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Hope springs eternal: “Pandora’s Promise” and the truth about nuclear energy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The mythical Pandora: Hope remains when all good things pass (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

It’s the year 1945. Germany and Japan have been defeated, a terrible war has drawn to a close and the world seems to be at peace again. People are looking for something – anything – that will give them hope. On the morning of August 6, 1945, a stunning announcement is broadcast over the radio by President Harry Truman. At exactly 6 PM the next day, famed physicist Albert Einstein will press a lever in a factory in California which will start a machine called a “nuclear reactor”, a revolutionary new device that produces electricity in unprecedented quantity. This nuclear reactor draws its power from the splitting of atoms, a mechanism which has been part of the basic workings of the universe since the beginning of time. The fuel used in the reactor is the element uranium. A single pound of uranium provides the equivalent of 2 millions pounds of coal. President Truman’s speech is considered a landmark in history, the moment when the most revolutionary energy source mankind has known was introduced to the public and a golden age of energy sufficiency and prosperity was inaugurated….

The above piece is fiction, of course. This is not how nuclear energy was introduced to the world. Instead it was delivered kicking and screaming on August 6, 1945 into the imagination of men and women by a blinding flash, a cloud of radioactive fallout and a blast wave that turned people into shrapnel-laden lumps of flesh and bone. It is one of the great might-have-beens to contemplate the impact of nuclear energy on our thinking had it been gradually brought into this world through peaceful means. As it happened, it was not Shippingport but Hiroshima that got seared into the public consciousness. Since then nuclear energy has been irrevocably associated with nuclear weapons. The psychologist Paul Slovic, one of the world’s leading experts in the psychology of risk perception, has written how, when asked to imagine the consequences of a serious accident in a nuclear reactor, many people conjure up horrific and chimeric images much more akin to a nuclear weapons attack.

Yet there have always been those who have nurtured and promoted a realistic vision of nuclear energy in which nuclear weapons are no more than a semi-colon in the book of history. And in “Pandora’s Promise“, a clear-eyed and balanced film about the benefits of nuclear power, director Robert Stone introduces a cast of unlikely defenders of this awesome source of energy: environmentalists. Since the 1980s, the nuclear freeze movement aligned with other environmental concerns has turned environmentalists into nuclear’s staunchest critics. A particularly startling crack in this otherwise unified front surfaced a few years ago when James Lovelock, a hardened environmentalist who would routinely leave climate change critics frothing at their mouths, came out with a full-throated exhortation in favor of nuclear energy. Pandora’s Promises showcases five other well-known men and women who have long been known for their environmentalist activism and humanism. These include Stewart Brand (the publisher of the Whole-Earth Catalog), famed historian Richard Rhodes and Gweneth Cravens, a former nuclear critic who participated in rallies and who has carefully charted her conversion from naysayer to admirer in her book “Power to Save the World“.

So why would environmentalists of all people support nuclear power? What changed these people’s minds? Two things, primarily.

One was the gap between perception and reality that they uncovered on speaking to the experts and doing their own research. Foremost among their revelations was an accurate appraisal of the nebulous bogeyman named “radiation”. The basic facts are well-known to informed audiences but they bear repeating: we are bathed in a sea of background radiation whose level often exceeds those from even the worst nuclear accidents like Chernobyl. When it comes to radiation it’s all about context; mode of entry, type of radiation, dosage, instantaneous vs prolonged exposure. It is simply wrong to generalize and declare any kind of radiation leak to be catastrophic. There is no evidence that extremely low levels of radiation cause cancer, and the total number of deaths caused by even the worst nuclear accidents are a fraction of those from other causes like coal pollution and cigarette smoking.

Areas supposedly contaminated with high doses of radiation, such as the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, are home to thriving animal and human populations. The crew of Pandora’s Promise criss-crosses the world holding Geiger counters, displaying radiation levels at various places; inside a flight, in high-altitude cities, in Chernobyl and Fukushima, in basements where radon is ubiquitous. They clearly point out how radiation at high-altitudes and during flying is higher than any radiation you might get from around nuclear reactors. They interview cheerful residents living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone for twenty-five years who demonstrate no excess cases of cancers. They point out how risks from radiation pale in comparison to many of the risks of ordinary life which we bear with a sunny disposition. Radiation might be the biggest example of what skeptic Michael Shermer calls patternicity, the tendency to fear something just because we cannot directly sense it.

