Threat Convergence Briefing
The Pros and Cons of Nuclear Power
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Background The ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station has renewed international concern regarding the safety of nuclear energy. In Germany, domestic pressure has forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to temporarily close seven of the nation’s seventeen nuclear power plants. In addition, China has announced that it will
suspend new plant approvals until safety regulations are reviewed. On the other hand, France, which relies on nuclear energy to provide nearly eighty percent of the country’s electricity, has not indicated that it will take any steps to limit production at its nuclear plants.1 To date, there are thirty countries operating nuclear power reactors
worldwide and approximately twenty others have expressed an interest in building nuclear reactors for the generation of electricity. Therefore, as nations around the world reexamine their nuclear energy policies, it is helpful to examine the pros and cons of nuclear power.
About The Fund for Peace The Fund for Peace is an independent, nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) nonprofit research and educational organization that works to prevent violent conflict and promote sustainable security. We promote sustainable security through research, training and education, engagement of civil society, building bridges across diverse sectors, and developing innovative technologies and tools for policy makers.
A leader in the conflict assessment and early warning field, the Fund for Peace focuses on the problems of weak and failing states. Our objective is to create practical tools and approaches for conflict mitigation that are useful to decision-makers.
The Fund for Peace offers a wide range of initiatives focused on our central objective: to promote sustainable security and the ability of a state to solve its own problems peacefully without an external military or administrative presence. Our programs fall into three primary thematic areas:
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Conflict Early Warning and Assessment; Transnational Threats; and Sustainable Development, Sustainable Security.
About Threat Convergence After three years of project work, in January 2009, The Fund for Peace established its program on Threat Convergence to explore the linkages among the three biggest threats to global security: fragile states, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and terrorism. The program aims to:
raise the profile of the challenges in vulnerable, fragile and ungoverned regions on the nonproliferation agenda;
explore how these regions may serve as enabling terrorism;
promote more coherent and strategic policy approaches to nuclear terrorism and illicit nuclear trafficking; and
become a hub for threat convergence-
related analysis. The program encourages innovative and
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fresh approaches to the issue by convening experts, performing extensive field research in some of the world’s most difficult environments, and by partnering with international and regional organizations to explore how the threat of catastrophic terrorism emanating from weak and failing states can be prevented.
The Pros of Nuclear Power Clean Energy Nuclear power provides substantial amounts of energy while emitting very few greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases trap solar heat in the atmosphere and contribute to the warming of the planet. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas emits carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, which has, according to well-documented scientific evidence, negatively impacted the planet by contributing to global warming and climate change. Sustained reliance on fossil fuels will continue to drive climate change,
which is why more attention is being paid to expanding the use of alternative energy sources--including wind, solar, and nuclear-to meet the rising global demand for energy. Scientists report that to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed. A 2006 projection called for a 5085% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.2 As nuclear energy emits very few greenhouse gases, it could continue to replace fossil fuels as a source of electricity
production, which is responsible for approximately 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions.3 Nuclear power is currently responsible for approximately 15% of global electricity production, thus reducing carbon emissions by two billion tons annually.4 Prior to the recent situation in Japan, global investments in nuclear power production were expected to grow significantly in the coming decades, in large part because of concerns over greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
Efficiency Nuclear power can generate more power than other alternative energy sources. Nuclear power plants produce enough electricity to run cities, not neighborhoods. Today, nuclear power accounts for approximately 20% of Americaâ€™s electricity
supply, whereas wind and solar account for less than 2% combined.5 While a nuclear power plant can generate as much as 2.2 million kilowatts, solar plants can generate 150,000 kilowatts and onshore wind plants 100,000 kilowatts. Furthermore, nuclear
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power requires relatively little land in order to produce energy, unlike wind and solar.6 Therefore, current wind and solar technology is unlikely to substantially curb fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions without the contribution of nuclear power.
The Cons of Nuclear Power Safety and Security Nuclear power entails safety and security risks. In the unlikely event of a nuclear meltdown, dangerous levels of radiation are released into the environment, necessitating evacuation of those within the immediate vicinity. Persons directly exposed to increasing levels of radiation could suffer from radiation poisoning, which can result in acute sickness, hair loss, bleeding, and death. However, the true death toll from a significant release of radiation will not be immediately evident, as exposure to radiation heightens the likelihood of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer, which can occur years after exposure.7 In 1979, the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown, triggering panic and the release of some radioactive gas, although the incident is not believed to have resulted in any fatalities. In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine experienced a full meltdown, releasing vast
amounts of radiation, killing dozens of workers and emergency responders, and spiking cancer rates in the surrounding region. The current crisis at the Fukushima plant has triggered an evacuation and raised substantial fears regarding the impact of the released radiation. The detection of radioactive iodine in Tokyo’s drinking water has caused government officials to urge young children and pregnant women to avoid drinking the city’s tap water.8 Although the death toll of the nuclear crisis is likely to be much lower than that of the earthquake and tsunami which induced the crisis, nuclear crises trigger panic and can have long-term environmental impacts on the surrounding region.9 While these risks are severe, the vast majority of nuclear power plants operate relatively safely. It took a near “perfect storm” to contribute to the crisis at Japan’s nuclear power plant. First, the largest Japanese earthquake in 140 years struck off
