Why Are We So Afraid of Nuclear Power?

Yves here. In keeping with changing public views, Germany is set to beat a retreat from its commitment to phase out nuclear power. From OilPrice in In Unexpected Swing, Germany’s Public Now Favors Nuclear Power:

For decades, Germany has maintained a love-hate relationship with nuclear power. Currently, Germany has three existing nuclear reactors that produce ~6% of the country’s power supply, a far cry from the 1990s when 19 nuclear power plants produced about a third of the country’s electricity supply….

But Russia’s war in Ukraine is forcing a rethink of energy security not only in Germany but also by the entire continent….

Nuclear energy is seen as a preferable energy source to a fall back to burning coal. According to Dutch-based anti-nuclear group WISE, nuclear plants produce 117 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour, much lower compared to burning lignite which emits over 1,000 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour…..

According to the Washington Post, coal mines and power plants that closed 10 years ago have begun to be repaired in Germany.

However, some readers have said that un-mothballing a nuclear plant takes a lot of time, and I inferred years. I hope knowledgeable parties will pipe up in comments.

And there is the wee issue that European leaders like Ursula von der Leyen keep talking up sanctioning Russian nuclear fuel. My understanding is that this move would considerably constrain Western supplies.

By Tyler J. Kelley, a freelance science journalist and who has reported extensively on nuclear power. He is also the author of “Holding Back the River: The Struggle Against Nature on America’s Waterways.” Originally published at Undark

When Russian forces attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, back in March, many watched on in horror. “By the grace of God, the world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe last night,” said the United States ambassador to the United Nations the next morning. When power was cut to Chernobyl five days later, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister tweeted that its reserve diesel generators only had a 48-hour capacity and that radiation leaks were “imminent.” And several months later, in an August video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky discussed the ongoing occupation of Zaporizhzhia, claiming that “every minute the Russian troops stay at the nuclear power plant is a risk of a global radiation disaster.”

None of these statements were accurate.

Commentators, either through ignorance or willful denial, misunderstood the layers of redundant safety systems built into nuclear plants like Zaporizhzhia. If power from the grid was cut, generators would turn on; if primary coolant was lost, a secondary system would kick in. A “catastrophe” or “disaster” would require a lengthy series of human errors and system malfunctions. Such a chain of events might hypothetically occur, as it did at Three Mile Island, but it couldn’t happen from shelling and loss of power alone. A reactor would not and could not go off like a bomb.

Meanwhile, the highly radioactive mass inside Chernobyl is basically invulnerable, surrounded by a huge cement and metal sarcophagus, as well as an even bigger, $1.6 billion, airplane hangar-like structure designed to withstand earthquakes and tornadoes. A recent International Atomic Energy Agency report concluded that, even without electricity, Chernobyl’s 25-year old uranium fuel rods were covered with enough water to prevent them from becoming dangerous.

But the fact that so many people didn’t understand all the safeguards that were — and still are — in place is predictable. After all, nuclear power has always been overshadowed by rhetoric: overpromising techno-utopians on one hand, and fearmongering doomsayers on the other. These twin narratives have dominated public opinion since Marie and Pierre Curie publicized both the terrible dangers and wondrous benefits of radiation, and they have persisted through recent coverage of the war in Ukraine.

Both narratives date from a time when no one cared how much carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere. Today, when emissions are of paramount importance, the way we value technologies has changed. And nuclear power has a previously unacknowledged upside: It emits practically nothing.

Like wind and solar power, nuclear generates electricity without burning fossil fuels. But the mining and manufacturing processes behind wind turbine blades, solar panels, and uranium pellets do have carbon footprints. Considering this, an analysis by Our World in Data concluded that nuclear generates 3 tons of greenhouse gasses per terra-watt hour (TWh) of electricity produced, while wind generates 4, and solar 5.

Then there’s safety: The same analysis estimated the fatality rate for nuclear at 0.07 deaths per TWh, higher than wind, 0.04, and solar, 0.02. But lower than natural gas, estimated at 2.8 deaths per TWh, and much lower than coal power, at 24.6. Though risks can be complicated, and estimating deaths can often be speculative, there’s now plenty of evidence that, with climate impacts and other elements factored in, nuclear is way safer than many alternatives.

Yet, in a poll conducted by The Economist and YouGov, a market research company, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, 47 percent of Americans said they didn’t think nuclear power plants were safe.

To be clear: nuclear power has real downsides. Uranium mining is destructive and toxic. Spent fuel has to be carefully and expensively sealed and stored. And, however small, there is the risk of radiation releases and meltdowns. The small amount of radiation that escaped from Three Mile Island — long dismissed as harmless by experts and the government — has led to localized increases in several kinds of cancer, according to a 2022 paperpublished in the journal Risks Hazards Crisis Public Policy. Wind and solar power may well be cheaper and less risky. But that doesn’t mean nuclear power is as bad as people think it is.

Rather than actual statistical risk, the majority of citizens rely on risk perception, according to Paul Slovic, a professor at the University of Oregon and an expert on risk and decision making. In a 1987 article published in the journal Science, Slovic writes, “For these people, experience with hazards tends to come from the news media.” He cites a study from 1980, in which various groups were asked to rank 30 activities and technologies in order of risk. College students and members of the League of Women Voters assigned number 1, the highest risk, to nuclear power, ahead of hand guns and smoking. Experts ranked nuclear power at 20; motor vehicles at 1, smoking at 2, and hand guns at 4.

Slovic blamed this massive gap on “extensive unfavorable media coverage,” “deep anxieties,” and a “strong association between nuclear power and the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons.”

Utilities worked hard to separate weapons from reactors by replacing the word “atomic” with “nuclear.” But activists re-conflated the two by coining the term “nukes.” A 1979 protest march in Washington, D.C. — held a month after the Three Mile Island accident, which occurred near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — used the slogan: “In every Harrisburg, there’s a Hiroshima waiting to happen.”

This surge in anti-nuclear activism corresponded to a market-driven decline in the power sector. Dozens of nuclear reactors then on order were cancelled. Three Mile Island took the blame, and activists took the credit. But, in fact, all kinds of proposed power projects were being cancelled, as the country entered recession following the 1973 oil crisis. When the U.S. again needed electrical generating capacity, in the early 2000s, policymakers chose to incentivize natural gas. As gas replaced coal, overall power sector emissions went down, but they could have come down farther if nuclear had taken coal’s market share instead.

It’s hard to tell the truth about radiation. There’s a lot we still don’t know — for example, how much radiation is harmful is hotly debated to this day. What’s needed is a clear-eyed assessment of costs and benefits, free from fear, free from corporate and institutional bias, and free — most of all — from hyperbolic political and media narratives. Strip away the fear and look at the facts, and we’d see that nuclear energy has always been relatively safe, while climate change is very dangerous.

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  1. John R Moffett

    Nuclear waste. Nowhere to put it safely, and it just keeps mounting up. It will be decades before the current waste is dealt with, if then.

    1. Joe Well

      The standard reply is just to store it in situ near the reactor, encased in concrete like at Chernobyl, and that some day they will likely find a way to recycle it anyway.

    2. Retired Carpenter

      re: Nuclear waste
      One could use “breeder reactors (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breeder_reactor ) but that creates other problems.

      The effort required to reactivate a “mothballed plant” depends on what one means by “mothballed”. In some cases it means installing a new reactor in an old site. In other cases, if the reactor was kept idling, it might be ramped up w/ less -but still considerable- effort. See: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reactivating-nuclear-reactors-to-fight-climate-change/

      Nuclear safety is a major societal concern. Leaving this to the diktats of private sector MBAs and their pet regulators might not be ideal.

      Retired Carpenter

      1. Old Jake

        O. C. you just nailed it. Nuclear reactors can be operated safely. The waste products can be handled safely. Oftentimes they have been. Several times they have not. In fact the waste products seem to be building up in temporary storage with no permanent solution in sight (I’d love to learn I’m wrong about this). We can be certain there will again be more failures, humans being as they are and MBAs and Capitalists acting as they do. What we have seen is that when these failures occur the results are catastrophic. We have excellent reasons, experiences, to have no trust in those who are managing these facilities, and who seem to want more of them.

        NB, I live not too far from Hanford.

        And then there are the alternatives… not encouraging.

    3. KD

      America has so much waste because we don’t reprocess nuclear fuel like France. That could end tomorrow, and most of the “waste” would become valuable precursor to new fuel rods, without adapting to new technology. France has a small fraction of our waste.

      Second, you can make useful thorium fuel rods with uranium waste that can burn cleaner for longer.



      This sharply reduces waste (half life of waste is related to degree of fission energy left so any “waste” with a geological half-life is actually adaptable to be new fuel, if the greens and the uranium miners would let you use it).

      Last, new reactor designs, especially liquid salt designs, do not explode if there is a melt down, so safety issues are negligible from the standpoint of a future Chernobyl or Fukushima.

      There definitely needs to be a new generation of nuclear plant/fuel designs, and that will take money and time and there needs to be something in place in the midterm, but it is hard to see any way forward for humanity short of an apocalypse that does not rely on nuclear fission (unless fusion become feasible and creates less problems).

        1. KD

          Here is the original at Oak Ridge:


          BTW, this was developed because the air force wanted an atomic plane. Conventional nuclear fission light water reactors are large versions of power sources for nuclear subs.

          Here is a project underway in Indonesia:


          Here is Wiki on reprocessing:


          As far as an actual Thorium breeder, that is not commercially viable right now, but if you get commercial liquid salt reactors using U233 cycle, then you could develop a Thorium module to produce your U233.

          But we are talking about engineering problems, not cutting edge science stuff, with these technologies.

          1. Karl

            Thanks for that link on Indonesia’s work on a molten salt thorium reactor. However, the “Team” working on this seems full of enthusiasm but lacking in financial backing.

            China reportedly has been working on this technology as well.

            It’s amazing that US R&D dollars are not going into this promising technology. A promising prototype was built in the 1950’s at Oak Ridge, then cancelled by Nixon, because the assumption was we’d have a plutonium-based economy, ultimately with liquid sodium breeder reactors.

            An alternative vision for renewables was proposed by Amory Lovins in 1976 with his influential “Soft Energy Paths”. The light water reactor boosters prevailed with Nixon, but Carter kept the flame alive by starting another DOE lab dedicated to conservation and renewables — NREL. If it hadn’t been for NREL and other government initiatives (like Al Gore’s battery consortium in the early ’90’s) funding R&D in wind, solar, and other technologies we wouldn’t be where we are today.

            Amory Lovins and other renewables pioneers turned out to be right, but they were almost five decades ahead of their time.

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        It is hard to see any way forward for humanity short of an apocalypse that does not rely on nuclear fission (unless fusion become feasible and creates less problems).

        Yep. This is why I support nuclear power. Not because it’s without significant technical challenges and even more extreme political challenges (it definitely has both), but because I don’t see any other way for humanity to significantly reduce its CO2 emissions without requiring extreme lifestyle modifications that most people won’t accept.

        We’re not going to get there with renewables. The need for energy storage to smooth out supply variations is simply too great. And without it, every new MW of renewable energy asset that is deployed will increase the percentage of renewable power that gets curtailed. Just look at trends in California and the UK:


        This will get worse as they deploy more solar and wind. It will get worse as their neighbors deploy more solar and wind. And all of the energy storage systems being deployed these days are wildly too small.

        James Hansen made a similar criticism of renewables here: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2018/06/26/thirty-years-later-what-needs-change-our-approach-climate-change/dUhizA5ubUSzJLJVZqv6GP/story.html:

        The notion that renewable energies and batteries alone will provide all needed energy is fantastical. It is also a grotesque idea, because of the staggering environmental pollution from mining and material disposal, if all energy was derived from renewables and batteries. Worse, tricking the public to accept the fantasy of 100 percent renewables means that, in reality, fossil fuels reign and climate change grows.