If the chasm between the fear of radiation and its true role in our environment primed these skeptics’ sense of proportion, the spectra of climate change put it into high gear. Nuclear power is the only high-density, low-carbon energy source that is ready to be deployed on a vast scale. When it comes to climate change, time is running out, and solutions have to be not just comprehensive but quick; as Lovelock says, “we have no time to experiment with visionary solutions”. The film’s proponents see nuclear power as the only energy source satisfying these twin criteria. And as they say, “every time you vote against nuclear power, you are voting in favor of fossil fuels”. That opinion would be consistent with a recent study by James Hansen which calculated the millions of lives saved when nuclear power plants replace fossil fuels. Whatever the risks of radiation, they have to be balanced against the benefits accrued from the expansion of nuclear energy. Solar energy and other renewables may play a valuable and limited role in serving our energy needs, but their timely replacement of most of our energy demands on a global scale is not even on the horizon; with the sheer amount of energy required by the world and especially by rapidly developing nations like India and China, no other source promises to combine nuclear’s ability for being low-carbon and high-energy. For the foreseeable future the only real choices are nuclear power and fossil fuels, and it shouldn’t be hard to decide which one we want to choose.

So what does the future look like? The film makers talk about the mistakes that have dogged the nuclear industry, including the locking-in of certain inefficient reactor designs which produce waste and a failure to reprocess spent fuel, leading to hot waste that is both highly radioactive and expensive. Each of these problems has a technical solution whose main opponents have been political and emotional inertia. In case of waste, the actual amounts are tiny compared to waste from fossil fuel plants, and reprocessing and burning the waste in new reactors can ensure that we get rid of the most valuable and most proliferation-part of it, reducing its volume even further. One factor which they don’t address and which they should have is cost: nuclear reactors have traditionally been very expensive to construct, although their fuel and operating costs are low. The problem with costs arose because reactor designers pursued false economies of scale; economies of scale work only when construction times are not too long and insurer bills start accruing only after actual deployment. It’s also worth noting that the long construction times stemmed from sometimes unrealistic demands on safety; an equivalent coal plant that had to completely contain its own waste would have been prohibitively expensive.

The solution to the cost problem is to make reactors leaner and meaner, and that is what the film does talk about. Fortunately many prominent thinkers who also happen to be wealthy are supporting inspired research into new smaller, safer and more efficient reactors. Bill Gates for instance has lent his support to the traveling wave reactor, a contraption that could run for decades without refueling and waste removal. Bright young people like MIT graduate Leslie Dewan are starting companies for building reactors that can convert nuclear waste into electricity. Other reactor designs like small modular reactors, high-temperature reactors and pebble-bed reactors all promise a radical improvement over existing designs. They can burn more fuel and produce smaller amounts of waste, they are proliferation resistant, they are portable and quickly assembled at their target location and they have entirely passive safety mechanisms which can shut down the reactor even if all active backup systems fail. These Generation IV designs have been on the drawing board for a while, but what has changed is public awareness and the backing of prominent public figures.

Ultimately all the environmentalists in Pandora’s Promise recognize a fundamental truth. The question is not just one of nuclear energy but of our responsibility toward our fellow human beings and future generations. What would our grandchildren say if they knew that we had such an awesome source of life-giving energy at our disposal and failed to make sensible use of it? What would they say if they found out that we let an opportunity to feed and clothe the world pass because of political bickering, knee-jerk emotional reactions and an inability to understand tradeoffs? The liberation of entire populations from the shackles of poverty and ignorance has been one of the triumphs of the human experiment, and it has largely been possible because of the twin pillars of harmonious systems of governance and technological breakthroughs, of which energy use must rank at the very top. If we deprive similar populations of the biggest chance they have to relive this transformation, we would have failed in our basic obligations to each other. Even with all our inequities and faults it’s not a fate we deserve.

Note: Midway through this post I realized that Scientific American writer David Biello has also written an excellent post about the film which goes into more details. Well worth your time.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Innomen 12:11 am 06/5/2013

    FYI there is the stuff called Thorium you might want to look into.

