More On Nuclear Energy

Lynne Kiesling

With thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the mention on Sunday, I second his links to two recent Wired articles. One from September 2004 looks at the proposed development of several new pebble-bed nuclear plants in China over the next 20 years. Pebble-bed is an 80-year-old technology; in this post from September 2004 (in which I also cited that Wired article) I described it thus:

Instead of fuel rods, the uranium/carbon blend is encased in baseball-sized graphite/ceramic balls, and the reactor core is cooled with helium gas. No radioactive water, no spent fuel rods to make dirty bombs. And the scale of the plant is about one-third of the big ones that we are used to here. This is the nuclear technology of the future because it’s safer, cleaner and more secure. My hope is that this technology moves us away from our knee-jerk rejection of nuclear as an option, and that its different risk profile undermines the now-successful arguments for federal insurance subsidies (Price-Anderson).

The second neat nuclear article from Wired is this one from February 2005. In it Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss argue that at the margin, the balance of pros and cons has shifted toward increasing our use of nuclear energy, even if it’s not perfect (and nothing is).

We now know that the risks of splitting atoms pale beside the dreadful toll exacted by fossil fuels. Radiation containment, waste disposal, and nuclear weapons proliferation are manageable problems in a way that global warming is not. Unlike the usual green alternatives – water, wind, solar, and biomass – nuclear energy is here, now, in industrial quantities. Sure, nuke plants are expensive to build – upward of $2 billion apiece – but they start to look cheap when you factor in the true cost to people and the planet of burning fossil fuels. And nuclear is our best hope for cleanly and efficiently generating hydrogen, which would end our other ugly hydrocarbon addiction – dependence on gasoline and diesel for transport.

Geopolitically and environmentally, it makes sense. Technologically it makes sense. Of course the $64 gazillion question is whether we can make it make sense politically.


17 thoughts on “More On Nuclear Energy

  1. Dr. Kiesling,
    I have to disagree. While I think that nuclear energy deserves a more realistic appraisal, particularly if climate change is deemed of critical importance, I found the Wired article decidedly unbalanced in its coverage.

    Critically, it fails to deal with the endemic cost over-runs of nuclear projects both here and abroad and glosses too quickly over the risks involved in nuclear storage. While I accept the possibility that technological advancement and greater familiarity (‘learning by doing’) may ameliorate some of these costs, they deserve full treatment and discussion.

    In my opinion, a balanced appraisal of the overall costs and externalitites of nuclear power remains to be written.

  2. Nate,

    I think that’s a fair comment. It also doesn’t deal with the hidden and not-so-hidden subsidies that the nuclear industry has always gotten, which makes it hard for us to peform meaningful cost-benefit analyses of nuclear vs. various types of fossil fuel technologies.

    But, although I am not convinced that climate change is enough of a reason to make dramatic changes (i.e., I’m not a precautionary principle person), I think we would do well to include more nuclear in our generation portfolio. Diversification, among other reasons.

    And the Wired authors/editors and I do share a gee-whiz optimism about technology, which shows up in their writing and mine!

  3. Drab Green

    This post represents the worst aspects of the environment industry. He’s not just all hat, he advocates all hat, marketing environmentalism as nothing more than marketing, arguing that results don’t matter and that image is everything. With the right …

  4. I read, again, McPhee’s curve of binding energy last year and it scared the hell out of me, again. The scaring comes from the plutonum economy that will develop.
    Have you heard of any good ideas about how to control and verify control of this element?

  5. Patrick Doherty raises some good questions about the current enthusiasm around nuclear power, and in particular about the readiness of pebble-bed technology in an essay at tompaine.com: http://www.tompaine.com/articles/no_nukes.php.

    He asserts that pebble-bed won’t be ready for at least ten years, and that if we go ahead and expand nuclear power in the US now, well get more of the old-tech, less safe, high-subsidy plants that we are already familiar with.

    Appealling, both from an environmental and techie perspective, is his assertion that we could instead move to an “innovation economy” where we focus on distributed generation, using existing technologies, to advance beyond the centralized power production model and its associated ills.

    On the issue of subsidies, in addition to quantifying the subsidies to nuclear industry, has anyone, figured out what would be possible if we put an equivalent into renewables. What type of boost would we get to generation capacity compared to what we get from nukes? Jobs? Exports?

  6. Patrick Doherty raises some good questions about the current enthusiasm around nuclear power, and in particular about the readiness of pebble-bed technology in an essay at tompaine.com: http://www.tompaine.com/articles/no_nukes.php.

