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Analysis | How fear of nuclear power supports Putin and global warming – Washington Post – The Washington Post

A neutron is hurtling through space.It is heading for……an atom,whose nucleusabsorbs theneutronand splits,releasing more neutrons,which split more atoms,and on and on and on.and atomfragments,

Note: Figure is not to scale

This is a fission chain reaction. It is a series of events, one leading inexorably to the next, with a predictable consequence: the release of tremendous energy.

Here is another, less predictable, series of events. Eleven years ago, the mightiest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history pushed forth a 49-foot tsunami that flooded the backup electricity generators at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. With no electricity, the workers at the plant could not control the cooling water, and the reactor’s core melted. Tsunamis pose no risk to Western Europe, but two months after the earthquake, the German government decided it was done with nuclear power.

The decision marked a dramatic reversal for then-Chancellor Angela Merkel, a former scientist who had declared a few years earlier, “I will always consider it absurd to shut down technologically safe nuclear power plants that don’t emit CO2.”

As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February, the consequences of that “absurd” reversal only deepened. Over the past decade, Germany phased out most of its nuclear plants and scheduled its last three to power down this year. That has increased the country’s reliance on natural gas, most of which it buys from Russia.

Many have urged Germany to join the United States in boycotting Russian energy, saying the purchases are tantamount to supporting “Putin’s war machine.” But Merkel’s successor, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has refused, saying such a ban would be disastrous for the German economy.

This is one of the costs of nuclear fear: depending on a dictator to keep your lights on.

Fear is the future’s tollbooth, and it can collect its fee in surprising ways. After 9/11, more people than expected began to die in car accidents on U.S. freeways, multiple studies found. People scared of the vivid threat of a midair terrorist attack apparently opted for the statistically more dangerous behavior of long-distance driving.

Likewise, lots of people are scared of nuclear waste, which can be stored safely or reprocessed into useful things such as medical isotopes. The byproducts of coal-fired plants pose a more imminent threat. Following Germany’s nuclear phaseout, an estimated 1,100 additional people died each year from inhaling the poisonous gases and particle pollution from the coal plants Germany used to temporarily replace its nuclear ones.

There is another, longer-term cost of nuclear fear. Germany has pledged to sharply reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to help slow global warming; it built thousands of wind turbines and solar arrays to wean itself off fossil fuels. But claiming to be serious about fighting climate change while powering down nuclear power plants is a bit like leaping into the ring to fight Tyson Fury without boxing gloves on. Talk as tough as you like, but people might wonder whether you’re serious about winning.

If you were designing a truly rational energy system to move towards a zero-carbon energy system, this is not the path you’d be taking,” Randy Bell, senior director for global energy security at the Atlantic Council, said of Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power.

Even accounting for emissions created during the building of the facility and the mining of its fuel, the typical nuclear plant produces fewer greenhouse gases than power plants fueled by natural gas and coal, and about the same as those running on renewable sources such as wind and solar.


Renewables

Natural

gas

Fossil fuels

Chart shows tonnes of emissions of carbon-dioxide equivalents per gigawatt-hour of electricity, over the life cycle of a typical power plant

Renewables

Natural gas

Fossil fuels

Chart shows tonnes of emissions of carbon-dioxide equivalents per gigawatt-hour of electricity, over the life cycle of a typical power plant

Natural

gas

Renewables

Fossil fuels

Chart shows tonnes of emissions of carbon-dioxide equivalents per gigawatt-hour of electricity, over the life cycle of a typical power plant

Natural gas

Renewables

Fossil fuels

Chart shows tonnes of emissions of carbon-dioxide equivalents per gigawatt-hour of electricity, over the life cycle of a typical power plant

Yet on windless days, wind turbines fail to spin, and even in sunny places, solar panels sit idle at night. Nuclear plants make electricity all day long. As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 278 top climate experts assembled by the United Nations, put it, “Nuclear power can deliver low-carbon energy at scale.”

What gets in the way? “Emotional factors” can make nuclear energy politically toxic, the report noted, citing Germany’s policy after Fukushima. The conclusion? “Nuclear power and accident potential score high on psychological dread.”

Around the time Germany was deciding to power down its nuclear plants, Josh Wolfe’s company was prospering. In 2008, Wolfe and his business partners founded Kurion, named after Marie Curie, and developed a novel method for sealing nuclear waste in glass. After the Fukushima accident, Kurion scored a major contract to help clean it up. A few years later, Wolfe’s venture capital fund sold its stake to the French conglomerate Veolia for an enormous profit.

Wolfe likes to invite people to imagine an alternate reality, one in which nuclear fission was discovered in, say, 2018, rather than in 1938, and it was first used to power cities, rather than to destroy them. “If atomic energy was discovered today, people would be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic,’ ” Wolfe said. The days of depending on dictators to light up our homes would be behind us, and a future with less air pollution would lie ahead.

