Nuclear Industry: Headed for Meltdown?

Plus, Solar Energy in China, E-Waste, Goldman Prize Profiles, and More in the July/August 2006 issue of World Watch

WW CoverWashington, DC—"Nobody wants any more Chornobyls. The question is, can that outcome be ensured without phasing out nuclear power altogether?" asks Karen Charman, in "Brave Nuclear World?", the second in a two-part series on the nuclear power industry. While a key argument for nuclear power these days is the claim that nuclear reactors are safe and reliable, the regulatory environment in the United States, coupled with the aging fleets of reactors, has some experts afraid that another serious accident is inevitable. And while proponents are heralding nuclear energy as a possible solution to climate change, doubling the world's current nuclear energy output would reduce global carbon emissions by just one-seventh the amount required to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. "Given nuclear power's drawbacks, and the growth and promise of clean, lower cost, less dangerous alternatives, the case for nuclear power wobbles badly. Stripped of the pretext that nuclear power is the answer to climate change, the case essentially collapses," writes Charman.

In "Nuclear Revival? Don't Bet on It!" Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin notes that the industry's biggest foes are not environmentalists, but market forces. The dramatic collapse of the industry in the early 1980s was caused largely by massive cost overruns driven by expensive safety upgrades after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania revealed vulnerabilities in plant designs, which made them more expensive than they were supposed to be—driving some U.S. power companies to bankruptcy. While nuclear executives argue that improved technologies will allow them to lower costs this time around, the assertion remains unproven, says Flavin. Data from the few plants completed in the last few years suggest that they produce electricity at roughly twice the cost of new coal and gas plants.

At least 70 nuclear plants would have to be built in the next decade just to replace those that are projected to be closed, and Flavin predicts that nuclear power is more likely to decline than increase in the coming years. Luckily, renewable sources of power not only provide more  electricity today than nuclear power does, but they are also active, growing industries, attracting over US$25 billion in new investment last year. 

Despite the remarkable growth of the solar energy industry in China, some analysts remain skeptical about the future of solar there, writes Worldwatch Institute China Fellow Zijun Li in "Capturing the Sun: The Future of China's Solar Power." With soaring global demand (the industry has registered growth rates of about 30 percent a year for each of the last five years) and China's vast, low-cost manufacturing capabilities, hopes are high for the solar industry there. But rising prices of raw materials, particularly crystalline silicon, and the high cost of solar energy generation have hampered demand for solar power domestically: more than 90 percent of raw materials is currently imported, while 90 percent of output is exported to nations such as Germany, Japan, and the United States, which together accounted for as much as 90 percent of global photovoltaic market installations as of late 2005. While foreign analysts anticipate greater Chinese solar demand in the next few years, driven in part by the country's new renewable energy law, experts in China are more skeptical, writes Li, since the details for achieving the solar targets remain vague.

The problems of electronic trash, or e-waste, could be largely avoided if eco-design considerations were a regular feature of product planning, writes Elisabeth Jeffries in "E-Wasted". Legal efforts have influenced some companies to act in advance of stringent directives to tackle the problem, encouraging them to explore ways to make their products without hazardous components that are released upon disassembly--usually in developing countries. Some components producers have already begun developing safer alternatives by altering their circuit boards to use lead-free formulations such as tin-silver, and Hewlett-Packard, Electrolux, Samsung, Sony, LG Electronics, Nokia and Motorola have been vocal in their preference of integrating extended producer responsibility (EPR) into the European Commission's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive.

Furthermore, "Companies that advertised their sustainability efforts, even if only in pursuit of market share, could help educate a generation of young people into a clearer materials life-cycle consciousness—which would create support for legislative efforts to curb the destructive trade in e-waste," writes Jeffries.
While skeptics, including journalists and economists, question the dire claims in prominent biodiversity reports pointing to a human hand in extinctions, the debate over extinction rates in the scientific community is over details, writes Sarah DeWeerdt in “Bye Bye, Birdie.” While extinction is a natural process, the real question is how the current extinction rate compares to the usual rate at which species come and go (the background extinction rate). Evidence suggests that under normal circumstances, species survive for 1 million to 10 million years, setting the stage for extinctions on the order of one per million species per year. Scientists have estimated that the bird extinction rate has averaged 1 per 10,000 species per year since the middle of the 19th century, or 100times greater than it should be. To many scientists, high extinction rates among birds and other well-known groups are evidence enough of a biodiversity crisis, writes DeWeerdt.


Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor, Monrovia, Liberia
Yu Xiaogang, Kunming, China
Olya Melen, Lviv, Ukraine
Anne Kajir, Port Moresby, Papaua New Guinea
Craig Williams, Bera, Kentucky, USA
Tarcisio Feitosa da Silva, Altamira, Brazil


Corporations Urge Mandatory Carbon Caps; Bicycles Leave Kenyan Taxis in the Dust; Eat Vegetables, Save Energy; Artists Graphically Convey Dangers of Climate Change; Tuberculosis Even More Drug Resistant; Rare Species Long Part of New Guinean Tradition; Small Victories in the Battle Against Human Trafficking


Reaction Times

Elapsed time between stimulus and involuntary human response (e.g., blink):  220 milliseconds

Between stimulus and voluntary response (e.g., braking to avoid obstacle):  384 milliseconds

Between emergency 911 call and arrival of fire department (Seattle, 2005):  4 minutes, 14 seconds

Between Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and President Franklin Roosevelt’s
declaration of war:  22 hours, 37 minutes

Between the conception and birth of a human being:  266 days

Between the reporting of the Antarctic ozone hole and the effective date of the
Montreal Protocol:  3 years, 7 months, 16 days

Between the Einstein/Szilard letter to Roosevelt warning of Nazi atomic weapon research and the first atomic blast (“Trinity” test) in New Mexico:  5 years, 11 months, 14 days

Between President John F. Kennedy’s speech calling for the United States to go to the moon and the Apollo 11 landing:  8 years, 1 month, 27 days

Between NASA scientist James Hansen’s August 1988 U.S. Senate testimony on the reality of global warming and a substantive U.S. federal response:  17 years, 10 months +

Sources: Individual times: Robert J. Kosinski, Clemson University. Fire response: City of Seattle government. Roosevelt speech: History and Politics Out Loud ( Human gestation: Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence. Einstein/Trinity: American Institute of Physics (, Wikipedia. Kennedy speech/Apollo 11: Wikipedia. Hansen testimony: J.N. Wilford, New York Times, August. 23, 1988.