The Case for Nuclear Energy

Nuclear is Probably Necessary:

A lot of engineers believe that we cannot possibly decarbonize the economy without employing nuclear energy, and most believe that decarbonizing the economy without nuclear would be far more expensive than if we employ it. So we really may not have much choice, if we want to solve global warming.

Meltdown-Proof Nuclear Reactors

Some reactors that are planned dissolve the fuel in molten salt. At the bottom of the container of the molten salt is a drain with a plug in it.

If the reactor overheats for any reason, the plug in the drain melts, and all the fuel / salt flows out the drain into a bunch of small tanks spaced wide apart.

Because the tanks are small and far apart, and there's no moderator between them, the fuel / salt no longer comprises a critical mass, the fission reaction stops, and everything cools down.

Unless there is a radical change in the fundamental laws of physics, such a reactor cannot possibly melt down.

A prototype of a meltdown-proof reactor was successfully tested in Idaho by the US government in the early 1990's. They did several things to it to try to make it melt down, and it just would shut itself off. One of the things they did was shut off the cooling system, which is what happened at Fukushima. The plant just shut itself down, no problem.

At this point, the federal government caved to the anti-nuclear movement and cut off funding for nuclear research.

One thing about a meltdown-proof reactor: because our existing plants can, theoretically, melt down, everything in the plant has to be built to a 99.9999% safety standard, which is very expensive, as one observer put it, "The toilet paper in a nuclear power plant has to be gold-plated.". If the reactor core is meltdown-proof, those standards can be substantially relaxed for the rest of the plant, saving a huge amount of money.

Persuading the Third World To Stop Fossil Fuel Use

Any solution to decarbonizing the economy based on non-nuclear wind, solar, and hydro faces a problem. Wind & solar plus enough of any kind of electricity storage to provide reliable power 24/7/365 is guaranteed to be quite a bit more expensive than getting the power from fossil fuels.

We can try to persuade the rich countries to make that sacrifice "because it's the right thing to do", but poor countries just aren't going to be able to afford it, and will insist on buying the cheapest energy they can obtain, dirty or not.

It is possible that some form of next-generation nuclear power will be cheaper than fossil fuels, which just isn't going to happen with wind & solar. If a zero-carbon energy technology is invented that really is cheaper than fossil fuels, it will be very easy to get everybody in the world to use it.

Danger / Safety:

"Nuclear is very dangerous. The possibility of an absolutely catastrophic accident like another Chernobyl is just too great. No matter how hard we try to make nuclear safer, there will always be the risk of an accident killing thousands of people. We have no choice but to ban nuclear and thus prevent any possibility of anything that bad happening ever again."

According to the World Health Organization, Chernobyl killed about 4,000 people. Worse things than that have already happened: after Fukushima, Germany shut down all their nuclear power plants, which hadn't been hurting anybody, and burned coal to replace the energy. The soot pollution from that coal has already killed twice as many Germans as total people were killed from Chernobyl, as of 2021. Think about that -- Germany just shutting down their nuclear reactors caused twice the number of deaths as the Chernobyl accident.

Worldwide, the soot pollution from coal kills about 741,000 people per year, or more than one person per minute. Every 4 days, coal pollution kills more people than have died in the 70-year history of nuclear energy, and we're accustomed to it. The press is absurdly biased -- if a thousand people die from coal pollution, we don't hear about it, while if one person dies from radiation, it makes world headlines. It's important to put things in their proper perspective.

The Chernobyl accident was about as bad as a nuclear accident could be, and the plant was unspeakably poorly designed, much worse than any American plant ever was. There is absolutely no reason to ever build a plant like Chernobyl in the future. The reactor had no containment vessel, unlike any American reactor. So the Chernobyl accident was far worse than anything we can expect if we go forward with American nuclear power. And Chernobyl did expose a very large number of people to a lot of radiation, and what we found was that the harm done to them by that radiation was far less than scientists had expected.

One possibility that is brought up is that terrorists might break into a nuclear plant, obtain nuclear waste, and turn it into dirty bombs. That is very unlikely, and dirty bombs are much less dangerous than atom bombs. A dirty bomb would probably kill at most a thousand people. To do that, the terrorists would have to send commandos into the plant to seize control of it and defend it from law enforcement long enough to get the waste out of the dry casks or cooling pools (no small feat) and then somehow escape the plant, which by then would be surrounded by law enforcement, if not the local national guard. If a terrorist organization had such a set of commandos, it would be much, much easier to take their guns a half-mile from an NFL game, shoot in the air at an angle where the bullets will arc into the stadium and land on the fans, and empty many, many magazines at that angle, which could kill many times more people than a dirty bomb. They could even get away before law enforcement figured out what was going on.

