Are You Biased Against Nuclear Power? Yup, Say Scientists

By Nathanael Johnson (@savortooth on Twitter), Grist’s senior writer and the author of two books. Originally published at Grist

In the 1970s, you couldn’t escape the Pepsi Challenge on TV. Blindfolded men and women took sips of Pepsi and its better-known archrival without knowing which was which and — surprise, surprise — more people preferred Pepsi Cola. The message was clear: Judge the soda on its merits not its reputation.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon and the University of California, San Diego recently did something like this but not with soda. In this blind taste test, they gave a bunch of random people accurate information about the benefits and risks that go along with different power sources. When they hid the labels (solar, coal, etc), people showed a greater preference for nuclear power..

On its most basic level, this study demonstrates a well-known fact: Fear of nuclear power looms far larger than the risks. But this didn’t lead the researchers to the conclusion that everybody just needs to be more rational. (If humans were convinced by calls to rationality, we would be well on our way to eliminating carbon emissions by now.) They came up with some suggestions for accepting the reality of nuclear dread, and building it into projections for the future.

Here’s how the studywent. Researchers set up a simple online game, where people were asked to come up with a new electricity mix for the United States. As players tried to cut carbon emissions, the game gave them feedback about how many people might die from pollution or power-plant disasters. Using sliders, they picked the amount of electricity they’d like to see coming from solar, wind, coal, coal with carbon capture technology, nuclear, and natural gas. In about half the games, the researchers labeled these energy options as “Technology 1, Technology 2,” and so on, removing the labels and all the associations we have with them. When the names of the power plants were hidden, the players opted to build the equivalent of 40 more nuclear reactors, then the players who could read the labels.

The mini-game researchers designed. Abdulla, et al.

Other researchers might have used these findings as an opportunity to shame people for being scientifically illiterate, or seen this fear of nuclear as a reason to design even safer reactors. But these researchers noted previous studies suggesting that neither approach would work. Pummeling people with facts, or engineering safety tweaks does very little to dispel raw dread. Two of the study’s authors, Ahmed Abdulla and Parth Vaishnav, told me they were just as interested in the squishy social science on how people think about risk as on the hard facts.

“We are both very concerned about the blinders scientists sometimes impose on themselves,” Abdulla said.

Once you take off those blinders, you can see it may be impossible to bridge that gap between the actual risks of nuclear power and the dread it evokes. Accept that dread as a given and it points you toward a more nuanced, but useful path. So, for instance, if you figured out that the cheapest way to slash U.S. carbon emissions was by building 100 nuclear power plants, this finding suggests that you should trim that number by 40 percent, down to 60 plants, to account for the fear factor.

“That suggests that we should be a little less black and white when modeling energy paths, Vaishnav said. “In a lot of the literature researchers say, ‘OK, people don’t like nuclear, let’s model without it.”

But their finding implies that a binary, all or nothing thinking is the wrong approach. Despite their fears, people didn’t abandon nuclear energy altogether. They simply wanted to use less of it.

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175 comments

  1. Isotope_C14

    I’m not biased against the “concept”, or even the cavalier “risk” assessment.

    I’m biased about anything effectively and environmentally soundly being implemented in a for-profit capitalist framework where externalities are of no concern.

    Reply
    1. Louis Fyne

      you’v described the entire fossil fuel complex as well. and every cargo ship that burns bunker fuel oil. just sayin’

      fission is the least bad of scalable alternatives, since not many are volunteering to cut their per capita energy usage by 50%. ps I live 80 miles down wind from 4 reactors.

      Reply
      1. diptherio

        Look, man, the same people (or, at least, the same sorts of people) are going to be in charge of running nuclear plants as are now running the dinosaur juice industry. It doesn’t matter what the technology is, applying it in our current sociopath-controlled neo-liberal crapitization society is guaranteed to end badly.

        How about using less? How about conservation and insulation? How about passive design for heating and cooling buildings? But none of that leads to multi-million dollar salaries for CEOs, so none of those things will be pursued. The things that will lead to outsized c-suite salaries will be pursued, and bungled, and run as a scam on the public…like everything now days.

        Reply
      2. Skip Intro

        Until we and researchers address the main lie behind the plutonium creation facilities we currently claim are civilian power plants, their work is just more disinformation. These plants are designed to produce weapons fuel, and generation of electricity is basically just part of the cover story. That it has gotten so out of hand that even industry professionals have forgotten their origin story and are living the lie is a testament to the power of propaganda.

        Meanwhile the opportunity cost of investing in more nuclear plants at the expense of more immediate, less expensive, less CO2-producing power sources has so far outstripped the benefits, that even those who believe it is all about generating electricity have thrown in the towel, and the nukes are left with only a handful of dead-ender dupes and paid shills for their defense.

        Reply
      3. GM

        fission is the least bad of scalable alternatives

        The problem is that it is not really scalable unless you move to breeders, because the uranium supplies are limited.

        There is also no practical way to scale it up on time given how long it takes to plan, design, build, and equip with trained personnel so many nuclear plants. We’re talking many decades. We don’t have that amount of time.

        So, once again, we come back to the two absolutely mandatory measures that have to be taken to properly address the sustainability crisis:

        1. Reduction of population by an order of magnitude by the end of the century (which will happen with 100% certainty anyway, the goal here is to avoid the chaotic genocidal mass die-off so that civilization survives)

        2. Immediate transition to a steady-state socioeconomic system (which will also have to happen with 100% certain eventually, because infinite growth in a finite system is impossible)

        Reply
    2. irenic

      I’m biased against the cost too. It surprises me that most people ignore the logistics and costs of nuclear power plants. If they are taken into account nuclear power is not a feasible technology to help reduce global warming.

      An article that quotes Jeremy Rifkin spells it out:

      “Frankly, I think … it’s over. Let me explain why from a business perspective. . .

      “Here’s the issue: Nuclear power right now is six percent of energy of the world. There are only 400 nuclear power plants. These are old nuclear power plants. But our scientists tell us [that] to have a minimum impact on climate change — which is the whole rationale for bringing this technology back — nuclear would have to be 20 percent of the energy mix to have the minimum, minimum impact on climate change — not six percent of the mix.

      “That means we’d have to replace the existing 400 nuclear plants and build 1,600 additional plants. Three nuclear plants have to be built every 30 days for 40 years to get to 20 percent, and by that time climate change will have run its course for us. So I think, from a business point of view, I just don’t see that investment. I’d be surprised if we replace 100 of the 400 existing nuclear plants which would take us down to 1 or 2 percent of the energy [mix].

      That’s not to mention the fresh water needed for the reactors(each year, 40% of France’s fresh water is used to cool nuclear reactors).

      So if a low(pages 85-87) estimate for new nuclear power plant costs are around $8 billion dollars it would cost $16 TRILLION to build 2000 power plants to only achieve 20% of power in 40 years. And since it takes a minimum of 4 to 5 years to build a nuclear power plant we would want to build them as quickly as possible which would only increase the cost enormously.

      How about using that kind of money to invest $16 Trillion in renewables and more cost effective carbon-free technologies.

      Reply
      1. ken

        Add in the tremendous costs of decommissioning an old, worn out nuke plant. It can cost more to decommission it than the tremendous cost of building it in the first place.
        Three options–
        –Fence and guard it for eternity.
        –Entomb it in a mountain of concrete.
        –Cut it up with a remote controlled crane and haul it off to our inadequate nuke waste dumps. Cut up the now-hot remote crane and haul it off, too.

        Reply
        1. Andre Mittag

          Minor Minor quible, they do use some water in a closed loop, but the vast is used to cool in an open loop and not touched by any of the nuclear material.

          – couldnt resist… apologies.

          Reply
  2. Foppe

    There’s nothing much inherently wrong with nuclear energy. Problem is that we’re producing it in the worst way possible, using the worst fuel possible, so that we run enormous risks, due to needing watercooling at insane pressures. But localized waste versus planet-wide effects of CO2, methane should be an easy trade-off. Similarly the choice between fuels. But the development of thorium and molten salt reactors has only just begun.
    This channel has a pretty useful collection of videos on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/user/gordonmcdowell

    Reply
    1. Foppe

      That said, the main problem we’re facing is not individual, but institutional ‘bias’ against thorium and molten salt reactors; both because it would disrupt the incumbents, and because there’s less opportunity for rent extraction; and thorium may be so useful (and so available, because all of it is usable versus only like 1% of mined uranium) that it might replace fossil fuels, which those industries would hate. And since the efficiency is so much higher, mining volume would be lower, less transport is needed, less waste disposal, etc. That affects a lot of players. (Including the coal producing nations, and in time, the whole petro dollar rent extraction system Hudson has described.)

      Reply
    2. Cal2

      More technofantasies from the stranded nuclear engineering degree holders and mouthpieces for their financial backers.

      “There is a significant sticking point to the promotion of thorium as the ‘great green hope’ of clean energy production: it remains unproven on a commercial scale. While it has been around since the 1950s (and an experimental 10MW LFTR did run for five years during the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US, though using uranium and plutonium as fuel) it is still a next generation nuclear technology – theoretical.”

      https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jun/23/thorium-nuclear-uranium

      “All other issues aside, thorium is still nuclear energy, say environmentalists, its reactors disgorging the same toxic byproducts and fissile waste with the same millennial half-lives. Oliver Tickell, author of Kyoto2, says the fission materials produced from thorium are of a different spectrum to those from uranium-235, but ‘include many dangerous-to-health alpha and beta emitters’.”

      The myth of nuclear power being “carbon free”

      https://www.globalresearch.ca/nuclear-power-is-not-the-answer-2/5502496

      Reply
      1. Foppe

        wrt qoute two: disingenuous. Unless the people talking about it are lying their asses off, Thorium(232), if fully utilized, results in waste with a 300y halflife, and at least 20x less of it than Uranium from LWRs. But sure, it will certainly still “include many dangerous-to-health emitters”, if only because “many” doesn’t mean anything.

        wrt point 0: any industry has “financial backers”, and thus anyone advocating for any technology may be argued to be a “mouthpiece” for them. As for the ad-hommy first part of the sentence: Spare me.

        wrt quote 1: sure, but the “unproven on commercial scale” is not an argument, because circular.

        Reply
        1. Samuel Conner

          I have read that LFTRs can also “burn up”, transmuting to shorter lifetime radionuclides”, highly dangerous long-lifetime radionuclides in all those spent-reactor-fuel cooling ponds for which no one has yet found a workable highly safe long-term storage solution.

          One would think that LFTR would excite intense interest on this count alone. Conventional nuclear as a solution to climate change is going to massively increase the spent-fuel storage problem.

          Reply
  3. H. Alexander Ivey

    Do I like nuclear power? Two words: Fukashima meltdown.

    No if, ands, or buts about could it happen. And no solution for when it does.

    This paper’s finding is bogus.

    Reply
    1. False Solace

      I share this opinion. Talk to me about how wonderful nuclear is after Fukushima is cleaned up. Last I heard they’re still dumping radioactive water into the ocean and there is no technologically viable plan to clean up the site and restore it to habitability. As in, the technology needed to do it does not exist.

      One of the most recent analyses mentioned on NC said we’d need to build 1 new nuclear plant a month for a decade to make a dent in global warming. That’s not going to happen in the timeframe we need. And we still have zero long term storage. Zero! Forgive me for believing we need to figure that out first.

      Reply
    2. H. Alexander Ivey

      And to put another nail in nuclear’s coffin; is there any other power generation that has forced abandonment of towns and countrysides?

      Reply
        1. Yassine

          Electrical distribution is not power generation. How do you think the power from those magical nuclear power plants arrives at your home ? If anything, power generation with heavily centralized technologies like nukes increases the need for extremely dense electricity distribution network.

          Gas lamps generate light and not electrical power, so that is absolutely not comparable. Even if it was, referencing late 19th century technology in this context is just nonsense.

          I am an avid reader of NC, but on the energy front, especially on nukes, I don’t understand why the level of discourse is so low and why you are pushing nuclear company propoganda such as the nonsense that “accurate information about the benefits and risks that go along with different power sources” could be devised. I mean, if the homo economicus hypothesis is so wrong for economic modelling, why should we rely on it to choose our energy future ?

          Reply
          1. tegnost

            I think it was a month or two ago when userfriendly to my mind introduced the topic in the sense that we’re not looking at nukes objectively, and made a decent argument re our energy needs to come from somewhere, and nukes, while not great today, has potential to work, and he/she offered some possibilities in spite of the current risk, such as smaller stations on the grid (a grid with more nodes) as I recall, but I am not a scientist, so I can’t construct a real picture. Unlike most of us here who are geezers, userfriendly is one of those poor souls known as millenials who are maybe feeling like the drawbridge is being pulled up before them, and in crisis look for opportunity and that is a good thing. I think we can accommodate a bit of what iffing because no one knows the future, and remarkable things have happened in the past. Dare to dream? That said nukes as currently used will hasten our demise.

            Reply
            1. Yassine

              Smaller nuclear power plants are even a worse idea if you consider the regulatory oversight to operate nuclear power plants. Of course, the need for regulatory oversight is not proportional to the size of the power plants, but to the number of nuclear sites.

              If we make a thought experiment with “community-scale” nuclear power plants (let’s say 100 kW) instead of 1 GW reactors, this means that we need to multiply by 10000 the number of nuclear inspectors to keep the same level of theoretical safety. In France, the ASN (Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire) has more than 500 employees, which means 5 millions employees in the case of “community-scale” power plants.

              And I am even not talking the complete logistical nightmare that would be created by the need to safely deliver fuel and retrieve nuclear waste from distributed plants.

              Add to this the fact that there are enormous economies of scale in reactor manufacturing and deployment that cannot be replicated at a small scale to put the last nail in the coffin of this idea.