    Link to this
  2. 2. N a g n o s t i c 12:14 am 06/5/2013

    The best article I’ve read in SA for a very long time. Better late than never.

    Link to this
  3. 3. kugelis1 1:29 am 06/5/2013

    One can be a great admirer of Lovelock, as I am, but disagree about the ”primary” role nuclear power will paly and have a bit of skepticism about his sudden admirers who rejected his sicentifc theories about Gaia categorically with unscientific prejudices. First the roles the nuclear power will play is a scientific, political and social question that should be studied with an historical perspective. Reading sci-fi in the 60′s growing up , I saw nuclear energy as the way to space.Then in listeing to an nuclear engineer I knew and an someone who was against nuclear energy have a discussion, the engineer who was of Lithuanian descent said that ” The Soviets have nuclear energy so the U.S must pursue it also”. It suddelnly made me think that there must be a political reason for the Soviets to have nucleear enegry anhd the reason was power, but not electrical power but “political” power. The whole empires nuclear energy was controlled by Moscow the the largest empire could control energy centrally thru Moscow over their 13 times zones. It took Lithuania 15 years after independence to get rid of the Ignalina reactor. There is a political reality to why nations, empires and multi national corporations prefer nuclear energy, it maintains their political and economic power. Perhaps some of these small, portable reactors may lessen this problem but it is a seroius concern.
    Then there is the issue of proliferation, the Manhattan Project scientists were strongly against nuclear power as the saw it spreading nuclear technology for weapons arround the world, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle but you do no not want a Costco of nuclear technolgoy spread everywhere around the world, the number of extremeists and terrorists you worry us somewhat. When Eisenhowser had hos Atoms for Peace project it was because we were scared that the Soviets would win the propoganda cold war if they could used nuclear energy “peacefully’ first while we were seen as the nation of Hiroshima. So the spread of nuclear technology which led to the spread of nuclear weapons was also a poltical deciison done in fear. Perhaps we could have swtitched to more proliferation proof resistant fuels like thorium but the weapons industry liked their their supply of uranium, the weapon and power industries were strongly linked. We can try anmd minimize this link but it is a concern.
    The quickest, most cost efficient and also best creator of jobs is effieciency and conservation, nuclear is captial intensive while efficiency and conservation are labor intensive. Solar and wind are playing major roles in many countries, they are not some far off hopr but the pluses and minuses have to be weighed along side the positivs and negatives of nuclear energy.
    If the issue of global warming and other pollution from fossil fuels is the preeminent issue in the world then we must pursue conservation, efficiency , alternates like solar and wind, architecture that reduces energy use by 90% and balance source those with the serious though not unconquerable problems nuclear power faces such as proliferation, the centralization of political and economic power, waste and the need for a greater government security, oversight for the risks of terrorism that will lesson our freedom If we take the calulated risk with nuclear energy that we can overcome these obstacles than we also better have pursued the alternates as serioulsy as the Manhattan project did nuclear energy or else it is just a disengeous lie by those who want nuclear power for the wrong reasons for politcal and economic power. If it was the for the right reasons then the author of this article would not have dismissed the alternates so readily, especially that of efficiency and conservation as any person with a knowledge of energy knows these are the most important sources, along with population control of course. if you believe nuclear energy is a viable course with its problems, that can be debated but reduce your carbon footprint, walk, take mass transit, eat less meat etc.. or your support of nuclear energy will be from the past not s possible future.

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  4. 4. phalaris 1:43 am 06/5/2013

    Energy choices are, like many other things in real life, the choice of the lesser evil.

    Seen in this light, the supposed killer arguments against nuclear – long-term waste disposal – are just red herrings. If some of the waste has very long-lived radioactive components: it’s because the radioactivity is at a very low level : often lower than that of the original uranium when it was dug out of the ground.

