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The case against nuclear power

As part of our examination of the status of nuclear power in America, Need to Know spoke with Dr. Richard Lester, the head of the nuclear science and engineering department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who favors the use of nuclear power to generate clean energy. To get the other side of the debate, Need to Know also spoke with Damon Moglen, the Climate and Energy Project Director for Friends of the Earth, an organization of self-proclaimed progressive environmental advocates. Moglen says nuclear power will not solve our country’s energy and environmental problems.

Watch the rest of the segments from this episode.


  • John Ross

    If a nuclear power plant was soon to be built in my neighborhood I would immediately make plans to move away.

  • Pambesan

    i was about 16 when my uncle got a really good high paying job yes he help build the fulton mo power plant yea really none of us really thought of the danger of it to much cause they said it was safe and could handle any error ect .the truth i feel is i rather live in the dark ages than worry about my grand children and my kids have that deal no no no no matter how much they pay ya be safe you hoo.

  • Mike Olson

    This source of power is an important link to progress away from the carbon based fuels we currentally use. To ignore it will add years to our dependence on foreign oil supplies as new effiecent energy supplies are discovered. I would have no concerns of a nuclear facility being constructed in my area.

  • Werner

    I think the move to solar & wind power will not move forward until individuals (and I mean real people not corporations) are allowed to share the subsidies currently reserved for the big power structures. Each resident should have a small scale but ample power system attached to their house – apartment buildings could co-op. Eliminate the power loss over transmission lines. etcetera

  • Asteroid Miner

    Maria Hinojosa is prejudiced against
    nuclear power and Damon Moglen is working for the coal industry
    whether he knows it or not. Every time you dis nuclear, you are
    working for the coal industry and shooting yourself in the foot.
    What the coal companies know that most people don’t:

    As long as you keep messing around with
    wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, the coal industry is safe.
    There is no way wind, solar, geothermal and wave power can replace
    coal, and they know it.

  • Asteroid Miner

    Nuclear power is the safest kind, bar none, for everybody.   

    Deaths per terrawatt year [twy] for energy industries, including 

    Chernobyl.   terra=mega mega  [There are zero sources of energy 

    that cause zero deaths, but not having the electricity causes the 

    far more deaths because not having electricity is a form of poverty.]

    fuel……… …fatalities… ..who……deaths per twy

    coal………6400…… …workers………342

    natural gas..1200…..workers and public..85

    hydro…….. .4000….. .public…….. …….883

    nuclear……..31…… …workers………… ……8

    Nuclear power is proven to be the safest.   Source:  “The Revenge of Gaia” by James Lovelock page 102.   As you can see, psychological problems are preventing the wider use of nuclear power.   Chernobyl is included.

    I have no connection with the nuclear power industry.   I have never had any connection with the nuclear power industry.   I am not being paid by anyone to say this.   My sole motive is to avoid death in the collapse of civilization and to avoid extinction due to global warming.

  • Anonymous

    Why wont the free market build or insure nuke power?

  • Gerard71gerard

    I had hoped the complete program will introduce the Integral Fast Reactor
    technology that the U.S. and Russia have demonstrated since the 1970′s.
    Fast Reactor technology employs a fast neutron spectrum capable of using
    our stockpile of spent nuclear fuel, depleted uranium, and yes, thorium
    as fuel. These reactors are inherently safe. A nuclear meltdown is only
    a risk for our aged fleet of what are called “thermal boiling water
    reactors, or thermal pressurized water reactors”; a sixty year old
    approach employing forty year old technology. If the nuclear plants at
    Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were of the Fast Reactor
    variety, inherent safety features would have shut down the reactors
    without need for any human interaction. No Accident. No meltdown.
    Really! This super safe approach has been successfully tested as
    recently as April, 1986 in the U.S. Experimental Breeder Reactor 2.
    South Africa, Russia, India, and China are all investing in Fast Reactor
    technology. The question is not weather we should invest in or phase
    out nuclear energy. Rather, we should quickly decommission all of our
    legacy “thermal” reactors and replace them with the new generation of
    inherently safe Fast reactors. If America took this seriously, its
    burdensome stockpile of spent nuclear fuel and depleted Uranium could be
    converted into electricity and process heat by newer Fast Reactors.
    Indeed, this supply of energy could replace the burning of 9 trillion
    barrels of oil.