        If renewables and batteries won’t do the job, what’s left? Nuclear. We either figure it out or learn how to live with the unstoppable wave of CO2 emissions.

        1. Karl

          Nuclear is prohibitively expensive in the U.S.–$10,000/KW here vs. $2000/KW in South Korea and France. The Vogtle plant in Georgia has been under construction for 14 years, so far costs $28 billion dollars, and still isn’t finished. Vogtle was supposed to demonstrate we finally learned from past mistakes how to build nuclear plants economically. We didn’t.

          Don’t get carried away thinking nuclear can backstop intermittent generation sources like solar and wind. Nuclear has inherent drawbacks for ramping up and down quickly. Westinghouse’s API 1000 is supposed to be able to vary output over a 50%-100% range, but nuclear ends up being run flat out to keep costs/kwh low. They are just too expensive to run at partial power.

          Solar and wind becomes statistically more “steady” when you have a large portfolio of generators spread over a very large (e.g. regional or national) “smart grid”. Because the wind is always blowing somewhere and, during the day, the sun is always shining somewhere. At night, when the sun isn’t shining, electricity demand falls significantly.

          A national “smart grid” has long been proposed. It sounds too centralized to fly politically at the moment, but it’s time is coming.

          1. Grumpy Engineer

            Don’t get carried away thinking nuclear can backstop intermittent generation sources like solar and wind. Nuclear has inherent drawbacks for ramping up and down quickly.

            Why would you use nuclear as a backstop to renewables? If you’re going to go nuclear, you may as well run it all the time (thereby reducing thermal fatigue cycles and spreading capital costs out over more kWh delivered) and skip the renewables entirely. And how would the economics of “cheap” renewable power work out if it were relegated to serve as a backstop for nuclear? Quite poorly, I assure you.

            Because the wind is always blowing somewhere and, during the day, the sun is always shining somewhere.

            Sure, the sun may be shining brightly over the Indian Ocean when it’s 1AM here, but that’s too far away. We’d spend over $3 trillion on HVDC cables alone trying to make a connection to here. But when it’s 1AM here, the entire North American continent is dark. This is true for ~8 hours every night, and it’s actually worse in the wintertime when nights are longer and electricity demand is greater.

            At night, when the sun isn’t shining, electricity demand falls significantly.

            That’s true in the summer, but not in the winter. Peak electrical demand is around 7AM in the winter, when the night air is still cold and people are activating hot water heaters and kitchen appliances by taking showers and cooking breakfast. And this tendency will get worse as oil- and gas-fired furnaces are replaced with heat pumps in colder climates.

            1. Karl

              Gee, Grumpy, it looks like you’re so grumpy you got carried away with your own opinions.

              Do you know anything about managing a power grid? About utility rate-setting? I do.

              Why does Westinghouse brag that their API 1000 can ramp up and down 50-100%? Because the grid operator needs dispatchable power. Because with renewables on the grid, dispatchability (“capacity” as opposed to “energy”) is the name of the game.LWR’s like steady-state operation. It’s like having a big big plant with very sluggish brakes and throttle. Having a big chunk of your grid demanding to run flat out is actually a problem, not a benefit, to the grid operator.

              So, you have to deal with the grid as it is, not as you’d like it to be to “fit” the economics of nuclear energy. And those economics must accept a very high percentage of the grid’s energy being intermittent during the day and much of the night (wind).

              Yes the sun doesn’t shine at night. You’d still need something to fill the troughs renewables leave at night, when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine. Using nuclear just to fill those voids is prohibitively expensive, as I explained. Your utility commission would have problems with the rates you’d need to charge for that plant.

              Get the costs down, the horrendous waste problems, the proliferation risks and other problems solved, and we could have a semi-intelligent conversation about LWR’s. In about thirty years, maybe. Molten salt Thorium is another matter. But that, too, may require 30 years.

              No wonder you’re grumpy!

              1. Grumpy Engineer

                Do you know anything about managing a power grid?

                Oh, yes. Quite a lot. But I’m making different assumptions than you. You’re assuming a renewables-heavy grid where renewables would run whenever the weather permits, with nuclear relegated to a backstop. That’s a stupid scheme, and I don’t see why anybody would do that.

                Instead, I’m proposing a mostly nuclear grid, with dispatchable storage and hydro being used to address demand swings over the course of the day. Existing wind and solar would be largely decommissioned, or at least relegated to secondary provider status (which means they’d be under curtailment most of the time). Under such a scenario, the nuclear stations could run pretty close to steady-state.

                And the reason I advocate such a grid instead of a renewables-based one is this: “You’d still need something to fill the troughs renewables leave at night, when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine.” At present, we’re using fracked natural gas for this purpose. The Germans are using an alarming amounts of coal. Yes, both are cheap, but if your goal is to get greenhouse gas emissions down to less than 15% of what we emit today (as the IPCC recommends), these are steps in the wrong direction.

                Some people advocate using battery storage stations for those windless nights, but if you do the math on how much battery we’d need versus how much we can manufacture, you’ll see that it’s not a viable option.

                And if the South Koreans can build nuclear stations for $2000/kW, why can’t we? Perhaps we should hire them.

                1. Karl

                  Saying you’re assuming a nuclear-heavy grid is a scenario that won’t be realized until the costs and other problems with nukes come down.

                  You’re right, something will be needed to fill the peaks and valleys from intermittent renewable power. I never assumed we’d rely entirely on renewables or renewable-based storage beyond conventional hydro.

                  We’ll continue to need to support renewables on the grid with cheap natural gas turbines (where there is insufficient hydro). That’s what we do now.

                  It makes absolutely no sense to assume all of the costs and risks of an all-nuclear grid just to avoid the small amount of CO2 emitted by gas peaking plants. That would be a foolish diversion of capital that could be put to better use, e.g. electrifying transportation.

                  1. Grumpy Engineer

                    The small amount of CO2 emitted by gas peaking plants“?

                    If only that were true. Wind and solar only produce 12% of US electricity, and hydro/biomass produces another 8% or so. Natural gas, coal, and petroleum produce 61%. Nuclear produces the remaining 9%.

                    We can’t realistically expand our hydro resources any further, and without massive amounts of storage, about the best we could expect wind and solar to do is 20% or so before intermittency issues destabilize the grid. We could probably get to 30% by over-provisioning the winds and solar and adding lots of synchronous condensers with flywheels, but that adds a LOT of capital costs for only a little more capacity.

                    In this scenario where wind and solar get to 30% of the total, with hydro/biomass doing 8% and nuclear doing 19%, that still leaves coal and gas doing 43% of total electricity production. And even if all of the reduction is in coal, we only reduce CO2 emissions 44%, which is a far cry from the 85% (or better) reduction that we really ought to achieve.

                    Until we deploy MASSIVE storage assets (far more than I believe we can realistically build), that “small amount of CO2 emitted by gas peaking plants” will be much larger than expected.

                    1. Karl

                      Consider a portfolio of just 3 generator types: Wind, Solar and natural gas electricity generation over an integrated grid over a large region, say the entire Midwest. Also assume Demand Side Management (DSM) whereby the utility can contractually curtail demand for short periods during peak periods (large refrigeration, water heaters, etc.). Such utility control for DSM, via smart metering, now exists.

                      The amount of gas needed to fill the supply deficits that will occur will depend on the nameplate GW of the solar and wind over this region in relation to peak demand. The higher this capacity above peak demand (it could be several multiples), the lower the natural gas needed. The more DSM, the less natural gas needed. The larger the area of grid integration over which to average out the intermittency, the smoother the changes from hour to hour and the less natural gas needed. Keep adding more wind and solar at strategic spots to seasonally smooth further.

                      You will never get the natural gas component down to zero, but I think it could be pretty darned low.

                      Add storage and you could eliminate natural gas entirely. Pumped storage could be a lot cheaper and quicker if there were adequate incentives.

                      The “Social Cost of Carbon” is now estimated at around $180/mtCO2. I would also incentivize nuclear as well, and if it’s cheaper than what I propose above (under fair accounting of all internal and external costs of all of these types of generation) I’ll definitely concede that we should pursue nuclear full-stop. It’s possible that the zero-CO2 solution is to replace the remaining gas peakers with Small Modular Reactor peakers, assuming they could load-follow reliably.

                      All means to reduce CO2 economically and efficiently should be pursued!

          2. p fitzsimon

            The Natrium reactor, which is seeking NRC approval and offered by TerraPower, a U.S. company, would use heat from the reactor to store energy in molten salt as a backup for intermittent solar and wind. Nuclear plants can be designed to ramp, the problem is idle capital. Nuclear has the same problem as wind and solar, high capital cost but cheap fuel. To be cost competitive you need to run them all the time or as often as possible. In New England there is enormous pressure to ramp down gas plants when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing and ramp up when the weather changes. This makes wind and solar look good but it makes gas plants expensive. The nuclear plants are on line all the time.

          3. podcastkid

            No time to go farther. Glad you nailed it.

            Owing to the nature of this site readers should know something about the not-enough-staff-paradigm. Just because nukes might not meltdown due to some faulty chip doesn’t mean CEOs, private equity, and whatever other entities will go repenting over how they’ve understaffed every business that’s out there [like nuclear power stations, and I mean SMART engineers]. Dealing with that is probably almost as big a challenge as getting nukes safe (though not as big IMO…impossible). This is one of those uncomfortable issues like getting economists to curb their ranting, and give a little thought to Ukraine turning into WWIII (why Naked Capitalism is right on). First things first (it really riles up “experts” and academicians).

            On fusion search “reactors not what they’re cracked up to be…”

        2. Rolf

          If renewables and batteries won’t do the job, what’s left? Nuclear. We either figure it out or learn how to live with the unstoppable wave of CO2 emissions.

          I’m late to this party, but agree wholeheartedly with your statement, GE.

        3. Cine Tee

          Nuclear power is unavoidable simply because it’s free, unlimited, and the only pollution is heat. Also because we’ll need far more power than we currently generate as Africa and Indonesia get refrigerators and washing machines, to start with.

          And the possibility of unbounded power moves the civilization to a new level of capability. Whether it’s large scale desalination, re-capturing carbon, re-directing ocean currents to control weather patterns, and moving large amounts of material to orbit for expanding human, commercial, and industrial activity to the solar system.

          The past safety issues were mainly caused by considerations not related with the requirements for fission power generation. For example, Chernobyl was a graphite reactor, which made Plutonium for nuclear weapons. It had to have an open top to replace the fuel rods monthly. Other problems of the industry were caused by uninformed fears. We move around highly deadly chemicals, but transporting nuclear waste is politically almost impossible even though it can be done far safer.

          Fusion won’t be a possibility for a long time because it’ll start off centralized, while fission scales down to small sizes, like cars. Fission can be made inherently safe so that the reaction only works when very accurate tuning and control keeps it running. There are already new fission technologies which make all past experience with nuclear safety irrelevant.

          The footprint of mining fissile material and storing waste is minuscule compared with the scale of destruction caused by coal mining, oil and gas drilling, along with the pollution. The materials and processing needed to make planetary scale solar and wind generation facilities, the size of land surface taken from human activity are a vast cost.

          The imagined fears by the uninformed public prevent the investment into moving the technology forward, while large scale pollution and potentially planetary level damage continues.

          A high level of safety is essential, but the past Rube Goldberg approach was driven by optics and political requirements, while creating more technical risks which only show up at outlier events. That’s backward, outlier events should drive the system to safety, which would’ve been possible decades ago if we didn’t make the reactors so expensive with uninformed requirements and couldn’t spend the money on more expensive technical approaches where the safety is harder to explain to the public.

          It seems we need to start fresh with no prejudice, recognize the vast advantages, remove uninformed constraints, and require inherent safety.

