he world needs more energy. Energy multiplies Thuman labor, increasing productivity. It builds and lights schools, purifies , powers farm machinery, drives sewing and robot assemblers, stores and moves information. is steadily increasing, having passed six billion in 1999. Yet one-third of that number — two billion people — lack access to . Development depends on energy, and the 43 alternative to development is suffering: poverty, disease, and . Such conditions create instability and the potential for widespread violence. National security therefore requires developed nations to help increase energy production in their more populous developing counterparts. For the sake of safety as well as security, that increased should come from diverse sources. “At a global level,” the British Royal Society and Royal Academy of with vigorous conservation, to support consumption at a estimate in a 1999 report on world energy production mere one-third of today’s US nuclear energy and would have to triple by 2050 per capita rate. The change, “we can expect our consumption of energy at least Mr. Rhodes is the author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun, to double in the next 50 years and other books. Mr. Beller is a nuclear engineer and Technical Staff and to grow by a factor of up Member at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, USA. This article is to five in the next 100 years as based on the authors’ essay in Foreign Affairs, Vol 70, No. 1 (January- the world population increases February 2000) and is published here with permission of the New York and as people seek to improve Times Syndicate. their standards of living.” Even Photo: Maintaining lines in . (Credit:UNDP) IAEA BULLETIN, 42/2/2000 International Energy Agency , increasing capacity by secure than the they have (IEA) of the Organization for more than 100%. With 433 begun to replace, and their Economic Cooperation and operating reactors worldwide, ascendance should be Development (OECD) is meeting the endorsed. projects 65% growth in world annual electrical needs of more Even environmentalists energy demand by 2020, two- than a billion people. should welcome the transition thirds of that coming from In America and around the and reconsider their developing countries. globe, nuclear safety and infatuation with renewable “Given the levels of efficiency have improved energy sources. consumption likely in the significantly since 1990. In future,” the Royal Society and 1998, and again in 1999, unit -BASED Royal Academy caution, “it (the fraction of ENERGY will be an immense challenge a power ’s capacity that it Among sources of electric- to meet the global demand for actually generates) for power generation, is the energy without unsustainable operating reactors reached worst environmental offender. long-term damage to the record levels. The average US (, today’s dominant environment.” That damage capacity factor in 1999 was source of energy, sustains includes surface and air 85% for about 100 reactors, transportation, putting it in a and global warming. compared to 58% in 1980 and separate category.) Recent 66% in 1990. Despite a studies by the Harvard School A CLEAN BREAK TO reduction in the number of of Public Health indicate that THE FUTURE power plants, the US nuclear pollutants from coal-burning Most of the world’s energy generated 9% more cause about 15,000 premature today comes from petroleum nuclear electricity in 1999 than annually in the United (39%), coal (24%), in 1998. Average production States alone. Used to generate (22%), hydroelectric power costs for nuclear energy are about a quarter of the world’s 44 (6.9%), and nuclear power now just 1.9 cents per , coal-burning (6.3%). Although oil and coal kilowatt-hour (kWh), while releases amounts of toxic waste still dominate, their market electricity produced from gas too immense to contain safely. fraction began declining costs 3.4 cents per kWh. Such waste is either dispersed decades ago. Meanwhile, By improving capacity and directly into the air or is natural gas and nuclear power performance alone, nuclear solidified and dumped. Some have steadily increased their power already has made the is even mixed into construction shares and should continue to largest contribution of any materials. do so. American industry to meeting Besides emitting noxious Contrary to the assertions of the US Kyoto commitment to chemicals in the form of gases anti-nuclear organizations, limiting releases or toxic particles — and nuclear power is neither dead into the atmosphere. oxides (components of nor dying. generates Meanwhile, exposure acid and ), , about 75% of its electricity to workers and waste produced , cadmium, , with nuclear power; Belgium, per unit of energy have hit new lead, , chromium, , 58%; , 47%; lows. fluorine, molybdenum, , , 36%; Japan, Because major, complex , zinc, carbon 36%; , 31%; the United take more than monoxide and dioxide, and Kingdom, 29%; and the half a century to spread around other greenhouse gases — coal- United States (the largest the world, natural gas will fired power plants are also the producer of nuclear energy in share the lead in power world’s major source of the world), 20%. The Republic generation with nuclear power radioactive releases into the of Korea and China have over the next hundred years. environment. and announced ambitious plans to Which of the two will , mildly radioactive expand their nuclear-power command the greater share elements ubiquitous in the capabilities — in the case of remains to be determined. But ’s crust, are both released IAEA BULLETIN, 42/2/2000 Korea, by building 16 new both are cleaner and more when coal is burned. Radioactive radon gas, is not even a true and . A global produced when uranium in the renewable, since dams solar- without earth’s crust decays and eventually silt in. Most or nuclear backup would normally confined renewables collect extremely also be dangerously vulnerable underground, is released when diluted energy, requiring large to drops in solar radiation coal is mined. A 1000- areas of and of from volcanic events such as megawatt-electric (MWe) coal- collectors to concentrate. the 1815 eruption of fired power plant releases about solar Tambura, which released 40 100 times as much radioactivity collectors, pouring concrete cubic kilometers of into into the environment as a for fields of , and the atmosphere. This ash comparable nuclear plant. drowning many square miles significantly reduced solar Worldwide releases of uranium of land behind dams cause radiation for several years and thorium from coal-burning damage and pollution. afterward, which resulted in total about 37,300 Photovoltaic cells used for widespread crop failure during (metric ) annually, with solar collection are large the “year without a summer” about 7300 tonnes coming semiconductors; their that followed. from the United States. Since manufacture produces highly farms, besides uranium and thorium are toxic waste metals and requiring millions of pounds potent nuclear fuels, burning solvents that require special of concrete and to build coal also wastes more potential for disposal. A (and thus creating huge energy than it produces. 1000-MWe solar electric plant amounts of waste materials), The overlooked radioactive would generate 6850 tonnes are inefficient, with low waste that is generated while of hazardous waste from (because intermittent) burning coal emphasizes the metals-processing alone over a capacity. They also cause political disadvantages under 30-year lifetime. A visual and noise pollution and which nuclear power labors. comparable solar thermal are mighty slayers of birds. Current laws force nuclear plant (using mirrors focused Several hundred birds of prey, 45 , unlike coal plants, to on a central tower) would including dozens of golden invest in expensive systems that require metals for eagles, are killed every year by limit the release of construction that would a single ; radioactivity. Nuclear is generate 435,000 tonnes of more eagles have been killed not efficiently recycled in the manufacturing waste, of by wind than were United States because of which 16,300 tonnes would lost in the disastrous Exxon proliferation fears. These be contaminated with lead Valdez oil spill. The National factors have warped the and chromium and be Audubon Society has economics of nuclear power considered hazardous. launched a campaign to save development and created a A global solar-energy system the California condor from a politically difficult waste- would consume at least 20% proposed wind farm to be disposal problem. If coal of the world’s known built north of Los Angeles. A utilities were forced to assume . It would require a wind farm equivalent in similar costs, coal electricity century to build and a output and capacity to a would no longer be cheaper substantial fraction of annual 1000-MWe fossil-fuel or than nuclear. world iron production to nuclear plant would require maintain. The energy the installation of more than : necessary to manufacture 4000 large windmills and CHANGING REALITIES sufficient solar collectors to occupy several hundred Renewable sources of energy cover a half-million square thousand square miles of land — hydroelectric, solar, wind, miles of the earth’s surface and and, even with substantial geothermal, and — to deliver the electricity subsidies and ignoring hidden have high capital-investment through long-distance pollution costs, would costs and significant, if usually transmission systems would produce electricity at double unacknowledged, itself add grievously to the or triple the cost of fossil environmental consequences. global burden of pollution fuels. IAEA BULLETIN, 42/2/2000 Although at least one-quarter to claim no more than 5% to thirds.” Replacing coal with of the world’s potential for 8% by 2020. In the United nuclear generation would have hydropower has already been States, which leads the world reduced overall emissions even developed, hydroelectric power in renewable energy