Al Gore: nuclear power is not the answer to our energy and climate crisis

In an interview with the Guardian last week Al Gore talked about the climate negotiations in Copenhagen this year, the European carbon market, climate change deniers, smart grids and nuclear energy.

The most surprising comment from Gore was about nuclear energy and its role in fighting climate change. According to Gore nuclear energy is not the answer to our problems because it’s dirty, too expensive, unsafe and that it poses a threat to world peace.

"I'm not a reflexive opponent of nuclear. I used to be enthusiastic about it, but I'm now sceptical about it. There's a few reasons. Let's assume for the moment that we will solve the problem of long-term storage of radioactive waste. Let's assume also that we'll figure out how to standardise their design as [each plant] is currently unique and that enhances the risk of operator accidents. Let's assume we can solve the terrorism threat to nuclear reactors. That still leaves a couple of very difficult problems.

First and foremost, economics. The nuclear industry cannot give any reliable cost estimate for how much it will take to build a nuclear plant. When a utility is confronted with the absence of any advances for how much the construction cost is going to be, then that's a problem. Because the economics of nuclear only work at scale. You've got to have a 1,000 megawatt plant for it to be efficient and competitive. In the current environment, if you run a large utility that sells electricity you've got a certain amount of money to allocate in your budget. If you're looking at the trends towards more conservation and the rapid introduction of renewables, it's hard for you to project what your demand is going to be with as much precision as when the world was more predictable. As a result, you are less inclined to take all of your money and place one big bet on something that matures 12-15 years from now at an uncertain cost. That what's called a "lumpy investment" and they want smaller increments that give them smaller flexibility. In the US, there hasn't been a new order for a new reactor in 36 years.

Yes, there is [more appetite for nuclear power now]. And because of the carbon crisis there will be more nuclear plants built and some of those being retired will be replaced by others. I think it will play a somewhat larger role, but it will not be the main option chosen.

Whatever countries such as the US and the UK do, it will have a demonstration effect for the rest of the world. As the world comes to grips with how to solve the climate crisis, we in the US and the UK have a leadership role. If we told the rest of the world that nuclear is the answer [they would follow]. For the eight years that I spent in the White House every nuclear weapons proliferation problem we dealt with was connected to a reactor programme. People have said for years that there are now completely different [nuclear] technologies. OK, but if you have a team of scientists that can build a reactor, and you're a dictator, you can make them work at night to build a nuclear weapon. That's what's happened in North Korea and Iran. And in Libya before they gave it up. So the idea of, say, Chad, Burma, and Sudan having lots of nuclear reactors is insane and it's not going to happen."

Greenpeace was of course happy by Gore's comment. Martin Lloyd, from the Greenpeace blog Making Waves, said that:

"It's always nice when people agree with you. We've maintained that nuclear power is a dangerous distraction to the real solutions to the climate crisis for a long time now. It's dirty, it's unsafe, it's a threat to world peace and it is terribly, terribly expensive."

"Now, Al Gore, who's sometimes been on the other side of this argument has come round to our position. Because, as he notes, even if you assume problems with safety and waste can be overcome, it just doesn't make sense economically."

Photo credit: Severin Nowacki (cc)


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Simon Leufstedt
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Guest Laura

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Al Gore makes a lot of sense. We should be thinking closer to home to solve our climate change and energy problems. Investing in a micro system will not solve all of the worlds problems but its a start!!

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Guest Holger Hinrich

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Bashing nuclear power, wich is the largest low carbon source of energy in the industrializd world and the only one with decades of proven track record as well as still significant growth potential, this definitely does not help solving the climate problem.

Over the last 40 years nuclear power has developed into the largest low carbon energy source of the industrialized world – without support of any cap and trade system for CO2 emissions. Why shouldn’t nuclear grow further if such support would become available?

Today in Germany, the 17 nuclear power plants in operation are true cash cows, which stimulates public desire for financing renewable energy projects with part of this cash in exchange of extending their operating permit beyond the current legal limit of 32 years.

The German weekly Newspaper DER SPIEGEL recently published a comparison of CO2 avoidance costs for various low carbon energy sources. Nuclear energy came out as the lowest cost alternative by far (DER SPIEGEL, Nr. 50, page 56). DER SPIEGEL is normally not known for being nuclear enthusiatic.

My conclusion from these stories is, that the cost of nuclear-generated electricity cannot be that uncompetitive as Al Gore wants to make us believe.

