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Table of Contents
Part 1: nuclear energy
Why nuclear energy?
Because we can’t afford to slow the energy transition to zero carbon by dogmatically excluding nuclear.
But what about the waste?
96% of the waste can be recycled and reprocessed into new fuel. The remaining 4% needs to be stored, for example deep underground, like in Finland. Fortunately the energy density of nuclear fuel is astronomical, so the resulting waste is only a tiny amount. A single 1000 MegaWatt reactor produces (after recycling) only 3 cubic meters of high level waste per year!
No seriously, are you really going to create a huge problem for many generations down the line with waste that’ll be dangerous for 300,000 years?
This is a very common trope repeated by people opposing nuclear energy. Developments haven’t been standing still in the last few decades and in the mean time we developed and are developing fast (breeder) reactors fundamentally solving this issue. Currently many reactors also use the twice through cycle (ttc) instead of the once through cycle (otc). In this cycle the spent nuclear fuel gets reprocessed and the uranium and plutonium can be reused. Many reactors already reuse the plutonium in the form of MOX fuel (mixed oxide fuel) however the uranium isn’t always reused. Reusing the spent nuclear fuel means that the waste will only have to be stored for a period of around 10,000 years, already reducing the 300,000 year number considerably.
The problem with ‘traditional’ nuclear reactors, like the PWR, is that they only use a few procent of the fuel. About 96% remains unused but gets contaminated with so-called ‘transuranic’ elements (which are heavier elements than uranium) created by neutron capture which do not fission in these traditional reactors. So, after about 18 months of being in use, the fuel rod is no longer productive and becomes ‘waste’. This indeed remains radioactive for about 300,000 years (or just 10,000 in the TTC cycle).
Fast breeder reactors produce more fuel than we need. They can also split those nasty transuranic elements to more lightweight elements. This has the important advantage that the fuel can be used about 100x more efficiently, and produces waste that only remains dangerously radioactive for about 300 years. The Russians have been the farthest in the development of this technology and have BN-600 and BN-800 reactors already capable of doing this. They’re also developing a BN-1200.
The European Union could’ve been as far, with reactors like the SNR-300 in the German city of Kalkar and the French Superphénix reactors, but these were closed after long protests and political pressure. So, the people opposing nuclear power have been saying that there is ‘no solution’ to the waste and have been, at least partially, responsible for the actual solution, which is a somewhat bitter irony…
Fortunately Belgium is developing MYRRHA, one of the Accelerator-Driven Subcritical Reactor (ASDR) designs, which should be completed in 2036. Athough much smaller, it does provide a concrete solution to closing the fuel cycle. In the future, molten salt reactors will provide another avenue for solving this issue. China started an experimental reactor of this kind in September 2021 and plans to develop it to commercial levels. Underground storage, like in Finland, will quite posibly no longer be needed at all. The reason it was built, was again for a large part because of political pressure to come up with a ‘solution’.
But mining uranium is very polluting
Correct, and the same goes for mining silver, cobalt, copper, aluminium, etc. Resources that are needed for solar panels, wind turbines and electrical storage. Mining without affecting the environment doesn’t exist! Fortunately, you can have an enormous amount of energy from a tiny amount of uranium or thorium, as the energy density is gigantic.
But the radiation around a nuclear power plant is unhealthy
The public image that a nuclear power plant is a source of dangerous radioactive radiation for the direct surrounding area is a myth. If we’re really worried about radioactive radiation, we’ll have to close all coal powered power plants right away, because coal contains small fragments of uranium that we’re currently just throwing into the atmosphere when burning it. This this why a coal power plant is about a hundred times more radioactive for its direct surroundings than a nuclear power plant.
In any case we’re culturally dealing with a certain amount of radiophobia, the unfounded fear of radioactive radiation in relation to nuclear power. This then creates laws where recycled building material coming from old nuclear power plants has to be 100x less radioactive than the exact same materials coming from old coal power plants. This is one reason why nuclear power is unnecessarily expensive.
So, to put things straight: a normal dose of radioactive radiation that you receive is expressed in milliSievert (mSv) and wiki has a useful article on background radiation, where it states that the average amount of radiation you receive by just breathing is 1,26mSv per year (this is mainly from radon gas in your house, so do ventilate regularly!). Eating a banana gives, because of the partly radioactive potassium, a dose of 0.0001mSv. Pilotes receive an extra dose of up to 5mSv annually as working high up in the air exposes you to more cosmic radiation. An average worker in the nuclear industry receives up to 1mSv extra per year. On average, exposure to radiation coming from nuclear power plants, adds up to 0.0002mSv annually to the general population, that’s two bananas. The dose where you die within a week of radiation poisoning is 10,000 mSv.
