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The Nuclear Energy Trap

Nuclear reactors are directly in the line of fire of global warming.  In fact, nuclear reactors cannot survive global warming. But that’s only the start of serious issues with the world’s newly found love affair with nuclear energy. This article examines the likelihood of nuclear energy as a fixit for global warming, or is it…

Written by

Robert Hunziker


Originally Published in

Nuclear reactors are directly in the line of fire of global warming. 

In fact, nuclear reactors cannot survive global warming. But that’s only the start of serious issues with the world’s newly found love affair with nuclear energy. This article examines the likelihood of nuclear energy as a fixit for global warming, or is it a victim?

The world is turning to nuclear energy as one solution for raging global warming, which has been in the news on a real-time basis drying up commercial rivers, depleting major reservoirs and spreading wildfires like there’s no tomorrow. Yet, that’s only a sampling of global warming knockoffs. Significantly, it’s getting worse by the year, and there are some who wonder how much worse before the climate system literally implodes with destructive capacity beyond Hollywood’s wildest imagination.

In consequence, nuclear energy’s popularity is on the rise in concert with rising global temperatures. The hotter it gets the more supporters jump on the bandwagon, but there are plenty of reasons to believe it’s a fool’s paradise. History will likely judge this worldwide movement for nuclear energy as one of the biggest traps of all-time. Nevertheless, the nuclear energy trap is coming onstream faster and faster and without much opposition. Maybe there should be some.

A Gallup survey found 55% of U.S. adults in support of nuclear energy, which is the highest in over a decade. The Biden administration views nuclear as a key climate solution to net zero. Japan is restarting its idled plants and plans on building more as it commences the absolute insanity of releasing radioactive toxic water in storage tanks at Fukushima’s TEPCO nuclear plant directly into the readily available, right-next-door Pacific Ocean, as its neighbors squeal and many smart scientists squirm. Meanwhile, China, with 24 nuclear energy plants currently under construction, ambitiously plans to build at least 150 new reactors over the next 15 years. India is planning to commission 20 reactors by 2031. Worldwide, 60 new reactors are under construction. 

Nuclear energy is on the move at a time when more and more exposure of cancer cases and deaths become public knowledge, as follows:

  • A BBC Future Planet article d/d July 25, 2019, The True Toll of the Chernobyl Disaster: “According to the official, internationally recognized death toll, just 31 people died as an immediate result of Chernobyl while the UN estimates that only 50 deaths can be directly attributed to the disaster. In 2005, it predicted a further 4,000 might eventually die as a result of the radiation exposure… Brown’s research, however, suggests Chernobyl has cast a far longer shadow.” 
  • “The number of deaths in subsequent decades remains in dispute. The lowest estimates are 4,000; others 90,000 and up to 200,000.” (Source: Janata Weekly: Cuba and the Children of Chernobyl, May 7, 2023)
  • According to an article in USA Today d/d February 24, 2022, What Happened at Chernobyl? What to Know About Nuclear Disaster: “At least 28 people were killed by the disaster, but thousands more have died from cancer as a result of radiation that spread after the explosion and fire. The effects of radiation on the environment and humans is still being studied.”

In time, Fukushima will reflect statistics, oftentimes second-third-fourth generations.

According to Chernobyl Children International, 6,000 newborns are born every year in Ukraine with congenital heart defects called “Chernobyl Heart.”

The newest nuclear energy craze is Small Modular Reactors to be built and installed throughout the world. Thereby, the entire planet could easily go nuclear.

Meanwhile, America’s left is onboard the let’s go-for-it nuclear cruise ship. The acid test of America’s left-leaning greenish advocates suddenly in favor of nuclear energy is left-leaning California, the birthplace of America’s anti-nuclear movement, which decided to extend the life of Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor, the state’s last nuclear energy plant, rather than close it down. Beyond this shift of allegiance to nuclear in greenish California, National Public Radio ran a report on the outbreak of support for nuclear, August 30, 2022, entitled: Why Even Environmentalists are Supporting Nuclear Energy Today. 

But on a cautionary note, nuclear energy has an adversarial voice that’s difficult to ignore: “Multiple and unexpected failures are built into society’s complex and tightly coupled nuclear reactor systems. Such accidents are unavoidable and cannot be designed around.” (Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents, Princeton University Press, 1999)

The widespread rousing excitement over nuclear energy is a trap. In part because global warming is the kiss of death for reactors. Global warming and nuclear energy clash, incompatible, mutually destructive. Global warming is the enemy of nuclear energy, out to destroy it by drying rivers and overheating ocean waters amidst rising seas that cascade onto shoreline reactors a la Fukushima. Reactors only survive at the mercy of cool waters, and they’re seriously challenged/damaged by increasing levels of ocean surges. Nuclear reactors are not drought-tolerant, which is one of global warming’s biggest weapons.

