Science & Tech

Climatists for Nukes

A farmer works in his field near the cooling towers at the nuclear power plant in Saint-Laurent-Nouan, France, in 2016. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)
A review of The Dark Horse: Nuclear Power and Climate Change, by Rauli Partanen and Janne Korhonen

“It is an enduring mystery to me why it is that most who insist that climate change is an existential crisis nevertheless continue to oppose what is perhaps the most obvious and scalable solution to the climate emergency: nuclear power.”
— Mark Lynas, British environmentalist, co-author of The Ecomodernist Manifesto

‘Climate changes everything,” says radical green writer Naomi Klein — everything except, of course, the vehement opposition of her tribe to the only proven, reliable, and scalable source of non-carbon energy on earth. This fanaticism has confirmed many observers in their judgment that the green movement’s hatred of nuclear energy is rooted less in concerns about radiation than in fear of the possibility that it could solve a problem they need to have. That said, in recent years there has emerged a center-left movement of climate-crisis true believers who appear willing to entertain nuclear power. This movement has produced a blossoming literature nominally supporting nuclear energy as part of their solution for global warming. Most of these works have been technically illiterate or dishonest, with authors claiming that they are all for nuclear power, but only once nonexistent futuristic types of nuclear systems that would supposedly be much safer and more economical than the pressurized-water reactors (PWRs) and related designs in use today are brought to the market.

However, The Dark Horse: Nuclear Power and Climate Change, by Finnish writers Rauli Partanen and Janne Korhonen, is a noteworthy exception. It is a fine and truly competent work making the case for nuclear power now, as it really is. There’s no use of fakery to justify decades of environmentalist sabotage of the nuclear industry with specious claims that PWRs are unsafe systems imposed on the world prematurely by the maniacal U.S. Navy captain Hyman Rickover, or other such nonsense. Instead, they take no prisoners, showing how the PWR, conceived by Rickover as the power source for the submarine Nautilus in 1954 and made the basis for the commercial nuclear industry worldwide ever since, was, and remains, a very sound engineering choice. This is so because the PWR, and related types such as the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) and the CANDU Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR), all use water both to cool the reactor and to “moderate,” or slow down, its neutrons, making them more effective as fission initiators. As a result, whenever a water-cooled and -moderated reactor loses coolant, or even experiences excessive boiling, it loses moderation and thus power, so it is physically impossible for the chain reaction to ever run away.

This is the fundamental reason why, although there have been close to a thousand water-cooled and -moderated nuclear reactors operating worldwide on land and sea since the 1950s, none of them has ever had a runaway chain reaction and not a single person has been killed by a radiological release from any of them. This makes the PWR and its derivatives by far the safest method of producing energy ever devised.

In contrast, the Soviet RMBK reactor that exploded at Chernobyl used a graphite moderator together with water coolant, and so had no such built-in ironclad safety feature. Quite the contrary — when it lost its water coolant, its reactivity actually soared (because water absorbs some neutrons while graphite does not, making graphite alone the better moderator than the two combined), and thus it wildly overheated, setting off a steam explosion that blew the reactor apart. Even that would not have had any serious consequences (beyond loss of the reactor) if the reactor had had a containment building, as all power reactors do in every civilized country. No such system ever could have been licensed in the United States.

The authors explain all this quite clearly, in a way readily accessible to laypeople, and deal with many other issues as well, such as why civilian nuclear-power plants cannot be used to produce plutonium for bombs (extended exposure within power reactors turns part of the plutonium 239 bred in them into unacceptable-for-weapons plutonium 240), and why even meltdowns such as the ones at Three Mile Island (the only “mega catastrophe” in history in which no one was hurt or injured) and Fukushima (a real disaster in which a whole city was destroyed by earthquake and tidal wave but no one was harmed by the three reactors that were wrecked as a result), despite hysterical press coverage to the contrary, did not result in any dangerous radiological releases.

The authors are merciless in exposing the irrationality of the German “Energiewende,” which, claiming to replace carbon fuels with renewables, has actually produced more pollution than ever before by replacing clean nuclear power with ultra-dirty lignite coal, tripling electricity costs in the process. They contrast this with the success of the French nuclear program, which decarbonized 75 percent of that nation’s electrical-generating capacity for reasons of simple economics well before climate change became an obsession. They present mountains of quantitative data showing the advantages in safety, health, and economics of nuclear power over not only fossil fuels, but most especially, renewable alternatives.

They show that the greens’ argument that nuclear power is uncompetitive is hypocritical nonsense, as it has only become uncompetitive in places where regulatory sabotage has made it so. Such is certainly the case in the United States, where the amount of materials, time, and money it takes to build a nuclear reactor has tripled, quadrupled, and quintupled, respectively, since the 1970s as a result of constant ratcheting and capricious changing of regulations by the green-infested Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The authors also explain the straightforward solutions to nuclear-waste disposal — reprocessing to cut waste and increase the amount of energy produced per unit of fuel each a hundredfold, followed by geological disposal — both of which have been blocked by self-proclaimed environmentalists for the purpose of making the industry appear dangerous and untenable. In calm, social-democratic tones, the authors demolish reactionary ideological arguments that a just society can be achieved only by using locally controlled, back-to-nature, preindustrial technologies.

As mentioned, the authors believe that climate change is an existential threat. Once that is stipulated, their case for nuclear power is overwhelming and irrefutable. But one does not have to be a climate alarmist to see their point. While the one-degree-centigrade increase in global temperatures since 1870 may be inconsequential (it is the average warming experienced by an American who moves about 90 miles to the south), CO2 atmospheric concentrations have increased 50 percent (from 280 ppm to 420 ppm), a significant change in atmospheric chemistry that could begin to affect marine life should it go much further, as it must if continued world development remains dependent on fossil fuels. Moreover, as they point out, conventional pollution from fossil-fuel power plants causes millions of deaths and many billions of dollars of increased health-care costs worldwide every year. Climate-change arguments aside, if human life and health matter to you, you should support nuclear power.

America invented nuclear power. We used it to bring a quick end to the bloodiest war in human history and then showed how it could be used to uplift human conditions through our Atoms for Peace program. For a while, with bipartisan support, we were the world’s leader in showing how this newly understood and mastered force of nature could open up unlimited possibilities for the human future, both on Earth and in space. But then, in the 1970s, something changed. One of our major political parties reversed its previous support and in fact declared war on the technology. The Carter administration aborted America’s plans for nuclear-fuel reprocessing and set up a regulatory obstacle course that imposed total stagnation on the industry while turning all utility construction projects into a legal-intervention free-fire zone. New York governor Mario Cuomo made nuclear-power-plant financing nearly impossible by capriciously blocking the opening of the Shoreham plant after it was built, thereby showing how any project could easily be turned into a total loss. The Clinton administration canceled our breeder-reactor program. The Obama administration stopped the establishment of a waste repository in Nevada. The list goes on.

The nuclear industry may seem moribund, but it is not dead, not by a long shot. While more plants are closing in the U.S., Europe, and Japan than are opening, the situation is very much the opposite elsewhere. The time it takes to build a nuke may have increased from four to 16 years in the U.S., but it still takes only four years to build one in South Korea. There are 450 nuclear-power plants in the world today. China plans to build 450 more, domestically, by 2050. Russia and China are aggressively seeking to be the builders of hundreds of additional projects across the developing world over the next several decades. South Korea or India might offer some free-world competition, but unless there is a serious change of heart across the leftward half of our political spectrum, America won’t be much of a player.

Hopefully The Dark Horse can help bring such change about.

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