Think again before going nuclear


Both major candidates for president are effusive in their praise of alternative ways of producing energy, and their lists of how to go green usually include nuclear power. John McCain’s energy plan calls for 45 new nuclear power plants. Barack Obama is less enthused; he says he’d go forward only if the problems of nuclear waste disposal and safety problems were solved. Enthusiasm aside, neither candidate admits that nuclear power remains a bargain with the devil.

A key question that needs to be answered is, “Where’s the radioactive waste to be stored?” One answer is the congressional solution of permanent storage in Nevada, though for the ninth time, Nevada is suing the government to halt the long-delayed Yucca Mountain repository. Nevadans don’t welcome becoming a dumping ground for the nation for 100 reactors.

McCain dodges the issue by saying Yucca Mountain shouldn’t be federally certified unless it’s completely safe. Meanwhile, where is nuclear waste to go? If producing nuclear power results in the creation of plutonium, we’ll need storage for the 240,000 years it takes to dissipate it (plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, and it takes 10 half-lives to dissipate.)

McCain confidently states that nuclear fuel can be reprocessed. Recycling plutonium, however, produces only a slight reduction in the waste produced, or so says Princeton nuclear physicist Frank N. von Hippel, in his recent Scientific American article, "Nuclear Fuel Recycling: More Trouble Than It's Worth."

Producing nuclear power also takes more water than other generating sources -- 700 gallons per megawatt hour of electricity produced. Where are nuclear proponents going to get sufficient cooling water in the arid West? And what might happen when drought accelerates and a reactor can’t be cooled?

McCain points out that France produces 80 percent of its energy from nuclear power -- a rare instance of a politician praising French ingenuity. One French plant, however, may have to shut down part-time because it exceeded allowable radioactive emissions in just six months. And in July, the French independent nuclear commission reported four malfunctions in four plants in 15 days -- prompting the online magazine Grist to dub these plants the “Nukes of Hazard.” The malfunctions contaminated 126 workers, but not to worry: The French government said exposure was below dangerous levels. The US government made similar claims to workers at the nuclear reprocessing facility in Rocky Flats, Colo., and then concealed or “lost” dosimeter radiation readings.

Our reliability record is spotty, too. A 2006 Union of Concerned Scientists’ study found that U.S. nuclear reactors have experienced 51 shutdowns, each lasting more than a year. Poor management and ineffective regulatory oversight caused these closures, which cost ratepayers and stockholders nearly $82 billion in lost revenue.

Then there is always the risk of a meltdown if we resume construction of nuclear power plants. Many Americans probably don’t remember or have never read about the meltdown of the Three Mile Island power plant in the 1970s. Its cleanup took from 1979 to 1993, and cost ratepayers, taxpayers and stockholders around $975 million. To paraphrase cowboy poet Wallace McCray, reincarnated nuclear power in this new century “ain’t changed all that much.”

After the nuclear plant at Chernobyl experienced an even more dangerous accident in the Soviet Union, in 1986, vegetables grown hundreds of miles away contained measurable radioactivity, causing Europeans to shun them.

In 2000, the German government negotiated a Nuclear Exit Law, requiring all 19 German atomic power stations to shut down by 2020. That’s no easy task for a country of 82 million people that relies on nuclear power for 30 percent of its supply. But it began to happen in May 2005, when authorities started closing down Obrigheim, a plant near the Rhine River south of Frankfurt.

Now, the German political winds have shifted, and the phase-out is on hold. Alternative energy has boomed, however: Germany produced 11.9 percent of its electricity from solar and wind in 2006, almost equal to the European Union’s goal of 12 percent renewable power by 2010.

How is the Unites States doing? Since 2004, the 19 states in the Western Governors Association added more than 35 percent of the 43,500 megawatts of electric generating capacity they’re projected to need by 2015 from wind turbines, solar collectors, geothermal power plants and other clean, renewable energy sources. With seven years left to go, in the West at least, we shouldn’t need new nuclear powered or coal-fired plants.

As one renewable-energy company’s slogan says, we can “stick it where the sun does shine.”

