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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

It's time to revisit nuclear power

The past few years, I've found myself reconsidering nuclear power. Gasp! Yes, I'm a strong environmentalist and I'm coming out in favor of nuclear power at the risk of shocking Rob, my host here, and other environmentalists. But a rift has developed amongst green activists, with the Sierra Club coming out against atomic energy, and Patrick Moore, cofounder of Greenpeace, and Hugh Montefiore, a former Anglican bishop and longtime trustee of Friends of the Earth two of the more prominent proponents of third and fourth generation nuclear power technology.

The need to move to a "hydrogen economy". . .
. . .suggests a role for a clean, efficient, and much neglected energy source: nuclear. Like the fuel cell, the nuclear generator is a technology ripe for exploitation. Unlike the solid-core reactors of the past, pebble-bed modular reactors such as the one at Koeberg, South Africa, don't get hot enough to risk melting down. Koeberg uses small graphite-covered uranium balls rather than plutonium rods, and the reactor's cooled by helium rather than water. This new design is so efficient, it might make nuclear competitive with coal and oil. In any event, the nuclear power industry is in dire need of research for everything, from generation to waste treatment. Thus, $10 billion should be allocated to developing and securing nuclear technology that can power the hydrogen revolution.
(From How Hydrogen Can Save America, Wired magazine, April 2003)

Compared to the very real risk of catastrophic global climate change due to our current reliance on fossil fuels, is nuclear power really that dangerous? New nuclear reactor technology, several generations ahead of the designs we commonly know, are reportedly simpler, safer, and more efficient. With the new generation plants, the likelihood of a Three Mile Island or Chernobyl is ostensibly nil, and the statistically insignificant risk of serious problems is nothing compared to the myriad documented health problems resulting from burning coal, oil, and natural gas to produce our electricity.

Several good articles on nex-gen nuclear power may be found at:

Environmental Science & Technology Online
Living On Earth (audio)
M.I.T. Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
Wired magazine, February 2005

Granted, there are too many cultural, environmental, and cost hurdles to make nuclear power a global warming panacea, but as one component of the future energy generation picture it certainly warrants consideration.


Rob Bartlett said...

Gregg -

As you thought, you have shocked me with this post. Though I understand your argument, I still have a fundamental problem with any process that creates a waste that is exceedingly deadly (that does not seem strong-enough) for more years than the total existance of human civilization. I think that it is a wreckless decision for us to start building more nuclear power plants when we cannot even agree on a safe place to put the waste - let alone develop the technology necessary to ensure that it stays contained for tens of thousands of years. Yucca Mountain is no panacea - but we can't even get that right. Instead, we have hundreds of sites around the country that are "temporarily" storing nuclear waste in sites that were not designed to be as long term as it appears that they will be.

In addition to the waste storage issue, increasing the amount of nuclear waste and plutonium in commerce will increase the chance that terrorists will get their hands on enough for a bomb - whether a nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb. I heard former Senator Nunn on NPR yesterday saying that on a scale on 1 to 10, he rates our progress to date for getting the nukes in the former Soviet Union under control at a 5 - and he rates our progress for controlling these world wide as a 3. This suggests that as a civilization we are not ready for a sudden explosion (pun intended) of new nuclear plants being built.

Granted, nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide during normal production. Thy are, however, extremely expensive to build, dangerous, generate a deadly waste that we cannot properly dispose of, increase the risk of significant terrorist attacks, and rely on government subsidies to keep their "costs" to consumers low. Instead of spending all of this money on nuclear, why not invest it in bringing to market all of the various renewable technologies that do not have similar drawbacks?

As always, my mind is open to considering this further. I just hope that we can find a better solution than more nukes.


G. R. L. Cowan said...

There is never going to be a hydrogen economy. The cars have existed for 35 years, liquid hydrogen tanker trucks that could have fed them have existed even longer, and nobody ever buys one of the cars. I used to think I would if I had the money, but I have learned more since.

Nuclear plants could nonetheless make hydrogen as a step in the process of making nuclear gasoline.

