The Role of Nuclear in Clean Energy

A recent letter to President Obama supporting nuclear energy was composed and signed by many people whom I have no doubt are genuinely distinguished and dedicated energy experts, and who I’m certain all sincerely and ethically follow their best lights on this subject. I’d like to supply some contrasting perspective.

In my estimation, there are six major factors that bear consideration in any complete discussion of the pursuit of nuclear energy:

1) Plant Lifespan

Earlier this year, IAEA Deputy Director General for Nuclear Energy Yury Sokolov stressed the need for effective plant life management, “This is especially important as the world’s fleet of 439 nuclear power plants has been operating, on average, for more than 20 years,” he said. “Even though the design life of a nuclear power plant is typically for 30 or 40 years, it is quite feasible that many nuclear power plants will be able to operate in excess of their design lives,” he added.

Sokolov’s statement clearly acknowledges that – without significant repair, replacement and/or modification of the ‘selection of safety related mechanical components and systems’ (SSCs) – the average life remaining in these existing 439 plants worldwide is only another 10 to 20 years.

Should we build more?

2) Construction Costs

The book “The Nuclear Energy Option” by Bernard L. Cohen, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, published in 1990 by Plenum Press, explores the exploding costs of nuclear plant construction:

Several large nuclear power plants were completed in the early 1970s at a typical cost of $170 million, whereas plants of the same size completed in 1983 cost an average of $1.7 billion, a 10-fold increase. Some plants completed in the late 1980s have cost as much as $5 billion, 30 times what they cost 15 years earlier. Inflation, of course, has played a role, but the consumer price index increased only by a factor of 2.2 between 1973 and 1983, and by just 18% from 1983 to 1988. What caused the remaining large increase? Ask the opponents of nuclear power and they will recite a succession of horror stories, many of them true, about mistakes, inefficiency, sloppiness, and ineptitude.

For example, Commonwealth Edison, the utility serving the Chicago area, completed its Dresden nuclear plants in 1970-71 for $146/kW, its Quad Cities plants in 1973 for $164/kW, and its Zion plants in 1973-74 for $280/kW. But its LaSalle nuclear plants completed in 1982-84 cost $1,160/kW, and its Byron and Braidwood plants completed in 1985-87 cost $1880/kW — a 13-fold increase over the 17-year period. Northeast Utilities completed its Millstone 1,2, and 3 nuclear plants, respectively, for $153/kW in 1971, $487/kW in 1975, and $3,326/kW in 1986, a 22-fold increase in 15 years. Duke Power, widely considered to be one of the most efficient utilities in the nation in handling nuclear technology, finished construction on its Oconee plants in 1973-74 for $181/kW, on its McGuire plants in 1981-84 for $848/kW, and on its Catauba plants in 1985-87 for $1,703/kW, a nearly 10-fold increase in 14 years. Philadelphia Electric Company completed its two Peach Bottom plants in 1974 at an average cost of $382 million, but the second of its two Limerick plants, completed in 1988, cost $2.9 billion — 7.6 times as much. A long list of such price escalations could be quoted, and there are no exceptions.

Apart from doubled labor costs and the significant role of inflation – and the aforementioned “mistakes, inefficiency, sloppiness, and ineptitude” – Professor Cohen goes on to lay the blame on construction delays and extra expenses for safety and quality control as a result of government regulation.

Of course, in a democratic republic, regulation is moved by the will of the people, and was demanded in response to public sentiment following notable disasters, and the revelations about the role of mechanical failures and human error in those disasters – as well as the public perception of the dangers and costs involved with the entire nuclear industry from start to finish.

What happens at the finish line for these plants?

3) Decommissioning

In addition to the soaring costs of constructing nuclear plants, and their relatively brief lifespan, Herculean efforts are required to attempt to render them harmless when they are dead.

According to the Encyclopedia of the Earth in a “content partnership” with the World Nuclear Association:

Generally speaking, early nuclear plants were designed for a life of about 30 years, though some have proved capable of continuing well beyond this. Newer plants are designed for a 40 to 60 year operating life. At the end of the life of any power plant, it is necessary to decommission and demolish the facility so that the site can be made available for other uses. For nuclear plants, the term ‘decommissioning’ includes all clean-up of radioactivity and progressive dismantling of the plant.

The EOE/WNA article notes that the International Atomic Energy Agency has defined three options for decommissioning:

Entombment: This option entails placing the facility into a condition that will allow the remaining on-site radioactive material to remain on-site without the requirement of ever removing it totally. This option usually involves reducing the size of the area where the radioactive material is located and then encasing the facility in a long-lived structure such as concrete, that will last for a period of time to ensure the remaining radioactivity is no longer of concern.

Safe Enclosure (or Safestor): This option postpones the final removal of controls for a longer period, usually in the order of 40 to 60 years. The facility is placed into a safe storage configuration until the eventual dismantling and decontamination activities occur.

