Nuclear Is NOT a Low-Carbon Source of Energy

Cross-posted from Washington’s Blog.


Why Do People Claim that Nuclear Power is a Low-Carbon Source of Energy?

Even well-known, well-intentioned scientists sometimes push bad ideas. For example, well-known scientists considered pouring soot over the Arctic in the 1970s to help melt the ice – in order to prevent another ice age. That would have been stupid. Even Obama’s top science adviser – John Holdren – warned in the 1970′s of a new ice age … and is open to shooting soot into the upper atmosphere. That might be equally stupid.

In other words, scientists – even prominent ones – sometimes fall prey to hairball theories and dangerous proposals. (Remember, doctors used to bleed patients to remove the “bad humors”.)

Similarly, some scientists are under the mistaken impression that nuclear power is virtually carbon-free, and thus must be pushed to prevent runaway global warming. (If you don’t believe in global warming, then this essay is not aimed at you … although you might wish to forward it to those who do.)

But this is a myth.

Amory Lovins is perhaps America’s top expert on energy, and a dedicated environmentalist for close to 50 years. His credentials as an energy expert and environmentalist are sterling.

Lovins is a former Oxford don, who taught at nine universities, most recently Stanford. He has briefed 19 heads of state, provided expert testimony in eight countries, and published 31 books and several hundred papers. Lovins’ clients have included the Pentagon, OECD, UN, Resources for the Future, many national governments, and 13 US states, as well as many Fortune 500 companies, major real-estate developers, and utilities.Lovins served in 1980-81 on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Research Advisory Board, and in 1999-2001 and 2006-08 on Defense Science Board task forces on military energy efficiency and strategy.

Lovins says nuclear is not the answer:

Nuclear plants are so slow and costly to build that they reduce and retard climate protection.

Here’s how. Each dollar spent on a new reactor buys about 2-10 times less carbon savings, 20-40 times slower, than spending that dollar on the cheaper, faster, safer solutions that make nuclear power unnecessary and uneconomic: efficient use of electricity, making heat and power together in factories or buildings (“cogeneration”), and renewable energy. The last two made 18% of the world’s 2009 electricity, nuclear 13%, reversing their 2000 shares–and made over 90% of the world’s additional electricity in 2008.

Those smarter choices are sweeping the global energy market. Half the world’s new generating capacity in 2008 and 2009 was renewable. In 2010, renewables except big hydro dams won $151 billion of private investment and added over 50 billion watts (70% the total capacity of all 23 Fukushima-style U.S. reactors) while nuclear got zero private investment and kept losing capacity. Supposedly unreliable windpower made 43-52% of four German states’ total 2010 electricity. Non-nuclear Denmark, 21% wind-powered, plans to get entirely off fossil fuels. Hawai’i plans 70% renewables by 2025.

In contrast, of the 66 nuclear units worldwide officially listed as “under construction” at the end of 2010, 12 had been so listed for over 20 years, 45 had no official startup date, half were late, all 66 were in centrally planned power systems–50 of those in just four (China, India, Russia, South Korea)–and zero were free-market purchases. Since 2007, nuclear growth has added less annual output than just the costliest renewable–solar power –and will probably never catch up. While inherently safe renewable competitors are walloping both nuclear and coal plants in the marketplace and keep getting dramatically cheaper, nuclear costs keep soaring, and with greater safety precautions would go even higher. Tokyo Electric Co., just recovering from $10-20 billion in 2007 earthquake costs at its other big nuclear complex, now faces an even more ruinous Fukushima bill.

Since 2005, new U.S. reactors (if any) have been 100+% subsidized–yet they couldn’t raise a cent of private capital, because they have no business case. They cost 2-3 times as much as new windpower, and by the time you could build a reactor, it couldn’t even beat solar power. Competitive renewables, cogeneration, and efficient use can displace all U.S. coal power more than 23 times over–leaving ample room to replace nuclear power’s half-as-big-as-coal contribution too–but we need to do it just once.

(Read Lovins’ technical papers on the issue here.)

Alternet points out:

Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis at the Vermont Law School … found that the states that invested heavily in nuclear power had worse track records on efficiency and developing renewables than those that did not have large nuclear programs. In other words, investing in nuclear technology crowded out developing clean energy.

BBC notes:

Building the [nuclear] power station produces a lot of CO2 ….

Greenpeace points out:

When it comes to nuclear power, the industry wants you to think of electricity generation in isolation ….. And yet the production of nuclear fuel is a hugely intensive process. Uranium must be mined, milled, converted, enriched, converted again and then manufactured into fuel. You’ll notice the [the nuclear industry] doesn’t mention the carbon footprint of all steps in the nuclear chain prior to electricity generation. Fossil fuels have to be used and that means CO2 emissions.

An International Forum on Globalization report – written by environmental luminaries Ernest Callenback, Gar Smith and Jerry Mander – have slammed nuclear power as catastrophic for the environment:

Nuclear energy is not the “clean” energy its backers proclaim. For more than 50 years, nuclear energy has been quietly polluting our air, land, water and bodies—while also contributing to Global Warming through the CO2 emissions from its construction, mining, and manufacturing operations. Every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle—mining, milling, shipping, processing, power generation, waste disposal and storage—releases greenhouse gases, radioactive particles and toxic materials that poison the air, water and land. Nuclear power plants routinely expel low-level radionuclides into the air in the course of daily operations. While exposure to high levels of radiation can kill within a matter of days or weeks, exposure to low levels on a prolonged basis can damage bones and tissue and result in genetic damage, crippling long-term injuries, disease and death.

See this excellent photographic depiction of the huge amounts of fossil fuel which goes into building and operating a nuclear power plant.

Nature reported in 2008:

You’re better off pursuing renewables like wind and solar if you want to get more bang for your buck.”


Evaluating the total carbon output of the nuclear industry involves calculating those emissions and dividing them by the electricity produced over the entire lifetime of the plant. Benjamin K. Sovacool, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore, recently analyzed more than one hundred lifecycle studies of nuclear plants around the world, his results published in August in Energy Policy. From the 19 most reliable assessments, Sovacool found that estimates of total lifecycle carbon emissions ranged from 1.4 grammes of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (gCO2e/kWh) of electricity produced up to 288 gCO2e/kWh. Sovacool believes the mean of 66 gCO2e/kWh to be a reasonable approximation.

The large variation in emissions estimated from the collection of studies arises from the different methodologies used – those on the low end, says Sovacool, tended to leave parts of the lifecycle out of their analyses, while those on the high end often made unrealistic assumptions about the amount of energy used in some parts of the lifecycle. The largest source of carbon emissions, accounting for 38 per cent of the average total, is the “frontend” of the fuel cycle, which includes mining and milling uranium ore, and the relatively energy-intensive conversion and enrichment process, which boosts the level of uranium-235 in the fuel to useable levels. Construction (12 per cent), operation (17 per cent largely because of backup generators using fossil fuels during downtime), fuel processing and waste disposal (14 per cent) and decommissioning (18 per cent) make up the total mean emissions.

According to Sovacool’s analysis, nuclear power, at 66 gCO2e/kWh emissions is well below scrubbed coal-fired plants, which emit 960 gCO2e/kWh, and natural gas-fired plants, at 443 gCO2e/kWh. However, nuclear emits twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaic, at 32 gCO2e/kWh, and six times as much as onshore wind farms, at 10 gCO2e/kWh. “A number in the 60s puts it well below natural gas, oil, coal and even clean-coal technologies. On the other hand, things like energy efficiency, and some of the cheaper renewables are a factor of six better. So for every dollar you spend on nuclear, you could have saved five or six times as much carbon with efficiency, or wind farms,” Sovacool says. Add to that the high costs and long lead times for building a nuclear plant about $3 billion for a 1,000 megawatt plant, with planning, licensing and construction times of about 10 years and nuclear power is even less appealing.