  • Gerard71gerard

    Who’s free market are you talking about? Certainly one cannot call America a Free Market for energy. Free markets all around the world are investing in and have already built and insured Generation IV Fast Reactors. These reactors are far more efficient, meltdown-proof, an use as fuel nuclear waste left over from Generation II and III Light Water reactors.

    America has historically been the biggest market consumer of Big Fossil fuels like oil, coal, etc. Big Fossils have been able to manipulate the American market, lobby our government to manipulate licensing regulations, and conspire with their Big Banker and Big Insurer friends in order to prevent any competition against Big Fossils in America. What happened to the electric car in the 1970′s, or electric street cars in most cities, or the Solar Panels on the White House?
    With the economic momentum in America behind Big Fossils, it is a no-brainer who is behind difficulty for new nuclear to get investors in Generation IV Fast Breeder reactors.

    D.S., your argument is plain wrong. If you were right, then no free market in the world would be able to develop Generation IV nuclear. However, hypocritically enough German and American energy corporations ARE designing, building and selling both Generation III & IV nuclear reactor technology around the world. While Generation IV reactor technology has been commercially repressed to benefit Big Fossils in  America, other countries are leaving america in the dust. Russia, India, China, South Africa, France, and many other countries are already bringing Generation IV Fast Breeder technology to the international marketplace, and developing very significant safe nuclear energy national programs for energy independence from Big Fossils. The lack of investment in Gen IV nuclear in America is because the American market IS NOT FREE. Generation IV nuclear energy is safe, insurable, and very profitable in countries wise enough and educated enough to do what is right.

    Many people think nuclear waste and potential meltdowns are by definition the flaws with nuclear energy. However, these risks only come from Generation II and III reactor designs used in America. We have been stuck with this approach; called Light Water Reactors for the last 60 years in America. This technology was supposed to be replaced with Generation IV fast reactors in the 1970′s. Generation IV reactors eat our nuclear waste as fuel, and are so designed that the fuel cannot melt down. Given that our 770,000 tons of Spent Nuclear Fuel and Depleted Uranium could generate enough energy to replace the burning of 9 trillion barrels of oil, America could realize abundant cheap energy if Generation IV Fast Reactors were commercialized. Big Fossil also stands to lose profits equal to 9,000,000,000 barrels of oil sold to the American market If Generation IV reactors replace Gen III. This can be the only REAL reason why America is not reaping the benefits of Generation IV reactors.

    Ironically, America has had a good history of research into Fast Reactors for commercial energy production. We have been in the lead with the Integral Fast Reactor, Experimental Breeder Reactors I and II, Traveling Wave Reactor, etc. All of these designs have proven to be immune to the meltdown type accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl. These reactors do not melt down when coolant flow is lost, or when coolant is lost. They consume nuclear waste, as opposed to producing it. wiki the topic.

    Isn’t it hypocritical to claim that lack of government funding or commercial backing and insurance behind new nuclear is somehow indicative of problems  nuclear has while at the same time Big Oil, Coal, and Gas all receive tremendous Government Subsidies, Tax Breaks, etc, etc? Maybe the reason there is little banker or insurer backing is because the Big Banker and Insurer Money is in bed with the Big Fossil money in America.

    Also, please note several American corporations DO BELEIVE GENERATION IV reactors to be profitable, insurable, and safe enough to fine buying markets around the world. So do Japanese, French, German (Siemens), Indian, Chinese, Canadian, South African corporations find Generation IV technology worth developing and marketing around the world. Indeed, Galena Alaska plans to have a Fast Generation IV reactor installed as their electric plant, sold to them by Toshiba; a design called the 4s.

