The Great Debate

Nuclear power: pros and cons

By Reuters Staff
September 9, 2009

As part of the Reuters Summit on global climate and alternative energy, Reuters.com asked Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club and Ian Hore-Lacy, director of public communication for the World Nuclear Association to discuss the role of nuclear energy. Here are their responses.

(Carl Pope’s rebuttal was posted at 8:30 a.m. ET on September 10.)

30 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Fossil fuels will eventually become more expensive to locate and obtain. It has very important uses such as chemicals and plastics; things we really can’t go without for our economy. Eventually we will need to stop burning it up.

Something will need to fill the gap for cheap power generation. And that is going to be nuclear.

Green energy is too good to be true. You can’t get energy for nothing. The costs of upkeep compared to the power returned by green energy will be the greatest problem science will need to solve in the generations to come. And it is something that will not be solved in time.

In the meantime, we will inevitably turn to nuclear power. It is a resource which can easily meet the power demands which the fossil fuel crisis will eventually bring.

To those who fear the future consequences of nuclear power? Why do you fear? We used fossil fuels all this time, didn’t we? And we all knew the other shoe would drop.

Humans have the capacity to not only understand the long term consequences of their decisions, but to learn how to live with those consequences.

Plus, as you are no doubt aware, necessity is the mother of acceptance. The developed world is fully aware of the many dangers of nuclear power. If the alternative is an energy crisis leading to a collapsing economy, or even society, then nuclear power is something people will simply accept. It is what we do best.

The future is not only here, but positively glowing!

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

settling for bandaids is hardly a solution. as i understand it the known reserves of uranium in the world would be used up just as fast as the oil was if not faster. not to mention leave behind nuclear waste which will have to be stored for thousands of years and a hazard to future generations forever. green energy is the only viable alternative and learning to live on green energy the only logical choice. those that disagree are usually full of hot air.

Posted by oneshotal | Report as abusive

Right on the money as far as the necessity for nuclear power goes. I haven’t heard too many rational reasons not to use it.

However the greener technologies no one talks about are the ones that seem most sensible to me. Geothermal/wave and tidal energies. Wind and solar are good when the conditions are right but not on a widescale or round the year basis. The earth’s core is always hot, hence using geothermal, below water currents will always be going so that’s another great source.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Nuclear power is so ridiculously short sighted I am ashamed to be part of the same human race as the proponents. They make the Black Oil and Coal Satanist look God like.

Posted by Alan | Report as abusive

I can’t believe we are still afraid of nuclear power and it’s “fallout”. There are two primary contributing factors to this phenomena: meltdowns and waste disposal(storage).

To date, I know of two incidents, Chernobyl – a horrible tragedy, and Three Mile Island – a horribly inflated press fest, which have committed to memory the serious risks involved with pioneering scientific applications on limited budgets. Those were both over twenty years ago. While I am not old enough to realize 20 years “is not that long in the scheme of things,” I do understand that many deliveries of the golden age of other technologies have taken certainly longer, for instance, computed tomography scanning or perhaps radiation therapy.

Today, I can’t say if nuclear power production, monitoring, and control have gotten much, if any further from where we last abandoned them, but I venture that enterprises interested in it’s rebirth have definitely had time on their side.

As for generation by-products, no one’s come up with a universally accepted solution yet. But a few are very promising. With a renewed interest in nuclear, we can only hope we have the forethought to allocate the proper expertise and devise a real, permanent fix.

“Dirty bomb” proliferation is also a concern. Here, invested research, IN AN EARLY, LOW-FUNDING STAGE, suggests high energy uranium can be derived from lesser stocks, which will never mature into weapons-grade threats.

Like fossil fuels, uranium is of a finite amount as we know it and is in relative low supply. But we are ignoring a number of elements touted to have equitable, if not greater potential for nuclear power production, and available in far greater capacities.

Unfortunately, our environment is rapidly evolving from civilization’s current addictions which have empirical consequences many times greater than the few infrequent, low-impact, or secondary concerns that nuclear power research and potential re-introduction bears. The technology has substantial groundwork on which to perfect a safe operating and disposal platform and is completely green in the few ways that really count. It is a temporary fix that is more than acceptable while we develop the life cycle of greener solutions.

