Being rational about nuclear power

Disclaimer: in the past I did several actions against nuclear power. This article does not reflect the opinions of the environmental organizations I am and was involved in.

Effective environmentalism deals with the irrationalities in the environmental movement. These irrationalities are often caused by emotional attachments and include inaccurate beliefs that result in the choice for ineffective means to reach the environmentalist ends (including values like health, safety, sustainability, intergenerational justice and biodiversity). Examples of irrationalities in the environmental movement include a naturalness bias, a support for organic food and a resistance against genetic modification. Sometimes environmentalist campaigns can backfire and cause more harm than good (such as the campaign to ban glyphosate or a campaign to boycot palm oil and use other vegetable oils instead that have a higher footprint). Effective environmentalism has some resemblance with ecomodernism.

In this article I want to present another irrationality of the environmental movement: its resistance against nuclear energy. The message is that campaigning against nuclear power is ineffective and sometimes counterproductive. There are much more effective campaigns, such as a campaign to support plant-based diets or support economic measures such as a green tax shift or a cap-auction-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions. The effectiveness of environmental organizations is improved if they stop their nuclear campaigns and instead focus on more effective solutions.

The case in favor of nuclear power is made by the following two arguments.

  • Nuclear power has fewer deaths from pollution and accidents than almost all other energy sources. Several sources mention that the deathprint of nuclear is much lower than the death print of fossil fuels and even lower than the deathprint of most renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy. The deathprint measures the number of deaths per kWh of electricity produced from a life cycle perspective, just like the environmental footprint measures the environmental impact per kWh. For example, the past decades a trillion kWh of nuclear energy caused less than 100 human deaths, whereas renewable sources (solar, wind and hydro) caused between 100 and 2000 human deaths and fossil fuels caused between 4000 and 100.000 deaths from air pollution and accidents (the deaths from climate change and possible future accidents are not included). Animal deaths (e.g. birds and bats dying from wind farms) are not included in these deathprint statistics. As a consequence, even if a ban on nuclear energy would result in a large shift towards renewable energy sources, a small residual shift towards fossil fuels such as gas and coal (as is the case in e.g. Japan after the Fukushima nuclear power station accident) would result in more deaths overall. By replacing fossil fuels, some researchers estimate that global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and has the potential to prevent another 7 million deaths in the future.
  • Nuclear power has one of the lowest carbon footprints of all the energy sources. Looking at several life cycle analyses (e.g. a meta-analysis of low carbon technologies by Ricardo AEA 2013, values from the IPCC, the UK Parliamantary Office of Science and Technology 2011). Nuclear has less than 10 grams of CO2 emissions per kWh, comparable to wind energy, 10 times lower than photovoltaic (solar) energy and around 100 times lower than fossil fuel energy (gas and coal). As a consequence, even if a ban on nuclear energy would result in a large shift towards renewable energy sources, a small residual shift towards fossil fuels such as gas and coal would result in more greenhouse gas emissions overall and hence more future harms from climate change.

For the non-experts, the case in favor of nuclear power is strengthened by extra supportive arguments from authority.

  • A majority of scientists are in favor of building more nuclear power plants. According to a Pew Research Center survey of a representative sample of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 65% of scientists favor building more nuclear power plants.
  • A lot of effective altruists are in favor of nuclear power. An example of an effective altruist organization in favor of nuclear power is the Founders Pledge. Effective altruists use reason and scientific evidence to do the most good. As they are altruists, they do not have personal (e.g. financial) conflicts of interest with any economic sector, including the nuclear power sector. The difference with a lot of environmentalists is that effective altruists use a lot of critical thinking and are highly aware of their own cognitive biases. They consistently look for scientific evidence and solid arguments and try to avoid fallacies and erroneous judgments. When it comes to very unlikely risks such as the risk of nuclear accidents, we have cognitive biases (e.g. availability heuristic, hindsight bias) that make us overestimate the likelihood of those risk. Also, when environmental organizations invested a lot in antinuclear campaigns, they are susceptible to a sunk cost fallacy. As a consequence, they are less willing to abandon those campaigns. Effective altruists on the other hand are more willing to change their minds and to abandon ineffective actions.

The Fukushima nuclear accident shows how a fearful reaction about nuclear energy can be irrational and cause more harm by relocating the population and shutting down all nuclear reactors in Japan.