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  5. 5. kugelis1 2:38 am 06/5/2013

    What is also worrisome in this article is the use of the phrase ” awesome source of life giving energy” in regards to nuclear energy, the sun is actually that and the utter disdain for alternates like solar and wind which are becoming the preeminent energy source for countries and areas that pursue them plus no mention of conservation, efficiency and reducing population. There are nations in the Middle East, Russia, U.S, Canada and other oil producing nations, along with the corpations and fianancial institutions that are aligned with them that want nothing more than to maintain their political and economic power thru fossil fuels and you are are enabling them with the positions in your article. That is an extremely powerful alliance that you unwittingly help. You seem to mistake technology, which is complex and large scale in nuclear , with science, which means knowledge from the Greek, with being able to create energy and a society that will use a wide, variety of energy sources but also understands the need to build in a sustainable way that uses much less energy, to eat foods that are not energy intensive such a meat, read Diet for a Small Planet by Lappe, where utilities are rewarded for using more energy but by how much they conserve, by making everty element of energy use as efficient as possible and by living with all this in mind, this would require technology but also an understanding of social, policital and ecological , it goes beyond technology and requires a much more diverse approach the the “build baby build mentality” exhibted here,

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  6. 6. Dr. Strangelove 4:39 am 06/5/2013

    Compare the risk of nuclear radiation with natural catastrophic radiation – a gamma ray burst from collapsing stars. This mass extinction event can potentially end life on earth. Astronomers put the probability of earth getting hit by a gamma ray burst this century at one in 50 million.

    Given the fatalities in nuclear industry in past 50 yrs, you are morely likely to get hit by a gamma ray burst this century than die from nuclear plant accident this decade.

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  7. 7. Chryses 5:50 am 06/5/2013

    Excellent! Good read.

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  8. 8. xingbot 8:36 am 06/5/2013

    Nicely written, Ashutosh. However, what about the considerable regulatory capture of the nuclear industry; the power that lobbying plays in the way that nuclear power can be distributed (and by whom); the corruption that tends to occur in cost-cutting measures in nuclear power plants (e.g. TEPCO), and so on? Seem that nuclear power could have been a great idea if it’d been front and centre of the debate early on, but now it is as much a hazard from a health and financial perspective as it is a potential benefit.

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  9. 9. GRLCowan 9:13 am 06/5/2013

    “Robert Stone introduces a cast of unlikely defenders of this awesome source of energy: environmentalists …” — um, unlikely? The Sierra Club once had a slogan: “Atoms not Dams”. Then they turned against nuclear power, and some time later were found to be taking large amounts of natural gas money to promote fracking.

    There is the suspicion that that’s just the first time they got caught, and no *non-commercial* environmentalist has *ever* opposed nuclear power.

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  10. 10. StefanoRoberto 11:08 am 06/5/2013

    You’ve got to be kidding about this film being “a clear-eyed and balanced film about the benefits of nuclear power”. It’s clearly an advocacy piece from the pro-nuke Breakthrough Institute with no real attempt at critical viewpoints, of which there are many. The Hollywood Reporter wrote this about the film: “Stone never offers subjects with countervailing opinions to challenge his new pro-nuclear doctrine”.

    For a critical analysis of the what the film is missing, go here:

    Link to this
  11. 11. sault 11:18 am 06/5/2013

    Couple of problems with this article:

    “When it comes to climate change, time is running out, and solutions have to be not just comprehensive but quick; as Lovelock says, “we have no time to experiment with visionary solutions”.”

    Here’s the rub: nuclear reactors take too long to build properly in order for them to scale adequately in the next few decades. Those are decades we don’t have. Just look at the new AP-1000 reactors going up in Georgia at the Vogtle Plant. They are taking around 10 years to build and the cost is up to $8B per reactor (and still growing). And one of the main reasons these plants are going up in the first place is because the surrounding communities are desperate for jobs, so the NIMBY factor is weaker than in other areas. Trying to site the 100s of reactors we would need to meet carbon emissions targets by 2050 will be next to impossible as the most economically desperate areas are taken up. The time constraints involved with climate change (since we ignored the problem for so long and kicked the can down the road) also mean that Thorium or other breeder reactor technology isn’t going to swoop in and save us. They might be ready commercially by the 2030s or the 2040s, but who knows how long a commercial reactor actually takes to build. They may play a significant role in the 2nd half of the 21st Century, but probably not in the 1st half.

    “Solar energy and other renewables may play a valuable and limited role in serving our energy needs, but their timely replacement of most of our energy demands on a global scale is not even on the horizon;”

    I see this myth pop up all the time. Why don’t you tell this to the Germans who can get up to 50% of their electricity from wind and solar and that number is set to grow even more in the coming decades. And they’re doing it even though they aren’t the sunniest of countries by a long shot AND they have the biggest economy in Europe. Renewables are not on the horizon only if you don’t bother to look.

