Making case for nuclear power in new book ‘Seeing the Light’

Nuclear power is not merely an energy option for the future, geoscientist Scott L. Montgomery writes in his new book, it is a life-saving and essential way for the world to provide energy and avoid “carbon and climate failure.”

2-seeing-the-light_cropped-375x574In “Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear power in the 21stCentury,” Montgomery, who is an affiliate with the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies, writes that nuclear power is the most reliable form of energy in the world, with the smallest environmental impact and fewest related injuries and fatalities.

“To say that it has saved a good many lives by replacing what would have been many hundreds of coal plants defines a clear truth,” Montgomery writes.

He adds, “To say that its expansion will make this even more true in the future, when climate concerns are taken into account, is no less accurate.”

Montgomery — who co-authored the book with Thomas Graham Jr. of the nuclear fuel technology company Lightbridge Corporation — answered a few questions about the book.

Public fear of nuclear power is a limiting factor to its expanded use, but you write that such fears are overblown, borne of myths and “dark fairy tales … from the fearful childhood of the Atomic Age.” In light of the accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl, why should the public not fear nuclear power?

Scott L. Montgomery: First, I should say that it doesn’t help to blame or criticize people for being afraid. Public fear is a complex thing, with much history behind it, and I try to clarify this one of the book’s chapters. Yet it’s also true that this fear is a serious roadblock to progress against climate change and lethal air pollution. Moreover, some key reasons for not fearing nuclear power come from the very accidents you mention.

We can say, as a broad average, that 300 power plant reactors have operated worldwide for 50 years. In all that time, three major accidents have occurred, only one of them — the poorly designed Chernobyl reactor — causing any radiation casualties. Multiple, long-term study documents 56 deaths and about 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer.

Nearly all of these casualties were preventable if first responders had been warned and given protective equipment, and if people living in the greater affected area were given iodine pills and told not to drink the milk of their animals, which had fed on contaminated pasture.

But even beyond this, research has repeatedly shown that by far the worst health effects from nuclear accidents come from trauma, PTSD, depression, stigmatization and other forms of mental distress — sourced in the dread of radiation itself.

Coal use has little of such dread, yet today causes over 1.5 million premature deaths worldwide, including more than 3,000 in the United States. No member of the U.S. public has ever been injured by radiation from a nuclear power plant, including Three Mile Island. Meanwhile, many hundreds have been killed since the 1940s by failures of hydroelectric dams, explosions at oil/gas facilities and air pollution due to diesel and gasoline use.

You write that the West still views itself as the center of the nuclear power landscape, but this is no longer the case. What is happening instead?

scott-montgomery-200x250

Peter Montgomery

In September 2017, 58 new reactors are being built, with 160 more planned, and over 350 more proposed. Most of this activity is in China, Russia and India, but also in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Nigeria, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia, among others.

China is especially important, as it has major plans for new types of reactors and for exports. The same is true of Russia and possibly South Korea.

How can safety in nuclear power be assured in developing countries, and in places like China and North Korea?

While there are concerns about nuclear power being acquired by nations in conflict zones, with high levels of corruption, low transparency and state support for terrorist activity, there are also measures in place to minimize related problems. Any country that belongs to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (189 do; Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea do not) can only develop a nuclear program under the auspices and close, detailed guidance of the International Atomic Energy Agency, while remaining open at all times to expert inspections.

China is on good terms with that agency and is itself extremely concerned about the quality of its nuclear power plants, especially in the wake of Fukushima. The government has major long-term plans for nuclear power — there has been talk of China building perhaps as many as 500 reactors or more this century — and is very concerned about accidents.

As for North Korea, no one outside the inner circle of that country’s power elite can assure anything. Right now North Korea has no nuclear power, only a small research reactor able to generate plutonium.

Such a reactor was dismantled in Iran as part of the nuclear deal. Also removed was that country’s supply of moderate enriched uranium, most of its centrifuges (for enrichment), and connection between cascades of its remaining centrifuges. Sanctions had a major negative impact on the country’s economy, helping bring it to the negotiating table and providing a sobering example for other nations. North Korea, meantime, is an example for no one.

You write that in 2007 the world crossed a key threshold, with the number of people living in cities surpassing the number living in rural areas. How are urbanization and nuclear power connected? What is the meaning of that connection to the future of nuclear power?

These are essential questions. Population experts forecast that as much as 70 percent of humanity could live in cities by 2040, most with populations of 500,000 or more, and over 700 urban areas having at least a million people.