Money spent on energy efficiency, however, is equivalent to increasing baseload power, since it reduces the overall power that needs to be generated, says Sovacool. And innovative energy-storage solutions, such as compressed air storage, could provide ways for renewables to provide baseload power.

Thomas Cochran, a nuclear physicist and senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group in Washington DC … argues that the expense and risk of building nuclear plants makes them uneconomic without large government subsidies, and that similar investment in wind and solar photovoltaic power would pay off sooner.


Another question has to do with the sustainability of the uranium supply itself. According to researchers in Australia at Monash University, Melbourne, and the University of New South Wales, Sydney, good-quality uranium ore is hard to come by. The deposits of rich ores with the highest uranium content are depleting leaving only lower-quality deposits to be exploited. As ore quality degrades, more energy is required to mine and mill it, and greenhouse gas emissions rise. “It is clear that there is a strong sensitivity of … greenhouse gas emissions to ore grade, and that ore grades are likely to continue to decline gradually in the medium- to long-term,” conclude the researchers. [And see this.]

Beyond Nuclear notes:

The energy consulting firm Ecofys produced a report detailing how we can meet nearly 100% of global energy needs with renewable sources by 2050. Approximately half of the goal is met through increased energy efficiency to first reduce energy demands, and the other half is achieved by switching to renewable energy sources for electricity production. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agrees and predicts close to 80% of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid‐century.


Since nuclear power plants are reliant upon the electrical grid for 100% of their safety systems’ long‐term power, and are shut down during grid failure and perturbations, it is “guaranteed” only as long as the electrical grid is reliable. When the Tsunami and earthquake hit and power was lost in the Fukushima Prefecture, nuclear energy wasn’t so “guaranteed.” Instead, it became a liability, adding to what was now a triple threat to the region and worsening an already catastrophic situation.


[The claim that] Nuclear power is “low‐carbon electricity” … is the propaganda line commonly used by the nuclear industry which conveniently leaves out every phase of the nuclear fuel chain other than electricity generation. It ignores the significant carbon emissions caused by uranium mining, milling, processing and enrichment; the transport of fuel; the construction of nuclear plants; and the still inadequate permanent management of waste. It also ignores the release ‐ by nuclear power plants and reprocessing facilities ‐ of radioactive carbon dioxide, or carbon‐14, to the air, considered to be the most toxic of all radioactive isotopes over the long‐term.

In fact, studies show that extending the operating licenses of old nuclear power plants emits orders of magnitude more carbon and greenhouse gases per kilowatt hour from just the uranium fuel chain compared to building and operating new wind farms.


Nuclear might begin to address global carbon emissions if a reactor is built somewhere in the world every two weeks. But this is an economically unrealistic, in fact impossible, proposition, with the estimated construction tab beginning at $12 billion apiece and current new reactors under construction already falling years behind schedule.

According to a 2003 MIT study, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” such an unprecedented industrial ramping up would also mean opening a new Yucca Mountain‐size nuclear waste dump somewhere in the world “every three to four years,” a task still unaccomplished even once in the 70 years of the industry’s existence. Further, such a massive scale expansion of nuclear energy would fuel proliferation risks and multiply anxieties about nuclear weapons development, exemplified by the current concern over Iran. As Al Gore stated while Vice President: “For eight years in the White House, every weapons-proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a civilian reactor program.”

Many experts also say that the “energy return on investment” from nuclear power is lower than many other forms of energy. In other words, non-nuclear energy sources produce more energy for a given input.

David Swanson summarizes one of the key findings of the International Forum on Globalization report:

The energy put into mining, processing, and shipping uranium, plant construction, operation, and decommissioning is roughly equal to the energy a nuclear plant can produce in its lifetime. In other words, nuclear energy does not add any net energy.

Not counted in that calculation is the energy needed to store nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years.

Also not counted is any mitigation of the relatively routine damage done to the environment, including human health, at each stage of the process.


Nuclear energy is not an alternative to energies that increase global warming, because nuclear increases global warming. When high-grade uranium runs out, nuclear will be worse for CO2 emissions than burning fossil fuels. And as global warming advances, nuclear becomes even less efficient as reactors must shut down to avoid overheating.

Also not counted in most discussions is the fact that nuclear reactors discharge tremendous amounts of heat directly into the environment. After all – as any nuclear engineer will tell you – a nuclear reactor is really just a fancy way to boil water.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted in 1971:

In terms of thermal efficiency, current nuclear reactors are even worse off than the coal plants. Against the 50 per cent loss of heat in the newest coal plants, as much as 70 per cent of the heat is lost from nuclear plants. This means that thermal pollution can be even more severe ….

1971 was a long time ago, but some nuclear plants are older. For example, Oyster Creek was launched in 1969, and many other reactors were built in the early 1970s. Most American nuclear reactors are old (and they are aging very poorly).

Indeed, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service claims:

It has been estimated that every nuclear reactor daily releases thermal energy –heat– that is in excess of the heat released by the detonation of a 15 kiloton nuclear bomb blast.

It doesn’t make too much sense to dump massive amounts of heat into the environment … in the name of fighting global warming.

The German Example

Germany permanently shut down 8 nuclear power plants in 2011. Indeed, Germany’s phase-out of nuclear will speed up the reduction in its carbon footprint.

PhysOrg reported last year:

A special issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published by SAGE, “The German Nuclear Exit,” shows that the nuclear shutdown and an accompanying move toward renewable energy are already yielding measurable economic and environmental benefits, with one top expert calling the German phase-out a probable game-changer for the nuclear industry worldwide.


Freie Universität Berlin politics professor Miranda Schreurs says the nuclear phase-out and accompanying shift to renewable energy have brought financial benefits to farmers, investors, and small business;

Felix Matthes of the Institute for Applied Ecology in Berlin concludes the phase-out will have only small and temporary effects on electricity prices and the German economy;


Lutz Mez, co-founder of Freie Universitӓt Berlin’s Environmental Policy Research Center, presents what may be the most startling finding of all …. “It has actually decoupled energy from economic growth, with the country’s energy supply and carbon-dioxide emissions dropping from 1990 to 2011, even as its gross domestic product rose by 36 percent.”

Beyond Nuclear notes:

Germany reduced its carbon emissions in 2011 by 2.1 percent despite the nuclear phaseout. The cut in greenhouse gases was mainly reached due to an accelerated transition to renewable energies and a warm winter. In addition, the EU emissions trading system caps all emissions from the power sector.

While eight nuclear power plants were shut down, solar power output increased by 60 percent. By the end of 2011, renewable energies provided more than 20 percent of overall electricity.


Even after shutting its eight oldest nuclear power plants, Germany is still a net exporter of electricity. In 2011, Germany exported 6 TWh more than it imported. Additionally, German electricity exports to Europe’s nuclear power house France increased throughout 2011.

The Big Picture

The former chief American nuclear regulator says that nuclear energy is unsafe and should be phased out. Whistleblowers at the Nuclear Regulator Commission say that the risk of a major meltdown at U.S. nuclear reactors is much higher than it was at Fukushima.

And an accident in the U.S. could be a lot larger than in Japan … partly because our nuclear plants hold a lot more radioactive material. Radiation could cause illness in huge numbers of Americans, and a major nuclear accident could literally bankrupt America.

More than 75 percent of American nuclear reactors leak radiation … and – contrary to what the snake oil salesmen say – radiation form nuclear plants is very damaging to our health.

Nuclear is wholly subsidized by the government … and would never survive in a free market.

Anyone who says the only choices are nuclear, oil or coal are wrong. The question isn’t one type of centralized energy generation versus another.

Decentralizing energy production, increasing efficiency, and increasing energy conservation are the real solutions for the environment.

Watch this must-see talk by Lovins, and this inspiring talk by Justin Hall Tipping.