Posted by benny j | Report as abusive

Atomic power is the ultimate in stealing from tomorrow to feed today. While I agree that atomic will have to play a role in powering the world I think that it should be minimized and then phased out the moment the investments in renewables and possibly fussion make it possible.

Between the issues of limited fuel grade Ur reserves, the issues of storing the waste for 10′s of thousands of years, deal with the next atomic disaster (it WILL happen) but possibley the worst issue that rarely gets aired (except for Iran bashing) is the potential for weaponization.

Posted by eron | Report as abusive

Re. Best Comment. I now read that necessity is the mother of acceptance. Really ??

When I was a young lad, necessity was the mother of invention. We did not evolve from the Stone,Iron nor Bronze ages because we ran out of these commodities


I don’t know exactly why people are so anti-nuclear. There are not a single argument against nuclear power that is 100% rational.

The newest passive nuclear plants do not require any mechanical or electrical systems to control and therefore immune to human or equipment failures. The plant shuts itself down naturally under extraordinary circumstances.

High level nuclear waste produced by a breeder plant a year can fit into an average bathtub. How much harmful particulates are released into the air by a coal power plant? Overall, nuclear power produces far less waste material than fossil-fuel based power plants.

As far as radioactive goes, traditional fossil fuel coal-fired plants releases more radiation into the atmosphere than a nuclear plant. Population exposure from operation of 1000-MWe nuclear and coal-fired power plants amounts to 490 person-rem/year for coal plants and 4.8 person-rem/year for nuclear plants.

Most low level waste produced by nuclear plants have radiation levels comparable to natural background radiation.

As to nuclear proliferation, there are solutions in the works such as alarm-fitted tamper proof maintenance free prebuilt mini nuclear plant modules developed by first world countries aimed at second to third world countries.

Posted by Roland | Report as abusive

“Anon” above shows a typically head-in-the-sand stance as far as the renewables is concerned.

He/she seems to think that we only have the choices of fossil fuels and nuclear to generate the power that this power-hungry world needs.

This is patently untrue as we have not yet scratched the surface of the ways that are available to us – and the third world – to generate this much-needed power.

We are playing around with wind generation and while this is eventually free power that does not pollute it is not dependable due to the vagaries of the wind.

Wave, sun and tidal power has not yet begun to get tapped and all of these sources of power are consistent, dependable and unlimited and they do not pollute in any way.

Looking forward to the future we might even find that using the power of the sun to generate enough electricity to separate hydrogen and oxygen – via electrolysis – from sea-water,( another limitless resource ), might be used in fuel-cells to also generate larger local – pollution-free – power needs anywhere in the world.

Just sticking to the choices of fossil-fuels or nuclear as the only ways to produce energy is not only short-sighted but it is lacking in imagination.




Large scale development plans, in the same vein as ‘The Great Wall of China’ are our future. Increasing numbers of unemployed ‘youths’ would find accessible employment in a re-definition of our roof-tiling industries. Eradicate the need for expensive (in both the losses to our armed forces, and monetary costs) drilling for fossil fuels, through statutory legislation requiring all new builds to be kept dry with solar panel roof tiles. Then perhaps ten years?, to convert all other slate-roof houses. The costs to the goverment under this new direction would be substantially less than our current costs of war. We might even find ourselves in a better economic position too in the long run if we did this.

Posted by Thomas Webb | Report as abusive

While both presenting convincing arguements, these two articles seem to fully miss each other logically. Mr. Pope is correct that a “mobile chernobyl” would be disasterous if an accident were to occur, but how do you come up with the huge shortfall in energy requirements from a reduction in fossil fuel use? Even countries in Europe, which are years ahead of the US in renewable R&D and implementation of green power plants, have reached the limit of replacing fossil fuels.

On the other hand, “50 years of proven technology…that provides 15% of the world’s energy” glosses over two important caveats: Chernobyl and other accidents, and the scalability of nuclear power. Yucca mountain aside, the problem with any accident for the nuclear industry is that it takes only one before the public is up in arms about the spectre of Chernobyl, which invariably leads to a shift away from nuclear.

