TCS Daily

No Nukes Is Good Nukes?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 8, 2006 12:00 AM

Oil is expensive, and some oil-states are causing more and more trouble. Regardless of whether you think the earth is warming -- or that, if it is, it's the result of burning fossil fuels -- lots of people do think that. And efforts at preventing nuclear proliferation are looking pretty pointless, these days. Meanwhile, the likelihood that Americans will quit using electricity, or driving around, in order to embrace an ascetic-green lifestyle seems even lower than in the 1970s.

All of this is combining to make nuclear power look more attractive again. In fact, it's starting to build some bridges across traditional divides, as this oped by former antinuke protester G. Pascal Zachary illustrates:

"I don't regret my youthful opposition to Diablo. Back then, nuclear plants were badly run and uneconomical, and the near-disaster at Three Mile Island exposed nuclear regulations as a sham. But much has changed in the past 25 years, and for a variety of reasons I think nuclear power deserves another chance.

"So does President Bush, who on Tuesday night in his State of the Union address highlighted the nation's need to boost nuclear power generation.

"I know I've lost a lot of readers already, so let me immediately introduce an important qualification: We can only push an expansion of nuclear power, which today supplies 20 percent of America's electricity, as part of a comprehensive program to limit the production of greenhouse gases, promote renewable energy sources, and dramatically raise the cost of burning fossil fuels in automobiles. Expanding nuclear power is only one piece of the energy puzzle. But it is a piece we cannot afford to dismiss."

We burn oil and coal because we don't have anything better. Nuclear power could have been better -- and I don't cut the antinuke protesters quite as much slack as Zachary cuts himself -- but the technology has come a long way, and I'm willing to let bygones be bygones rather than wonder how much mischief Saudi Arabia and Iran could cause in a world where 70% of American generating capacity was nuclear and electric cars were already common. If we'd kept building nukes in the 1970s we'd know the answer, but now it's time to look ahead, and nuclear is looking better as oil is looking worse.

The Chinese, facing a rapidly expanding economy with no significant oil reserves of their own, seem to agree. According to MSNBC:

"While experts in the United States and Europe talk about reviving plans for nuclear power, China, as in so many other fields, is racing ahead. The so-called pebblebed technology behind the Beijing test plant originated in Germany more than three decades ago, and the U.S. nuclear-power industry also pursued it. But when public opposition to nuclear energy forced those countries to curtail nuclear research in the 1980s, Beijing took over."

The Chinese seem to be on the right track. Pebble-bed technology looks to be both feasible and safe (and it's only one alternative), and it seems unlikely that the world can sustain another 50 years (or even 20) of economic growth on the scale of recent decades while depending on oil and coal -- at least, not without unpleasant side effects. We're even seeing some signs of a move that way in the United States.

Meanwhile, in Britain, environmental guru James Lovelock has called for the deployment of nuclear power to fight global warming, but other environmentalists are horrified at the thought. At least, however, the subject is being debated after decades of being off the table entirely.

The question is whether, despite the lead of people like Zachary and Lovelock, the environmental movement as a whole will be willing to abandon knee-jerk opposition to nuclear plants. Though there are good reasons to support them, rather than oppose them, on environmental grounds, I fear that too many environmentalists who, like Zachary, cut their teeth on antinuclear activism will be less willing to respond to changed circumstances with changed attitudes. Social movements are often more about beliefs than about reality, and ever since Tom Hayden et al. organized the antinuclear movement as a way of preserving some of the anti-Vietnam-war movement's infrastructure, it's been as much a political movement as an environmental one.

Will we be able to turn our back on outdated beliefs in order to salvage things in the 21st Century? I certainly hope so.


Nukes and electric cars
The implication that more nukes in the 1970s would have meant more electric cars is not supportable. Electrical power from nuclear plants is not substantially cheaper than from coal-fired plants, and the cost of electricity is not what has kept electric cars from being accepted in the marketplace. Even today, with better batteries and electronics, electric cars are too expensive (even ignoring the cost of electricity), have inadequate range, and are too slow to recharge.