    “…reprocessing and burning the waste in new reactors…”

    Again, this is pinning your hopes on unproven technology. The French are the best at reprocessing and the best they can do is to produce reprocessed fuel at 10x the cost of virgin Uranium fuel. So when you need reprocessing for your plan to work, you’re basically asking for the government to spend billion$$$ to set up an entire reprocessing industry from scratch (because it CAN’T compete commercially) and then subsidize the fuel it produces too. And I thought the Price Anderson Act was too much government involvement in the electrical power industry!

    “… insurer bills start accruing only after actual deployment.”

    Do you mean electricity bills? Because the U.S. Government brokers the Nuclear Industry’s liability insurance coverage since it’s impossible for them to buy it on the commercial market for ANY price.

    “It’s also worth noting that the long construction times stemmed from sometimes unrealistic demands on safety; an equivalent coal plant that had to completely contain its own waste would have been prohibitively expensive.”

    Two wrongs don’t make a right. Sure, coal is dirty as all out, but given the clear and present consequences of meltdowns, especially in light of the Fukushima disaster, we need to take safety seriously. And while you would be tempted to delve into specifics of Fukushima and say they aren’t likely to happen again anytime soon, you need to realize that it was the lax safety mindset and complacency of TEPCO that caused them to put the plant’s backup generators in the BASEMENT, making a meltdown much more likely. If you get lazy about safety, another “unforseen” disaster will eventually cause a plant to melt down. And it only takes one to cause a disaster that costs $100s of billions of dollars.

    Renewable energy generation capacity can and has been installed much quicker than nuclear generating capacity. Even in the “nuclear miracle” country of China, they are struggling to bring nuclear power’s share of their electricity from 1% currently to 6% by 2020 and most experts think they probably won’t hit their target. (Even considering all the corners they’re probably cutting on safety to save costs…if Japan, one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, can’t even build / run their plants properly, what makes you think the Chinese will do better?) Meanwhile, they have more wind power capacity than nuclear capacity right now and they’re putting up so many wind turbines that they’re set to double wind power production in a very short time.

    And why are we talking about all these fancy, new reactor designs when energy efficiency is the quickest and cheapest way to reduce emissions? A SciAm article published a few days ago said that home energy use can be cut by 90% with existing technology and with a short payback period. Before we go locking ourselves into more nuclear power, shouldn’t we get as much waste out of the system as we can first? Instead of having to build hundreds of reactors, we’d only have to build dozens. Since utilities are rewarded when their customers waste energy and punished when they save energy, we need to change the utility regulations to give them the proper incentives to help their customers save energy.

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  12. 12. ntouran 12:04 pm 06/5/2013

    A group of Ph.D. nuclear engineers refuted BeyondNuclear’s criticism referred to by StefanoRoberto point-for-point. There may be good criticism of Pandora’s Promise to be had, but it is not from BeyondNuclear.

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  13. 13. syzygy 12:51 pm 06/5/2013

    A good effort to combat ignorance.

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  14. 14. phalaris 1:01 pm 06/5/2013

    Sault #11
    Sault – you’re up to it again:
    “Why don’t you tell this to the Germans who can get up to 50% of their electricity from wind and solar and that number is set to grow even more in the coming decades.

    A quick look at Wikipedia
    and a little arithmetic, at which you seem to be challenged, would have shown you that wind and solar made up 12% of electricity consumption in 2012.
    And as I showed you on previous threads, Germany’s output of greenhouse gases rose in 2012.

    Why should anyone look at the rest of what you say?

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  15. 15. syzygy 1:28 pm 06/5/2013


    Regarding your discussions with Sault, have you ever heard the cautionary advice about mud wrestling with a pig? (Now I’m not calling anyone a pig here. Everyone is welcome to their own opinions.)

    As the advice goes, you need to understand that the pig likes it.

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  16. 16. sault 1:40 pm 06/5/2013


    I said they can get UP TO 50% of their electricity from renewables. 12% is for TOTAL yearly consumption, so we’re talking past each other here. And so what, 12% of the total is still quite different from “not even on the horizon”, right?

    Please leave out the personal insults just because I highlight the shortcomings in your favorite technology. We can’t have a meaningful discussion like this.