    He asserts that pebble-bed won’t be ready for at least ten years, and that if we go ahead and expand nuclear power in the US now, well get more of the old-tech, less safe, high-subsidy plants that we are already familiar with.

    Appealling, both from an environmental and techie perspective, is his assertion that we could instead move to an “innovation economy” where we focus on distributed generation, using existing technologies, to advance beyond the centralized power production model and its associated ills.

    On the issue of subsidies, in addition to quantifying the subsidies to nuclear industry, has anyone, figured out what would be possible if we put an equivalent into renewables. What type of boost would we get to generation capacity compared to what we get from nukes? Jobs? Exports?

  7. Prf. Kiesling: Thanks for raising the very important issue of nucleaar energy. I will try to keep my comments brief.

    As you well know, electricity demand in this country will increase 50 percent over the next two decades even using very conservative assumptions. As you also understand this country has an aging fossil fleet that continues to strugggle in the face of environmental regulatory uncertainty. How then to meet the twin challenges of increasing demand and environmental stewardship?

    The answer lies in an expanded and balanced portfolio of generation options. This means Increased nuclear, increased clean coal, judicious use of natural gas and renewables.

    What is rarely discussed, however, is the power quality issue. While gas and renewables are useful technologies, they are not base load electricity options. High prices and intermittency means that they are best deployed as peaking or distriobuted generation units. Only coal and nuclear provide the 24-7 electricity that the economy and the public increasingly demand.

    While the pebble bed reactor is a promising technology, it is one 20 years down the raod. As you note, Germany experimented with the technology, but your reference to it being 80 years old must have been a typo. Nevertheless, three new reactors have been certified for operation in the US. These reactors (generation III+ whereas pebble bed if Gen IV) are safer, less mechanized and use natural forces to acitivate safety system. They are also big. Large reactors provide economies of scale where power demand growth is certain. Stringing 10 pebble bed reactors together as is often planned, allows for gradual demand growth but has its downsides. The pebble bed design is likely to find its niche in emerging economies and remote locations.

    I too enjoyed the Wired piece and recently had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. Reiss. But I must object to the Price-Anderson reference. This financial instrument is designed to provide immediate financial relief to those in need rather than going through decades long litigation. It is fully funded collectively by the industry. The government doesn’t pay, but will determine who will in the eve3nt increased funds are needed.

    I will also note that nuclear power has internalized all of its external costs unlike any other genberation type, yet it remains the cheapest generation type. We capture, contain and store our byproduct and pay to do so on an ongoing basis. We similarly are reqiured to maintain adequate funds for decommissiong once that plant is ready for closure.

    As to politics, we have strong bipartisan support as you can tell from any major vote on our issues.

    As to the costs over runs mentioned in comment one, I will only say here that they were in large part due to an inoperable licensing system. I would be happy to elaborate if you are interested.

  8. The biggest problem with nukes is waste. A great deal of the waste problem can be addressed through recycling. We recycled used nuclear fuel up until the late 1970s.

    http://www.osti.gov/osti/opennet/document/purecov/nfsrepo.html

    You don’t need Yucca Mountain if you are recycling.

    Breeder reactors work, too. They make more fuel than they use (they turn U-238 into plutonium).

    It doesn’t seem to me that the expense of nukes is worth it unless you use breeder reactors and recycle the fuel. Otherwise there just isn’t that much uranium in the world for everyone to power their countries with nukes.

  9. I read, again, McPhee’s curve of binding energy last year and it scared the hell out of me, again. The scaring comes from the plutonum economy that will develop.
    Have you heard of any good ideas about how to control and verify control of this element?

    Plutonium releases particular forms of radiation which can be detected in small quantities even from space. These weapons can be detected even if they are well shielded. The real problem though is the centralized infrastructure that’s been built up since well before the Industrial Revolution.

    For example, the centralization of the finance sector on Manhattan Island in New York City, the vast political infrastructure in Washington, DC, Silicon Valley in California, or the concentration of chemical industries in Houston, are typical examples of what probably would become expensive overconcentration, if terrorism of infrastructure and large population centers becomes common in the US.

    For all the fear, the real problem is a choice between greater regulation of people in an attempt to prevent dangerous knowledge and materials from becoming widespread, or adapting society so that the danger is minimized. This includes improving emergency services and breaking up centralization.

    I can see a time when some societies might have widespread legitimate use of nuclear fission explosives (say in the Asteroid Belt) while others might try to control or even prohibit the spread of knowledge on Earth and damaging society to protect centralization.

    Those fission bombs may be a handy way to break up an asteroid, but they might be the deathnell of an shaky urban civilization, if some found their way into the various forms of urban conflict.

