Environment: Interview

The nuclear environmentalist

The co-founder of Greenpeace Patrick Moore is an unlikely supporter of nuclear energy. He explains how he changed his mind and why he believes nuclear power is ...
The nuclear power plant Gundremmingen, Germany. / Credits: Reuters

Allianz Knowledge: You protested against nuclear power, now you endorse it. Why?
Patrick Moore: The fundamental mistake we made was to lump nuclear energy along with nuclear weapons. Everything nuclear was evil. Much of the environmental movement continues to make that mistake. When I left Greenpeace in 1986 I still opposed nuclear energy.

But as climate change emerged it was necessary to rethink energy production. Today, 87 percent of all energy used is fossil fuel energy. To replace that with renewables—intermittent energy like solar and wind power—is mathematically impossible.

But nuclear energy could do it: unlike solar and wind power, it is sustainable economically and in terms of providing continuous power.

Is nuclear energy really economically sustainable? Many people argue it is too expensive.
Nuclear plants have a high capital cost but a very low operating cost. There is a lot of risk up front but once the plant is running, over the 60-80 year lifespan it more than pays for itself. In Germany, brown coal costs 2.4 euro cents per kilowatt hour, nuclear costs 2.5 cents.

The anti-nuclear folks are trying to scare the public into thinking their electricity rates will go up if we build nuclear. That is comical as the wind and solar they champion costs between 3 and 20 times more than nuclear.

Is nuclear the best clean energy solution for all countries?
In the absence of hydroelectric resources: yes. Hydropower is by far the most important renewable. Hydro and nuclear power each produce about 15 percent of global electricity.

Many countries still have tremendous hydro potential. But in some countries—like Germany and UK—they face a choice between fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Germany can keep nuclear energy or become ever more dependent on Russian gas.

The lowest per capita emitters in Europe—Sweden, Switzerland, and France—all have a combination: France is predominantly nuclear, Switzerland is predominantly hydro, and Sweden is about 50-50.

How clean is nuclear? What about emissions from mining, shipping, and enriching uranium?
Full life-cycle studies from the University of Wisconsin and the UK Atomic Energy Authority conclude that nuclear energy generates approximately 2 percent of the CO2 emissions per kilowatt as coal does, and 4 to 5 percent the CO2 of natural gas.

Anti-nuclear activists will say that using coal-fired electricity to enrich uranium has to be charged against the nuclear fuel cycle. This is a bogus argument. That CO2 belongs to the coal life cycle not the nuclear life cycle. You can’t count it twice.

How do we dispose of nuclear waste safely? Where do we put used nuclear fuel?
Used nuclear fuel is not waste—that is a problem of public perception. It is one of the best future fuel resources. And we could store that fuel for 100 to 500 years without any problem whatsoever.

The used nuclear fuel should be stored securely on-site until central interim storage sites are developed.

When used fuel is recycled, the real wastes are the fission products, the result of splitting the uranium atoms in the reactor. After 300 years they have decayed to close to zero radiation.

The standard practice, in France, the UK, and Japan is to embed the fission products in glass inside a stainless steel container. These canisters can be stored in engineered silos 80 feet below ground with no radiation impact at the surface.

You say we need to triple the number of nuclear reactors worldwide. How long would it take?
If we go at it with enthusiasm we can do it well before 2040. In the 1970s and 80s the US was commissioning 40 reactors per decade.

There are over 400 reactors operating now producing 15 percent of the world’s electricity. Triple that to 1500 plants and we can produce 60 percent of the world’s electricity.

We know how to do it, it is clean, and with one exception it has proven safe; and that one exception was a stupid Russian design during the Cold War.

But couldn’t accidents happen again, and don’t nuclear plants cause “cancer clusters”?
Nuclear is one of the safest technologies we have ever invented. There has never been a nuclear power plant accident in the West that has even injured a member of the public.

It is safer to work in a nuclear plant in the US than in real estate or financial services. A Columbia University study of 53,000 nuclear plant workers published in 2004 found that those people have less cancer and are healthier than the general population.

So-called cancer clusters are the results of cherry-picking data. There is no official agency or medical institution that accepts these allegations.

Another problem is nuclear weapons proliferation. Are you comfortable seeing Iran enriching uranium?
I wouldn’t say comfortable, although every country has the legal right to peaceful nuclear energy. Secondly, no nuclear weapon has ever been made from used fuels from a commercial reactor.

Thirdly, every nuclear weapons state has reactors dedicated to producing materials for weapons. If you shut down every commercial reactor how would that affect the military reactors?

Machetes killed a million people in the last few decades, so do we feel comfortable with millions of peasant farmers having machetes?

Is there enough uranium to supply a global nuclear power expansion?
There is enough uranium and thorium in the earth’s crust to last for thousands of years.

There is much more thorium and many people believe we should have gone with thorium in the first place because the waste is not as difficult to handle and it can be converted to uranium. India is in the forefront of developing a thorium nuclear fuel cycle.

Then there is the existing stock of used nuclear fuel stored at reactor sites. Ninety-five percent of the potential energy is still in that used nuclear fuel. That is why France is recycling nuclear fuel and Japan just spent 30 billion dollars on a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility.

Unfortunately it is more expensive to recycle used uranium fuel. Only in France and Japan, where the industry is state controlled and not solely profit driven, can they say: ‘we don’t care about the current cost we think recycling is the future.’ We in the U.S. should also be looking at recycling of nuclear fuel as the nuclear renaissance ramps up.

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