    4. Louis Fyne

      having nuclear waste lying around still beats the acidification of the oceans.

      one’s mileage may vary

      1. Karl

        having nuclear waste lying around still beats the acidification of the oceans.

        Insane. Did you forget /s (for sarcasm?).

    5. steelhead23

      As a child I learned to clean-up the messes I had made. Until we figure out how to safely manage the waste generated by nuclear power plants we should not make the mess by building more. On the other hand, nuclear reactors create useful products, used everywhere from medicine to oil exploration. We need them and we cannot put the nuclear genie back in its bottle. Much of Utah, Nevada, and the Mancos shale in Colorado could safely store the waste for thousands of years, but no one in those area want the waste made elsewhere to be deposited in their back yard. If we are to build more nuclear reactors, let’s solve the waste problem first.

      1. tevhatch

        Per comment I made in links, wind turbines shed PFOS and other forever chemicals that last longer that radiation, and funny enough, the longer the half-life, the less hazardous the radioactivity. The element itself might kill you, after all it’s what makes coal ash so deadly to the environment, though we’re happy to have that getting into the water system all the time.

        Is Nuclear Power Green?
        Nuclear Waste: What Do We Do With It?

    6. Tim

      We store oil in salt mines. I’m don’t understand why there isn’t a similar solution for nuclear. Isolate it from humans and anything that would allow transport to humans like a water table next to or below it, and let it melt to the middle of the earth if it wants. Mix and mold some roman concrete with pictures of somebody opening up a sealed entrance and dying to ward off people for millennia. What am I missing?

      1. Jeff W

        Finland’s doing it. The “world’s first permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste”—430 meters below ground—is designed “to store spent fuel rods for 100,000 years.”

      2. Michaelmas

        Tim: I’m don’t understand why there isn’t a similar solution for nuclear.

        Because it’s not nuclear waste. It’s partially spent fuel, with only 3 to 7 percent of its extractable energy content used up after a single reactor cycle.

        Consequently, everybody in the industry or who knows anything expects that inevitably, in the fullness of time, what we now pretend is ‘nuclear waste’ sitting in spent fuel pools around reactor plants — in quite alarming quantitites at this point — will be reprocessed and used.

        So why bury it, if we’re just going to dig it up again one day?

        Seriously. If you go back in history, the whole concept of ‘nuclear waste’ doesn’t really gain any currency till the Carter administration’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act in 1978, when the US wanted to stop the spread of nuclear reprocessing, because reprocessing capability is also enrichment capability, and the US wanted to preserve its nuclear weapons dominance.

        Thereafter, the concept ‘nuclear waste’ suddenly gets promoted far and wide. Nevertheless, everybody in the industry expects that one day — maybe twenty years from now, maybe ninety — that so-called ‘nuclear waste’ is going to get reprocessed and used.

        1. BeliTsari

          PS: we don’t “store oil,” we BURN it. We inject more incredibly lethal waste from fracked wells & bitumen production down old, destroyed, leaky ass bores, mines and basically wherever there’s no obvious FLIR camera. Then “we” made it a felony to investigate, let alone gather evidence or report dumping, blow-outs, unflared gas, spewing from processing infrastructure. If you’re upset that very expensively educated, affluent PMC folks remain speciously oblivious to concealed reality, you’re silenced?


      3. Gordon

        Nuclear waste is a cocktail of isotopes that generate a lot of heat by radioactive decay. The ones with short half-lives decay quickly but those with middling half-lives produce heat for many years. The very long half-live isotopes aren’t such a problem as they decay over millennia and therefore generate minimal heat.

        Rock is, however, a bad conductor of heat so nuclear waste can’t be buried until it’s producing very little or the surrounding rock would melt. That means it must stay above ground for decades after it’s come out of the reactor even absent considerations of reusing it as fuel.

        I remember a lecture I attended as a student in the early 70 from a professor who later went on to become very prominent in official UK waste planning. The plan was to take the spent fuel (once sufficiently cool) and encase it in a series of physical and chemical barriers. The scheme went roughly (I don’t remember the details) – make into a glass (chemical), enclose in stainless steel (physical), surround with adsorbent clay (chemical), and so on like an onion. Then bury it in stable ancient rocks far from any elevated topography that might create a hydrostatic head causing water to circulate through the bedrock.

        The ideal location in the UK was, he said, near the small town of Huntingdon, a few miles northwest of Cambridge. That’s flat country and the ancient rocks of the Baltic Shield that haven’t changed for a billion years or more are apparently very near the surface under a thin veneer of recent sediments.

        Many years later it was decided (inasmuch as anything nuclear ever isdecided) to put the repository on the northwest coast of England close to England’s highest mountains but conveniently far from any centres of political power. I’m sure this had nothing to do with the fact that John Major, then Prime Minister, was MP for Huntingdon at the time!

    7. Keith

      Three issues with nuclear; waste, insurance and leakage
      Canada is contemplating storing all of its waste underground, right next to Lake Huron. I can’t see a problem with that.
      No nuke plant can get insurance. It is covered by the government in whose jurisdiction it resides. I can’t see a problem with that.
      Ontrios Bruce plant has had a series of “small” leaks. Tritium levels in surrounding areas water supply have periodic peaks well beyond “suggested” safety levels. I can’t see a problem with that.
      The only way we are going to be able to progress forward is to have a massive conservation program in place for electrical and fossil fuels. For the price of nuclear plant we could start that.
      But as in all things, money talks.

  2. Joe Well

    Great! Let’s get started building those reactors on Martha’s Vineyard, the Hamptons, the Upper East Side of Manhattan…or better yet build them in working class areas as a bulwark against gentrification. /s

    1. Kurtismayfield

      Why do you think they closed Shoreham nuclear power plant in NY? It was too close to the east end of LI… The evacuation plan had to be approved by many of the communities out there in the East end, and it was not surprising that they said no.

    2. BeliTsari

      Thank you! I’d suggested using the Jackie O for cooling a RBMK-1000 or 台山核电站 in Central Park. But here’s what’s GOING to happen, and where. Guess who’s in charge? I’d joked, years back about fracking ethane with the cooling loop. They’ll be charging convoys of autonomous range-extended EV triple trucks, with some totally undocumented “attendent” being serviced in the sleeping compartment


  3. ambrit

    When you begin an article with the ludicrous statement “When Russian forces attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant..” you have lost all credibility. To highlight your gullibility to western propaganda at the start poisons all your arguments that follow.
    I’ll venture to say that atomic power can be managed safely. However, the present system in place world wide is not the optimal method, if safety is your goal. I have read elsewhere that the production of plutonium for atomic warheads was a primary consideration for the design of the commercial reactors back in the “bad old days.”
    See: https://rmi.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/RMI_Document_Repository_Public-Reprts_S80-01_NucWeaponsAndPluto.pdf
    Stay safe! Keep that potassium iodide handy!

    1. JohnA

      Yes, that opening statement is ridiculous. But perhaps publication was absolutely conditional on demonising Russia. That sadly seems to be the case these days.

    2. Joe Well

      The obvious solution to safety issues is to put the reactors somewhere far from populated areas, but then at least in the US that would require better transmission lines and a more rationally organized grid. That also would be a requirement for optimal use of solar and wind.

      Which raises the question of, how can you entrust nuclear safety to a society that can’t even keep all its power lines from melting and transformers from overheating and blowing up?

      1. Polar Socialist

        Nuclear reactors are basically huge heat engines, so they require enormous amounts of fresh water to cool them. This means that there are actually quite a limited number of places where they can be constructed. Since people also require enormous amounts of fresh water, the available places tend to be inhabited.

        Of course many power plants do use seawater in the secondary cooling system, but it’s rather corrosive as it is and thus is causing issues requiring much more engineering to solve.

        1. digi_owl

          Yeah, didn’t France run into a problem this summer where the heat wave forced them to shut down plants in order to not harm the local river wildlife?

          Do wonder what temps the river water would have reached otherwise.

          1. The Heretic

            Nuclear power plant can be designed to be aircooled. The heat expulsion/ cooling systems would have to be substantially larger than they are now to accommodate the use of air as a coolant. (Note, the fluid around the reactor used to generate power might still be some sort of fluid. It is this fluid that transfer the excess and unusable heat from the reactor to the air, instead of river water)

            1. Nax

              The British actually created an air cooled nuclear reactor at Windscale. Unfortunately they discovered the hard way that if you have a reactor fire in an air cooled reactor then things go… poorly for neighborhoods near the chimney.

              After that I think air cooled reactors rather went out of fashion.

              And they renamed the Windscale nuclear plant to Sellafield so they could pretend it never happened.

              1. Revenant

                Windscale was optimised for plutonium production, not power. The cooling was required only to keep reactor from melting, not to maximise heat extraction for steam turbines.

        2. tevhatch

          Salt water will do just fine for cooling. At least through 2019 all of China’s reactors are Ocean or Brackish cooled. France built some reactors on rivers because of limits on distribution distance of AC before DC distribution technology was mature.

          1. converger

            Salt water cooling means ocean warming. Which, combined with climate-caused ocean warming, has wiped out the coastal marine ecosystem at Diablo Canyon.

            1. tevhatch

              Ah, really? Drive a car, take a plane, heat your home, cool your home? The latent heat of nuclear power is no more than the latent heat from the equivalent from any other power source, including solar. Look up the emissivity for solar panels if you doubt.

      2. Valerie in Australia

        Joe Well,

        It is not just “entrusting nuclear safety to a society” that can’t manage myriad unexpected problems – it is that we will be entrusting nuclear safety to private corporations with shaky oversight by the U.S. government (think the FDA). Not too long ago, I spoke to an engineer who told me the problem wasn’t new nuclear power plants, it was the old ones. Yet I just heard a proponent on what I would consider a reliable and researched show – a nuclear engineer – who claimed all the 30+ year old plants in Europe and the U.S could run for 100 years. That sent off alarm bells.

        Plus, didn’t Japan announce they were “solving” their problem of what to do with the “treated” radioactive water used to cool the fuel rods into the ocean in 2023? Who couldn’t see that this “solution” has the potential to be riddled with serious problems? Is that how multinational corporations and governments can be trusted to deal with nuclear waste?

        When I look at the power Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Ag and the MIC have over our Congress and governments in general and how they manage to evade laws and rules designed to protect the masses, I have absolutely no faith that something as profitable as nuclear energy will be properly managed with the health and well being of the public in mind.

    3. JCC

      It started to poison all the arguments that followed until I read this:

      None of these statements were accurate.

      1. ambrit

        I found that final statement to be too vague. The initial sentence demonizing Russia was couched in terms suggesting that it is a bald statement of fact. No quotation marks around it. Later ‘statements’ in that initial paragraph were marked off by quotation marks. This confuses the issue.
        I tend to find merit in JohnA’s suggestion that the initial sentence was required for purposes of “Virtue Signaling” and ideological purity signaling purposes.
        Perhaps an editor added this sentence to the article between it’s submission and it’s publication, independently of the author.

    4. Elmagnostic

      ‘When Russian forces attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. . .”

      Agreed. Whether the rest of this piece is also incorrect I’ll never know. That journey of a 1000 miles’ first step doesn’t begin with an ahistorical cliff fall this steep.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        You are manifesting the cognitive bias called halo effect, which is seeing things as all good or all bad. Halo effect is why pretty people are seen as smarter, so you are self-identifying as reacting that way too.

        Pray tell why do you expect someone who professes expertise in alternative energy sources to also be an expert in geopolitics? The fact is the IAEA refused to say the Russians weren’t bombing the plant, while the MSM did. So no authoritative source in Western eyes has said Ukraine was shelling the plant.