Immediate Dismantling (or Early Site Release/Decon in the US): This option allows for the facility to be removed from regulatory control relatively soon after shutdown or termination of regulated activities. Usually, the final dismantling or decontamination activities begin within a few months or years, depending on the facility. Following removal from regulatory control, the site is then available for re-use.

Of course, any irradiated and radioactive materials that are removed from a nuclear plant must then be stored until they no longer pose a threat to living things. The safe storage of these materials is a leading cause of justified apprehension, as are the threats to human health and the biosphere that are posed by the mining and refining of uranium – not to mention the inherent dangers involved in operating a nuclear facility.

Simply regarding the steel used in plant construction, the article also notes:

Apart from any surface contamination of the plant, the remaining radioactivity comes from “activation products” such as steel components that have long been exposed to neutron irradiation. Their atoms are changed into different isotopes such as iron-55, cobalt-60, nickel-63, and carbon-14. The first two are highly radioactive, emitting gamma rays. However, their half life is such that after 50 years after closedown, their radioactivity is significantly diminished and the risk to workers largely gone.

This explains the handing down of the burden past two or three generations in the “Safestor” option. The article goes on to assure readers that this steel, with its “activation products,” can be recycled for the construction of other nuclear power plants.

The article concludes that an estimated $35.3 billion (in 2001 dollars) will be needed just to decommission the existing 104 US reactors (on the basis of  an average of  $320 million per unit).

Even despite the short life and the costs of construction and decommissioning, is nuclear power realistically a long term solution?

4) Nuclear Fuel

Wikipedia references several sources in discussing uranium ore – the basic fuel for nuclear plants:

The ultimate available uranium is believed to be sufficient for at least the next 85 years [1] although some studies indicate under investment in the late twentieth century may produce supply problems in the 21st century. [2] Kenneth S. Deffeyes and Ian D. MacGregor point out that uranium deposits seem to be log-normal distributed. There is a 300-fold increase in the amount of uranium recoverable for each tenfold decrease in ore grade. [3] In other words, there is little high grade ore and proportionately much more low grade ore available.

Wikipedia Notes:

“Global Uranium Resources to Meet Projected Demand”. International Atomic Energy Agency. 2006.

“Lack of fuel may limit U.S. nuclear power expansion”. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2007-03-21.

“World Uranium Resources”. Scientific American. p. 66.

So the best-case scenario for uranium resources leaves us at the end of the nuclear road looking for alternatives by the end of this century, with the resulting issues of massive cost, toxicity and storage of the useless plants and their waste simply remaining for future generations to deal with.

But what are some indications of the worst case scenario for nuclear power?

5) Risks

Democracy Now reported this not long ago:

In a book published by the New York Academy of Sciences, a Russian author and a Belarusian author say nearly one million people have died from exposure to radiation released by the Chernobyl reactor. According to the book, the disaster’s radioactive emissions may have been 200 times greater than the initial estimate of 50 million Curies, and hundreds of times larger than the radioactivity from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The authors based their findings in part on Slavic sources they say have never been available in English.

This book is described as follows on the New York Academy of Sciences website:

Written by leading authorities from Eastern Europe, the volume outlines the history of the health and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. According to the authors, official discussions from the International Atomic Energy Agency and associated United Nations’ agencies (e.g. the Chernobyl Forum reports) have largely downplayed or ignored many of the findings reported in the Eastern European scientific literature and consequently have erred by not including these assessments.

Chernobyl was, of course, not the intended result of the designers. It was instead a result of the inherent risk of human error while attempting to control and exploit a fission reaction to produce heat and generate electricity.

Three Mile Island was likewise not the intent of plant designers and operators, but mechanical failures and human error led to a partial core meltdown.

Both these events occurred when the reactors in question were less than five years old – before age and wear of materials and components were yet a factor. The degree to which that risk will be elevated as our 104 plants age out is an unknown.

Is nuclear power worth the cost and the risks?

6) Insurance

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service had this to say about insuring nuclear power plants:

At the dawn of the atomic age, the insurance industry’s refusal to fully insure the nuclear industry created the need for federal intervention. Congress gave the infant technology protection against potentially enormous liability claims in the event of a nuclear accident, a benefit no other U.S. industry ever has received.

Offered originally as 10-year temporary training wheels, ‘to encourage the private development of nuclear power’ (ANI [American Nuclear Insurers] testimony) the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 has now provided the atomic industry with a permanent wheelchair for financial immunity from mistakes and accidents that can environmentally devastate whole countries, cripple economies and sicken entire populations.

