Metta Spencer, rapporteur
Project Save the World aims to prevent six global threats, only two of which are distinctly existential risks to humankind: global warming, and war and weapons (i.e. militarism, especially nuclear).
Considered as separate problems, our four other global threats (famine, pandemics, radiation exposure, and cyberattacks) appear manageable, for none of them seems likely to kill a billion people in a short interval. But what if they occur, not separately, but in combinations? In such a case, each one of them can multiply the effect of others. And, because all six risks are causally connected as a single system, such connections must be expected. This article will explore the causal links among three dangers: radiation exposure from nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons, and global warming.
Worldwide, probably thousands of deaths each year result from radiation exposure: working in uranium mines, for example, or living with radon in a basement, or eating fish from a lake that contains tritium, or undergoing an X-ray exam. Even these low levels of exposure can be lethal, but some incidents are far worse—especially those involving nuclear reactors. The most catastrophic nuclear power accident was the explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The true death count will never be known, and authoritative estimates vary wildly—from 4,000 up to 200,000.1)
But compare those numbers to the predictable death rates from a nuclear war. Exploding a small fraction of the world’s current nuclear weapons could bring civilization to an end. And the dangers of global warming are even worse – potentially on the scale of the previous five “extinction events,” including the worst one 270,000 million years ago when about 90 percent of all species on the planet — animals, trees, marine life, everything — were killed.2)
You may ask: Since radiation exposure is so much less threatening to human survival than global warming or nuclear war, why do we include it on the list of risks from which we have to save the world?
Answer: because we cannot solve either of the two bigger problems without deciding what to do about nuclear power plants. If we want to reduce the risk of nuclear war, it may be necessary to shut down almost all nuclear reactors, which produce the fissile ingredients of nuclear warheads. But if we want to reduce global warming, it may be necessary to build more nuclear reactors, which can produce our electricity without emitting much of the greenhouse gas that is overheating our planet.
In choosing between these two contradictory options we seemingly must decide whether to take the prevention of global warming or nuclear war as our top priority. Or (as we can hope) maybe our assumptions are wrong; maybe we can adopt solar, wind, and other renewable technologies quickly enough to get rid of nuclear power plants too, yet limit the carbon in the atmosphere enough to survive. Or maybe we can treat nuclear power and nuclear weapons a
How much we should worry about nuclear power plants? After the Fukushima meltdown, several nations became more worried and even shut down their reactors. On the other hand, the journalist George Monbiot, who had been opposed to nuclear power before, actually changed his mind and became favorable toward it after Fukushima because no one had yet died from the explosion and radiation. (Lots of people died from the tsunami’s flood.) Some people argue that more people die of air pollution caused by fossil fuels than die of nuclear radiation. Indeed, many things probably harm us more than the radiation surrounding us in daily life. Nevertheless, we do have to worry about nuclear reactors because they are causally inseparable from nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Power’s Connection to War and Weapons (Especially Nuclear)
In fact, in a conflict situation, a nuclear reactor itself can become a nuclear weapon. For example, if an enemy sends bombs or planes crashing into multiple “peaceful” nuclear reactors, the explosions and radiation plumes will kill millions immediately, more of us later, and render large territories uninhabitable.
The terrorists who crashed airliners into the Twin Towers had considered targeting reactors instead. And such actions by terrorists or suicide bombers are not unprecedented; the International Atomic Energy Agency maintains a database tracking them; their file includes 1,266 incidents reported by 99 countries over a twelve-year period.3) But the real danger comes from enemy nations in a war. Civilian nuclear reactors in the wrong hands can be excellent weapons of mass destruction. That’s worth worrying about and trying to prevent – but the only certain way to prevent it is by having no nuclear reactors.
Moreover, there are other ways in which nuclear power is an inseparable issue from nuclear weapons. For example, nuclear reactors make the plutonium for bombs. Nuclear reactors were originally built to produce plutonium for the atomic bombs; only in 1945 were they considered for generating electricity. The firs. commercial nuclear power stations did not start operating until 1958.4)
Every nuclear reactor in the world produces plutonium. No one has ever invented one that doesn’t do so. Therefore, if you want to stop the production of plutonium for bombs, you have to shut down all nuclear reactors.