General Comments
pfdietz: I agree with you, but hopefully having more electric cars on the road would encourage businesses to solve some of these problems--once it's clear a demand is there. For example, our cars generally have inadequate range for cross-country trips, but entrepreneurs have set up petrol stations for that very reason. They could surely sell precharged batteries at such places as well.

The cost of electricity generation, no matter the source, will drive its use. If the peak-oil scenario is correct, people will soon have no choice but to switch to electric-or-alternatively-fueled cars if they wish to remain mobile.

I encourage any environmentalists concerned about the safe generation of electricity using nuclear poewr to check out the Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy website.

No Nukes Is Good Nukes?
I was a freshly-minted freshman engineering student at Kansas State University in the fall of 1977. Those of us who hadn't yet declared a specialty were required to take a 1-hour-per-week (zero credit hours) engineering orientation course to help us determine our fields of interest and, to a certain extent, familiarize us with the theory-to-practical-application method. Which a good many of us didn't need, having grown up in rural areas and having already done it on our own for years "in the field", but I digress . . .

One of the articles of received wisdom at the time was that, and I quote, "Nuclear power will be too cheap to meter." Nuclear engineering (and mechanical engineering as well; the two are inextricably intertwined with respect to nuclear power generation) was seen as a can't-miss field for the foreseeable future by a good many of my contemporaries and our instructors. That confidence lasted a little less than two years.

Fast-forward to March of 1979 when we have the Three Mile Island event at Middletown, Pennsylvania and, later that same year, the release of "The China Syndrome". In an example of what has become the boringly repetitive practice of the tail wagging the dog, the then-named Atomic Energy Commission began mandating multiple redundancies upon the already-existing multiple reduncancies, apparently to do nothing more than placate the chattering classes and ensure gullible politicians that "something was being done". Notwithstanding that, and this is the salient point, the previously-mandated safety measures already in place prevented a catastrophic event during the Three Mile Island failure.

During this same period, Kansas City Power And Light, Kansas Gas & Electric, and the Rural Electric Cooperatives of Kansas were in the final planning stages of their joint Wolf Creek Nuclear Generating Facility project, a plant that was to be (and eventually was) sited some 90 miles southwest of Kansas City. With the advent of the new regulations, it was back to the drawing boards and up went the cost of the project. During construction, ongoing updates to the safety mandates caused numerous redesigns, tearouts, rebuilds, and change orders which, in one notable example, overran the project by an amount exceeding its original budget. Wolf Creek finally came on line in 1985 after what was then termed "substantial overruns". Something like an order of magnitude, in fact.

France currently generates what, 75% or thereabouts of her electricity with nuclear power? I've got to think that we could do that here, and do it cheaper, more efficiently, and more reliably as well. Now that (as if this wasn't previously the case) sufficient safety measures are mandated and the technology to implement them has been developed and matured, it would seem to me an obvious alternative. The principle problem, of course, is lead time. Most immediately, will we have the time (from a geopolitical perspective) to develop the necessary capacity and avert an energy crisis should the world's supply of available petroleum be disrupted due to, for example, a general Gulf States moratorium on deliveries? One can hope so . . .

Mark Bergmeier

Nuclear Energy
An article in the December 2005 issue of Scintific American provides an excellent perspective on the advantages of the new "fast reactor" systems. I recommend the entire article, but the bullet points are as follows:

Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste

By: William H. Hannum, Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford

Current Reactors:

• Current nuclear plants are thermal reactors driven by neutrons of relatively low speed.
• Only 5% of the potential energy of the fuel is utilized; 95% is not useable under this technology and results in nuclear waste.
• The half-life of the resulting spent fuel is ten thousand years or more.
• The cooling systems run at very high pressure, increasing potential for ruptures and rapid loss of coolant, with potential for meltdown.
• Storage of the nuclear waste is a major problem both practically and politically.
• Supply of uranium is limited, and could be exhausted in a few hundred years or less.