Without this liability shelter, nuclear reactors would never have split the first atom. ANI recognized this when it testified “the Act has been critical in enabling us to provide stable, high quality insurance capacity for nuclear risks in the face of normally overwhelming obstacles for insurers—those obstacles being catastrophic loss potential, the absence of credible predictability…without the “ups and downs” (or market cycles) that have affected nearly all other lines of insurance.” Left to market forces, the nuclear industry is uninsurable and financially non-viable.

Last amended in 1988, the Price-Anderson Act is a fairly complicated system in which nuclear utilities—as a group—purchase a small level of insurance for accidents (currently $200 million). For damages above that, each reactor would be assessed $10 million per year for about 7.5 years. The total amount available to compensate accident damages thus depends on how many reactors are operating. [In 2002,] proposed reauthorization of Price-Anderson in the House of Representatives would increase the assessment to $15 million per year per reactor – for a total pot currently of about $12 billion.

However…

A 1982 Sandia National Laboratories study, leaked to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), quantified the consequences of a catastrophic nuclear power accident in the US. Besides potentially causing thousands of early deaths and cancers, an accident could cause as much as $313 billion in damages, or about $600 billion today with inflation. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident has cost Ukraine, Belarus and southern Russia an estimated $350 billion.

The Price-Anderson Act was renewed again in 2005 for an additional 20 years.

All these six factors weigh heavily against any nuclear power plant of scale – with one exception: that’s the one our only home has revolved around every single year for over 5 billion years.

The Solution:

As I’ve written countless times, I believe that the US needs to harness its technologic and economic capacity to deploy a geographically diverse set of solar thermal plants across the vastness of its southwestern deserts, store surplus energy as required with molten salt, and transmit that constant, baseload energy to its population centers with high voltage DC. There is no dispute that such a project would require an enormous commitment.  Nor is there dispute that it represents a political impossibility.  But that, nonetheless, is what we should do.

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0 comments on “The Role of Nuclear in Clean Energy
  1. Dennis Miles says:

    I remember “Shippingport” near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, the First Nuclear Power plant in the USA opened in the 1950’s . In later years it was De-Commissioned, but there is still a big unusable space there. Years ago I had the idea that if they had just put the plant in a coal strip mine which is a big hole in the ground with all the dirt and rock piled around the edges, when it was eventually de-commissioned they could just pull out the salvageable stuff, crush the remainder down put a water-proof wall around it to protect the ground water, and push the poles of rock and soil over the top and plant trees as “Reclaimed land” for wildlife like deer and birds a park near the city forever a new wild space.

  2. Dennis Miles says:

    Some would complain about strip mining for coal. But, when coal is burned the ash “Fly-ash” is collected to make wall board for homes and other buildings. Fly-Ash and sand, and crushed rock make a fine concrete too add a little lime from limestone and you get “Portland Cement” with which highways are constructed. And the coal plants never wear out and have to be sealed up like Nuclear Plants. Also when coal gets to expensive to burn any plant material can be grown as an alternative to solar collectors just grow “Weeds,” collect, chop up fine, mix with water and yeast and collect alcohol for liquid fuel then dry the residue and burn it in the former coal plant for electricity and use the ash for cement making for buildings and roads. By planting the right weeds you get more energy from farming than a solar panel array. For example the oily brush that grows wild in southern California is a great burnable coal substitute, and harvesting it eliminates the fuel of “Wild Fires”.

  3. Jim Stack says:

    Anyone who think Nuclear is cheap or low carbon is missing the facts.
    We import 95% of the uranium . Mostly from Russia and Kagistan
    You have to shutdown and refuel every 17 months.
    It produces tons of deadly waste.
    It uses lots of water, about 1 gallon per KWh.
    It’s a sitting duck for terrorist.
    An accident will happen agin.
    It’s not renewable.
    It can’t be ramped up or down to meet needs.

    Renewables like Solar and Wind use no water, never leak or produce any pollution and ramp down Off Peak so it’s not wasted. It can make more than we ever need.
    It pays off much fatser and is sustainable !

  4. I would certainly support the case for CSP if you can prove the economics are 90% there for solar thermal vs nuclear. The other 10% is what the American public is willing to accept for the environmental premium, according to Shelton focus groups. Also, Wind should be part of the equation.

  5. Dr. Bob Goldschmidt says:

    Other costs for Nuclear which are not considered when proposed before a utility commission include military security — not only on the plant ground but on the nearby water way which is used for cooling in many cases.

    Since most of the fuel is imported, we could also find ourselves burdened with hundreds of billions in military security costs to secure our Uranium supply much as we have for oil already.

    With the advent of the electric car this fall, we must assume that employers will provide recharging as a fringe benefit. This, over a period of the next decade or two, will completely outstrip the intra-city grid capacity. The massive cost of upgrading these distribution systems can only be avoided through the introduction of distributed solar power such as is currently being implemented by SoCal Edison.