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  17. 17. curiouswavefunction 1:45 pm 06/5/2013

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. Re: solar in Germany, what do you think of the assertion that it’s being heavily subsidized and is running up bills?

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  18. 18. sault 1:49 pm 06/5/2013

    And phalaris, you need to work on your reading comprehension:

    “Germany’s renewable energy sector is among the most innovative and successful worldwide. The share of electricity produced from renewable energy in Germany has increased from 6.3 percent of the national total in 2000 to about 25 percent in the first half of 2012.[1][2] In 2011 20.5% (123.5 TWh) of Germany’s electricity supply (603 TWH) was produced from renewable energy sources, more than the 2010 contribution of gas-fired power plants.

    Wind and solar power accounted for over 16% of the electricity generated in Germany in 2012.”

    And look at the bottom of the page and you’ll discover that ALL renewables made up 23% of electricity consumption in 2012.

    Maybe you need more practice with that arithmetic thing you keep talking about too.

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  19. 19. sault 2:21 pm 06/5/2013


    First of all, if you look at Catalina Schröder’s articles on renewable energy, they are ALL negative and one-sided against clean energy:

    Alexander Neubacher is an even worse offender:

    Their treatment of clean energy issues is anything but even-handed. There is ZERO mention of the costs of pollution or the successful clean energy sector Germany has fostered. Their points are easily refuted by looking at the facts:

    “Consumer prices for electricity in Germany have risen considerably in recent years. These price increases are partially attributable to a strong rise in the apportionment for the promotion of renewable electricity in accordance with the German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG). The EEG apportionment and associated VAT currently account for approximately one-sixth of household spending on electricity. Yet the increasing generation of power from renewables leads to decreased wholesale electricity prices. As a result, the net burden on the consumer – given effective competition – is lower than the apportionment.”

    “Admittedly, the retail power rate in Germany (which is not set by the government, but rather by the market; any household in Germany can switch to any power provider) has risen by around 20 percent since 2007. But an analysis by Germany’s Network Agency, which regulates gas networks and power grids, also recently found that the profits of power firms rose during that time from a profit margin of 1.1 to 8.2 percent. The Agency says that the net rate for power could have even dropped since 2009 had power firms passed on the lower cost of wholesale power to consumers; but unfortunately, only the factors that increased prices were passed on.

    In 2012, prices on the power exchange are even lower. The main reason is the large share of renewable power, which is largely offsetting more expensive conventional plants only switched on to cover peak demand. Power providers benefit from these lower prices and could pass them on to consumers.

    But there is no sign that this will happen. Instead, politicians such as Economic Minister Philipp Rösler want to put an end to renewables to keep prices in check. As he puts it on his party’s website, “Tens of billions in subsidies are going to renewables, and every power customer has to pay the bill. We have to put an end to this.” Rösler and his colleague, Environmental Minister Peter Altmaier, therefore plan to reform the EEG this fall.

    From 1970 to 2012, 54 billion euros in subsidies went to renewable energy according to a study recently published by Green Budget Germany (“Was Strom wirklich kostet“). But during the same timeframe, the study found that 430 billion euros in subsidies was devoted to coal and nuclear power. Rösler’s FDP was in power for 21 of those 42 years of subsidies.”

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  20. 20. syzygy 3:47 pm 06/5/2013

    Dr. Jogalekar,

    Well, it’s Germany’s business what they spend on solar energy. Considering how far north Germany is and their propensity for cloud cover, I’m not sure it’s the best investment for them. But then again, it’s their money.
    I have thought for decades that nuclear power was a good investment.

    I remember trying to discuss nuclear power with an otherwise educated person (grade school teacher but smart) who I couldn’t reason with on the subject. I explained that living next door to a coal fired power plant would be far less healthy than next to a nuclear plant. She would have none of it. Nuclear = BAD

    I guess there are many who just refuse be objective.

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  21. 21. phalaris 4:08 pm 06/5/2013

    Sault your quote
    “Wind and solar power accounted for over 16% of the electricity generated in Germany in 2012.”
    doesn’t appear on the wikipedia page linked to, unless my search function is lying to me. Can you tell us where it comes from?

    “I said they can get UP TO 50% of their electricity from renewables.”
    Well, what the devil does that mean? If the sun shines at midnight, yes I’m sure they can.