Advanced Fast-Neutron Reactor Technology:

• Existing nuclear waste can be used as fuel.
• Nuclear waste resulting from this technology is slightly over 1% of original volume.
• The half-life of spent fuel is reduced to 300 years.
• Coolant operates at atmospheric pressure, with greatly reduced potential for accidental release.
• Virtually any nuclear fuel, from nuclear plant waste to weapons grade plutonium can be used in the process: A true “swords to plow shares” proposition.
• Using existing nuclear waste stores as fuel and well as uranium ore, we have sufficient fuel to meet our energy needs indefinitely.

To quote the authors’ comments in the last paragraph of the article, “For the foreseeable future, the hard truth is this: Only nuclear power can satisfy humanity’s long-term energy needs while preserving the environment.”

Are they serious about climate change?
It's hard for me to take seriously anyone who tries to say both of the following:

- we must stop emitting greenhouse gases to stop/reverse climate change

- nukes are off the table

We have a 30 year record of increasingly safe and efficient operation and a new generation (or two) of reactor technology to work with. It's time for greens to put adolescent fears behind them and get their priorities straight. Either stopping greenhouse emission is urgent and nukes are our best source of alternative energy, or climate issues aren't change and energy policy should be subject only to the geostrategic matters on which Reynolds focuses his attention.

I'm not so knee-jerky now but...
Sure, I was scared being 90 miles east of TMI when it happened and seeing the "China Syndrome". But the hard core reality (if I may) is that we need Nuke plants. I'm not a scientist and the issue of spent fuel is blithely ignored in the recent pro-nuke fervor. To me the re-adoption of Nuke Power comes down to two questions:
How do we monitor that all (reasonable) safety rules are followed in construction, operation and maintenance of Nuke plants? Sorry, I trust no business or business person implicitly, and since the impact of a disaster is huge, we need strict regulation in this area.
What the $#%$# do we do with the spent fuel? That's the 500 pound gorilla of the current technology, isn't it?

I read a recent follow up study regarding TMI. It seems that more people were harmed by the fear and stress that promulgated by the media and anti-nuke activists, than were harmed by the release of radiation from TMI.

No Nukes is Good Nukes?
I don't have a problem in principle with using nuclear power. There are some interesting practical questions:

a) How do you keep the spent fuel safely out of harm's way for thousands of years? I think the best proposal so far, Yucca Mountain, is still open to valid concerns.

b) If you reprocess the fuel, instead of storing it, you get more out of it. The problem is that the technology for reprocessing is the same technology used for enriching uranium to produce a bomb-grade uranium mix, so if you make reprocessing technology available, you have made bomb technology available. And it seems that the key issue in making nuclear fision bombs (unlike in hydrogen bombs) is getting the right stuff, not knowing how to use it: high school students have generated bomb designs based on encyclopedia articles that experts said would have worked (Not very efficiently; but who cares? Inefficient bombs are good weapons too, 'cause they're "dirty".).
c) Finally, the last time I heard, after about 10 or 15 years the radiation from a nuclear reactor does so much damage to the structure of the enclosure that it has to be torn down. The material produced is radioactive and has to be dealt with some how. The energy (and money) required to deal with this is comparable to the energy produced over the lifetime of the nuclear plant. So what did we get out of this? (The economic trade-offs involved have been distorted, I have heard, by various tax breaks.)

OK, these issues date from the 1970's, so maybe there has been a revolution in nuclear engineering that has passed me by. But until someone points them out to me, those are still the questions that I would raise when the very interesting question of nuclear power comes up.

Hmm, possibly a study done by TCS? :)
Sounds like their kind of conclusion.

Some answers

a) The radiation decays at a geometric not an arithmetic rate in nuclear fuel waste. The thousands of years really doesn't apply with respect to signficant hazard levels, only to theoretical models of environmental impact based on worst case analysis. Stated simply, after about 1000 years, the fuel waste in its cannister has approximately the same radiation level as the uranium ore from which it was made. Over the longer term, it is certainly possible and not even terribly difficult to ensure its isolation for much longer time periods, and this is why nearly all nations with nuclear power programs are at varying stages of implementing geologic storage.

b)Non-proliferation will be an issue irrespective of whether or not you have civilian nuclear power programs. Civilian nuclear reprocessing plants are not particularly a concern because they are public and monitored, both the plant activity and their fissile inventories. What's going on in Iran is not civilian technology secretly producing weapons material, it's a military complex built quietly and out of sight.

c) This is a bit of urban legend and obviously not correct. Britain just closed a nuclear power plant at Calder Hall last year that had been operating since 1956. They closed it because it was too small and required too much maintenance to be worthwhile fixing up. But it was certainly not a case of radiation damaging the inner works.

