Nuclear Power

What do we think about nuclear power? Benjamin Cohen of The World's Fair is not a fan. I am.

Modern nuclear power has a lot going for it. In no particular order, here's the reasons that appeal to me.

  • It's reliable. No worrying about solar or wind availability, and it works anywhere.
  • It's safe. Modern nuclear plants designs are extraordinarily safe, and frankly even the old first-world designs are very safe. The worst accident - Three Mile Island - didn't kill anyone. The spectre of Chernobyl haunts the public discourse, but Chernobyl is to modern nuclear power as bloodletting is to penicillin.
  • It's cheap. Not the cheapest to be sure, but relatively affordable.
  • It's environmentally friendly. The mining and construction processes release CO2, but very little per kilowatt-hour relative to fossil fuels.
  • It's environmentally friendly (2). Fuel disposal is not nearly as difficult as the anti-Yucca propagandists make it out to be. After a few hundred years most of the radioactivity is gone, and storage during that period is easy. We're doing it now, safely and reliably on-site at the reactors now. Honestly Yucca is massive overkill, and probably unnecessary. If the French can do it, we should be ashamed that we can't manage it.
  • It's geopolitically convenient. Tired of shipping hundreds of billions of dollars to lunatic terrorist-supporting dictatorships? Me too. But if you want electric cars, you need electricity.

Which isn't to say I don't like other technologies as well. Solar and wind power are great, and we ought to implement them as much as is practical. But by themselves they're not going to cut it, and we need an alternative to oil and coal. And that pretty much leaves nuclear.

What's more irritating to me personally is the other argument used against nuclear power in the World's Fair interview:

A lot of what people are trying to hang on to when they embrace nukes is the opportunity to do things pretty much the way they've always done them: sloppily, wastefully. Nukes are the last best chance of not changing.

This isn't pro-environment, it's anti-human. Modern civilization requires energy, and lots of it. Sure it's better to have the civilization while minimizing waste, but thermodynamics fundamentally determines that the chemistry and physics we use to create our modern lives will use large quantities of energy. There's no way around it. "Changing" in this context can only mean either piddly and inconsequential savings around the periphery (CFLs, etc (which I use)), or abandonment of everything since the industrial revolution. I'm sure Rebecca Solnit would disagree, but that's just the simple reality of electrical power. If nuclear energy is part of what lets us be environmentally sustainable without "changing", what in the world is wrong with that?

More like this

One nice new feature we've got here on scienceblogs is the Editor's Picks feature, found on the front page. While browsing it this weekend, I was drawn to this provocative article. In it, Benjamin Cohen writes of his interview with Rebecca Solnit, who says the following when asked about nuclear…
I had the chance to interview Rebecca Solnit for The Believer. It's on shelves now, in their September issue. They've also put the full text of it on-line at their website. (Here it is.) To quote the interview's intro, Solnit is the author of twelve books. She is a journalist, essayist,…
This weekend, ScienceBloggers discussed the virtues and downfalls of a world run on modern nuclear power. Benjamin Cohen sparked the dialogue on The World's Fair with an interview with author and environmentalist Rebecca Solnit, famous for her opposition to nuclear power. Within just a few hours,…
India shows the shape of things to come: Wind power may still have an image as something of a plaything of environmentalists more concerned with clean energy than saving money. But it is quickly emerging as a serious alternative not just in affluent areas of the world but in fast-growing countries…

I think you are presenting a false choice between either making inconsequential changes (like using CFLs) or abandoning modern civilization as we know it. The fact is that many people today are living modern, civilized lives while using much less energy than average. The reason is that they live in cities where their basic needs (getting around, heating their homes, etc.) can be met with much less energy input.

I agree that efficiencies like CFLs are not going to make much difference. But the idea that we can power the same society we have today (with all its cars and exurban McMansions) with nuclear power seems really short-sighted. It would take an overwhelming number of new nuclear plants to create enough electricity to replace most or all of the fossil fuel we use today.

Since this is a physics blog, let's look at some numbers. Today, the US consumes 3.9T (trillion) kWh/yr of electricity. The sources of that electricity are 70% fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil), 20% nuclear, 8% hydropower and 2% renewables. To replace the use of fossil fuels, nuclear power would need to grow to 4.5 times it's current size (from 20% to 90%). To make matters worse, if we were to convert our fleet of cars to all electric, it would require us to increase electricity production by at least 12%. Americans drive about 3 trillion miles/yr. The most efficient electric cars use electricity at the rate of 0.17kWh/mi. That comes out to an extra 510 billion kWh/yr of electricity the grid needs to produce. So we would have to come up with even more nuclear capacity (5 times more than currently instead of 4.5 times more) since the load would increase. Considering how long it takes to build a single plant, expanding our nuclear capacity five-fold would require an enormous up-front expense and many decades to complete.

I think nuclear is part of the solution, but not much more than that. If we're serious about becoming independent of foreign oil, CO2 reduction, etc, then we need to focus on the demand for energy in our country. And the most significant way to do that is through lifestyle changes, not high-tech light bulbs powered by high-tech energy sources.

By Andy Kuziemko (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

It's safe.

It can be safe, if the operators are required to have and use adequate safety protocols, and the regulations are enforced. Accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl happen when the protocols for dealing with an anomaly either don't exist or aren't used. In France and other EU countries, the voters have enough of a voice to ensure that the protocols exist and are followed; any government which fails to do so can expect to lose the next election. There wasn't anybody to hold the Soviet government to the protocols, and I'm not optimistic that anyone will hold an American corporation to the protocols.

It's cheap. Not the cheapest to be sure, but relatively affordable.

It can be cheap, yes. But not the way we've done it in the US. You're probably too young to remember the utility bankruptcies caused by spending on nuclear power plants. I remember at least two without Googling: the Washington (State) Public Power Supply System (with the too appropriate acronym WPPSS) and Public Service of New Hampshire.

Honestly Yucca is massive overkill, and probably unnecessary.