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  22. 22. sault 4:30 pm 06/5/2013


    It’s on the graph somewhere down the page. Sometimes they can get 50% of their electricity supply from renewables, but over teh course of the year, but wind and solar made up 16% and total renewables made up nearly 23% in 2012.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Chryses 5:33 pm 06/5/2013

    One problem with getting more base-load nuclear generating capacity is the price of natural gas, which fell from over $13 per million BTUs in 2008, to just $2 last year. Although the price has since recovered to just over $4, the US’s large reserves of shale gas should stop it from increasing much for many years.

    That’s a difficult economic hurdle to overcome.

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  24. 24. M Tucker 5:34 pm 06/5/2013

    This film does not really go into the important aspects of building a nuclear reactor: extraordinarily long construction time and cost. A well balanced documentary would discuss these issues in depth and not gloss over them. The nuclear waste might be nothing to worry about but a well balanced film would thoroughly explore this issue by visiting existing nuclear power plants and examining what they are doing with their waste.

    I don’t give two s#$ts about aging environmentalists who have seen the light regarding nuclear energy. Leave them out of a well balanced film. Please do include actual experts in nuclear energy who know how long it takes to approve sites, how long it takes to actually build a reactor, what is realistic to expect with delays in building, what is realistic to expect with cost overruns, what is realistic with respect to waste.

    We will build new nuclear plants but cost is a big issue. As long as nat gas or coal is cheaper and faster to build that is what utilities will build.

    However this is what is currently going on with nuclear reactors. It is in the news and easy to find:
    Tennessee is planning to install small modular reactors, the first of their kind. Georgia rate payers are not happy about the costs involved in building a couple of more conventional reactors. Once up and running, after a long and expensive build, the cost to the utility company is very low compared with other conventional methods of generating electricity until the plants start to show some age. If they need any repair work done, like San Onofre, it can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

    Vermont Yankee currently stores most of the 40 years of its spent nuclear fuel in a deep water pool in the reactor building. About five years ago, it started storing the oldest — and coolest — waste in giant concrete and steel canisters in a facility just north of the Vernon plant. All of its waste is on site, since the federal government has not opened a federal spent fuel facility.

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  25. 25. M Tucker 7:06 pm 06/5/2013

    Ash, I do want to say one more thing. That was a nice fiction you started this piece with but the learning curve was steep for generating electricity from nuclear reactions and if we had built a commercial reactor in 1945 it probably would have had an accident. Sure it might have only really harmed some of the workers but it isn’t something to take lightly and it is dangerous. If you are going to start the story with nuclear energy, including weapons, you should remember that a couple of Americans lost their lives handling critical masses of nuclear material before the first bomb was dropped.

    Three Mile Island was not the first partial core meltdown in the US. The first partial core meltdown of a commercial power plant happened in 1959 in the San Fernando Valley, California. The Atomic Energy Act in 1954 encouraged commercial building of reactors but after several partial core meltdowns the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 demonstrated that nuclear power presented risks that utilities were unwilling to assume without federal support. In 1976 four nuclear engineers resigned because they thought nuclear power was not as safe as the industry claimed. They testified before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Accidents at nuclear plants led to the writing of a screen play that was produced into a movie called the China Syndrome that opened in 1979, 12 days before TMI. That might have more to do with the sudden anti-nuclear feeling than the bombs dropped thirty years earlier. The nuclear energy story is much longer and much more twisted than you or this current film have presented and we have a long history of underestimating the risks, remember the radium girls.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Dr. Strangelove 10:21 pm 06/5/2013

    The sun is more dangerous than nuclear plants. More people die of skin cancer from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation than radiation from nuclear plant accidents, by a factor of 7,000. I love sunbathing. I had a nice tan from the beach.

    Link to this
  27. 27. N a g n o s t i c 1:51 pm 06/6/2013

    Sault, you and those like you who single-mindedly dump on nuclear power have helped cause the problem you so strenuously and constantly carp over.

    Link to this
  28. 28. sault 5:00 pm 06/6/2013


    Why don’t you present some evidence instead of just hurling insults?