Back in the real world, most people first learned of nuclear fission as a way to destroy an entire city in the blink of an eye. In the decades following the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States and the Soviet Union secretively developed and tested increasingly menacing weapons while openly speculating about how and when to use them on each other.

This violent history has made us like a man who is afraid of dogs because one bit him as a boy. Show him a golden retriever wagging its tail, and he sees a Rottweiler gnashing its teeth. Show us a nuclear power plant, and we see a mushroom cloud. But though they harness the same property of nature — the nuclear chain reaction — nuclear power plants and atomic bombs are separate technologies. “So I got to thinking,” Wolfe said, “this needs a rebrand.”

Last July, Wolfe shared his idea on Twitter, complete with a new name: elemental power. “Elemental” would not only shed the stigma of “nuclear” and its association with bombs and radioactive fallout, but it would also emphasize the fact that the technology takes advantage of a natural process, just like solar and wind.

If you see the word nuclear underlined anywhere in this article, click it to replace it with elemental. Does it spark more positive feelings?

Most power plants, including nuclear power plants, convert rotating energy into electricity using Michael Faraday’s discovery that electrons will flow through a wire when a nearby magnet moves. A great deal of the planet’s energy challenges hinge on how we solve this seemingly simple engineering problem: getting a turbine to spin and keep spinning.

Of course, you could spin the turbine yourself, but you won’t produce much power, and you’ll soon grow tired.

The trick, then, is to get something to flow through the turbine. If you have a river, you can put the turbine in it — the world gets about a sixth of its power that way — but you might disrupt the river’s ecosystem. You can also set the turbine up high and wait for the wind to blow, an increasingly popular method that contributes about 7 percent of global electricity.

Note: In real windmills, the rotor and generator are contained in the turbine up top.

But the most common way to spin a turbine is to pump steam through it. Coal and natural gas plants make steam by burning fuel to boil water. When fossil fuels burn, they produce greenhouse gases and pollute the air.

Nuclear power plants make steam, however, by using the heat energy from fissioned atoms to boil water. Most atoms do not fission, but the isotopes of certain elements, such as uranium-235, are fissile.

This explanation vastly oversimplifies a great deal of sophisticated engineering. However, the basic concept of a steam-powered electricity plant had been worked out by the late 1800s. “The only thing the 20th century gave us was a new way to make steam by heating it with nuclear fission,” said James Mahaffey, a retired nuclear engineer who has written several books on nuclear energy.

Still, it would be hard to dream up a tougher assignment for a public relations pro than rehabilitating nuclear power’s image. Nuclear fear is everywhere. It is in the villainous Mr. Burns’s rat-infested power plant, where Homer Simpson nods off in the control room, and toxic sludge pours into the local river. It is in monster movies such as “Godzilla,” disaster movies such as “The China Syndrome” and horror movies such as “Chernobyl Diaries.” After decades of relentless anti-nuclear messaging, the very idea of radiation — invisible, mysterious, carcinogenic — is terrifying.

Not all radiation, of course. Go to a beach on clear summer day, and there are your fellow humans basking in it. Melanomas and other skin cancers, most of which are caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays in sunlight, killed an estimated 118,900 people in 2019.

The official death toll from radiation at Fukushima, for comparison, stands at one, although over 100,000 people were evacuated from the area as a precaution, and some 2,000 died in that chaos.

Why are we more afraid of nuclear power plants than the sun? “We are specifically afraid of the radiation sources that are human-made,” said David Ropeik, an author and risk communication consultant.

That widespread fear is similar to that of vaccines, he said: “Mom’s saying, ‘I’d rather my kid get the natural disease like measles than the vaccine.’ Risk will always be how we feel about the facts, not the facts alone.”

Mahaffey can measure the cost of nuclear fear by how easily he can buy laboratory equipment off eBay for the experiments he does in his basement. (Right now he’s trying to confirm the existence of quantum entangled gamma rays from europium-152.) He recently bought a spectroscopy amplifier that used to be owned by North Carolina State University, and his linear gate stretcher was formerly the property of Arizona State University.

“It’s heartbreaking to see the stuff you can now buy for pennies on the dollar that should be used for instruction and research into nuclear topics,” Mahaffey said. “Nuclear topics used to be a big thing, and they’re not anymore.”

Mahaffey got his PhD in 1979, the year a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant partially melted down. As with Fukushima, the public reaction was out of proportion to the dangers — no one was hurt, and the inert gases released from the reactor posed no health risks to humans. But that accident marked a turning point for the U.S. nuclear industry.

“I saw it disappear over the horizon,” Mahaffey said.

As more safety regulations were introduced, nuclear plants became more expensive to build, and power companies found it increasingly difficult to justify those costs.

In the United States, nuclear energy’s advocates for decades have been awaiting a renaissance that seems to never come. Public opinion remains mixed, but younger adults are less favorable to nuclear power plants than older people, according to polling from the Pew Research Center.


favor more nuclear power plants

to generate electricity

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favor more nuclear power plants

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favor more nuclear power plants

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But a new generation of environmentalists is beginning to challenge the anti-nuclear dogma of its activist forebears. “You’re hard-pressed to find an issue where Bernie Sanders and I disagree, and this is one of them,” said Marcela Mulholland, 24, political director for Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank, speaking of the senator from Vermont. “I think it just speaks to a generational divide, where these older people who were politicized and active in the ’70s are sometimes the most anti-nuclear people.”