If global warming doesn't justify nukes -- it's not important
The doom that environmentalists are against the most is up to them to choose. If global warming is the worst thing, than nukes "are better."

If excessive energy consumption is the problem, then they need to be honest and support higher gas taxes and energy taxes. History shows what a vote-winning position that has been. Not.

Those environmentalists who want to scream about "global warming" but are unwilling to agree that mores nukes are therefore better, show themselves to be dishonest, secret proponents of anti-energy / anti-growth.

Personally, I wish Bush had called for the Dems to get serious about gas conservation by calling for a big gas tax increase -- and say if the Dems don't call for one, global warming's not that important.

(I also wish Kyoto had been about a percentage of gov't revenue to be collected from gas and/or carbon taxes, so all gov'ts would be signing up for rev. collection targets as a % of gov't size.)

No Nukes
Two significant questions remain about nucleart power regardless of yourpolitical perspective in the matter.

1. Since a 1000MW nuclear reactor creates enough plutonium each year to build 40 nuclear bombs, how will it be possible to keep that material out of the hand of some crazy terrorist for the 240,000 years it takes for it to become stable and safe?

2. The capital markets got stung by nukes in the 70s when nuclear construction siphoned off all the prime captial to IOUs which were gauranteed a profit. What makes anyone think that the capital markets will merrily back such unproven and risky technology today?

The only way any nukes will be built is if the government builds them (China, anyone?). How can people who claim to be conservatives suggest that government be the chief financier for a technology that cannot pass muster in the private sector?

Yes nukes
First, we have tons of plutonium alread that is not in the hands of terrorists. And I doubt that in 240,000 years, terrorism will be the issue it is today, if we are even still around.

Second, the problem with nuke capital in the past is that the design and construction were poorly managed. Overregulated, unique designs, etc. all drove up the price of nukes. If done right, those problems can be overcome.

Finally, it is NOT true that only governmetns can build nuke plants. It was not true in the U.S. past (they were private built, although heavily regulated).

At this point, nukes are necessary to reduce oil dependence. Period. There is no other viable alternative. And decades of safe use prove they are a viable option, especially considering that todays designs are FAR safer than the past.


TMI consequences
Here's a formal analysis of the consequences - no deaths, no injuries.

No Subject
how will it be possible to keep that material out of the hand of some crazy terrorist...

Perhaps by not reprocessing it.

"Less than 20 pounds of plutonium is needed to make a nuclear weapon. If the plutonium remains bound in large, heavy, and highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies, it is nearly impossible to steal."

answers from the UCS ?
.. how will it be possible to keep that material out of the hand of some crazy terrorist for the 240,000 years it takes for it to become stable and safe?

The UCS has considered this very issue.

"Less than 20 pounds of plutonium is needed to make a nuclear weapon. If the plutonium remains bound in large, heavy, and highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies, it is nearly impossible to steal."

Fast reactors -- solving the wrong problem
Fast reactors are solving the wrong problem. We do not currently have a shortage of uranium. The price of uranium has gone up a bit recently, to around $30/lb, but this is still well below the point at which reprocessing would be economical. Plutonium extracted from spent fuel today has negative value: you have to pay the fuel fabricators to take it off your hands.

Experience with liquid metal cooling shows you really don't want an opaque coolant, since it becomes difficult or impossible to do internal inspections. Liquid sodium cooled research reactors in both Japan and France have had crippling sodium leaks.

