International report reveals nuclear is boondoggle for climate
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this chart from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2022 report Mitigation of Climate Change reveals our entire carbon-free future roadmap, encapsulating the nearly 3,000 page, highly-detailed report, in a single page (and some fine print footnotes).
Not surprisingly, nuclear power is exposed as the boondoggle it is. IPCC estimates nuclear has less potential for curbing climate change than either shifting humans to a healthy diet, or reducing methane from oil and gas (which is also more cost-effective than carbon reduction from nuclear power).
Although the forecast remains bleak and worsening with continuing rise of greenhouse gas emissions, the IPCC says it is still technically possible to achieve the necessary climate goal of limiting warming to an increase of just 1.5 degrees, but only if we make sweeping, societal changes. These, however, will require political will, the report contends.
A significant revelation in the report is how much more carbon reduction we can achieve by focusing investment on wind and solar. Such investments lead to an estimated eight times greater carbon reduction with much less cost, than nuclear power. The graph further points to how individual actions carry far less impact than political and societal changes.
The IPCC itself states, “Large contributions with costs less than USD20 tCO2-eq-1 come from solar and wind energy, energy efficiency improvements, reduced conversion of natural ecosystems, and CH4 emissions reductions (coal mining, oil and gas, waste)”. Nuclear is not listed. According to The Guardian, “The … report … produced by scientists from across the globe and signed off by 195 governments, mentions renewables, wind, solar and efficiency 67 times in its summary. It cites nuclear once (in brackets), as an example of a technology with high upfront costs.”
While the graph accounts for nuclear waste storage costs, it is unclear if front end fuel chain costs for mining and milling of uranium, or mine tailing cleanup of those sites, are included.
The report states that “Continued production from nuclear power will depend in part on life extensions of the existing fleet.” But an NRC Commissioners’ vote on February 24, 2022 rescinded a second 20-year operating license renewal (on the way to a total 60-80 year operating life) for nearly a dozen U.S. reactors. NRC states that renewals should not be approved “without first creating and applying an updated environmental analysis for reactor operations into the extension period” currently projected out to the 2050s and beyond.
The NRC order also erased its ongoing reviews and suspended the acceptance of any new applications. The industry and the federal agency must reanalyze issues like environmental rates of change and impacts on the reliable operations and safety of aging reactors for the projected period and climate change consequences. This now includes sea-level rise that, to date, the industry and the NRC relicensing process ignored. The NRC and the nuclear industry must now also reset and recalculate their environment analysis that previous Commissions had credited “generically” approvals largely based on antiquated 1996 data.
As a result, on April 5, 2022, the NRC announced it was embarking on a two-year rulemaking process to redress multiple violations of federal law committed by the agency and the industry in the Subsequent License Renewal review process.
According to the IPCC report, license extensions are a lot cheaper than new construction. But continuing to extend nuclear operations to extremes (20-40 years beyond originally intended operational life) increases the risk of nuclear catastrophe. Beyond Nuclear has opposed license extensions because of significant “technical knowledge gaps” in understanding how the materials in reactor systems, structures and components (particularly the large irreplaceable concrete containments and embrittled reactor pressure vessels) affect this risk.
The increasing costs needed to support license extensions also divert funds from the real climate solutions such as renewable energy. Furthermore, reactor owners have downplayed the uncertainty of an accelerating climate crisis and fail to substantially prepare for worst case extreme weather impacts.
A rash of large “advanced” reactors initially advertised to address climate change with a so-called “nuclear renaissance” that commenced in the U.S. in 2006 has all but completely collapsed in suspensions, cancellations and abandonment. The IPCC report notes that in North America and Europe construction times for new reactors can run longer than 13-15 years with costs 3-4 times those initially predicted.
For those countries choosing nuclear power, the report finds that “stable political conditions and support, clear regulatory regimes, and adequate financial framework are crucial”. As the climate crisis worsens, global conflicts will increase because of border and resource disputes (food, water, etc). Mass economic dislocation and population relocation will ensue and will likely trigger widening wars. Nuclear power facilities will prove vulnerable to design and operating conditions never contemplated, a point vividly demonstrated by Russia’s unprecedented invasion of Ukraine, where operating nuclear power stations are now exposed to battlefield conditions.
The report states that “Most of the countries which might introduce nuclear power in the future for their climate change mitigation benefits do not envision developing their own full fuel cycle, significantly reducing any risks that might be linked to proliferation”. However, some “advanced” reactor designs — such as Bill Gates’s TerraPower Natrium Small Modular Reactor (SMR), uses as a fuel source mined uranium, which has been enriched to just under 20%. Once these fast reactors are exported they are ideal for trading out these fuel cores for plutonium power cores and nuclear weapons. This has been identified with very serious proliferation implications.
Beyond Nuclear, and others, have repeatedly stated, nuclear power is too slow, too expensive, and too dangerous to address our climate crisis. We need to, instead, invest the money we are earmarking for nuclear energy into wind, solar, energy efficiency, conservation and maintenance of natural ecosystems, as we move away with all deliberate haste, from fossil fuels.
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