Similarly misleading information is given in his new book "Our Choice". Look to page 165: The graph on „Relative CO2 Footprints of Electricity Sources“ The „Nuclear“ bar shows a value of 288 g per kWh. This is apparently the value which the explanatory text makes reference to, by stating: „... the CO2 associated with nuclear plants is many times more than that associated with generating electricity from wind, solar, or hydroelectric power...“

But the numbers next to the bar tell a different story. 288 g/kWh is not meant to be the typical value of CO2 emissions from nuclear power, but rather the maximum. The values range between 1 – 288 g/kWh. I consulted the source of this information to get more clarity (B.K. Sovacool in Energy Policy 36, 2008) and learned that the author, who has screened many different studies even disputes this maximum value himself as being exaggerated. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6...

According to the German Oeko-Insitut, which has a clear anti-nuclear reputation, the CO2 footprint on a full life cycle basis of German nuclear power is only 32 g/kWh. For nuclear power in France the Oeko-Institut calculates 8 g/kWh (www.oeko.de, March 2007). By powering their Uranium enrichment facilities with nuclear energy France is capable of reducing their CO2 footprint to a level similar to that of wind and solar . These numbers are clearly not many times more than those associated with generating electricity from wind and solar.

My question to Mr. Gore is: why are you downplaying the benefits of nuclear power for a low carbon energy supply and why are you exaggerating the cost issue with misleading information? Isn’t this in conflict with your goal to help us all make the right choices for our future ?

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Guest Russell Lowes

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Nuclear energy is a high emitter of CO2; it is not a low-carbon emitter. There are twenty steps of the fuel cycle and eighteen of them are CO2 emitters. Mining and milling emit a significant amount of CO2 right now. This will increase as the best ore is used up.

Already, the world's ore quality (the uranium in the average ore mined) has gone from 0.3% average in the 1980s to 0.15% today. It is projected to go down to 0.04% by about 2040 (www.stormsmith.nl), half-way through the lifespan of any reactor built in the near future. When that happens, the ore mining and milling will increase CO2 from the nuclear cycle to greater than the CO2 from natural gas electric stations.

And that does not count the energy and related CO2 emissions from the multi-million year waste management program. If you include that, nuclear energy becomes a net energy negative and the CO2 jumps through the roof.

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Guest Holger Hinrich

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Bashing nuclear power, wich is the largest low carbon source of energy in the industrializd world and the only one with decades of proven track record as well as still significant growth potential, this definitely does not help solving the climate problem.

Over the last 40 years nuclear power has developed into the largest low carbon energy source of the industrialized world – without support of any cap and trade system for CO2 emissions. Why shouldn’t nuclear grow further if such support would become available?

Today in Germany, the 17 nuclear power plants in operation are true cash cows, which stimulates public desire for financing renewable energy projects with part of this cash in exchange of extending their operating permit beyond the current legal limit of 32 years.

The German weekly Newspaper DER SPIEGEL recently published a comparison of CO2 avoidance costs for various low carbon energy sources. Nuclear energy came out as the lowest cost alternative by far (DER SPIEGEL, Nr. 50, page 56). DER SPIEGEL is normally not known for being nuclear enthusiatic.

My conclusion from these stories is, that the cost of nuclear-generated electricity cannot be that uncompetitive as Al Gore wants to make us believe.

Similarly misleading information is given in his new book "Our Choice". Look to page 165: The graph on „Relative CO2 Footprints of Electricity Sources“ The „Nuclear“ bar shows a value of 288 g per kWh. This is apparently the value which the explanatory text makes reference to, by stating: „... the CO2 associated with nuclear plants is many times more than that associated with generating electricity from wind, solar, or hydroelectric power...“

But the numbers next to the bar tell a different story. 288 g/kWh is not meant to be the typical value of CO2 emissions from nuclear power, but rather the maximum. The values range between 1 – 288 g/kWh. I consulted the source of this information to get more clarity (B.K. Sovacool in Energy Policy 36, 2008) and learned that the author, who has screened many different studies even disputes this maximum value himself as being exaggerated. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6...

According to the German Oeko-Insitut, which has a clear anti-nuclear reputation, the CO2 footprint on a full life cycle basis of German nuclear power is only 32 g/kWh. For nuclear power in France the Oeko-Institut calculates 8 g/kWh (www.oeko.de, March 2007). By powering their Uranium enrichment facilities with nuclear energy France is capable of reducing their CO2 footprint to a level similar to that of wind and solar . These numbers are clearly not many times more than those associated with generating electricity from wind and solar.

My question to Mr. Gore is: why are you downplaying the benefits of nuclear power for a low carbon energy supply and why are you exaggerating the cost issue with misleading information? Isn’t this in conflict with your goal to help us all make the right choices for our future ?

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Guest Russell Lowes

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Nuclear energy is a high emitter of CO2; it is not a low-carbon emitter. There are twenty steps of the fuel cycle and eighteen of them are CO2 emitters. Mining and milling emit a significant amount of CO2 right now. This will increase as the best ore is used up.