The bottom line – as discussed above – is that scientists pushing nuclear to combat global warming are misinformed. (True, nuclear industry lobbyists may be largely responsible for the claim that nuclear fights climate change. Indeed, Dick Cheney – whose Halliburton company builds nuclear power plants, and which sold nuclear secrets to Iran – falsely claimed that nuclear power is carbon-free in a 2004 appearance on C-Span. But there are also sincere environmental scientists who are pushing nuclear because they have only studied a small part of the picture, and don’t understand that there are better alternatives.)

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About George Washington

George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander…


  1. kimyo

    monbiot, pro-nuke, clearly has fallen to the communists. james hansen (‘nuclear saves lives’) too. as they’re part and parcel of the agw full court press, the whole co2=bad thing is called into question.

    sadly, maybe even reddit fave neil degrasse tyson belongs to the apparatus:

    in a way, not unlike calculated risk (dis-honoring tanta by trumpeting any nar-positive truthiness).

    i’d ask monbiot / hansen / tyson – does tepco have adequate resources/personnel to stop the release of radioactive materials from fukushima? does ‘cold-shutdown’ accurately describe the state of things there?

    1. Mark P.

      Meanwhile, the wider world proceeds on its way —

      New reactor construction starts

      14 Reactors in 2012
      2012 India, NPCIL Kaiga 4 PHWR 202
      2012 Iran, AEOI Bushehr 1 PWR 950
      2012 Russia, Rosenergoatom Kalinin 4 PWR 950
      2012 Korea, KHNP Shin Kori 2 PWR 1000 (Jan)
      2012 Korea, KHNP Shin Wolsong 1 PWR 1000 (Jan)
      2012 Canada, Bruce Pwr Bruce A1 PHWR 769 (April)
      2012 Canada, Bruce Pwr Bruce A2 PHWR 769 (Sept)
      2012 Canada, NB Power Point Lepreau 1 PHWR 635
      2012 Argentina, Atucha 2 PHWR 692 (July)
      2012 India, NPCIL Kudankulam 1 PWR 950
      2012 India, NPCIL Kudankulam 2 PWR 950
      2012 China, CNNC Qinshan phase II-4 PWR 650
      2012 China, CGNPC Hongyanhe 1 PWR 1080
      2012 China, CGNPC Ningde 1 PWR 1080
      14 Reactors in 2013
      2013 Slovakia, SE Mochovce 3 PWR 440
      2013 Korea, KHNP Shin Wolsong 2 PWR 1000
      2013 Korea, KHNP Shin-Kori 3 PWR 1350
      2013 USA, TVA Watts Bar 2 PWR 1180
      2013 Russia Leningrad II-1 PWR 1070
      2013 China, CNNC Sanmen 1 PWR 1250
      2013 China, CGNPC Ningde 2 PWR 1080
      2013 China, CGNPC Yangjiang 1 PWR 1080
      2013 China, CGNPC Taishan 1 PWR 1700
      2013 China, CNNC Fangjiashan 1 PWR 1080
      2013 China, CNNC Fuqing 1 PWR 1080
      2013 China, CGNPC Hongyanhe 2 PWR 1080
      2013 Slovakia, SE Mochovce 4 PWR 440
      2013 India, Bhavini Kalpakkam FBR 470
      18 or 19 Reactors in 2014
      2014 Finland, TVO Olkilouto 3 PWR 1600
      2014 Russia Vilyuchinsk PWR x 2 70
      2014 Russia NovovoronezhII-1 PWR 1070
      2014 Taiwan Power Lungmen 1 ABWR 1300
      2014 Japan, Chugoku Shimane 3 ABWR 1375
      2014 China, CNNC Sanmen 2 PWR 1250
      2014 China, CPI Haiyang 1 PWR 1250
      2014 China, CGNPC Ningde 3 PWR 1080
      2014 China, CGNPC Hongyanhe 3 PWR 1080
      2014 China, CGNPC Hongyanhe 4 PWR 1080
      2014 China, CGNPC Yangjiang 2 PWR 1080
      2014 China, CGNPC Taishan 2 PWR 1700
      2014 China, CNNC Fangjiashan 2 PWR 1080
      2014 China, CNNC Fuqing 2 PWR 1080
      2014 China, CNNC Changjiang 1 PWR 650
      2014 Korea, KHNP Shin-Kori 4 PWR 1350
      2014? Japan, EPDC/J Power Ohma 1 ABWR 1350
      2014 Russia, Rosenergoatom Rostov 3 PWR 1070
      2014 Russia, Rosenergoatom Beloyarsk 4 FNR 750

      1. Nathanael

        Most of that’s in China. You haven’t listed the *massive* investment China has made in renewable energy — and for that matter into fossil fuel energy — so it’s not obvious that the nukes are a large proportion. (I’d like to see meaningful numbers.) China is putting more money into energy, period, than anywhere else.

      2. Nathanael

        For further points, I actually know about some of these projects:

        – The Canadian nuclear projects are completely uneconomic. They’re going forward through sheer bureaucratic inertia and lobbying. The same is true of the US TVA project, except that it may never actually open.
        – The Iranian project is, of course, strategic. They want both medical and weapons potential, domestically. It’s not really a matter of electricity generation.

        (Honestly I would not complain about building one or two modern nuclear reactors to generate medical isotopes and do reprocessing, while shutting down the extremely dangerous GE Mark Is. Don’t pretend nukes are a good choice for electricity generation, though.)

        – The Japanese projects will probably never open. They are also uneconomic.
        – I can’t speak to the India, Argentina, Korea, Russia, Slovakia, Finland, or Taiwan projects, but it’s not really a long list, is it? Some of these may also be strategic, given the need to shut down Soviet-era nukes for Chernobyl risk. They’re a little smarter about this in Russia than we are about the ticking time bomb GE Mark Is. Not much smarter, but a little smarter.

        So basically all you’ve got is China, and you don’t have comparative numbers for their investment in anything else.

        1. They didn't leave me a choice

          The finnish project is a failure.

          The french company, Areva, responsible for the project split the construction work amongst dozens of subcontractors and barely had any supervision for the clusterfuck.

          Our agency responsible for nuclear safety had to jump in and order reconstruction of several parts and buildings due to utter, insane incompetence of the project.

          According to wikipedia, right now the costs stand at 8.5B€, a slight jump over the original estimates of 3B€. Also 6 years over schedule. And it’s not done yet. At this point I don’t think it’s even a matter of being uneconomic and more handing a gift basket for the rentier scum.

          “According to some estimates, Olkiluoto reactor would be the 5th or 6th most expensive structure in the world, even more expensive than the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.”

          Gee whiz, good thing we didn’t have anything better to put our resources into.

          So, how was your decade of constructing a shitty reactor.

          1. Maju

            “So, how was your decade of constructing a shitty reactor.”

            Ours (Lemoiz, Basque Country) was in the 70s-80s and the project had such a massive opposition that even the workers sabotaged it from inside. Eventually the guerrilla kidnapped and killed the top engineer and the project was totally aborted, while all other nuclear projects in Spain got paralyzed till this very day.

            In other words: all nuclear reactors in Spain date from the Fascist period (probably with a background of unspoken military ambitions). Not a single one has been built ever since a moratorium was issued in the mid-80s but not a single one has been dismantled either. Garoña, whose license was not renewed, rather surprisingly, last year, will be the first one ever. It’s also the most dangerous one, having GE tech like Fukushima Daichi and being one of the oldest.

            On the negative side subsidies to solar energy parks were cancelled even if they were making huge gains.

            I’m concerned anyhow: France just north of here is hyper-nuclearized and Spanish nuclear reactors are all very old. Never mind NATO troops going around with nuclear weapons and nuclear engines. But closing down Garoña should end the worst direct danger.

  2. charles 2

    I probably not try to react rationally in front of such a one sided article but I can’t help myself to answer the rhetorical (?) question that makes up the title :
    Because most of the energy invested associated with nuclear is industrial energy, which can be provided by nuclear itself.