Yucca Mountain was primarily a political FUBAR, although the mountain turned out to be a lot more hydrologically active than was first thought. When the act which selects the site of something you don't necessarily want in your backyard is colloquially known as the Screw Nevada Act, you should not be surprised when the citizens of Nevada feel they have been screwed. Offering a carrot in return for agreeing to host a waste repository would have been a much better strategy.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

To be fair, the quotes come from Rebecca Solnit, the interviewee. Mr. Cohen leaves little doubt that he supports the statements, though.

I used to feel bad about calling people like that anti-human. I no longer do; it's a perfectly valid description.

I don't understand your point. If you're saying we can halt the increase of CO2 at 500 ppm by using nuclear power, that is wrong.

You admit nuclear is only part, but what you're missing is that it's a small part.

Read "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies"

We can't stop carbon dioxide going beyond 500 ppm without changing.

Don't make it sound easy, but also don't make it sound impossible.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

>After a few hundred years most of the radioactivity is gone, ...

That wasn't my understanding. I thought it took thousands of years. (I don't know much about this. Please give me more information if I'm wrong.)

>... and storage during that period is easy.

I wouldn't want to bet on the future so heavily.

I thought it took thousands of years.

To put it charitably, there's some spin there.

"Radioactive waste" in this context is spent reactor fuel. It's not so much "spent" as "impure:" reaction products (plutonium, various fission products, non-fissionable materials which have absorbed neutrons, etc.) have accumulated to the point where it's not a good idea to keep using it in a reactor.

Its radioactivity is, therefore, the sum of the long-lasting but low-level radiation from uranium, the somewhat shorter but slightly more intense radiation from plutonium, and the very short-lived but intense radiation from some of the reaction products and neutron capture isotopes. By their very nature, the intense stuff doesn't last (which is why it's intense).

When someone tells you that (a) this stuff is intensely radioactive and (b) it will be radioactive for geological time, they're sorta leaving the false impression that the "intense" lasts for geological time.

Next week, we can discuss how much uranium mining could be reduced if we chemically reprocessed that fuel -- which is still mostly uranium. Reuse of plutonium is a bit more problematic for other reasons.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

Although the intense radioactivity is relatively short-lived, it probably presents an insurmountable political issue for nations which are currently non-nuclear. For those who already have nuclear power, and particularly nuclear arms, the amounts of high level waste already generated present a short term problem to be dealt with. The magnitude of this problem is not going to be made greatly worse by a new generation of nuclear power plants, especially in light of the advances in reactor and fuel design made with decommisioning in mind. It does seem like the most straightforward way of plugging the energy gap until the maturation of the renewables.

It really irks me how everyone thinks every single nuclear power plant is a Chernobyl. Also, how effective is reusing and reprocessing nuclear fuel at reducing the danger and hassle of handling radioactive waste?

It does seem like the most straightforward way of plugging the energy gap until the maturation of the renewables.

Wind tech is already pretty mature; there are improvements possible, but not real leaps. Solar is still way short of serious efficiency. Tide I don't know well enough to comment. However, the biggest problem for all of the "solar harvest" technologies is their intermittent nature.

The real breakthtrough that will enable all of them is storage. Until we can store a few days' worth of energy to even out the load, we're going to need some "baseline power" -- and for now the only non-carbon-based option is nuclear.

When we can efficiently crack water for hydrogen, we can start to seriously consider decommissioning those nukes.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

I saw an article a few days ago about a space solar proof-of-concept plant the Japanese are working on. The idea is to put the solar panels in orbit where access to the sun is constant and intense, and beam it to the ground via microwave. (This is much safer than it sounds, the power densities are quite low)

This would be a great solution. The current problems are massive cost and vulnerability to the assorted perils of orbit, but if those can be overcome then solar could leapfrog nuclear as my favorite non-fossil power source. I think I'll blog about it next week.

I think of nuclear fisson reactors as just one step in a series of technologies that we have used and surpassed over the millenia when better technologies came around. Carbon is currently king but one day we'll look back in amazement that we used to burn such an amazingly usefull substance in our cars and trucks,while degrading the one resource we can't do without, a productive planet. As for the downside of fission, it's radioactive waste is more a political problem than a technical problem. The safest place on earth would be to place it deep down into the mud down in the deepest oceanic trenches where it will be subducted and sequestered for a long long time. Storing above ground has risks but even that will be only short term since fusion will undoubtedly reach break even and commercial applicability in the future, and we'd find those pesky neutrons pretty handy in making the high level waste usefull and the low level waste neutral, though maybe we'd be better building reactors in space or on the Moon if the suspected H3 is there in the amounts we foresee, and space is where fusion will really prove to be the power source that does for energy what integrated circuits and silicon did for information, which some might be surprised to learn used to be very scarce and it's ubiquitous and cheap beyond measure, and so we'll have fast travel within the solar system taking us out to our solar energy satellite systems and to vacation resorts where we'll screww around in zero g, just like with waterbeds in the 80s.
At least that could happen if we stopped seeing all our problems as special and requiring special (expensive) solutions (3 billion for a few thousand clunkers...good grief, we could have used that money to create a solar microwave power system test bed). If we place the issues of carbon, energy, protection/detection/protection from earth impactors, and the need for colonies to mine for materials without destroying the earth itself, then nukes are just one more step. We have to be careful, but to do nothing and imagine us using this difuse surface solar or windmills to power our civilization is an admission of defeat for our species.

PS...As an American I wish the US would spearhead this and use the incredible amount of technological capacity and know-how we have acquired, but to be honest, it's more likely to be a nation or group of nations run by profit seeking multinationals; China, Japan, Korea or India,learning from our mistakes and capitalizing on them. How apt. I read that a medium sized run-of-the-mill metallic asteroid could have tens of billions of dollars in platinum group metals alone, processed in oxygen free, zero g, with the intense energy of the pollution, and for those who think the Prius is the way to go, I ask; "do you know where those rare earth elements necessary for your windmill motors comes from and how they get it? It's worth looking up. It's raining soup. Somebody's gonna build a bucket but it doesn't look like it will be US.

Yet another prompt that I need to blog about this topic.

That article you cite is such a wonderful piece of crap that, like you, it is hard to know where to begin. The key, however, is that the author confuses "a series of excellent lines" with factually-based science. That reflects the same sort of approach we see from the right when they manage to pass off cleverly phrased misrepresentations as fact. An example here is the comment that conflates TMI and Chernobyl, for the reason Matt gave in his article.