Already, the world's ore quality (the uranium in the average ore mined) has gone from 0.3% average in the 1980s to 0.15% today. It is projected to go down to 0.04% by about 2040 (www.stormsmith.nl), half-way through the lifespan of any reactor built in the near future. When that happens, the ore mining and milling will increase CO2 from the nuclear cycle to greater than the CO2 from natural gas electric stations.

And that does not count the energy and related CO2 emissions from the multi-million year waste management program. If you include that, nuclear energy becomes a net energy negative and the CO2 jumps through the roof.

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Guest holgerhinrich

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that's simply not true, please see the results published by the German Oeko Institut. (sorry, in German). I have no reason to doubt these results, since the Oeko Institut positions itself otherwise clearly against nuclear power.

http://www.oeko.de/oekodoc/318/2007-008-de.pdf

Furthermore, CO2 emissions related to nuclear power are all secondary in nature. The primary power generation process is CO2 free. This means, that all CO2 emissions from nuclear power could in principle be avoided by choosing CO2 free energy sources for the respective process (e.g. mining). France is quite successful in approaching a fully CO2 free fuel cycle.

Regarding waste storage, I don't see any relevant amount of energy consumption related to geological storage. This is well established practice for chemically hazardous waste for decades in Germany.

Regarding quantiy & quality of Uranium reserves, I don't see any reason why these should behave differently over time than other energy ressoures like mineral oil. Their reserve/production ratio is rather constant since 100 years. Also the quality has by far not deteriorated as expected.

Uranium resources have a much longer lifetime now than 10 years ago, thanks to successful exploration.

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Guest Russell Lowes

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Uranium reserves do behave differently than oil and other reserves. Uranium is radioactive. It breaks down into many by-products. There are emitted gases, particularly radon, that allow geologists to easily detect economically retrievable uranium.

To say this is not true and to give one source (Oko-Institut, of which I am very aware of) of over 100 on the subject is not really adequate. Take a look at the stormsmith report I cited above. Then you can look at the Sovacool study at http://www.nirs.org/climate/background/sovacool...

Sovacool analyzed 103 studies covering these issues and featured the stormsmith report as one of the group of studies that made it through the screening.

While nuclear does not emit much carbon at the reactor (it does emit Carbon-14 for example, in small amounts), the reactors do take grid energy at times and have backup diesel units. However, these are relatively small carbon emissions. However, to say that the nuclear fuel cycle is not to be counted, as many seem to do, shows a lack of understanding of life cycle analysis.

Of nuclear energy's 20 steps, 18 produce CO2. Mining, milling, enrichment, building the plant, and running the waste steps all produce large amounts of CO2. Wind and solar emit greenhouse gas also, when you count mining and fabrication of steel,etc., but much less than nuclear energy.

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Guest holgerhinrich

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Anyway, lifetime of Uranium resources have substantially increased over the last ten year.

I couldn't open your link to the Sovacool study, but found this reference, where the mean value of all studies is given with 66 g CO2 /kWhe. This may still me more than solar or wind, but these are not the alternatives to nuclear anyway. The alternative to nuclear is coal. Each additonal NPP could replace one coal power plant, and there are still much too many on the earth. Compared with CO2 emissions of coal, nuclear offers a phantastic advantage.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6...

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Guest public records

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Guest Mike Abusafieh

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AL gore is without a doubt the BIGGEST liberal piece of shit i have EVER seen! Nuclear energy not practical? Well if it weren't for shitheads like him, We would of already advanced by now years ahead in cleaner reactor technology. Which we still have but not as advanced as it would of been. I'm sorry to say this but nuclear energy IS clean, it IS practical, and it outputs a TON of energy with almost no emissions except that of water vapor.

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Guest Mike Abusafieh

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OK then calculate how much CO2 is emitted by setting up wind farms? Manufacturing solar panels, and so on and so on. You'd find that wind power as well as solar is a very unreliable source of energy. And takes of acres of land which could potentially damage the environment WORSE than a nuclear facility that only takes up a couple hundred thousand square feet of space .

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As stated in an earlier comment, take a look at the report by Benjamin Sovacool at http://www.nirs.org/climate/background/sovacool_nuclear_ghg.pdf This report shows that wind produces about 10 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour, compared to the average of 66 for nuclear. However this average was from the studies that made it through the screening that Sovacool did. The most in-depth study, far more in-depth than the Oko-Institut study, was done by two researchers in northern Europe, at stormsmith.nl The stormsmith.nl report estimates that the output for nuclear energy is 110 grams. This 110 gram figure does not take into consideration, however, two major factors: (1) ore has been diminishing in richness from 3000 parts per million (3000 parts of uranium contained in a million units of ore); and (2) the long term waste storage and environmental remediation energy inputs. When you factor these items into the equation over, for example, ten thousand years, nuclear CO2 emissions will be much higher than even coal.