Fatality Rates per Petawatt-Hour
Source: Forbes Magazine: Click Here.
A "petawatt" is 10^15 watts, a thousand terawatts, a million gigawatts, or a billion megawatts.
Energy Source Death Rate
Per PWH
Coal: China 170,000
Coal: World 100,000
Oil 36,000
Biofuel 24,000
Coal: USA 10,000
Natural Gas 4,000
Hydro: Global 1,400
Solar 440
Wind 150
Nuclear: Global Including Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island 90
Hydro: US 5
Nuclear: US Including Three Mile Island 0.1

Coal is a disastrous source of energy in terms of deaths, the soot pollution just kills people left and right. We should phase it out whether global warming is a problem or not.

Rooftop solar has nearly 5 times the deaths per watt as nuclear because of the fact that installers and maintenance workers fall off the roofs and die, and they add up.

The problem with hydro is that, every once in awhile, dams burst and the rushing water wipes out whole cities downstream. There was one particularly catastrophic dam failure at Banqiao, China in 1975 that killed 170,000 people (42 Chernobyl's worth).

Nuclear Waste:

"Nuclear waste will be highly toxic for hundreds of thousands of years and we have never come up with an acceptable solution to storing it for that long. We should never use nuclear energy until we come up with an acceptable solution to handling the waste, and an acceptable solution is impossible."

Finland has a long-term waste repository at Onkalo, Finland. The US doesn't currently have a long-term repository, but nuclear waste is not a big problem where it is, in giant dry casks next to nuclear power plants, and it is not terribly difficult to create good long-term repositories, it's just that creating them is not an urgent priority, and we haven't gotten around to it.

To hear nuclear opponents discuss waste, you would think that nuclear waste was the only toxic substance in the world. The Earth has toxic substances all over the place, especially if you consider bio-hazards, many of them naturally occurring.

There are new designs for nuclear reactors that consume what is now considered high-level nuclear waste, and produce smaller amounts of waste with shorter half-lives. We should build such reactors if for no reason other than to process the waste we already have, with a lot of electricity as an added bonus. Thorium nuclear power produces less waste than uranium nuclear power, and less problematic waste.

There are 4 categories of nuclear waste:

  • Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF)
  • High-Level Waste (HLW)
  • Transuranic Waste (TRU), and
  • Low-Level Waste (LLW)
  • We don't want to put the SNF underground and forget about it, because there are new reactor designs that can use it as fuel and turn it into less problematic waste.

    Most of the HLW is classified as high-level because it is very radioactive, but it does not necessarily have long half-lives. Most of what was HLW 30 years ago has decayed into TRU.

    We have a working repository for TRU in New Mexico near Carlsbad that has existed since 1999.

    LLW is so tame it can be disposed of at the bottom of landfills.

    So this leaves only a relatively small amount of HLW that we want to permanent bury deep underground.

    In the US, we were working on a very good long-term solution to storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. It was in the desert in the middle of nowhere, dozens of miles from people. The waste would be melted into glass, to keep it from ever spilling as a liquid, and buried in casks thousands of feet underground in a cave. The problem was that Harry Reid, the senator from Nevada, was senate majority leader, so he had an amount of power that was all out of proportion to the number of people he represented. He pulled strings to sabotage the project, and even arranged to appoint a nuclear opponent, Gregory Jaczko, to be head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

    It was just a fluke that the senator from a state with almost nobody in it became senate majority leader at just the right time to sabotage Yucca Mountain. And he's not in the senate any more.

    Yucca Mountain was a much bigger repository than we really needed, so if we can't move forward with that, we can create a smaller repo for the HLW somewhere else.

    Waste: The NIMBY Problem

    The problem is that most people are opposed to nuclear waste storage facility being near them, or even hundreds of miles from them. This is called a "NIMBY", or "not in my back yard" problem.

    Nuclear energy is not the only thing affected by NIMBY problems. Nobody wants a sewage treatment plant, a junkyard, a fossil power plant, or an oil refinery, right next to them. But we manage to build all these things. The way we solve NIMBY problems is locate the objectionable thing somewhere where there are few people and/or they lack political clout, and out-vote them.

    Solar farms and windmills have NIMBY problems. There are counties in upstate New York that have banned solar farms because the people there would rather look at cows. Many people object to windmills because they're noisy, kill birds, and some people think they're ugly.

    Waste: The Solution Problem

    Half the problem with creating a long-term nuclear waste repository is that we have a lot of people who don't want there to be a solution to the waste problem. Even if we had a way to make the waste just disappear, these people would be opposed to that. Why? Because they have a deep, irrational fear of nuclear energy, and as long as we don't have a long-term waste repository, that's an argument against nuclear energy. So when any repository is proposed, nuclear opponents will make ridiculous, nitpicking arguments against it, which did happen to Yucca Mountain.