    Part of 38% associated with enrichment ? Can be much reduced by using the last technique of enrichment (laser and centrifuge) and can operate on nuclear electric power (this is what France does)
    17% back-up power during downtime ? There is this thing called the grid that enables to tap other nuclear reactors during maintenance. Note that a site usually has several reactors that do not go into maintenance at the same time.
    Fuel reprocessing and waste disposal ? mainly done in industrial installations, can perfectly be powered by electricity)

    Yes, moving earth, pouring concrete and cast steel is mostly done using fossil fuels, but guess what ? Wind uses MORE concrete, MUCH MORE steel and moves MUCH MUCH MORE earth than nuclear : see

    As far as the “German example” is concerned. Germany “decoupled” its economic growth from energy use by outsourcing the dirty and energy intensive industrial processes to its neighbors, and using its neighbors electric system as a, sometimes fossil fuel based (!), intermittence management system. Yves rants frequently against the short-sightedness and “beggar thy neighbor” style of Germany macro-economic management. She could do the same on its Energy Policy…

    1. Maju

      Germany actually exports electricity nowadays and is displacing France, the traditional electricity exporter of Europe, in this role.

      And it does so by pushing ahead renewables, especially these days solar because even with the relatively low solar input of Germany it is a lot cheaper and more efficient to use solar energy nowadays. The photovoltaic generation technologies are evolving revolutionarily these days and (unlike with oil and nuclear, where it can only get worse), with solar it can only get better and better.

      Oil is yesteryear and nuclear is also. Both are really expensive, polluting and today extremely ineffective.

      However there are powerful vested interests in both, because, unlike most renewables, they are concentrated in specific sites owned by specific high-investment corporations, with a lot of money to spend in PR and lobbying (including hiring lots of PR agents to sweeten the pill and hide the facts all around: in the media as in the Internet).

      Nuclear also has one ace up the sleeve: they are necessary for the military terror infrastructure. That’s the actual reason behind nuclear: capacity to build a nuclear arsenal. That’s why, while oil, gas and coal may well vanish gradually just because of efficiency, I’d expect nuclear (which is clearly much more dangerous: with almost infinite hidden costs in their terrible risks, being able to leave half a country like Japan effectively inhabitable overnight), to resist against all logic: the destructive power extracted from this technology is way too “sweet” for all kind of power-mongers, in the USA as in China, in Israel as in Iran, in France as in Korea, to be abandoned easily.

      But that does not make it an efficient risk-free energy generation method at all.

    2. YankeeFrank

      Its fascinating how so many who fight against the promise of renewable energy can’t see the forest for the trees: even IF global warming/rising CO2 levels are not a worry (a huge IF), the continuous poisoning of our environment by coal and gas plants (mercury in fish, rice, etc., etc.) and the undeniable horror of radioactive leaks and meltdowns would push any sane society to embrace wind, solar and geothermal energy production as the savior of our planet. The toxins and radioactive death produced by fossil fuel/nuclear energy is undeniable, even by global warming-deniers — why don’t “charles 2” and his buddies eat tuna fish everyday for a month and see how well they feel — and I’m just scratching the surface with his example. Its obvious to anyone that doesn’t have some strange grudge against “the hippies” or isn’t getting paid by the fossil fuel/nuclear industries that we need to transition quickly to energy that doesn’t poison us and our environment. The Germans are leading the way and we need to follow. Its just that simple.

    1. LifelongLib

      In some locations (e.g. here in Hawaii) base-load power could be provided by Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion.

      It seems to me that providing base-load power with variable renewable sources would require very geographically large energy grids. Granted this might be a better overall solution than nuclear but it seems to run contrary to the usual decentralization ideas that surround discussion of renewables.

      1. Maju

        I don’t understand that objection, LifelongLib, solar is naturally decentralized but, logically, produces nothing at night, so you need backups: either other sources via the grid or some sort of storage, for example a hydrogen generation and burning device, which could well be local.

        Hydrogen has two technical problems (besides the need of water to produce it): (1) very high transformation costs (I think the conversion rate is c. 12%, which is very low but will surely improve with time and research) and (2) extremely high flammability (which can also be managed however). It has advantages too: all “pollution” is just water (if the water is local, it returns to the ecosystem as mist) and can be used as fuel for vehicles, etc. All that can be local if the politics want it to be local.

        For isolated homesteads however the solutions are probably somewhat different (batteries for example, with the backup of a regular oil generator possibly if you want to prevent all kinds of emergencies). But I think that in most cases you want a local planning, which can indeed be of larger scale (the grid has loses but not too outstanding). It’s just a technical and economical efficiency planning matter in any case.

  3. Working Class Nero

    Without even stepping into the debate about whether nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source, this article really should be translated into Chinese, Russian, or Hindi since the US and the West in general are but minor players in the game of building future nuclear reactors.

    The world currently has around 373 GW of nuclear capacity. For how we got there, in 1980 the capacity was around 130GW, for the next ten years it grew at 20GW per year to 330 GW by 1990. After Three Mile Island and then Chernobyl, growth from 1990 – 2010 flat-lined at around 2GW per year to the current 373GW global capacity.

    These 373GW are spread out in the following way: The US has 101GW, France 63GW, Japan 44GW, and Russia at 23GW. China currently has 13GW and Germany has only 12GW that they have committed to closing down. Modern nuclear reactors roughly each have a capacity of 1GW.

    That’s the current situation but what about future expansion, which is the topic of this post? In short, the current flat-line growth is about to go vertical in the developing world. China has 28 new reactors under construction. Their official plan is to increase nuclear capacity to 40GW by 2020 but there are further plans to increase this 2020 target to 70-75 GW. More long term, the Chinese are planning on jumping to 200GW by 2030 and 400GW by 2050 and a staggering 1400GW by 2100.

    In Russia they currently have ten reactors under construction with plans to build 17 more. In India they are currently building seven and have plans for 18 more. Pakistan, Turkey, Vietnam and others have modest expansion plans.

    For a bit of contrast in the First World, the US has one reactor under construction with 11 more planned. France has one under construction with one more planned, and Japan has 7 under construction with no more planned. Canada, Finland, the UK, South Korea, and Poland also have modest (in comparison to China) expansion plans.

    Now obviously some of these targets may be ambitious. But Western nuclear expansion is chump change compared to what is happening in the (B)RIC’s. Globalization has successfully off-shored Western prosperity, production, and jobs to the developing world. From the above it is also clear that the debate about the environment and climate change, etc is also being off-shored. Western and First World environmentalists will have ever-decreasing influence as the West’s position in the world declines. Western children dreaming of growing up to be environmentalists should be encouraged to study Mandarin, Russian or Hindi because as time passes, these are the languages in which the global environment will be discussed.

    1. Nathanael

      Thanks for details on which countries are wasting their money on nuclear, and how much they’re planning to waste. This is far more informative than earlier comments….

  4. Jessica

    Why Do People Claim that Nuclear Power is a Low-Carbon Source of Energy?

    “According to Sovacool’s analysis, nuclear power, at 66 gCO2e/kWh emissions is well below scrubbed coal-fired plants, which emit 960 gCO2e/kWh, and natural gas-fired plants, at 443 gCO2e/kWh.”

    That’s why. This is George Washington’s own source as he himself quotes him above.

    Nuclear power is a low-carbon source of energy. It is also limited by uranium supplies (with its carbon footprint rising as more difficult to mine uranium must be used), dangerous (arguably so dangerous that it would be unwise to use even if it had a 0 carbon footprint), dependent on the integrity of the same kind of elite bureaucracies that have brought us the global financial meltdown, Vioxx, and the US invasion of Iraq, and both requires and encourages centralized control (and yet more power to security forces).
    But it is low-carbon.
    I find George Washington frustrating because I usually agree with the gist of what he is saying (give me higher efficiency, solar, wind, and a smart grid any day) but too often he overstates his case in ways that give too much ammunition to the other side.
    As frustrating as it is to deal with the highly polluted public discourse of these times, trying to overcome that by ramping up our arguments with fear-mongering or overstating our case not only doesn’t help, it actively hurts.