But what about nuclear disasters?
There are a few incidents where society was seriously disrupted and deaths were to be mourned. The most well known of these incidents, with the biggest impact on society, is Chernobyl in 1986, where a failed security check caused a reactor core to become so hot it melted and caused a steam explosion that affected large parts of Europe and Asia. The WHO published a research in 2005 about the long term repercussions of this disaster, and mentioned a number of 4000 deaths as a result of it, of which 50 where a direct result of radiation poisoning during putting out the fire and cleaning the contaminated area on the disaster site. These were the so-called ‘liquidators’.
What happened? Chernobyl was an unfortunate series of events which caused a fundamentally unsafe reactor design to meltdown and explode. The events are human error, but the design was not an unfortunate accident but a deliberate choice. This RBMK had a twofold goal: generating cheap electricity and be able to collect plutonium for nuclear weapons. This was at the cost of security. For example, the design didn’t include any notable concrete shielding (think of the dome you usually see on a reactor), so there wasn’t any shielding to protect against an explosion. More fundamentally the reactor had a large positive void coefficient, which means that the higher the temperature becomes, the higher the reactivity gets, up to meltdown. All generation III reactors from 1990 on have a neutral or (most of the time) negative void coefficient. So, if things go wrong, it can’t escalate like it did in Chernobyl.
This brings us to an important conclusion: we learn from mistakes made. The, often political and administrative, naivety regarding nuclear power has been replaced for a somewhat overdone focus on security, to the point it becomes nonsensical. But don’t get us wrong: nuclear power is potentially dangerous and needs to be dealt with safely and responsibly. Because of these safety practices nuclear power is the most safe form of energy per generated TWh, despite disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Even less lethal than solar and wind. There is a parallel to be made here with the transport sector: every year more than a million people die in traffic worldwide! Yet, we barely see any news items on this issue, and if it is reported it is local news at best. In contrast, an airplane crash is usually international news. Why? Because it affects hundreds of people simultaneously. Nevertheless, globally only 59 people died in an air crash in 2017 for example and is flying considered the most safe form of mass transport there is.
With every accident we learn more about the causes and improve things so that the same sort of accident can’t happen anymore in the same way in the future. The Russians improved their existing RBMK reactors so the positive void coefficients are now much smaller. There was even a design ready to go that featured a negative void coefficient, but eventually the Russians went with the more safe VVER design (a Russian implementation of a PWR) and will close all their existing RBMK plants in the next decade or so.
But isn’t nuclear energy expensive?
Yes, building a nuclear power plant in the West is expensive, but since it also delivers a huge amount of power, the cost per unit electricity is actually pretty low. This can be calculated rather easily. Let’s take Flamanville 3 as an example. This is a modern EPR reactor that is currently being build in France and is plagued with huge cost overruns and delays. The cost has risen from €3.3 billion from first inception to €12.7 billion now. Once it is ready, it’ll deliver 1600MW of electricity. With a capacity factor of 90% (meaning it’ll be in production 90% of the time, the other 10% being used for maintenance and refueling) that means about 12.6TWh annually. The life expectancy is 60 years, so the total power generated will be around 750TWh. If you calculate this back to a kWh price, you get about 1.7 Eurocents.
Let’s compare this to solar energy. Solarpark Weesow-Willmersdorf came online in 2020 and produces 187GWh annually and cost €100 million to build. To produce as much electricity as one EPR reactor, you’d need to build 67 of these parks, costing €6.7 billion. The life expectancy of solar panels is about 20 years, so to make the comparison one on one with Flamanville 3, you’ll need to multiply by three, coming to a price of €20.1 billion.
Now, there are several variables in this picture. The price of solar panels is expected to drop in the coming decades, but then again, so will the price of EPR reactors that would no longer be plagued by childhood diseases. In addition the capacity factor of solar is only 10% (source, page 33), so you’d need to invest a lot in energy storage. Also investments that might be needed in the power grid due to decentralized power generation aren’t taken into account. On the other hand, the operational costs of nuclear is higher due to fuel being expended and an educated workforce needed. The claim that nuclear power is much more expensive than solar would be, quite simply, false. Nuclear power is one of the cheapest forms of energy, but does have a big upfront cost in building a reactor.