    5. redleg

      I was struck by this too, but realized that the Russians didn’t get there until March. I think that the author is referring to the initial push in the earliest stages of the SMO/war, and in that context it makes sense. Subsequent attacks aren’t mentioned in the article. Remember that the Russians also captured Chernobyl in the first week, which caused much pearl clutching in the US media, and I haven’t heard a peep about it since.

    6. Cine Tee

      I think she was referring to the original attack by the Russians when they captured the plant from the Ukrainians.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      For example, there’s a story in Links about First Energy, the company that bribed the Ohio legislature to get them to put the burden of shutting down and cleaning up its nuke plant on the taxpayers.

      As the competence level of elites falls and their corruption level rises, the precautionary principle says not only don’t build more nuke plants but also plan to shut down the ones we have before incompetence, corner-cutting or civil strife turns one of these plants into a killer.

      1. BeliTsari

        Thank you, that summarizes the ACTUAL, never reported concerns of those of us that grew up downwind of Shippingport & Beaver. Knew people who’d dealt directly with Beddis’ dumping, lived in Apollo. Worked with the folks who’d raced their family out of great paying inspection gigs in Middletown, PA. Or lived a couple ridges over from two National Guard kids with Stingers, at Susquehanna, protecting NYC from a 767 topping a 700′ ridge to plow into the rod storage in 2001? Stories EVERYWHERE, never ever mentioned.


  4. Pat

    Besides the spent fuel issue, let’s not forget that society no longer thinks or builds for long term. While I think that Americans have led the way in planned obsolescence engineering, it has infected every aspect of our lives. Build cheap (or very expensive disguised as cheap), build fast and build to need a replacement is more and more the only standard we seem to know. Because it makes all the right people rich. Does anyone really think a nuclear power plant is exempt from this? And that doesn’t even consider how many of our experts and craftsman really don’t know the difference anymore.

    I can imagine it now. “Ooh this experimental material is cheap, easy to work with and our computer models say it will last a hundred years, let’s use it.” And then they cut corners constructing with that. We might not even get to a meltdown or twenty years of fuel rods….

    It is minor in comparison but after years of building the Second Avenue subway in NYC the new stations showed signs of water damage on the tiles and walls within a year of opening.
    Because leaks don’t ever erode tunnel structures.

  5. GeoCrackr

    In addition to the waste issue others have already mentioned, the primary reason I’m anti-nuclear power is: would you trust any nuclear facility built and run in the anti-regulatory regime that’s only been getting stronger the last 40 years?

    1. LY

      Nuclear power doesn’t play well with neoliberalism. Not just deregulation, but lack of industrial policy and lack of state support.

      Japan and France do nuclear better than most, and they’re also the same places that pioneered high speed rail.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Gotta love how the Japanese built and now “manage” the Fukushima thing. Japan might be a “high trust society,” with effective repression of dissent and “disobedience.” So the west coast of the US will enjoy a little taste of various isotopes from the “slightly contaminated water” the Japanese are sluicing into the Pacific.

        1. Kouros

          Hear, hear!

          This reminds me of Yanis Varoufakis twitter posted here on NC concerning the small corruption in Southern Europe, and the gigantic, institutionalized corruption in advanced Northern European countries. Japan is the same.

        2. Michaelmas

          JTMcPhee: Gotta love how the Japanese built and now “manage” the Fukushima thing

          Not true. The Fukushima plant consists of six entirely American-designed boiling water reactors — designed by GE — and it was physically constructed by GE and TEPCO in tandem.

          The Japanese blunder was being stupid/trusting enough to import the US’s idiot model of nuclear power, based on the once-through fuel cycle.

          And the US consistently and aggressively pushed the once-through fuel cycle because nuclear power done with reprocessing (and closed fuel cycles) would have meant:-
          (1) less profits for US energy corporations and stockholders, and;
          (2) the spread of enrichment capability, which is inseparable from reprocessing capability, and the US wished to prevent that spread because it intended to preserve US nuclear weapons dominance.

          JTMcPhee: So the west coast of the US will enjoy a little taste of various isotopes from the “slightly contaminated water” the Japanese are sluicing into the Pacific.

          If so, that’s arguably only a little justice and fair payback since the responsibility is on the US for pushing its cr*p nuclear power model on Japan in the first place. Don’t you think?

            1. tevhatch

              It was, and still it, and of course its earthquake proof to a standard. The problem was inside the reactor buildings, and inside USA/Japanese culture, not the containment building.

          1. JTMcPhee

            Yes, I knew when I wrote that post that GE and Japanese or pirate partners built the Fuku plant, with, of course, really careful oversight (meant both ways) by the Japanese regulatory authority that has muffed the response to the “incident.” My guess is that there was the usual exchange of incentives and gratuities in the process, as with any big construction project. So “mistakes were made.”

            There is not the least bit of “justice” in the possible effects of washed-out nuclear material on the Canadian and US west cost. It seems the Japanese courts found considerable negligence on the part of the engineers and governmental officials involved, including the USians who “pushed [that] crap nuclear power model on Japan in the first place.” You can bet none of them will suffer in any way from the physical downstream effects of the incident.

            Some say the west coast is Sodom and Gomorrah all over again, but i don’t think God has it in for Inuit and northern native Americans and all the people who eat Pacific Ocean fish as a way of imposing some kind of distributive collective guilt and punishment on them.

            1. Michaelmas

              The US promoted the once-through nuclear fuel cycle very aggressively and fought the spread of nuclear reprocessing/enrichment technology for decades, probably including via covert CIA support for Greenpeace and other anti-nuke ‘useful idiots’ —

              Greenpeace a Money Machine, Claims Ex-Employee in Book


              ‘Okern… suggested in the book that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had a hand in starting Greenpeace in the 1970s as a global political tool, and that the group still concentrates on actions outside America, such as protests against whale hunts in Norway.

              ″I don’t think the CIA is behind Greenpeace today, but I would claim that the CIA probably helped in its birth,″ he said in the interview.

              If the whole world had gone the route the French did with nuclear power in the 1980s, we wouldn’t have the global climate problem we have today. The US did everything it could to make sure that the world didn’t go that route and created the whole current problem of ‘nuclear waste’ in order to do that, too.

              The US has a lot to answer for.

            2. Terry Flynn

              Whilst I agree with all that, there is a worrying SYSTEMIC Japanese problem with nuclear power which my best friend of 30 years (now a Dean at Tokyo Uni and thoroughly Nipponised) drew to my attention.

              When nuclear power took off, of course NIMBYism took hold. Nuclear plants are predominantly located in areas/constituencies dominated by weaker factions of the LDP. These are often historically agricultural with low lying areas with plenty of water for rice cultivation…… And of course by definition tend to be at sea level….. As he has said “this is the REAL problem of nuclear power in Japan” – see the point about generators being quickly underwater during Fukushima disaster.

              Whether you like or dislike nuclear, Japan is going to pay very very heavily for political shenanigans involved in where they put their plants. They’re all too low lying in a world of sea level rise.

  6. Matthew G. Saroff

    As an engineer who has worked on the back end (disposal) of the nuclear fuel cycle, I find the claims that nuclear power is, “Nuclear energy is greener than renewables and safer than fossil fuels,” to be risible.

    As to safety, we need not only to include loss of life at operational plants, but also potential life losses with the waste and the fact that a major incident can result in the long term abandonment of a large area. (For Chernobyl, it’s about 1000 square miles, for Fukushima about 350 square miles, and the regions will be uninhabitable for centuries)

    As to carbon emissions, most analysis do not include the carbon footprint of construction (lot of concrete) or of long term waste disposal.

    There are also issues of cost, where full costing of the whole cycle, including centuries of dealing with the nuclear waste, give a cost for the energy of many times that of the next most expensive alternative.

    You have to ignore total life-cycle costs and subsidies to make nuclear power feasible economically, and you have to ignore the total life-cycle emissions to make nuclear power environmentally feasible.

    1. Old Jake

      You forgot to mention the mining side of it. It’s not a pretty picture.The health record of uranium miners in the US is a travesty. They are treated as disposable.

    2. John Steinbach

      Plus, the enormous sunk capital & construction time costs in building a nuke, not to mention the refusal of Wall Street to fund & insurance companies to insure.

      1. BeliTsari

        Thanks for mentioning TIME. Quite aside from how much additional fossil fuel would be used, how many more wells fracked; forever-wars fought, water sources depleted & polluted (even if we ignore how unlikely we are to run out and buy Russian reactors, uranium, Chinese semiconductor, equipment and strategic minerals from ALL our many advesaries) it’d be decades wasted just implementing pretty damn sensible renewables, efficient & smart products & services (who’s equities were fueling the NASDAQ surge, right through Trump’s pals trying to crush Asian AGW-mitigating competition?) The scariest issue with bailing out the nuclear money-pit, or fracking, or bitumen, or bio-mass, or geo-engineering & carbon sequestration boondoggles is the race against TIME with methane from “our”party’s FRACKING Ponzi scheme. Reawakened fission is just icing?

    3. LAS

      Of course the “beauty” of private development corporations is that they ARE often capable of selling their plans on the basis of selective ownership of outcome benefits and externalizing from themselves the negative outcomes.

  7. praxis

    Nuclear doesn’t seem like an appealing jackpot resilient energy source. How’s the PMC gonna keep it together while it’s busy waging war against labor, Russia, China etc? Lots of proponents will argue it can be done, it can be clean etc — we also can send people to the moon. Meanwhile, spent fuel piles up, research sites never get cleaned up. The tail risk of a meltdown can be exponential leaving behind agriculture dead zones. Seems like just the kind of technology you want a rotting, decrepit society to bet the hand on. At least when we stop burning coal, the spread of coal ash also stops.

    Ready for a fire to burn through Hanford?

  8. .Tom

    The total cost of nuclear energy production became apparent in the UK when the Thatcher government couldn’t sell off the nuclear plants without subsidies. At that point we learned that nuclear energy wasn’t competitive with burning carbon fuels on cost per kWh basis. So, given 1) the overall dominance of neoliberal ideology (in Strether’s sense: “Because markets. Go die.”) and, 2) nuclear has some legit scary issues with waste and safety, it was easy to attack policies of using public money to solve those engineering problems and keep the profits of burning cabron flowing for a few more decades.

    At present it seems the private energy firms think they can make a mint from solar, wind etc so they again have the motive to work against public subsidy of nuclear, and of course they still have the (more or less legit) scare stories of nuclear.

    Personally I think we need to work on all possibly technologies in a coordinated fashion using public money.

  9. Frank Little

    Nuclear power is a tremendous scientific achievement, but I think public concerns over safety is less of a challenge than the geopolitical implications of any nuclear program. Nuclear deterrence remains the foundation of defense strategy for the US and other nuclear armed states. This, coupled with the long time to build or update plants and the long-term costs present political challenges that seem difficult if not impossible to solve.

    The US partnered with Iran to build up its civilian nuclear capabilities through the “Atoms for Peace” program in the mid-20th century. Of course that was pre-Revolution and now the US will stop at nothing to prevent Iran from having any nuclear program of any kind. Even though Iran seemed to comply with most if not all of the JCPOA’s provisions, the US blew it up. Now it is somehow the consensus view here that the deal was some kind of giveaway to Iran instead of offering them relief from sanctions we’ve imposed. Can any observer of US politics credibly argue this dynamic will change any time in the near future? I certainly don’t see it happening.

    Ironically, the deal’s opponents (along with the last 20+ years of US foreign policy) provide a rational case for Iran to pursue nuclear weapons if they haven’t been doing so already. Not having them has been taken as permission to invade, bomb, attack countries like Iraq, Libya, etc, not to mention Israel’s policy of having nukes but not telling anybody about them. As has been said many times here, the US is not agreement-capable and for better or worse there will always be the need for negotiation between states with regard to nuclear.