I'll add that you don't have to bet on the future, all you have to do is "burn" the actinides with an accelerator-driven power plant that even turns a profit. It even works with the vast majority of nuclear waste, which is mostly a byproduct of us surviving the nuclear war of the 50s and 60s without anyone firing a shot.

Finally, renewable energy has its environmental impact as well. What forest "management" process feeds wood to that bio power plant? What migrating birds would be killed if we expand the use of wind turbines by a factor of 100 or 1000? What happened to that river you dammed? If the overriding concern is carbon, nuclear is part of the solution and modern designs do not require the sort of operator intervention that TMI did to be run safely.

I agree that nuclear power is necessary in the short term.

However, it's not a long term solution, and it's not as good or as cheap as you make it out to be.

* Fissionable uranium is limited, and has its own peak production. If nuclear would come to be the main energy source for the world it would not last a century before fuel prices would rise too high for it to be a feasible source.

* Uranium mining is one of the dirtiest activities we have. It makes coal strip mining look like a holiday resort by comparison. This incidentally means some viable uranium finds will go unexploited simply because people are not willing to pay the local environmental cost no matter what the market price of the material.

* It is only cheap as long as the plants do not have to fully pay for themselves. Specifically, if they would be required to get insurance cover the way all other industries do, many plants would no longer be economically viable. The current plants can work cheaply because they are effectively being heavily subsidized by their host nations. Depending on the country, the nation also picks up the tab for the long-term waste storage.

Matt, a question for you. Brian Dunning (who runs the Skeptoid Podcast) did an episode on nuclear power and said that "The plants we're designing now produce less waste than ever. Some on the drawing board produce none at all. We've already created most of the waste that we ever will. It already exists. It's out there. Lobbying against future cleaner plants won't make the existing waste go away."
I am a huge fan of nuclear power and as such am careful to really try to check my sources on any pro nuclear power arguments I find (easiest person to fool is yourself and all that) and unfortunately the guy does not add show notes or links to his sources. So is this true? In other words is the decay rate for nuclear waste faster (or at least a tiny bit slower) that the rate at which we produce that waste?
This is using current tech of course.
Anyway, here's a link to the episode transcript if you want to see the quote in context.
P.S. I don't comment much because I don't often have much relevant to add but I should take this opportunity to say that I absolutely love this blog!

By Neill Raper (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

Fissionable uranium is limited, and has its own peak production

the odd thing about nuclear power is that some of the problems of using it on a large scale can be solved by using it on an even larger scale.

this one? fuel reprocessing, thorium reactors, accelerator-driven non-uranium reactors, and fast breeder reactors; plutonium economy if all else fails. only some of those concepts are particularly scary, and there's a real chance that they mostly seem scary now because everything nuclear has been made scary for political reasons.

that last point is also a real factor in why nuclear power has had to be exempted from some insurance requirements. the politically-based fear game would have otherwise made such insurance unaffordable, out of proportion to the real risks involved.

as for host nations having to pick up the tab... i've seen no halfway credible suggestions for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions that will not be extremely expensive one way or the other. we will pick that tab up, or we'll do unpredictable and significant harm to the ecosystem, which will not be cheap either. the cheap options are long gone, that ship has sailed. it remains to be seen if any seaworthy ship still remains to us, in fact, but if so the passage surely won't be cheap.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

I would like to say that I totally agree with you, but I think your giving nuclear much too little credit.
First alternative energy = alternative medicine. Blah Blah this Blah Blah that. THERE"S A BETTER WAY. To that I say E=mc^2.
I've heard all this shit before....
sooon there'll be fuuuuuusion. Oh wonderful.
Wind oh wind will make us free.
Solar panels in the sky. In the sky gadammmit it'll fix everything.

We all know about the frog in the pot where if the temp is raised slowly enough it would contently sit there until it died of heat prostration.
Let's give it a Lab coat....and thermometer
I know let's blow on the surface...that cools morning bug juice...
...mmmmmm bug juice.
Wait, we'll collect the sunlight and evaporate the water thru some coils and use that to cool the oil....
What is needed is something that significantly changes the equation of heat into oil to cooling of the oil th make the delta temp be 0 or perhaps -something. Don't want no frogsicles here, No boy.

The only thing I see that has any chance to appreciably change the CO2 balance in the atmosphere is nuclear; everything else is trying to empty lake Erie with a cup.
I realize I sound strident here, but I've been think this way for over forty yeara. Many scientist were talking of global warming and fossil fuels in the 50's and talked of how nuclear energy would help alleviate the problem.
Food for thought...if the nuclear plants that were stopped by the "enviromentalists" in the 80's had been allowed to be built and/or gone online; we would be Kyoto compliant.
I am a pro-nuclear enviromentalist. Minimum space: maximum energy density.

By LionDancer (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

I think that the elephant in the room here is a mental disorder - radiophobia.
Irrational fear of radiation, and by extent, anything nuclear.
Mixed with technophobia with ludditic overtones and massive idealization of pre-industrial past.
From technical point of view, there is no problem. An energy source that does not influence the ecosystem, no other animal is using, that packs maximum energy into minimum of matter, time and space, it is a technology that has already matured - we already have decades of experience how to use it safely and efficiently, there is enough of the stuff for centuries. Etc. Almost the perfect solution for next centuries.
But some people are still utterly refusing it for psychological reasons, so we really can not get anywhere till we find a way how to cure them of the phobia, or at least prevent them from hijacking the entire discourse.

As a former radiophobe (thanks T_U_T for coining that phrase), I never thought I would be on the pro side of the nuclear power discussion. It's clear to me now that I didn't really think about nuclear power, I "felt" negative about it. Actually, I was scared shitless of it. It was the same lack of critical thinking that led me down the path to woo and alternative medicine.

How to deal with rampant radiophobia? We have to start teaching critical-thinking in our schools, making use of kids' natural skepticism and refining it so they aren't so easily fooled by what they want to believe. I wish I'd had that education much earlier in life. But I'm living proof that old dogs can learn new tricks.