    What will happen if societies develope dangerous vulnerabilities not just to small groups, but to each other?

  10. What stuck me in McPhee was the quatity of Pu that had to be monitored and the precision that that monitoring required. It is my understanding that a bomb can be made from a baseball, or smaller, hunk of Pu. Many thousands of tons of the stuff will be rattling around in the world economy at any one time if we move towards significant amounts of nuclear power.
    For reasons of safety some very onerous limitations on society would have to be put in place. Even then human failure is sure to occur. Will we have to become used to a weapon going off somewhere in the world every year? I think we face that possibility right now. We are just lucky it has not happened yet.
    I also feel that nuclear power will be required if global warming effects severly impact the world economy. Certainly nuclear power will be required if the levels of world wide prosperity are to reach American levels.

  11. Let me second the recommendation that you read Doherty’s piece:

    http://www.tompaine.com/articles/no_nukes.php

    Nuclear is not a technology that deserves your gee-whiz support. It’s centralized, highly vulnerable, opaque, and — partially as a consequence — heavily political.

    The technologies of the future, which DO deserve your gee-whiz support, are developed in the open, modular, and distributed.

    To all those who say we should go nuclear because we’re just not capable of developing alternative energies fast enough: where’s your faith in Americfa’s drive and initiative? If we put the amount of public resources, brainpower, and bully-pulpit support behind them that are now enjoyed by nuclear (not to mention oil, etc.), you’d be surprised at the burst of excitement and innovation that would result.

    Going nuclear would just be a transfer of power from one politically compromised, bloated industry to another. What’s exciting about that?

  12. There is already about 1700 tons of plutonium in private ownership. I am astounded that they’ve managed to keep it locked up for so long. A simple implosion bomb made from plutonium (like the Nagasaki bomb) uses around 20-30 pounds of the stuff. Which sounds like a lot until you realize it is the size of a baseball. The lower limit of what you need is very classified (it depends upon having very efficient high explosives to compress the stuff), but I understand it is around 2 pounds (little larger than a golfball).

    As McPhee’s book points out, the original economics for nuclear plants were to make the money to pay for construction and decomissioning of the plant by selling the plutonium to the US government. The US government stopped purchasing privately owned plutonium back in 1970. Electricity would be free (or too cheap to meter) because the plant would be paid for by other subsidies.

    The reactor designs that we currently use are auxilliaries of the military. The Canadian designs (CANDU) use far less enriched uranium, and produce far less plutonium.

    Why are we pissed off at the Iranians? The same facility needed to enrich uranium for an American style reactor is the same facility for refining uranium for weapons. One need only refine it purer for the bombs.

    It is fashionable to blame treehuggers, hippies, lawyers or the EPA for the failure of the nuclear industry in the US. It is not fashionable to understand the math of why it failed. I don’t think that proponents of increasing nuclear power plants understand the real reasons behind the failure, and so they would rather put on mental bellbottom jeans and foam at the mouth about spotted owl lovers and regulations.

    Another interesting thread of McPhee’s book is that he refers to an attack on the world trade center by terrorists.

    I would also like to recommend a book by Perrow called Normal Accidents.

  13. Lynne,

    There is another $64 gazillion question: “Can we create an investment climate in which private capital will flow to nuclear power projects?”

    Much of the capital cost of existing nuclear plants is the result of the capitalization of interest expense on construction work in process (CWIP) beyond the interest which would have been charged had the construction process proceeded without interruption and requirements for redesign after construction began. However, as expensive as these delays and redesign requirements were, they pale in comparison to the risk of completing the investment and not being allowed to operate the plant because the evacuation plan (which had previously been approved) is now judged to be inadequate and unworkable (Shoreham).

    Unless investors can be assured that they will be able to complete their projects based on the approved designs and on the approved schedule, and that they will be permitted to operate the plants once construction is complete, it appears highly unlikely that private capital will be available to fund nuclear plant construction.

    I don’t believe that nuclear generation is the “silver bullet” solution to our energy future; nor, do I believe that hydro, solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, OTEC or some other technology is the “silver bullet”. I believe we will require a mix of technologies to supply our future energy needs. We will also require siting policies which effectively deal with “NIMBY” and “BANANA”.

    What passes for energy strategy today frequently seems about as serious as Monty Python’s “Search for the Holy Grail”.

  14. Reading this stuff is truly dispiriting. It is like falling down a rabbit hole and waking up 30 years ago, only I am bald, fat and near-sighted. I read the same arguments against Nuclear Power that I heard 30 years ago. The McPhee book appeared as articles when I was in law school, only when I was in law school I was a lot thinner and I had hair.