    1. Chris Engel

      The frustrating thing is that the real data shows it’s low-carbon, but then from people like George Washington you get a lot of vague claims about how the construction and processing of the nuclear power exceeds the life-time comparative reduction of CO2.

      It’s such an obvious reach and environmentalists are simply trying to turn their feel-good agenda against a proven low-carbon source of energy as nuclear.

      We know nuclear energy is a low-carbon alternative based on the emission data — not as low-carbon as solar, which is not as low-carbon as wind, but still, very low carbon compared to the fossil fuel alternatives. And no, there’s no data on the CO-2 emitted in the production of the facility is any more harmful on a net basis than other energy infrastructure.

      And no, citing a slew of anti-nuclear-power sources as “evidence” is not valid at all, especially when there’s no hard data produced to back it up (organizations like Green Peace, Beyond Nuclear, International Globalization Forum? come on now…).

      If you want to make the case against nuclear, doing it dishonestly by trying to say it’s not a low-carbon energy source is just silly.

      There’s plenty of legitimate reasons to oppose nuclear — the concerns of safety, accidents, clean-up, etc. is more than enough to make the case.

      But it debases the argument to make dishonest claims about it not truly being a low-Co2 source because of some vague claims about construction causing co2 emissions.

      1. BondsOfSteel

        Not all environmentalist.

        Nuclear power is much, much cleaner energy than coal, which still accounts for 42% of the US energy production:

        Also, keep in mind that mining uranium is much cleaner than mining rare earth minerals… used in solar and wind generation.

        Yes, biomass, cogeneration, solar, wind, wave, smart-grid, geothermal, hydroelectric, and others are better than nuclear… nuclear is still better than coal, oil, and natural gas.

        1. Nathanael

          “Also, keep in mind that mining uranium is much cleaner than mining rare earth minerals… ”

          No, it’s not. Not by the “carbon emissions” standard anyway. Citation needed.

          Anyway, there’s relatively low usage of lanthanides (so-called “rare earth elements”). Though I know they’re popular for wind turbine mangnets, the quantites in solar are minimal. There are probably more used for novelty magnets than for solar.

    2. optimader

      Re: The contention that the presently commercialized Uranium Fuel cycle is “low carbon”.

      Lets see your Control Volume assumption and your energy balance/return on energy invested estimate for the life cycle of a conventional nuke burning Uranium .

      Include an estimate for the negative energy input over the 1,000yr or so legacy waste storage and maintenance period, Arguably more importantly, the negative energy input cost to remove accidentally released man-made radioactive nucleotides from the environment. The insidious thing is, once nuke material is released, for practical purposes it’s in the background radiation inventory “forever”.

      The true “carbon footprint” (return on energy invested) for a conventional Uranium fired Nuke is absurd.

      Low and behold what the commercialized Uranium fuel cycle just happened to be excellent source for was Plutonium production back when making that element seemed like a Good Idea.

      The mistake is throwing the Thorium Fuel Cycle Baby out with the Bath Water.
      Organs of media are not good at nuance.

  5. The Dork of Cork.

    The German example…………

    I rest my case.

    Washington is a nice guy and all but does not understand energy.

    1. Chris Engel

      I agree.

      There’s so many reasons to oppose nuclear, but creating a false argument not supported by the data that nuclear is NOT low-carbon just makes environmentalists look not-so credible in any of their issues.

      Just highlight Chernobyl, Fukashima, three-mile island, waste-disposal issues — these are the REAL issues with nuclear power, not whether it’s a low-carbon source or not (we already know 100% that it’s a low-carbon source of energy!!!).

      I get the style of being purposely provocative to engage in thought experiments and such, but this kind of article is verging on trolling with its outlandish claims not backed by the data.

  6. Gerald Muller

    Fully agree with Dork. Any piece that lists Greenpeace as a valid argument gets a red flag. Those eco-fundamentalists are just as reasonable as all other fundamentalists.
    And furthermore, the fact that any climate change is due to man and man alone is yet to be proven, in my books.

    1. Chris Engel

      To ignore mankind’s role in the rapidly increasing temperature of our planet is really borderline insane at this point.

      Sure, there’s a role of natural variation, but there’s basically a proven part that we as fossil-fuel-burning species are contributing to this trend and that we CAN do something about it! Taking better care of our environment, as Peter Byck (CarbonNation) has talked about , is one way to help suck-back the Co2 that we’ve been throwing up there with energy production from fossil fuels. Nuclear isn’t our saving grace, but it could be that it’s part of a diversified approach to getting away from fossil fuels and environmental destruction.

  7. Jessica

    “The fact that any climate change is due to man and man alone is yet to be proven, in my books.”

    I do not think that is a fair representation of the scientific consensus. Scientists recognize that geological and astronomical cycles affect climate. Having a land mass at the South Pole and land surrounding the North Pole is a cold geological configuration compared to both poles being open ocean.
    What is claimed, and which I agree with, is that there these other cycles are being overlaid by a cycle that is driven by human activitiy.

    1. optimader

      “The fact that any climate change is due to man and man alone is yet to be proven, in my books.”

      who claims that it is “man alone” a big fail -in high shcool level debate. see: fallacy of false premise

  8. Sleeper

    About Nukes –

    While well suited to naval warships they are amoung the most expensive sources of power.

    And if you have a chance to visit Hanford or Savanah River there are vast suNotms of money tied up in fuel processing and reprocessing much of which is controlled by a French company Arevna (sp). Not to mention contaminated areas which are simply fenced off. And by the way there are hot spots in places like Chicago which are fenced off too.

    The American model is a a large central power plant which is expensive. This is because the Utilities are generally operated on a cost plus basis. The plus being set by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) usually cost plus 5%.

    And so there is a built in bias towards large expensive sources of generation.

    After all 5% of 100 billion is a lot more than 5% of a billion.

  9. Pelham

    Good arguments. But a lot of what’s said about nuclear power could apply to wind and solar. For instance, there’s a big carbon footprint associated with wind turbines. In addition to all the materials that need to be mined to build the great mass of these things, they also require rare earth minerals whose extraction is particularly nasty for the environment.

    As for better use of energy, I remember reading some time ago that the construction of the BART transit system in San Francisco emitted so much CO2 that the system would have to be fully used every day for more than 400 years to save enough CO2 emissions from commuter car exhaust to justify BART’s existence on that score.

    I’m also a skeptic about wind and solar in general. I’ve been paying attention to these issues for four decades and seldom has a week passed in that time without some proclamation that huge, groundbreaking advance being made that will make all fossil fuels for fixed energy generation obsolete. Yet, not very much happens.

    Germany, for instance, has made enormous progress with highly favorable policies for solar generation. And Germany does get 22% of power from renewables, although a lot of that is hydro. Meanwhile, with solar panels practically blanketing the country, solar accounts for only 5% of output. And even that has to be supplemented with fossil fuel plants that have to be kept running round the clock to make up for solar’s intermittance.

    Just last week, a study was issued in Germany that concluded that with the right power grid arrangement, Germany could rely 100% on various forms of renewable energy. OK. But hundreds of such studies and reports have been issued over the years and decades. And nothing happens.

    Now, I certainly wouldn’t rule out conspiracies in the fossil-fuel industry to suppress such technology. They have the motive and the means. On the other hand, sustaining such an effort for decades might strain even their nefarious resources. So I just don’t know.

    What’s undeniable, however, is that we’re running out of decades! Some major leader somewhere needs to screw his or her head on straight — a minor thing but apparently a lot to ask at this sorry stage in human history — and get off his or her behind and launch a multi-trillion-dollar effort some way, somehow to address this global warming problem in just the next few years or we’re all fried.

    And given the urgency of the situation and the gordian-knot arguments for and against each tech solution, it may not even matter which solution or solutions are chosen, just as long as we make a real stab at it.