No-one outside the business ever pretended the nuclear waste problem was a serious one until governments began profiting heavily from fossil fuels via consumption taxes in the late 60s or early 70s; not coincidentally, movies glorifying fast driving in big-block cars began to be made about then.

To understand that nuclear waste has never been a real problem, try two things. 1, find out the name of someone who has been harmed or killed by carbon monoxide; this is a fossil fuel waste product, so it's analogous to someone being harmed or killed by nuclear waste. Then find out the name of a person in the latter group.

(2) Understand that there is a lot more radioactivity in the ocean than in all the spent fuel pools at all the nuclear power stations in the world combined. In an equal volume of rock there is thousands of times more. Viewers-with-alarm of this supposed problem are akin to people who live on a thousand acre cow pasture and think they can't have a hamster because of its droppings.

TJ Morton said...

I would disagree with some of your statements Rob.
In what sense are nuclear power plants dangerous? Having worked in a Navy nuclear power plant (extremely small scale compared with a commercial power plant, but nevertheless a nuclear power plant), a refinery and a commercial power plant burning community solid waste as its fuel, I would have to say I am more leery working in a fossil fuel fired plant. They are generally super heated steam plants and they have the added risk of needing volatile fuel. Nuclear power plants (at least the ones currently in operation in the US) tend to be saturated steam plants, which means significantly lower steam pressure. Despite the general public's fears, nuclear fuel is not volatile. It is very low enriched uranium that will not form a critical mass except under tightly packed geometries. Aside from Three Mile Island, there have been no commercial nuclear power accidents in the US. You can make a case against nuclear power by citing the accident at Chernobyl, but it was of an inferior and most would say, unsafe design. Commercial nuclear power is held to considerably higher standards than fossil fuel power due in most part to TMI. But those high standards produce an industry with safety and reporting standards second to almost none. There are far more industrial accidents at refineries and chemical plants than there are at nuclear power plants. Yet these refineries and chemical plants receive huge government subsidies.
You say that nuclear power relies on government subsidies to be cost effective. There have been several blog posts recently that dispute the relative amount of subsidies that go to nuclear. NEI posted one recently here.
As for the terrorist risk, I don't know how long it's been since you have visited a nuclear power plant, but there is more security at commercial plants than there is at many military installations. I admit that I'm no terrorist, but I find it difficult to envision someone, or a group of someones, getting all the way in to the plant where the spent fuel is kept, removing it from the spent fuel pool, loading it onto a truck, and getting out of the plant without being shot. That is just my personal observation. Spent fuel is less attractive as a target than most would believe. It cannot be handled without specialized equipment and at least some knowledge. So, it is not suitable in most circumstances as a dirty bomb. And the resources required to separate the plutonium from the spent fuel that is not fissile are significant enough that we would easily know about them. Therefore, I must disagree with the statement that it increases the risk of a significant terrorist attack.
To summarize, I (along with a great number of pro-nuclear citizens) agree that we need more renewable power sources. However, wind and solar simply will not fulfill our current power needs due to their intermittent nature. Some day we will discover how to store electricity efficiently and safely, and how to transmit it from the sunny Southwest or the windy Midwest to New England in the winter. But until then we need reliable, non-carbon emitting sources of baseload electricity. I do not believe that nuclear power is the long term solution for the nation's energy needs, but I believe that it is an ideal stop gap.

Ruth Sponsler said...

Rob -

An issue that groups like the Sierra Club need to consider with their opposition to nuclear power is the risks posed by the alternatives. Wind and solar just won't cover all of our power demands.

For thirty years, the utilities have listened to the demands of anti-nuclear groups. So...they built fossil fuel plants in lieu of nuclear power plants. First, that meant relatively clean-burning natural gas. Now, as gas has become more expensive, they're wanting to build more coal plants, which are conclusively linked to cardiovascular and lung disease mortality by a rapidly increasing body of evidence.

And, any environmentalist should be aware that coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel out there and is a big contributor of CO2, whose effects on our climate the IPCC will discuss in its report tomorrow.

