Nuclear energy, reply to

I’d like to thank the commentator for his/her thoughts on my nuclear energy post. Thoughtful, also your blog, thanks. I would just add a couple of remarks. The commentator suggested that nuclear energy should be part of our future because its damages are much less than the climate change damages that traditional energy sources (like oil, coal) may cause. He/she underlined this by hinting at the costs from (climate change-induced) disasters during the past couple of years.

There is some evidence now that there are already impacts of global warming, yes. But how many events of the past few years can actually be fully or partially attributed to global warming is impossible to say. No one really knows. And most likely no one will ever know. And one should not forget that a part of the damage was mankind’s own doing, e.g. New Orleans’ architecture, or population-push into flood-prone areas. So all I am saying is that one has to be careful trying to argue which share of natural disaster costs are attributable to actual climate change.

Also, I would think that it is not entirely clear that, between potential nuclear disasters and climate change, potential nuclear disasters is the lesser evil. Let’s go through some quick calculations. If you go through the list of nuclear accidents, see HERE, then let’s say during the whole existence of nuclear power plants (around 60 years), there were three huge ones (Kyshtym, Chernobyl and Fukushima). That makes a probability of 0.05 per year of a large scale accident, or one every twenty years. Assume that the increase in the number of nuclear plants obviously increases the overall probability of disasters, while technological advances decreases it. Let’s assume those two roughly balance out. If you believe they don’t since technological progress may be extremely efficient, then throw in earthquakes, terrorists attack, and still the odd human error, and you may be there. So let’s assume that the probability stays approximately constant. That will make another four events until 2100.

While Kyshtym led to an indefinitely long inhabitable zone of around 800 sqkm, the area contaminated by Chernobyl is 3000 sqkm, while the estimated area around Fukushima amounts to 400 sqkm “only” (fortunately due to the wind). Given that “only” approximately 15% of the radiation of Chernobyl was released, this could mean that the area estimate for Fukushima is roughly correct. That already adds up to 4200 sqkm. Multiply this by 1.33 (4 disasters until 2100 over the 3 that happened), add the number (5600) to the 4200, and we get roughly 10 000 sqkm. That is the area that we would expect to be indefinitely inhabitable for every 150 years that are coming. What is the value of that area? What is the cost of deplacing the people? And what is the subjective cost of the fear of nuclear disasters? Noone really knows and it is a really difficult task to come up with an estimate…

In addition, one always has to remember that there is the option to adapt to climate change to a certain degree. So basically all I am saying is that we need to be careful when we argue for a technology that has the potential to lead to an inhabitable area the size of Jamaica every 150 years. And that is only the inhabitable area – radiation problems from fallout that may travel for kilometers and kilometers is not even added here.

I think it is also a mistake to basically say that between two evils (climate change and potential nuclear disaster) we choose what may be the lesser one (potential nuclear disaster, although I tried to argue that this is not fully clear), because we have a third option available: social change, cultural change, a thoughtful and thought-through way of life. If one allows for a trade-off that figures this additional dimension into the equation of any policy maker, then it is not entirely clear whether the initial question – nuclear energy versus climate change, is actually appropriate.

  1. The reply is correct, but there are more concerns: The risk of storage of nuclear waste and of terrorist attacks with nuclear material is not yet mentioned.


  2. This is a good point, thanks for bringing this up. Clearly, there problems associated with finding a good storage place are immense, as for example the end-storage in Asse, Germany, shows. Here, nuclear waste barrels were simply dumped into a rather unstable, old salt mine. In effect, placing the nuclear waste under ground is only a way to postpone dealing with this until future generations find a way to handle it.
    Terrorist attacks have recently been discussed as another concern for the safety of nuclear power plants. It is generally believed that nuclear power plants may not be able to withstand an attack the likes of 9/11 (source: IAEA), Thus, terrorists do not need any atomic weapons themselves in order to wreck havock – they can simply rely on the atomic material in the country they want to attack. For example, detailed plans of US nuclear power plants have been found in in al-Qaeda materials in Afghanistan (see

    As a result, proper cost-benefit analysis would really need to take these two points into account.


  3. FG said:

    Using the posted argument that we do not know the actual damage that global warming is causing is to argue that maybe it isn’t all that bad and perhaps we are all in a panic over nothing. I totally reject that argument. It is an argument that some opponents of global warming are making.

    For all we know the damage from global warming is far worst than we think. It is the opinion of climatologist that the aggregate of climate related weather events has dramatically increased and has been responsible for many of the superstores, droughts, flooding, heat spells and other such weather that are being reported almost daily in the news. They can’t say which weather events is definitely due to global warming, only the odds of it being caused by global warming.

    I would far prefer to error on the side of caution than otherwise. We can still survive if we overestimate global warming but if we underestimate it and delay taking steps to curb it, as the opponents of global warming favor, then we may be doomed. So the consequences of not taking it seriously can be quite disastrous and catastrophic.

    This post also neglects the argument that I am making that as more nuclear plans are built safety will dramatically improve. Compare the fatalities of commercial air travel 30 years ago and scale it up with the number of commercial aircraft flying today and fatalities occurring now and you will see many orders of magnitude of improvements in safety. Because of the consequences of nuclear accidents greater stress will have to be placed upon improved safety as more plants are built. The public will demand it!

    The point of my argument is that to eliminate nuclear power as an Option for replacing carbon fueled power plants is a major mistake. It must remain on the table as an alternative. I am not saying that it must be used, only that it should be considered. As of now it is off the table of viable considerations. This will greatly limit our ability to solve the global warming problem in time which IS THE REAL KILLER and could doom much of life on earth.


  4. FG said:

    As for terrorism, we have dealt with it for air travel. We can deal with it for nuclear power plants. There are over 100 nuclear facilities in America, most on the eastern half of the country. None have yet been attacked due to high security which is inherently build in to such facilities. Nuclear facilities have the highest level of security of any commercial activity. There are far easier ways for terrorist to do damage such as bringing a nuclear device into the country and exploding it in the middle of a large city. Countries such as Iran are easy sources for enriched uranium. It is just too difficult to attack a nuclear facility.

    Perhaps attacking spent fuel during transport but this is also very secure and the containers use for transport very strong. So far movies have been made about such terrorism but none have actually occurred.


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