Spent fuel should be stored in retrievable form, so that in the future, if necessary, the actinides can be extracted and burned, but reprocessing today would be pointless and wasteful. Geological disposal is also silly for now. Dry cask storage will easily last for centuries, by which time our descendants, who will have far more advanced technologies, will have their own ideas of what to do with the stuff.

Some answers & resources
[Note: I've put all the links at the end of this post footnoted e.g. [1]]

I appreciate the sound comments from ColinH.

It appears that president Bush remains reluctant take the political risk of a bold push for nuclear power. The State of the Union 2006 press release promotes nuclear with only four words "clean and safe nuclear energy".

As Glenn highlighted, the modular pebble-bed reactor technology looks very promising. Key advantages are safety by design (even chimps as operators can't cause a nuclear accident), no proliferation worries, and perhaps most important, but ignored by the MSNBC article - the design is MODULAR. That means industrial-scale mass production is possible, with all attendant benefits. One of the most important benefits is the slashing of the financial risk of regulatory delays before a new plant is allowed to start up.

For more background on the Modular Pebble-bed design, see MIT's study "The Future of Nuclear Power" [1], prof. Andrew C. Kadak's presentation "What Will it Take to Revive Nuclear Energy?" [PDF] [2], and his Pebble-bed presentation [PDF] [2a]. As Glenn Reynolds said, China is placing big bets here, see Wired's "Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom" [3].

As drhealy posted, also promising, but much less developed is a nuclear fuel cycle combining pyrometallurgical processing and advanced fast-neutron reactors. E.g., see Scientific American [4] Dec 2005 ($) "Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste: Fast-neutron reactors could extract much more energy from recycled nuclear fuel, minimize the risks of weapons proliferation and markedly reduce the time nuclear waste must be isolated" by Argone Labs researchers William H. Hannum, Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford.

Different but related point, on the president's "Hydrogen Fuel Initiative" - are the thermodynamic efficiency problems surmountable? The initiative on advanced battery research for hybrids looks promising. But note how tiny the investment (FY2007 $30 million) is relative to the $289 million for the "The Hydrogen Fuel Initiative". Is this big investment in promoting hydrogen for transportation a thermodynamic bust?

See this earlier SeekerBlog post "Carrying the Energy Future" [5] on the questionable economics of hydrogen vs. hybrid vehicles (especially with the "new battery technology"): A useful study, Carrying the Energy Future: Comparing Hydrogen and Electricity for Transmission, Storage and Transportation was developed by The Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment (ILEA). This is a Seattle environmental advocacy NGO.

Do other readers have better sources on the hydrogen economics? On next generation battery efficiency?

See also "A Pollution-Free Hydrogen Economy? Not So Soon" [6] for physicist Richard A. Muller's cautious commentary in MIT Technology Review.








There's No Need to Fear....
As far as safety rules being followed, nuclear's safety record speaks for itself. Almost 40 years of operation with no measurable impact on public health or the environment, ever.

The impact of the worst possible disaster would be less than that inflicted ANNUALLY by fossil plants, which are known to cause ~25,000 deaths every year in the US alone, and are the leading cause of global warming. Estimates of the effects of Chernobyl (a one time event in nuclear's history) range from ~60 to ~4000 eventual deaths. The worst possible accident (or attack) at a Western plant would have far smaller consequences than that.

What do we do with the spent fuel? The same thing we do with all other waste streams. Bury it! The risks from nuclear waste, even over the very long term, are tiny compared to those of the wastes produced by fossil plants and other industries, because of its tiny volume, its non-dispersible form, and the extreme degree of containment, and isolation from the environment and population. On top of that, it is extremely unlikely the waste will even remain there over the long term, as it is virtually guaranteed that the technology to eliminate/use it will eventually be developed.

Nuclear Economics
Yes, the first wave of plants had economic problems for various reasons (too many to discuss here), almost all of which have been fixed today through technology development, lessons learned, a detailed standard reactor design (before proceeding forward this time), and policies and legislation designed to reduce potential legal and procedural delays.

Even now, in the Far East, new reactors are being built, one time and on budget, at a far lower cost. While nuclear is getting less expensive, the cost of all types of fossil fuel are rising. On top of this, their environmental (as well as geopolitical) problems are becoming more and more known. As one poster pointed out, it coal's external costs were added to the price, its cost would double, making it much more expensive than nuclear.