  6. David Beard says:

    I am not a proponent of nuclear, my tendencies are toward distributed solar..With that being said, nuclear should not be discounted as a means of producing energy. I like to take a broader look, and “nuclear” encompasses a number of technologies. Consider for a moment Radio-isotope Thermal Electric Generators RTG’s…here is a nuclear device that uses the heat from the natural decay of radioactive matter to generate electricity. It doesn’t need Uranium, it can use strontium, or americanium, etc…and the radioactive part decays over a number of years producing heat until it is effectively benign…..

    Or perhaps a thorium reactor which needs to be fed, without the feedstock supplied, it just stops…..No nuclear reaction unless you want one.

    Yes the days of the “breeder” reactor are hopefully over…but I cannot support fear mongering of one technology to promote another.

  7. Alex C. says:

    It is very interesting that the author of this blog site continues to ignore researching for facts and opinions from sources and web sites that are NOT in his ideological favor…..if we keep our head in the sand or in only “one-book” we can never progress.

    The TRUTH is that nuclear power is very safe and clean. In the USA we have more than 100 nuclear power plants in operation today and they work very well. There are over 400 in operation worldwide with another 60 or so under construction. Reference: http://www.euronuclear.org/. It is great that the current administration supports further expansion in the USA. It will reduce our reliance on dirty coal. It also helps with future electricity capacity issues if EV’s take off and thus greatly reduce our need for dirty oil. And if you actually believe in the global warming farce (now proven that no warming has taken place for the past 15 years!), the use of nuclear power will greatly reduce CO2. The recycle technology now reuses 95%+ of the uranium waste. China is now leading the way with new construction projects for nuclear power plants. The plants themselves also provide much needed jobs for construction and operation in the regions they are placed.

    In response to the key arguments:
    1) Plant Lifespan – this is not an issue – every type of energy producing plant will have a life span and need either replacement or repairs. That is not an excuse not to build more. The energy company is motivated by free market profit to fix or replace the asset.

    2) Construction costs – much of the excess in costs are due to the over regulation imposed by government. One accident happens and the green activists want to scare humans away from progress. Of course the plants must be constructed to assure safety but excessive regulations are a large part of the blame. Even with that excess….the production of clean energy more than pays for the construction costs and many good jobs as well!

    3) Decommissioning: most will actually be repaired or enhanced for new life – assuming all will be shut down it naive – safe storage technology is very well known and would be paid for by the energy company. And now very little fuel is wasted. Energy is very profitable and these companies will be around for generations and will maintain proper and safe storage until materials are harmless to humans. This is not rocket science.

    4) Nuclear fuel will get used up – this is non-sense….it is the same ignorant argument about peak oil – did you know there is now a reasonable theory that oil may actually be produced within the earth even today. Just like oil….the more we search the planet the more uranium we find. Australia is the largest source. Go see http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf75.html for facts on supply….there is plenty! Current reserves we are sitting on handle 80 years and when we want/need more we simply need to dig/explore as we always do. In the 70’s the environmentalists claimed we would run out of oil by the year 2000! Today they are using the same old approach….ignore the facts and the ends justify the means….they think it is OK to lie to the public as long as their ideological views are supported.

    5) Risks for human harm – we have over 400 reactors in use today and no harm is occurring – two past accidents/mistakes we learned from and we moved on. For the truth on risks see: http://world-nuclear.org/info/inf06.html. We can’t let past mistakes keep us from improving and moving forward. If that was the case we would never have the light bulb, never have went to the moon, etc…..we must LEARN from the past and progress forward…not use scare tactics to downplay technology. ”Nuclear plants are very safe,” asserts Forrest J. Remick, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering, adding, “It helps to compare their safety record with that of other major industries.” In 2005, the industrial accident rate for nuclear power plant workers was 0.24 per 200,000 worker hours, compared with 3.5 accidents per 200,000 worker hours for all manufacturing industries (14.6 times greater). But what about those of us who live near nuclear plants? Said Remick, “No member of the public has been killed or injured from radiation during the nearly 50 years that commercial nuclear power plants have been operating in the U.S.”

    6) Insurance – again – hypothetical scare tactics assuming humans do not have the capability to learn from a couple past mistakes and make safe technology and processes….the proof is here today…we have over 400 reactors in operation on the planet and all is safe! The energy companies are large enough to self insure. BP gulf oil spill proves this well.

    The continued trashing and scare tactics and lack of facts by this web site are a travesty to the minds of men. Thank God that the world continues to ignore such arguments and we are moving forward with nuclear power expansion. It is green, clean, safe, efficient, and GOOD for the planet!

    P.S. If CSP (concentrated solar power) is so effective then let it win out economically in the free market….I hope mankind can develop an economical way to harvest the sun’s energy for practical use for most humans…so far no such invention has been created. We must be open to finding energy from a variety of sources in parallel…oil…coal…gas…wind…solar…nuclear…hydro…geo-thermal….etc. and let free market capitalism prevail in each region of the world so they most economic solutions are allowed to prevail and maximize prosperity for ALL of mankind!