I don't think reprocessing is a complete solution for peak uranium. It's my understanding that it allows for much more efficient consumption of that uranium, so the reserves will last far longer, but they'll still run out sooner or later. Even a fuel cycle "closed" by reprocessing must, surely, still consume fuel with a relatively high amount of free energy (that's "free energy" as in "thermodynamically available", not as in "infinite supply," in case there are any perpetual motion / "over unity" cranks reading this) and reject waste material with a lesser quantity of free energy, all whilst unavoidably increasing universal entropy and marching closer to the heat death, and so it cannot run indefinitely. Even "renewable" energy comes, ultimately, from similarly entropically doomed reactions in the sun or within the earth; the only reason it's called renewable is because it'll last many orders of magnitude longer than anything else we've got, and it's just too depressing for most to admit that even that will inevitably fizzle and die.

but they'll still run out sooner or later.
sooner or later here means in a few or in a few dozens of centuries. Which gives us enough time to develop something better.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

but they'll still run out sooner or later.

sooner or later here means something like in a few or in a few dozens of centuries. Which gives us enough time to develop something better.

and it's just too depressing for most to admit that even that will inevitably fizzle and die.

that is several hundred million year time to move to other stars.
Which will last ~1e15 years at least, giving us enough time to find a way out of this universe.

of course, in some sense using nuclear power will always deplete the fuel used, and in some sense we'll always eventually deplete it down beyond reuse. but that is true for each and every potential energy source, including the sun --- hello, heat death!

using uranium fuel alone and reprocessing fuel will last us centuries. then going to other fuels than uranium will allow us to use some of the byproducts we previously reprocessed out as fuels in their own right, lasting us longer. the eventual endgame here is when every fissionable atom in the original uranium has either been converted to a stable, non-fissionable core, or has had its mass converted into energy. that will last us a long time.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

Worst possible accident of a nuclear power plant e.g. PWR:

Lethal cloud of radiation seventy five miles long by 1 mile wide

Evacuation or severe living restrictions for a land mass of 120,000 square miles.

Agricultural restrictions for a land mass of 500,000 square miles lasting 1 to several years due to strontium 90 fallout over a land.

Dairying prohibited for a "very long time" over a 150,000 square miles land mass.

2 x reactors $26 billion + and twelve years later ?

No long term solution for nuclear waste.

How many big nuclear reactors have been decommisioned ?

Who will pay for this ?

What are you saying that has been taken care of by buyers of nuclear power ?

Wrong! They lost a lot of the money that was put aside, so now ratepayers will be forced to pay half maybe a lot more.

With strontium-90, tritrium, Iodine-131, Cesium-137 a common emmision that pollutes our country who wants nuclear power ?

Cancer anyone ?

Nuclear power is NOT cheap. It is one of the most expensive forms of electricity, second only to solar. There are lots of industry reports that are promoted showing nuclear power as being cheap - sometimes even cheaper than coal - but the data sets used to develop those figures are very old estimates and they typically ignore everything that has happened in the past 30 years of the industry, namely that nuclear plants do not last nearly as long as we originally thought, maintenance is far more expensive than we ever imagined, and the cost of decommissioning and fuel storage must be included.

For a proper cost analysis of power, consult the following paper:

20% Wind Energy by 2030: Increasing Wind Energyâs Contribution to U.S. Electricity Supply. United States Department of Energy, 2008

Right near the beginning is a graph representing data collected in what is quite possibly the most comprehensive study of comparative electrical costs that has ever been done, a study by Black and Veatch in 2007.

Don't get me wrong, I'm in favour of maintaining some nuclear power for the interim, and possibly expanding it if we can get the costs down using new modern reactors that can burn so much more of the fuel (See Integral Fast Reactors, etc). But do not hold onto the illusion that it is anything resembling cheap electricity. Geothermal holds a lot more promise for cheap power, and for that I would point readers to this paper:

The Future of Geothermal Energy: Impact of Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) on the United States in the 21st Century. MIT, 2006.

it has been a long time since i have agreed with so many comments on one posting. David, this really, selfishly, messes up my world. what am i going to do? please work fast on your next project and i will go to sleep now, will you wake me when it's ready. if these comments aren't getting through to you, let me spell it out - w-e--n-e-e-d--y-o-u--! all the best!!!! thank you for your incredible work.

Really. To melt a modern reactor, you would need to spend days maybe weeks bypassing all its protective systems, and even then the only result would be a steam explosion and immediate stop of the reaction so it would barely contaminate anything outside the reactor room.
The effects you describe are of a graphite moderated reactor which is no longer used precisely for that reason.

Nuclear power is NOT cheap. It is one of the most expensive forms of electricity, second only to solar.

before or after accounting for environmental costs of fossil fuels? because if we don't have to worry about those, we can just keep burning coal for centuries to come. i'd rather not, how about you?

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

To hell with birds, wind power kills people with stunning regularity. Since I'm in alternative fuels, I've considered taking jobs with wind but those tall towers regularly fall over.

Here's some data. At around 0.25 deaths per Twh, wind is about 3x safer than solar. Hydroelectric is 0.10 and nuclear is around 0.04. So as far as safety goes, nuclear is as safe as it gets.

If the environmentalists get their way, we will be forced to use the default method of making electricity, coal, which at 160 deaths per Twh is easily the most dangerous. It's also quite dirty. Uranium mining is far cleaner than coal mining and the same with energy production, waste disposal, etc.

By Carl Brannen (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

1) We are currently trying to phase out gasoline powered cars in favor of mostly electric cars thus increasing the demand for electricity.


Crap, posted prematurely.

1) We are currently trying to phase out gasoline powered cars in favor of mostly electric cars thus increasing the demand for electricity.

2)We need to be shutting down coal plants to combat global warming.

The only technology that will let us do this is nuclear power. Its that simple.

Wind power is regional and unreliable. Solar is not on demand power but it does deliver during peak demand. If the price can be reduced it has a role. I doubt wind has a long term role. Fusion power will not be working for at least 50 years and may never be economical. Geothermal may have a role but is regional and experimental.