    Except for closed, rigged, and manipulated markets such as the Big Fossil American market, Generation IV Fast Breeder Reactors are catching on world wide. These designs are Green; they get rid of our nuclear waste (>99%), reduces radioactivity from >100,000 years to <400 years, cannot melt down like Fukushima, and with just the American supply of SNF and DU, we would have enough energy for centuries. Further, this energy could stimulate our economy and make viable huge infrastructure investment in an efficient grid, wind, and solar.

    Demand Sider seems to know very little about Gen. IV nuclear energy; or is invested in Big Fossil in America. Perhaps American arrogance blinds some people as to how far behind and backwards our energy policy is. After a decade of war in Iraq, and a decade of manipulated Oil costs and associated recession, America needs to invest in every kind of non-fossil fuels as it can. Our competitors realize how beneficial Generation IV Fast Reactors are. It is dangerous to ignore this new technology. We will be left increasingly dependent on Fossils and Fossil Fuel related warfare to keep our economy going; an unethical and war-prone policy.

    Finally, America has a responsability to do something intelligent with its 770,000 tons of nuclear waste left over from our Generation II and III reactors.
    As one of the biggest burners of fossil fuels in the world, our pollution damages the rest of the world. Are we so irresponsible, greedy, and ignorant enough to let Big Fossils continue to manipulate our energy policy and economy when we have centuries worth of process heat and electricity waiting to be generated from our nuclear waste stockpile by Generation IV nuclear; a technology many countries DO HAVE THE FREE MARKET AND INTELLIGENCE to COMMERCIALIZE?

  • Gerard71gerard

    I call this the “Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Gamble.”
    I am all for Wind and Solar, but will these be enough to get us off Big Fossil fuels quickly enough and productively enough to avoid burning even More Fossil Fuels?
    Some say we could have lots and lots of Wind and Solar alternatives. Where is the free market money coming for this in America? Why is Germany and China ahead of us in solar and wind?
    I think Big Fossils have repressed green alternatives, including the newer, greener, safer Generation IV Fast Breeder reactors. I say green because Generation IV nuclear reactors can use waste from our legacy, 60 year old, Light Water Reactors as fuel. Further, these newer designs cannot melt down like Chernobyl or Fukushima. (wiki the American Experimental Breeder Reactor II) WE have centuries worth of energy waiting to be generated from our 770,000 ton stockpile of nuclear waste from our Generation III Light Water Reactors.
    Going against this 60 year newer, 60 times more efficient Fast Breeder technology leaves one stuck burning Big Fossil Fuels to make up for what Wind and Solar is not yet producing.  Big Fossil profits more when any type of nuclear energy or any alternative energy is repressed. Without Generation IV nuclear in America, we will be more subject to economic recession and depression as we will be more dependent on increasing Big Fossil Fuels. Because of cap-and-trade and carbon taxes internationally, we will be paying even more for these Fossil Fuels. Thus, there will be even less money in America for investment in Wind and Solar. This Fossil Fuel dependence becomes an ever tightening noose strangling our economy.

    America needs Generation IV reactors to bridge the energy gap from Bog Fossils to Wind and Solar. Plus, the best thing to do with our nuclear waste from our legacy Light Water Reactors is to convert it to energy by using it as fuel in Fast Breeder Reactors. China, Russia, India, and France, to name a few, are commercializing Generation IV reactors.