              I am a millenial myself (born 1987) and if the drawbridge ends up being pulled, then so be it. The last thing I want is extending and pretending that we can solve our current predicaments (of which climate change is only one) by “Industrial Revolution”-type solutions that will only make the fall of the drawbridge for the next generations.

              Reply
                1. Yassine

                  It’s absolutely not “the first of many”, it is a purpose-built ship with a 70 MW nuclear reactor on it to power extremely remote areas in northern Russia.

                  Its cost (331 M$), time of construction (12 years) and the very place which it has been designed to power (look up Pevek, Russia) should convince anybody reasonable that this is in no way a scalable solution.

                  But if you are into that sort of thing, I invite you to look up Bill Gate’s ideas for nuclear power plants, you will have a lot of fun !

                  Reply
        2. Stephen Gardner

          Just a couple of observations:
          1. To be fair electric distribution is the same for all generation methods. The neglect shown by PG&E to its distribution lines would only be more dangerous in the context of running Nuclear plants and the Camp fire would still have happened.

          2. To compare the economic and human toll of the Camp fire to Chernobyl is almost humorous. And it won’t be dangerous in that area of California in 35 years. The Chernobyl area will have danger zones for far longer than my grandchildren will be around. The disproportionality of the comparison is really stark.

          2. Fukushima is still leaking into the sea. The plume is detectable on the west coast of the US. It isn’t done screaming caution yet.

          3. The half life of the radionuclides present in the core after it has been run a while make disposal of waste a real problem. And it means disasters linger for many human life times.

          I’m concerned that the quotidian dangers of a nuclear power system in a neoliberal “paradise” like the US are underappreciated. We suck at externalities and regulations. No nukes for us until we grow out of this infatuation with markets.

          Reply
        3. Floyd

          What about complete inability to construct reactors and flush $9B down the drain:

          https://theintercept.com/2019/02/06/south-caroline-green-new-deal-south-carolina-nuclear-energy/

          Oh then there is Rick Perry overseeing the nuclear industry. The guy who forgot what department he wanted to eliminate, didn’t even know what it does and now runs the department. Talk about neoliberal hell: the government teaming up with large corporations to supply energy. No thanks.

          Reply
          1. Duke De Guise

            How about the lack of safe disposal methods for waste that stays dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years?

            To say that, because Chernobyl is now a tourist destination (who stays overnight, and where?), nuky is therefore safe is also a big stretch.

            This article and its argument is preposterous.

            Reply
            1. orlbucfan

              The main core of Chernobyl has been permanently sealed. No humans are allowed to resettle there. The problem with nuclear energy is simple: waste removal. Radioactive waste is deadly poisonous. It lasts for centuries. There is no answer to safely rid of the waste. If so, I have not seen it.

              Reply
              1. Michael Fiorillo

                While it’s possible to (carefully) visit Chernobyl, the radioactivity in the soil and surrounding biota is still dangerously high.

                To equate brief visits to the area by small numbers of tourists to a return of large-scale (safe) human re-settlement is wishful thinking.

                Likewise, it’s a false analogy to compare the temporary destruction caused by the Paradise or Chicago fires with the decades-long (and more) need to prevent resettlement around Chernobyl and Fukushima, and wherever it happens next (because it will).

                Reply
        4. Harvey RV

          Sorry Yves but your reaction to fair comments seems geared towards cutting these people down to size. Yet these people have evidence eg Fukushima, that the risks associated with nuclear power are real, and not small.
          The real issue is what the risks/externalities are to each power source as a function of time. A fire is terrible. It can kill people, animals and plants. However, the time the area is uninhabitable is maybe measured in months to a couple of years. Ditto cyclones.

          The thing that is left out of all these risk analyses are 1. What are the biases of the researchers? 2. What are the economic benefits to the organisations/funders conducting the studies. 3. The phrase “To the best of our current knowledge….”

          The bias for human beings is to think that what they know is the sum total of all knowledge. Studies show that the less people know, the more sure they are of their opinions.

          Reply
      1. Charles 2

        Yes : big hydroelectricity and not only when there is an accident, but as a normal course of business !

        Reply
      2. GM

        The abandonment isn’t really necessary. Wildlife is thriving in those areas.

        You think animals are more resistant to radiation than humans? Yeah, tardigrades certainly are, but we’re talking deer and rabbits here, not tardigrades.

        The reason for the abandonment is nuclear paranoia.

        Which is ironically further fed by it, as you just demonstrated yourself.

        Reply
        1. fajensen

          You think animals are more resistant to radiation than humans?

          Poor argumentation – Animals in the wild have much shorter lifespans than humans so if it takes 5-10 years for a deer to get cancer from eating food laced with Alpha emitters, then most deer will never be affected because they are already eaten by wolves before cancer happens. Rabbits lead even shorter lives. In addition, if animals have funny babies they will just abandon them to die and have another go at it.

          So the reason for abandonment is that people don’t want to live the way that animals do.

          Reply
    3. David Mills

      Thank you for proving the thesis of the study – irrational bias against nuclear power – because I always feel like a leper when this comes up in conversations. Please ref my later comment for links.

      Reply
      1. Old Jake

        We get a lot of “information ” about the impacts of nuclear power – e.g. accidents like TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima. We don’t get, or should I say we dismiss because it’s an accepted part of our reality, summarized information about the total impact of wind, solar and hydroelectric energy generation. It’s little wonder that nuclear is a third rail.

        I like the idea of solar and wind, but have not collected information on the manufacturing impacts other than knowing silicon photocell manufacturing like all semiconductor manufacturing uses a lot of nasty organic chemicals for things like cleaning of wafers.

        Reply
        1. Anders K

          AFAIK, you can make solar cells efficient or you can make them using less bad manufacturing methods (last I heard, the best solar cells used rare earth materials, usually sourced from China and not using, shall we say, eco-friendly methods of production). Solar power cells should definitely be a part of our energy solution going forward, but is much more useful when people are spread out in smaller domiciles rather than living in urban areas with many apartments per house. Thus a “back to nature” push can make solar a much larger part of the solution than a “let’s put everyone in cities” approach. Nations with good energy infrastructure and large areas of unused space with good solar prospects can probably get a big chunk of energy from this; but dreams such as “cover the Sahara in solar panels to power Europe” are unlikely to be realized due to the practical and political issues involved. I am also unsure how much energy a solar panel produces in excess of what is needed to produce itself (and I suspect that once externalities are factored in, the “less effective but cheaper” models will be better from that perspective).

          Wind power requires maintenance (seems to be a surprise to some parts of the public and a lot of politicians) and thus putting them way out in the sea where they’re NIMBY increases their cost. Should probably be done where it is a good idea (but who determines that). Not sure about manufacturing requirements, but can probably trade-off between efficiency and use of too-much-environmental destruction (your mileage certainly may vary, though).

          Hydro power costs a lot of time and money to set up using the “big dam” approach. For most nations who have hydro power, the best/easiest places are already used up, so to speak, and so it is unlikely to be a big part of new power-generation. Since it also seems that neoliberalism no longer allows for successful projects even when the public pays the largest share and the private investor gets the most bennies, I don’t see much hydro power as being a huge part of the decarbonization of existing developed economies (it will still be there, just not growing).

          Nuclear power allows for maintained growth of energy consumption, and the new generation of reactors (thorium et al) have not been shown to be effective enough to invest in. Why the investment is not there can partially be explained with the public disapproval of nuclear power, but could certainly be because of the risks of being involved with nuclear power (both monetary and reputation-wise). From what my friends with former course mates in Swedish nuclear research and production tells me, it is highly unlikely to be a conspiracy.
          OTOH, companies and governments involved with nuclear power has been misbehaving for a long time which is another reason why they are not trusted in this area. Quite a bit of the public disapproval is rational.

          Fossile fuel (I always feel tempted to put fission power here too, since it technically belongs) generally destabilize the climate and release contaminants (less so in the case of LNG). They also cause big problems (but far less hysteria than, say, nuclear) when there’s an accident. While we technically can burn, say, coal for quite some time and thus – technically – we could fuel more energy consumption with it, this has now become seen as a problem and is unlikely to work. Still likely going to be consumed due to the ease of use, even if the rich nations stop doing it, but hopefully we can reduce the global total.

          This became a bit long, but my point is that I do not see a way to keep increasing energy consumption without going either nuclear or using a much larger area of our planet for energy generation. Whether either is a good idea I leave as an exercise for the reader, but I will say that anyone who champion energy consumption reduction should prepare themselves to point at what people should start learn to live without, and not just tell them to shower in less warm water or turn off their bulbs (not that either is bad, but it is not close to sufficient). Less and more efficient transportation (trains/busses/boats), not living in places that require a AC (going to be an increasing number of places) and reducing waste are, but they do require actual sacrifices.

          Reply
          1. Peter Zylstra-Moore

            “Just getting to 80 percent of demand reliably with only wind and solar would require either a US-wide high-speed transmission system or 12 hours of electricity storage. A storage system of that size across the US would cost more than $2.5 trillion for a battery system.

            To meet all the nation’s annual electricity needs with 99.97 percent reliability, utilities would have to build 12 hours of storage plus at least twice the amount of renewable-energy generation, the study found. Or businesses could deploy slightly more wind and solar coupled with more than a month’s worth of storage.”

            If you take 12 hrs of storage @ 2.5 trillion to get to a month = 150 trillion (7.5 × current us gdp). Maybe technically affordable in wealthy countries but probably not realistic politically there and it is going to cost a lot. You need something that can ramp up and down with renewables which you can do with fossil fuels, or some types of hydro electric. And so as the costs fell they make lots of sense in places that can combine lots of large hydro, or gas or coal. I think it should be ramped up in those places that use hydro or dependent on CCS but are have working examples of countries with reasonably affordable low carbon electricity and they tend to depend on hydro and nuclear. It can also be ramped up as we electrify transportation and heating.

            If we have a solution to one of our most pressing problems we better make sure we’re not overreacting to the risks in nuclear. See for instance
            Monbiot

            Reply
            1. Ernie Ciccotelli

              So I just read that the US will be paying $1.5 trillion for the F35 fighter program. Weapons are, in a general way, disposable items, regardless of expense. If the US can spend that kind of money for disposable items, it can certainly spend $2.5 trillion for a 12 hour electrical storage system described above. Maybe it could even substitute the electrical storage system, which benefits everyone (theoretically) for the weapons system which benefits no one except shareholders of the weapons manufacturers.

              Reply
          2. Sanxi

            ‘Hydro power costs a lot of time and money to set up using the “big dam” approach.” No it doesn’t. MIT, and documented here in the last week in links, proved by way of science that you could supply all the electricity produced today using small hydroelectric & wind/solar combo setup. All. Of. It. But then I believe in science, not ungrounded alt.realties of our current reality.

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            1. Old Jake

              Here in the Northwest we are seeking to remove a number of hydropower dams that were built in the 20th century. The power is largely unused (!) and the environmental impact is becoming very apparent. Extinction of the orca due to loss of their food source is the salient issue, but that is but the obvious and best known impact, representative of much more, I am sure.

              The buried point in Anders’ discussion is vitally important. Sacrifices will happen, one way or the other. Climate change is going to affect the poor and less developed populations in very painful – often fatal – ways. To stay the current course, and we are committed to this course for a while just because much of the CO2 load already in the environment, is going to result in a very different world.

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            2. Peter

              Having lived in Northern BC, Hydro dams destroy land, they destroy wildlife habitat, the lead to river silting, downstream they often destroy fishhabitat. They are nogt such an environmentally friendly solution as the industry makes it out to be.

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            3. Anders K

              Sorry for not responding earlier, was away.

              As for the combined hydro/wind/solar I could not find any in the links (went back to 4/4). If you are talking about the FPV (floating photovoltaic cells floating in a hydroelectric dam) then that is a good use of the so-called “dead” water in the dams but I do wonder what water will be considered dead, and the consequences of denying the water organisms access to the sun will do in the long-term (especially when they start using the vast majority of the surface for it).

              However, that is basically making use of the solar energy that hits the dam, and that is not sufficient in and of itself. A very good case where you get synergy between two kinds of renewable energy, though!

              If you are talking about plonking down hydro/solar/wind power plants anywhere else, you either end up with NIMBY or with maintaining them out of sight. This increases cost and usually decreases how long the plant keeps producing. If it is MIT doing it now, it is also probably in its infancy – which while good because it means that there might be possible to increase efficiency also means that it is a long way from being available – if it is actually economic (and I use the word in the original meaning, that is, considering externalities).

              Basically, can this replace current base-load generating plants (to a large extent, if not all)? Does it scale? How hard will it be to get people to accept this way of producing energy? Does it affect other parts of society (will our seas/coasts be covered in these)?

              Most of our current ways of producing energy “could produce all the electricity” that we use today (but making hydro-dams of our coasts would be costly; we aren’t all Netherlands!). The question is always:
              What. Is. The. Cost.

              Not in money, by the way, but in resources, in people, in impact on ecology etc. Once more: I am not averse to new technologies causing change (just the use of the word disrupt); I am averse to the claim that the new and shiny thing will Revolutionize Everything while requiring No Sacrifice. Solar power has exceeded my curmudgeonly estimations, by the by, and I have had to eat crow in regards to it (thank Eris I only bet one beer!). But getting solar power is not just a technical problem, it is a power distribution and thus political problem.

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      2. Johnny

        I’m mourning the demise of Transatomic, a local favorite doing a lot of advanced research on molten salt reactors. They were expecting to be able to use existing nuclear waste products, but analysis wasn’t supporting that expectation, so that was the first nail in their coffin. Public sentiment is luke warm at best. Investor sentiment more excited about shoveling money into Uber than the really meaningful and difficult ventures.
        On the positive, they open sourced their work and maybe China can run with it and sell it back to us. Bill Gates is relocating his nuclear venture, Terrapower, to China also.