more. — produced by dams that generation, such production Despite the massive submerge large areas of land, actually declined by 9.4% investment, conservation and displace rural populations, from 1997 to 1998: hydro by non-hydro renewables remain change river ecology, kill fish, 9.2%, geothermal by 5.4%, stubbornly uncompetitive and and risk catastrophic collapse wind by 50.5%, and solar by contribute only marginally to — has understandably lost the 27.7%. US energy supplies. If the most backing of environmentalists in Like the dream of controlled prosperous nation in the world recent years. The US Export- , then, cannot afford them, who can? Import Bank was responding the reality of a world run on Not China, evidently, which in part to environmental pristine energy generated from expects to generate less than lobbying when it denied renewables continues to 1% of its commercial energy funding to China’s 18,000- recede, despite expensive, from non-hydro renewables in MWe Three Gorges project. highly subsidized research and 2025. Coal and oil will still Generating hydroelectric development. The 1997 US account for the bulk of China’s energy can actually release federal R&D investment per energy supply in that year more greenhouse gases into the thousand kWh was only 5 unless developed countries atmosphere than does fossil cents for nuclear and coal, 58 offer incentives to convince the generation: vegetation cents for oil, and 41 cents for world’s most populous nation submerged in the , but was more than $4700 to change its plans. impounded behind many dams for wind and $17,000 for decomposes anaerobically, . This massive COMPARING THE which releases copious public investment in CHOICES 46 quantities of , a worse renewables would have been Natural gas has many virtues as greenhouse gas than carbon better spent making coal a fuel compared to coal or oil, dioxide. plants and automobiles and its share of the world’s Meanwhile, geothermal cleaner. energy will assuredly grow in sources — which exploit the According to Robert Bradley the first half of the 21st internal of the earth of Houston’s Institute for century. But its supply is emerging in geyser areas or Energy Research, US limited and unevenly under volcanoes — are conservation efforts and non- distributed, it is expensive as a inherently limited and often hydroelectric renewables have power source compared to coal coincide with scenic sites benefited from a cumulative or uranium, and it pollutes the (such as Yellowstone National 20-year taxpayer investment air. A 1000-MWe natural gas Park in the USA) that of some $30-$40 billion — plant releases 5.5 tonnes of conservationists “the largest governmental sulfur oxides per day, 21 understandably want to peacetime energy expenditure tonnes of nitrogen oxides, 1.6 preserve. in US history.” And Bradley tonnes of , Because of these and other estimates that “the $5.8 and 0.9 tonnes of . disadvantages, organizations billion spent by the In the United States, energy such as the World Energy Department of Energy on production from natural gas Council and the IEA predict wind and solar subsidies” released about 5.5 billion that hydroelectric generation alone could have paid for tonnes of waste in 1994. will continue to account for “replacing between 5000 and Natural gas and explosions no more than its present 6.9% 10,000 MWe of the nation’s are also significant risks. A share of the world’s primary dirtiest coal capacity with gas- single mile of gas pipeline three energy supply, while all other fired combined-cycle units, feet in diameter at a of renewables, even though which would have reduced 1000 pounds per square inch robustly subsidized, will move carbon dioxide emissions by (psi) contains the equivalent of IAEA BULLETIN, 42/2/2000 from their present 0.5% share between one-third and two- two-thirds of a kiloton of explosive energy; a million coal, more than 300,000 States because of widespread miles of such large pipelines tonnes from oil, and 200,000 fear disproportionate to the lace the earth. tonnes from natural gas. reality of risk. But it is not an The great advantage of In contrast, a 1000-MWe engineering problem, as nuclear power is its ability to nuclear plant releases no advanced projects in France, wrest enormous energy from a noxious gases or other Sweden, and Japan small of fuel. Nuclear pollutants* and much less demonstrate. The World fission, transforming radioactivity per capita than is Health Organization has directly into energy, is several encountered from airline estimated that indoor and million times as energetic as travel, a home smoke detector, outdoor cause chemical burning, which or a . It produces some three million deaths per merely breaks chemical bonds. about 30 tonnes of high-level year. Substituting small, One of waste (spent fuel) and 800 properly contained volumes of produces energy equivalent to tonnes of low- and nuclear waste for vast, 2 to 3 million tonnes of fossil intermediate-level waste — dispersed amounts of toxic fuel. Burning 