It currently takes approximately 20 years for a nuclear plant to be provide a positive amount of energy. So even if a thousand new plants were to be opened tomorrow (nevermind the huge regulatory hurdles inherent in construction, let alone approval), the carbon savings are two decades off.

Posted by matt | Report as abusive

accidentally hit “submit” before finishing…

A better solution would be to stimulate the solar industry with federal funding. Microprocessors took off in the 60s and 70s because the military was buying them in droves to save the slightest weight over a few transistors. $10 billion annually in revolving open-bid contracts or a variation of a voucher program to the public would provide enough incentive for the domestic industry to improve efficiency and affordability.

One last thought – Mr. Pope was correct on one other large issue. A reduction in consumption is probably the most difficult, but most effective way to reduce emissions.

Posted by matt | Report as abusive

In response to the earlier comment, it is true that the worlds uranium supplies are likely to run out fast especially if we suddenly start bring more nuclear power online.

However there are many ways around this, including creating a completely new nuclear fuel cycle using Thorium and currently-unfashionable fuel recovery by re-processing used nuclear fuel to make Plutonium. There is also proven technology for creating further fuel using a Fast-Breeder reactor. All of these offer security of energy supplies for generations to come.

For purely practical reasons I just can’t see how we will meet our energy needs by just relying on the green technology we have today. Reducing our demand is also difficult to forsee, even though there are plenty of ways we can do this. Forcing adoption of energy efficency will be rejected by electorates that are hard-wired in the fossil fuel economy.

The short-term answer has to include a good measure of nuclear power.

Posted by Alex Clements | Report as abusive


Nuclear power is a finite resource. Everyone knows this, and the supporters of nuclear power admit it.

If we use nuclear to suppliment our power demands, it will only last for 40-80 years. Then we will once again have a problem.

Green power is still generations away. We will one day have a green economy with clean power and low emissions. That result is inevitable, and we all know it. But we need to get there first.

We don’t have the foundation or the required level of technology. We need to develop these things first. And for that we need time. Something we will be out of once we hit peak oil.

For a species on the brink of a potential energy crisis, another couple of decades will be the difference towards successfully making a green economy (which has always been the holy grail of economics).

And that lifesaver is nuclear power, even if it seems a bit ironic.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Every energy plan has mitigated risks.Its disingenuous at best and ignorant at worst to suggest that conservation and renewable technology are going to make us Carbon neutral societies. Also the high subsidization rates for nuclear is peanuts compared to what wind and solar re subsidized at. ‘Insurmountable problems?’ you sound like a defeatist. Frankly, technological advancements in theorium technology and recycling capabilities are solving the problems of nuclear waste. Meltdowns and proliferation are not inevitable they are speculative and we should not hold back on energy policy change based on ‘worst case’ scenarios.


Anon is right on about the fact that today’s renewable technologies just can not provide the power the US needs. Renewables are just too inefficient and being so they will make the US considerably more dependent on foreign energy sources than we currently are. When the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow the electrical grid still needs power or it will collapse. The only way to fill this void in all practical purposes is to kick on carbon producing Natural gas power facilities. Natural gas is a finite carbon producing resource and the US will hit peak production of natural gas in this country sooner than the world will hit peak production of oil. This is especially true as power companies are mandated to start buying more renewable power sources. This means we will have to rely on unreliable and expensive foreign energy sources like the Middle East and Russia.

Anon is wrong about the amount of uranium the world has left. The Japanese’s have already been able to extract uranium 235 from sea water. Secondly, his estimates do not take into account recycling our current fuel rods. Also Thorium can be used in our current power stations. If don’t believe me look up a company called Thorium Power (Reference Thpw on the OTC)

In a practical sense we should look at a new nuclear power plant as having a plant life of over hundred years. With the above power sources that I mentioned and a plant life of over 100 years this makes nuclear power more than reasonable choice. It makes nuclear power the cheapest power source even when compared to coal and hydro. I have one thing left to say to my fellow nuclear comrades and that is as always.