    The arguments are no better now than they were then. They are no less political now than they were then. The same prophecies of doom, the same whining about subsidies. The same yapping about some other technology that is just around the corner.

    Of course, since then the French and the Japanese made major commitments to nuclear power. And got away with it. Only State actors have built atomic bombs. The old reactors in the US keep chugging away producing cheap electricity.

    What I think is, that the nuclear discussion flushes the anti nukes for what they really are: Anti-American leftists who are hanging on to the Cold War, like Japanese soldiers dug in on remote Pacific islands long after the end of WWII. I believe that the anti-nuclear movement was founded (probably with direct guidance and subsidy from Moscow) by leftists in the wake of the success of the anti-Vietnam movement, in order to deprive the United States of civilian nuclear technology and to damage its nuclear infrastructure so as to make it a less formidable opponent to the Soviet Union.

    This explains why there has never been an organized opposition to the French nuclear program, which produces about 70% of their electricity. DeGaulleís treaty with the Soviets gave the French bureaucrats a free hand at home, the CGT could riot about wages and hours, but that was it. DeGaulle withdrew from NATO, dumped the Israelis and backed the Soviets in the Middle East. This line is followed to this day, by his successor, Chirac.

    Japan, of course, is ruled by an impenetrable consensus political culture. When their mind is made up. It is made up.

    Of course, nuclear power is only important if you think that there is such a thing as Global Warming, that it is caused by fossil fuel combustion and that it is a bad thing. I have reserved judgment on the first and second items and think the third unlikely, at least for the United States.

    Given the current state of our political system. I think that it is incredibly unlikely that there will be any large scale power projects other than natural gas and clean burning coal during the next few years. And that is just fine with me. I will be perfectly happy to plant azaleas and put a pool in back yard.

    But really, donít trot out those oldies and expect me to be nostalgic.

  15. It is fashionable to blame treehuggers, hippies, lawyers or the EPA for the failure of the nuclear industry in the US. It is not fashionable to understand the math of why it failed. I don’t think that proponents of increasing nuclear power plants understand the real reasons behind the failure, and so they would rather put on mental bellbottom jeans and foam at the mouth about spotted owl lovers and regulations.

    Since we’re on “fashionable” subjects, we should mention that it’s also fashionable to slight a technology based on its early performance not on present day technology. Should we ignore solar cells now just because in the early days they took more power to make than they returned over their actual lifetimes?

    It’s also fashionable to attribute ignorance to your opponents rather than fashion a genuine counterargument.

    There is already about 1700 tons of plutonium in private ownership. I am astounded that they’ve managed to keep it locked up for so long. A simple implosion bomb made from plutonium (like the Nagasaki bomb) uses around 20-30 pounds of the stuff. Which sounds like a lot until you realize it is the size of a baseball. The lower limit of what you need is very classified (it depends upon having very efficient high explosives to compress the stuff), but I understand it is around 2 pounds (little larger than a golfball).

    But how much of that 1200 tons is weapon grade and in private hands? As I read it, there are roughly 260 tons of weapon grade plutonium most if not all in government hands and 200 tons of lower grade material (some which can be used in a fission bomb) some which is controlled by private organizations. The rest is still part of some used fuel rod.

  16. It is fashionable to blame treehuggers, hippies, lawyers or the EPA for the failure of the nuclear industry in the US. It is not fashionable to understand the math of why it failed. I don’t think that proponents of increasing nuclear power plants understand the real reasons behind the failure, and so they would rather put on mental bellbottom jeans and foam at the mouth about spotted owl lovers and regulations.

    Since we’re on “fashionable” subjects, we should mention that it’s also fashionable to slight a technology based on its early performance not on present day technology. Should we ignore solar cells now just because in the early days they took more power to make than they returned over their actual lifetimes?

    It’s also fashionable to attribute ignorance to your opponents rather than fashion a genuine counterargument.

    There is already about 1700 tons of plutonium in private ownership. I am astounded that they’ve managed to keep it locked up for so long. A simple implosion bomb made from plutonium (like the Nagasaki bomb) uses around 20-30 pounds of the stuff. Which sounds like a lot until you realize it is the size of a baseball. The lower limit of what you need is very classified (it depends upon having very efficient high explosives to compress the stuff), but I understand it is around 2 pounds (little larger than a golfball).

    But how much of that 1200 tons is weapon grade and in private hands? As I read it, there are roughly 260 tons of weapon grade plutonium most if not all in government hands and 200 tons of lower grade material (some which can be used in a fission bomb) some which is controlled by private organizations. The rest is still part of some used fuel rod.

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