1 kilogram of about 20 cubic meters in all wastes from fossil fuels would firewood can generate 1 when compacted (roughly, the produce so obvious an kilowatt-hour of electricity; 1 volume of two automobiles). improvement in public health kg of coal, 3 kWh; 1 kg of oil, All the operating nuclear plants that it is astonishing that 4 kWh. But 1 kg of uranium in the world produce some physicians have not already fuel in a modern light-water 3000 cubic meters of waste demanded such a conversion. reactor generates 400,000 kWh annually. By comparison, US The production cost of of electricity, and if that industry generates annually nuclear electricity generated uranium is recycled, 1 kg can about 50,000,000 cubic meters from existing US plants is generate more than 7,000,000 of solid toxic waste. already fully competitive with kWh. These spectacular The high-level waste is electricity from fossil fuels, differences in volume help intensely radioactive, of course although new nuclear power is 47 explain the vast difference in (the low-level waste can be less somewhat more expensive. But the environmental impacts of radioactive than coal ash, this higher tag is nuclear versus fossil fuels. which is used to make concrete deceptive. Large nuclear power Running a 1000-MWe power and gypsum — both of which plants require larger capital plant for a year requires 2000 are incorporated into building investments than comparable train of coal or 10 materials). But thanks to its coal or gas plants only because supertankers of oil but only 12 small volume and the fact that nuclear utilities are required to cubic meters of natural it is not released into the build and maintain costly uranium. Out the other end of environment, this high-level systems to keep their fossil-fuel plants, even those waste can be meticulously radioactivity from the with pollution-control systems, sequestered behind multiple environment. come thousands of tonnes of barriers. Waste from coal, If fossil-fuel plants were noxious gases, particulates, and dispersed across the similarly required to sequester heavy-metal-bearing (and in smoke or buried near the the pollutants they generate, radioactive) ash, plus solid surface, remains toxic forever. they would cost significantly hazardous waste — up to Radioactive nuclear waste more than nuclear power 500,000 tonnes of sulfur from decays steadily, losing 99% of plants do. The European its after 600 years — Union and the IAEA have *Uranium is refined and processed into well within the range of determined that “for equivalent fuel assemblies today using coal energy, experience with amounts of energy generation, which does of course release pollutants. custody and maintenance, as coal and oil plants...owing to If nuclear power were made available evidenced by structures such as their large emissions and huge for process heat or if fuel assemblies were the Roman Pantheon and fuel and recycled, this source of manufacturing Notre Dame Cathedral. requirements, have the highest pollution would be eliminated or greatly Nuclear waste disposal is a costs as well as reduced. political problem in the United equivalent lost. The IAEA BULLETIN, 42/2/2000 external costs are some ten power generation presents at environmental damage locally, times higher than for a nuclear worst a negligible risk. including 31 deaths, most power plant and can be a Authorities on coal geology from radiation exposure. significant fraction of and engineering make the same Thyroid cancer, which could generation costs.” In equivalent argument about low-level have been prevented with lives lost per gigawatt radioactivity from coal- prompt iodine prophylaxis, has generated (that is, loss of burning; a US Geological increased in Ukrainian expectancy from exposure to Survey fact sheet, for example, children exposed to fallout. pollutants), coal kills 37 people concludes that “radioactive More than 800 cases have been annually; oil, 32; gas, 2; elements in coal and diagnosed and several thousand nuclear, 1. Compared to should not be sources of more are projected; although nuclear power, in other words, alarm.” Yet nuclear power the disease is treatable, three fossil fuels (and renewables) development has been children have died. LNT-based have enjoyed a free ride with hobbled, and nuclear waste calculations project 3420 respect to protection of the disposal unnecessarily delayed, cancer deaths in - environment and public health by limits not visited upon the area residents and cleanup and safety. coal industry. crews. The Chernobyl reactor Even the estimate of one life No technological system is lacked a containment lost to nuclear power is immune to accident. Recent structure, a fundamental safety questionable. Such an estimate dam overflows and failures in system that is required on depends on whether or not, as Italy and India each resulted in Western reactors. Post-accident the long-standing “linear no- several thousand fatalities. calculations indicate that such threshold” theory (LNT) Coal-mine