Viva the Nuclear Renaissance,


Posted by jfarmer9 | Report as abusive

Carl Pope,

I don’t know if you are really as stupid as your article shows you to be or if you are purposely distorting the facts in order to raise fears about nuclear energy. Being the “head cheese” or as your article puts it the executive director of the Sierra club I will give you the benefit of the doubt and classify you as the latter. This begs the question of why you are fear mongering instead of relying on facts when discussing nuclear power? I think the answer comes down to money. The anti-nuclear argument has always been in the past a big fund raiser for the Sierra Club. Currently you (or more probably your unwitting summer college hires) are trolling the streets looking for the last of NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard) in order raise a few dollars. I myself Carl would not be able to sleep at night thinking that the few dollars I get from my salary came at the expense of future generations. Well there are a lot of bad people out there cloaking themselves by the virtue of the organization they work for and I see no reason why Sierra Club is any different. I will say this I bet it is a lot harder for you to raise money these days by bashing nuclear power. Or to be more correct it is harder to have your unsuspecting college summer hirers raise money for you by bashing nuclear power. The fact is Carl fear mongering for a monetary end is a lot harder thing to do when you are dealing with an educated populous. Am I right Carl or am I right? Maybe you guys should think about revitalizing the old China syndrome lie. It worked past. LOL there buddy LOL


Posted by Jfarmer9 | Report as abusive

Let me summarize the main points of the debate. In five years, we will:
run out of oil, coal, and/or uranium,
suffer megadeaths because some evil utility cheated and blew up their nuke,
enjoy abundant, cheap, clean energy from fuel cells, wind farms, solar cells, ocean wave, or geothermal power plants,
learn to use breeder reactors, which provides limitless clean energy,
ditto fusion reactors, or thorium reactors,
accept efficiency (nee a lower standard of living) as the solution to our energy crisis.

These debating points are identical to the ones I read in the early to mid 1970s.

The only novel points, unmentioned, are that:
the US has not built a large new fossil, or nuke since the mid 70s,
The last time I checked (1991) 69 US engineering schools had dropped course work related to our energy infrastructure due to the inability of their graduates to find work,
Roughly half of the engineers, with advanced degrees, working in the US are foreign born,
and there is a growing trend that they are leaving the US because engineering is not lucrative (the reason given by 80% who left),
without this talent your toilet will not flush, you will have no drinking water, no job, and no warm home.

Having several engineering degrees and PE licenses, forty years of practice, and having worked on a score of nukes, two score of fossil plants, and ten years assessing advanced technologies, I am tired of the hot air by blow hards who repeat the same stupidities generation after generation. My prediction: if the US does not decide on a realistic energy policy, summarized by dig, drill, burn and irradiate, in this Administration, it may not survive another generation. It may not survive anyway; it maybe too late. The US has lost the crucial skills needed to build complex systems and our energy infrastructure has rotten to junk status.

I hope I am wrong and welcome rebuttals from peer engineers. Political trolls, and teenagers will be ignored.

Posted by R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. | Report as abusive

Energy efficiency sounds nice, but it isn’t a solution to our problem.

Our problem is going to be increased fossil fuel prices, combined with increased energy demand. Improving our efficiency can only go so far to counter this.

The term energy efficiency is also used to describe green energy as a whole. The concept being that as green energy provides power with little pollution, this means that it is hence ‘energy efficient’. And that is a grave misconception.

Energy efficiency is not measured in terms of pollution vs energy generated. Green energy must be measured in terms of energy generated vs cost of generation.

If the energy produced by ‘green energy’ requires high costs and upkeep to achieve, it will simply not be efficient enough for the world economy.

Those who support green energy argue that were it the dominant power source, it would be efficient due to market forces.

But assuming this is even true, it still needs to get there. And that will take decades of subsidies and hiding green costs behind more efficient polluting power sources.

Until then, something will need to fill the gap. And that is nuclear.

Posted by Spooky | Report as abusive

The dream of being a carbon neutral society is an impossibilty. Humans have been increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere since they domesticated animals and learned to cultivate crops 6000 years ago.

Nuclear and green energy would both help reduce emissions, but finding ways to remove the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere is the only way to reduce our impact on Earth.