  8. Concur with your sage observations, Craig….In addition when I was doing some work in connection with the clean-up of waste at the Chernobyl Plant as well as studying the effectiveness of vitrification (encapselling in molten glass) of high level nuclear waste for the DOE, I observed that the steel in the reactor chamber of many plants became brittle within 10 years after the facilities went into operation. This problem has not gotten much press but it is real and contributes to maintainance and upkeep costs….One option that could considerably decrease the cost of future nuclear plant construction in the USA would be an agreement to employ the same design as is successfully employed in many other nations. I am confident that cost-saving suggestion would be heatedly opposed by the (too) many firms in the business of plant design.

  9. Mario Gottfried says:

    Uranium fuel is traditional, it is the source of plutonium and the waste that costs and threats associated with deep hidden stock piles.
    Most of the uranium metal comes from outside the USA, due to several causes including price and opposition in the chores in mining and refining.

    Thorium is abundant, mainly India, China, North America and Africa. Burning this element produced NO WASTE, and NO PLUTONIUM, and is just as effective.

    The abusive costs of building atomic power plants have included a huge PR
    factor, to oppose protests and increased security against terrorism. A thorium dirty bomb as per the case of terroist penetration is lower risk.

    The actual costs of building an atomic generating plant is very attractive when viewed against the equivalent green house gases, the raw cost of fuel
    and environmental impact of coal, petroleum and gas. Sure solar, hydro and geo are champions of clean fuel, still limited to energize modern life.

    One good idea pertains to a better battery in the MW sizes, to recycle energy loaded daily during low consuption periods, should be the quest of our future. Then we can reduce the energy impact…..still a way’s off.

  10. walter daniels says:

    I think it’s quitre easy to see why plant cost have gone by a ten-fold or more factor. It is the requriement to spend inordinate amounts of time, convincing people, many of whom refuse to accept any truth but their own. This is usually evidenced by lawsuits, filed for no other purpose than to slow construction.
    You use Chernobyl as an example, but neglect, on purpose maybe, to note that it was considered as having the *least* safe design possible.
    This is the same sort of behavior that says “Nuclear Transport is unsafe.” Never mind that it has survived every attempt to breach the containers. Even though the tests went beyond any possible happenstance. We get it that you oppose Nuclear Energy. Please do us the favor of listening to _our_ side, as we listen to yours. In the process, we can all learn.

  11. Marc Vendetti says:

    You can reduce all the discussion around Nuclear power to this:
    1. It is a technology that produces toxic waste as a byproduct.
    2. It’s fuel can be turned into wepons of mass destruction.
    3. It’s cost per Kwh is not competitive.
    4. It is an inherently dangerous and unstable process.
    5. It’s an unsustainable, unrenewable proposition.

    Any one of these fatal flaws could doom a new energy technology, and nuclear has all of them. Many of the formerly “alternative” energy sources such as wind and solar are becoming less and less alternative and nuclear is looking more and more like an obsolete choice. What if we invested the kind of money that has been spent on nuclear on clean energy? We can do better folks.

    • Michael Chernoff says:

      I have a few issues regarding old style nuclear reactors to new style nuclear reactors.
      1) Toxic by-products: Coal fired power plants produce significantly higher quantities of toxic byproducts than nuclear reactors, with a much higher rate of dispersion into the environment (coal releases sulphur, and mercury). Not only that but with new glassification technologies it is also much easier now to store the radioactive byproducts for long term storage in a way that will not corrode containers (so please stop imagining the glowing green liquid goo from the Simpsons cartoons). In addition, refining technology has improved over the 40 years that nuclear technology has been introduced, so you can reduce the volume of material used. the total quantity of toxic used reactor fuel in the US will only fill 3 olympic sized swimming pools. Once glassified, it will also be intensely difficult to weaponize the waste products. It takes major infrastructure to refine weapons grade material out of glassified products (if any weapons grade material is in the glassified products), and to simply blow it up as a dirty bomb would start getting quite difficult without a lot of explosives and a lot of training in setting explosives in order to shatter/powder/and spread the products around.

      2. The only reason the by products of an old-style can be turned into a weapon of mass destruction is because the old style nuclear reactors were DESIGNED to produce waste products for use as components for nuclear weapons of mass destruction. If you don’t design a new reactor to produce weapons grade plutonium, you won’t get weapons grade plutonium out of those reactors, and designing them like that was the product of Cold War style thinking. Why do you think the Canadians dominate the production of medical isotopes? That is because the Canadians have the Maple research reactor out in Chalk River (it is a 50 years old piece of junk, and should have been replaced a decade ago). This reactor was designed to produce power, and was also designed to produce the isotopes used in medicine as well. When it was shut down, hospitals all over the world were S.O.L for performing all sorts of medical diagnostic procedures because the global supply had shrunk by more than 50% and the isotopes in question couldn’t be produced by other types of reactors, and had a limited shelf life. New reactor designs do not have to be designed to produce weapons grade material. Case in point, the Hyperion nuclear battery, or new Thorium powered nuclear reactors, which can not produce plutonium. The Cold war logic requiring Plutonium is the only reason we didn’t advance the use of Thorium reactors over the past 30 years.