For the above reasons, the govt. is only providing financial aid for the first few reactors, kind of as a demonstration project, to reduce investor fears (which would have otherwise resulted in obscene financing costs). Once these first few plants are built, the industry is not even asking for any form of govt. aid, as nuclear is predicted to be fully competative with all other sources.

No Proliferation Issue
Our present stockpile of nuclear waste contains enough plutonium to (theoretically) make an enormous (essentially infinite) number of bombs, as Blairphoto points out. Given this, I ask, what difference does it make if we doubled or tripled the amount of waste. Three times ~infinite is ~infinite.

The point is that the size of the "stockpile" is not the issue, i.e., the thing that governs the likelihood of proliferation. If it was, everyone would have a bomb. No, the important factor is the level of difficulty in using spent fuel to make a weapon, both in the absolute sense, as well as relative to other potential means of obtaining weapons material.

The fact of the matter is that stealing nuclear waste from a deep burial site in the US, and then reprocessing it into weapons plutonium is the single most difficult approach for obtaining weapons material that anyone has ever thought of. Reprocessing spent fuel into weapons plutonium is more technically challenging than uranium enrichment, even if one sets aside the impracticality of stealing waste out of Yucca and not getting caught. It is far easier to just dig up raw ore (in Iran, or wherever), and enrich it into bomb-grade uranium. Indeed, that is exactly what Iran and Pakistan etc.. are doing (or had done). And yes, there is enough raw uranium ore under nations like Iran to make an infinite number of bombs.

The proliferation situation would not change one iota, whether the US never built another plant, or if it built hundreds more. In either case, the "waste stockpile" would be essentially infinite, but it would never be the means by which anyone ever obtains weapons material.

In terms of the question of whether the US should increase its domestic use of nuclear power, weapons proliferation is a non-issue. Exporting the technology to every tiny devloping nation, on the other hand, is another matter. But we're not the ones doing that. Russia is.... Not sure what we can do about that.

Reduced half-life, a good thing?
A shorter half-life means more dangerous as it is decaying at an accelerated rate.

1) The 25K figure is greatly exagerated by extrapolating to small exposures from much greater exposures.

2) Global Warming, the positive effects of it far outweigh the negative, assuming it is happening at all.

3) Most high level nuclear wastes can be reprocessed and reused as fuel.

Reprocessing spent fuel and burning up the ploutonium as fuel solves the storage/security problem.

Considering the radiation released by TMI was such that a person standing at the perimeter fence during the entire event would have received less radiation than the average chest x-ray.

It appears that Bush has subordinated everything to the war on terror.

He won't risk offending anyone anymore.

The best way to get rid of the plutonium is to burn it in nuclear reactors.

Nuclear unproven? Hardly. France gets over half of their energy from nuclear, and has for decades. Most of the rest of the world is heavily into nuclear power.

Fuel won't last long
Unless we go to alternative fuel cycles like the one in the SciAm piece, our fuel will last a few decades at most (IAEA says 2045). Alternate cycles such as fast breeders or possibly Radkowsky mean we'll have plenty.

Battery alternatives are coming
In the next decade, we're likely to see carbon nanotube ultracapacitors replacing batteries. That means fast charges and ultimately longer ranges. Keep an eye on that technology.

TMI was a missed opportunity
At TMI the operators did almost everything wrong they could and yet in the end the automatic safety features and designs ensured a negligible impact to both local citizens and the environment. Contrary to the disaster it is largely though of, it was actually an unintentional demonstration of the technology's safety. Unfortunately, the NRC et. al. immediately went into defensive mode and looked guilty as Hell, so the legend of the "China Syndrome" was born and given tacit credence.

The greatest enemy of nuclear power in the US has always been that first word, "nuclear." It causes a subconscious connection to form between nuclear weapons and power, leadign to the automatic assumption that if one is deadly then the other must be too. We haven't done much to educate people on the truth about nuclear power.

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