        Reply
        1. workingclasshero

          Why would’nt nuclear be done on a completely public utility basis,with financing via mmt principals?who cares about “investors”?

          Reply
    4. Mael Colim

      Amen Ivey – nuclear scares the bejesus out of me and lets not forget Chernobyl!

      This paper is from the pro nuclear camp no ifs or buts.

      Reply
    5. b koch

      I also share this opinion. Fukushima is radiating the entire Pacific Ocean with no end in sight. I keep seeing reports from “scientists” that sea levels will rise, that extreme weather will persist and grow, sounds like a good thing to put more radiation potential along the shores and rivers, eh? 2020 Olympics in Japan!!! Go get your exposure. Besides, it’s not like we, the people have any say in the matter, just along for the ride.

      Reply
      1. Grumpy Engineer

        Yes. It’s true. Radiation from Fukushima has spread throughout the Pacific Ocean and can be detected on all Pacific-facing shorelines. In such infinitesimal amounts that radiation detectors capable of measuring individual atom breakdowns are required.

        I remember reading an article where people were hyperventilating over 35 becquerels per cubic meter. That’s 35 individual atom breakdowns per second per cubic meter.

        To better calibrate you on the actual risk, the typical 12-ounce can of Brazil nuts in the grocery store clocks in at 70 atom breakdowns per second. [They contain radium, which is just as hazardous as radioactive Cesium from Fukushima.] A ton of Brazil nuts would measure 187000 Bequerels. That’s more than 2500 times as radioactive as the Fukushima-laced waters of the Pacific ocean. And we EAT Brazil nuts.

        Could we please be a little more calibrated on the levels of hazard that are actually present? It takes billions of Bequerels to approach genuine hazard.

        Reply
        1. kimyo

          billions of Bequerels to approach genuine hazard

          this word ‘genuine’, i don’t think it means what you think it means.

          Indian Point cancer link seen

          The article, “Geographic Variation in U.S. Thyroid Cancer Incidence and a Cluster Near Nuclear Reactors in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania,” faults the emissions of radioactive iodine as the likely reason for what he says appear to be cancer clusters.

          Zeroing in the Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River, just north of New York City, the study repeats charges Mr. Mangano made earlier this year in a television broadcast on Fox News. There, he said that from 2001 to 2004, 992 residents of Rockland, Orange, Putnam and Westchester counties were known to have thyroid cancer. That four-county overall rate of 14.3 cases per 100,000 resident is 67% higher than to a national rate of 8.6 cases per 100,000 residents, he said. It is also higher than the New York State rate of 9.3 cases per 100,000 residents.

          Fukushima’s children at centre of debate over rates of thyroid cancer

          Last month, the number of confirmed and suspected cases of thyroid cancer among people aged 18 or below at the time of the accident rose to 75, compared with 59 at the end of last September. Of the current total, 33 cases have been confirmed as cancer.

          Reply
          1. Grumpy Engineer

            The word “genuine” means exactly what I meant. It takes several billion Becquerels of radioactive decay inside the human body to cause detectable harm. That’s well-known, well-established science concerning radiation poisoning and radiation-induced cancers. If the increased rates of thyroid cancer detected near the Indian Point power station were due to releases of radioactive iodine, this indicates a large and/or long-lasting release, such that many trillions of radioactive atoms ended up in each person nearby. Doses far larger than anybody can get from Fukushima-irradiated waters in the Pacific.

            The two articles you linked provided no numbers regarding radiation doses, so it’s impossible to judge whether the cancers are due to radiation, nearby chemical releases that caused similar cancers, or simply bad luck. To blame cancers on radiation without providing any data on the amount of radiation makes for a weak argument.

            Reply
            1. Ernie Ciccotelli

              It is very convenient for nuclear supporters that it is so easy to point to other possible reasons for cancers, which allows them to impugn those who oppose nuclear technology as Luddites and ignoramuses. What happened to the precautionary principle, which, simply speaking, means that if you can’t clearly predict the risks and detriments of an action then you avoid the action. Nuclear tech does not permit the clear prediction of risk and detriments in an environment with so much noise in the statistics on cancer and other diseases.

              Reply
              1. Charles

                Precautionary principle is not simple, because one also has to consider the risks of no action.
                Not developing nuclear means an heightened risks releasing GGH in the atmosphere and/or energy penury. Both have bad consequences. It is like vaccines : maybe, just maybe, vaccines are less innocuous as they seem, but the absence of vaccination is clearly worse.

                Reply
        2. Skip Intro

          The key is that cesium and strontium enter and persist in an organism, replacing potassium and calcium, so a low concentration outside the body, which is what we can measure substantially understates the risk to an organism which has these chains of radioactive decays happening in their bodies. This is why the typical banana/Brazil nut canards are basically disinformation.

          Reply
          1. Grumpy Engineer

            Anything that describes double-digit Becquerels per cubic meter as “hazardous” is disinformation. It takes billions of Becquerels inside (or immediately adjacent to) the human body to be hazardous. To receive a hazardous dose from the Pacific Ocean requires that you drink several million cubic meters of seawater, which is a physical impossibility.

            And no, the Brazil nut comparison isn’t wrong. Radium is the source of radioactivity in Brazil nuts, and it has a half-life inside the human body of 28 years. It doesn’t persist quite as long as cesium or strontium do, but the radium from Brazil nuts will stay with you for a significant fraction of your lifespan. [This is why the EPA limit for radium in drinking water is only one-third what it is for other radionucleotides.] And yet Brazil nuts aren’t killing us. Why not? Because the radiation doses are so damned small. Just like they are with the doses that traveled across the Pacific from Fukushima.

            The size of the dose matters. The EPA has long permitted water systems to release small amounts of nucleotides with their water per https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/radionuclides-rule and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234160/. The limits listed here are 20X what we’re seeing from Fukishima.

            Reply
            1. Skip Intro

              But radium has a half-life of some 1600 years, so it is much less active than cesium. Thus while it does not remain in your body as long, it is less than 1/50 as dangerous per day than cesium. The small doses that travel in water from Fukushima are a red herring, since I am talking about radioisotopes which will bioaccumulate in the food chain, making the fish we eat much more radioactive (and mercury laden) than the waters they and their prey and their prey’s prey live in. You are still talking about external exposure.

              Reply
              1. Grumpy Engineer

                The ratio of half-lives between radium and cesium means that to get to an equivalent number of Becquerels (or picocuries), you need 50X as much radium as you do cesium. But picocuries are the unit of measure that the EPA uses, so they’re already normalizing for the half-life and relative intensity effects. And the Bequerel numbers I’ve quoted for the Pacific are normalized as well.

                And the reason I’ve been talking about the small doses that travel in water from Fukushima is because “b koch” said, “Fukushima is radiating the entire Pacific Ocean with no end in sight.” And yes, that true. But infinitesimally so, which has been the point of my arguments.

                As for bioconcentration, that’s a red herring too. Cesium bioaccumulates by about a factor of 100 in fish (per http://skb.se/upload/publications/pdf/R-02-36.pdf) before it reaches the top of the saltwater food chain. For the concentration of radioactive cesium in the Pacific to become hazardous to people eating fish, it needs to be concentrated by a factor of TEN MILLION or so. 100X infinitesimal is still infinitesimal.

                Reply
    6. Nat

      That is because the design we currently use has a default “ON” instead of a default “OFF.” It is based on a design for a nuclear-sub reactor, which was never meant to be scaled up to the size of commercial reactors – its design can’t contain a meltdown on those scales unlike it can on a sub-scale one. The meltdowns can only really occur because of the default “ON” state with power required to turn them “OFF” – hence Fukashima, an Earthquake/Tsunami knocked off the power and so the reactor defaulted to “ON” until disaster occurred.

      There are plenty of different nuclear reactor designs that both have a default state of “OFF” and additionally have appropriate fail-safes for a meltdown on plants at the commercial scale. Why don’t we build those? Well all the profitable patents are held by the builders of the unsafe kind, so they only build those because that is the most profitable thing to build.

      In short, nuclear power isn’t inherently dangerous – its just the design we currently use (world wide) for commercial scale plants that is. I am opposed to building any more of those, but building appropriate nuclear power plants with designs safe and appropriate for such scales I am totally in favor of … not sure how the right profit model or incentives will get into place for that though.

      Reply
        1. Nat

          I am saying that. I don’t have a link so you are welcome to disbelieve me, but I assure you there are numerous designs were both 1: the default state is “OFF” unlike all the designs in use, and 2: even with a melt-down the would-be “corium” gets self-contained unlike all the designs currently in use.

          Reply
  4. Jos Oskam

    I am not afraid of nuclear energy, nuclear accidents or even nuclear power plants going up in mushroom clouds. After all, life is not without risks, and other energy sources have their dangers too.

    However, I am *very* afraid of nuclear waste, remaining active for thousands of years, tucked away in “safe” storage so it is “never” going to be a problem.

    This is not an irrational fear than can be massaged away by scientists with the aid of games or blind tests. Piling up nuclear waste is a *real* consequence of nuclear, keeping it safely out of the way for thousands of years is a *real* problem, and saddling future generations with a nuclear waste leak disaster is a *real* risk.

    Nothing imagined or biased about it.

    Reply
    1. Class Power

      Nuclear plants or waste storage are never built in the Hamptons, where the money goes, so normal people understand their skin in the game (in the Taleb sense, not Obama sense) and are of course concerned.

      How about legislation in the line of: yes you can produce chemicals, nuclear waste, processed food etc but the top management and their families must live where the waste and harmful effects come down and eat their own crap food?

      Reply
      1. Jos Oskam

        If the elites really follow this line of reasoning they’re even more shortsighted than I thought.

        Nuclear waste leaking into the groundwater may eventually end up everywhere, including the private beaches of the high and mighty. They should be just as concerned about this as the average Joe.

        Last time I looked, money did not protect against radiation sickness.

        Reply
        1. Grumpy Engineer

          If you sinter/vitrify the high-level waste into ceramic pellets and bury them far below the water table, the radiation won’t leak anywhere. The vast, vast majority of wells we use for water are less than 2000 feet deep. The guys in the oil industry routinely drill beyond 10000 feet. Putting the waste into impermeable rock far underground is well within our technical capabilities.

          Why haven’t we done that yet? There are two reasons. The first is political. People will freak out about the “radioactive well” that’s within 500 miles of their land, and some people will freak out about the few beta particles and gamma rays that will pass through pipes (and into ground water) as the material are lowered down. [Actual risk to groundwater: Zero.]

          And the second is economic. Jimmy Carter banned fuel reprocessing in the US, but many industry experts argue that we should reprocess the spent fuel rods to provide fuel for future reactor use. This would reduce the amount of uranium we need to mine and would reduce the amount of waste that ultimately needs to be handled. Other countries do it today.

          But even with things as they stand today, those thousand of intensely radioactive fuels rods have killed nobody. Even in their varying states of security and containment integrity all across the country, there have been zero deaths recorded due to exposure to used fuel rods over the entire history of the nuclear power industry. Your concerns appear to be theoretical.

          Reply
          1. Susan the other`

            In the heavily censored bits and pieces I heard about the Fukushima Daiichi complex, one caught my attention and I cannot cite it. Someone mentioned that FD was involved in the reprocessing of spent fuel and its reuse. And that that led to the extreme conditions they now face in light of 3 simultaneous meltdowns. For the sake of the most efficient use of nuclear fuel, the Pacific Ocean is dying. The secrecy and hypocrisy that surrounds and protects the nuclear industry is the biggest obstacle to people ever coming to terms with its dangers. I for one will never ever trust anyone who promotes it, although I believe we should continue to research failsafe nuclear. One day we might get there.

            Reply
          2. Jos Oskam

            Of course my concerns are theoretical because, as you said, these spent rods have killed nobody. Yet.
            And yes, if you store the stuff the way you describe, the risk is probably acceptable. But.

            The thanksgiving turkey also had a perfect life…until…

            Serious storage costs money., How long will it take before somebody will decide to save some money and simply dump the stuff in the ocean by night? Or cut some corners that won’t hurt in the short term but come back to haunt people a few hundred years from now? It’s not as if things like that haven’t happened before.

            In nuclear waste, the possible downside of things and humans not being perfect is just too big.

            Reply
      2. Kurtismayfield

        And when they tried to build a nuclear plant out on the East end of LI, it was closed because state and local officials would never approve an evacuation plan.

        Shoreham wiki

        LILCO’s problems were compounded by NRC rules in the wake of Three Mile Island, requiring that operators of nuclear plants work out evacuation plans in cooperation with state and local governments. This prompted local politicians to join the growing opposition to the plant. Since any land evacuation off the island would involve traveling at least 60 miles (97 km) back through New York City to reach its bridges, local officials feared that the island could not be safely evacuated

        Reply
    2. Charles 2

      The only problematic waste is High Activity Long Life, which is a few elements amongst fission products and anything above plutonium in the element table. The mass and volumes are small, and one can spare a few percent of the energy produced in their generation to send them, encased solidly, in space toward the Sun.
      It is not with today’s technology of course, but neither 22nd century’s as well, common reusable rocket of the end of the current century will do the job.

      Reply
      1. Grumpy Engineer

        Nah. Rockets sometimes crash or explode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JznGulxaEk.

        A better option is DEEP underground burial. Like several miles deep. Far beneath our water tables, but still within the drilling capabilities of the oil drilling industry. The stuff wouldn’t come up for hundreds of thousands of years, if ever.

        Reply
        1. Old Jake

          Pick the right place – perhaps a subduction zone where an oceanic plate goes under a continental plate – and it’s gone for at least a few million years.