      3. A lot of the cost per KW/H not being competitive is the result of a lot of the regulation used in assuring the safety of nuclear reactors. Example: In Romania it is just as cost effective to build a new nuclear reactor as it is to build a coal fired power plant. That is not the greatest example I could give because I wouldn’t trust a Romanian maintenance team or regulatory agency for reliable (unbribable) service, but that is an example of equivalency in construction costs. It also helps if you take into account other factors relating to cost such as smaller size, but with better modularity, and increasingly scalable reactors designs like the new Westinghouse reactor designs or the new Japanese reactor designs where it is easier to build smaller and more modular reactors and to simply introduce more of them in parallel within the same facility, instead of retrofitting the old (1970-1980 style) reactors to operate at higher temperatures and pressures than originally designed. In addition, there is a difference between old style reactors and new style reactors in terms of safety the dominant feature being ACTIVE vs PASSIVE safety systems. New passive safety designs will automatically drop insurance costs as the insurance agencies will be less exposed to risks from the reactors breaking down due to reactor designs that simply stop nuclear reactions from working in the event of a breakdown instead of having breakdowns result in runaway chain reactions causing meltdowns.

      4. Safety is a relative term, because gas/oil refineries can also be unsafe, and the biggest risk at North American style nuclear reactors are water leaks (such as the one from Canada’s 50 year old Maple Reactor), or a steam line breakage occurring. When people say unsafe they usually think Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The damage from Three Mile Island included a) one big scare, b) some slight steam leakage, c) a massive PR nightmare that set the industry back 20 years, d) two deaths (the first was a plant operator who panicked, drove away from the plant at top speed and was killed when he hit a tree, the second was when the PR manager of Three mile island had a heart attack due to all of the stress). So the primary example of unsafe reactors is the Chernobyl reactor. There are NO North American nuclear reactors that are designed like Chernobyl, or maintained like Chernobyl, or run like Chernobyl. No NEW build would EVER be designed with an ACTIVE safety system, they all use PASSIVE safety systems. The difference is almost the same as using a fusebox with a circuit breaker in your home and fuses (passive safety system) and having a fusebox that has a manual switch that can weld shut, and replacing the fuses with pennies (active safety). If the safety systems are ACTIVE (like the Chernobyl style reactors) then the reaction goes along unassisted, and in order to stop/slow down/ moderate the reaction, an external influence must be introduced to slow down/poison the nuclear reactions. Often times these active systems need a power supply to operate and maintenance to keep them going. In other words if you cut the power to the safety systems, or the safety systems are poorly maintained and rust shut, then the control rods don’t drop and the reactor goes critical and Chernobyl type accidents happen. The fact that the staff operating the plant weren’t just drunk at the switch but drunk enough to PULL out the switch is often overlooked. The operator error at Chernobyl included the FRAT BOY ERROR of running an unscheduled test to pull out the moderating control rods to demonstrate how the safety systems used would automatically re-insert them, even though the maintenance teams at the time had been trying to fix that problem. Most American style reactors had much better safety and maintenance designs with many more PASSIVE systems. New types of reactor designs use PASSIVE safety systems exclusively. The nuclear reactions are only capable of happening if an active systems keeps the materials in contact with each other. If the power if cut, or the system breaks down, the system automatically/unconditionally stops the reaction either by pouring in a moderating compound, or by reducing the production of critical neutrons. A breakdown in a Passive safety type reactor shuts down the core. The bigger problem in North America is the possibility of leakages of contaminated coolant water.

      5. As for unsustainable and unrenewable, Uranium reactors are unsustainable because Uranium 235 is in a limited supply compared to the much more plentiful U-238, and plutonium is also very limited. If a breeder reactor is used, then U238 can be used instead of U-235 (makes it a more sustainable prospect, because we can make our own fuel and we don’t have to refine as much of the enriched stuff). If Thorium is used, then there is still a much larger supply of material that can be used, and we don’t have the downside of producing weapons grade material in the process.

      Right now the nuclear industry in North America is at the stage of technological development as the computer industry was in the 1950’s, before the development of the microchip (think vacuum tubes and the Eniac), and with a combined attitude of
      -“I predict that in the near future computers will be nearly 5 times as powerful, 6 times as large, and so expensive that only the 5 richest kings of Europe could afford them” (I quote this from the Simpsons)
      -“It is evil, it will lay a curse upon the land, and the werewolf will come and devour your children”

      With consistent research and development, costs will go down, efficiency will go up, and safety will improve. We just stopped doing that properly nearly 30 years ago. If given the chance, there are many communities that would absolutely love to host a build for a nuclear power plant.