Then there are so-called Small Modular Reactors that currently see a lot of investments. These have a simplified design and could be mass produced in an assembly line-like fashion, thereby reducing costs. The big advantage of SMR’s is that their designs vary in the range between tens of kiloWatts tot 500MWe, so could replace currently existing coal- en gas powered plants without big investments in existing infrastructure. Most designs are however currently still in development and as such need to see real-world experience before it is considered proven technology.
But decommissioning a nuclear power plant is very expensive
On the website of the World Nuclear Association a number is mentioned of $0.46 million to $0.73 million per MWe of power plants bigger than 1100MWe. In an EPR reactor of 1600MWe this translates to €645 to €1023 million. At a life expectancy of 60 years this means 0.09 to 0.14 Eurocents per kWh.
For comparison: for solar this source mentions a number of $60200 for a 2MWe installation in solar panels. Because the life expectancy of PV-panels is about 20 years, they’ll have to be replaced three times in the same period as one EPR reactor. The capacity factor of PV-panels is just 10% – meaning a panel only operates at 10% of the time, at 10% capacity all of the time, or a combination – so you need to have ten times as many panels then the nameplate installed capacity, spread out over a large area. The costs for decommissioning are then €1.27 billion for the same power capacity. For wind turbines this source mentions $532000 per decommissioned turbine. Let’s assume 8MWe per turbine. The life expectancy is similar to PV-panels and the capacity factor is 25%. Costs: €1.12 billion. This doesn’t include replacing energy storage.
So, in context decommissioning a nuclear power plant isn’t hugely expensive.
But it takes ages!
What takes even longer is producing, installing, and maintaining the enormous amount of solar panels necessary to power the entire grid with only solar and wind. In addition we’ll need to convert the entire grid so it can handle the huge increase in variable and decentralized energy production, next to building large amounts of energy storage.
Also, the Messmer-plan proves that a whole country can switch to nuclear, if the political will exists. France moved about 20% nuclear power in 1980 to around 70% right now in the time span of 20 years. This can be done.
But the risks lie with the taxpayer…
In the current situation nuclear energy exists in a free market. This has negative consequences for nuclear energy where patience and a big upfront investment are part of the game. Throughout the years power plants have become more complex as security regulations increased. This complexity explains part of the costs, but is is mostly the extra time needed to implement these that is the real kicker. This has to do with the fact new reactors are build with private loans, which ask interest on their investment. The longer the build takes, the higher the interest becomes. This can grow to above 60% of total build costs (source 1, source 2)! We’re not free market fundamentalists and argue to take the energy sector into public hands. This way, resources can be far more efficiently spent. The resulting kWh price is, as stated earlier, only a few cents, and the tax payer would be glad for any investments in nuclear power. But let’s tackle the elephant in the room and nationalize the energy sector, so it can be run in public interests, instead of profit.
But nuclear energy contributes to global warming?
Not at all. During the process of generating electricity no CO2 is being released whatsoever. The IEA published that because of this nuclear energy has prevented no less than 55 gigaton of CO2 being emitted in the last 50 years. For comparison: in 2019 we emitted 36.7 gigaton of CO2 worldwide. If we can prevent more by using more nuclear power, we effectively get closer to stopping emitting CO2 at all.
Of course you can ask how nuclear power holds up if you consider the whole lifecycle: doesn’t the concrete that you need to build a plant with not emit CO2? What about mining uranium? To answer this, UNECE published a report in late 2021 showing how nuclear power has the lowest lifecycle emissions of any power source.
But what about nuclear weapons?
Building a nuclear power plant does not automatically lead to the production of nuclear weapons. In fact, for the production of weapons grade plutonium you’ll need a different kind of reactor than for the production of electricity.
But the uranium is running out
Absolute nonsense. Uranium is relatively prevalent in the Earth’s crust and 0.72% of this consists of uranium-235, the fissile fuel we know and love. The statement that that this is ‘running out’ is only correct if you consider running nuclear reactors on newly mined uranium. If you’d power the entirety of humanity on this, you’d run out of this resource in about five year. However (and do click the link for more info), we can create new fuel via so-called breeder reactors. By this route we can extend the fuel pile to about 800 years. If we also take thorium into consideration (an element for which we always need a breeder reactor in order to use it as a fuel), we can extend this to 1600 years. Let us reiterate that this is possible with the current level of technology, if we so choose to power all of humanity with nuclear power. If we also know how to extract the enormous amount of uranium in the world seas, we could extend this to 500 million years and considering natural erosion actually adds new uranium to the oceans every year, this number actually expands to 4 billion years. And this is just planet Earth. It is reasonable to expect that, somewhere in the next few millennia, we’ll mine the solar system for resources, like uranium, which brings us to vastly beyond the lifespan of our sun. So, no, it doesn’t ‘run out’.