accidents, oil- and a structure would have maintains, exposure to gas-plant fires, and pipeline confined the explosion and amounts of radiation explosions typically kill thus the radioactivity, in which considerably less than hundreds per incident. The case no injuries or deaths 48 preexisting natural levels 1984 Bhopal chemical plant would have occurred. increases the risk of cancer. disaster caused some 3000 These numbers, for the Although LNT dictates immediate deaths and worst ever nuclear power elaborate and expensive poisoned several hundred accident, are remarkably low confinement regimes for thousand people. According to compared to major accidents nuclear power operations and the US Environmental in other industries. More than waste disposal, there is no Protection Agency, between 40 years of commercial nuclear evidence that low-level 1987 and 1996 more than power operations demonstrate radiation exposure increases 600,000 accidental releases of that nuclear power is much cancer risk. In fact, there is toxic chemicals in the United safer than fossil-fuel systems in good evidence that it does not. States killed a total of 2565 terms of industrial accidents, There is even good evidence people and injured 22,949. environmental damage, health that exposure to low doses of By comparison, nuclear effects, and long-term risk. radioactivity improves health accidents have been few and and lengthens life, probably by minimal. The recent, much- REASSESSING stimulating the immune reported accident in Japan RECYCLING system much as vaccines do occurred not at a power plant Most of the uranium used in (the best study, of background but at a facility processing fuel nuclear reactors is inert, a non- radon levels in hundreds of for a . It caused fissile product unavailable for thousands of homes in more no deaths or injuries to the use in . Operating than 90% of US counties, public. As for the Chernobyl reactors, however, breed fissile found rates explosion, it resulted from that could be used decreasing significantly with human error in operating a in bombs, and therefore the increasing radon levels among fundamentally faulty reactor commercialization of nuclear both smokers and design that could not have power has raised concerns nonsmokers). So low-level been licensed in the West. It about the spread of weapons. IAEA BULLETIN, 42/2/2000 radioactivity from nuclear caused severe human and In 1977, President Carter deferred indefinitely the nonproliferation regime that reactors that would receive, recycling of “spent” nuclear will remain the cornerstone of control, and process all fuel fuel, citing proliferation risks. efforts to prevent the spread of discharged from reactors This decision effectively ended nuclear weapons.” throughout the world, nuclear recycling in the United Ironically, burying spent fuel generating electricity and States, even though such without extracting its reducing spent fuel to short- recycling reduces the volume plutonium through lived nuclear waste ready for and radiotoxicity of would actually permanent geological storage. waste and could extend nuclear increase the long-term risk of fuel supplies for thousands of , since the THE NEXT NEW years. Other nations assessed decay of less-fissile and more- THING the risks differently and the radioactive in spent A new generation of small, majority did not follow the US fuel after one to three centuries modular power plants — example. France and the improves the explosive qualities competitive with natural gas currently of the plutonium it contains, and designed for safety, reprocess spent fuel; is making it more attractive for proliferation resistance, and stockpiling fuel and separated weapons use. Besides extending ease of operation — will be plutonium for jump-starting the world’s uranium resources necessary to extend the benefits future fast-reactor fuel cycles; almost indefinitely, recycling of nuclear power to smaller Japan has begun using recycled would make it possible to developing countries that lack uranium and plutonium convert plutonium to useful a nuclear infrastructure. The mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in its energy while breaking it down Department of Energy has reactors and recently approved into shorter-lived, awarded funding to three the construction of a new nonfissionable, nonthreatening designs for such “fourth- to use nuclear waste. generation” plants. A South 100% MOX fuel by 2007. Hundreds of tons of African , , has Although power-reactor weapons-grade plutonium, announced plans to market a 49 plutonium theoretically can be which cost the nuclear modular gas-cooled pebble-bed used to make nuclear superpowers billions of dollars reactor that does not require explosives, spent fuel is to produce, have become emergency core-cooling refractory, highly radioactive, military surplus in the past systems and physically cannot and beyond the capacity of decade. Rather than burying “melt down.” Eskom estimates terrorists to process. Weapons some