    1. Sleeper

      Umm try this

      DOE’s 20% wind by 2030

      Or This

      DOE / EPA LMOP website

      Or this
      INEL Hydro prospector

      Or just talk to small generators who have to deal with FERC or a state PUC.

      First the US has an abundance of untapped power.
      Second the exisitng utility companies use every method possible to limit copetition and to preserve their monopoly.

    2. Nathanael

      The carbon footprint for wind turbines is quite small compared to nukes.

      It’s mostly from steel manufacturing, which is a specific and hard-to-solve issue. (For nukes, there’s steel and concrete, and that’s before you get into the uranium mining / refining. And the decommissioning.)

      The carbon footprint for solar is even smaller.

    3. Nathanael

      There are lots of claims that somehow lanthanide extraction is “particularly nasty”.

      I think this is a fossil fuel shill / nuclear shill LIE.

      All mining is nasty, but if you want “particularly nasty”, please look at aluminum refining! Or gold mining! Compared to those, lanthanide extraction is really not bad at all.

      What are the worst dangers of lanthanide mining? Apparently, (1) acids used in refining (see “gold mining” for worse), and (2) naturally occuring radioactive materials (see “uranium mining” for far far worse).

      Red mud is reliably worse than all of these.

  10. Ep3

    Yves, this article skips over something that I think is the bigger picture. All solutions, no matter if they are coal, oil, or nuclear fusion, still make ppl rely on the system. The article does say the word ‘decentralized’ but it doesn’t talk about ppl ‘getting off the grid’. I want each home to NOT have to rely on a business entity for their power. Each home should have a windmill and solar cells and whatever so that each home generates the clean energy it needs to function. That is energy independence. That is freedom. But the wealthy elite want us to depend on them for what we need to survive. Then they have the power and the control. Yes, a central utility is good for backup. But if they want ppl to recognize their carbon footprints and control their consumption, sending them a bill once a month and then having ppl jump thru hoops to figure out the bill just perpetuates the disconnect that the experts say is the problem.
    But another thing is the hypocrisy. If a family of 4 live in a 1300 sq ft home that consumes ‘X amount of energy and another family lives in a 4000 sq ft home that consumes 3X, why should the first family cut back? Why not have the second family downgrade to a smaller home? That would save far more energy than the marginal savings of a more energy faucet or a hot water heater blanket.
    Finally, the way the system is trying to force ppl to conserve is via their pocket books. But two things will happen. Either ppl will make more money and not care or they will cut their budgets elsewhere because they will feel that “there couldn’t have been reasons lights were on”. Ppl will pay the bill because they feel it’s a necessity. And regardless of what conservatives say, if ppl started cutting back their consumption of anything, businesses will just raise prices to make up the difference, especially energy.

    1. Nathanael

      The drift to decentralized solar is already happening. It’s one of several trends (others include home geothermal and insulation) which is showing up as “lower electricity demand on the grid”. That’s one reason why it’s not getting measured properly.

  11. dutch

    I really wish this blog would stop drifting off onto talk about science and stick to economics.

    1. Massinissa

      To be fair, I have no problem with the blog covering other issues.

      Im not sure I care for this specific issue though, to be fair.

  12. Up the Ante

    You could almost call America’s nuclear industry The True Cost of the Navy’s Nuclear Program. When they ditch their highly enriched fuel rods they are reprocessed into civilian reactor fuel.

    This comment was inspired by someone on here saying NASA’s moon program was really a military program with undisclosed total cost.

    Philanthropy donators would probably rather not have that discussed, of course.

  13. allcoppedout

    Much as George is on to something worthwhile generally, this post ain’t science. It’s hard to think how we can summarise the climate-energy debate.

  14. Sermons in stones

    It seems so 1950s to use nuclear power to boil water.

    With global climate change, collapsing ecosystms, damage to public health, catastrophes (Japan calculates that thousands of hectares of what was once farmland will be uninhabitable for centuries), toxic waste, and the high use of water, it should be clear that all forms steam-generated electricity are primitive anachronisms from the past.

    Coal, nuclear, tires, even gas are passe. Too much of a burden on society for the benefits received.

    And the history of the political debate is replete with outright lies from the industry as well as myths.

    If, as the morbid among us (and believe me, I am one pending contrarywise data) speculate the rich are wrecking capitalism to squelch global warming, then it’s time for a humanistic vision to replace their endgame in which nothing is left of the human race other than the masses of dead bodies writhing in the desert or contending with currents in massive floods.

    A solartopia, as envisioned by Harvey Wasserman among others, means clean air, clean & plentiful water, intelligent land use, local employment and production and the end of the idiotic supply chains that shovel corporate byproducts into every living thing on the planet for the benefit of the most unworthy among us.

    Sweden proved decades ago that you can run a factory on a forest lake without contaminating the workers, the lake or the forest. Just because we have let the worst people born into the positions of power in society does mean that their awfulness need doom us. They are few, we are many.

  15. JohnB

    That’s odd; my early comment seems to have been eaten? (though it didn’t show in the first place either)

    1. Zachary Smith

      *** That’s odd; my early comment seems to have been eaten? (though it didn’t show in the first place either) ***

      Same here. I assumed there had been some error with my first post via Firefox, so I repeated it with the Chrome browser. Neither has appeared.

      Altering or deleting my posts is a surefire way of driving me away from a site.

    2. Zachary Smith

      Since I’d saved the post as a .doc file it was available for a third try, but no dice.

      Was it too long at 381 words? That was in response to an original piece of 3141 words. Three links vs more than 2 dozen.

      Life is too short to waste, so goodbye and good luck to y’all.

      1. Yves Smith

        Ahem, these complaints reflect a lack of understanding (and failure to even think a second) about how the comments section works.

        Your comments normally appear automatically. That means no human intervention. Go to Barry Ritholtz’s site to see what a moderated comments section is like.


        If you got a message that it is being moderated, you hit a moderation tripwire. If you didn’t, it went in the Spam folder. We now get about 4+x as many spam comments as real comments. I emptied the spam folder mid last week and it already has over 6,000 comments in it.

        I’m sorry for the spam filter occasionally making a mistake. Stuff like too many links, long comments or posting from a location where a lot of spammers are increase your odds of getting snagged.

  16. tony choi

    There is one discussion point that is absent here: grid reliabiilty. nuclear plants, with a few notable exceptions, achieve high availability factors and their mechanical characteristics are required to reliably operate the transmission grid (e.g. voltage support and intertia).

    Comparing the carbon benefits of nuclear power to wind, solar, energy efficiency, demand response, etc. is interesting but not relevant. Compare its carbon benefits to other forms of generation that are in fact viable alternatives for nuclear power, namely coal and natural gas generation. Combined heat and power is a relevant alternative here as well, as the article noted.

    1. Sleeper

      This reliability argument is a red herring often brought up by the nuke boys.

      Reliabliity is enhanced by increasing diversity, that is by having a mix of generation and many medium and small generating sites.

      Should anyone wish there is a good bit of real science / info about reliability and probability.

    2. mikkel

      Correct, I haven’t read any pro-nuclear environmentalist sort claim we shouldn’t do wind/solar; just that the base load be generated by nuclear in areas where geothermal/hydro isn’t available. This is a perfectly reasonable idea unless we get huge amounts of cheap storage or completely rethink how energy is used.

      Nuclear plants are also designed/built in the least efficient way possible and could be done way better without the need for any breakthroughs in thorium.

      1. Nathanael

        The grid stability problem has actually been solved in theory and this will be explained in a forthcoming paper.

        FWIW, what areas DON’T have any hydro or geothermal? I can’t think of many. Texas?

        1. Nathanael

          ….in fact, if you have the water for a cooling tower for a nuke, you almost certainly have access to hydropower.

        2. mikkel

          I’m not sure it’s been “solved.” There is the argument that a combined wind/solar approach generally gives you stability due to their inversely correlated nature.