More questions or concerns? Please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Part 2: ‘green’ energy
Why nuclear energy when we have solar and wind?
Solar and wind are the big promises to go to ‘zero’ CO2. There are however many issues with this idea that proponents never mention or like to discuss. There’s much to say about wind energy, but we’d like to discuss solar here in the form of photovoltaic cell panels (PV). Many of the issues for solar run parallel with wind, but to give an idea we refer to this 2016 piece on De Correspondent.
Now then, solar panels. Let’s start to get an image how much energy the Netherlands uses. For 2020 this was slightly less than 3000PJ (PetaJoule), of about 833TWh (TeraWatthour). Of this energy about 119TWh was produced electrically, (and about 111TWh of this was consumed).
Now, what does a PV-panel generate? The Socialist Party published a plan to put solar panels on “as many roofs as possible”. They use a paper from CE Delft for this that states that, if this was implemented, we can generated 19TWh to 35TWh annually. This should be sufficient for households, which in 2018 used around 21TWh in electricity, but not for the whole of Dutch society. Let’s look a little deeper.
It makes sense to know how much area we’d need to cover with solar panels in order to meet demand. CE Delft uses an unsupported number of 0.153TWh/km². Another research, by Deloitte, states it can reach 22TWh annually using 892km² of roof, which translates to 0.025TWh/km². This is quite a difference! If we look to the actual measurement data of German solar parks, we get to 0.042TWh/km², which is slightly more positive than Deloitte and a lot more negative than CE Delft. We’ll use this number. What does this mean?
If we use this number to cover 111TWh in electric consumption, this translates to 2665km² of solar panels, which is a lot more than the total roof area in the Netherlands. But if we actually aim to cover all energy needs and electrify this, we’d need around 20,000km² to cover 833TWh. This is half the Netherlands. If we use solar panels for all current electric consumption in the EU (2900TWh in 2019), we’d need to cover 70,000km² or about twice the Netherlands (and again, this is only a fraction of total energy needs).
It should be obvious by now that this doesn’t scale at all. Because if we do this, what does this mean for the production of solar panels? Where do we get the resources? How much pollution occurs when producing them? Also, these panels would be grounded in concrete foundations and be placed on steel skeletons, two resources that produce huge numbers of CO2. What happens when we’ll need to replace these panels after 20 to 25 years? All questions and proponents of ‘renewables’ carefully avoid them.
Besides, there is the problem of the power grid and the storage of energy. Already, companies like Alliander are worried that the net is getting ‘too full’. We’ll need a lot of new cabling to make decentralized power generation possible, which takes time (think decades) and a lot of money. Then there is the storage problem, as the sun shines at best half of the day. In this context the term ‘hydrogen’ is often mentioned, which reeks of magical thinking, because hydrogen-based solutions aren’t really practical, easy or cheap. Again, this costs a lot of time and money. Until we get to economical storage solutions, solar and wind remain inevitably dependent on fossil fuels.
Huh? Why does solar and wind imply a dependency on fossil fuels?
Because wind energy has a capacity factor of 24% (meaning that annualy only 24% of the electricity is generated as is installed) and solar panels only have 9%, there is a need to get to energy in the mean time. Storage on the level of TWh simply doesn’t exist yet, but could conceivably exist of hydrogen, lithium-ion batteries, or a combination. Hydrogen however knows many problems in practical applications and as such needs a lot of development time and money. In the mean time Germany resolves this by a network of ‘peaker plants’ that run on natural gas. Gas is an easy and relatively cheap fuel that can use existing infrastructure. The only reason why there would be a move away from it, would be because gas would become significantly more expensive. The only way this would happen is by a much higher carbon tax, which is unlikely to happen.
So, the Germans currently generate around 35% of their electricity needs from renewables, but at the cost that they’re inherently dependent on fossil fuels. That puts the many billions they have spent on their ‘Energiewende’ in another light…
Wait, how much have the Germans paid for the ‘Energiewende’ so far?
There are different numbers on this topic. Cleanenergywire.org uses numbers from the Düsseldorfer Instituts für Wettbewerbsökonomik (DICE) which in 2016 put out that by 2025 Germany would’ve spent up to €520 billion on this transition. The Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie stated in 2018 that reducing 80% of emissions by 2050 would require €1500 billion and €2300 billion if the goal was a 95% reduction.