    In a vacuum, from my layman’s view, it would seem make sense to me to use it as an alternative to fossil fuels, at least to provide some base capacity. Unfortunately we do not live in a vacuum. As Yves mentioned, one of the largest sources of a key raw material is now under significant sanctions. That’s why even if the public opinion completely turned with respect to the safety of nuclear power, there will unfortunately always be other concerns that take priority.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Current US/UK policy on nuclear weapons seems pretty clearly to be nuclear arm twisting and blackmail, with a heavy dash of attempting to achieve a first strike capability against Russia and China and anyone else who dares to pull the wings off the soaring eagle of American imperialism. Deterrence is for wimps, say the Boltons and Nulands and the many less prominent neocon Sirens wailing away in the corridors and lobbies of the imperial capital. Public policy is privatized any more — we mopes clearly have nothing to say about what the death cult that rules us care to undertake.

      I take a little comfort in the possibly incorrect belief that these Fokkers will get burned and bloated along with the rest of us — it’s possible the Russians have built some actual game changers, both in defense against Fokkers’ attacks, and offense in terms of a combination of better-than-conventional and nuclear weapons (now on a launch on warning hair trigger, die to the US/UK reach for first strike position) that will crisp the Combined, formerly “Free” West. Backed up with a deadman switch in the form of the Perimeter system that even if the West manages a decapitation shot, all the Russian weapons that survive, and there will be a lot of them, get launched.

      “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when,
      But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day…”

  10. voislav

    A friend of mine works for a nuclear company that is doing refurbishment of several nuclear reactors in Canada (Bruce nuclear plant). Supplier on-boarding alone took 2 years, these are not parts that are commonly produced and have very specific requirements because of the high radiation environment. If restarting a nuclear plant includes reactor refurbishment, that’s a 5-7 year project, especially where there is no current reactor building, where there would be suppliers with experience to shorten the on-boarding process.

    1. chris

      Yes. Just walking down and cataloging all the conditions that need to be corrected to bring a moth balled plant back to life can take years. It requires a team of people who are intimately familiar with the plant. It requires a supply chain that may not exist in some cases too. And if you need to replace large scale equipment like reactor pumps or steam generators it’s a lot like building a ship in a bottle.

      All this can be done. All this has been done. It requires time, money, and know how. I’m not sure how much of that any western governments have any more.

    2. jefemt

      Just fast-track it like , say, an emergency vaccine authorization. No problems!

      Nuclear: Waste not, want not.

  11. chris

    You can reprocess spent fuel. You can also cinter it so that the vitrified remains are safer to keep in long term storage if desired. There are multiple options for new designs other than PWRs if people want. We don’t have to use BWRs anymore if people are scared of another Fukushima Daiishi accident. Nuclear can be very safe and reliable if properly maintained and operated by people who know what they’re doing.

    And that’s the rub.

    You can’t cut corners. You can’t put accountants in charge. You can’t try to constantly “optimize” things. You shouldn’t use nuclear for anything other than baseload. So you won’t get surge pricing and peaking premiums for selling the power. You need to commit to training the people who operate and maintain the equipment. You need to commit to a dedicated skilled staff for outage and refueling support. In short, you need to roll back what corporate America has done for the last 50 years and then protect it with effective government regulations. And all this really should be done under an industrial policy frame work so we can target the right amount of baseload for our industrial and other uses in each region.

    I like to think of myself as an optimist but I don’t have much faith any of that will happen unless the US and other countries go through an amazing series of revolutions. I think we’ll see small scale nuclear long before mass adoption by society. Like, some fancy gated communities will have a reactor the size of a dumpster that generates all the energy they need for 50 years and then they scrap the thing and get a new one.

    1. Frank Dean

      I think you have clearly expressed the key problem: nuclear power can be safe, but only if the sociopaths can be kept far away from it. Whether a human society is capable of doing this in the long term remains an open question.

      1. Synoia

        Keep the sociopaths away.

        Is this possible? I suspect that becoming a senior manager of any enterprise involves some level of sociopathy, probably inmate in senior management.

      2. .Felix_47

        I think the Chinese have over 20 reactors under construction. Under Rickover in another America years ago nuclear power for the Navy was pretty safely developed. Men like Rickover do not run anything in the US any more. Most of the Chinese leaders have STEM degrees in contrast. I think we might do best to just outsource reactor construction to the Chinese. The Americans do best with the litigation and leveraged buyouts.

        1. Karl

          Alvin Weinberg, designer of reactors for the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, taught Rickover everything he was to learn about nuclear power. Young Captain Rickover (his rank at the time) said to Weinberg: what kind of reactor should my subs have? Weinberg said they should produce a lot of power in a small space with multi-year refueling cycles. What you want is a slow neutron U235 liquid water cooled reactor, now known as the LWR. Weinberg recommended this inherently unsafe reactor to Rickover because a sub was always immersed in an LWR’s coolant, i.e. water, so a meltdown couldn’t produce a Fukushima-like catastrophe. Weinberg KNEW on grounds of basic physics that a terristrial LWR for electricity generation would be inherently unsafe. He recommended, instead, the molten salt thorium reactor, which is inherently stable, produces fewer waste products and entails low proliferation risk. It was also fairly simple (“Three Pipes”), and bred its own fuel (thorium to plutonium? or uranium, not sure).

          He was ignored. See Cipolla’s five laws of stupidity. It is because of rampant stupidity (and its frequent partner, extreme greed) that we can probably never be safe with nuclear power.

          C’est la vie.

          1. ScottB

            Cipolla published his theory anonymously in Coevolution Quarterly. I’ve been quoting it for many decades. Thanks for bringing it up.

    2. Grumpy Engineer

      You can reprocess spent fuel. You can also sinter it so that the vitrified remains are safer to keep in long term storage if desired.

      Oh yes. And what we really ought to be doing is reprocessing spent fuel rods (so that we don’t have to operate nearly as many uranium mines), vitrifying the unwanted isotopes, and burying those remnants DEEP underground. Most schemes for waste storage feature shallow storage, so that waste can be monitored and pulled back out if necessary. But if the sintered waste consist only of medium half-life fission products that have no potential use in the future, why would we ever pull it back out? We may as well borrow drilling technology from the oil & gas industry and bury it a mile or two underground. It’d be cheaper and safer.

      You shouldn’t use nuclear for anything other than baseload.

      I don’t know if I agree with this one. The French operate a subset of their reactors as “load-following” units, which are typically cycled once a day. So it’s definitely feasible. But on the other hand, it may be cheaper overall to address demand variations using energy storage. I’ve frequently criticized “all-renewable” schemes for requiring stupendous amounts of storage (the US would probably require 100 TWh), but if we have reliable base-load capability, then we don’t need nearly as much storage. I’d bet that 6 hours of 400 GW capability (for 2.4 TWh total) would be adequate. And give that worldwide battery manufacturing capability is currently about 0.6 TWh per year, we could get it done before we all die of old age. Or hit the jackpot. Whichever comes first.

      1. chris

        You can use nuclear plants to provide power in a load follow arrangement. You are correct that the French do it this way. However, what the French also have because of this are reactors with such a drastically different thermal history that they have fatigue related problems no else in the world has. Nuclear is capable of reliably putting out a lot of power. That’s why the rated capacities are so good. It’s a great option for baseload if you need the MW.

        I’d much rather local storage, load shedding, and other options be used to address peaking issues. That keeps the pressure off nuclear plants from transient conditions due to load demand.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Aye. That’s a point I hadn’t considered. Avoiding thermal cycling would definitely be a win for long-term reliability and safety. I was already fairly convinced that mating some storage with nuclear made for a better solution than nuclear alone, and now I’m even more firmly convinced.

  12. JohnA

    From 1976, the nuclear energy dominated general election started the downfall of around 50 years of continuous Social Democrat rule in Sweden and the associated prosperity. The country is now a complete mess, ruled by neoliberal dogma and a desire to become even more of a US vassal by throwing away 200 years of neutrality for the nebulous benefits of Nato membership.
    Sadly nuclear power is a complete can of worms whichever way you look at it.

  13. jhg

    Currently in Ontario, Canada, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) operates the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station and Bruce Power operates the Bruce Nuclear Stations A and B.
    There is currently ongoing long term projects to refurbish these stations to allow them to operate to about 2064. Darlington has 4 CANDU reactors and there are 8 CANDU reactors at the Bruce.
    OPG also operates the Pickering Generating Station (8 CANDUs) and is undergoing a feasibility study to extend the life of Pickering Nuclear Station B
    The CANDU reactors are pressurized heavy water reactors that use natural uranium fuel (non-enriched) and have been on-line since Bruce A commissioned in the late 1970s.
    The people of Ontario, for the most part, seem to hold a positive opinion of nuclear power.

  14. Wukchumni

    My buddy graduated as a nuclear engineer in the late 70’s and his timing was spectacularly bad, so he had to go find a job doing something else.

    He and his misses are hunting down the 100 largest Giant Sequoias, so he went from specializing in the tiniest things imaginable to the largest, ha ha.

    Quite the quest, and trees 1-50 were well known, but nobody really cares about trees 51-100 as much, and there’s a lot of Sequoias of size out there, last spring we found the 88th biggest in Mineral King, with an amazing 34 foot width, wow.


    Drove by the ‘Dolly Parton’s’ on Hwy 5 last week, and that structure and radioactivity will be there until the end of time, pretty much.

    Was it worth it? not hardly.

  15. Raymond Sim

    The problem with nuclear power is that the trajectory of every human institution bends inevitably towards corruption and incompetence.

    Fukushima, TMI, and Chernobyl all three resulted from the most mundane, everyday sorts of corruption and incompetence. For that matter, so has our failure to react appropriately to climate change.

    1. Arizona Slim

      On a personal note, Raymond and I attended the same junior high school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. That’s just 100 miles east of Three Mile Island.

      By the time the nuclear accident happened, I was a senior at the University of Michigan. Suffice it to say that from 600-or-so miles away in Ann Arbor, I was very concerned about what was happening in Pennsylvania.

      I don’t recall my parents being terribly worried, but I do remember the decision made by a friend of the family, who was a corporate pilot for Hershey Foods. Our friend also had his own airplane, and he used it to fly his wife and child away from the Hershey area.

      Don’t remember how long this family’s evacuation lasted, but I do remember being told about it, possibly by my parents.

      1. Raymond Sim

        I was at Penn State Delco, as it was then called. Got the news from Terry Gross on her then-local (WUHY? WHYY?) afternoon show. My future in-laws had a cabin up in Sullivan County. Future father-in-law, a chemistry PhD and former US Army NBC officer, then employed at GE Space Division in King of Prussia, issued his kids, who were at various colleges in the Northeast, guidelines on how to rally/disperse, depending on weather conditions.

        1. Arizona Slim

          Hey there, stranger!

          The Terry Gross afternoon show was carried on WHYY-FM in Philadelphia. ISTR that this was also the host station for her “Fresh Air” show.

      2. Wukchumni

        I was far away from TMI, but the financial fallout was pretty dreadful for daddy-o, who had a small fortune invested in the NJ utility that ran TMI, and oh he got spanked.

        It went down something like 85% soon after the news came out…

        1. KLG

          The Babcock & Wilcox boiler manufacturing plant in my hometown closed due to the bankruptcy of B&W, with the loss of hundreds of high-paying working class jobs for welders and other craftsmen (probably no women at the time).

  16. upstater

    The main issue is cost. New construction of conventional NPPs in the west are multiples over budget and a decade or more behind schedule. The new Sumner plants in South Carolina basically bankrupted SCE&G ans share owned Santee Cooper and were abandoned. Ratepayers will pay for that debacle for years. The Vogtle 3 and 4 in Georgia are way over budget, but Southern Company has deep pockets with “friendly” regulators. The French EPR plants in France and Finland are both debacles.

    Supposedly South Korea and Russia build reactors on time within budget, but who knows?