          Reply
        2. charles 2

          Rockets are like a big chunk of fuel/explosive with a very thin casing. The shockwave of the explosion is not very destructive, especially at the top of the structure (something that is sometime obvious in your video). For instance, according to official reports, Challenger astronauts didn’t die from the shock of the rocket explosion, but from the subsequent depressurisation of the cabin.
          On the other hand, standard CASTOR nuclear containers are incredibly sturdy. Please look at that video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiHdJ8AILoQ. Consider that in the video, the explosive fuel is encased in a very thick steel container that is blown to pieces 1 meter from the container, not a few millimetres aluminium or composite rocket tank and skin . Still the container is completely intact.
          All has one to do is to make sure that the ballistic of the flight is such that failure at any point before orbit injection results in the container falling into the sea. A space qualified castor would probably need some ablative heat shield to protect it in case of fall from a really high altitude, but that is about it. Send a recovery ship to pick up the Castor laying underwater, rinse it, try again…

          Reply
  5. kimyo

    google vogtle construction and switch to ‘images’. what you will see is a sea of rebar. the lifetime of reinforced concrete has come under question (ex: the genoa bridge collapse). if the lifetime is truly 150 years, then we’re fine.

    if it’s actually 50 years, then we have a problem.

    if there is no alternative to nuclear, can’t we at least build the plants to last? why wouldn’t we want to do that?

    ps: is the nrc more or less trustworthy than the faa?

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That is a very fair criticism, that nuclear power requires very high regulatory standards and oversight to be deemed acceptable and it’s a poor fit with our current neutered regulators.

      Reply
    2. David Mills

      Plant life is an issue when confined to the realm of the current generation of “High Pressure Water Reactors” like the GE1000’s that failed at Fukushima. HPWRs have a big (mostly empty) concrete dome because the steam driving the reactors is at approximately 100 atmospheres of pressure. 1 cubic foot of steam expands to 1000 cubic feet when containment is breached. Not so for “Molten Salt Reactors”, which operate at 1 atmosphere.

      Please ref my later comment for links.

      Reply
      1. kimyo

        from the molten salt reactor wiki under ‘disadvantages’

        Required onsite chemical plant to manage core mixture and remove fission products.

        if gail is correct and fossil fuels will be ‘leaving us’ soon, where are you going to get the chemicals and supplies to run the ‘onsite chemical plant’?

        Reply
      2. Yassine

        Please allow me to correct your first sentence : “Plant life is an issue when confined to the realm of the reality we live in”. Your dreams of molten salt reactor are just that. In the real world where other people live, nuclear power generation has never been about the best way to generate power, it has always been about showing the people that we can tame the power of the nuclear bomb to use it for something more beneficial than anihilating the human race.

        Reply
  6. David Mills

    Before I start, hats off to Foppe who brought up Thorium Molten Salt Reactors.

    Michael Shellenberger gave a couple good TED talks on nuclear power:

    1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciStnd9Y2ak
    2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-yALPEpV4w

    The long and the short of the talks is that nuclear power is not as dangerous as it is typically perceived and that renewables will not do it. The extrapolation of the danger of nuclear power is based on currently deployed “High Pressure Water Reactor” (HPWR) systems, not “Molten Salt Reactor” (MSR) systems which are safer.

    Foppe raises the extremely valid point that the incumbents in the nuclear industry have a HUGE interest in suppressing different reactor types. MSRs offer a tremendous advantage over HPWRs:

    1) High Percentage of usable fuel (Thorium 100%, 0.7% Uranium 235)
    2) High temperature (waste heat for desalination or GTL applications) & Low pressure
    3) Walk away safe (salt solidifies if temperature drops)
    4) MSR can be used to burn other spent nuclear fuel
    5) Dramatically lower proliferation risk due to the mix reaction products

    Kirk Sorenson is one of the better speakers on the topic of MSRs (he has too many videos):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azJGB4LHZMs

    The original design goals of the HPWR were:
    1) Had to fit in a submarine
    2) Had to produce Plutonium for the weapons program

    #2 is the reason the MSR is antithetical…

    I hope this helps the conversation, cheers.

    Bonus Link:

    The First MSR was at the Oakridge National Laboratory, so the technology is from the 60s…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyDbq5HRs0o

    Reply
    1. mikkel

      The problem, which you allude to, is that the safety and sanity of “nuclear power” is based on engineering, political and business decisions, all of which have conspired to make it enormously ineffective.

      Adam Curtis released a documentary back in 1992 where an episode interviewed Alvin Weinberg (the inventor of the BWR) where he explicitly was says it was meant *only* for submarine scale and there can be no safety guarantee at industrial scale.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EviEN0ScOwg

      They also talk about the GE reactors and how even though they put in all the safety systems and there was no evidence that they would fail, there also was no evidence they would work. When Fukushima was in early days I looked up the reactor type, saw it was the same as the one in the doco and from there it was easy to predict the chain reaction of failures.

      But like so many things in the world, decades of supposed experts saying that the masses are hysterically paranoid, only for the worst case to happen, has totally destroyed trust. Now when other experts come in with different plans, the public doesn’t know what to believe.

      Reply
    2. PlutoniumKun

      Foppe raises the extremely valid point that the incumbents in the nuclear industry have a HUGE interest in suppressing different reactor types.

      This is simply untrue. The incumbents (those who are left, considering the number who have collapsed in the last few years) in the nuclear industry have every incentive to gain competitive advantage by adopting new technologies. They don’t do it because every alternative – fast breeders, pebble bed reactors, heavy water reactors, molten salt, etc., etc., have all failed to scale up. MSR’s are wonderful – on paper. Its such a shame nobody has ever built one that can operate commercially despite countless billions having been spent over many decades.

      Every major nuclear power, the UK, USSR/Russia/China/Japan/UK/France/South Africa/India has looked into light water reactor alternatives, with pebble beds and MSR’s top of the list because of their potential military utility (far better than water cooled reactors for powering combat ships as they are more compact and have lower IR signals). None have made them work even for their militaries, let alone for civilian use. And if you can’t make an MSR that works for a nuclear carrier better than a water cooled reactor, you certainly won’t be able to make one for civilian use.

      Reply
      1. Peter

        They don’t do it because every alternative – fast breeders, pebble bed reactors, heavy water reactors, molten salt, etc., etc., have all failed to scale up.
        And if you can’t make an MSR that works for a nuclear carrier better than a water cooled reactor, you certainly won’t be able to make one for civilian use.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BN-800_reactor

        <blockquote
        The BN-800 reactor is a sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor, built at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Station, in Zarechny, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia. The reactor is designed to generate 880 MW of electrical power.
        The plant is a pool-type reactor, in which the reactor, coolant pumps, intermediate heat exchangers and associated piping are all located in a common liquid sodium pool. The design of this plant was started in 1983 and was completely revised in 1987 after the Chernobyl Disaster and to a somewhat lower degree in 1993, according to the new safety guidelines. After the second revision, the electric output power was increased by 10% to 880 MW due to the increased efficiency of the planned power generator steam turbines.

        Reply
        1. PlutoniumKun

          The Beloyarsk Reactor is one of a dozen or more sodium cooled fast breeders that has been built since the 1970’s. Literally, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in them from Japan to Russia, France to the US. And they still can’t make them commercially viable. Not even close.

          Reply
          1. Peter

            And they still can’t make them commercially viable. Not even close.

            You are sure? Your not being close seems to be a bit further than the actual development.
            http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2018/ph241/surakitbovorn1/

            The reactor was connected to the electricity grid and achieved full power of 800MW at the end of 2016, claiming the title of the world most powerful FBR. The reactor has been in commercial operation since. [3]

            To date, the BN-600, a 1981-built fast reactor (Beloyarsk 3), has been found to be economically comparable to Russian VVER technology, (‘water-water energy reactor’) if it can be scaled up. Adamov said Russia is now looking to prove that the BN-1200 that is under development—and differs significantly from preceding BN models—can compete with “the best nuclear plants on thermal neutrons.” A comparison between the levelized cost of energy for fast reactors and combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plants under Russian conditions have yielded key insights, he noted. One is that nuclear power plants with thermal reactors with an open fuel cycle “cannot guarantee the further efficient competitive development.” If established performance requirements for BN-1200 facilities are achieved, however, fast reactors could easily compete than CCGTs, and even renewable sources, he said.

            Reply
      2. Charles 2

        I disagree with your statement. The vast majority of R&D funds everywhere in the world has been concentrated in PWR (and their close BWR Cousin) and sodium cooled reactors.
        For instance, France always had only a handful of people working on MSR.
        Public Research funds since the eighties are much scarcer than you think, and it tends to favour established technology. Another impact of reduced budgets is that very few young researchers are recruited, not enough to push conservative older guys (mostly guys unfortunately).
        Finally, the best and brightest students don’t go to nuclear any more because it is not cool and there is huge political career risk. They prefer to work for Google or Goldman Sachs…

        Reply
        1. PlutoniumKun

          This does not explain why no military has shown an interest in these reactors. In the 1960’s there was certainly an institutionally driven bias towards LWR’s and Breeder reactors for military reasons. But there was plenty of investment in the early days in multiple alternatives. But they’ve all failed.

          Maybe there is some mysterious cabal in all the major countries obsessed with water coolant Uranium reactors and determined to destroy all alternatives, even if this means denying their military a game changing technology. Or just maybe the people involved in actually developing these things can’t get them to work commercially.

          Reply
          1. charles 2

            MSR was originally a military design to make a nuclear power airplane. The Kennedy administration shut off that usage when it realised the environmental threat it represented (one doesn’t want to crash, maybe in friendly territory, with fission products). The same problem exists for any land based nuclear energy production : it is just providing a dirty bomb in the middle of your base for the enemy to detonate. So all ready in the sixties, it became clear for the military that the only uses for nuclear are bombs and power for ships (and may be space propulsion).

            Additionally, the cabal is not mysterious at all. Alvin Weinberg has been fired from Oak Ridge labs because he was pushing for MSR at the expense of Sodium cooled technology and B/PWR, stomping on the toes of GE and Westinghouse. France and the UK were licking the wounds of their failed adventure in civilian gas cooled reactors and didn’t want to be innovators (France successful nuclear program was bought on license from Westinghouse). Russia was more in Lead and Lead-Bismuth cooled reactors and it is too early to say that it will be a failure or a success. Japan and South Korea were following the US for political reasons. That is it : you got the “major countries” covered.
            The world of nuclear research is smaller than you think, commercial oriented nuclear research even more. Add to this that when you develop a new nuclear technology, you must develop not only your own expertise, but the expertise of the regulator. If the regulator doesn’t play ball, nobody can play. When regulators are headed by political hacks like Gregory Jazcko, nothing can take off the ground. From their point of view, it is not a bug of course but a feature…

            Reply
    3. Foppe

      Thanks. I only started getting into this topic last week (have been hearing about it for most of the past decade, but..), and the list of advantages are just insane, so there must be huge structural pressures arrayed against it.
      I’ve recently also been binging Chomsky lectures, and I recall him saying that by now declassified planning docs state that, post-ww2, the US was very intent on getting Europe (and the rest of the world) hooked on oil, for reasons of control. As such, I gotta wonder if the easy availability of Thorium on every continent (aside from the huge inefficiency of oil/coal/uranium, and the enormous transport fleet and revenues associated with both oil and coal production) is part of the reason why it was abandoned — because it would enable energy independence, make the ME less important, etc.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        There are no structural pressures against non Light Water Reactors. They just don’t work.

        Do a thought experiment. Imagine a small compact molten salt reactor (using any type of nuclear fuel) capable of producing reliable power in the 25-250 MW range, and could do it at the fuel cost of a diesel generator (imagine the capital costs were more or less irrelevant). Now who would want one of those, and be willing and able to spend tens of billions in developing one and would have unlimited access to engineering knowhow?

        Well, I can think of five institutions that fit that description. The US military. The USSR/Russian Military. Plus the UK, French and Chinese. Such a generator would provide enormous logistical benefits to their respective Navy forces.

        They’ve been looking at such compact power generators for at least 6 decades. The Russians even put one (a lead-bismuth reactor) on their Alfa Submarines in the 1960’s. And yet, none of them have developed one to replace their existing very expensive water cooled reactors for submarines. The latest nuke submarines and the Ford class aircraft carriers all use water cooled uranium fueled reactors – at enormous cost (a nuclear powered submarine costs something like five times as much as an equivalent sized diesel electric sub).

        Now could it be that they just didn’t think about the advantages of such reactors? Or could it be… possibly… that they’ve spent a fortune looking at them and concluded that they are not viable or workable?

        MSR could well be viable in years to come. Maybe. For now they are a unicorn.

        Reply
        1. Foppe

          I don’t follow. Afaik, the largest module size they are talking about today is 1GW. Where is the ‘scaling problem’ you think is the issue that led to the abandonment and defending of research in or around 1969,and why do you think that was the reason for its abandonment at the time (leaving aside the false dichotomy you create by demanding it must be ready ‘today’, or be a unicorn)?

          Reply
          1. PlutoniumKun

            The point is that the military would want a reactor like that, even if it proved far more expensive than fossil fuels. And we know all the major militaries have looked carefully at the issue, because since the 1960’s at least they’ve built research reactors. And in every case (so far as we know, there could still be secret programmes), they’ve opted for water cooled reactors, for everything from subs to aircraft carriers.

            There has to be a reason for this. Maybe there is some convoluted reason involving mysterious cabals and ulterior motives or a simultaneous act of stupidity in all the major nuclear powers. Or, using Occams Razor, you could conclude that they can’t be viably built using existing technology.

