    Yes, there are problems with renewables (how often must I emphasize that?). Storage and grids may be the biggest one (though there emerge more and more solution proposals). But, as I already repeatedly emphasized: the alternative is global warming (here renewables are almost surely unproblematic) and pollution (here they are mostly less problematic).

  6. “Without being an expert in this field, a few counterarguments: first, a wind turbine has an energetic amortization time of a few months. In the case of a coal power station it is much more. Second, while a wind turbine only produces waste while built and disposed, a conventional power stations does through its whole life cycle.”

    If one turbine is compared with one power station that is true. However, a correct comparison is between a power staion and a system which produces similar results (including infrastructure) so one 1800 MW power station with roughly 3000 2 MW units. Waste is “produced ” at all times while may not be obvious to an average person – proverbial smoking stack has been moved somewhere else, out of sight. Before the financial collapse of 2008 it was very diffcult to source bearings of certain size – they were all used by the wind generator industry. This should make us think.

    Regards,

  7. However, a correct comparison is between a power staion and a system which produces similar results (including infrastructure) so one 1800 MW power station with roughly 3000 2 MW units.

    But the number of wind turbines doesn’t matter! Since every one of them produces (on average) the same amount of energy, and needs the same amount to be produced, the relationship between these two will be equal even if we are talking about millions of turbines.

    Waste is “produced ” at all times while may not be obvious to an average person – proverbial smoking stack has been moved somewhere else, out of sight.

    Can you name any examples? I’m suspicious of such generalized arguments.

  8. ad1. Numbers do matter. Why it is more effective to transport goods by one 100 wagon train than by 20 trains 5 wagons each? Or , why is it more effective to load 100000 DWT and bigger ships than small 50000 DWT units? And so on?

    ad 2. Without going into details and staying with the subject ( to a degree). Steam locomotives had been replaced by electric locomotives as being inefficient and polluting ( symbolic stack and smoke). Electric locos supposedly do not pollute – today we are up in arms against coal fired power stations which produce electricity which in turn powers our locomotives! So here you are.

    Regards,

  9. ad 1: Generally, yes, numbers may matter (both ways, for this matter – look at this example: when one coal power station isn’t able to deliver electricity for whatever matter, there are some GW lacking in the grid – if one wind turbine, or even a few get damaged, this is not that severe a problem). In our specific example, the net energy gain/energetic amortization, they do not.

    ad 2: Of course there is the possibility that renewables will generate new problems we are not aware of yet (to be honest: I cannot imagine that people be able to solve any problem without generating a new one). But is this lack of knowledge/experience a reason for maintaining the status quo? Even the very important precautionary principle has its limits.

  10. ad 1. Yes you are right. For that reason any power station consists of generating blocks ie. separate generating units (from 2 to 5 or 6). This provides a good protection against total loss of generation and is helpful when periodic maintenance is required. Apart from the fact that in a developed economy you do not depend on one single power station. In fact power stations are reliable and you may produce up to 80% of installed power any given time. This is not the case with “green” ( solar or wind) generation. Dispersal is the consequence of our lack of control over nature and the benefit mentioned by you is of secondary importance. It seems to me that you see wind generators, and for that matter any power station in isolation. Both need “external” infrastructure and that is in fact non -productive, significantly number ( less size ) dependent parameter.

    ad 2. I am not for the maintenance of the status quo. There are two things to be considered.

    A. If we firmly believe in the scientific findigs regarding climate change ( for example ) we should in the same serious way consider other scentific findigs which question feasibility of some of the proposed solutions. Sometimes it looks like going to war against Iraq – information/facts which contradict established view
    are ignored and discarded.

    B. Our current experience with the generation of “green” energy is on a small scale. At the moment we know that all those small generating units produce expensive energyand their operation is erratic. It is a know fact that frequently what had been proven to be a very good system on a small scale did not work when expanded. While the implementation is decided by a relatively small circle of people, society at large pays the final costs.

    Regards,

  11. ad 1: A few years ago, in Eastern Poland several coal power plants weren’t able to provide energy because of cooling problems. Households and firms faced a blackout. Separate generating units not always help.

    ad 2A: Believe me, I am aware of the problems caused by renewables. But for me they look rather small – or can you name an example of a danger posed by the use of solar, wind or hydro power?

    ad 2B: Wind energy is only a little bit more expensive than conventional energy (in market price terms, not considering the real social cost). PV is the sole big problem if we consider prices.
    Of course, decentralized systems are hard to handle. But there are proposals how to do it. Nobody asks us to switch over night. It will take some time. But we have to start some time. Why not now?

  12. ad 1. I cannot comment on the Polish problems. Recently one of our power stations lost 600 MW unit which will be out of operation for a year. In that case it was by-passing laid down procedures. While country’s electricity sypply is under strain we were not affected by the incident. What I may say about problems in Poland is that most likely than not it should have not happened. If it happened on such a scale then I suspect lack of forsight and planning or simple neglect of the system. In both cases the end result will be the same irrespective how you generate power – there is “unsikable Titanic”.
    ad 2. Your claim that currently “green” energy is only slightly more expensive somehow “flows against the current”. When our government published its “White Paper” on energy which, amongst others, proposed feed in tariffs for the “green” energy industry, that said idustry was up in arms and claimed feed in tariffs ( while still higher than from the conventional sources) were too low to compete with the conventional sources. Further from my own experience, if all costs are taken into account ( for both conventional and “green” energy, without skipping the issues and twisting facts) a dispersed system cannot be cheaper however you look at it. In economic terms how a system of 30 000 MW of installed power and providing only 9000 MW ( and this is seen as an optimistic scenario) of base power can produce cheap energy? In real terms 9000 MW of base power will be provided by ( at the most ) 6 power stations of a small to average size or two big ones. It is like saying that transportation of big quantities goods will be more efficient using little pick ups.

    Regards,

  13. In economic terms how a system of 30 000 MW of installed power and providing only 9000 MW ( and this is seen as an optimistic scenario) of base power can produce cheap energy?

    I think, this is one of the main problems: we are expecting energy to be cheap (and everything else as well). But maybe it shouldn’t if we are to learn how to deal with our environment (broadly understood) responsibly.

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