When the plutonium is removed from the reactors, it is in a mixture of toxic substances and cannot be used in a fission bomb unless separated out. There are a few reprocessing plants in the world that chemically separate these fissile materials. The plutonium then can be recycled, to be used either as fuel for another reactor or as the core of a nuclear warhead. Of course, there are terrorist groups and nations secretly looking to obtain plutonium and build some bombs of their very own. The only way to prevent this is to shut down all reprocessing plants as well as all reactors. But we will still have another challenge: to guard the stockpiles of fissile material that already exist.
The fact that so few reactors are being closed can be attributed to two facts. First, not everyone is actually opposed to nuclear weapons. Quite a few people believe that “nukes have kept the peace” by deterring other countries from starting wars against nuclear-armed states. (According to that logic, all warfare would come to an end if the world’s 193 countries each possessed its own nuclear arsenal and could deter all the others! Fortunately, most people can recognize that, even if this is logical, it would be a crazy policy.)
But the second explanation for the continuation of nuclear power is more plausible: that we need to retain (or even increase) it so as to limit global warming. Even if reactors do worsen the chance of nuclear war, many people are willing to take that risk because fossil fuels are so more dangerous. Coal and petroleium are heating the planet at an alarming rate. This theory holds that it is not feasible to transition to wind and solar power quickly enough to curb global warming, so nuclear is required too.
Although a few participants in the forum of May 2018 shared this belief, the majority did not. Instead, they included in the Platform for Survival the proposal that “all states shall shift rapidly to effective generation of electricity by using renewable energy” – where nuclear definitely is not considered one of the renewable sources.
There is another sense in which nuclear reactors are vulnerable to the effects of war and weapons—especially “cyber-war.” The existing nuclear power plants send electricity to consumers through centralized electric grids. These sometimes fail under ordinary circumstances or on hot days when too many air conditioners are on. What could help would be the construction of new high-voltage grids, some of which use direct instead of alternating current. (See Platform Plank number 10.)
But a potentially catastrophic strike might occur during a war or, conceivably, even a terrorist act: a cyberattack on the existing electric grid. Digital sabotage of centralized electric grids could deprive much of the human population of electricity for lengthy periods.5)
Fortunately, not all electricity is now delivered through centralized electric grids; there are already some distributed alternatives.6) However, the most effective protection from the risks of cyberattacks on a grid will come from individually owned, independent sources of electricity—notably solar panels on private homes and businesses. These can make the owners invulnerable to blackouts—at least those owners who do not feed their solar, wind, or geothermal power back into the centralized grid, as many do, but instead consume it separately, remaining off any centralized grid.
So this is yet one more significant reason to replace nuclear with renewable, distributed sources of energy.
Nuclear Power’s Connection to Global Warming
To appraise the feasibility of shifting to renewable sources, we must compare nuclear to all the existing ways of generating power, both fossil fuels and renewables.
In 2019 there are about 450 nuclear reactors operating in more than 50 countries and producing about 11 percent of all electricity. About 60 more are being constructed.7) Nuclear’s limited portion —11 percent — suggests that replacing it will not be a huge challenge, when compared to the difficulty of replacing fossil fuels.
In 2016 nuclear was fourth in the list of electricity sources, after coal (38%), gas (23%), and hydro (17%). At that time, renewable (solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal together) accounted for only 5.6% of the world’s electricity, followed by oil at 3.7%.8)
The future use of all these sources will depend on many decisions made by governments, but also by the profitability to industry. In terms of cost alone, nuclear’s future is hardly bright, for it can no longer compete with any other major source. By 2018, the cost of solar power had decreased so much that in many places it was less expensive than fossil fuels. Whereas solar photovoltaic power now costs $50 to produce one megawatt-hour or electricity, coal costs $102 per megawatt-hour and nuclear costs $148. At $45 per megawatt-hour, wind power is currently the cheapest source of all five.9)
The future of coal is even less promising than that of nuclear. It is so unprofitable today that the United States could save $78 billion by closing coal generating plants, as recommended by the Paris Climate Accord. While all other sources of energy are decreasing, coal’s costs have increased by 23 percent since 2009.
But the cost of production is not the only relevant economic factor. Most energy companies receive subsidies in one form or another (e.g. governments cover much of the expense of building pipelines to transport oil and gas).