How many nuke plants could we have built with what we spent finding those WMD in Iraq?

A lot of what people are trying to hang on to when they embrace nukes is the opportunity to do things pretty much the way they've always done them: sloppily, wastefully. Nukes are the last best chance of not changing.

This statement might have been intended as anti-human, bit nonetheless it's factually true.

Pretty much all power plants based on heat energy are around 50% efficient, that is, half the heat energy is sent up flues or radiated off in cooling ponds and towers. (Then, of course, we use even more energy to heat our homes and water.) A sizeable proportion of the rest of the energy produced is effectively wasted in transport (mines, enrichment plants and power stations are not built right next to each other) and the distribution grid (a typical figure is 10%; much more than most people think).

Replacing a coal power plant with a nuclear plant is an improvement, don't get me wrong. But it still replaces one inherently inefficient energy system with another inherently inefficient energy system, with the added disadvantage that the new system is not usually economically viable without considerable government subsidies.

If the goal is to lower our carbon footprint, we should be looking at local cogeneration with district heating, at least for residential areas. Keep the large power plants (whatever technology they be) for industries which need the very high energy consumption.

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

What the hell is the definition of cheap. I hear that word all the time, but other than the sound that a bird makes I don't know (nor do I think that those that flash that word know) all the factors to allow for the word cheap.
We, I feel strongly, are at a precipice. We go on and on about the view before we tumble to our deaths, or we can move away from the precipice.
Time is something we had in the sixties (shit I miss the sixties).
Shit. Pot. Decide.
Nuclear is the only answer; all this other shit is just a distraction.

By LionDancer (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

The most crap thing about this completely crap post is that you're adding absolutely nothing new. Hence, who cares whether you like nuclear power, or don't like nuclear power? You disqualify yourself from the concern by other people of what you like or dislike because you're a photocopier for the propaganda output of 50 years of nuclear boosterism.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

You're absofucklutely right. It doesn't matter one nano-iota whether or not I like nuclear, just as it doesn't whether or not you don't. What matters is what is going to get us out of this fucked up mess we've created.

By LionDancer (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

Wind power is very, very far from mature. They still use propeller blades, fer Pete's sake. Wind power won't be mature as long as it still uses moving parts.

(Search "no moving parts wind power" if you're curious.)

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

The quoted woman isn't anti-human at all. She is anti-consumerism. The resources available to people are finite, western capitalism is in direct conflict with that (things always have to grow/sell more). We are putting fuel into something that shouldn't exist, almost no one can enjoy the standard of living western people have because there aren't enough resources of most kinds. The massive energy needs are born of a culture that demands so much luxury, when it is oppressing people damn near everywhere else. Putting energy needs (that are so high because we buy so much useless crap/have ridiculous luxuries) being put ahead of all the suffering connected to that causes is way more anti-human.

@38, If you think that we should be stuck at medieval level forever, then turn off your computer, sell all electric appliances, your car, factory made clothes, and go living with the amish.

That won't solve anything. To have a significant impact you would have to force everyone else to live like the Amish too (including everyone in Asia and Africa who are heading towards an industrialized society).

Do you think it is possible to separate the issue of being pro vs. anti nuclear power and the issue of environmental stewardship in the face of uranium mining? I am a biochemist I can't stand the emotional arguments used by anti-vaccine folks but when it comes to nuclear issues I side with environmentalists. Powertech uranium corporation is in the process of applying for permits to do in situ leach uranium mining on a large ore deposit of low grade uranium near Nunn, Colorado. This ore sits in the fox-sandstone formation in a Cretaceous river bed. They want to solubilize 12 million lbs of uranium and pump it out to collect it on ion exchange columns. The problem is there has never been an example of a cleaned up in situ leach mine anywhere on the planet. Is the quest for fuel for an age of nuclear power really worth the risk of polluting entire drinking aquifers? My answer is no. I am still pro-nuclear power but not at the expense of clean water. I think these are separate issues. What do you think. I did a lot of research on this particular site and wrote about it ay check that out for more in depth info on the Nunn site.

To have a significant impact you would have to force everyone else to live like the Amish too (including everyone in Asia and Africa who are heading towards an industrialized society).

then good luck with a pointed stick attack against Chinese tanks


Kris, do you like coal mines more ?

The n-word has generated a lot of comments.

I am of the opinion that nuclear waste storage shouldn't be nearly as problematic as it has become.
After about a thousand years, the radioactivity of the waste is nearly equivalent to the original ore. I don't know what will become of America's nuclear industry, but two other major economies are going nuclear. China, now the world's leader in CO2 emissions with 80% of its electricity from coal, is planning to aggressively ramp up its nuclear power capacity over the next twenty years. India has a goal of supplying 25% of its electricity via nuclear power by 2050.

I wonder if some level of "carbon recycling" is part of the solution. One biofuel company claims it is developing a technique that could produce 20,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year (Although this is a company claim and not from a peer-reviewed scientific journal). This translates into an equivalent average of about 14 watts per square meter and a CO2 sequestration rate of 250,000 lb per acre·year compared to under 10,000 lb per acre·year for a forest.

By Tim Gaede (not verified) on 06 Sep 2009 #permalink

I'll believe it's cheap when the accounting includes the hidden subsidies. The nuclear industry is the only industry in the US to enjoy a complete cap on operating liability (the Price-Anderson act), and much of the operating costs for civilian reactors are carried by the government, including fuel production and storage.

I'll believe it's environmentally friendly when a there's viable plan for storage, and when the Colorado river water downstream from Moab isn't radioactive anymore.

And I'll believe it's safe when we have a way to limit proliferation of nuclear technology and secure the fuel, so that unstable third-world governments can't use it to produce weapons. If you focus on the operating risk of a modern reactor, you're ignoring the risk of maniacs in Iran or North Korea acquiring and using weapons against us, or against our allies. Or perhaps ignoring the risk of terrorists attacking a train or truck transporting nuclear wastes to the next Yucca.


Modern reactors are passively safe. They require absolutely zero operator intervention to prevent a catastrophe. The entire purpose of modern designs is to overcome the need for operator intervention.