    Link to this
  29. 29. Stephengn 2:39 am 06/7/2013

    Not one Gen 4 or 5 reactor is on line anywhere in the world. They exist on paper only. Yes, the LFTR in Oak Ridge back in the day worked – but if memory serves, it had maintenance issues and major decommissioning problems that lasted (at least) until 2009. China is trying to built an experimental LFTR now (with our help). If it works, great, but it will still only put out 7mW and scaling up to 1gW will not be trivial. Next gens are much preferable over the high pressure monstrosities we have now. But the next gens have major problems:

    1. Next gens are a completely new way of thinking about nuclear which means big learning curves for operators and an entirely new and or expensive and varied regulatory regime.

    2. Build times – the build times on an AP1000 (Gen 3 but still boiling water) would be huge. How long would it take to build a Gen 4?

    3 The nuclear industry has a serious lack of private investors problem and 4th generation nuclear needs enormous amounts of taxpayer funded research dollars… we’re not even talking about actual construction yet.

    4. Waste will still be a problem. Even with Gen 4s, a geological repository will still be needed

    5. In a democracy, as opposed to authoritarian alternatives, all nuclear will continue to have an uphill political hill to climb

    Meanwhile, nanotech energy solutions are advancing exponentially. By the time even single Gen 4 nuclear plant is up and running, nano energy will be cheaper and easier – AND more reliable – these technologies are not based on machines, but on materials – no moving parts

    Looking ahead even in the mid term, nano energy techs are the wiser and obvious investment choice and the financial world knows it. Better for us to invest our tax dollars there

    Link to this
  30. 30. marclevesque 10:33 am 06/7/2013

    Well said M Tucker

    Link to this
  31. 31. JackFate44 1:17 pm 06/9/2013

    There are three myths propagated by the anti-nuke crowd that makes them wholly unprepared to engage in discussions about the future of world energy needs:

    1. Wind and solar can do the job.
    Without sufficiently cheap and massive energy storage capabilities, renewables will never be able to provide enough energy for the world. Plus, the footprint of these choices will be so large, environmentalists will block their construction in countries where enviros are given the opportunity to do so.

    2. Nuclear is too expensive.

    Not compared to renewables. The anti-nukes have no problem with wind and solar being 3 or 4 or 5 times as expensive as nuclear energy (even with govt subsidies). It’s funny that enviros now care about the consumer’s pocketbook when they have not in the past in most instances, filing lawsuit after lawsuit, delaying projects over selfish reasons, with little environmental benefit.

    3. We don’t know what to do with the waste.

    This is the topper. “Until we have a plan, no new nuclear energy.” I’m sorry but this is the argument of someone who has run out of valid arguments. The waste is being handled just fine – has no impact on ANYONE. ANYWHERE. Show us where it does. 100+ nuclear plants operating for 30+ years in the US – where is the problem?

    Environmentalists have done much good in the world over the past 30-40 years. But on nuclear energy, they are missing an opportunity to be at the table, offering fresh perspectives, because they are taking a silly all-or-nothing stance based on a fear many rational people just don’t share.

    I hope this movie enlightens them, as it is intended to, to shift the paradigm of discussion about nuclear energy to something where it is here to stay, so let’s continue making it safe for people and the environment. In other words, play the role enviros have played in many other industries. Monitor + engage. Fear-mongering, dissembling, junk science – not a good way to win mainstream converts.

    Link to this
  32. 32. jmdesp 1:52 pm 06/10/2013

    @sault : I have asked the author of the graph you were referring to correct it, and, until that’s done, removed it from the wikipedia page.

    The 16% value is unsourced, and contradicts official AGEB (already referenced on the page) and BMU value which are instead 11.9%, 7.3% for wind and 4.6% for PV for 2012.

    Reference for this data is available here

    @JackFate44 : It’s useful about the waste to refer to the fact that all the waste from lifelong operation of the Maine Yankee station could be stored safely on a small plot of land,-69.692255&spn=0.003576,0.006539&z=18 whilst coal waste is becoming constantly a bigger and more *actually* polluting problem :

    Link to this
  33. 33. Duane Pendergast 12:09 pm 06/16/2013

    Good article!

    The following provides links to some 50 papers and presentations detailing some international initiatives to further develop nuclear energy technology.

    See the articles from 2009 and 2012 on Canadian Nuclear Society Western Focus Seminars.

    Link to this

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