Nuclear energy be it from fission or the hoped for fusion adds more heat-kinetic(H-K) energy to its overload already in the biosphere so it is not the future of energy. H-K energy is what is measured with thermometers, and reports indicate that unless thermometers of many types are lying, temperatures of air, water and soil are going up. A paper by Dr. E. Chaisson titled “Long-Term Global warming arising from Energy Usage” in EOS, Trans. Amer. Geophys. Union, V. 89, no.28, pgs. 253-4 (2008) details how energy from buried sources of fossil fuels and atomic nuclei eventually becomes H-K energy that can not be stopped.
However, I have detailed in comments on a number of blogs including Green,Inc. of the NYTimes a plan to get some H-K energy recapture by pyrolyzing the massive ever-expanding messes of organic wastes and sewage soilds. Some recapturing can also be done by using windmills for electricity as that takes from some H-K energy in the winds blowing the biosphere. Dr. J. Singmaster

Posted by Dr. James Singmaster | Report as abusive

Dear Editor,
This article is very useful to all science lovers.
Yesterday, i wrote a very fully analytical views on this subject to this website.
But total links went off.I felt very sad.
On today!s splashes of thoughts, i am writing few merits and demerits of nuclear power.
On advantages counts, the following sentences are very worthy to be understood.
1.Because of nuclear power,many developed and developing nations, and upcoming nations are highly benefited on energy generations, power producing,power distributions and installing many nuclear power plants for meeting more demands from ordinary power consumption to high defense, and to big manufacturing levels.
Now a days,getting mineral resources like coal are very cumbersome,more labor power required ,more risky adventure to be adopted, and many mineral disasters had happened to many mineral fields.
In order to reduce costs,and removal of constraints on the above sectors,nuclear power came as a magical lamp.
It can be used for peaceful purposes.
Those who have nuclear powers,that nations will be branded as super powers.
Through available uranium,and other connected materials,good scientists break through to this applications ,and good knowledge know how are all in good shapes on merits on nuclear power-main energy producer.
Nuclear power can be given at moderate rates to their country people.
Major technical exchanges on account of nuclear power.
2.On demerits points,some nuclear nations got technical,scientific secrets by dubious means.
3.Chances of revealing safe,production ,supply,location secrets to enemies or pass on to wrong hands.
4.Some war,conflict nations may threaten, or create fear phobia, or creating unwanted tensions, or threats to neighboring non nuclear power nations.
5.Some countries may create a war situation or consolidating super ego position to democratic or to peace loving nations.
6.Lack of safe guarding or protecting the interests or spreading strong rumors to some nations.
This subject is very wide for coming to an end.
To sum up, if we see both sides of the coin,then it will be utilized properly.
Otherwise, one old story ticks on our minds for ever.
That story!s one sentence for proper introspection about nuclear power:-
A well prepared,beautifully made garland is in monkeys hands..
For the above problemati


We need nuclear power. We can have safe power plants and the technology for safe control systems has finally arrived. We also need solar and wind power for suppliments. The real need now is energy storage to provide for peak usage. Our trains and buses, cars and trucks, and even our aircraft will operate on electric power or as a hybrid. We also need to develop geothermal power plants as this is truly clean power.

Posted by f belz | Report as abusive

Why can’t we just accept that the french Nuclear program is a success and copy it ?

Posted by John Blundell | Report as abusive

The average overrun at nuclear plant construction projects has been over 200%. Now many will say every electric plant has overruns. I am not excusing the coal utilities for their overruns, but they averaged 50% during the same period.
Nukes are not economical. The best estimates for new nukes are running around 25-35 cents per kilowatt-hour, while energy efficiency has averaged 3 cents, and wind about 13 cents, and CHP gas about 10 cents.
A dollar toward nukes displaces at least 7 times the energy savings from that dollar taken away from energy efficiency would save.
We waste so much energy in the U.S. that could be captured through improved efficiency, and it is cheaper than nuclear and coal electricity, even cheaper than the cheapest renewable electricity.


Sandor Marai teaches us:
“135. Plenty of courage is required for the intelligence
You have to know that men for a reason sticks to the meager, murky and woo-doo, to the illusions and to the clean half-truths, to the unintelligent. The reason is that the intelligence is the discovery and patient toleration of the truth – knowledge of all the things in depth. And to tolerate the truth is always very hard. For the intelligence, for the knowledge of reality and of the truth you need exceptional courage. The man learns the truth with whole of his hearth, with his entire wisdom, with his essential whole-self. One can gain intelligence only wholeheartedly. The men always accepted much easier a cover-up explanation for an uncomfortable truth, therefore the unintelligence, then seek the raw, simple, uncomplicated truth, what is the intelligence. The men secretly know that every truth and human, therefore everything which is real is born in blood and perspiration and begotten in exaltation. But they choose to spread rumors like the babies are from cabbages. That is more likable and more comfortable. But the intelligence is not born out of cabbages.”