  • Population relocation after the nuclear reactor accidents of Chernobyl and Fukushima was largely unjustifiable and could cause more harm than good, resulting in more deaths and a lower Life Quality Index. Evacuation after the Fukushima nuclear power station accident in 2011 resulted in more premature deaths (due to increased levels of stress, physical and mental exhaustion, increased suicide rates, elderly people needing nursing care, decreased medical care from evacuating hospitals) compared to the situation where everyone stayed home, for a majority of communities in the 20 km relocation zone, according to a 2017 study in the journal Process Safety and Environmental Protection. Stress of moving resulted in an estimated 1600 premature deaths in the first 3 years after the Fukushima accident. This corresponds to an average loss of life expectancy of one month per relocated person, more than the health risk from radiation exposure when people stayed home, in 8 of the 12 evacuated communities in Fukushima. Moreover, looking at the cost-effectiveness in terms of the J-value (the ratio of the actual sum of money to be spent on protection against a health risk to the maximum that it is reasonable to spend if the quality of life of those affected – measured by the Life Quality Index – is not to be compromised), relocation was unjustified for 75% of the 335,000 people relocated after Chernobyl and for all of the 160,000 people relocated after Fukushima. In other words: the Life Quality Index of the relocated people is lower than if they stayed home. The environmental movement might have contributed to this overreaction and too high levels of scare.
  • Shutting down all nuclear reactors in Japan after the Fukushima accident probably caused more than 20.000 deaths (more than the tsunami and earthquake). Ceasing nuclear production increased electricity prices which resulted in more deaths during very cold weather. Nuclear power was replaced by fossil fuels, including coal power, resulting in higher mortality rates from air pollution.

Finally, the arguments against nuclear power are weak.

  • The nuclear waste problem is small. First of all, the hazardous nuclear waste produced by a person using nuclear energy (25 ml per year) is more than thousand times smaller than the non-nuclear hazardous waste produced (around 80 kg per year per person). If we also consider air pollution and greenhouse gases as hazardous waste, nuclear energy produces much less hazardous waste than fossil fuels. Second, the existing amount of nuclear waste is much higher than the newly produced waste. The nuclear industry has already produced more than 60.000 ton of used nuclear fuel and adds about 2000 ton per year. Risks (and costs to avoid risks) may not increase linearly with the amount of waste. Compare it with a bank that has a vault with gold. There is a security risk that the gold gets stolen, comparable to the risk that nuclear waste gets out of the storage sites. If it requires one guard to protect a vault containing one ton of gold, it does not necessarily require two guards if the vault contains two tons of gold. The first units of gold (nuclear waste) may generate the highest risks and marginal security costs. If there is a decreasing marginal risk, and if there is already a lot of nuclear waste, adding an extra 3% of waste increases risks with less than 3%. This means that the extra risks (and extra, marginal security costs to avoid risks) for an additional unit of nuclear waste may become comparatively small. Third, future technologies and new generations of nuclear power plants might be able to process the nuclear waste (this is at least theoretically possible according to the laws of physics). Fourth, keeping nuclear energy would have an impact on society in such a way that in the future other people will be born compared to the situation with a ban on nuclear energy. Those other people owe their lives to nuclear energy (without keeping nuclear energy, they would not have been born). From a certain population ethical point of view, one could say that if those other people have lives worth living, they cannot complain against our decision to keep nuclear energy, even if they are confronted with our nuclear waste risks, and that makes keeping nuclear energy more permissible. Furthermore, keeping nuclear energy results in more economic growth, which allows for more scientific research and wealth accumulation and hence more economic wealth, technological inventions and scientific knowledge for future generations, which makes it more likely that their lives are worth living (and may even be better than ours).
  • The effect of civilian nuclear power on the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation is unclear. The data suggest that there is not much evidence that civilian nuclear power programs increase the likelihood of pursuit of weapons by countries. There are some arguments that civilian nuclear power might even decrease the risks from nuclear weapons. First, nuclear power plants could use uranium and plutonium from nuclear weapons and therefore help in nuclear disarmament. Nuclear power is a safe (more controlled) way to dismantle atomic bombs, so to speak. Second, civilian nuclear power might have countervailing political effects that limit the probability of proliferation. International conventions on civilian nuclear power increase the likelihood that a parallel nuclear weapons program is detected and attracts outside non-proliferation pressures. If a country with civilian nuclear power starts to produce nuclear weapons, it risks non-proliferation sanctions. Due to those trade sanctions, it becomes more difficult for that country to import nuclear fuels. As the country is economically dependent on nuclear power, these sanctions might be so economically damaging that the country prefers to avoid those damages by abolishing its weapons program. Also: civilian nuclear power is not necessary to acquire nuclear weapons.
  • Future (third and fourth) generations of nuclear power technologies, such as molten salt thorium reactors, are safer, more cost effective and more sustainable. They produce nuclear waste that remains radioactive for a shorter time, they have more than 100 times the energy yield of current nuclear power, they use more abundant and easily accessible nuclear fuels, they can burn existing nuclear waste, and they are less susceptible to nuclear accidents (no melt-downs).

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