            Reply
            1. Foppe

              The navy might want it, sure. But the navy isn’t the only part of the DoD, nor the most important part. As for “they all chose” — given that the field had only been around for <20 years by the 1960s, and given that all of the scientists that would've been at the top of the field would've grown up with LWR (because of the MP, enrichment needs, etc.), I don't understand why you are so certain that "everything was tried". Overused the phrase may be, but paradigm dominance is an issue; as is tunnel vision. (And then there's the whole issue of all nuclear powers wanting to develop weapons, while energy was a secondary concern.)

              As for this second time you're bringing up "mysterious cabals": I would humbly submit that you have no clue what you're talking about, with respect to the US government. And if you think US corporate lobbies and incumbents don't apply political pressure and don't do strategic analysis to identify possible competition, I do wonder what you've been taking away from frequenting this blog for the past few years..
              Same goes for "existing technology": sure, given the lackluster investments so far, and the abandonment from ~1970 onward, the tech isn't quite there yet. But what's that prove? Assuming it can't be done just because it wasn't done, because you choose to believe that the navy's wishes trump everything, is naive at best.

              Reply
        2. Math is Your Friend

          “There are no structural pressures against non Light Water Reactors. They just don’t work.”

          ??!!

          The Americans selling light water reactors would have you think so.

          I’m sure this would be a surprise for anyone living in Ontario who is sufficiently technologically aware to know that they have produced the majority of their electrical power from heavy water reactors for the last 30 or 40 years:

          “Nuclear power in Canada is provided by 19 commercial reactors with a net capacity of 13.5 Gigawatts (GWe), producing a total of 95.6 Terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, which accounted for 16.6% of the country’s total electric energy generation in 2015. All but one of these reactors are located in Ontario where they produced 61% of the province’s electricity in 2016 (91.7 TWh).”

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_Canada

          The reason the US firms went with light water reactors is that they could get a lot of the technology from military reactors without cost or delays for research and engineering.

          Heavy water reactors have the advantage that they don’t need enriched fuel, and so do not require building uranium or plutonium separation technology that can be used to produce weapons.

          As an added bonus, LWRs provide a reason to keep enrichment plants up and running when you aren’t building more nuclear warheads, and keeps anyone you sell a reactor to dependent on a bomb making state for refueling.

          As a result, nuclear weapons states tend to promote LWRs.

          Maybe I’m just cynical….

          Reply
  7. Ignacio

    According to some recent articles, not only nuclear is superior but nuclear accidents are even desirable, like in the case of Chernobyl which is now such a peaceful, quiet, wonderful place…

    IMO nuclear energy must have a role in decarbonization but it must be secondary to renewables, energy efficiency and energy waste reduction.

    The issue of nuclear energy safety is illusory. Engineers, sciencists, humans in general are ill equiped to deal with the uncertain, the unpredictable. First and foremost, in any international green new deal, nukes should be dismantled and the uranium in those used as nuclear fuel. It is not enough to use the uranium that some bonehead thinkers consider military “surplus”. That would be a true win and help with decarbonization. I will never support nuclear developments that are not associated with denukeization of the world. Never. That is, for me, a priority well above decarbonization.

    Reply
    1. Anders K

      If you make nuclear energy dependent on nukes, and make us dependent on that nuclear energy, we will keep on making nukes. They’ll even tell you it is to power the nuclear reactors “so it is clearly for peaceful purposes.” From what I understand, generally speaking, if a nuclear reactor can be powered by nukes, it can be used to make nukes (breeder reactors); this would make it easy for people with ill intent to keep nukes available even after the original nukes are used up. Those reactors also tend to generate the worst nuclear waste (depending on your view).

      Nuclear reactors should be made to be safe and efficient, not to fulfil other political purposes. Let the existing nukes rot, dismantle them when they are done and sell them to the handful of places who can use them as fuel, sure, but don’t create perverse incentives for the nuclear industry again.

      Reply
      1. Svante Arrhenius

        Yep, my comments to the original Grist article (as Guido) were based on the assumption that this sudden flurry of “my vacation to Chernobyl” “Anti science hippy!” articles is far more likely aimed at taxpayer/ rate-payer bailout of the half-century old reactors than scaling-up military, medical or research reactors? If folks fell for this three generations ago, perhaps we can strawman and red herring our way out of bankruptcy? We could always FRACK with the steam?

        Reply
      2. Ignacio

        Nope. Use nuclear to deplete nukes, not dependent on, coupled to forbidding new nukes. Apparently I didn’t express the idea clearly.

        Reply
    2. Math is Your Friend

      “First and foremost, in any international green new deal, nukes should be dismantled and the uranium in those used as nuclear fuel. It is not enough to use the uranium that some bonehead thinkers consider military “surplus”. That would be a true win and help with decarbonization. I will never support nuclear developments that are not associated with denukeization of the world. Never. That is, for me, a priority well above decarbonization.”

      Unfortunately, this ‘solution’ may be the only sure way to cause a nuclear war.

      The idea that getting rid of all nuclear weapons will make the world safe from nuclear war is one of the more persistent and attractive delusions about the way the world works.

      A little bit of games theory… worked out in the 1950s, initially, puts that false hope to rest.

      Now that people know how to make nuclear weapons, and numerous states have the knowledge (probably 30 or so have the technology and physics, and a dozen probably have working tested designs ‘borrowed’ from someone else or reverse engineered from a lost warhead, there is no stable ‘non-nuclear’ future, unless competing states, corporations, religions, etc. are disbanded.

      Making the weapons is straight up physics and engineering. Knowing it can be done is more than half the battle. Having enough computing power to simulate detailed physics is more than half of the rest. Hints in the open literature is probably more than half of what the original nuclear and thermonuclear projects had to determine or solve. At this point we are well past 150% of what you need to know, as some processes or problems can be solved by more than one path.

      Making these things work doesn’t seem hard. The only failed first nuclear test we know of was the first North Korean bomb, put together by a small, isolated, impoverished country, which had a very dissapointing yeild. Everyone else made it work the first time… with a couple of orders of magnitude less computer power than is available today for virtual design and testing.

      Dual use technology – server farms, satellite launchers, small solid state accelerometers, GPS, etc make things that were superpower monopolies accessible to smaller nations and larger corporations.

      Anyone who can reliably put a one tonne satellite into an aribrarily chosen low orbit should be able to drop a warhead anywhere on the planet.

      So where does the games theory come in?

      Anyone with the time and patience to do it slowly and secretly, and who builds up a stash of a couple of hundred modest warheads with delivery systems can seize and hold the planet.

      Modern solid fuel ICBMs can be hidden anywhere you can stick a large transport truck, and launched in less than an hour. No army without nuclear weapons can defeat one backed by them… unless they can threaten to wipe out cities or countries with chemical or biological weapons, and even those do not have the most stabilizing feature of nuclear weapons. Only nuclear weapons say to a country’s leaders “There is nowhere you can hide that is safe”. Without them, bunkers and bases can keep the treasured few rulers safe. Is it a coincidence that mass central wars ended with the arrival of weapons that can reach the people who declare wars almost as easily as the pawns in the front lines?

      That’s why nuclear disamament is so dangerous… the temptation for the would be world ruler to grab the chance to not only have it all, but to destroy any force or facility that can challenge them.

      If you doubt this, I suggest you look at standard works on the nature of deterrence, games theory in war and politics, strategies and tactics for mixed nuclear/conventional warfighting, and works on the paradoxical nature of conflict.

      If you are curious, the works of Edward Luttwak can be encourage a new analysis of a number of issues, though Herman Kahn raised a number of interesting considerations much earlier.

      Herman Kahn (1960), On Thermonuclear War. Princeton University Press ISBN 0-313-20060-2

      https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/09/edward-luttwak-machiavelli-of-maryland

      Reply
      1. Ignacio

        Let me state it with a different approach. The longer we stay without a major nuclear conflict/catastrophe, the higher our overconfidence, and the probability of such an event. Somehow, your post is an example of such overconfidence climbing.

        Reply
      2. Joe Well

        My dear Math, if government leaders are such rational actors, how do you explain the current state of Brexit?

        Reply
  8. SA

    There is still no plan for removing the fuel from the 3 destroyed Fukushima reactors. Yesterday’s the Mainichi newspaper quotes the head of the decommissioning project at TEPCO as saying “At present, it is difficult to clearly say we are going to remove all fuel debris.” If that fails, according to a professor of nuclear engineering quoted in the article, “we would have no option but to consider building a sarcophagus like the one at Chernobyl.”

    Coincidentally, an article in the Asahi Shimbun dated yesterday states that the site will run out of storage for contaminated water at the end of next year, and it may become necessary to “dilute” the water and dump it in the ocean. Groundwater is still flowing through the destroyed reactors at the rate of 100 tons per day. The groundwater problem would seem to me to complicate plans to encase the site in concrete.

    This is not a matter of “blinders.” Every assurance was given about the safety of these reactors. And here we are with no clear plans on how to clean up the site.

    Reply
  9. The Rev Kev

    I am afraid that I find this form of game very dishonest in that what options are presented are very selective. Look, its like a website offered where you can go and play at balancing the budget for the US Government with the only proviso being that the budget for the military and intelligence sections are not to be touched as being vital. You could sit there sliding tabs and bars and deciding what sections of services and social security to cut back on to your heart’s content. Years ago one government actually did this online. But we know that the budget of the US government does not need to be balanced and that dollars can be created to meet any need which makes that game a bit of a scam to shift how you think of the budget. This game here is more of the same.
    How about we add one more element to this game and that is cost both to set it up and the long term costs. That way, we can get a truer picture of what the cost to a society is. And that means that we have to factor in ALL the cost of transporting and storage of radioactive wastes. The United States is what, 246 years old? Some of that radioactive waste has a half-life measured in hundreds of thousands and even millions of years of age. How much will all that cost to store over that time? Do we even have places where we can store it for so long? Will it be secure considering how climate change is having on the earth? Remember that human civilization is only about 10,000 years old. If you do not want to take into consideration this long term storage then this can never be an honest appraisal of the situation. Sorry, but that is my take. And here is more on the topic of radioactive waste-

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_waste

    Reply
    1. tokyodamage

      Thanks for putting it better than I could!

      History is full of examples of both nuclear bombs and nuclear plants that came close to meltdown, but because of ‘national security’ secrecy, we were never told at the time. Any industry that can hide its risks by simply saying ‘top secret!’ is gonna breed abuse or incompetence, which is exactly what you don’t want with a power source where a single major family-blog-up can mess up a continent.

      Reply
    2. David Mills

      Deal. Please ref my earlier comment and links. The waste products of a MSR are very much shorter lived on the Thorium cycle (hundreds of years) than those of an HPWR on the Uranium cycle (10s of thousands of years + all the piping). Also, MSRs can be used to burn waste from HPWRs for fuel…

      If, as you propose to account for full cycle impact, then the recycling systems required for solar and the waste impact thereof should also be accounted for.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        You are conflating two different things.

        Thorium is a fuel, an alternative to Uranium, molten salt is the coolant (along with a neutron moderator additive), an alternative to light or heavy water or liquid metals. Alternative reactors (to LWR’s, etc) can be either/or, or both. But since nobody has made a commercial reactor using Thorium, or a commercial reactor using molten salt as a coolant, then both are simply theoretical concepts. There have been dozens of prototypes, but none have proven viable or scalable as yet.

        Reply
        1. Yikes

          Russia is already operating two commercial sodium cooled reactor, China is operating one Russian designed commercial sodium reactor. Both countries have decided that they are a necessary part of their industry fuel cycles.

          As to liquid salt reactors, China has built them in several forms, the problem is the conventional form of dissolved fuel creates proliferation problems, and also are damaging to the inkjet model of I’ll sell you the reactor at near costs and make a fortune of providing the fuel for export. The reactors which use contained fuel (primarily rod forms) have issues which have not been resolved on fuel rod failures after removal from the reactor which need time to resolve, probably time we don’t have.

          Reply
          1. Yikes

            I’d also add that Russia built their sodium reactor in part due to pressures from SALT agreements, and that only Russia so far had done anything to keep their part of the SALT agreement to reduce Plutonium stockpiles. Obie the wan actual took steps in abrogation of SALT to increase Plutonium holdings. Russia has protested but MSM isn’t making a peep.

            Now hear is a nuclear energy for peace story, but old Ike’s moldering body must be revolving like mad.

            Reply
    3. rfdawn

      Engineering risk assessment is most unreliable when the event probability is small but the downside large. The Titanic sinking is a non-nuclear example, but nuclear power is a strong example of both factors. I expect the meltdown probability was revised substantially upwards after both Chernobyl and Fukushima but that is still just n=2 and those incidents were well apart in time. Expect more revisionism far into the future.

      In “Multiple Exposures” (1989), Catherine Caufield chronicled the reassessment of more frequent but smaller risks of individual radiation exposure. More data, faster learning, but uphill all the way from 1895.

      Reply
    4. Anders K

      I have nothing against letting nuclear energy carry its externalities, but I get a bit miffed when all the other ways of energy production have theirs blithely assumed away. “No, the air has always been filled with nano-particles from oil and coal, what are you talking about?”

      We could reduce that number of years that the waste is radioactive; we’re not doing it because, quite frankly, a) the same facility that burns out the radioactivity can do other, less good things as well and b) it costs money to set up the processes to do so, and we don’t care enough to do that (it would certainly make nuclear energy production less profitable as well).

      This is not to say that nuclear is unproblematic, but it has a bad rap (a smidgen worse than it deserves). Nuclear is not a great power generation alternative; problem is, none of the ones that scale are.

      Reply
    5. mle detroit

      Good point about the game. And what could the researchers tell us about the players besides N=1226 US adults? The full paper is behind Elsevier’s payroll.

      Reply
  10. dcrane

    What about the cost of substantial chunks of land being rendered severely undesirable to uninhabitable for decades to hundreds of years from the occasional major failure? Admittedly, oil/coal can also create severe pollution locally.