Two problems people have noted are spent fuel and future uranium shortages. Do you realize that these problems largely cancel each other out? Spent fuel is not waste. It is just nuclear fuel, slightly used, and contaminated with various fission products. There are plenty of ways to use it again.

The most mature way of using spent fuel is to use the PUREX process to extract plutonium and uranium from the fuel and re-use them as fuel, while sticking the fission products into long-term storage. This is what France and several other countries do. Because uranium is so cheap now, it's more expensive than mining more. This could change as costs go up.

A more advanced way of using the slightly-used fuel is to stick it into fast-neutron breeder reactors. Unlike conventional reactors, which only use the rare uranium-235 isotope, fast breeders also use the abundant U-238 isotope. They are far more efficient. Did you know that America has enough nuclear "waste" to supply our current energy needs for a hundred years?

Another thing we can do is use thorium. We have a lot of this in existing mine tailings. It's several times more common in the earth's crust than uranium. By putting it in a liquid fluoride thorium reactor, we can get millions of years' worth of energy, with small, mass-produced, yet surprisingly powerful reactors. They've got everything: passive safety, extreme fuel efficiency, the ability to adjust their power output rapidly to match changing demand, theoretically cheap production, proliferation resistance, high thermodynamic efficiency, and working prototypes. Oh, and the waste becomes less radioactive than thorium ore in a mere 500 years, and becomes pretty safe long before that. Problem: solved?

Spent light water reactor fuel is not waste, and I wish everybody would stop calling it that, and treating it as a burden. How thoughtless can you be? It is a precious gift to future generations, who will get vast amounts of power from it once it becomes cheaper than mining uranium. We need to store it safely, where our descendants can get it, instead of trying to throw it all away.

By Peter Scott (not verified) on 06 Sep 2009 #permalink

Thank you Peter Scott. I think what you say makes perfect sense, although for the most part that seems to have little affect in reality.
I really have no other way to bring light onto the woo roaches---
alternative energy = alternative medicine--
the same FAITH in opinion is required.
Save the Earth.
Go Green!
Go Nuclear.

By LionDancer (not verified) on 06 Sep 2009 #permalink

#44 "If you focus on the operating risk of a modern reactor, you're ignoring the risk of maniacs in Iran or North Korea acquiring and using weapons against us, or against our allies."

I would suspect that it's unlikely that the US will pack up its its fuel cycle products into crates and ship them to North Korea.

If you're worried about them developing reactors and nuclear weapons on their own, that certainly is a nasty problem but not one that's in the slighest affected by where American electricity is generated.

#44: i wish i knew why people keep insisting that large-scale power generation ought to be cheap.

it isn't cheap now. if it seems to be, it's only because we're negligently ignoring its externalities, which threaten to do serious ecological damage that nobody's even trying to account for but which will cost money.

building sufficient wind and solar power, along with power storage to account for their slumps, to make a real dent in demand will not be cheap. (especially the storage part. nobody's seriously tackling that one yet.) building tidal, wave, or geothermal power to supply whole cities won't be cheap; moving large populations to live close by where such power can be generated --- or else building new transmission lines to move the power to where the people are --- won't be cheap, in any of a number of currencies. biofuels all tend to need agriculture, which has only ever been "cheap" when either (1) labor was essentially free, or (2) large agribusinesses receive government subsidies.

nukes won't be cheap. they might be cheaper than most other methods, if only because their waste products --- which are admittedly expensive to store or deal with, either one --- are so microscopically minuscule in quantity compared to the power generated for them. spent nuclear fuel is nasty stuff, but we don't have much of it, and we never really will; not compared to the huge basins of coal ash sludge sitting (or spilling, as the case sometimes is) across our countryside. and those don't even begin to account for what went up the smokestacks!

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 07 Sep 2009 #permalink

Currently, the uranium in phosphate fertilizer is not cost-effective to extract, so it gets dumped on crops instead. Simply removing that from the food supply would give us decades, if not centuries, more fuel.

"Worst possible accident of a nuclear power plant e.g. PWR:

Lethal cloud of radiation seventy five miles long by 1 mile wide"

No, that's the worst IMpossible accident at a nuclear plant. Such scenarios invariably make unphysical assumptions.

How does a core meltdown escape the thick steel vessel(three mile island solidified after a fraction of an inch)? Deus ex mahina.

How does half the core vapourize? Deus ex machina.

How does this vapourized core escape the containment vessel? Deus ex machina.

Keep in mind that coal power in the US kills several Chernobyls worth of people.

"2 x reactors $26 billion + and twelve years later ?"

The $26 billion includes 60 years of fuel, 60 years of wages for the operators, crushing levels of beaurocracy, spent fuel management, profit margin, decomissioning etc. And still it amounts to only some ~5 cents per kWh.

"No long term solution for nuclear waste."

The 'waste problem' is a beaurocratic fiction.

The fission products are gone in 300 years and a lot of them are very valuable(e.g. platinum group metals). The rest of the so called waste is a mixture of harmless uranium isotopes that went through the reactor unchanged and transuranics.

The transuranics are various isotopes of neptunium, plutonium, americium and curium. Fuel!

The reprocessing industry was destroyed at the stroke of a government beaurcrat's pen. After falsely labeling a resource as waste and strongarming the industry into accepting the deep geological depository method of disposal it turned out to be far too cheap. The standards had to be progressively tightened; the TRU 'waste' had to be stored such that the background radiation level doesn't rise by more than a fraction of one percent at the site during the next 100 000 years. This standard has nevertheless been met at reasonable cost. So what now? Well, there's talks of abandon Yucca or at the very least to stall the project until a new way to drive up cost can be invented.

If you for some asinine reason wanted to get rid of this tremendous resource, that future generations will want to have for starting up molten salt breeder reactors or fast breeder reactors, the best way is to stick it in a subduction zone.

If you want to see a real waste disposal nightmare, go look at fossil fuels.

"How many big nuclear reactors have been decommisioned ?"

Why would you ever want to? Here you have this site with ready access to the powerlines and various nuclear related infrastrucure as well as permits and nuclear certified personnel who live in the locale. When a reactor has served its useful life what you want to do is replace it with a new reactor.

