Moral choice on nuclear vs. coal


A subject of debate in environmental circles revolves around whether the successful 70s opposition to nuclear power was a wise idea. At the time, it was never thought of as a choice between nuclear and coal, it was thought of simply as fear of the dangers of nuclear. Unexpectedly, it ended up being a push for coal, which of course kills far more people and emits more radiation than U.S. nuclear plants ever have.

But today, the big question remains of what to do with the waste. As I wrote earlier, if you accept the most dire global warming predictions, the worst waste predictions are quite tame by comparison.

But here's another way to examine the question, in terms of moral duty. Nuclear power has a serious waste concern, and it is as yet uncertain how best to deal with it. But now, fossil fuels also have a serious waste concern from both particulates and CO2, and it is also uncertain how to deal with it. However, in many circles, there is very high confidence that there are extreme dangers from CO2.

Here's the difference: What is done by the CO2 we emit is done to the whole world. The problems caused by it will be borne by the whole world. In fact, there are good arguments that while the USA and developed world produce most of the CO2 emissions, they will suffer a minority of the damage. The problems of nuclear power, however, largely remain within the country. If there is a nuclear waste problem, it's our problem. If there is a meltdown, it's our land that is ruined, our people killed. (At least in places like the USA where there are not foreigners living near/downwind from most nuclear reactors.)

Both choices, nuclear and fossil have predicted risks. But very different sets of people who pay the price. This makes it hard to say that the moral choice is fossil fuel over nukes.

Well, of course, the even more moral choice is to cut back on energy use and develop cleaner power. And both of those tasks are being worked hard upon. But it would be foolish to just assume we will reach quick success on this, and not still have to make the nuclear vs. coal/fossil choice for a few decades. Perhaps we won't, but can we bet on it?

As always, there are some complicating issues. Nuclear power sometimes begets nuclear weapons, so it can't be used everywhere. And it can certainly be argued that the problems of nuclear waste are visited not upon foreigners, but upon our descendants. But again, they are our descendants, and will still have more right to foist problems on them than we do on remote peoples. This argument could also apply to environmentally destructive hydro power, which again destroys our river valleys and animals, not somebody else's.

It is, of course, for this very reason that fossil fuels have had some advantages. Almost all pollution has been driven by the fact that you can foist your waste problems off on somebody else. If they lived in the same legal jurisdiction, they eventually got power to stop you, but it always took a while.


A coal-burning plant doesn't merely litter the air with particulates and CO2, it also produces many thousands of tons of solid ash which often gets buried in shallow landfills which can poison the groundwater nearby with various toxins.

The great thing about nuclear is that it produces so *little* physical waste that it actually is practical to contain it safely. Orders of magnitude less waste than coal.

I hear, a coal power station gives off more radiation than a nuclear one (or I might be misremembering and getting mixed up with a lower cancer risk due to particulates versus radiation).

Not only that but because coal is full of impurities such as Sulphur, which is in a high percentage in the coal. When the coal is burned huge amounts of this is then made into SO2 (sulpher dioxide) which causes acid rain! and adds to polution.

on the matter of nuclear power, it is true that the waste does not have to be stored, but it would cost so much to change it from an isotope into an element with a smaller half-life that it would not be cost effective in comparison to how much the company gains from enrgy bills.

Why is it "coal" versus "nuclear"? Neither are the right choice for the future.

Coal isn't because of all the reasons mentioned above, but that doesn't mean nuclear is the only alternative.

Putting aside waste issues and fears of radiation, it's simply not cost effective:

Warren Buffett's company (MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Co.) stopped pursuing a plant in Idaho because "it does not make economic sense to pursue the project at this time." I doubt many would want to bet against Buffett.

There's also the question of EROI, and the potential of peak nuclear power:

Then the question of water requirements for cooling - where's all the water going to come from? France had to shut down a number of plants a number of summers ago because the incoming water wasn't cool enough.

Though the question of morals raised in the post is interesting, I think the dichotomy of coal and nuclear is misleading.

So Buffet did not buy a nuclear plant because he figures he buy older plants cheaper

I list this dichotomy because it is what turned out to happen as the developed countries turned away from nuclear in the 70s. Coal generates 50% of our electricity, so what wasn't generated from nuclear came largely from coal and other fossil fuels. Nobody of course thought of it as that form of choice.

Nuclear did turn out to be more expensive than they hoped, for various reasons including some cited here. But because of the nuclear downturn, analysis is largely based on 70s technology. A lot's happened since then. In both directions -- I find it amusing that the RMI study cites "we no longer know how to build them cheaply" as the primary cause of higher capital costs for nuclear plants.

However, whatever the analysis, the main point is this. Except for the risk of proliferation, the externalities of nuclear are borne by us. The externalities of fossil fuel are borne by the rest of the world. If nuclear is indeed, not cost effective on an EROI or ROI basis, then it won't be built. I agree that it should not be subsidized. (Government subsidy should be done via tax on the externalities of generation methods, making the coal more expensive to run.)

As for the water, that's bad design and placement, and new designs would clearly be built to not have such problems, or so you would think. (Again, subsidies will make investors do stupid things to get the subsidies.)

