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Stanford Report, May 24, 2000

A nuclear solution to global warming?


Nuclear power can play a significant role in preventing catastrophic global warming, according to a controversial article published last week in Science magazine.

William C. Sailor and Bob van der Zwaan, visiting Science Fellows at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), co-authored the report, which appears in the May 19 issue of Science.

They are among seven researchers affiliated with "Nuclear Power Issues and Choices for the 21st Century" -- a CISAC project investigating whether nuclear energy has a legitimate role in preventing global warming.

Diablo Canyon is one of 104 commercial nuclear power plants operating in the United States. The plant is owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric company and is located in San Luis Obispo, California -- about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Coutesy:PG&E/ Steve Kindel)

"Mankind is facing a tremendous challenge with global climate change," says physicist van der Zwaan. "In the coming two decades we have to consider new energy sources, including nuclear."

But van der Zwaan, on leave from the Free University (Vrij Universiteit) of the Netherlands, admits that widespread public concern has led several countries to halt development of nuclear energy.

"Eighty-five percent of all Dutch people are opposed to it," he notes, and the numbers are similar in other European countries.

Clean-burning fuel

Most of the world's energy is derived from fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Only about 6 percent comes from nuclear power plants.

But burning fossil fuels emits large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases that trap infrared radiation from the sun.

As a result, say many climatologists, our atmosphere is heating up like the inside of a greenhouse, and unless we reduce the rate of CO2 gas emissions, the temperature of the Earth will increase by as much as 6o F in the next century.

Such global warming, according to worst-case scenarios, will cause disastrous floods, droughts and erratic changes in ocean currents, and even will spread tropical diseases and parasites throughout the planet.

Advocates say that nuclear power will help prevent global warming because nuclear reactors produce virtually no greenhouse gases. They point to France, where about 60 pollution-free power plants provide three-fourths of the country's electricity.

But critics argue that nuclear power is inherently dangerous and prohibitively expensive. They point out that accidents like the 1986 Chernobyl power plant disaster in the former Soviet Union can result in radiation poisoning that lasts many generations.

Opponents also maintain that safely storing radioactive waste is difficult, and that newly designed breeder reactors could make it easier for plutonium fuel to get into the hands of terrorists and others eager to build small-scale nuclear weapons.

Nuclear solution?

Van der Zwaan and Sailor address these arguments in the Science article.

"Nuclear power can play a significant role in mitigating climate change," they write.

The authors point to recent studies showing that, to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring in the next 50 years, CO2-gas emissions must remain at their current levels -- despite a projected 50 percent population increase by the year 2050 that could double or triple world demand for energy.

"Lacking a crystal ball that tells us the future," write Van der Zwaan and Sailor, "we simply select one possible scenario that achieves the emissions target."

Their scenario envisions a world in which one-third of all energy comes from fossil fuels; one-third from renewable resources, like solar and wind power; and one-third from nuclear power.

To achieve that ambitious goal, all the nations of the world would have to consume less oil, coal and natural gas than they do today, while increasing renewable and nuclear energy sources at least tenfold.

To accomplish that will require increasing the number of nuclear reactors on Earth from about 430 to roughly 4,000, which means that more than one nuclear reactor would have to be built every week for the next 50 years.

"That would require a massive industrial effort," van der Zwaan concedes, costing trillions of dollars, but he believes that developed nations like the United States can achieve this objective if there is strong popular support.

According to the Department of Energy, the United States has 104 nuclear reactors in operation today. Twenty-eight have been shut down permanently since 1953, and there are no plans to build new ones.

"The first thing that has to happen is a general acceptance by the public that fossil fuels create a threat to our future," notes Sailor, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering. "Once that's generally recognized, then all alternatives to nuclear power must be thoroughly investigated."

But he argues that renewable forms of energy such as hydro, wind and solar power are fraught with technical or environmental problems that make them unlikely substitutes.

"Once it's realized that we cannot make ends meet without nuclear energy, there is a chance that public opinion will turn greatly so that nuclear power will once again be acceptable," he notes.