The truth about nuclear energy’s fallibility is enunciated in a recent interview with one of the world’s leading experts, Dr. Paul Dorfman, chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group, former secretary to the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Internal Radiation, and Visiting Fellow, University of Sussex, who said: “It’s important to understand that nuclear is very likely to be a significant climate casualty.  For cooling purposes nuclear reactors need to be situated by large bodies of water, which means either by the coast or inland by rivers or large water courses. Sea levels are rising much quicker than we had thought and inland the rivers are heating up, potentially drying up, and also subject to significant flooding and flash-flooding and inundation. The key issue for coastal nuclear is storm surge, which is basically where atmospheric conditions meet high tide, which is essentially what happened in Fukushima.” (Source: Interview of Dr. Paul Dorfman, Nuclear Energy Is Already a Climate Casualty, Hot Globe, July 19, 2023)

“In recent years, nuclear plants across Northern Europe have been forced to shut down or reduce output because seawater became too warm to safely cool the reactor cores. Over the past decade, the Millstone energy plant in Connecticut saw a series of shutdowns on hot summer days until regulators raised the temperature limit of its cooling waters by 5 degrees Fahrenheit.” (Source: Nuclear Energy Plants are Struggling to Stay Cool, Wired, July 21, 2022)

France is an example of nuclear energy going wrong. The French Court of Auditors’ Report on the Safety and Operation of France’s Fifty-six (56) Reactors recently highlighted an increasingly unstable supply of water necessary for the country’s cooling reactors. (Source: Climate Change, Water Scarcity Jeopardizing French Nuclear Fleet, Balkan Green Energy News, March 24, 2023)

In France, Loire River is the longest river in the country at 625 miles. As of early 2023, global warming had clobbered the river, some areas completely dry with flow rate down to 1/20th of normal. Some of the country’s nuclear energy plants depend upon the river for cooling purposes. To date, forced shutdowns have only occurred in the summer, but France’s Court of Auditors warned that such events are likely to become 3–4 times more frequent unless global warming somehow subsides; yet France’s environmental minister thinks 4°C is on the horizon for the country. Moreover, for the first time since 1980, France has been a net importer of electricity, losing its 40-year net exporter status as its celebrated nuclear energy capability (70% of electricity for France) caved-in to global warming.

Since water-cooled  conventional nuclear energy reactors (95% of the 436) are vulnerable to global warming, then is a molten salt reactor a magical solution?
Answer: No, it is not!

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published a detailed analysis of molten salt reactors entitled: Molten Salt Reactors Were Trouble in the 1960s – and Remain in Trouble Today, June 20, 2022. The lengthy article traces the attempted development of molten salt reactors dating back to the 1950s. The various avenues of experimentation with halting results consume paragraph after paragraph. For example, here’s one excerpt: “These problems remain relevant. Even today, no material can perform satisfactorily in the high-radiation high-temperature, and corrosive environment inside a molten salt reactor. In 2018, scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory conducted an extensive review of different materials and, in the end, could only recommend that ‘a systematic development program be initiated.’ In other words, fifty years after the molten salt reactor was shut down, technical experts still have questions about materials development for a new molten salt reactor design.”

In conclusion, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists claims that if molten salt reactors are constructed, they are unlikely to operate reliably and would result in various safety and security risks and would produce several different waste streams, all of which require extensive processing and serious disposal challenges. Accordingly, according to the Bulletin: “Investing in molten salt reactors is not worth the cost or the effort.”

If not large-scale reactors, will Small Modular Reactors (“SMR”) save the day?

According to a 2021 article in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: SMRs are at an early stage of development and are speculative technologies. It will take at least a decade to get them off drawing boards into serious production and longer to determine if they really work according to plans. It’s too slow and too costly to meet climate deadlines. 

Stanford News published a SMR study: Stanford-led Research Finds Small Modular Reactors Will Exacerbate Challenges of Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste. The study concludes that SMRs will generate more radioactive waste than conventional nuclear energy plants. “Our results show that most small modular reactor designs will actually increase the volume of nuclear waste in need of management and disposal, by factors of 2 to 30 for the reactors in our case study.” (Stanford)

Then, to satisfy the overwhelming popularity to go nuclear, are any modern “advanced” nuclear reactor designs worth pursuing?

Answer: No. According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists: Report Finds That ‘Advanced’ Nuclear Reactor Designs Are No Better Than Current Reactors — and Some Are Worse, March 18, 2021. The 140-page report highlights studies of (1) sodium-cooled reactors (2) molten salt-fueled reactors (3) high-temperature gas-cooled reactors and whether they meet the requirements of (a) safer (b) more secure (c) lower risk of nuclear proliferation and terrorism than the existing fleet of nuclear reactors. None of the three satisfactorily passed the study. 

Additionally, the report analyzed unsubstantiated claims developers are making about designs and using little hard evidence to advance their causes. For example, Bill Gates’ statements about the 345-megawatt Natrium claiming it will produce less nuclear waste and be safer than conventional light-water reactors: The UCS report found the sodium-cooled fast reactor Natrium to be less “uranium-efficient,” and it would not reduce the amount of waste, and it’s subject to serious safety problems not at issue with conventional light-water reactors, e.g., sodium coolant can burn when exposed to air or water, and its fast-reactor could experience uncontrollable energy increases leading to rapid core melting, which is the overriding bane of nuclear energy.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists: Timing is another killer of contemporary designs. According to requirements to be met by federal regulators, it could take up to 20 years and billions of dollars to commercialize non-light-water reactors, fuel cycle facilities, and related infrastructure. Timing, timing, timing is everything when it comes to the necessity of reaching net zero emissions, as global warming is not waiting around for solutions. It is accelerating like never before as stated by Dr. James Hansen (Columbia University): “There has been a staggering increase in Earth’s energy imbalance.” Hansen’s formula supporting that statement points to a distinct possibility of 1.5C right around the corner. Which begs the question: How long does it take to plan, approve, build, and commission a nuclear reactor? Oh, well!

In conclusion, the Union of Concerned Scientists recommends: “The DOE and Congress should consider spending more research and development dollars on improving the safety and security of light-water reactors, rather than on commercializing immature, overhyped non-light-water reactor designs.” 

As usual in cases with extremely difficult circumstances dealing with nature there are no easy answers but plenty of traps. In that regard, is nuclear energy a Trojan Horse for devastating global warming?

Robert Hunziker
Los Angeles