    Much of the problem is lack of expertise in both engineering and trades. This isn’t the 1960s or 70s when the benches were deep in this regard. MBAs, MDs or service workers don’t cut it. Many corporations were vertically integrated, now they’re fragmented and outsource everything to low bid contractors.

    Now we’re expected to believe Bill Gates vaporware for small modular reactors. I’m not holding my breath.

    I suppose nuclear could have a place for base load, but I’m not optimistic that the west is capable of accomplishing the construction of a new fleet of safe and reliable nuclear power plants.

    1. floyd

      Agreed the cost and inability to actually build one these days don’t make it a very appealing commercial endeavor:

  17. PlutoniumKun

    An important point about Germany’s nuclear plants is that the primary reason they shut down is that they were built by Siemens, which pulled out of nuclear in 2011. They continued supplying and maintaining parts for the steam turbines and non-nuclear parts, but everything else was essentially handed over to Areva. However, there is a lack of compatibility with French reactors so its not clear that Areva is capable of significant upgrades, they are having enough problems with the disastrous EPR. The reason those reactors shut down has little to do with politics, but simply because maintaining them had become impossibly expensive. But of course the nuclear industry has preferred to blame Greens or public hysteria or whatever, rather than their own ineptness.

    I’m not aware of any working reactor that has been mothballed and reopened – I’m not even sure if its possible. But there has been active work on the Bataan reactor in the Philippines which was mothballed just before it went live. The estimates for that are well over $1billion and 4 years, but its likely to vary highly on a case by case basis.

    As to the article:

    Commentators, either through ignorance or willful denial, misunderstood the layers of redundant safety systems built into nuclear plants like Zaporizhzhia. If power from the grid was cut, generators would turn on; if primary coolant was lost, a secondary system would kick in. A “catastrophe” or “disaster” would require a lengthy series of human errors and system malfunctions. Such a chain of events might hypothetically occur, as it did at Three Mile Island, but it couldn’t happen from shelling and loss of power alone. A reactor would not and could not go off like a bomb.

    I wonder if its ignorance or willful denial by the author that he is apparently unaware that the reactor was not the target for the shelling – it was the very poorly protected nuclear storage areas next to it.

    Then there’s safety: The same analysis estimated the fatality rate for nuclear at 0.07 deaths per TWh, higher than wind, 0.04, and solar, 0.02. But lower than natural gas, estimated at 2.8 deaths per TWh, and much lower than coal power, at 24.6. Though risks can be complicated, and estimating deaths can often be speculative, there’s now plenty of evidence that, with climate impacts and other elements factored in, nuclear is way safer than many alternatives.

    Three words: long tailed risk.

    1. ChrisPacific

      Yes, thanks for bringing that up. The other point is that, even if it’s theoretically possible to manage the risks, waste materials and the like safely, humanity has yet to prove that it can execute even straightforward and simple plans on timescales covering the rise and fall of civilizations. How many projects from the ancient Egyptians are still up and running today, for example?

      Even on shorter timescales, we tend to assume competence in any sort of risk analysis, and don’t allow for crapification, financialization, private equity plundering, and the like. Fukushima and the Sendai earthquake (which was large but by no means out of character for the region) are evidence that human societies are often simply bad at risk analysis even under ‘normal’ conditions.

      Taking all that into account, the ‘worst worst case’ scenario should be part of any realistic risk assessment for power generation technologies, especially ones with consequences on the timescales that nuclear has – because sooner or later, circumstances are likely to align in such a way that it happens.

    2. chris

      The closest we’ve got in the US for a really moth balled plant coming back on line would be Watts Bar 2.

      1. John Steinbach

        Yes. They started it, the mothballed it, then finally completed it. IIRC, massive time & cost overruns & many problems with replacing aged parts.

        1. chris

          It cost about 4.7 billion $. Which was about the budget according to the people I knew working in it. The time lags were from the NRC. They didn’t replace the aging parts so much as upgrade them. They took the entire history of that design and jumped ahead to avoid all the problems. It wasn’t cheap. It wasn’t easy. But I think it was a good idea.

    3. jhg

      Restarting reactors following layups (mothballing) has been done successfully.

      Bruce Nuclear Generating A (Units 1 through 4) were shutdown and laid up in 1997. Units 1 and 2 began refurbishment in 2005 which included new pressure tubes in the reactor and new boilers. They went on-line in 2012 and are still operating with expected end of production in 2043 or so. Unit 3 and 4 were brought back on-line in 2003 and are still running.
      A long term refurbishment program is underway to rebuild Units Bruce A (Unit 3 and 4) and Bruce B (Units 5 to 8). The plan is to keep them running until 2064.

  18. heresy101

    The author misses the key point of why nuclear power plants (large and small) will not become a larger part of electricity generation – cost. They can theoretically (if you smoke something) become safer and not produce Chernobyl, Fukushima, the Northwest radiation spreading, etc, etc, but they are too costly to compete with solar and wind and batteries.

    The LCOE cost of electricity is concisely provided by https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source
    The charts and graphs are far down in the article and Lazar is the most widely used source. Solar is about $30/MWh, onshore wind at $38/MWh, coal at $110/MWh, and nuclear at $168/MWh.

    “March 2021, Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that “renewables are the cheapest power option for 71% of global GDP and 85% of global power generation. It is now cheaper to build a new solar or wind farm to meet rising electricity demand or replace a retiring generator …”. Two Community Choice Aggregator entities in the Bay Area have signed a good size solar AND storage project for around $38/MWh.

    Coal is being priced out of the market and two large coal plants have/are shutting down in Australia and all coal plants will be shut down by 2035, if not sooner. The Electric Viking reported that the province of South Australia had 91% solar sourced generation for a whole month. Coal plants need a 70% capacity factor run rate to make money and many plants are losing money because solar and wind are cheaper and get taken first.

    Given the insane prices and corruption of the South Carolina nuclear power plants, it is unlikely that large nuclear plants will be built again.
    Whether Bill Gates can make his small nuclear plants work is debatable because he has no one to copy like he did with DOS.

    The reason the price is key relates to the auctions of the grid operators (RTOs). The cheapest resources are taken in order until the demand is satisfied. If there is sufficient solar, wind, and hydro to meet the demand, the more expensive resources don’t get taken. Coal loses money if it can’t run nearly continuously and nuclear needs to run continuously or has to have diesel generators run the system when the grid is down or can’t take the electricity.

    Nuclear and coal can’t compete on cost and even if they fix all the operational and radioactive waste disposal issues they are going the way of the dodo bird.

    1. Bruno

      The absolute economic irrationality of nuclear-fission power production was proclaimed loudly by its very Founding Charter–the Price-Anderson Act, which drastically minimized the cost of insuring fission reactors. Without Price-Anderson no commercial operator could hope an investment would be remotely profitable. The “Nuclear Energy Industry” would not even have come into existence!

    2. Grumpy Engineer

      Renewables aren’t so cheap once you add in energy storage costs. If the US needs 100 TWh of energy storage to keep a 100% renewable grid operating through an extended period of unfavorable weather and it costs $200/kWh to deploy storage, then you’d need $20 trillion for energy storage alone. [A price tag which doesn’t include the renewable energy assets needed to charge that storage.]

      Alternately, if we deployed 1 TW of nuclear at severely inflated Vogtle costs ($30 billion for 2234 MW), we’d spend only $13.5 trillion. And if we could figure out how to do nuclear as cheaply as they did in South Korea (where they spent ~$2500 per kW), it’d only be $2.5 trillion.

      1. heresy101

        Your storage costs are hopelessly out of date at $200/kWh. Tesla, CATL, BYD and others are below $100/kWh and dropping. CATL is starting production of Sodium batteries this year and they have said they will be at least 30% cheaper than lithium iron batteries. Their energy density isn’t currently as good as lithium iron so they will likely be used for grid storage to begin with. Large mines for the sodium won’t be necessary and desalination plants waste sodium can be a source for batteries.

        You missed my info that SF Bay CCAs have a contract for solar energy and battery storage at around $38/MWh. Can’t find the link so the cost is from memory.

        What is going to change is how energy is delivered. In my career, electricity was delivered by us to our customer – one way delivery.
        The near future will be two way delivery through a Virtual Power Plant (VPP). An article from the Rocky Mountain Institute giving a good description of a VPP is:


        The future is going be V2X; a multi-directional grid rather than a one way grid!!

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          $100/kWh? Really? According the NREL (at https://atb.nrel.gov/electricity/2022/utility-scale_battery_storage), the batteries alone are running $215/kWh, with BOS (balance of system) costs pushing it above $300/kWh total. And the EIA (at https://www.eia.gov/analysis/studies/electricity/batterystorage/) shows $589/kWh, though I will note the EIA analysis is from 2019.

          And no, I didn’t miss the $38/MWh. That’s for electrical energy delivered, which is not the same as capital costs for the energy storage system in the first place.

          Can you provide a link for a complete system (with batteries, inverters, transformers, switch gear, etc.) that cost only $100 per kWh?

        2. Karl

          The future will be the use of existing hydro to back up renewables. This is now done routinely in CA and the Pacific Northwest. The turbines stay spinning even when not loaded (“spinning reserves”) and can ramp from zero output to 100% in seconds. Natural gas plants are also excellent for this purpose. Yes, natural gas must continue to be a bridge to the zero-CO2 era.

          There are a number of big pumped storage projects in the offing on the West Coast.

          The California grid operator (CALISO) now has an “Energy Imbalance Market” where utilities with spare capacity can bid to provide intermittent power in real-time to back up renewables. This will also be supplemented by Demand Side Management approaches, e.g. with smart meters, utilities can contract with end-users to save on their power bills if they’ll let the utility briefly turn off certain appliances (e.g. water heaters, air conditioners) at peak periods if necessary.

          1. Grumpy Engineer

            Existing hydro is too small to back up renewables. Hydro only produces 9% of US electricity, and if you’re in the middle of a cold winter night when a big high-pressure system suppresses most wind, there isn’t enough hydro to keep the entire grid up. [This was one of the major mistakes Mark Jacobson of Stanford University made in his infamous 100% WWS report, where he assumed that we could expand turbine capability at existing dams 10-fold to get us through a windless night. Alas, he neglected the damage to downstream river ecosystems and flooding of downstream communities that would result, as well as the fact that many reservoirs would be completely drained and be unavailable for power production if the weather pattern held on the following night.]

            As for pumped storage, I really like it. I have visited the Bath County Pumped Storage station, and it’s an impressive facility. It holds 22 GWh of energy, which is more than all of the nation’s battery-based energy storage systems combined. Alas, even it is too small for the needs of a 100% renewable grid, where we might need 100 TWh of storage to reliably make it through an extended period of unfavorable weather. That’s over 4,500 Bath County-equivalent stations. For an all-nuclear grid, we’d only need 110 or so.

            And yes, I know that there are a few pumped storage stations “in the works”, but if they keep proceeding like Eagle Mountain (where they started permitting in 2007 and still haven’t started construction), I fear they’ll never come to fruition. Pumped storage seems to be plagued by the same “large project bureaucratic drag” that afflicts nuclear. If we can’t figure out how to do large products, both the nuclear- and renewables-based approaches are doomed to failure.

    3. KD

      I’ve looked these claims before and the problem is they assume that solar panels last as long as a nuclear plant. A lot of renewables, you are lucky if they work 15 years (not to mention the toxic waste from dead solar panels), whereas a nuclear plant can go 100 years. They usually assume 40 years, so yes, if wind turbines last 40 years and nuclear fission plants crap out after 40 years, then wind is economically cheaper. Additionally, if people can fly, it is cheaper to fly with your wings than to book an airplane. . . and people should be able to fly in a world where solar panels work for 40 years.

      If you go to modular designs, you should be able to mass produce nuclear fission plants with economies of scale and radically reduce construction costs.