Russ Doty is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is the chief operating officer of New World WindPower in Billings, Montana.

Anonymous says:
Oct 31, 2008 01:54 PM
Doty makes a valid point about the TMI reactor that, despite its Chernobyl-proof design, still managed to wreck itself in the 70s, fortunately without harming anyone. He doesn't mention any recent human harm from wind turbines, and since he's in the business I guess he would, wouldn't he? He wouldn't mention a harmless nuclear wreck almost 30 years ago and try to keep readers in the dark about a wind turbine failure in Oregon just 14 months ago, and another near Sioux Falls three years ago?

There must not have been any such trouble. Or anyway, if those accidents did happen, nobody actually died, right? Right, Mr. Doty?
Anonymous says:
Oct 31, 2008 03:37 PM
As to damage from the TMI reactor accident, while some early studies showed little increase in cancer, more recent studies show something quite different because it usually takes a long time for these things to develop. //

Check out this one, if you want your blood to boil at how these patriots were treated after being injured in the nuclear industry:
[1] //

Yup. While I’m not familiar with the incidents you cite, Mr. Cowan, I know there have been wind turbines that have malfunctioned since development of them started, and some recently. However, generally the current industry is making good on warranties. Also as turbines have gotten bigger, some problems have developed with stability in some blades. This is partially due to the fact that the Bush Administration has not kept up with the needed funding for modifications of the testing facility at the National Renewable Energy Labs in Golden, CO. If you go there, you see that they have had to knock out a wall to accommodate the longer blades and move some of the testing equipment as well.
The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) says: “The Price-Anderson Act provides for liability insurance coverage for actual damages incurred by anyone affected by a major reactor accident. Besides the coverage for offsite public liability claims, the NRC requires that utilities maintain $1 billion in onsite property damage insurance to provide funds to deal with cleanup of the reactor site after an accident.” I don’t know where the NRC comes up with the amount needed to clean up a melt-down. I do know that the magnitude of potential damage caused by a turbine malfunction would be now where near that range.
Anonymous says:
Oct 31, 2008 08:41 PM
2007 Oregon tower malfunction death during installation in 25 mph winds, other worker in different part of tower saved by safety gear

Sioux Falls man killed in tower fire during turbine installation.

A list of wind industry accidents, lightening strikes, etc. starting in 1975 and updated 11/l/2006 is posted at Several of these, especially earlier ones, are small wind related and are caused by failures to wear safety gear; some are insufficient tower or breaking design. All of this means location is important, as is safety and materials design. There are other anti-wind groups around like countryguardian. Usually you can’t find out who funds or supports them.

However, you have just witnessed a favorite diversionary tactic of folks who want to subtly shoot down an article by changing the focus. So let’s get the focus back, when a wind turbine accident happens, we don’t have to worry about radiation leaks, evacuating entire regions, and $1 billion clean ups. And as far as I know there have been no suspicious Karen Silkwood type deaths resulting in large jury verdicts upheld by the US Supreme Court as a result of someone in the wind industry being a whistle blower like Karen was about goings on at Kerr McGee’s nuclear facility.
I'm sure someone would point that out to me if I missed it, right? Right Mr. Cowan?
Anonymous says:
Nov 02, 2008 04:48 AM
Russ - for me, the big difference between nuclear power and wind is that nuclear power is exceedingly reliable and requires little open land. Wind is weather dependent, requires constantly available fossil fuel burning power plants to make up for frequent variations in output, and requires vast stretches of open land.

That might work fine for you out in the High Country plains, but it simply does not cut it here on the densely populated east coast.

Your efforts to bring up rare accidents and their costs ignores the enormous benefits supplied by zero emission nuclear plants. Our current fleet of 104 plants provides approximately 760 billion kilowatt hours of electricity every year - wind provides about 32 billion kilowatt hours. The nuclear plants run on schedule - on average, they are at full power for 90% of the year. Some plants have run for 18-24 months without ever moving off of their full capacity.

The plants require tiny amounts of fuel, with about three truckloads required for 18 months for a plant large enough to provide power to a city of 800,000 - 1,000,000 people.