    Cost and Speed of Construction

    "Nuclear Power Plants are Very Expensive, and Very Slow to Build"

    In the United States, nuclear plants have cost a lot and taken a long time to build. We know that these problems are not intrinsic to nuclear power because other countries like France, Sweden, and South Korea have had much better experiences. While we have made only a few plants of each design, those countries took a standardized design and replicated it frequently, cutting down the cost per reactor. Also, there is a lot of reason to believe that the American regulatory framework is particularly problematic compared to those countries, and that could be reformed.

    Advocates for renewables often say that wind energy and solar energy are already cheaper than fossil fuels. I've actually heard Al Gore say that. If that's the case, then what do we need environmentalists for? Everybody will just go to the cheapest form of energy without any regulation or legislation, there's no need for any political action at all. Basically, the statement is so misleading that it's basically a lie. Wind and solar energy are very cheap in the middle of a sunny, windy day, but on a calm night they can't be had at any price, in other words, their prices go to infinity. We need electricity 24/7/365, and to get that out of wind and solar you need storage, and any known form of storage is quite expensive.

    Also, new designs in nuclear power plants promise to be cheaper and faster to build. Smaller modular plants built on assembly lines, and plants built on barges in shipyards, could be mass-produced much cheaper and faster than the huge light-water reactors that we are accustomed to building one at a time. And that's not even getting into the radically different designs that are on the drawing board.

    It should be noted that France, which gets most of its electricity from nuclear, charges half as much for electricity as the Germans do, while Germany has shut down their nuclear power plants and aggressively pursued wind & solar energy.

    Security Concerns

    From a security point of view, it is probably better to have a small number of large plants, yet from a cost / manufacturing point of view, it is preferable to have a lot of small reactors. The ideal situation, therefore, is to have a few big plants with many small reactors at each one.

    Limited Fuel

    "There's Only Enough Uranium on the Planet for 90 Years of Nuclear Energy"

    That is a flat-out lie. There are only enough known reserves of uranium on land for 90 years, but it can also be obtained from sea water at an acceptable price, and there is enough uranium to be had from sea water to power the human race for billions of years until the sun explodes.

    Problems with Uranium Mining

    "Uranium Mining is Toxic and Environmentally Unfriendly"

    We mine many toxic substances, uranium is not terribly unusual in this regard. Mining cobalt, mercury, sulfur, flourite, quartz, and lead are also very toxic and problematic. And if we don't like mining uranium, we can always switch to getting uranium from sea water (see above).

    Throttling Inflexibility

    "Nuclear Plants Can't Throttle Their Power Output Up and Down Fast Enough to Match Grid Demand"

    That is true for the big nuclear power stations we have now, but it is not an unsolvable problem with nuclear. The US and Russian navies have nuclear reactors on many submarines and ships, and those reactors have to throttle rapidly. When we want to build nuclear power plants that can throttle rapidly, it won't be particularly hard.

    Nuclear Proliferation

    "Any country with a nuclear reactor within its borders can produce nuclear bombs"

    That is just not true. It's like saying that any country that has airports can manufacture fighter jets.

    Furthermore, having everybody in the world stop using nuclear energy to generate electricity will not eliminate the possibility of people making nuclear weapons. There's nothing to prevent some belligerent country from mining uranium (especially from sea water), enriching it, and making atom bombs. The only way to eliminate that possibility would be to somehow get everybody to forget that atom bombs are possible. Good luck with that.

    It will not be particularly hard to provide nuclear power to an unstable or potentially hostile country without making it easier for them to develop nuclear bombs. There is no reason for each country that has nuclear reactors to enrich their own fuel. In some planned designs with small nuclear reactors, the reactor core is shipped to the site sealed with the fuel already in it, and replaced by another core like that when the fuel runs out, so the operators would never have access to the fuel. If a hostile country took such a reactor and just tore it open to get at the fuel inside, they would still be a long way from being able to make a bomb, because reactor fuel is nowhere near sufficiently enriched to make a bomb with.

    Also, thorium-based nuclear energy is much harder to make bombs with. It's possible, though hard, to build bombs based on thorium, but they have a nasty habit of going off by mistake. What wants a bomb like that?

    Renewables

    "Can't we just use wind and solar energy, with battery storage to carry us through calm nights?"

    Lithium-ion batteries are currently way too expensive for much grid storage. There are a couple of places using lithium-ion batteries for grid applications, but they tend to be only big enough for four hours of backup. If you took all the lithium-ion batteries produced in the whole world in a year and used all of them to back up the American electrical grid, it would amount to a few minutes of storage. There's talk on the drawing board about flow batteries, but they don't seem to have materialized.

    Battery prices have been declining, but nowhere near fast enough for them to be appropriate for mass-grid storage. Moore's Law does not apply to batteries, that is, batteries are not getting cheaper and better anywhere near as fast as computers do. And we anticipate the improvements in lithium-ion batteries to bottom out around 2030, at which point they will still be too expensive for mass grid storage.