Also, there are problems with the intermittency of sunshine and wind, which means that power generated at one time must be stored for use later —at an additional cost that may be added to the price consumers pay. But even counting these factors, customers can expect savings in the electricity bill when their utility company replaces its existing coal source with wind or solar.10)
Because prices greatly affect the demand for every product, the most effective known way of reducing the use of fossil fuels is to add a “carbon tax” to the price that consumers pay. The same effect can be obtained by a system of “cap and trade,” whereby the right to use energy is determined by auction of rights or permits. But carbon pricing is widely (though unwisely) unpopular, so some experts are recommending the use of governmental regulation instead, citing the many health and climate benefits to inspire the voters’ support when the concept of taxation seems too off-putting.11)
The pace of the transition to renewable energy sources is not primarily limited by technological factors. It would be possible to build a whole new energy system and retire all the old ones within a few short years, if there were sufficient political will to do so. During World War II the public was galvanized to undertake heroic actions and immediately shifted out of a depression-level economy into an intense period of production. For example, in 1939, total aircraft production for the US military was less than 3,000 planes. By the end of the war, America produced 300,000 planes.12)
If the world would mobilize with the same urgency now, global warming could be limited promptly. The obstacles to quick change are not technological but economic and political. The public is not sufficiently aware of the dire consequences of not acting swiftly to reduce climate change. This unawareness means that governments lack incentives to regulate the sources and uses of energy, or train workers for jobs in the new renewable industries. Finally, manufacturers and investors have to worry about maintaining the profitability of their enterprises. Numerous large companies are active in the nuclear power industry, from uranium mining, processing and enrichment to the actual operating of nuclear power plants and nuclear waste processing.13) They have already invested so much money in fossil fuels and in the nuclear power industry that the managers have to worry about getting value from their “stranded assets” – i.e. the past investments that will never pay off financially if there is a quick transition away from their sector.
Health and Safety Issues
Finally, we can return to the serious issue of comparing the health and safety effects of nuclear to the alternative sources of electric power, both renewable and from fossil fuels.
Radiation can cause cancer and other genetic damage to the human body and it has no known beneficial effects apart from diagnostic uses (e.g. as X-ray imagery) and for killing deleterious cells such as tumors. Any exposure to radiation presumably poses some risk, but the risks of very low exposure levels have not been proven conclusively.14)
Most people, even including the staff working inside reactors, are exposed to far less radiation from nuclear power production than from normal background radiation. The health effects are low in comparison to some environmental factors or life style practices such as smoking. However, exposure is very unequally distributed within a population. For example, if you are a uranium miner or an airline crew member, you are absorbing far more than your fair share of radiation. The overview article on this threat topic (on radiation exposure) cites ample evidence that strong public health measures are needed to protect the people whose location and jobs put them at higher risk.
Still, the everyday risks imposed by the nuclear power industry, though all harmful, are not the main reason for worrying about it. Rather, it is the possibility of an explosion or meltdown that is cause for alarm. Even so, the explosion of a single civilian reactor because of an accident will probably be less catastrophic than the effect of a military strike against multiple reactors. The latter situation would clearly be an existential threat to humankind – and there is no way to estimate the probability of such an event. Even the experts resort to guesswork.
“Everything else being equal,” it would certainly be prudent to switch to other sources of energy — but of course everything else is never equal. Real decisions often involve calculating trade-offs that involve costs and the comparative risks of all the alternative options.
Fortunately, however, the trends in costs are favorable for the prospects of replacing nuclear reactors with renewable energy. Though sixty nuclear plants are still under construction, their costs are inordinately high – and those costs do not even take account of the future decommissioning of the plants when they grow old.
Clearly, the future belongs to renewable energy. We can do it! But the pace of transitioning to wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal energy (and probably even nuclear fusion) will be determined by the political will that people bring to bear upon their governments. And that is for us all to decide.
2) Hillel J. Hoffman, “The Permian Extinction: When Life Nearly Came to an End”, The National Geographic.
5) Ted Koppel, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, New York: Penguin, 2015.
7) World Nuclear Organization, op. cit.
9) Jeremy Berke,“One Simple Chart Shows Why an Energy Revolution is Coming — and Who is Likely to Come Out of it on Top”, Harvard University’s Business Insider, May. 5, 2018.
10) Megan Mahajan, “Plunging Prices Mean Building New Renewable Energy is Cheaper Than Running Existing Coal”, Forbes, Dec. 3, 2018.
11) David Leonhardt, “The Problem With Putting a Price on the End of the World,” New York Times Magazine, April 9, 2019.
12) Christy Borth, Masters of Mass Production, Indianapolis, IN, Bobbs-Merrile, 1945, p. 237.
13) For a list of 104 large companies operating in the nuclear power industry, see Wikipedia, “List of companies in the Nuclear Sector,” dated July 2016.