Before that can happen, he says, the issues of safety, cost, waste and proliferation must be addressed.

Exaggerated risks?

"The risks of radioactivity from nuclear reactors are sometimes overstated, so the feeling of many people is just biased," according to van der Zwaan.

He and Sailor write that, with the exception of Chernobyl-type reactors, the present generation of nuclear power plants has a good safety record, experiencing only one accidental meltdown at the Three Mile Island (TMI) plant in Pennsylvania in 1979.

"However, changes in equipment and operating procedures since TMI suggest considerably improved safety," they note. "There are also well-developed designs for a next generation of reactors, which promise still greater safety."

The authors maintain that the risk of contamination from stored nuclear wastes is also exaggerated, noting that the U.S. government has outlined a rigorous standard of protection for people living near the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

"If the U.S. repository is found to meet the standard and is opened," they write, "it will be able to handle all the U.S. wastes expected through the next few decades. However, a large expansion of nuclear power may require using alternative disposal approaches.

"Any nuclear waste project will have to fight legal challenges, which will be political in nature. For instance, the State of Nevada has already spent considerable effort fighting the Yucca Mountain Project, which the state claims has been forced upon it.

"Public support for these claims could decrease if nuclear energy were seen as a necessary part of a solution for climatic problems and, overall, as environmentally beneficial. Nevadans might then be more willing to accept the minuscule risks resulting from having a repository in their state."

The authors conclude, "There are no insurmountable technical barriers to nuclear expansion, but the expansion must be performed under very high safety standards."

Unresolved issues

A greater challenge for advocates of nuclear power, say van der Zwaan and Sailor, are the unresolved concerns over the spread of nuclear weapons and the high cost of nuclear energy.

"There must be international confidence that nuclear power can be used throughout the world without increasing weapons proliferation," they write.

"To date, commercial nuclear power has played little, if any, role as a bridge to national entry into the nuclear arms race, nor are there any known cases in which individuals or sub-national groups have stolen materials from nuclear power facilities for use in weapons.

"However, development of nuclear weapons has been aided in at least three countries (India, Iraq and Israel) by use of research reactors obtained under the cover of peaceful research programs. Absent effective safeguards, nuclear power could provide a similar cover to future weapons efforts.

"Additional fears are raised by the possibility that with a major nuclear expansion, plutonium-fueled breeder reactors will be widely used to stretch uranium resources, creating risks of plutonium diversion for weapons purposes."

The authors conclude that "all fuel cycles pose some proliferation risk, and even the elimination of nuclear power would not eliminate the possibility of a country embarking on a nuclear weapons program.

"Thus, improved international safeguards institutions are needed, with strength and responsibility at an entirely new level of capability, even in the absence of a major expansion of nuclear power."

Economics is another major obstacle to the development of nuclear power. The average nuclear power plant costs about $1.5 billion and takes four years to build, according to the authors. But natural gas power plants are cheaper and faster to build, so the authors recommend gradually phasing in a "carbon tax" of about 30 cents per gallon on petroleum to make nuclear power more competitive.

"In the meantime," they suggest, "the Department of Energy and other agencies worldwide should increase reactor research efforts aimed at simplified designs and economies of scale in construction."

Open dialogue

Sailor, who is currently on a one-year sabbatical from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, says that the mission of CISAC's "Nuclear Power Issues and Choices" project is to publish a neutral, unbiased study next year analyzing the future prospects for nuclear energy.

Study participants include three other co-authors of the May 19 Science article: David Bodansky, University of Washington professor emeritus of physics; Chiam Braun, senior vice president of Altos Management Partners, Inc., in Los Altos, Calif.; and Steve Fetter, associate professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs.

The project also will conduct a one-day workshop at CISAC on June 23 that will include panelists representing a broad spectrum of opinion on nuclear energy issues.

"No technology, including nuclear, can be a panacea," notes van der Zwaan, but he maintains that it is important for the public to set aside fears and prejudices and reconsider nuclear energy as part of the solution to global warming.

"I have a feeling we are at a crossroads as far as public opinion," he adds. SR