Gregg is correct because he's analyzed the energy issue wholistically, with a view to the entire pool of possible energy sources and the magnitude of overall energy demand.

I consider myself an environmentalist, but I refuse to join the Sierra Club until they drop their anti-nuclear power position [which they have held since 1974]. This position has led to a great deal of environmental damage from the fossil fuels that have been substituted for nuclear energy because of the demands of groups like the Sierra Club.

Thanks Gregg for your courage to share a wholistic view on energy that considers the alternatives with realism.

TJ Morton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TJ Morton said...

I should probably take the time to learn some HTML before I start posting replies to blog posts. I'll try this link thing one more time. This link is to an article on NEI Nuclear Notes about relative subsidies paid for various sources of power.

Jim Hopf said...

The only rational definition of an “acceptable” waste solution is one that results in an overall eventual public health risk, per kW-hr generated, that is as low or lower than most other sources. By this definition, the nuclear waste problem has been solved for a very long time, from the very beginning, really. All the risks associated with nuclear power, including the long-term waste risks, will never be more than a vanishingly small fraction of those associated with fossil fuels. Buried coal ash, chemical toxic waste, ordinary garbage, and the “fallout” from fossil plant toxins released directly into the air, will all pose a greater health risk thousands to millions of years from now than nuclear waste will, as they are buried in infinitely greater volumes, they often never decay away, and they are of a much more dispersible/leachable form.

Nobody has ever been hurt by Western nuclear power plants or their waste (which has always been completely contained). They have never had any measurable impact on public health. Coal plants are the leading cause of global warming, and cause ~25,000 premature deaths in the US alone. Gas plants are now much more expensive than nuclear, and will soon result in the US being dependent on the Middle East and Russia for gas, just as we are now for oil. For many reasons, this dependence will results in more global tensions, more resource wars (e.g., Iraq), and will result in increased risks of terrorism in the US. Nuclear has none of the above problems.

The plutonium in US nuclear plants exists as a minor constituent of the spent fuel material that is locked inside ~1500 lb spent fuel assemblies in US plant cooling ponds. To take such an assembly, w/o setting off all the radiation alarms in the entire plant site, one needs to use a ~100 ton, 7-foot-wide, 16-foot-tall shielded cask, which requires heavy industrial cranes to lift. There is simply no way to secretly remove plutonium from a nuclear plant. Nor spent fuel in general for that matter. BTW, spent fuel makes a lousy dirty bomb material. Concentrated isotopes that would be much more effective are used in a myriad of non-power applications, and are much less secure.

Nuclear plants are better defended against terrorist attacks than any other industrial facility. The chances of a successful attack are very low, and the maximum possible consequences are far less than people have been lead to believe (they are much smaller than the ANNUAL consequences of coal combustion, for example). There are hundreds of facilities (e.g., chemical plants, dams, LNG terminals, skyscrapers, etc..) that are much less protected, have a much greater chance of attack success, and would actually have greater consequences in the event of a successful attack. Nuclear plants have done more than enough, more than any other industry, in terms of security. Our focus needs to be on other areas, such as the ones I’ve listed. And once again, as I discussed earlier, building more nuclear plants will actually reduce the US’ overall vulnerability to terrorism, as they will reduce our dependence on foreign gas and oil, which is a leading root cause of terrorism risk.

A different Rob said...

Rob -

You've raised two points that bother many people. Without presuming I can change your mind, I'll ask you to consider them in perspective.

* Spent Fuel *

First, why doesn't anyone fret over coal waste? A lot of it is sprinkled over the landscape, spreading heavy metals, sulfates, and who-knows-what else (some people know; I'm just not one of them). Every day, coal burners have to pile up tons of ash and sludge. It's highly toxic and it lasts forever.

Anyway, what bothers people is that the nuclear wastes last a long time. Not as long as coal waste, but a long time. So what would be the effects some thousands of years from now to some people who possibly could be living at a hunter-gatherer level if they dug 1000 feet into a mountain located in a dismayingly barren desert and found it?