The 170 pages of rumors and half-truths in the drafts could be replaced with a one page resolution.
First the Russian Federation shall give a timetable to shut down the 11 still operating RBMK (Chernobyl type) nuclear power plant units and the UNITED NATIONS FRAMEWORK CONVENTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE shall define the following roadmap for a goal of reaching that the atmospheric carbon dioxide level dropped below 300 ppm (where historic record indicates to be for over 800 thousand years):

 New electric power generating capacity can come online only nuclear after 2013
 The existing railroads to be converted to electricity before 2013
 The transportation of merchandize and goods to be done by train on the distances over 25 km from 2014
 Short distance transport of goods and merchandize to be done by electricity driven trucks from 2014
 The coal burning power plant units to be replaced by nuclear starting from 2014 and completely phased out before 2030
 New coal burning power plant unit could be put in service in the future only after the atmospheric carbon dioxide level dropped below 300 ppm
 The public transport is turned to electric before 2015
 The private transportation is supplied with replaceable rechargeable electrical batteries and on the highways replacement batteries are available in new refueling station system for long distance travel from 2014
 Only electric cars are sold from 2015

The following recommendations also shall be issued for the (fossil) energy sector:

 The oil and gas industry shall follow the shift in the energy source and invest in power plants of the nuclear type instead of their traditional fields
 The oil and gas industry is responsible for developing the “drop & pick” refueling station systems for on the highway long distance use of electric cars including the inventory of replacement batteries
 The oil and gas industry shall accept that no permits will be issued for oil and gas exploration and new field development after 2012 until the atmospheric carbon dioxide level drops below 310 ppm
 The coal mining industry shall invest in nuclear power plants and electrical grids and accept that no new mine will be opened and the coal mining will be scaled down until the goal of 300 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide level is reached

The following recommendations shall be issued for governments of states possessing nuclear weapons:

 90% of the weapons grade materials shall be converted to nuclear power plant fuel before 2015
 90% of nuclear weapons related resources shall be turned over to the nuclear fuel cycle industry before 2015


I believe that the Laser particle accelerator will revolutionize the way we produce abundant energy, focusing Highly concentrated beams of electrons at an atom like Hydrogen is alot more stable then operating several Nuclear radiating facilities, Nuclear was viable in the 1900′s it’s not in the 21st century.

Posted by Cameron | Report as abusive

There can be no pro’s to nuclear energy, what to do with the waste ? Our main problem is the ‘dead patches’ in oceans and other water masses.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

‘The future is not only here, but positively glowing!’ – with nuclear power this is guaranteed, especially in the dark. I live in a city on top of and in the vicinity of defunct gold, uranium and platinum mines, I glow in the dark, a human torch.

Let’s step back and assess where all this originates:

1. Water, air and earth mixes, it has no boundaries – we are chasing our tails to try and create an impossible ‘accounting system’;

2. Carbon credit derivatives – if I recall correctly, designed by some crazed Japanese trader – what is the debit ?

3. Alternative energy – I would love to see the net present values of those projects – we will most probably pay that off by the year 2500.

4. Whatever the motive or reason for the high populations, China and India should carry some penalty ?

5. Countries with dead patches in their water masses should limit the spreading thereof, even if it is only banning trawling.

Even the energy companies propagate in their very slick TV ads that we will have to use all forms of energy, my point being that we start with the cheapest.

On an esoteric level, the Sun has gone quiet when it should be very active – maybe this is the breather that Mother Earth needs. Maybe the time to de-urbanise ? Unfortunately there is no ‘bright lights’ incentive.

Then again, a volcano can erupt in Yellow Stone and really mess things up quickly.

Posted by Casper | Report as abusive

i think that the nuclear power plants are bad, because they give people cancer )):

Posted by Kara | Report as abusive

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