  • Gerard71gerard

    Solar is great, yes. Yet, can these solar panels get rid of 99% of our
    nuclear waste by converting it into energy in Fast Breeder Reactors;
    without risk of meltdown? As I am 100% for green energy I am all for
    solar and wind. Yet, Where-in-America is the market, investors, and
    insurers for Solar? If Germany can do it, why not America? I understand
    that President Obama is taking heat for the $500,000,000 federal funding
    package for Solindra’s Failed Solar Boondoggle. Folks complain about
    the notion of federal backing for safe Generation IV nuclear, or even
    for the building of two new Light Water Reactors in Georgia, and they
    also don’t seem to like federal backing for companies like Solindra. If
    America wanted to, Generation IV reactors could already be converting
    our 770,000 ton supply of Spent Nuclear Fuel and Depleted Uranium into
    enough energy to replace  the burning of 9,000,000,000 barrels of Oil.
    If one is truly GREEN, you cant afford to ignore the new Generation IV
    Fast Reactors. German, Russian, Indian, and Chinese energy corporations
    have been developing Generation IV Fast Breeder Reactors since the
    1970′S (Even earlier in Russia). (Chernobyl was a Generation II design,
    and should have been shut down).  We already have enough SNF and DU to
    last for centuries, if transmuted or fissioned in Generation IV Fast
    Breeders. These same designs can also help with nuclear weapons
    proliferation, as weapons grade uranium and plutonium can also be used
    as fuel. This could really stimulate the economy and make Solar and Wind
    more possible. As the cost of everything rises as Fossil Fuels
    diminishes, it becomes harder to put economic muscle behind solar in
    America, which is one partial reason we are not seeing big support for
    wind and solar in America without a lot of federal aid. So if it is o.k.
    to send federal money to Green solar and wind, would it not also be a
    good idea to put money behind Generation IV nuclear?
    Also remember
    that Germany is a Social Democracy with much more taxes and government
    regulation of business than in America. They also have a Green party
    unlike anything in the American puppet show.

    Germany Should shut down their old reactors, and replace them with Fast Breeder Reactors.
    has experience with Generation IV Fast breeder reactors, and Siemens
    sells Generation IV Fast Breeder Reactor  to the rest of the developed
    world; the very same Generation IV Liquid Sodium Fast Reactor that was
    shut down in Germany in response to Fukushima was built by Siemens
    because they intend to sell Generation IV Fast Breeder Reactors far into
    the future.  If a company like Siemens can build and sell Generation IV
    reactors, I guess the argument that Generation IV is too expensive and
    unprofitable is clearly not really true. So they must be profitable
    after all.

    Folks who say the lead time for Fast Reactors is 20 _
    30 years are not paying attention to the rest of the developed world.
    Siemens builds and and intends to sell Generation IV Fast Breeder

    Also, Here is poor China’s Generation IV program:

    China began research on fast neutron breeder
    reactors in the mid- and late-1960s . During its basic research period from 1965
    to 1987, China’s research focused on fast reactor technology such as fast
    reactor physics, thermodynamics, sodium technology and small sodium facility.
    During this initial period about 12 experimental setups were established, and
    one sodium loop was constructed. This included a 50 kg 235U zero-power neutron
    setup. On June 28 June 1970, this device reached criticality.  The
    engineering goal for the applied basic research phase of China’s FBR
    program (1987-1993)  was to successfully construct a 65 MWt (25 MWe)
    experimental fast reactor.  Further developments were made in sodium
    technology, fuel and materials, fast reactor safety, and reactor design. A
    preliminary foundation for a fast reactor design was established, and
    approximately 20 experimental setups and sodium loops were built.

    Currently, the initial experimental validation phase focused on sodium loop
    technology. Two sodium loops were imported form Italy:  ESPRESSO (sodium
    flow rate 110 m3/h, maximum sodium temperature 650oC) and CEDI (sodium flow rate
    320 m3/h, maximum sodium temperature 650oC.)   The primary conceptual
    design was completed in 1992 and the final design  was completed in 1994. 
    To test the concept of the design, a zero-power simulation experiment was
    conducted at the Physics and Dynamics Engineering Institute in Russia.  
    It was not until January 1998 that construction work  began on the
    country’s first fast neutron reactor.  The
    China Institute of Atomic Energy (CIAE) , in cooperation
    with the Beijing Institute of Nuclear Engineering, is constructing the FBR with
    Russian technical assistance.  On 8 September 1999, Russian Prime Minister
    Vladimir Putin signed a Cabinet ordinance to cooperate with China in the
    construction of a FBR.  The draft agreement was approved by the Russian
    Cabinet on 22 April 2000.