If you nevertheless want some examples Yankee Rowe, Maine Yankee and Connecticut Yankee have been restored to greenfield status.(can you name a single coal plant that has been restored to greenfield status?)

There are dozens of nuclear plants in various stages of decommissioning, from defueling and decontamination, dismantling and internal demolishion to just some concrete pads with dry cask spent fuel storage waiting for the government to uphold its end of the bargain and take custody of the spent fuel for deep geological storage, as it has been paid to do.

"Who will pay for this ?"

The utility pays up-front for this via a decomissioning fund. Coal plants are not compelled to meet any such standard. In fact, they don't really seem to be compelled to do any decommissioning at all.

"With strontium-90, tritrium, Iodine-131, Cesium-137 a common emmision that pollutes our country who wants nuclear power ?"

Coal plants kill several times more people than will ever die from Chernobyl every single year in the US as well as being a major GHG emitter and major mercury polluter(stays toxic forever).

People falling off of their roof while installing solar PV cause more deaths per TWh than civilian nuclear power including Chernobyl.

Against this backdrop you're worrying about some miniscule additions to the background radiation level that don't amount to a fart in space?

If you're so terrified of miniscule quantities of radiation, why don't you reject some medical imaging(just a fraction of a percent would undo all contribution from nuclear reactors and an additional ~1000 atmospheric nuclear weapon's tests. You could skip the x-ray at the dentist; they can find most of those cavities by hand)? Why don't you select your area of residence based on background levels of radon? Why don't you avoid air travel?

So far, Nuclear power has been not-cheap. Here in Minnesota I believe we spend more per KWH for nuke energy than any of the other energy types and we have a looming waste problem that has not been paid for yet. Also, "it didn't kill anybody" is not the most wonderful endorsement I've ever heard.

Still, as a long time anti-nuclear activist (and someone who has also contracted for nuclear power, so I'm not pure) I do want to hear the positive side of the argument.

What I do NOT want to hear is the argument that people who are against nuclear power are ideologically driven or stupid in some way. There is ideology, but:

a) it is no more ideological than the ideology of most non-expert supporters of nuclear power who also know nothing about it, so give me a break please... and

b) The nuclear power industry ... and Matt, you are too young to remember much of this ... has in the past been very big-brother like, often dishonest, and generally non-trustworthy to a measurable, documentable degree. Granted, not to the degree some have claimed (probably), but still, enough that the idea that people who disagree with you are all nuts and irrational and crazy and even dagnerous but people who are on your side are all calm, cool, collected, very smart, and know everything is a conversation stopper.

(Oh, this would be a good point to mention: you forgot about the environmental and third-world problem related costs of getting the nuclear material to begin with. Again, you're a bit young. I'm going to keep using that on you until you show me your birth certificate, BTW.)

Given all that, I'd like to know more about he current science, and to this end, I have the following question (which I already know partial answers to but I'd like to know more):

What are the prospects of a liquid metal powered cooled plant?

What are the prospects of producing an end product that is less of a storage problem, and what are the costs in terms of energy availability?

What are the prospects of producing an end prodcut and having starting and intermediate products that can't be as easily refined to make bad-guy bombs?

What are the prospects of using our current nuclear arsenal to power a series of nuclear plants until the arsenal is used up?

I'm surprised that nobody yet has mentioned the other nuclear -- fusion. Ultimately that's the way to go, whether it's by harnessing the conveniently self-regulating fusion reactor 93 megamiles away (via solar power sats, which unfortunately do not scale down very well, requiring a large up-front investment) or by figuring out how to build them here.

By Squiddhartha (not verified) on 08 Sep 2009 #permalink

fusion. Ultimately that's the way to go

personally, i'm waiting for the number of years into the future that fusion currently "is", to go variable instead of staying constant. and preferably to start varying downwards.

that said, the experimental fusion reactors around the world do seem like fascinating projects. if nothing else, they'll teach us worthwhile things about plasma and high-temperature physics.

solar power sats are a good idea, just as soon as we get a reliable and somewhat cheap heavy lifter into regular operation. look for the same sorts of people who currently oppose nuclear power to fight the microwave downlinks tooth and nail, though. they'll be demonized as the death by holocaust of all that's good and pure in the world, mark my word.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 08 Sep 2009 #permalink

Nomen: look for the same sorts of people who currently oppose nuclear power to fight the microwave downlinks tooth and nail, though. they'll be demonized as the death by holocaust of all that's good and pure in the world, mark my word.

Pre- deamonizing the people who you imagine might disagree with a concept that is barely off the ground (no pun intended) has what benefit exactly?

By Anonymous (not verified) on 08 Sep 2009 #permalink

i'm not demonizing people, i'm making a cynical prediction of people's future behavior. there's a difference.

benefit? well, if orbital solar power ever does take off, somebody might have the foresight to start grappling with the inevitable political opposition early on --- not likely because of my prediction, but perhaps because of hearing some more prominent person than myself echoing the cynical sentiment.

or if they don't, they'll face the same railroading as nuclear power did and does, and then orbital solar might (literally!) never get off the ground for that reason alone. this would likely matter to global energy policy, in that hypothetical world.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 08 Sep 2009 #permalink

Ooop... Hey Matt, if someone forgets to fill in name/address/url on your blog, instead of spitting out an error message, your blog just eats the comment and turns it into "anonymous." Mine spits out an error message.


In addition to all the complicated technical reasons why Chernobyl was more dangerous than modern power plants, there is one very simple reason why Chernobyl was an accident waiting to happen that even a child out to be able to understand: There was no containment vessel.

Even using that outdated early Soviet technology with all of its various risks and gotchas and intensive monitoring requirements, etc., if the Russians had just built a goddamn shell around the thing, then when the shit hit the fan it would have most likely only resulted in the loss of the plant rather than a massive release of radiation.

Nomen Nescio: I find your presumption that public involvement in oversight can and should be written off in the early days of an idea to be obnoxious. Fortunately very few people look at things that way any more.

I would rather advocate a position of open dialog, education, and keeping things real than identifying a priori people you find politically distasteful and telling them to shut up. The idea that this would even work is insane.