      1. heresy101

        Solar panel estimates are based on 30 years of production for LCOE calculations with an estimated 2-3% per year degradation in output over that time. Many go up to 40+ years with a reduced output.

        One thing solar and wind can do is be turned off and on as their output is needed by the grid. Unlike nuclear which can’t be turned on or off and because of their cost; they need to be self-scheduled.

        As for the bogus claim that they go for 100 years, it is a total lie if you look at the reactors in California. The California Energy Commission data totally contradicts the 100 year claim.
        Read the article and be sure to look at the table at the bottom. A lot of the reactors didn’t even make 20 years of operation.

        Check out my reply to GE on what will be the biggest transition is electricity production in this country in the coming years.

  19. Starry Gordon

    For one thing, I think the people who are suspicious or outright fearful of nuclear power understand Mr. Taleb’s notion of catastrophic risk outcomes intuitively, so those who don’t understand them could read Taleb. For those who can’t read there are numerous videos.
    However, there is another important feature of the situation: at least in the US, the authorities and bigdeals lie to people or otherwise conceal truth as consistent default procedure. This was certainly true in the nuclear power industry going back to the 1950s and one must assume it is true today. It is not an anti-regulatory regime, it’s an anti-truth regime. It even shows up in the first line of the article quoted above (“attacked Zaporizhzhia power plant”). It is difficult for a society to function if it is pervaded with lying and propaganda.

  20. truly

    I would like to share a friends experience with Oak Ridge Facility. “JJ” works as a union heavy equipment operator. His outfit gets contracts on “the big jobs”. JJ was running a Cat at Kingston one month before the great disaster. All the workers new a month ahead of time that a huge blow out was coming.
    JJ ended up working at Oak Ridge for a few years. Every day he walked onto the job site he had to sign “more papers than I had to buy my first house”. He said the essence of these papers that he signed and dated every day was admission that he knew that working there meant “I am gonna die early and my widow will get a nice settlement out of the deal”. JJ wore some sort of Geiger counter on his belt every day at work. If it started to beep he had hit his one day level of radiation exposure and would walk off the job site. Some days it would go to beeping within 30 minutes. Those were nice days cause you still get paid for 8 hours. He was advised to never get out of the cab of his machine. He witnessed a friend get out of the cab one day. He got down on the ground and did a few minutes of hand work. He passed out and was dragged off by paramedics. That man died of pancreatic cancer less than a year later. His widow got a nice pay out.
    There were workers assigned to do hand work. They would be in full haz mat. Often they would drive in in light pickups. Tools in the back. They would work 4-8 hours and then walk off the site. Never to return. They would have hit their max radiation in that time period. JJ would run his machine over to the pickup truck. Pick it up, tools and all and carry it to a rail car. Drop the truck in the rail car and using his machine only, flip a lead lined lid shut. That rail car assumably was headed or Yucca.
    Most of his days were “decommissioning” old buildings. Tearing them apart with cranes, pulling pipes out and setting them to one side. Moving broken up concrete to the other side. Operators of “fire trucks” would keep a mist in the air to bring the dust down the ground. Buildings were known by numbers. The numbers correspond to acres of size. K-25, K-27, Y 12. Those are huge buildings. Miles of corroded pipe inside of them. One foot of that pipe might kill an entire city blocks inhabitants. Or give your co worker pancreatic cancer. He also ran “munchers”. Huge machines that turned concrete into gravel like crumbles. Pipes munched into bits. Much of this munched up stuff would go in huge storage pits. And that was another part of JJ’s work. Storage pit maintenance.
    To make a storage pit- remove the top of a nearby mountain. Set that mountain top aside and out of the way for now. Build a huge flat surface. Lay down a liner with a 50 or 100 year rating. Pile a bunch (and I mean a BUNCH of material, remember these buildings are bigger than football stadiums) of material on the liner. Lay another liner on top of that. Set the mountain top back on top of the liner. Now scientists will check run off and ground water to assess for leaks. In 50-100 years when the leaks are detected do this all over again.
    In a rather sobering conversation one day I asked JJ if this was a multi century long project. he said “truly, the half life of this family blog stuff is over 1000 years”. That is over a 1000 year commitment to manage this site. My next question, “JJ, when you think of the number of people who died in Hiroshima on the day of the big bomb, and all of the people who died later of complications. And you compare that to the number of years of life that you and others will lose. Will this be a bigger tragedy for America or for Japan?” His response was that this will be far worse for us than for them. More years of life will be lost in this cleanup than died in the bombings.
    JJ has good insurance thru DOE. He now has a form of Parkinson’s that is related to toxic exposure. He has such a long list of other maladies. When I am with him his phone rings with calls from other old friends and coworkers looking on advice on getting treatments and benefits. His sons are now of the age where they are starting careers. Oddly they see following in dads footsteps as appealing. He made awful good money. Just over an hour drive away. Return home to the beauty and tranquility of Appalachia every night. Run the hounds up on brushy knob at night. Hunt turkey and deer on the weekends. Walk the trails where the grandparents lived. Hope no fool from the city comes by and tells them anything about nuclear is safe. They know better.
    Disclaimer, I know nuclear for weapons is different than nuclear for energy. But it is JJ’s understanding that some portion of Oak Ridge is still involved in refining and research for energy. And he does know that his benefits come from Dept of Energy.

    1. The Rev Kev

      This is a lunatic situation. If people knew about all this before nuclear power got off the ground, would they have even bothered? The corporations that run those nuclear sites can’t even afford their own insurance and the government has to pick up the tab – and be responsible for all future costs. But yeah, nuclear is safe and sustainable. /sarc

      1. ScottB

        It wasn’t the cost of insurance, it was the fact they couldn’t get insurance until Congress capped damages for nuclear accidents. Without that cap, no commercial nukes would have been built.

  21. wendigo

    You would have to know the specifics of how a reactor was mothballed to guess how long a restart would take.

    Mothballing can range from maintaining all systems at running capability and a supply of spare parts to only ensuring enough cooling capacity for the spent fuel bays. Usually the shutdown is planned long enough ahead that all the fuel rods have been used so a new supply has to be obtained which can take awhile.

    It is nice to say the generators would turn on. They only stay on as long as fuel is available. Shelling the fuel tanks or military action preventing the resupply of fuel during the year or so required would lead to bad things happening.

  22. ArvidMartensen

    As a thought experiment, let’s say the Romans had a little nuclear power plant from 20 BC to 20 AD. They produced about 1 kg of plutonium in that time. 53% of the plutonium produced was PU-239. PU-239 has a half-life of around 24,000 years. They buried 530g of Pu-239 in an old salt mine in Germania somewhere. Now there is about 485 g left.
    Has anything of note happened in Germania in the last 2000 years to make it that bit unstable? Invasions by numerous tribes and countries? Bombings? Social and religious upheavals?
    What about the massive floods? We could assume that some of that 485g might very well have dissolved in ground water. Now soluble chemical compounds of plutonium are considered so dangerous by the Department of Energy (DOE) that the maximum permissible occupational concentration in air is 32 trillionths of a gram per cubic meter. https://sgp.fas.org/othergov/doe/lanl/pubs/00818013.pdf
    So let’s assume that the ground water has migrated all over the place and made a substantial part of Germania lethal to inhabitants. And after 24,000 years there will still be 265g of Pu-239 left.

    Also our current crop of socially responsible miners usually just walk away when their mine is done. So no guarantee that the plutonium would even be buried in a salt mine. And we no longer have effective government to regulate the miners anyway.
    And I ask anyone to point to an effective government that has been operating for the past 24,000 years.
    So rationally considered, nuclear power is a suicidal option for the human race. So that’s settled then, nuclear power will be the new green energy source.

  23. M Smith

    Nuclear power is unloved because energy solutions in general are unloved and unwanted by the misanthropic vanguard of the extinction rebellion movement. Knowing full well wind and solar are doomed to failure as substitutes for fossil and nuclear, they push these two anti-solutions as the only acceptable ways forward, guaranteeing a lower standard of living for future generations and a clear path towards population control and eventual reduction.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      One need not be misanthropic to believe it might be better for us to release our death grip on the “middle class lifestyle” in order to avoid overheating the planet to the point of civilization’s collapse.

      While I agree with you that “renewables” cannot possibly maintain that comfortable but wasteful way of living, I am wondering what you propose. Do you believe carbon emissions can grow forever without serious effect as population and consumption levels constantly increase?

  24. Cat Burglar

    Invoking the public’s “fear” of nuclear energy is a dead giveaway that this is a propaganda piece, not a serious consideration of the risks and benefits of generating electricity using nuclear power.

    Articles of this type issue regularly, and never provide any evidence that critical attitudes are not based upon a reasonable evaluation of the many real-world negatives of nuclear power. So it is no surprise that the article does not mention the Fukushima incident, where backup safety systems (like the emergency generators and water pumps) failed in the face of already known hazards! Evidence might cause fear! Or, even worse, the basis for reasoned opposition to to the power source.

    Public discussion about using this energy source is important — but articles like this are just pure con jobs.

  25. berny3

    Perhaps the main problem is the issue of trust. Maybe the nuclear plant is constructed well and the people running it are doing a good job making it safe. How do we know one way or the other? Maybe it’s run well now, but the corporation who owns it is having a rough time so many years into the future, and starts making unwise decisions about the plant in order to save money. It’s roughly like taking your car to the shop for an oil change, and they tell you that some item in under your car, an item you have little knowledge of, needs to be fixed and will cost a lot of money. Your decision is somewhat based on trust — the car seems to run OK, are these guys lying to me? Is there a way I can examine it and verify that it needs fixing? If I say yes, then when they say it’s been fixed, how do I know one way or the other?

    I’ve always thought that the real show and tell of nuclear safety is the free market and insurance. Nuclear plants have been constructed using lots of taxpayers dollars, so many tax dollars that it’s likely that few if any would actually be built if they depended solely on investors. Plus, congress had to pass a law severely limiting the damages that can be paid out if a nuclear accident happened. Get rid of that law and see if any insurance company would be willing to cover all the costs of an accident.

    1. Wukchumni

      San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was closed rather all of the sudden about a decade ago which set off alarm bells & klaxons in my mind, have we rendered a beautiful swath of California coastline useless perhaps in the future?

      Nothing will ever be done with it, they’re content to let sleeping cogs do nothing, with the spent fuel right there.

  26. Cetra Ess

    Number of INES level 6-7 incidents = 4. Number of reactors worldwide = 422. I’m no actuary but I think the safety factor decreased significantly once Fukushima happened. What is that, 1 incident per 100ish?

    And recall that Fukushima Daaichi was a modern reactor and yet it failed because somehow, and I still find this incredible, they never considered that the backup generators, located some distance from the reactors, might get flooded…and this in a tsunami zone, in reactors near shoreline.

    But I think the real reason nuclear isn’t adopted is the economics are bad. Every single nuclear reactor built has been vastly over budget and far, far behind schedule. When built with public money the electricity bills are sky high. Wanna be unpopular, be responsible for massive hikes in everyone’s electricity bills.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Every single nuclear reactor built has been vastly over budget and far, far behind schedule.

      That’s not true. The South Koreans built their nuclear fleet for ~$2500/kW, largely on time and on budget. [In recent years in the US, though, your criticism is quite accurate. The Vogtle stations that are nearing completion will probably cost $13500/kW. which is more than 5X what the South Koreans typically spent.]

      As a result, nuclear power in South Korea is cheaper than solar, per https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/skoreas-nuclear-power-inflection-point-advocate-wins-presidency-2022-03-11/. To quote:

      Nuclear power cost 61.5 won per kWh, while solar power cost 149.9 won in January according to Korea Power Exchange.