  12. Frank Eggers says:

    There are things which the blogger has overlooked.

    He is apparently is not aware that thorium can be used instead of uranium for nuclear reactors. However, he can be excused for that because thorium as nuclear fuel has received very little publicity.

    As others have pointed out, thorium is far more abundant than uranium. Moreover, a liquid thorium fluoride reactor (LFTR) is inherently safer and cheaper than uranium reactors.

    It should also be noted that solar and wind power couldn’t possibly work in India. India has a population greater than three times the population of the U.S. and a population density about 10 times greater. It is totally impossible that with its high population density solar and wind power could provide for Indian’s energy needs. If India burned only one third as much coal per capita as we do here in the U.S., it would still burn more coal than we do. India cannot pull itself out of poverty without nuclear power. Assuming as I do that global warming is real, our reducing the use of coal in the U.S. would be of little benefit to the global environment if India and other countries continued to burn coal. Thus, we should be developing economical nuclear technology which could be used in other countries.

    Even here in the U.S., solar and wind power, because of their intermittent nature, could not replace coal although solar power could REDUCE the amount of coal we use. However, if our aim is to ELIMINATE the use of coal, then, with currently available technologies, our only alternative is nuclear. That could change; we cannot know for certain. But surely it would be better to expand the use of nuclear power rather than wait for a technology that may never arrive then have to build more coal burning power plants.

  13. George Togbe says:

    Craig,
    From where I sit, I wonder what the world’s future generations will look like in the next 100 years, when in fact, nuclear energy is non-sustainable, nonrenewable, dangerously devastating and, an ever increasing threshold. Let the Obama administration introduce Change in energy reforms that will save costs and improve our environment.

    What is the prospect of continuing with nuclear power in this age and day in the face of these factors outlined below? The costs associated with the set commissioning of a plant will call for billion of dollars; after a period of usage, the need for decommissioning cannot be ruled out. Byproducts of this godzilla cannot be transformed into anything useful. Terrorists are always in pursuit of items of such profile to cause havoc, something which poses inherent danger at anytime; cost per KWh seems to be the most outrageous in terms of service provision with everyone stating their own tarriffs and what have you. Nuclear power has and will never be a friend to the environment Considering these variables. Any amount of money pumped into the alternative energy sector now as a long term investment will be the best option to creating a world free from pollution, disease and poverty.

  14. Michael Chernoff says:

    The primary issues here are…
    a) Many individual home owners can go off-grid, or be grid feeders once solar efficiencies rise high enough and panel costs (including maintenance) drop low enough.
    b) Many cities cannot go off-grid
    c) Many industries cannot go off-grid.
    d) It is highly unlikely that enough individuals can be “distributed grid feeders” to offset the need to have additional types of power supplies. This is the result of both a) not enough homeowners will have the systems installed, b) The efficiencies of these systems will not be sufficient to provide enough leftover energy (ex: air conditioner or heater, + fridge + computer will reduce a lot of potential grid-feed, especially if the homes are not energy efficient homes, certainly not if the electric car becomes a reality, but then base load becomes a 24/7 problem instead of a peak ours type problem).

    The advantages to individual homeowners for purchasing home solar and wind systems are many, especially as prices drop and efficiencies improve. They fall into three categories
    a) Personal environmental beliefs
    b) Personal independence needs
    c) Economic benefits (with and without government incentives)

    a) Personal environmental beliefs are a strong motivator for the majority of early adopters (I will not debate at this moment whether the beliefs are valid or not, I believe that in many cases they are). The idea is to reduce the amount of waste being produced on their behalf is a strong reason for many people to add solar panels to their homes. This is a combination of altruism (I help humanity/country/future generations/my children) or egocentrism (I’m better than you see what I’ve done for the world compared to you) or guilt (I should do something to offset my other activities). The motivation for the individual are strong, and somewhat price insensitive at the early stages. In these cases, many individuals added the solar as a retrofit to their homes. Homes could have been designed from the ground up to employ better insulation, water efficiency, passive solar heating and cooling, but once built (or an old home was purchased), retrofitting becomes much more expensive. In the past, solar panels were also much more expensive and much less efficient and many of the people in cities that purchased them would not receive a good return on the investment (ex: a past solar retrofit done 10 years ago would cost 30 000$ for several panels with 10% efficiency max). Solar panels are unique in home designs compared to passive systems because they provide the versatility of electricity instead of controlled heating/cooling/lighting. At the early adopter stage this is an example of personal ethics over economics.