I know there are some studies, most of which are not peer reviewed, that claim health effects from events like Three Mile Island, but they are outliers. Enormous volumes of research show that there were no effects. If you are really interested in the health effects of low level radiation, you might want to visit

Of course, if what you are really interested in doing is selling and operating wind mills, I understand. We all need to make a buck now and then, and no one would bother to invest much in wind if nuclear power was allowed to play on a remotely level playing field without FUD like your article and laws like Renewable Portfolio Standards that MANDATE sales for your company.

Disclosure - I plan to make money in the nuclear industry and see my industry as a competitor to yours.
Anonymous says:
Nov 02, 2008 07:58 AM
Interesting comments Mr. Adams. Here’s my take on subsidies. Check out[…]/SubsidyReformOptions.pdf
 In 2006 nuclear got 12.4% OF THE FEDERAL ENERGY SUBSIDIES, COAL GOT 10.5%, other fossil fuels 55.7%, NON-ETHANOL RENEWABLES 7.5%, and conservation 2.1%. Eliminate the Price-Anderson Act (also a subsidy) which says we can’t sue the nuclear industry for accidents and no banker would finance a nuke. Wind pays the subsidies back as fossil fuel costs rise—it’s already cheaper in Montana than fossil fuel generated power even if you add in the tax credit to wind costs.
Where are you going to get the water? We are already looking at shortages and a decline in Montana trout http://www.climatecentralorg/video/montana-trout-drought/montana-wind-energy.html
And how much nuclear fuel do we have world wide if you can dig up the prairie out here to get it all? I’ve been told maybe 60-80 years for the US by a nuclear engineer, much less if you fuel the world with nukes according to some posts at The wind is scheduled to blow for a bit longer than that without a fuel cost.
    If I wanted to make a lot of money in the wind industry, I’d join up with Horizon or Pickens. Our model is to give everybody a piece of the clean energy boom. Monopoly nuclear plants and large wind farms do not spread the wealth around. So we’re moving in a more modest, distributed generation direction that will make better use of the grid and create stablility with diversity.
Anonymous says:
Nov 02, 2008 10:33 AM
Russ - I fail to understand how you provide stability with wind generated power unless you have fossil fuel plants that are constantly running and ready to change power level output. I have been both an ocean sailor and an engineer officer on a nuclear submarine. I have a reasonable understanding of the capabilities and limitations of both basic technologies - aerodynamics used to drive wind power and fission used to drive nuclear plants.

It is an easily disproved myth that nuclear plants have to be large, central station machines. The first useful power plant using fission fit inside a rather small submarine called the Nautilus. The US just decommissioned another submarine called the NR-1 that was just 400 tons total displacement, yet was also powered by uranium fission. The US Army operated small (less than 10 MWE) nuclear plants in Greenland, Alaska, Antarctica, Wyoming, Idaho, and in the Panama Canal Zone. For 50 years, the US Navy has operated hundreds of relatively small, distributed nuclear power plants at sea. (That is where I received my nuclear power training and experience.)

Toshiba, NuScale, Hyperion and Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. (yes, that is my company) have all developed designs for distributed nuclear power plants ranging in size from about 10 MWe to 50 MWe that can operate in that modest, distributed grid that you favor. There are several other companies working in the same general technology field that have not yet publicly announced their intentions. Each company is at a slightly different stage of development, but some are quite advanced in their process.

Uranium is widely available around the world. The "nuclear engineer" that you mentioned was probably talking about using just currently discovered resources in our present day - very wasteful - once through cycle that uses only the 0.7% of uranium that readily fissions with a single neutron impact. He was ignoring the 99.3% of uranium that takes just slightly more effort or a second neutron to cause fission. He also was ignoring the energy potential from thorium, another naturally radioactive material that can fission if it is hit with two neutrons. There is about three times as much thorium in the world as uranium. If you want to learn more about the availability of fission fuels, you can visit the World Nuclear Association's Supply of Uranium page at The organization's thorium page is at

Using U-238 and Th-232 for fuel is not exotic or available sometime in the distant future - both have been proven in operating reactors for decades. It is just not convenient for the conventional fuel supply industry to talk much about the fact that uranium supplies are essentially unlimited. Fossil guys hate those proven concepts; they depend on perceptions of scarcity, and even current nuclear fuel suppliers would prefer if their customers kept using fuel wastefully.