          I haven’t looked at the models in depth, but am skeptical it works to the extent it’d need to. Maybe the forthcoming paper will prove otherwise.

          That said, I totally agree that a marginal amount of base load from hydro/geothermal — combined with a smart grid that did demand balancing for both home and industry — would fill the gap and that these should be available in many plces.

          There is also a lot of room for thermal storage that isn’t currently talked about a lot outside a few concentrated solar plants in the desert. I designed a way to make a small scale CSP that should work in most parts of the country with a graduate student of one of the top experts in nonlinear control systems theory. That expert told us to drop what we were doing and get it built because it would have amazing potential for grid stabilization, as it would provide constant AC output.

          Unfortunately the internal fluid thermodynamics are rather complex and outside my ability to figure them out. I’ve contacted a few groups to get help, but it’s always fallen through due to realities of funding, and also that I got so sick of US moral dysfunction I moved to NZ.

          [I see there is a link to a molten salt battery lower in the thread: this is a similar concept but would be a CHP unit that didn’t store the electricity directly, it just kept the heat in storage for a baseload and had severely reduced complexity compared to pumping the salt around like they do in utility level CSP.]

          So yeah in summary, with a combination of solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and biomass used in a CHP way and (non-battery) storage of some sort, AND the entire grid was redone, then we don’t need nuclear.

          I’m personally for this option for a myriad of reasons including resiliency and localized production, yet my original comment stands about where the Hasens of the world are coming from.

  17. Tenney Naumer

    GW, why do you keep linking back to the nonsense about global cooling from the 1970s? Your blog post gives no references to the actual primary literature of the time. You make as if we should rely on articles published in Harpers and Newsweek. This is a fool’s errand. These publications take snippets and blow them up out of all proportion and that is exactly what occurred in the 1970s, and climate change deniers have been using this strawman ever since. We are all stupider for having read your 2009 post on the subject

    Read what scientists were really saying back in the 1970s here:

    1. Mark P.

      Your argument against renewables is an argument based on the low capacity factors for wind, solar PV and solar thermal.

      In other words, you need a serious power storage solution for renewables, which hasn’t really been available till now.

      Here’s a technology — large liquid metal (molten-salt) batteries — that does look a solution.

      From a company, Ambri, that just emerged this year —

      1. mikkel

        Molten salt batteries have a lot of potential, as well as hydrogen. If people stopped trying to build the hydrogen car and instead focused on the hydrogen grid stabilizer then something might actually get created.

  18. Paul Tioxon

    Intensely frustrated over the fact that neither candidate had the courage to discuss this looming crisis, Bill McKibben, renowned writer, activist, and founder of, set out to talk to the American people about the dire state of the climate. He commissioned a bus to take himself and his staff on a cross-country tour called “Do the Math,” where he has been stepping onto stages in 21 cities—including at our San Francisco Green Festival—to lay out the numbers behind climate change in stark clarity, all of which add up to the end of life on Earth as we know it, he says, unless the world takes meaningful action, soon.

    “In short, new research from financial analysts makes clear that the fossil fuel industry now has five times the carbon in its coal, oil, and gas reserves than the most conservative scientists and governments think would be safe to burn,” says McKibben, describing “the math” in a nutshell. “It’s a massive overkill—but it’s going to get dug up and sold unless we figure out how to stop them.”

      1. Chris Rogers


        Most about what I’ve been reading about Thorium is positive when compared to power plants designed to produce weapons grade nuclear materials, i.e., pressurised water reactors, coal generation, gas generation and any other kind of fossil fuel one would care to mention – even the nuclear waste issues are addressed to a point.

        Further, and as many have pointed out, you can scale Thorium in a decentralised manner, or centralise with the existing grid.

        In my own neck of the woods, living close to two nuclear power facilities, one magnox and the other of an advanced gas cooled reactor, I’d feel safer with thorium to be sure – I’d also invest mightily in hydro, particularly given its estimated that a Seven Estuary Hydro electric dam could produce in excess of 10% of the UK’s energy requirement at a cost comparable to three PWR power installations, approx. 25-30 billion pounds sterling.

        As for a 20 year timeframe, I think thats somewhat excessive, probably 10 years max if we were serious – I’m thinking Manhatten Project or the moon shot here – obviously, no neoliberal economic fruit bat in all reality will invest in this though. Well not until New York is three feet under water at least.

    1. Mark P.

      [1] Thorium reactors are technically sweet, will never melt down like Gen-1 and Gen-2 pressurized BWRs can, and are ‘proliferation-resistant.’

      But people should be clear: they still require _fissile_ uranium as a seed to start the reaction in the _fertile_ thorium. There’s also a way in which a thorium reactor could be rejiggered to be the ideal pure U-233 breeder; you could also get plutonium out of them.

      [2] Yves says twenty years before the thorium reactor (LFTR)is ready. Sure, they’re slated to arrive in 2030 with the other Gen-4 reactor designs. However, if someone — the Chinese — wanted to rush working thorium reactors for civil energy purposes, Manhattan Project-style, it might be more like 10-12 years.

      Because we basically know how to build them, unlike the other Gen-4 designs. At Oak Ridge Lab, during the 1950s-72, IIRC, they had working thorium reactors running through much of that time. The thorium reactor began as the reactor for the USAF’s nuclear-powered bomber project. That project got killed not because they didn’t work out how to build the reactor, but because (a) ICBMs came along; (b) they couldn’t solve problem of the weight of the shielding versus the thrust they got from the reactor; and (c) the idea of a nuclear aircraft is arguably batshit insane.

      1. Mark P.

        If you really want safe nuclear energy, it’s also possible to initiate a reaction in fertile thorium with an ADS (accelerator driven system). In other words, a particle-accelerator sets off and maintains the reaction in the reaction, and when you turn off the particle accelerator beam your nuclear reaction also simply stops —

  19. Susan the other

    Great post. More Please. I’d like to hear more about Amory Lovins because I instinctively believe he is spot on. But just one thing. Even tho’ I’d love to see the nuclear energy industry become a thing of the past pronto, I don’t buy the added extra that CO2 cannot possibly trigger an ice age (as per the first paragraphs). I think it can because all the ice cores show just this: right before the planet slides into a new glaciation its CO2 levels reach super high atmospheric levels. So my husband said I was full of shit and I said then why does glaciation happen at all? Huh?

    1. Nathanael

      From the geological record, there is an unknown feedback effect. Once global temperatures get to a certain level, *something* brings them down — though it may take several million years. (Geological time, you know.) We do not know what the mechanism is.

      Unfortunately, this doesn’t help us, because the trigger temperature is waaaaay above anything humanity has ever experienced — “hothouse earth”. The various plants and animals which have been hiding out in odd corners of the earth since the last “hothouse earth” period will be very happy. We can’t eat most of ’em.

  20. Brooklin Bridge

    The April edition of Scientific American has an article on The True Cost Of Fossil Fuels by Mason Inman, Comparative Energy Return On Investment (EROIs)

    In this comparison, Nuclear energy does about as well for return on investment as the Tar Sands in Canada. Conventional oil is 16 (higher is better), Tar sands are 5, Ethanol from corn is 1.4, Hydroelectric is 40+, Wind is 20, Coal is 18, N Gas is 7, Solar is 6, and Nuclear is 5.

    Note that in the comments to the article, Manson Is taken to task for that low EROI of Nuclear (5), but in his defense, he admits that there is considerable variation on estimates (ranging from 1 to 60) for Nuclear and he does provide links and explanation as to where he came up with his number(s).