the coast, thus triggering an automatic shutdown of the Fukushima plant. Then, the tsunami struck the coastal plant, knocking out electricity and backup generators that were necessary to pump water to keep fuel rods and spent nuclear materials from overheating and releasing radiation. Clearly, there was a breakdown in the plant’s backup safety measures, and its placement along the coast near a major fault line appears to be a dangerous mistake.10 Although this series of events is out of the ordinary, the nuclear crisis highlights the potential dangers of nuclear energy and the need for careful planning and sufficient safety measures. It appears as if a well-planned terrorist attack could replicate the multiple failures that occurred at the Fukushima plant, although such an event is highly unlikely. Most nuclear power plants, both in the U.S and abroad, utilize extensive barriers and security, making penetration difficult and the replication of large-scale damage unlikely.11
Difficulty of Disposal There is no simple way to dispose of the waste from nuclear fuel, which could pose an environmental and security risk for thousands of years due to its long half-life. After its use in energy production, spent nuclear fuel is placed in cooling pools until it reaches a point where it will not melt during long-term storage. This cooling phase can take several years.12 After the shutdown of power at Fukushima, operators and emergency responders have struggled to keep these pools filled with cooling water. As a result, some of Fukushima’s spent fuel may have melted and released radiation. Spent
fuel pools in the United States are believed to be more heavily loaded than in Japan. According to independent analysts, pools in the United States often store up to five times more spent fuel than they were designed to, and much of the spent fuel has cooled enough for long-term storage.13 However, the United States has no clear plan for long-term storage, which has often provoked sharp political debate. Currently, spent nuclear fuel is stored on-site in dry casks, a system in which fuel rods are immersed in inert gas inside a container
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layered with steel and concrete. These dry casks cost $1 million each, but they still emit low levels of radiation, are only a temporary solution, and could be a security or health vulnerability.14 The scattering of these dry casks throughout the country necessitates strong security measures at each site to ensure that they aren’t stolen for use in a dirty bomb. A proposed spent fuel repository in the Nevada Desert at Yucca Mountain could store substantial amounts of the nation’s spent fuel, but this project stalled after the Obama administration withdrew governmental support.15 Opponents to the
The Cons of Nuclear Power
proposed site argue that the site is at risk from earthquakes and that the fuel could contaminate drinking supplies. The spent fuel repository would centralize spent fuel deposits so that they could be more easily
secured from theft, however. An additional option would be to recycle the spent fuel through enrichment at reprocessing centers, a method conducted by the U.K., France, Japan, and Russia. However, this method runs
into cost-effectiveness issues, still produces radioactive waste, and is how governments generate plutonium for use in advanced nuclear weapons, which could potentially be targeted for theft.16
Start-Up Costs Nuclear power entails substantial start-up costs which may inhibit the construction of new nuclear facilities. Although no new nuclear projects have begun in the United States since 1996, the U.S. government recently promised $55
billion in new subsidies for plant construction. One project in Georgia, which is projected to cost $14 billion, is likely to receive $8 billion in subsidies if construction moves forward.17 This means that nuclear power production is much more expensive
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than power generated by natural gas. Whereas nuclear power can cost as much as $5,339 per kilowatt, natural gas only costs $978 per kilowatt.18
Judy Dempsey & Sharon LaFraniere, “In Europe and China, Crisis Renews Fears About Nuclear Power,” The New York Times, March 16, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/business/global/17atomic.html? src=busln.
The Pros of Nuclear Power 2.
Sarah Ladislaw, Kathryn Zyla, & Britt Childs, “Managing the Transition to a Secure, Low-Carbon Energy Future,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, February 2008, http://csis.org/files/media/csis/ pubs/080204_managing_the_transition.pdf. Michael Totty, “The Case For and Against Nuclear Power,” Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2008, http://online.wsj.com/article/ SB121432182593500119.html
World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Energy: Meeting the Climate Change Challenge,” http://www.world-nuclear.org/climatechange/ nuclear_meetingthe_climatechange_challenge.html Totty.
The Cons of Nuclear Power 6.
Cyrus Sanati, “ Why the U.S. Can’t Abandon the Nuclear Renaissance,” CNN, March 17, 2011, http://money.cnn.com/2011/03/17/news/ nuclear_energy_alternatives.fortune/?section=magazines_fortune Charles Ferguson, “Japan’s Crisis for Nuclear Power,” interview by Toni Johnson, Council on Foreign Relations, March 15, 2011, http:// www.cfr.org/japan/japans-crisis-nuclear-power/p24377. David Jolly & Denise Grady, “Radiation in Tokyo’s Water Has Dropped, Japan Says,” The New York Times, March 24, 2011, http:// www.nytimes.com/2011/03/25/world/asia/25japan.html?ref=world. Clive Cookson, “Nuclear Power: Hell and High Water,” The Financial Times, March 13, 2011, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a93dc5a6-4daa11e0-85e4-00144feab49a.html#axzz1Gsav4orK. Ferguson. Michael A. Levi, “Five Myths About Nuclear Energy,” The Washington Post, March 16, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/5myths-about-nuclear-energy/2011/03/15/AB9P3Oe_story.html
15. 16. 17. 18.
Matthew L. Wald, “Japan Nuclear Crisis Revives Long U.S. Fight on Spent Fuel,” The New York Times, March 23, 2011, http:// www.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/us/24yucca.html? pagewanted=1&ref=world. Frank N. Von Hippel, “It Could Happen Here,” The New York Times, March 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/opinion/24VonHippel.html?_r=1&hp. David Biello, “Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Trash Heap Deadly for 250,000 Years or a Renewable Energy Source,” Scientific American, January 28, 2009, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nuclear-wastelethal-trash-or-renewable-energy-source&page=3. Wald. Biello. Cookson. Sanati.
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Threat Convergence Briefing