In comparison, EPR reactor Hinkley Point C, which is hugely over budget and is now costing around €27 billion, will deliver around 26TWh annually once finished. Germany generated in 2020 about 488TWh in electricity, which you could cover by 19 Hinkley Point C’s. That is, at this overrun price. It is quite reasonable to assume a much lower price, converting to the earlier projected €23 billion. So, for only €440 billion Germany could have emission-free electricity!
Why do we need to convert the electricity grid?
Because the current power grid is designed around several centralized power plants, which transport the electricity to smaller ‘branches’ up to tiny ‘leaves’ in neighbourhoods and individual houses, much like a tree. Solar panels and wind turbines are, due to their lower capacity per unit, necessarily decentralized, which requires a power grid that conceptually looks more like a spiderweb than a tree. This is currently an issue where many solar parks or wind parks can’t be realized as the net is ‘full’. An addition to this we’ll also want electricity when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, so we’ll need to add a lot of energy storage to the net as well.
How much emission does the production of solar and wind produce?
We’re going to write a bit about this in the future…
But what about the waste when solar and wind is decommissioned?
The life expectancy of a solar panel is around 25 years, and those of wind turbines around 30. The EU now mandates that one has to recycle up to 85% of solar panels, which sounds nice, until we realize again that 15% of tens of thousands of square kilometers is still an astronomical high amount of waste. Waste that is not without its own issues. The reality of the matter is that it often is going to end up on a land fill…
Part 3: communism
Why don’t you believe that the free market will solve the problem?
As explained earlier we don’t think that the free market is using resources efficiently. While we argue for nationalizing the energy sector, state control is not without its own issues. We argue for public ownership where the needs of society are primary, which can only be the case if this is done democratically.
Why communism? Isn’t that a failed system?
Modern communism has simply never existed. The USSR for example claimed to be socialist and to aim for communism. But this might be historic hair splitting. More fundamentally we are communists because we don’t believe that a society where a tiny minority has all economic and political power, is in the interests of humanity as a whole. As a species we’re capable of so much more than we do today, and nuclear power is one proof that we can.
But the revolution isn’t around the corner. Should we trust capitalists with nuclear power? Brr…
An exploded reactor doesn’t make a profit, so even a capitalist has an interest in the safe operation of nuclear energy. In the context of a nationalized energy sector, something we can achieve if we wage a political battle for it, nuclear power can be much safer and much cheaper. Our priority is in decreasing CO2 emissions as quickly and as realistically as possible. In this FAQ we’ve shown that solar and wind power will not and cannot get us there. Nuclear energy is the only route to a sustainable planet, and we can’t wait for this until after the revolution!
But is this fight for nuclear energy a useful spending of our time? What do we need ‘quick fixes’ for if the problem is capitalism itself?
This question presumes that we’re ‘techno optimists’ or ‘accelerationists’. We quote Eddie Ford, using this form of critique:
[Accelerationism is] the idea to encourage the speeding up of technological development, because that brings us nearer to socialism and communism, without the need for the messy business of class struggle, mass communist parties, proletarian revolution and state power. Dead labour becomes the liberator, not living labour – the working class is written out of the equation.
So, according to this critique we write off the importance of the class struggle, and even give up the fight against capitalism. A variation of this argument is: “if we give capitalism too much room, make it too durable, or create realistic technologies to suck CO2 from the air, capitalism remains having a ground for existing and, as such, the core of the problem remains”.
We accept this critique, to a certain extent. Capitalism is indeed inherently bound to uncurbed and eternal growth, which is not possible on a planet with finite resources. We however turn this critique on its feet by pointing towards a common fallacy on the left: ‘verelendung’.
This fallacy states that if we have a crisis, this is going to help the workers movement and the left. This idea was on display during the 2008 economic crisis and seems to be an underlying logic with our critics. After all, the climate crisis forces us to fight capitalism, right?
This is however a false idea. Capitalism indeed has many crises, but it is up the relative strength of the workers movement to see how it is settled. The 2008 crisis here was a textbook example: the left internationally stood weak and where it could make a breakthrough, in Greece, it immediately stood completely isolated. The climate crisis indicates a similar development. We do not see a growth of the left or the workers movement in general because of the climate crisis. On the contrary it seems, writing this in April 2022, the war in Ukraine, which put the natural gas question on the top of the political priorities in Europe – Russia being the dominant supplier for Europe, causes rises in inflation and therefore attacks on the living standard.
There is no short cut for the patient work of building working class organisations, or revolution and the end of capitalism. This work will take decades and meanwhile the developments regarding climate change continue. It does need to be said that having a livable planet is a rather important precondition for the class struggle and the inevitable victory of communism… To put it bluntly: a serious approach to fighting climate change cannot wait until after the revolution.