    It’s hard to say what the future of Nuclear in this country is. On the one hand, it is so dangerous, so lastingly lethal and it requires such gargantuan investment, that one assumes it would be considered Absolute Perfection by Washington (for the scare power) and the owners (lends itself perfectly to monopoly and price fixing). Based on what’s happening with banks and the mortgage fiasco, with people and children being thrown from their homes, with drones assassinating humans by ritualized whim, whomever, wherever, whenever, with spying on people and the growing police state, with huge populations of blacks destined for prison labor, with endless unjustifiable wars, with the Democratic President’s budget specifically aimed at diminishing the old and the weak on behalf of the craven, insatiable greed of the few, I would have assumed Nuclear would have been the only new energy source allowed to be even breathed about by the media. But for whatever reason, perhaps they are just busy with this budget scam, even the scum in Washington, this happy blend of Ebola and Leprosy we call congresspeople and senators, with their Nero-in-Rome burn baby burn mentality, seem surprisingly cautious about it.

    1. Nathanael

      I presume the solar numbers are based on current tech. Actually, I’d love to know how he figured them.

      It’s all about the lifespan of the solar panels, of course: if they last for 100 years, the EROEI on solar panels is enormous, near hydropower levels.

    2. Mark P.

      ‘It’s hard to say what the future of Nuclear in this country is.’

      No, it’s not. Natural gas has killed nuclear energy in this country.

      At least, for the next twenty years because natural gas is reckoned to be far cheaper. It’s that simple. (Unless the small modular reactors that they’re talking about turn out to be actually so cheap that they make a dent in the market.)

      Longer-term, one school of thought is that the Chinese are going to build out the standardized Gen-3+ Westinghouse and GE designs, and then — when they’ve got the bugs out of them — we’ll build those designs over here. Taht’s a long way off, in my view.

  21. WorldisMorphing

    [“According to Sovacool’s analysis, nuclear power, at 66 gCO2e/kWh emissions is well below scrubbed coal-fired plants, which emit 960 gCO2e/kWh, and natural gas-fired plants, at 443 gCO2e/kWh.
    However, nuclear emits twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaic, at 32 gCO2e/kWh, and six times as much as ONSHORE wind farms, at 10 gCO2e/kWh.
    “A number in the 60s puts it well below natural gas, oil, coal and even clean-coal technologies. On the other hand, things like energy efficiency, and some of the cheaper renewables are a factor of six better. So for every dollar you spend on nuclear, you could have saved five or six times as much carbon with efficiency, or wind farms,” Sovacool says”]
    #1. No one duly informed is arguing against renewables, but bear in mind, no one is mentioning this:

    #2. From point #1 follows that from all nuclear plant decommissioning, gas&coal fired plant back-up for wind turbines will NECESSARILY add tensions in the already strained supply of those fossil fuels…

    #3. …I’ve watched the TED Talk, and I have no idea what assumptions he makes regarding the intermittence issue of renewables, aside from a “…little transitional tail of natural gas and a bit of bio-fuel that’s grown in ways that sustains and endure…” at roughly 26:00 min in the video.
    Unless of course, the assumption is all in the “conservation” revolution to come, in which case, his book should be entitled not “Reinventing Fire” but “Reinventing Capitalism”. He might have [wisely] underlined that “free markets” would somehow manage to churn out the new infrastructures, it is however absolutely certain that nothing will move without political will…and dare I say…some amount of central planning…because as you all know, economics has a pesky tendency to get in the way… In fact, the Pentagon is involved, so it’s already the case…;)

    1. Nathanael

      There is a grid stability problem with a solar and wind based grid. This can be solved by the brute force method of overbuilding; it can be solved by the brute force method of building lots of batteries and pumped-storage hydro; or it can be solved by stablizing the grid.

      A forthcoming paper will explain exactly how to stabilize the grid; it just requires understanding control theory properly (which most control theorists don’t).

      1. WorldisMorphing

        I somehow suspect “stabilizing the grid” is a lot like a mix of the first two…

        But from my limited knowledge, I am under the impression that batteries are, capacity wise — nowhere near the order of magnitude required for such immense amounts of current. Even though there’s been a few recent innovation as I recall, the price and capacity are just not there…and for some reason, I feel compelled to even be cautious about ending with a [“…yet”]

        Looking forward to that paper. Feel welcome to share and explain it on this site when it’s out, …especially if you work in the field. It’s very hard to filter all the information on this topic and have a …lucid view of the technical challenge we’re in, from the global scale perspective…

      2. Mark P.

        Neither overbuilding or pumped-storage hydro are in any way serious real-world solutions, if you’re not an anti-nuclear ideologue.

        You need a serious battery technology solution for renewables, which hasn’t really been available till now. Here’s a technology that does look a solution. Large liquid metal (molten-salt) batteries from a company, Ambri, that just emerged this year

    2. LifelongLib

      The Telegraph article has an obvious political bias (“green fantasists”, “global warming alarmism”) that make me doubt the writer wants a solution to the grid stability problem (other than sticking with fossil-fuel sources of power).

      1. WorldisMorphing

        I agree that the Telegraph has a history of being of a certain inclination…but to be honest, my source comes from a french polytechnic engineer and energy consultant, Jean-Marc Jancovici. There’s a few very hard hitting conferences of his on YouTube. Suffice to say he speaks with the confidence of a man who really knows what he’s talking about. I have never been able to discern his political affiliation, other than a kind of disdain for orthodox economic thought…
        He is rather chiefly concerned by global warming which he considers the absolute main threat.
        Long story short, the intermittence issue is very real, and as a consequence of Germany’s nuclear plant decommissioning, the wind farm so far are not sufficient to provide stable, continuous current to accomodate present demand. He say’s it is widely known (in those circles anyway)that auxiliary power is to be provided by gas and coal fired plants. Denmark has to often “sell” its over-current to Norway practically free when there’s a glut of wind power and it must get rid of it for the sake of the grid (because when the wind blows in that region, it usually blows all over Europe…providing ample overstock..).

        But since the lousy caption translation system doesn’t do justice to the man, I just googled the issue and provided a link in a hurry…

        The publication’s bias notwithstanding, the issue is very real…
        Capacity and average real output are frighteningly of different order.
        ..and I’m still all for it mind you…
        People just need to settle down and really get a good honest grasp at what it really entails…

  22. JohnB

    Here’s attempt three at a previously-eaten comment:
    While I agree that many previous Generation I and II reactors do have significant drawbacks like this, it’s important to consider other more advanced reactor types like breeder reactors (which generate more usable fuel, iirc), and other advanced and future reactors which provide further safety/efficiency improvements (not to mention entirely new reactor types).

    Different reactor types have to be judged on their own merits/demerits, it’s not right pan all types of nuclear reactors in one go (or use one, particularly older, type of reactor, as a template to pan all others).

    Given that MMT would provide ample public funding (and that any serious effort at environmental energy infrastructure transformation, will probably depend upon public money creation to drive funding), it makes sense to pump money into multiple avenues of research and infrastructural development, not to rule any out in a general fashion like this.

    The best examination of these issues I have seen, is from Tom Murphy’s “Do The Math” blog (Google; is tripping spam filter) a long time back, which examines the coming energy crunch, and all available power alternatives; the authors general consensus, is that we’re not going to avoid any upcoming energy crunch, and a mix of differing power infrastructure/sources (likely including nuclear), will be important in dealing with it.

  23. Gaylord

    At the heart of the energy issue are the capitalist growth imperative and unabated population growth. Both of these must be brought under control, i.e. abolished/reversed, in order for us to “save the planet” or more correctly to salvage what will be left of its habitability. Renewable energy may be a long term solution IF, and only if, the foregoing is accomplished. It is already too late to stop the disastrous affects of climate change. Mitigation of the damage and misery is the best we can hope for. Those effects will most certainly kill off a large segment of the population, mostly in the poor countries, but they will not stop the ravages of corporate capitalism. Greed above all other impulses has come to rule the human heart, and it is our Achilles heel.

  24. villageidiot

    Coldest spring I have ever seen. The temperatures have not been above 43 degrees Fahrenheit at a time of year when it has been 75 degrees and more.

    AGW is more aptly to be anthropogenic global climate oscillation.

    Warming is not happening like it should during a normal spring.

    At a time when planting time is getting close, it is going to take 3 weeks for thaw. Very strange spring weather.

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