      This is the opposite of what we typically see in the US. Why is nuclear so much more costly in the US? Several years ago Vox took a crack at answering the question: https://www.vox.com/2016/2/29/11132930/nuclear-power-costs-us-france-korea. I think the article makes some fair points.

      And as a side note, the Fukushima plants were not “modern reactors”. They were commissioned in 1971 and were approaching the end of a 40-year service life when the accident happened.

  27. ArvidMartensen

    Back in the day, I was involved in the Campaign Against Nuclear Power via a family member. We had Helen Caldicott stay a couple of times, as she campaigned around the place. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Caldicott
    Nothing has changed as far as I can see. The waste is still long lived, dangerous to health in minute quantities, and there is no government in the world that can guarantee that it will be safely stored for the around 100,000 years needed before it decays to something less deadly, in particular talking about Plutonium-239, half life around 24,000 years.

    Question: “Is there a threshold below which exposure to ionising radiation is harmless? Unfortunately, no. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) noted in a 2021 report:
    “Convincing evidence has not yet demonstrated the existence of a threshold below which there would be no stochastic effects from exposure to low radiation doses. As such, the NRC’s view is that the LNT (Linear Non Threshold) model continues to provide a sound basis for a conservative radiation protection regulatory framework that protects both the public and occupational workers.”

    Anything else is just PR by those who want to make a buck but have zero interest in future generations or in taking responsibility for waste. ie capitalism BAU.

    Show me a government that has effectively monitored industry to ensure safe storage of industrial waste for 24,000 years, and I might change my mind.

  28. MFB

    I think that most people are dependent on the propaganda system for their decision-making on things like nuclear power. The propaganda system, for various reasons, was opposed to nuclear power from the late 1970s until quite recently. There are also good reasons for opposing nuclear power, but this has little to do with the propaganda system, which is motivated wholly by the greed of the ruling class.

    Two minor points, by the way.

    One: what’s wrong with using plutonium as a fuel? I don’t know the physics of it, but certainly there have been plutonium-fuelled reactors operated by the military. There is potentially hundreds of times more plutonium around than U-235, since it can be bred from U-238 (and the process of producing it is much easier than that of producing fissionable uranium from thorium). Is it just that Pu-239 rapidly turns into Pu-240, or is it that Pu-239 can be used for nuclear weapons and thus would enable countries to protect themselves against superpower aggression?

    Two, what’s wrong with using pumped water storage to store electricity? I don’t see the point of manufacturing enormous amounts of expensive and toxic batteries to store electricity when you can just build a reservoir on a hill by a lake or a river and run a pipeline to it with a couple of big turbopumps. Except, of course, to inflate the stock values of the Tesla corporation.

  29. Ana

    My grandfather worked for Admiral Rickover. My father ran the cruise missiles in Asia and Europe. My uncle first worked at the naval nuclear facility in Idaho then built atomic plants for Westinghouse.

    You cannot imagine the stories I listened to growing up. Please believe me. Corruption and incompetence will kill us all. There have been no plants built in real life that do not have fatal design flaws and/or falsified safety checks. I’m talking about the main reactors not the spent fuel pools which are another topic.

    Three Mile Island, mentioned above, was not the first meltdown in this country. My recollection is the first was in Southern California followed by the one in Idaho at the Naval facility.

    The problem with nuclear power is us, the greedy selfish corrupt incompetent humans who mine, refine, build, store radioactive products and then lie to ourselves about it’s possible to do it all safely at low cost.

    I have a Geiger Counter. I have had it register on wild caught salmon. I have an old friend who works at Los Alamos. Their forest fire released a bunch of radiation that the trees around there had absorbed over the years. The waste in NM was on fire deep in a salt mine and the radiation escaped via the air vents and drifted mostly east toward TX. The waste dump holding the Manhatten Project material is on fire underground.

    We are idiots and cannot manage to behave in a functional manner with much of anything. Radioactive products are not an exception.

    Ana in Sacramento

  30. thoughtful person

    To summarize:

    1. Nuclear Power is very expensive
    2. Safety issues have not been resolved (both operations and very long term storage). Resolution will increase costs further.
    3. Current designs can’t avoid the risk of fuel being diverted to weapon use.
    4. Current designs are vulnerable to heat waves likely to become more common in the near future.

    5. Alternatives – especially conservation (negawatts generated by insulation etc) are far cheaper.
    6. Generation locally is also cheaper and more reliable than centralized power plants (though perhaps not as profitable to some).

    Personally I am thinking more and more about getting outta dodge, however while here in Central VA, I plan to increase the resiliency of my humble abode by insulation as I can afford it, renewable generation, and as many backup systems as seem affordable.

    I’m not planning on buying shares in the local nuclear plant.

  31. Ernie

    There are so many downsides to nuclear power that it is difficult to list them all, let alone describe how they are problematic and how to resolve the problems. It is simpler yet still accurate to say that nuclear power is an expensive and dangerous way to boil water.

    It is undeniable that the enormous use of fossil fuels has caused climate change by the emissions of far more CO2 than the environment can absorb and use. It is undeniable that use of fossil fuels must stop in order to avoid further climate change. But CO2 has a critical role in the planet’s life, without which life would cease to exist, and CO2 is absorbed into the environment as a result of natural processes. Nuclear materials, on the other hand, have no clear beneficial role in the survival of life on earth, and cannot be absorbed by any natural processes that remove them from the living environment.

    The expense of nuclear power is legendary, and there is no means to bring the expense down without sacrificing what relatively ineffective safeguards there already are against the various means of disaster that can be caused by nuclear power generation and storage of its waste. What safeguards there are are not durable enough to outlast the radioactive life of waste or fuel, so that at some point in the future some part of the population will be exposed to toxic and radioactive materials with catastrophic results.

    Nuclear facilities are also a terrorists dream. I don’t mean just some nutcase who might fling a homemade bomb at the containment facility. A terrorist state could easily target a facility causing it to release radioactive and toxic materials into the environment. We have already seen Russia threaten the biggest facility in Europe.

    The most important factor required for making nuclear power safe is how close to perfection the technology can be brought. Since there is no such thing as perfection, and humanity seldom if ever produces anything that is close to perfect, it is unlikely that nuclear technology can really be safe. Every argument for the safety of nuclear technology begins with the statistical likelihood of injury or death due to a nuclear accident. The numbers of those harmed are always treated as being low relative to, for instance, fossil fuels, but the numbers are nonetheless significant – particularly to the people who end up being harmed by each incident. Moreover, the effects of a nuclear accident are spread far wider than any incident caused by fossil fueled technologies. For instance, the effects of Chernobyl were felt at least as far away as the UK. Importantly, the effects of nuclear accidents at a distance take years to be noticed, because low levels of excess radiation cause, for instance, only small DNA mutations at the time of exposure, but which grow slowly over time until their effect becomes catastrophic, such as a cancer. We see in all sorts of industries using technologies that incorporate toxic and radioactive materials the use of long time frames for harm to appear after exposure as a means of shedding responsibility for the harm caused by the technologies. In fact, shedding responsibility for the harm caused by its technology is why the nuclear power industry even exists in the US in the first place. The amended Atomic Energy Act of 1954 established compensation for, and limits on, licensee liability for injury to off-site persons or damage to property caused by nuclear accidents. No other technology has received this sort of favorable treatment. And this treatment is a massive gift to the nuclear industry. Why else would such a law be enacted unless its partisans knew that the technology involved was more dangerous than other technologies, and that without release from liability and responsibility the result would be the death of the industry that its partisans were seeing billions to be made from?

    Another problem with nuclear power is how it is managed by institutions which believe that their primary purpose is to enhance shareholder value. The conflict between that primary purpose and public health and safety is enormous, and bridging it is logically impossible. The same is also true for governmental agencies that are populated with partisans of the technology, since it is too likely that their primary interest would be the advancement of the technology rather than the public health and safety.

    Nuclear power is utterly susceptible to political and emotional arguments, because it can easily be made by people who earn their livings by advancing or practicing the technology to appear a reasonable solution to an almost impossible problem, while those who are not captured by the egotistical or financial attractions of the technology remain resistant to the technology.

    Nuclear fission power was never a good or logical idea, and should be completely abandoned. If it is allowed to grow, it becomes at least as harmful, probably more harmful, than fossil fuels.

  32. Mitch

    If this is crazy please tell me, but if a nuclear plant doesn’t ever pay for itself for whatever reason as appears to be the case currently, then does it make any sense to make it the backbone of our shiny new electric economy we are building? For the very thing to power the whole economy to itself be unprofitable just doesn’t sound right.

  33. Roland

    The world’s nuclear childhood began with massacre. That early collective trauma has haunted humanity ever since. No other kind of technology has made such a terrible first impression.

    The decades of Cold War standoff made non-proliferation important for maintaining a balance of power. But the closed nuclear fuel cycle creates a lot of weapons-grade material, so that technology was repressed for the sake of non-proliferation.

    The Second World War turned an amazing new technology immediately towards slaughter. The Cold War prevented the efficient peaceful use of nuclear energy, by denying the closed fuel cycle to most of the world. Post-Cold War, there is the same effort to limit most of the peoples’ access to nuclear energy technologies, but now for the sake of hegemony, rather than for balance.

    A world in which nuclear technology falls into the hands of those over-proud and power-mad is the frequent scenario of nightmares or dystopian fiction. But really, haven’t we already found ourselves in that nightmare world?

    Without closed fuel cycle nuclear fission power, humanity has two paths, each leading to a predictable doom. One, the continued massive use of fossil fuels, with runaway climate change and ever-worsening EROEI, i.e. doom. Motto: “Let us stomp our footprints to the grave!”

    The other main path is to phase out fossil fuels but without worldwide use of closed cycle nuclear fission. But this must mean, and can only ever mean, a sharp curtailment of energy use by most people in the developed parts of the world, and the denial of much energy use to most of the people everywhere else in the world. Due to the myriad particularities of the renewables, such as their unavoidable dependence on site and circumstance, relatively few will enjoy the full advantages offered by such a future energy regime, and human history will revert to its age-old hierarchical pattern. Motto: “Eat bugs, you losers, and be grateful to your virtuous elites!”

    Now if you hate modernity, or despise the masses, then the second path would no doubt prove agreeable to you. Book your next flight to Davos, and go dream about your transhuman destiny, while humanity itself is left to languish.

    On the other hand, if you really just don’t give a damn about anything or anybody, then the fossil-fuelled highway to hell can be an existential road to liberty. Carefree, brief, ignominious.

    But for those who don’t hate modernity, don’t despise humanity, and who do give a damn about something or somebody else, then the future is fraught. However, if one can endure the thought of all of humanity having abundant nuclear energy, and, to be sure, the weapons that come with it, then such a thought would offer the prospect of a modern life for all of the various peoples of the world. It would not be a united world, but one enduringly divided. Divided, because of many powerfully-armed peoples. Enduringly, because civilization will at least not have perished due to climate change. Modern, because people will have plenty of energy.

    Sustainable? No, but sustainability itself is not something everlastingly ordained by some sort of mythical law-giver. Sustainability is a series of physical and cultural challenges, faced by the peoples of every epoch in their due turn. If those of a future epoch can face the challenges of their time with at least as many options and resources as we have had to face ours, then I think we will have done well enough.

  34. GoDark

    The consequences of nuclear disasters (i.e., Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, Fukushima ) are such that nuclear power plants cannot be operated by privately-held companies with civilian technicians. Capitalistic incentives and civilian work-related values are incompatible with nuclear power plant operations.

    As I see it, the only practical solution is to create quasi-military forces to operate nuclear power plants. Yes, the forces would wear distinctive uniforms and be under strict military discipline. Otherwise, it will be a future dotted with “Chernobly, Three-Mile Island, and Fukushima” repeated ad nauseam as civilians discover and rediscover that they cannot safely operate and control nuclear technologies and facilities.

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