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Nuclear opponents are admittedly quite creative in inventing arguments for their case. The reference to CO2 emissions from long term waste storage is another good example. But what is the real insight gained from studies like those of Sovacool or Stormsmith? Even nuclear opponents would struggle to deny that the energy producing fission process in a nuclear reactor does not produce CO2. So, the core process of nuclear energy is CO2 free. All CO2 emissions attributed to the production of nuclear energy are related to secondary processes in the supply chain, before or after the fission itself. Hence, the amount of CO2 emissions in that supply chain simply depend on the energy sources used in the various steps in the supply chain. And if CO2 free energy sources are used for these steps why shouldn't it be possible to keep the whole nuclear energy supply chain completely CO2 free - as it would be possible for renewable energy as well?

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Guest trexapb

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I agree, as some one I know said " by the time the uranium is extracted from the ground, shipped over to the plant, and processed, lots of engergy has already been wasted. Trucks and mines opperate on gas." -owner of greenmowers.org

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Guest Jean-Marc Desperrier

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 The thing is nuclear uses 10 000 times less volume of uranium than coal and oil do to produce the same amount of energy. So the truck cost is 10 000 more. For the mining cost the difference is not as big, because of the low uranium ore concentration, but even that one is tens of times lower. Today Germany is starting to import coal from Mongolia, just realize what it means in terms of oil cost given that a single 1 GW coal consumes thousands of tons of coal per year. But Gore is completely self coherent. During his stay at the government he championed legislation that brought the nuclear industry almost to a stand still. And the replacement was ... massively coal-power, tens of GW of coal-power. Nuclear was a problem but not the massive impact of coal on both climate and pollution. Way to go, M Al Gore !

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Guest Andrew Hvatum

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He is a lobbyist for the coal and natural gas industry. People like him in positions of power know that nuclear power really could spell the death knell of the coal industry and natural gas industry, if you look at his historical and current stock holdings, and his recent sale of Current TV to Qatar it's clear that he is just protecting the source of his paycheck.

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Guest Andrew Hvatum

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Well said! Germany is the poster boy for the policy Al Gore advocates, which would make us much more reliable on coal and gas shipped all around the country in the amount of millions of tons a day. Can Al Gore really be so stupid? I doubt it, he knows what he is doing, he's an optimist that his pay from Qatar will continue increasing. How much more clear must it be? First Gerhard Schroeder sells out to Russia and Gazprom after shutting down German nuclear, now Al Gore comes out against nuclear after getting a multi-million paycheck from Qatar? You'd have to be a complete idiot to not know what is happening here! At least the Chinese have their head on straight and are building nuclear reactors at breakneck speed, while making a killing selling us solar panels and wind turbines on credit. Cheers to them for taking advantage of our stupidity.

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Guest Andrew Hvatum

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Sovacool is a tool who has been so debunked that it's not even funny. He was predicting a massive increase in Uranium prices for decades now, and has been debunked year after year after year after year. Not only that, but the institutions he has worked for have been consistently funded by the fossil fuel industry. http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2007/12/sovacool-not-so-cool.html

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Guest Andrew Hvatum

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Any study performed by Sovacool can be dismissed out of hand given his history. http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2007/12/sovacool-not-so-cool.html

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Guest Andrew Hvatum

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Exactly, renewable energy has much higher CO2 output per Kwh, not to mention the problem of energy storage which raises its effective output even further. Sovacool, not so cool.

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Guest RussellLowes

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Just because some hacks decided to go after someone that is doing good work like Sovacool, does not mean their work is invalid. Of course they will try to discredit anyone who is in their way of profits.

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Guest RussellLowes

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Wind power's life cycle analysis (LCA) is about 10 grams per kilowatt-hour. That is partly why it is so cheap -- very little carbon-based fuels are required to manufacture turbines, in relation to the energy output of the turbines. Not as good, but declining with tech improvements, solar is about 25 grams. This compares with coal at 1000. Nukes are about 120 if you don't count three factors in the LCA: (1) declining ore assays/content, (2) long-term waste management over the million years the courts have ruled management is required to be planned for, and (3) cleanups at the larger disasters like Fukushima. When you include those over the thousands of years, nuclear will go up into the thousands of grams of CO2/kWhe.

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Guest RussellLowes

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Just because some hacks decided to go after someone that is doing good work like Sovacool, does not mean Sovacool's work is invalid. Of course they will try to discredit anyone who is in their way of profits.

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