    The Mark Z. Jacobson Plan

    "Mark Z. Jacobson Has a Non-Nuclear Plan to Reach Zero Carbon by 2050 That is All Worked Out and Good to Go"

    Stanford professor Mark Z Jacobson claims to have worked out a viable plan, but he has many critics who say it just plain won't work. We discuss the plan in detail on a separate page.

    "Chernobyl" the 2019 TV Mini-Series

    There were a few gross inaccuracies in that TV series:

  • In the series, a fireman is called to put out the fire after the Chernobyl explosion and gets exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. This was accurate, someone in his position was very likely to die. But the series spends a tremendous amount of time on his pregnant wife, who catches up with him in the hospital after he's had his clothes taken off, been showered, and is wearing fresh pajamas. The doctors knew he was doomed. But in the series, the wife, by hugging and kissing him and putting his hand on the baby, exposed her and the fetus to so much radiation that the baby was stillborn. This is just not accurate. Unless they have swallowed a lot of radiactive material, someone who has been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, once they've been showered and had a change of clothing, is not radiactive and poses no threat to visitors.
  • The series also tells the story of 3 volunteers who went on a "suicide mission" into the plant to open a valve to prevent an explosion. According to the series, these 3 workers received a lethal dose of radition and were assumed to have died in great pain in the following weeks or months. Actually, two of them, Alexei Ananenkoff and Valeri Bezpaolov, are still alive, and the other one, Boris Baranov, their supervisor, died of a heart attack in 2005 (the Chernobyl accident was in 1986).
  • In the series, coal miners are recruited to dig a tunnel under the melted core to prevent it from melting down to geological water table and contaminating it. The tunnel was to contain a cooling system to cool the soil and prevent the core from melting through. This was true, but the series fails to mention that they never installed the cooling system once they had determined that the core had stopped melting its way through the ground after a descent of about 3 stories.
  • The Linear No-Threshold (LNT) Model of Radiation Harm

    Opinions on how much radiation it takes to have an effect on people are split, with different scientific committees taking different positions.

  • The Linear No-Threshold (LNT) Model says that if you receive half as much radiation as someone else, you have exactly half their likelihood of getting cancer from it. There is no threshold below which radiation becomes harmless.
  • The other point of view is that the body can repair damage from very small amounts of radiation, so if a dose of radiation is split among a large group of people, they will, on average, experience fewer radiation-induced cancers than if a smaller number of people were exposed to the same amount of total radiation.
  • Scientific bodies seem to be pretty evenly split on the subject:

  • Supporting the LNT Model:
  • US National Research Council
  • The US National council on Radiation and Measurements
  • The US Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
  • US EPA
  • Opposing the LNT Model:
  • The French Academy of Science
  • The Health Physic Society
  • The American Nuclear Society
  • It should be noted that the people in favor of the LNT model don't have much empirical evidence to back them up because the low doses are so low that they aren't very large in comparison with natural background radiation and the numbers of people who would have to be tracked to observe the cancer rate is very large and there would be other confounding factors influencing cancer rates.

    Research on a million babies who were fetuses during the Chernobyl accident whose mothers were located in areas with differring amounts of radiation exposure found no observable difference in birth defects betwen the more and less irradiated fetuses.

    Also, there are people living in some places in the world that naturally experience more background radiation than others, and there are some circumstantial studies showing no increase in cancer rates among people living in more radioactive locations, and no studies showing any heightened cancer risks in those locations.

    The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) "accepts the LNT hypothesis as a conservative model for estimating radiation risk", but notes that "public health data do not absolutely establish the occurrence of cancer following exposure to low doses and dose rates – below about 10,000 mrem (100 mSv). Studies of occupational workers who are chronically exposed to low levels of radiation above normal background have shown no adverse biological effects."

    Conclusion

    Decarbonizing the economy will take decades, and we should keep all options open. Nuclear energy absolutely should not be dismissed, because many people feel that it would be impossible to decarbonize without it, and many more feel that decarbonization would be much less expensive if we employ it.

    We should definitely:

  • Fund more research into advanced, next generation nuclear designs, including:
  • meltdown-proof reactors
  • reactors that consume what is now high-level waste and turn it into less problematic waste
  • small reactors that can be mass-produced
  • reactors that can be mass-produced on barges in shipyards
  • thorium reactors
  • Continue discussing and perfecting the Mark Z Jacobson plan, and fund more research into UPHS (Underground Pumped Hydro Storage).
  • Re-evaluate the American legal framework of nuclear regulation to make it more like the French or Swedish frameworks.
  • Activate the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and consider opening others in other parts of the country to avoid having to ship waste very far to one repository.

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