I am not an advocate for subsidies. I disagree with your characterization of Price-Anderson. Insurance companies were not terribly interested in the early days of nuclear power, but have gained enough experience in the actuarial risks to be very happy to write policies these days. The government rules are actually a hinderance to some of us rather than a help - they favor the very large plants because the current rules provide for a "per plant" assessment in the case of an accident that is the same no matter how small the plant is. That is the way established industries work - they write the rules to provide barriers to entry for more nimble, knowledgeable or creative competitors. Once the competitors recognize the barrier, however, we can take actions that chip away the barriers, one brick at a time.

You asked about water use and I recognize that is on advantage that wind often has against any kind of steam power plant, no matter what the heat source.

I took that into account when I made my cycle parameter selections; Adams Engines are closed cycle gas turbines that are designed so that they can work quite well with air cooling. They are somewhat more efficient with lower temperature heat rejection, so they will experience somewhat lower capacity numbers on hot summer days with air cooling, but they will work just fine.

One more word on subsidies - nuclear plants operating today have repaid the investment made in developing the technology many times over. That 780 billion kilowatt hours per year that they produce has a current value of between 40 and 80 billion dollars depending on how you price electricity. It also serves to keep down the price of natural gas and coal, both of which would have to increase substantially in price in order to increase their production rates to cover the shortfalls if nuclear did not exist to supply that electricity.

It would take many decades of intense development for wind electricity production to rival 780 billion kilowatt hours per year. Even after 30 years of development and 10 years of intense deployment with favorable public attitude, subsidies and mandates total industry production is just 32 billion kilowatt hours per year.

Nuclear power reached its production level by building plants for about 20 years. It has had to overcome a huge, well financed effort to resist its entry and continued presence in the fossil fuel electricity dominated market.
Anonymous says:
Nov 02, 2008 11:23 PM
I'm not going to have time to reply completely to Mr. Adams until at least Friday. The amounts of base load power available from wind and solar increase from about 6% to close to 50% of rated capacity (Stanford Study) as you add more wind to the system in widely diverse areas. Wind is primarily an energy resource rather than a capacity resource. Thus, wind tends to displace natural gas generation on the grid on a day to day basis. A better base load resource than nuclear is geothermal. The point of the article is that we are adding enough wind to keep up with demand and in some cases retire some conventional fossil fuel and nuclear base load generation. We will learn more about that as the mix on the grid evolves. Even if you build smaller nukes, you and I are not going to own one and if we did the potential exists for all kinds of nuclear material to be spread around the world as it has in the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, causing former Senator Sam Nunn and others to expend major effort to try to locate the nuclear material and contain it. Nukes are not a candidate for distributed generation.
Anonymous says:
Nov 11, 2008 05:19 PM
I am not an engineer or scientist but have been closely following the debate on our energy future trying to puzzle out the best course of action to address both climate change and national security. It would be great if we had a truely neutral source of information to consult about alternative energy, fossil fuels, nuclear, etc for folks like myself who do not have a "dog in the fight" other than to try and get it right for our children. I cannot envision a truely alternative energy future relying primarily on wind, biomass, solar, etc in the near term. How do we meet ghg emission targets of 2020 or 2050 per AB 32 or WCI without nuclear? Who in their right mind loves nuclear? But it is not rational to suppose wind or solar will do the job so we need coal and natural gas but mostly coal. How many coal miners bite the dust from accidents and black lung? How many mountains come down in West Virgina? We need balance in the discussion.
Russ Doty
Russ Doty says:
Apr 27, 2011 12:20 PM
Amory Lovins must read on nukes

Good C-SPAN online video review of health effects of nuclear exposure, & problems at Fukushima and Chernobyl