But it should be clear that a choice to not use a particular type of power -- if it's an economic type -- is a choice to burn more fossil fuels, until such time as we develop commercially viable, scalable alternatives. I am optimistic about thermosolar, and in the future low-cost PV, and possibly waves and more geothermal. But they are not in production yet. Nor are we in production on new generation nuclear technologies, either.

A special case exists for nuclear plants shut down (but not dismantled) due to public pressure. I think Rancho Seco recently underwent some decom, but otherwise it seems it would be viable to restart such plants (and shut off the fossil fuel burning plant that was built next to it.)

"until such time as we develop commercially viable, scalable alternatives"

That would be, oh, about 1830 if I recall correctly.

I know the US is profoundly NIH, but really, you're straining my credularity here.

Just off the top of my head the US has some hydro power capability but has largely stopped trying to develop more. Likewise geothermal, which has the advantage that there are not very many inhabited places that don't have hot dry rocks under them but the disadvantage that people are still struggling to develop the technology (while Iceland and Nuke Freeland are generating significant power from surface HDR). You also skipped wind, which while at this stage it's only good for about 20% of most grids (probably less in the US where your grid is often privatised and therefore grossly underpowered), no-one has really experimented much higher than that so it's more of a "20% at this stage" than "20% max possible forever"). A 20% boost to US electrical generation capacity wouldn't hurt you. Finally, there's the admittedly radical idea of just consuming less electricity in the first place. Here, we call that "increased efficiency".

New Zealand, FWIW, has just had a bit of a (political) crisis when the media found out that renewable electricity generation was likely to fall below 80% last financial year (to end March). This can largely be blamed on governments past believing the nonsense coming out of the US and UK about free markets being the solution to everything and selling off the generation capacity. Which had exactly the effect that the engineers predicted - underinvestment, maintenance failures and a power crisis. So now "peaking generation" is run continously (burning coil and gas) because the company that sells the power owns those generators (hence wants to use them as much as possible). But it was very profitable for the companies that bought the generators, and returns are now much higher than they were when the public owned them (think about it).

The U.S. does have a lot of hydro, Canada has much more. Expanding hydro has become more difficult in the USA of late. First of all it destroys valleys and alters the entire course of the river by eliminating the seasonal flood. And there aren't that many wild rivers left in the USA. There have been various subsidies to push wind forward, though they were badly designed -- they subsidized the windmills, not their operation, so as soon as one breaks down, it is not economical to repair it. Thus around here you will drive through vast wind farms where half the mills don't turn.

Geothermal is modestly exploited here, and today's oil prices are driving to more exploration of it. Are there figures suggesting it could supply a lot of U.S. power?

It does not look too hard to do, and it is being actively pursued. The subsidies given to fossil fuels work really well, so I'm disappointed that alternatives are not also being subsidised effectively. Not surprised, just disappointed.

Once again, I appreciate the simple point in the post, that moral decisions are not wisely made in a vacuum. So statements my activists pointing to a seemingly obvious moral judgement, without any consideration of alternatives and unintended consequences, are in reality immoral. To say nuclear is bad because it presents a possible danger is too simplistic to be helpful, so a comparison to the moral consequences (i.e. death/destruction to people) of other options starts to make a reasonable decision possible.
A controversial example is medical research. Imagine a deadly disease XYZ. Anyone who hears stories of its effects would respond with heartache. But if indeed the choice was between building a new emergency room to serve plain old injuries, or building a research lab to cure XYZ, which choice results in less suffering. Not a pure analogy by any stretch, but to me it makes clear that, if the U.S. is going to impose the type of energy supply on itself by making 'policy' choices, those must be made using holistic comparisons, such as the moral dilemna you have posited.

Nuclear power can be scaled up massively and safely

Deep burn of nuclear fuel addresses the unburned fuel / nuclear waste issue.
There are a lot of reactors that are being built or were built with deep burn capability.

Not cost effective ? Well since Trey won't be paying for one it does not matter what the environmentalist
opinion is on this.

Energy costs with externalities

Feed in tariffs for renewables

China wants 100 AP1000 reactors by 2020

Russia, India and other countries also going big for nuclear reactors.

USA and the OECD nations are only projected to be adding 25% of new world power from 2010-2020.

EROI in improving for nuclear with laser enrichment starting in 2012

Water use for cooling is common to all thermal power plants (including coal and natural gas plants)
Nuclear power still has over 90% availability in the USA. Coal is 50-70%.
Wind and solar are 20-40%.
When hot weather like in France occurs, the wind often does not blow.

The deaths from the French/european heatwave were from insufficient air conditioning.
It does not matter if power is flowing if there was no air conditioner to be powered.

Nuclear power makes much less waste infact a nuclear power plant generating 500 megawatts of electricity produces around 20 tonnes of toxic waste a year, and this figure is falling as nuclear reactors become more efficient. Treatment of nuclear waste can reduce the volume substantially. In comparison, a 500-megawatt coal-fired power station produces almost 320,000 tonnes of toxic waste each year, including 2.6 tonnes of uranium and 6.4 tonnes of radioactive thorium.

Thats right Nukes make 20 tonnes and coal make 320,000 including 9 tonnes of nuclear materials
If all the nuclear materials in coal were used in a nuke plant it would make more power than the coal did.

Also a coal plant running at 100% will give off 100 TIMES(x,*) that of a nuclear plant running at 100%.

plus nukes make much more energy

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