The nuclear vs renewable energy debate – an investigation


This investigation focuses on determining whether renewable energy sources can be viewed as a reasonable alternative to nuclear energy.  The arguments for renewable vs. nuclear energy sources vary to include economic, environmental, social, and moral aspects


 The economic arguments concerning the viability of nuclear energy viewed seem to be the most comprehensively covered of these topics by the experts. This is also the most quantifiable aspect of the nuclear vs. renewables debate.

 The World Nuclear association, as one would anticipate, presents a very favorable view of nuclear power economics based solely on their own economic projections.

 Their figures indicate nuclear power generation is cheaper than all considered alternatives including coal gas and wind.  They put the overnight cost at$4,000/KW.  They suggest that govt. subsidies for the industry are a good investment in America’s energy future. 

 The Union of Concerned Scientists presents a strong counter argument to this industry claim maintaining that nuclear power is, in fact, one of the most expensive methods of power generation.

 This group does not dispute the economic projections presented by the nuclear industry but rather looks at the overwhelming historical evidence that actual operating costs of nuclear facilities have, on average, exceeded projections by a remarkable 207% making nuclear much more expensive than alternate energy sources.  They point to survey of economists regarding projected costs of nuclear energy. The survey shows that industry and govt. analysts agree on the $4000/KW figure while Wall Street and independent analysts’ projections put the cost of operations at over $10,000/KW, over twice the industry estimate.  They argue that the government’s reliance solely on nuclear industry estimates is imprudent and puts a huge financial risk on the taxpayers and ratepayers who will eventually carry the cost of projected overruns as has happened in the past. They also contend that if the economics of the industry made sense Wall Street investors would step up investment making govt. subsidies unnecessary. If Wall Street does not support industry expansion the taxpayers should not be required to. The US goal of reducing carbon emissions over the next 40 years can be better achieved by investing in renewables and efficiencies that would also drive down energy costs instead of increasing them with nuclear expansion.            

 The question here is whether the audience for this claim, the US government, is persuaded by industry projections or industry history.

 The cogent economic arguments come from respected organizations supported by facts and documented research. The merits of this information seem to present a dilemma for the audience.  The reader can be comforted by the extensive documentation and expert references but at the same time he/she is very much challenged to investigate the complex primary economic data sources to validate claims made by the authors.

 Other Aspects of the debate   

 As the issue strays from economics the ability to collect objective measurable data decreases. The audience needs to rely on popular sources and is challenged to engage much more critically when digesting this material.

 These less objective issues include the relative risk of living near a nuclear facility vs. other types of energy sources, the morality of leaving future generations to deal with nuclear waste generated in the process and the relative environmental damage resulting from each alternative. The following site gives a brief and comprehensive summary of the issues with little regard to verifiable references.  

 This pro-nuclear site maintains that the amount of radiation experienced near a nuclear plant is often less than that living near a coal plant and that the amount of either is negligible compared to common ambient radiation experienced everyday from other sources.  This author does briefly touch on the popular risk of nuclear disaster but dismisses it by maintaining that nuclear plants have the ability to shut down completely in any emergency even though several major disasters have resulted by the inability to do just that. This inability to address the most serious risk of nuclear energy leads me to question this author’s fundamental argument in favor of nuclear energy:  If everything works the way it is supposed to, nuclear is the best option – not very convincing.

A second article on environmental footprints of nuclear vs. renewable plants tries to better quantify the issues by measuring the comparable eco footprints.           

 The environmental footprint of a wind farm is the land it is located on while the environmental footprint of nuclear facility includes uranium mining, processing nuclear fuel rods and the storage of nuclear waste. Interestingly, the author contends that with both having a significant negative impact on the environment the environmental issue should not be a deciding factor in a decision of which type of energy to support.

A serious investigation of these issues can lead the audience to previously unexplored options.

 As an example: a UK based environmental organization argues for renewable energy in the form of microgneration as an alternative to large nuclear facilities.

 Rather than look primarily to mass produced, environmentally destructive energy technologies, we should be encouraging the use of locally generated power. Use of individual wind and solar technologies limit the impact of obviously destructive facilities like nuclear generators but also helps to alleviate the negative impact of large wind farms. The author argues that a decentralization of power generation leaves a society less vulnerable to disaster, leaves the decision of energy type to be customizable to the local environment, and eliminates need for distant transmission lines and associated loss of energy resulting from long distance transmission.  The author unfortunately concedes that the resurgence of popular interest in nuclear power compared with the weak and diffuse support for microgeneration will overshadow the ability to grow the deserving microgen industry.

 Many organizations attempt to lure the audience in with seemingly neutral articles labeled with titles like ‘pros and cons of nuclear energy’. These sources give high level statements with few references to claims in an issue. These seem useful in identifying the basic issues to be further investigated by the audience.

 Others with pro- con titles actually ‘help’ the audience to reach a very biased conclusion after presenting the neutral ‘facts’. My brief investigation shows these type sites lean mostly to the anti-nuclear side of the argument.

 The wide variety of approaches to the nuclear issue is demonstrated in a site that questions the morality of nuclear energy and global warming in the context of personal growth and a search for the meaning of life:

 This comprehensive review argues against almost every aspect of nuclear energy including global warming, waste disposal, weapons production, economics etc

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