I hope you can appreciate that we are discussing a set of conditions that are so improbable that they just about equal the odds of winning the lottery without a ticket. In the worst case, it is indeed possible that a dozen or so people could suffer fatal radiation sickness. But consider a much more likely scenario: The long-lived nuclides in spent-fuel waste are valuable fuel, so the most reasonable thing to do is take them out of wherever they are stored and use them up. Inevitably, there will be some short-lived wastes that have to be buried and certainly they will be dangerous, but not for the geologically-long periods you're concerned over.

How reasonable is this? I shy away from predicting the future of technology, since we've been disappointed many times before. Still, the human race is already at the threshold of interplanetary travel. Wonderful advances are being made in stem-cell research. Meanwhile, fuel-recycling technology has been proved for over 50 years. To imagine that such proven technology will be employed in making the spent fuel disappear, for a profit, seems like a reasonable extrapolation.

* Bomb Proliferation *

I'm sure you understand that plutonium isn't shipped around by itself. In the context of fuel handling, it is always mixed with other fuel materials. Although plutonium oxide isn't especially dangerous to handle, the other materials certainly are. Even if a thief were suicidal, he wouldn't live long enough to steal the materials without heavy shielding.

Contrary to what you've been told, it isn't easy to make a bomb. Even if encyclopedias show diagrams of bombs, they don't show everything. In fact, bombs have only been made when nations devoted their best scientific minds and vast capital resources to the project. And, really, under those conditions, stealing spent fuel from the US isn't a requirement.

Dirty bombs have to be considered separately. Suppose that despite extensive security measures, terrorists obtained some amount, even a large amount, of radioactive material and blew it up in some populated place. Well, that would be a catastrophe by anyone's standard. It ranks with a lot of threats terrorists pose, such as spreading biological agents or blowing up a tanker filled with ammonia or chlorine. Without minimizing the consequences, I should mention that people can be decontaminated quickly to limit injuries and, given time, cleanup crews can decontaminate the area affected. Radiation does have the feature of being easy to detect, unlike biological agents.

* Closing *

I wouldn't expect this humble argument to change anyone's mind, but I hope it shows that nuclear advocates like me aren't just nuts. Maybe a couple of comments could also be made about Three-Mile-Island and Chernobyl. What often is overlooked is that, though TMI was a spectacular accident, even experiencing a core meltdown, the final score was 0 injured, 0 killed. There are darn few coalmine accidents or refinery fires or pipeline explosions that have had such a benign result.

By now everyone understands that the Chernobyl reactors were totally different from reactors outside the former Soviet Union. The defense-in-depth features of US and other Western reactors would prevent an accident of such severity, and would contain the radionuclides inside. But even if you ignore that, consider this: the World Health Organization, after extensive investigation, put the upper limit of deaths due to the Chernobyl accident at 4000. As tragic as that is, it pales against the tens of thousands of people who die from coal-caused pollution just in this country every year.

I don't think the argument for nuclear power is that it's necessary to prevent global warming, though it is. More important, it has the best safety record and the best environmental record of any energy source available to us.

Kit P. said...

I am a mechanical and environmental engineer who has worked at many navy and commercial reactors, Yucca Mountain too. In the US, commercial nuclear power is 100% safe and clean. Furthermore, the chances of using spent fuel from a commercial reactor to produce weapons grade plutonium are 0%. I am an old school engineer who started out using a slide rule. If computer models show something is 99.9999999% safe and 99.9999% clean, you can understand why I round it off to 100%.

Just for the record, all commercially generated electricity is 100% safe. It is a regulatory requirement to not hurt the neighbors of power plants. It takes a lot of good engineering and training to produce electricity safely. The industrial safety record of the nuclear industry is near perfect too.

I am also an advocate of renewable energy and have worked on biomass projects. Spend a little time over at the EIA web site that discusses the global outlook for coal before discounting any energy source or conservation. The global challenge is huge and will require lots of skilled workers.