    B) Personal independence needs was the second set of motivators for people to acquire solar power. Some homes are simply too far from the grid to be able to get power (ex: country homes). In these cases, instead of incurring the expense of a power line, or the cost of buying & fueling a generator at all hours (and the noise that a generator would produce). Personal solar/wind power offered these individuals an independent source with a strong degree of reliability (I have seen homes that were totally off grid which employed solar panels for generating all electricity, and had an array of batteries connected to an inverter for providing all hours power.) In addition to those constrained by geography, there will always be a percentage of the population that will be more interested in enhancing their freedoms and independence to a much more profound degree than the average person. For these individuals having their own personal solar/wind generated electricity gives them a stronger sense of independence, even if they live close to an area with an accessible power grid. These people are less motivated by environmental choice than the need to be free of outside dependencies (although the two choices are not mutually exclusive). At this stage this is a result of desperation economics (the only game in town).

    c) The final group are the ones that adopt personal solar/wind generators for economic reasons. As the efficiency of the technology improves, and as production costs drop the technology becomes more affordable to purchase and amortize. If the shipping/installation/maintenance procedures are simple/low cost then the technology becomes much more affordable, and the barriers to home consumers become less of a problem. If the systems also become highly scalable so that home consumers can buy the initial setup during the first year, and buy additional add-ons over the next few years then that reduces barriers to the market even further. Government incentives only make this more attractive because the systems pay for themselves faster, and more than reducing costs, it might even become profitable (such as Germany’s power buyback incentive).

    We are currently entering this phase of development where a solar system has both a useful payout, and a manageable paydown time. Nanosolar, with their roll-to-roll printing of solar panels onto inexpensive backing materials is one example of a company which has provided profound improvements to the solar power developments. They have improved the efficiency of the panels, decreased costs, and provided a product that is much easier to ship and install than previous generations of solar panel. Dupont is starting the production of solar panel tiles, that can be interconnected to provide a scalable system of power generation. Armageddon energy does this too, but their panels are easier to install by yourself. Clarian Power aims to have a fully modular & scalable plug and play system. Will solar power work for everyone… NO. But it will help many, especially if the homes & appliances are made more efficient and power storage improves. The factors that affect solar include
    – Clouds/weather (reduce output if it is cloudy)
    – Snow (it exists, as a Canadian I know)
    – time of day (no power at night)
    – dust (like rain gutters, solar panels do need to be cleaned, and dust can scuff up the panels over time reducing efficiency)
    – Obstructing objects like trees and buildings (something to remember if you are in the shade)
    – Roof angle & orientation (flat roofs work best, angled roofs reduce efficiency, roofs pointed away from the sun are useless)
    – Time (solar panels reduce to 90% efficiency in 10 years, and 80% efficiency in 20 according to the nanosolar website)

    So assuming you want to instantly have a long-term off-grid solar based power supply, and you will buy now, only now and do not buy a more efficient, more easily maintained solar panel in the future, and do not add a wind generator. It is likely that at the current moment you would need to purchase 4X -6X your current peak capacity in solar panels and at least 2x the battery storage to go with it (includes inefficiency due to overcast weather, reduction in panel efficiency over time, and storing some excess power for later to run the fridge or air conditioner during the night, or on a rainy/cloudy day.) Some people will be content with a partial dependence on grid, some will not. But that is a lot of panel to purchase for full independence. If the electric car does become a reality (I loved the movie “Who Killed The electric Car”, it showed that it was definitely a viable technology, and an electric car that can run 70 km can easily meet the needs of 70% of all drivers for home/work use), then even more personal paneling will be required (and a lot more grid as well).

    A lot of the future grid will rely on more distributed local providers, including home systems featuring combined solar and wind. Solar is good for providing a lot of distributed power to homes and small businesses, with low base loads, and would definitely appeal to helping ease consumer stress over power prices. New scalable solar power supplies would definitely be a boon to many homeowners who wish to insulate themselves from the price shocks of rising energy prices (especially if the homes are more efficiently designed to employ better insulation and passive solar heating and cooling). If improved local power storage comes about (ex: EESTOR makes itself a reality), then solar could be viable for 24 hour power usage.

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  16. Steven Andrews says:

    Craig: Why do these people put the nuclear energy as a clean energy?
    Nuclear energy is not clean, it´s just not a CO2 producer (at the nuclear plant, of course), if we calculate the amount of CO2 the machinery to mine, process and transport the ore, well, it´s not. But the most important factor here is the “waste”, it´s extremely toxic, worse than CO2, if you suffer from poisoning (just see the word: poisoning) it means poison!
    It may produce cheap energy, but the storage of “waste” alone is astronomical, the poisoning of the whole storage area for thousands of years is astronomically expensive and nobody knows exactly, because nobody really has sat down to calculate such an expense (which also isn´t included in the cost of electricity). Well, we all know why this is as it is, but… who is more powerful, a politician or millions of tax payers?

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