Cities, we know, are huge centers of energy use, electricity above all else. This is being accelerated by the spread of IT and the diversification and expansion of the service sector in most of the world’s economies. It will receive a significant surge in demand if electric cars become mainstream.

pull quoteAs things stand now, climate change and urbanization are in a mutually reinforcing loop. Carbon sources — coal and natural gas — are used for most new power plants worldwide, with non-carbon sources, such as renewables, lagging far behind.

It is a dangerous fantasy to believe that solar and wind power can both replace existing carbon sources and satisfy the massive new power demands on the horizon. These and other renewable sources are necessary and must be supported and incentivized. But unless you live in the fairyland of idealized computer models, renewables will need lots of help for the future.

Big cities require enormous amounts of steady power at all hours, no matter what the weather. Nuclear is by far the best source to match this and is able to stabilize grid systems as they continue to add intermittent solar and wind power systems. A sustainable, non-carbon, highly urbanized future depends upon the combined use of renewables and nuclear power.

While other nations plan new reactors, as of 2016, you write, more reactors are being shut down in the United States than are being built. You ask, will the west join the new nuclear era or be left behind? What are the dangers of the U.S. falling behind?

There are many, but let me just mention a few to give a sense of what’s involved. First, nuclear power represents 60 percent of all non-carbon electricity generated in the U.S. Allowing it to decay away makes as much sense in the face of climate change as providing large subsidies to coal-fired power.

Second, the U.S. has been the global leader in nuclear science, technology, and nonproliferation for more than 60 years. Letting our reactor fleet go dark, one plant at a time, is to give up this leadership role, leaving it to China and Russia.

Also, an important safeguard for new nuclear power countries is the 123 Agreement, by which a nation is granted access to U.S. expertise and technology in exchange for certain nonproliferation guarantees. This powerful tool will weaken as the U.S. retreats from its standing as a global leader. Can we assume China or Russia will adopt such a key role?

Not participating in the new nuclear era at any significant level also means that, in essence, the U.S. does not take the climate challenge seriously. It is a form of climate change denial, nothing less.

Finally, the U.S. stands to render itself a kind of super-pariah in this context. This means spending hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade its nuclear arsenal, maintaining an ability to destroy life on a global scale, while diminishing its ability to deal with climate change and to maintain the world’s competence in avoiding nuclear war.

You describe a new era of nuclear power plants that are “cheaper to build, easier to operate, much more efficient, proliferation resistant, and producing less waste.” What are the best practices for dealing with waste?

It’s been known for many years that nuclear waste isn’t a technical problem but a psychological-political one. We’re all familiar with Yucca Mountain and the presumed dangers of nuclear waste, but how many Americans know that billions of gallons of industrial waste, some of it highly toxic and lethal, are injected underground every year at hundreds of sites, such as chemical plants, pesticide manufacturers, and oil refineries located on the margins of ports, towns, and cities across the country?

This happens with barely a whimper of resistance at the national level. High-level nuclear waste in the U.S. amounts to about 88,000 metric tons, which would fill a football field to a depth of about 30 feet. In comparison, over 5 million tons of highly toxic chemical substances and waste are produced each year and are stored onsite.

There is a strong international consensus that waste is best handled by underground storage in a geologic repository. This was mandated in the 1980s by U.S. law to be achieved by 1998, but local groups in candidate states mobilized effectively against it and convinced senators and members of Congress they would lose their seats if they supported such a repository. Yucca Mountain became the chosen site because at the time it had the politically weakest Congressional delegation.

That changed in 2008, when Harry Reid became the Senate Majority Leader and forced President Obama to take Yucca off the menu. Today, there exists a storage site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, in thick-bedded salt in southeast New Mexico, but it only accepts low-level waste, not the high-level waste that really needs deep storage.

Fortunately, a precedent is being set in Finland, where a repository in granite for all types of waste will soon open at Oikiluoto. This site has three operating reactors at two power plants. The local community is strongly behind the effort.

Nuclear power is a unique technology for modern society, as we have concentrated a great number of our fears about the present and future in it, including our anxieties about the destruction of humanity itself.

But we now have 60 years of evidence that such fears are unfounded. And we have evidence that a very different global threat is real — a threat moreover that nuclear power can act directly to significantly reduce.

As our book says, it is definitely time for us to become sensible about these realities, in our own interest and survival.

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Questions in this interview were posed by Peter Kelley of UW News. For more information about Montgomery and his book, contact him at scottlm@uw.edu.

Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century,” by the UW’s Scott L. Montgomery with Thomas Graham Jr., was published in September by Cambridge University Press.  ISBN: 9781108418225

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