    Reply
    1. Foppe

      coal mining, too — see Appalachia. And there’s the Louisiana/Texas/etc. coast, which is mostly “unattractive” even without hurricanes and Deepwater Horizon-like catastrophes, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Fracking, same.

      But yeah, high pressure water reactors and uranium fuel aren’t what we should support — they’re the worst options.

      Reply
      1. JohnnySacks

        Fear not, China will pick up the MSR research we’ve been shunning, refine it, and sell it back to us. The sooner, the better. Our technological dominance is winding down if isn’t related to any practical military or domestic surveillance use.

        Reply
  11. Math is Your Friend

    Nuclear power is, objectively, the safest form of base load power generation that can be sited where needed. Some natural instances of hydro electric power (no dams!) or geothermal sites may rival nuclear power for safety and reliability.

    Consider that the first significant nuclear power generation efforts arrived in the mid to late 1950s, depending on the country. Britain built Calder Hall in Sellafiedl in 1956, producing 50 MW – about the output of four quite large diesel generators. An American reactor in Shippingport, Pennsylvania turned on in 1957, while France had a reator at Marcoule in 1956.

    Let us put this in context. Construction of Chernobyl began in 1970, approximately 13 years after the first even roughly commercial scale power stations went on line. The design was deeply flawed – a complete explanation would run scores of pages, but if you are curious there are some good accounts available on the net. It has been long enough that I would have to reread the ones I could find now or go digging through a pile of old hard drives to evaluate them, so I am loathe to point to a specific site.

    The Chernobyl accident was a confluence of at least a dozen different errors ranging from fundmental reactor design, through operator training, to an extremely unwisely executed safety test that triggered the whole thing.

    In the end, somewhere roughly between 50 and 5,000 people have died or may die earlier than otherwise due to effects of the accident.

    If the plant was built starting in 1970, then it was designed probably around 1965 or so, followed by refinement, planning, etc.

    That’s only 10 years after the first commercial scale plants.

    You couldn’t judge the intrinsic safety of air travel by looking at a plane designed around 1913, ten years after the first flight, or even in 1928, ten years after converted world war one biplane bombers became passenger aircraft. Nuclear power is only half as old as airplanes, and it took decades to make the planes relatively safe. Most of the plants out there are 30 or more years old – three of the reactors at Fukushima started construction from 1967 to 1970, which makes their design date at least as early as Chernobyl.

    After operating for 40 years, it still took a record breaking earthquake, and a record breaking tsunami to cause the accident – which had no fatalites due to radiation.

    In fact, the big danger was a hysterical over-reaction by the government. See “When Radiation Isn’t the Real Risk”, New York Times, Science section, 2015-09-21.

    The most significant casualty causing effects in most nuclear accidents are stress, fear, and panic leading to both direct health effects from stress, and bad decision making, either personal or official.

    Chernobyl did have real radiation fatalities, but it was an outlier – a power plant built without containment (unthinkable today), of a material that was equivalent to several hundred tonnes of coal laced with fission products, that was set afire by a long combination of failures, and cracked open by an error induced explosion. We don’t build that kind of graphite moderated reactor now.

    The current reactor fleet is the equivalent of seventy year old airliners. What we build next will be much safer.

    So how safe are most of these ancient power plants?

    Setting aside Chenobyl as an abandoned design and technology, I have figures that show US nuclear power, at .1 deaths per terawatt-hour is about 50 times safer than US hydro power.

    World nuclear safety, *including* Fukushima and Chernobyl is 90 deaths per terawatt-hour, with world hydro power at 1,400 deaths – about 15 times deadlier than nuclear power.

    Wind (not base load, unreliable power) is at 150 deaths, rooftop solar is at 440 deaths, biomass is at 24,000 deaths, US coal is at 10,000 deaths, and Chinese coal is at 170,000 deaths per terawatt-hour.

    Note also that more radiation escapes a coal plant than a nuclear plant, and the other waste from coal – like heavy metals – does not gradually go away like radioactive waste, but stays in the environment essentially forever.

    The whole idea of half-life is worth considering. Once the half-life passes, half the radioactive isotope is gone. It may become non-radioactive (stable isotopes) or funtionally non-radioactive (all bismuth is radioactive, but the half-life is so long that the sun will go out before the more stable bismuth isotopes do much more than sit around waiting for the end of the universe*).

    If something decays to another radioactive isotope, that too will spontaneously go away. The more radioactive something is, the faster it goes away… and the easier it is to detect, monitor, and track.

    Most people don’t even realize that just about everything is naturally radioactive, including themselves. We evolved to live in a certain level of radiation. This leads to some interesting thoughts about evolutionary biology, which would be off topic in this discussion.

    This is long enough, so to end up – consider that policies based on singular events or anecdotes about those events, rather than objective statistical data over a long time period and many instances of the broad experience with a class of events or objects, are likely to be suboptimal policies informed by emotion and the human weakness for judging low probability events, or most kinds of risk.

    * The half-life of primordial bismuth-209 is more than a billion times the age of the universe.

    PS – for a good representation of the scale of radiation events and exposures, try searching ‘xkcd radiation’. The data represented in those diagrams is accurate.

    For power fatality rates search “power generation technology fatality rate”.

    Reply
    1. jonboinAR

      Setting aside Chenobyl as an abandoned design and technology, I have figures that show US nuclear power, at .1 deaths per terawatt-hour is about 50 times safer than US hydro power.

      World nuclear safety, *including* Fukushima and Chernobyl is 90 deaths per terawatt-hour, with world hydro power at 1,400 deaths – about 15 times deadlier than nuclear power.

      Wind (not base load, unreliable power) is at 150 deaths, rooftop solar is at 440 deaths, biomass is at 24,000 deaths, US coal is at 10,000 deaths, and Chinese coal is at 170,000 deaths per terawatt-hour.

      For your danger comparison, regarding the nuke power fatality assessment, the data range is still, to date, entirely to small to mean anything. No horrible nuclear accident with consequences beyond any summation of events that might occur with all the other forms of energy put together over a long, long time has yet occurred, but it can! That’s the point. It can! That argument you and others make based on what’s happened so far, when if we embrace nuclear energy we’ll be dealing with it’s absolutely devastating dangers for hundreds, if not thousands of years, makes no sense at all.

      Reply
      1. Math is Your Friend

        “No horrible nuclear accident with consequences beyond any summation of events that might occur with all the other forms of energy put together over a long, long time has yet occurred, but it can! That’s the point. It can! That argument you and others make based on what’s happened so far, when if we embrace nuclear energy we’ll be dealing with it’s absolutely devastating dangers for hundreds, if not thousands of years, makes no sense at all.”

        But as you point out above, we have never seen such an event yet you adamantly insist that it can happen… an assumption which seems to have no supporting evidence.

        Furthermore, the assumption of absolutely devastating dangers seems to me to be of the ‘worst case to the tenth power’ type of thinking that is common among people who find nuclear power scary.

        Interestingly, we actually have some evidence about risks that people worry about with respect to reactors and nuclear waste.

        One repeatedly comes across worries that radioisotopes will leak out of containment into the water table and spread far and wide, invisibly and inevitably. That is one of the reasons that proposals for long term geologic storage generally call for either very dry regions, or largely impervious rock structures – think Yucca Mountain, the US depository that was derailed by uninformed public panic (who would ever want to risk putting radioisotopes beside a nuclear test site where more than 700 bombs had been detonated?) or proposals for a site in the Canadian shield (granite as far as the eye can see).

        ———————– aside on Yucca Mountain Repository ———————-

        Note: “The Government Accountability Office stated that the closure was for political, not technical or safety reasons”
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yucca_Mountain_nuclear_waste_repository

        This is the common tale. Most of the real problems with nuclear power are political and psychological, not technical or safety related.

        ———————- back to our regularly scheduled post ————–

        This concern about isotope migration over long periods of time – even thousands or tens of thousands of years – is a big sticking point for many people and a cause of much exaggerated anxiety.

        How do I know this? It’s been tested for us.

        Surprisingly few people know that nuclear reactors are a natural phenomena under the right conditions. So far more than a dozen such natural reactors, which operated for hundreds of thousands of years, two billion years ago, have been identified.

        These reactors arose from fairly enriched uranium deposits saturated with water and having a ‘correct’ geometry to go critical. The water acted as a moderator. This is the ‘nuclear accident/waste storage nightmare scenario’ that people worry about – fission products in direct contact with water, and no containment.

        What did we learn from this convenient experimental gift from nature?

        “Most of the non-volatile fission products and actinides have only moved centimeters in the veins during the last 2 billion years”

        In other words, assuming this would be a major long term risk seems to be a bit excessive.

        Details too extensive to reproduce can be found here:

        https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ancient-nuclear-reactor/

        https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/natures-nuclear-reactors-the-2-billion-year-old-natural-fission-reactors-in-gabon-western-africa/

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_nuclear_fission_reactor

        Reply
  12. PlutoniumKun

    The first thing I thought when I read the abstract was ‘none of these authors know anything about risk analysis’. Sure enough, when I click on their names – they are engineers and economists, none seem to have a background in the epistemology of risk analysis.

    This sort of study is junk science because it makes the same error countless cost-benefit analyses make – it assumes different types of risk are commensurable. They are not – there are decades of research papers on perception of different types of risk, such as high frequency low impact risks vs low frequency high impact, etc. You simply cannot disaggregate this type of risk and assume individuals (or collective groups) put some notional value on their acceptance – we see evidence of this every time we go out to drive, walk, or cycle on a road.

    I suspect Nouriel Rubini would have something strong to say about this type of analysis as well. This is precisely the sort of assessment based on linear assumptions that he rails against.

    The other glaring error is to assume that nuclear risks (in particular) can be quantified. The Fukishima accident was a zero probability. How do we know this? The operating company and the government said so at the time of planning and construction. A tsunami of that height was deemed impossible on that length of coastline. For ordinary people to question assumptions made by the protagonists for a particular technology is not a sign of innumeracy or ignorance. It shows regular people understand human nature and how the world works more than the authors of that paper.

    Reply
    1. skippy

      Have a young engineer with out crew till he finds degree work, convo about risk, baseline is some mobs don’t touch 2% risk in critical applications. Begs the question about others ….

      Reply
      1. Stephen Gardner

        Could you possibly translate this out of British slang into American slang? :-) I have no idea what you said.

        Reply
        1. skippy

          Had a conversation about risk assessment, mobs are corps with aversion to failure due to inversion of said risk e.g. anything above 5% or the bench of 10% goes hyperbolic when thing go wrong i.e. 100+.

          Its Aussie slang – cough skippy.

          Reply
    2. fajensen

      Yep. Also the questionnaire totally ignore the time factors. With nuclear we are safely off the scale of any human understanding. It is one thing when someone drops off a wind turbine and dies, it is another thing to consider that if Henry the VIII had used nuclear power, we would still be dealing with the waste produced during his reign today!

      Nuclear Power in it’s present format of “fission by stacking enough fissionable stuff in a heap” is the very poster child of obscene wastefulness complete with privatising gains and collectivising disadvantages:

      Out of one reactor “charge” we get the benefits of about 4-6 years of electricity in return for creating a large pile of toxic nuclear waste (about 100 metric tonnes), where some of the fractions needs to be actively cooled for decades and then “managed” for 2000 years after! Going down that path, we better build some pyramids, create a religion with priests, career paths, comfy living and guaranteed ascension at the end of it, because that is the only way we humans know of to be building an organisation that can rearrange the dregs of our current nuclear adventure for the time it requires to become safe.

      Dropping the waste into a hole, that wastes almost all the fissile energy (95% or so) which is still present in the waste, the waste becoming waste because the fuel now have impurities that disrupt the fission process. Then one can clean the waste, but, then one will use really nasty chemicals, get some really hot residue that will be left in basins for decades and generally cost obscene amounts of money to work with as demonstrated by Thorp Nuclear Processing Plant. That is why “we” just crush a mountain’s worth of ore, refine it, use 5% of it’s energy, then dump the lot in a hole somewhere.

      Dealing with the waste problem and the impurity problem requires that one separates the production of neutrons to create fission with from the fission process. This is the thinking behind the ‘accelerator-driven reactors’ or ‘accelerator driven systems (ADS)’. These are on the research stage at the moment. Belgium is building such a research facility called MYHHRA

      ADS reactors have the additional advantage that one needs a lot less fuel inside the fission process, they can “burn” nuclear waste and that Thorium would actually work as fuel here (it doesn’t now because it gets polluted by protactinium-233, so one just to have an isotope separation plant next to ones reactor).

      The disadvantages of an ADS is that it is rather easy to produce fissile materials suitable for nuclear weapons from a much simpler and cleaner setup than the usual one needed to process irradiate nuclear fuel and that the proton accelerators needed for ADS are not, shall we say, reliable in the way that an industrial process should be. In the accelerator community, 2000 beam trips per year is a reliable accelerator.

      Lots of research, engineering, time, money and hard work needs investing before nuclear fission can become an acceptable source of energy, IMO.

      Reply
      1. Math is Your Friend

        “Also the questionnaire totally ignore the time factors. With nuclear we are safely off the scale of any human understanding.”

        Not really. What we are out of is the realm where ‘common sense’ can be trusted.

        Humans are (very) bad at applying common sense to uncommon things. If it is not on the scale of our every day lives, we are not correctly calibrated to intuit answers about it.

        Things that are too big, too small, too fast, too slow, too long (time), too low probability, too numerous, and so on resist ‘common sense’

        … yet we understand such things all the time, which is why we have quantum mechanics, relativity, the Theory of Evolution, statistical analysis, and a host of other scientific disciplines.