Actually I think micro wave transmission would attract protesters, mostly the same ones who rant about wi-fi. Just the word microwave will scare them, to most people microwaves are that magical things that cook food, imagine if one got pointed at a school!!111!!1!1 They will of course also be accused of causing cancer, possibly of the puppy. This is not about identifying the politically distastful, it's more a question of how tostop panicing know-nothings from derailing the debate. It's like the idiots who rant and call obama a nazi to kill the debate about healthcare reform.

@14 writes "if they [nuclear power plants] would be required to get insurance cover the way all other industries do, many plants would no longer be economically viable."

Tell me exactly which coal power plant carries insurance against the costs inflicted on, say, Miami, when it gets turned into Venice by global warming or hit by a hurricane that is made worse by CO2. None? I thought so. Does Dell have insurance to pay the costs of cleaning up that mess in China that results from dumping old electronics there? In contrast, you do pay a disposal fee when you buy new tires or a car battery.

All industries do not bear all costs of doing business. There are many cases where huge costs or risks are passed on as a public "good" (economics sense of the word) rather than paid for by the perpetrator. Nuclear power is fairly unique in that it has to pay some of the cost of dealing with something even (in principle) after it is less radioactive than the stuff they started with.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 08 Sep 2009 #permalink


The modern designs (none in place currently) for a PWR cannot, for sound physics reasons, do what you describe.

The worst accident in history with a PWR did not kill anyone but did cost the company responsible a billion dollars or so. The worst reactor accident in history was not a PWR but was a worse-case scenario that included a full melt-down of the core. It did not match your projection, and the Cs-137 it emitted into the atmosphere was dwarfed by what was left from decades old atmospheric testing by the time the cloud got to the US.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 08 Sep 2009 #permalink

earth to scienceblogs tech types: the turkish spammers are impersonating real people now.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 09 Sep 2009 #permalink

Even if we forego nuclear power for the interim, I feel that in the future it will be an inevitable part of our lives. As a society, our energy consumption needs are only getting worse despite innovations in power saving technologies. The average person today uses a lot more power than they did 50 or 100 years ago, and the United States is at the forefront of power hungry nations around the world. Itâs the price we pay for our technologically advanced society, but itâs also an inescapable fact that as more countries develop the energy crisis worsens exponentially.

Iâve glanced at a report done by the EIA on U.S. electric power capacity for 2007 and it would seem that a single nuclear power plant has 3 to 5 times the capacity of a more conventional coal or petroleum plant. I know operating and construction costs for a nuclear power plant are high because of environmental considerations but I have to wonder how the cost measures up given the quantity. Then there are political considerations, itâs much easier to find a location and raise funding for a single power plant than it is for three. By the way, how does nuclear fusion achieved through lasers differ from nuclear fusion done in a reactor? Iâm not so concerned about the technical aspect of the process but is one âcleanerâ and produce less radioactive material than the other?

By Randy Miller (not verified) on 09 Sep 2009 #permalink

I agree that nuclear is the best bet (degree in nuclear physics 1961, thanks, Sputnik!)

Nonetheless, the remarks above about ridiculous energy use by the consumeristas, especially in dismissal of the necessity for equalization of energy living standards, are wrong.

We DO need to use less energy per capita. We DO NOT need to go back to the middle ages. All our junk is more energy efficient now, but we still need to stop accelerating our junk demands.

Video conferencing instead of air travel. Condensed housing space for efficiency. Electric vehinkles. Eat more veggies and less cows... easy stuff. Just do it, and build nukes.

By Ormond Otvos (not verified) on 09 Sep 2009 #permalink

i thought it took years

By Anonymous (not verified) on 22 Sep 2009 #permalink

Personally, I believe that Nuclear Power has a negative impact on our society. In the early 1980âs it was a big issue in Australia, probably the biggest environmental issue of the period. There were several anti-nuclear groups which sprung up in Australia, and if I were living in that time, I too would be one of those people. In a number of countries today, it is still on the agenda, including Australia. However now, it is presented as a non-polluting alternative when compared to fossil fuels, without emissions of carbon dioxide and therefore part of the solution to global warming. I believe that things havenât changed from the late 1970âs to today.
I believe that nuclear power has unacceptable risks and it is unnecessary. I strongly believe that nuclear power shouldnât be used because there is an immense number of nuclear accidents which are occurring, such as the core of nuclear power plant over-heating and melting down, which results in releasing large amounts of radio-activity. The cost of nuclear power is very expensive. Also because there is a huge amount of waste disposal as nuclear power results in large amounts of radioactive waste, some of which remains dangerous for several hundred years.
Not only nuclear accidents and price but nuclear power plants also have a negative impact on human health because during fission, very harmful rays are released, including gamma rays. When the human body is exposed to these sorts of radiations, it can cause tumor and can do extreme damage to the reproductive organs. For this reason, I believe that nuclear power is a threat to not only our society today, but the next generation because problems associated with radioactivity, coming from nuclear power plants can be passed onto the victimâs children as well.

By scientist kim (not verified) on 13 Mar 2010 #permalink

But for all x, (x is in the empty set) == false

So (1) is equivalent to âFor all x, false => (x is false)â and we all now that âfalse => anythingâ is true
false malse ne ayak aq nedır bunlar

emissions of carbon dioxide and therefore part of the solution to global warming. I believe that things havenât changed from the late 1970âs to today.
I believe that nuclear power has unacceptable risks and it is unnecessary. I strongly believe that nuclear power arastırmacılara gore bunlar sadece bır ders..

ones who rant about wi-fi. Just the word microwave will scare them, to most people microwaves are that magical things that cook food, imagine if one got pointed at a school!!111!!1!1 They will of course also be accused of causing cancer, possibly of the puppy. This

The modern designs (none in place currently) for a PWR cannot, for sound physics reasons, do what you describe.

The worst accident in history with a PWR did not kill anyone but did cost the company responsible a billion dollars or so. The worst reactor accident in history was not a PWR but was a worse-case scenario that included a full melt-down of the core. It did not match your projection, and the Cs-137 it emitted into the atmosphere was dwarfed by what was left from decades old atmospheric testing by the time the cloud got to the US.