On the political left, home to most environmentalists, people like to say that a dollar spent on a nuclear plant is a dollar not spent on a wind turbine or a solar panel. Mulholland used to buy that argument, but not anymore.

“Where I’m at now is, if it’s true that the climate crisis is as big of a problem and as serious and urgent of a threat as folks say it is, then we need to be really ruthless and rigorous in thinking about how we can reduce emissions in the most effective and quick way possible,” she said.

When activists succeed in shutting down nuclear plants, greenhouse gas emissions increase, she said, pointing to the closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York state, after which carbon-dioxide emissions jumped.

The electricity sector accounts for less than half of global greenhouse gas emissions, and although nuclear reactors have powered submarines for decades, ideas such as nuclear-powered planes and automobiles remain, for now, in the realm of science fiction and ill-fated military experiments. But as more people switch from vehicles powered by gas to those powered by electricity, it will be all the more crucial for the electric grid to run on a fuel that does not exacerbate the problem of global warming.

Mulholland and other young, like-minded environmentalists favor maintaining existing nuclear plants while supporting the development of next-generation nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors, which advocates say are safer and less expensive than the current generation of nuclear reactors.

Seaver Wang, 29, can tell you the exact moment he changed his mind about nuclear power. In 2010, as a senior in high school, he had already been admitted to a few colleges and was trying to decide which one had the best environmental science program for him. The day he went to visit Cornell, James Hansen, perhaps the world’s most famous climate scientist, was giving a talk, “so I dragged my entire family there,” Wang said.

Before that talk, Wang said, “my opinions on clean energy were very sort of vanilla.” Fossil fuels were bad. Wind and solar were good. Nuclear energy was clean but dangerous and expensive. But Hansen explained that nuclear power generation was about to become even cheaper and safer with the advent of newer technologies. “That was really sort of a shifting moment for me on the issue of nuclear power,” Wang said.

Wang ended up at another Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania, and went on to get a PhD in earth and ocean sciences at Duke while still participating in environmental activism. In 2014, he was arrested outside the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

Wang believes we are at the dawn of a new atomic age. Just last week, the Biden administration pledged $6 billion to save financially strapped nuclear power plants, framing the decision as a part of the administration’s strategy to fight climate change. China and Russia are building new reactors, and Britain is funding small modular reactors as it struggles to eliminate carbon emissions. Even France, which already gets about two-thirds of its electricity from nuclear plants, is planning a “rebirth” of its nuclear industry.

But even if the world eventually embraces nuclear power, the margin for error will be razor thin. When a coal mine collapses or a natural gas pipeline leaks, the public ignores it or quickly moves on. But if anything goes wrong with a nuclear reactor, no matter how minimal the damage, nuclear fear will reignite, with severe consequences for the industry.

Much has been made in recent weeks of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors, eight of which remain active. Even in a war zone, these reactors pose little risk. Their containment structures are built to withstand a plane crash and to seal in radioactive gases, should they somehow lose power.

“Even in a worst-case scenario, there would be no release of radiation to the public,” according to a report from the Breakthrough Institute, the think tank focused on technological solutions to environmental problems where Wang has worked since 2019. Still, the very existence of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants engenders fearful memories of the catastrophe at Chernobyl, even though the somewhat ill-conceived graphite-moderated nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986 bears little similarity to the pressurized-water reactors currently operating in Ukraine.

Back in Germany, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provoked a brief reassessment among the country’s leaders about the decision to abandon nuclear power. Scholz declared Germany “must change course to overcome our dependence on imports from individual energy suppliers.”

Asked if that meant extending the life of the three Germany nuclear plants still producing power, Germany’s economy minister said that nothing was off the table. But just nine days later, the German government clarified that it would not be changing its mind about nuclear power.

Wang thinks that decision might well prove temporary. “Nuclear energy is here to stay,” he said. As for those who oppose nuclear power? “They’ve lost,” he said, “but just don’t know it yet.”

About this story

The life-cycle emissions of different types of power plants are from Our World in Data, which in turn were collected from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Nature and Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Note that life-cycle emissions from biomass, which includes things such as wood and agricultural residues, depend to a significant extent on the type of fuel used and can be as much 230 tonnes on average.

The surveys on favorability toward nuclear power plants by age group are from Pew Research Center, with margins of error of 4 percentage points (May 10-June 6, 2016), 2.7 (March 27-April 9, 2018), 2.1 (Oct. 1-13, 2019), 1.4 (April 29-May 5, 2020), and 1.4 (April 20-29, 2021).

Editing by Ann Gerhart. Graphics editing by Chiqui Esteban and Monica Ulmanu.

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