        The trick in all of these fields is the persistent application of logic and science, and doing the research and the math, rather than trying to intuit the right answer.

        Nuclear energy is not out of reach of our understanding, just out of reach of insufficiently expanded* ‘common sense’.

        * Experts working in technical and scientific fields often (but not always) develop a refined form of common sense that works as a result of seeing many situations, relationships, and results in that field. The farther you get from their intense training and experience the more unreliable that becomes, and in any case ‘checking the math’ for confirmation is always a reasonable plan.

        Reply
        1. fajensen

          The trick in all of these fields is the persistent application of logic and science, and doing the research and the math, rather than trying to intuit the right answer.

          Thats fine and all, however, once out in the real world and operating at scale, you have resort to have systems that are resilient enough to be managed by the kind of ‘thinkers’ who gave birth to Brexit. Hundreds of Generations into the future.

          Common sense is what tells one that science and logic, being a brittle construct in itself, will not be able to solve that problem!

          The only robust way is: Deal with the waste when it is created, or bury it in deep holes and die when there are no more fossils left to mine and refine hundreds of tonnes of ore per reactor per decade. Don’t forget to be content that someone got rich on skimming this flow of resources.

          Reply
    3. The Rev Kev

      ‘A tsunami of that height was deemed impossible on that length of coastline. ‘

      I saw a doco about a coupla Japanese geologists who through field work, found evidence of higher tsunamis recorded in the geology of the region. They took their findings to the operating company who then proceeded to fobbed them off. Totally ignored their findings. And the rest is history.

      Reply
      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Wait, that kind of profit-seeking disregard for expert scientific opinion (to say nothing of the wishes of the locals) would never happen here: problem solved!

        Reply
    4. Norello

      It’s an interesting question if nuclear risks can be quantified. In the spirit of the authors points let’s take into consideration if air pollution from power plants can be quantified. According to WHO 4.2 million people die from outdoor air pollution. How many of those is from power generation activities outside of nuclear? A few quick searches on google does not come up with a common agreed open number for that.

      I couldn’t find the answer to that but something else interesting caught my attention https://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/briefs/kharecha_02/ . According to that from 1971 to 2009 1.8 million fewer people died due to using nuclear power over alternative sources.

      Some interesting data from the EPA on air pollution https://www.epa.gov/mats/cleaner-power-plants . That’s an awful high percentage of air pollution coming from power plants. Why isn’t there as much concern about that? It’s not just deaths, for instance what about all that mercury? The EPA claims it’s harmful to many newborns each year https://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/mercury-emissions-global-context .

      Looking through all the comments so far I find it bizarre no one is taking a hard look at how safe non-nuclear power generation is. Another example is Shimantan/Banqiao Dam failure killing 170,000 people.

      Looking over what information I can find, I’d say non-nuclear power generation is far more dangerous than is generally believed.

      Reply
  13. Stadist

    It’s silly in current climate change debate how the ‘nuclear’ option is completely disregarded, at least in mainstream discussions.

    Reality is large scale developement of nuclear power would allow very fast carbon dioxide reductions, as electricity generation and heating are still major CO2 sources.
    In practice however nuclear power can’t be deployed in large scale enough and fast enough currently. Apparently the research in the area has been lacking and the designers seem to have only large or huge plant designs and developers lack necessary skills to complete these large projects in time and without safety issues. Of course bureaucratic issues probably have an effect, but especially when developing large nuclear power production units (usually located relatively close to major population centers) one needs to have certain level of standards to make sure safe operation is guaranteed.

    Smaller far more portable local nuclear power and reactors would probably be most optimal as quality could standardised at factory and large scale deployment would reveal problems and points of improvement faster than deployment of huge units.

    Reply
    1. Yassine

      Large-scale power plants are already standardized (only 3 different reactor designs compete in the commercial sector). Portable nuclear power could theoretically make sense, except for one aspect : the extreme regulatory oversight necessary to safely operate a nuclear plant simply cannot be replicated in a distributed manner.

      Reply
    2. Grumpy Engineer

      Yes. If you want to decarbonize an economy quickly, nuclear is the way to go:

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4a91604de3f6a120fea60da02c17fd8edebca3bfd51fefaf4d29f64bdfb4670c.jpg

      The renewables-based approach is slower. And that lack of speed will get even worse when penetration levels get high enough to require the parallel installation of large-scale energy storage systems. Thus far, we’ve only installed a handful of rather small energy storage systems. Less than 0.01% of what would be required for a 100% renewable-powered grid.

      If the IPCC is right and we only have 12 years…

      Reply
  14. thoughtful person

    I’m willing to agree with nuclear advocates that there are different types of nuclear power generation. There could be some forms that address the minuses. Most of what is being used and proposed now are the large centralized uranium /plutonium reactors. These are very expensive, create huge externalities (waste, risk of weapons and accidents).

    Also, mining and refining uranium does generate a lot of carbon. Note this carbon was not counted in the game study, so players had inaccurate data.

    I’m still with energy expert Amory Lovins on this one: “using nuclear power to heat water is like using a chain saw to cut a stick of butter”.

    Reply
  15. Kevin Hall

    I’m very surprised to see this here on a site that regularly covers (and covers well) all the issues out there with the crapification of everything, regulatory agency capture, and the fraudulent bottom line of corporate culture.

    But in case one hasn’t experienced it themselves, in the eternal fight between health & safety vs. production, production almost always wins. Very rarely does a company do the right thing anymore and especially not if doing so comes at a cost. Besides, that could be money used to influence or outright own the oversight. Yep, they would rather put money into allowing them to cut corners than follow practice and procedure that could keep their employees and the general public healthy and safe. (and they actually do)

    You see it everywhere, including places that must be serious about their station. Boeing – hello? I personally saw it on superfund sites and at Fluor Daniel Fernald. Everyone is Enron now, everyone is Calpers.

    The problem with nuclear power isn’t nuclear. The problem is us, what we have allowed ourselves to become as a society.

    I wouldn’t have bothered writing this anywhere else, I’m surprised I had to at NC.

    Reply
    1. H. Alexander Ivey

      I wished I had written this, instead of my too-off-the-cuff remark about generation. Apologies all.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Hall

        Thank you for all of your comments on this, it needs pushback.

        The comments and replies have been interesting from a number of people who do or should know better. Some may be sincere and genuinely have blinders on to the human nature side of this issue, yet this is still myopic. Others do not. Either way the outcome is tantamount to gaslighting regardless of the intention.

        It is very disappointing.

        Reply
  16. Steve H.

    > accurate information about the benefits and risks that go along with different power sources.

    Right here is where the bs starts. IF the information is accurate AND the time-scales of risk are incorporated, THEN it’s not a blind study. Only nuclear has time-scales that can be measured in units of ‘entire length of time there has been civilization on earth.’

    As noted above, different reactors have different time-scales. Did they use thorium reactor time-scales, and high-pressure benefits? Further, how does risk incorporate malevolent agency? I’ve worked on a psych ward with people with no remorse, who took pleasure in hurting people. How about ignorance, as scavenging humans go a-hunting? I live in a town where kids were exposed to PCB’s pulling metal to recycle from capacitors. Just because a risk is known doesn’t mean everyone knows it.

    What scientists understand, more than most, is how much they don’t know. The assumption that the assumptions are valid is more an engineering framework, like an unpickable lock. I wish I could tell you more, but to decrease my ignorance would cost me money, since the study is behind a paywall. And speaking of agnotology, look at the title of the essay. It can be read as an analyzed response that scientists are biased against nuclear power. And at the least, ‘you’ is a direct reference to the reader of the story, about which the study sez zip, zero, nada. Even if the study is correct, the title is meant to engage the negative emotions of the reader. Perverse.

    Reply
  17. doug

    Many scientists scoff at the spent fuel storage problem, saying it is scientifically possible, while choosing to ignore the political reality.

    No one wants the stuff in their back yard. Full stop. So what to do with it all? and make it safe for 30K years. Really…

    Reply
  18. KLG

    Non-hysterical, non-emotional questions:

    What human engineering achievement can last the tens of thousands of years required to sequester nuclear waste in a fail-safe manner?

    Which human culture can maintain that achievement for tens of thousands of years.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      This isn’t actually the core question. There are plenty of geological formations worldwide where nuclear waste could be sequestered long term where we could be pretty sure the waste would be contained for the time required. But often alternatives are chosen for political, not technical reasons. An example is the sub-optimal geology around Sellafield in the UK – the best geology for sequestering waste in Britain is the London clay formations, which as the name suggests, are under London, and as such not part of the discussion.

      The core question is much more short term. With current climate change projections, there is every possibility that there will simply not be the resources available to safely dismantle and store the existing generation of reactors at the end of this century. Especially as quite a few reactors have been built on rapidly eroding coasts.

      Reply
      1. Jos Oskam

        Excuse me, but I do not agree. Every time the problem of nuclear waste comes up, someone or other mumbles something about this indeed being a problem, but that it is solvable when you try hard enough, and the discussion moves on. I posted one of the first replies in this thread, mentioning the waste problem, and it’s about the only subject almost not replied to.

        The thing is that the nuclear waste problem is *not* solvable because the time spans we’re talking about are simply not compatible with our engineering knowledge and experience. So it always comes down to “let’s store it in solid containers in stable formations and the problem is solved”. Except it isn’t. It is simply deferred to future generations, in an “apres nous le deluge” manner.

        Contaminating our planet with nuclear waste that lasts for thousands of years, thus possibly dooming future generations, is in my opinion morally indefensible. It’s playing with somebody else’s chips in the worst possible form.

        Reply
      2. KLG

        You didn’t address either question. Stating that they aren’t “actually” the core question(s) is little more than moving the goal posts and arguing from your authority, which I suppose your nom de interwebs provides? The London clay formations, OK. Show your work, please. What other “plenty of geological formations”? Yucca Mountain? Again, show your work. Dispositive links will do for now.

        Reply
        1. PlutoniumKun

          Ask any geologist. There are plenty of salt or heavy clay formations worldwide which have proven stable over tens or hundreds of millions of years and for which there is no foreseeable possibility of failure even with glaciations or seismic events. The problem most discussed with long term storage is accidental re-opening by humans (if they are around) in millennia to come, this is far more likely than any natural process if the geology and engineering is right.

          As I stated and I stand by this – the problem of long term storage is negligible compared to the enormous problem of medium term (i.e. within the next century or so) storage and treatment.

          Reply
          1. KLG

            I’m not talking to “any geologist.” I’m asking you for specific answers to simple, but not simple minded, questions in response to your argument from authority. This is naked capitalism, not the typical internet black hole.

            And it is little more than shibboleth that “long term problems” are negligible compared to short/medium term problems. Indeed, Keynes was correct. In the long run, human or geological deep time, we are all dead.

            Reply
          2. Yikes

            Indeed, we know there were “active” reactors that came about naturally, and of course the core of the earth itself is one large reactor, and so are the Sun and the Stars, yet we’re still here.

            The issue is primarily anything that requires active human management is bound to see that management degrade and become corrupted. Bill Gates has tried to address this issue with the design he promotes, but it still requires human’s to build it. Similarly any waste management would require human input to it’s construction, and thus is open to corruption.

            Reply
          3. Yassine

            I completely agree but the reason why that is may not be obvious for everyone : medium term storage is a big problem because you need to keep it open and accessible for the duration of the nuclear power plant fleet operation. Long term storage is “easy” because you don’t need to take this into account.

            Reply
    2. Yassine

      I think our western culture is good at convincing ourselves that this does not matter. We have even invented a concept to justify that : the discount rate. When you apply a 2% discount rate to the costs associated to nuclear waste storage, it is equivalent to saying that the costs after 100 years do not matter to us (i.e. FamilyBlog our great-grand-children).

      Reply
  19. TMoney

    Rarely, but rarely, I find Wall St a source of truth for things. Nuclear power, however, has been examined by the market and found wanting. The political, legal and financial risks of building AND dismantling reactors means Wall St doesn’t want to touch it. Now when you consider all the things Wall St is willing to invest in, we know that Mr Market isn’t exactly a picky eater.

    Reply
  20. Brooklin Bridge

    The trick is to know what it is you are afraid of, and for me it’s not the technology per se, though some of its characteristics, particularly long term issues, don’t seem well suited for the vagaries of human nature.

    It’s not just who we elect, it’s who we are given as a NON choice to elect. Recently, in this country, it was HIllary and Trump though such non representative shams presented as “elections” go back quite a ways. And it cascades down from there to our system of jurisprudence (a bunch of conservatives that would find anything constitutional as long as it was profitable to the right people), our regulators (“what, me worry about banks kicking people out of their homes? – hell, the best thing you can do for the poor is not become one of them”!), our legislators (“Keep that slush money coming, love it, love it, love it, and HATE, HATE, HATE regulations; just don’t build those contraptions next to me or mine and for gawd sake put the waste in some other state where God intended it to be.”), our MSM (“new studies prove beyond all doubt that nuclear waste is GOOD for poor people.”).

    Even assuming the wheel of fortune keeps turning and, for a time, provides us with good effective leaders and technocrats and real regulatory structures with teeth, that too will pass until we fall back into the next crop of self inflicted scoundrels and the highly toxic spent fuel waste – even counting only in the hundreds of years – will wait patiently for those to exploit and miss-manage. All it takes is once for massive human suffering, but it takes long term resolve and integrity that seems absent from human society in any significant time span to prevent that once.

    Reply
  21. JohnB

    Sure, we’re biased against nuclear – but nuclear has earned our bias against it.

    We don’t have an accurate way to gauge the trustworthiness of the stated risks – as this particular industry has quite a bad track record of fraud and regulatory capture.

    I think that a blind study, which omits the identification of a particular industry and thus its reputation – critically important information for accurately judging the potential for increased risk – is, in this case, worthless.

