Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Counting The Costs Of Nuclear Power

Posted on: March 17, 2011

There’s an old saying in journalism circles: If a dog bites a man, that’s not news.  But if a man bites a dog, you’ve got a story.

When two cars crash, a mention might appear in the papers.  When a plane crashes, it’s front page above the fold.  Car crashes are common.  We’re used to them.  Planes crash much less frequently, but more casualties occur at once.  Add to that the fear of falling out of the sky.

Yet, planes are a far safer conveyance of people than cars.  The odds of death by plane crash: 1 in 20,000.  The odds of death by car crash: 1 in 100.  Full disclosure: air travel does have a greater environmental impact than road travel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that 3,500 people died last month in car crashes.  The American Cancer Society estimates that cancer deaths number about 42,000 every month.  The American Heart Association says that a person dies from cardiovascular disease every 36 seconds.  None of this seems to matter much; we’re used to it.

But we get all tied up in knots with a tragedy of the scope now taking place in Japan.  This is fully justified…to a point.

Let me be absolutely clear: perhaps 10,000 brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, relatives, co-workers and others will have been counted as dead when all is reconciled.  10,000 lives snuffed out by natural disaster within minutes.  Add to that the number of injured which could be many times 10,000.  And we shouldn’t forget the many who knew, loved, worked with, played with, did business with all of the affected souls who are now gone, or grossly disabled, homeless, without the necessities of life; in pain.

There’s a new, insidious dimension to this already horrible situation: the peril of death by nuclear radiation.  If the core of a nuclear reactor melts down, its potential deadly effects could last for a million years.  Who would it affect?  In which direction would the deadly cloud go?  What would you die of?  Would death occur swiftly or agonizingly slow?

Six days have now passed and there is hardly a detail about the earthquake and tsunami and their effects that we do not know.  But the answers to the questions about nuclear fallout remain – for the most part – unknowable.  A lot depends on the size of the radiation release(s) when it/they occur.  A lot depends on the wind velocity and direction from the ground to a mile up.  A lot depends on the direction of the prevailing winds; the winds above one mile up.  There are so many variables.  We can’t begin to know the result until the event occurs.

Nuclear fission demands our respect and, in the best of times, gets it.  Now, more than before, we watch and wait – wanting to learn the lessons that can be learned; hoping the feared cataclysm won’t happen.

American policymakers are acting with an abundance of caution, but no one is yet slamming shut the door to future nuclear power growth.  For our part, Americans are still holding a collective breath.  There have been no demonstrations; no campaigns for or against nuclear power.  Most of the countries of the European Union are behaving similarly.  In a few, however, there are large anti-nuclear demonstrations.

It should be noted that three of Fukushima’s nuclear generators were already down for routine maintenance when the quake hit.  The remaining three  were in operation.  All six were designed to shut themselves down automatically when an earthquake strikes.  Shutdown did take place, and some damage did occur as a result of the earthquake.  But the catastrophic damage occurred as a result of the punishing tsunami.

The structural stresses needed to withstand an earthquake are pretty much opposite those needed to handle a tsunami.  You can design for one or the other; but not for both.  Nuclear plants require a constant and abundant supply of water.  While that can be found at some rivers and lakes, an ocean’s waters (after desalinization) are more reliably abundant and cost-efficient.  Hence, locating the plants near the ocean.

The costs of conversion to wind, solar and/or biomass — not to mention the time it would take to accomplish the conversion, and not to mention the number and output of facilities needed to replace nuclear, and not to mention the cost/ROI equation — are almost too huge to calculate.  It all comes back to a debate between nuclear and fossil-fuels.

So, let’s do the math.

Fossil-fuels (i.e. coal) are far and away the largest source of fuel used in power-generation around the globe today.  Some countries are more dependent on nuclear than others; France, for example, gets 80% of its power from nuclear.  By comparison, the U.S. gets 20% of its power from nuclear.

All things being equal, what is the environmental impact of energy production using coal, oil and natural gas versus nuclear?  This is a table from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

Average emission levels in the production of 1 megawatt hour of electricity expressed in pounds of emissions per megawatt hour (lbs/MWh):



Natural Gas

Carbon Dioxide 2249




Sulfur Dioxide





Nitrogen Oxides






It’s plain to see that – in the normal course of the production of electricity – nuclear is by far the cleanest.

But CO2, SO2 and NO emissions not only impact our environment; they cause harm to life.  An EPA study…

…eliminated several factors that could confound the interpretation of data, such as temperature and other pollutants…and found that…60,000 deaths are caused each year by particulate matter in the air.

Particulate matter is the product of emissions thrown into the atmosphere.

The EPA’s assertion was vetted by the nonprofit Health Effects Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and was peer-reviewed by Science magazine.  60,000 deaths.  That number includes people you may know; it could include you or me.

What about the monetary cost of power generation?  If investors see that their product will be sold and that they will derive a profit, they’ll invest in it.  The cycle is completed when the consumer sees value and is willing to pay for it.  From Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy (levelized meaning all costs from conception to decommissioning and deconstruction of a power generation plant):

LCOE expressed in dollars per megawatt hour ($/MWh).

Coal 144
Clean Coal 141
Natural Gas 225
Nuclear 138

Source: Lazard – Levelized Cost of Energy June 2009   Link to study

It’s pretty close, but nuclear still comes out best.  Combining this factor with the emissions factor (including deaths), you may see that nuclear is not as horrible as we’re thinking it is today.

A couple notes: 1) I’m always skeptical of statistics.  I have analyzed the tables, above, and believe the data to be true.  2)  American pro-nuclear lobbyists poured $1.69B into favorable policy-making just last year.  Plant operators and their executives spent many times that number.  Today, operators and lobbyists are working even harder to keep their industry’s prospects from being crushed under the weight of negative public opinion and resulting policy-making.  Source: Bloomberg, 3/16/11

That said, until and unless cost-efficient alternatives to fossil-fuels are developed, our best power comes from nuclear.

What’s going on in Japan is frightening.  But fear should not guide our long-term policy decisions.

Give to the Red Cross Japan Earthquake & Pacific Tsunami Relief Fund.

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