CU prof: Don’t buy the promise of nuclear energy

Pandora's Promise is not realistic

Graph showing energy return on investment.
Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly

A retired University of Colorado mechanical engineering professor is challenging a new documentary that espouses the virtues of nuclear power.


The award-winning and widely acclaimed film Pandora’s Promise was released in theaters in June, aired on CNN Nov. 7, and is being made available on Netflix and iTunes. Directed by Robert Stone, it features prominent environmentalists who used to be opposed to the use of nuclear power but have had a change of heart. It argues that the cooling system problems that have caused past disasters like Fukushima can be corrected with new engineering. It explores the history of nuclear power, why it got a bad rap, and why it should be reconsidered as a viable solution to our energy crisis.

Frank Kreith disagrees. Kreith, a Guggenheim Fellow at Princeton in 1951, taught at the University of California at Berkeley and Lehigh University before coming to CU-Boulder in 1959, where he taught for 20 years before spending a decade as chief of solar thermal research at the Golden-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Kreith also spent 13 years as an American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) legislative fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. He returned to CU in 2003 to teach part time in mechanical engineering. ASME established the Frank Kreith Energy Award in 2007 to honor his lifelong contribution to sustainable energy.

Kreith argues that the pro-nuclear stance outlined in Pandora’s Promise is not realistic, given that the technology needed to make it a viable source of energy is decades away. He says society should begin an aggressive transition to renewables like solar and wind now — while we still have the surplus energy needed to make that shift.

Kreith presented his views to a packed auditorium in CU’s Engineering Center on Dec. 12, showing clips from the film and countering its claims with his own charts and graphs. His central argument revolves a concept known as “energy return on energy investment,” or EROI, which compares the amount of energy that a given system, like a nuclear power plant, produces during its lifetime against the amount of energy that needs to be expended in its production. Dividing the amount of energy produced by the amount expended, both directly and indirectly, Kreith translates the EROI into a number.

He argues that nuclear power’s primary drawback — at least until the technology can be further developed over the next 20 years — is that the amount of energy it requires is too high, from construction costs to waste disposal to the high volumes of water it requires. Kreith says we can’t afford to wait two decades — we need to accelerate the move to renewable energy before we run out of fossil fuels, which represent our dwindling energy buffer that can’t be replaced.

“Nukes can play a part in our future, but it is not there by any means,” he told the audience earlier this month, adding that the waste disposal issue is a major one because currently, nuclear byproducts “sit in swimming pools next to the plant, for any terrorist to grab.”

He adds that the idea of nuclear solving our energy problems is “ridiculous” because the types of reactors that would be needed haven’t even been invented yet.

Kreith offered a historical analysis of our energy transitions over the decades, as we chose plentiful and easily accessible sources that then became diminished, from fuel wood to coal to petroleum.

He acknowledges that energy efficiency and conservation are key elements of the solution to the crisis, but those can’t fully address the problem in a world that is steadily consuming energy at a rate that is increasing exponentially. (According to Kreith, the average size of new homes built in the United States has increased by about 50 percent over the past four years.) We simply need to find a long-term way to produce more, he says, and the EROI for wind and solar make significantly more sense than nuclear, in part because the cost of those systems is falling, and the upfront construction capital is paid off more quickly.

Kreith displayed maps showing wind turbines and solar panels placed in optimal places around the country, where they could generate 83 percent of the nation’s electricity needs, without using water. Then he showed a map of the United States covered in red dots, each one representing two 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors, demonstrating what we would need to generate just 25 percent of our energy needs using nuclear.

He doesn’t rule out natural gas serving as a primary bridge fuel to renewables, even though it has gotten a black eye in recent years because of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” While producing natural gas does require a significant amount of energy, with the right equipment about 90 percent of the water it uses can be recycled, according to Kreith, so he disagrees with the argument that fracking should be banned because of its water consumption.

During his talk, he also singled out several claims in Pandora’s Promise. While it’s true that no one has ever died from a nuclear accident in the United States, there have been scores of casualties associated with nuclear mishaps in other countries, Kreith says.

In addition, some proponents of nuclear power claim that “fast breeder” reactors — such as those using liquid metal as the coolant instead of water — could become an alternative to conventional nuclear reactors because they would be cheap, safe and produce much less nuclear waste. Kreith argues, however, that no such reactor exists, although the United States, France and Russia have all tried this technology and abandoned it.

While Kreith is highly critical of the documentary, which he says comes across as something the Koch Brothers might have funded, it has received some positive reviews. It was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013, and last June it won the Sheffield Doc/Fest Green Award for addressing environmental challenges.

Ken Kok, a retired nuclear engineer who now does consulting work on nuclear safety, disagrees with some of Kreith’s stances. Kok says he agrees with the basic premise of Pandora’s Promise, which is that we can’t fully satisfy our energy needs with renewables, in part because of intermittency problems (it’s not always windy or sunny) and the high demand for heating at night in many areas. Kok, editor of the Nuclear Engineering Handbook, says nuclear is a good source for the additional baseload power needed to fill in the gaps left by wind and solar, and he’s also a proponent of hydroelectric power. (He argues that while natural gas is well-suited for things like home heating and transportation, using it for electricity seems to be a waste.)

He agrees with Kreith that the ideal reactor technology is still at least a couple of decades away, and he allows that wind and solar can be used in the meantime, “as inefficient as they are,” but he views them as a costly short-term solution.

Among the problems with wind and solar, Kok says, are the fact that they require a much larger area than nuclear reactors, and they have environmental impacts. The threats they pose to birds are not just limited to rotating wind turbines, but include the fact that migrating waterfowl see the mirror effect of solar panels, mistake them for a body of water and “basically kill themselves by diving into the solar collectors.”

When asked about Kreith’s claims regarding the ability of renewables to provide 83 percent of our power and his dotted map showing how many reactors would be required to generate just 25 percent of the energy we need, Kok told BW that he and Kreith simply don’t see eye to eye on everything. “Frank and I disagree on that,” Kok says. “We could easily provide all the energy in the country with nuclear reactors. … The economics are probably going to ultimately determine the mix.”