    Reply
  22. vidimi

    this is frustrating. how did they accurately present the risks of each energy source? you cannot make a decision by an expected outcome with nuclear. with coal, oil, gas, solar or wind, you can, as any damage can usually be contained. with nuclear, it’s binary. either there is no disaster 99.99% of the time, or there is a catastrophic meltdown that leaves an entire area uninhabitable for a century. this is not a rational analysis because it does not include risk aversion and only looks at mean outcomes.

    was it paid for by the nuclear lobby?

    Reply
  23. RandyM

    Nuclear power use demands a trained, competent, technological society that plans on being around a long, long time. As the planet’s rise in temperature blows past 2C in the coming years how stable will our civilization remain? Will we be frantically trying to decommission hundreds of nuclear power plants or will they be abandoned.

    Reply
    1. Wyoming

      This.

      A large build out of nuclear has to be out of the question. The precautionary principal demands it.

      The chance of climate change and collapsing carrying capacity resulting in a large and chaotic decline in our civilizational complexity and ability to maintain complex technological infrastructure is very high.

      A massive buildout of nuclear does not measurably change that probability of collapse.

      In the case of nuclear power/weapons the loss of the ability to maintain and control said technologies would probabilistically result in a large number of ‘accidents’ or loss of the ability to maintain safe storage of the very dangerous material waste and/or the weapons grade materials. The likely damage of such ‘accidents’ would be catastrophic.

      We simply cannot take such chances. We are going to have enough trouble surviving our present foolishness and adding into the mix the high damage high likelyhood quadrant that all things nuclear entails is just a very bad idea.

      Reply
    2. Joe Well

      Adding to the risk is that so many of these water-cooled reactors are built next to rapidly rising water lines that threaten to drown them a la Fukushima.

      Reply
  24. Charles 2

    Enough responding, my views on this :
    A) For nuclear to really move the needle on climate change and energy sources depletion, one has to build a lot of plants, soon, which means using today’s technology. For better and for worse, we are stuck with PWR.
    B) If there are 100 times more nuclear plants in the world, one will have a meltdown every year, because s… just happens !
    C) in case of real war, which is a much likelier scenario than what most “civilian” nuclear risk analysis considers, nuclear plants are potential dirty bombs : the most recent plants could survive an airliner crash, but there is no concrete structure able to resist a bunker buster bomb.
    As a consequence to B&C, a nuclear plant blown to pieces must not be a major global environmental concern. I concur with Weinberg’s assessment on this : the only place a PWR should be is underwater, enough for no radioactive gases or aerosols to be released in the atmosphere. Yes, water would be contaminated, but if marine life had a choice, it would choose one Fukushima per year, rather than oceans becoming more acidic !
    200MW submarine reactors, factory built like liberty ships : That would move the needle

    Reply
    1. Skip Intro

      And why would one target a fortified concrete reactor structure, when there are hot spent fuel pools practically unprotected right next to it?

      Reply
  25. Ignacio

    More on the illusion of nuclear safety:

    As Japan’s leader, Junichiro Koizumi backed nuclear power. Now he’s a major foe.
    Note that sysmologists anticipated fukushima but were ignored.

    An Illusion of Safety

    About risk
    Although we touch upon the issue of the question of the risk of nuclear weapon detonation events in populated areas in outlining potential challenges to the validity of this study (in part one), the issue requires discussion at the outset. Risk in basic terms is the probability of an event multiplied by its consequences.4 Thus even an event that is very unlikely to occur at any given moment could still be of significant risk in view of its severe consequences. Nuclear weapon detonation events in populated areas fall into this category of high risk (low probability, high consequence) events.For the purposes of this study we assume the risk of a nuclear weapon detonation event to be greater than zero, and therefore a matter worth taking seriously and planning for in view of the potentially catastrophic consequences. We do not take a view on whether a multiple nuclear weapon detonation event is less likely than a multiple one, except to note this: many nuclear weapon delivery systems remain on high alert, and contain several independently targetable warheads. For this reason even an isolated accident or other mishap could result in multiple nuclear weapon detonations. Alternatively, a failure of nuclear deterrence could result in multiple nuclear strikes.People draw differing conclusions from the lack of nuclear weapon detonation events in populated areas since the use of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. (There have, of course, been more than 2,000 nuclear tests.5) Some infer that, because of such an event’s absence, there is little to worry about. Others—and we would place ourselves in this category—are less sanguine. Unlikely events do happen, whether severe earthquakes and tsunamis, financial crashes, vanishing aircraft, or large asteroid strikes. Add to the mix tightly coupled technological systems in which simple failures can lead to complex and potentially catastrophic problems, the pathological aspects of organizational cultures, as well as human error, and you get the picture. It is not hard to think of examples: they include nuclear reactor accidents at the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima plants (the latter following a severe earthquake and tsunami), the loss of two NASA space shuttles in flight, the failure of safety valves in the Deepwater Horizon causing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, and the crash of Air France flight 447 in the Atlantic ocean in 2009 with the loss of 228 lives. Even if it is assumed that the systems of control for nuclear weapons really can ensure that the risk of a detonation event is extremely low in ordinary circumstances, as some nuclear weapon possessor states claim, these systems are not immune to the same sorts of low probability–high impact failures.There are real limits to safety.

    Indeed, as the picture of accidents, crises, and near-use events involving nuclear weapons in state arsenals during the Cold War becomes clearer, there were many instances in which detonation events almost occurred. In just one example, a United States Air Force bomber was forced to jettison two 4 megaton nuclear bombs over Goldsboro, North Carolina, in 1961—one of these began the detonation process, which was prevented only by a single low-voltage switch after all other systems failed. The detonation of a nuclear weapon 260 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb would, as investigative journalist Eric Schlosser observed, have “changed literally the course of history”.

    What is important to appreciate is that these issues were not just products of the larger numbers of nuclear weapons at that time, but of the fallibility of complex and tightly coupled technological systems in which accidents are inevitable.8A recent study by Chatham House assessed that “in the last few years, there is evidence that the perceived nuclear risk calculation is shifting upwards again”, citing five reasons for this:
    1. Since the Cold War’s end and the relaxation of tensions, the number of nuclear weapons possessors has increased and newcomers are in regions of high tension, notably South and North-East Asia;
    2. Nuclear weapons possessor states continue to depend on these weapons for their security, despite the end of the Cold War;
    3. The threat of nuclear terrorism, which is assessed very differently across countries and experts, adds to the overall nuclear risk;
    4. It is likely that the probability of nuclear use or accident has hitherto been underestimated and thus needs to be corrected; and
    5. The consequences of use are being revised upwards in the light of new information and analysis.

    Alongside this, we have observed in the course of our own research two opposing tendencies, neither of which is necessarily conducive to engagement with regard to considering humanitarian response. At one end of the continuum is the view that the existence of nuclear weapons is a necessary, enduring feature of the international system. The consequences of a nuclear war are clearly so catastrophic that these arms will never be used—their awfulness both contributes to restraint, and strengthens nuclear deterrence. The only real risk to watch out for is acquisition by “terrorists”. At the other end of the continuum, those concerned about the risks of nuclear weapons might be tempted to view efforts to better understand the challenges to humanitarian response of such detonations as simply futile and possibly dangerous. There is the associated view that planning any humanitarian “safety net” could contribute to undermining a perceived taboo against use—to making a nuclear conflict seem less risky to wage.We are sensitive to both these concerns, although we do not share them. It stands to reason that in considering the possibility of nuclear weapon detonation events, especially those involving the explosion of multiple weapons, any capacity for offering a meaningful level of assistance to many of the victims would be utterly overwhelmed. It should not necessarily lead to nuclear fatalism that there are no scenarios in which United Nations-coordinated humanitarian response would make a difference to assisting victims. Moreover, an absence of engagement with these questions creates an illusion of safety. Yet in view of the continued nuclear risk of various kinds mentioned above, the humanitarian system may not have the luxury of failing to plan for how it would respond to a nuclear weapon detonation event much longer, whether that failure is by choice or omission. And it cannot be emphasized enough that both humanitarian staff and those requiring assistance could pay dearly for such a failure

    Reply
  26. ACF

    Reading the comments, seems clear that three background realities shape this issue:

    1) From a carbon, climate change perspective, nuclear power is a very valuable harm reducer and the harms of climate change are global and profound in a way that in general dwarfs nuclear risk *other than* nuclear war/nuclear winter risk.

    2) From an engineering perspective, nuclear power and nuclear waste can be produced and stored in truly risk minimizing ways (risks are hard to absolutely eliminate, and catastrophic risk to at least a surrounding community is always possible, but engineering and security can make all risk very improbable.)

    3) From a how-the-world-currently-works perspective, it seems impossible to trust that the engineering ideal would be achieved; regulators are too corrupt; for-profit power companies would likely choose a different level of risk minimization; NIMBY-ism and the failure to engage and educate would create obstacles too.

    From my armchair (quarterbacking position) I believe #3 is so true that #2 cannot be relied on and so I struggle mightily with #1.

    Reply
  27. Matthew G. Saroff

    “They gave a bunch of random people accurate information about the benefits and risks that go along with different power sources.”

    It certainly wasn’t complete information, because the game would have taken weeks, and my guess is that cost probably wasn’t included, since when you factor in subsidies, nuclear is an order of magnitude more expensive.

    I am dubious of the construction of the game.

    Reply
  28. jonboinAR

    So I assume that the experimenters were honest. They told the subjects that the power source behind door number “N” is produced in plants that have to be maintained pretty well without ANYserious accident, ever, in order to avoid rendering large swaths of the planet uninhabitable, also that the waste generated by source “N” has to be guarded and cared for essentially forever (essentially forever!!!) in order to avoid that same devastion. With that kind of frank assessment of the perils, at least of the current “N” technology, they still chose door number “N”. Well, okay then!

    Reply
    1. jonboinAR

      Maybe “large swath of the planet” is hyperbolic, and “a large area of land or sea” would be less emotionally provocative, but my God! Some say the Fukushima disaster endangered the entire Pacific Ocean!!

      Reply
  29. dutch

    Where’s the trust? We can’t accept nuclear power because we don’t trust the corporations, we don’t believe anyone who works for them, we don’t trust the regulators or our elected officials. We certainly don’t trust each other. So, what is the prognosis for self-government?

    Reply
  30. ChrisPacific

    Google the Dilbert cartoon for 1 April 2019 if you’d like a topical comment on this.

    I have some serious concerns about nuclear power, particularly around the risks (we are notoriously bad at estimating and planning for tail risk, and a typical risk analysis very often fails to account for institutional dysfunction, which has been a factor in many nuclear disasters to date) but if we accept the science on climate change it’s being measured against a number of alternatives that are also very bad.

    Reply
  31. Phil Stevens

    I can’t believe this is even still a conversation. Let’s assume that nuclear energy is as safe as its most wild-eyed supporters say, and furthermore let’s assume that we could really harness it to produce energy “too cheap to meter,” as they used to say when I was a kid. Let’s further assume that somehow we were able to substitute electricity for fossil fuels in every application, including for example transoceanic shipping and long-haul trucks, and that the technology and resources to make the batteries to store all that electricity would somehow also magically appear. Finally, since we’re really on a fantasy planet now, let’s imagine that we somehow come up with a way (powered by all that free electricity) to extract all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Yay! Free, clean energy and no more climate change worries! Except that all that would accomplish is to give us the ability to continue to destroy the planet’s ecosystems, which are already teetering on the brink. Nuclear energy? No thanks.

    Reply
  32. Spacious

    Looking at nuclear power without personal alarm, there are still problems that concern me.

    It’s not exactly scalable in the way that “renewables,” for all their obvious flaws, are. Solar and wind scale all the way from “desktop novelty” to “home power appliance” to “military-industrial complex. Nuclear does not scale down that far, so it is doomed to expend energy pushing power down a decaying infrastructure. It is doomed to be centralized. Any power source that will mean anything to people of our future must function at the level of a household appliance, or remote populations will bear an even heavier burden.

    Note also that there are still a host of countries that we do not “dare” include in this nuclear future we are discussing. How is that supposed to work in addressing a global problem?

    Honestly, many of the miraculous “new” nuclear power plants that don’t yet exist boast powers that non-existent solar cells and speculative batteries should feel deeply jealous of. I can’t put my faith in a nuclear miracle while scoffing at untested “renewables.”

    If you ask me, the future of energy is in reducing consumption. Either by plan or by default. We can start with all of the crap that is Always ON.

    Reply
  33. RBHoughton

    Who is going to support nuclear power when we are reminded daily of our inability to enforce systems of regulation on staff for long and the uncertain reliability of our control systems. We have never been able to maintain our supervision for long – people get sick, they get tired, they are diverted by other matters – our control systems are running month after month, year after year until finally far into the future a light blinks and someone has to do something – who remembers what to do? Then there is variability of the rods used to boil the water, the variability of the pumps used to supply that water.

    I am confident the only reason we have nuclear power stations is because the usual suspects thought it was an easy way to get a good supply of plutonium for their war-making and have the people pay for it – win win.

    Reply
  34. EchoDelta

    reactors have been built since Fermi rocked the graphite blocks at University of Chicago. when was the last nuclear power plant in America completed? How much did it cost once it began producing vs. what the Westinghouse folks said it would cost? Why did the Washington Public Power Supply System not finish a batch of reactors that were nearly completed?

    Long before we get to worrying about meltdowns, fissile product releases, seismic and tsunami planning, how will we pay for such a thing? http://theconversation.com/the-demise-of-us-nuclear-power-in-4-charts-98817

    Reply
  35. skippy

    Least we forget Nuclear was a cold war PR bit of propaganda to enrich weapons grade material e.g. at the time there was heaps of FF capacity.

    Reply

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