of this strategically that the reactor will produce made from reactor-grade worrisome but energetically electricity at around 1.5 cents plutonium would be hot, valuable material — as per kWh, which is cheaper unstable, and of uncertain has proposed — it than electricity from a yield. India has extracted should be recycled into nuclear combined-cycle gas plant. The weapons plutonium from a fuel. An international system Institute of Canadian heavy-water reactor to recycle and manage such Technology and the Idaho and bars inspection of some fuel would prevent covert National Engineering and dual-purpose reactors it has proliferation. As envisioned by Environmental Laboratory are built. But no plutonium has Edward Arthur, Paul developing a similar design to ever been diverted from British Cunningham, and Richard supply high- heat or French reprocessing facilities Wagner of the Los Alamos for such as or fuel shipments for weapons National Laboratory, such a generation and production; IAEA inspections system would combine desalinization. are effective in preventing such internationally monitored Petroleum is used today diversions. The risk of retrievable storage, the primarily for transportation, proliferation, the IAEA has processing of all separated but the internal concluded, “is not zero and plutonium into MOX fuel for has been refined to its would not become zero even if power reactors, and, in the limit. Further reductions in nuclear power ceased to exist. longer term, advanced transportation pollution can It is a continually strengthened integrated materials-processing come only from abandoning IAEA BULLETIN, 42/2/2000 and licensing modular nuclear power systems to developing nations. According to Arnulf Gruebler, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, and David Victor, who study the dynamics of energy technologies, “the share of energy supplied by electricity is growing rapidly in most countries and worldwide.” Throughout history, humankind has gradually decarbonized its dominant fuels, moving steadily away petroleum and developing the continuing buildup of from the more polluting, nonpolluting power systems carbon in the atmosphere. In carbon-rich sources. Thus the for cars and . Recharging the meantime, fuel cells using world has gone from coal batteries for electric cars will natural gas could significantly (which has one hydrogen simply transfer pollution from reduce air pollution. per carbon atom and was mobile to centralized sources dominant from 1880 to 1950) unless the centralized source of POWERING THE to oil (with two per electricity is nuclear. Fuel cells, FUTURE carbon, dominant from 1950 which are now approaching To meet the world’s growing to today). Natural gas (four commercialization, may be a need for energy, the Royal hydrogens per carbon) is 50 better solution. Because fuel Society and Royal Academy steadily increasing its market cells generate electricity report proposes “the formation share. But directly from gaseous or liquid of an international body for produces no carbon at all. fuels, they can be refueled energy research and Physical reality — not along the way, much as present development, funded by arguments about corporate internal combustion contributions from individual greed, hypothetical risks, are. When operated on pure nations on the basis of GDP or radiation exposure, or waste hydrogen, fuel cells produce total national energy disposal — ought to inform only water as a waste product. consumption.” The body decisions vital to the future of Since hydrogen can be would be “a funding agency the world. Because diversity and generated from water using supporting research, redundancy are important for heat or electricity, one can development and safety and security, renewable envisage a minimally polluting demonstrators elsewhere, not a energy sources ought to retain a energy infrastructure, using research center itself.” Its place in the energy of hydrogen generated by nuclear budget might build to an the century to come. But nuclear power for transportation, annual level of some $25 power should be central. Despite nuclear electricity and process billion, “roughly 1% of the its outstanding record, it has heat for most other total global energy budget.” If instead been relegated by its applications, and natural gas it truly wants to develop opponents to the same twilight and renewable systems as efficient and responsible energy zone of contentious ideological backups. supplies, such a body should conflict as abortion and Such a major commitment to focus on the nuclear option, on evolution. It deserves better. nuclear power could not only establishing a secure Nuclear power is halt but eventually even reverse international nuclear-fuel environmentally safe, practical, storage and reprocessing and affordable. It is not the Photo: Forsmark nuclear plant in system, and on providing problem — it is one of the best IAEA BULLETIN, 42/2/2000 Sweden. Credit: Göran Hansson expertise for siting, financing, solutions. ❐