    Under China’s national high tech “863″ project, a pilot commercial station,
    is being built in Fangshan county near Beijing.  According to the
    Xinhua News Agency,  it is scheduled to be operational by 2003. 
    China’s original plans included building a 65 MWth (20-25 MWe) experimental
    reactor by the year 2000 at a cost of about $103 million.  China plans to
    use this reactor to provide the technical foundation for its long-term program
    of commercial FBR development.
    In December 2003, German Chancellor Gerhard
    Schröder and a large business delegation including
    Siemens CEO Heinrich von Pierer visited China. 
    During this visit, delegation members discussed the
    possibility of China’s import of Siemen’s Hanau Fuel
    Element Factory, a mothballed mixed oxide (MOX) fuel
    fabrication plant.  The plant was reportedly
    intended to generate the fuel necessary to power China’s
    planned fast breeder reactor. 

    Here is poor India’s Generation IV Fast reactor program: January  2010 (LAST YEAR)

    India’s prototype fast breeder reactor, due to
    go critical next year, paves the way for the country’s ambitious plans
    for nuclear energy. By Baldev Raj, S.C. Chetal and P. ChellapandiA
    fast neutron spectrum reactor has the flexibility to operate as breeder
    to achieve net creation of transuranics, as convertor to balance the
    transuranic production and consumption and as transmuter to convert the
    long lived minor actinides and other radioisotopes to short lived ones.
    These features enable uranium to be used 60 times more efficiently,
    reduce the toxicity of high-level waste and time it takes for the waste
    to reach natural radiation levels. Therefore, several fast reactors have
    been built and operated worldwide, accumulating about 390 reactor-years
    of operating experience to date.

    Fast breeder reactors (FBR)
    will be essential if India is to achieve its target of a 25% (300GW)
    nuclear share by 2050, given its limited uranium resources. FBRs will
    play a role in the second phase of India’s Three Stage Nuclear Power
    Programme, formulated by Dr. Homi Bhabha. Stage one involves the
    deployment of natural uranium pressurized heavy water reactors. It will
    be followed by concurrent deployment of FBRs burning plutonium to breed
    U-233 from thorium. The FBRs will be followed, in the third stage, by
    Advanced Heavy Water Reactors (AHWRs) capable of utilizing India’s
    abundant thorium resources.

    China, Russia, Germany, France, India, South Africa, and America have
    all successfully been developing Fast Breeder Reators as far back as the
    1960′- 1970′s, What possible reason would explain America abandoning
    its advanced Generation IV Fast Reactors while the rest of the big guys
    on the block are moving forward? Siemens isn’t opposed to helping the
    rest of the world get Generation IV Fast Breeder Reactors, neither are
    German stock holders of Siemen’s. The Fukushima accident is tragic. An
    ACCIDENT WITH GENERATION III Light Water Technology like Fukushima
    should not become the reason to abandon the nuclear-waste-eating,
    melt-down-proof, vastly more efficient Generation IV technology. China
    and India are not making any mistakes by going ahead with Fast Breeders.
    Given that America has a history of being the largest buyer of oil in
    the free world, America has its political and social momentum wraped up
    in trying to burn the last of the Fossil Fuels before it will take
    seriously Solar, Wind, or Generation IV Fast reactors seriously; which
    is why our own successful Experimental Breeder Reactor II was shut down
    for no sound reason.

  • Pete from Medford MA

    Briefly, the return on investment is low, the upfront cost is extremely high, and the unknowns of the regulatory and public opinion landscape increase risk such that the ROI is not commensurate with risk.   That’s why there are loan guarantees on the table.  This is mostly an effect of runaway negative public opinion based on lack of accurate knowledge about the subject and an irrational fear of radiation in any form.