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Why nuclear energy is our best option at the moment (energyrealityproject.com)
398 points by nrcha on Nov 3, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 384 comments



The article is completely unprofessional. The tone itself is very one-sided - which is bad enough. However, the factual omissions are ridiculous.

Here are a few examples:

the area used for wind turbines is large, but it is usually re-usable for agriculture, or increasingly off shore

official nuclear death are low - but there is a lot of dispute on the "long tail" of long term deaths from the big nuclear disasters of Ukraine and Japan

they (correctly) mention the environmental cost of materials for renewable energy, but ignore the similar pollution of Uranium mining and enrichment

4th generation nuclear reactor are still not even past the design stage. How can anyone even put a price tag on these ?

3rd generation nuclear reactor are more expensive than claimed in the article. The real prices of real reactors in the real world in the past decade are x3 the expected costs.

There is simply not enough uranium for a full build out of 3rd generation nuclear. 4th generation will be required, and it is still in the r&d stage

There is no mention of the huge problem of load-following when using nuclear plants. You cant just assume 90% CF and then ignore this.

Most importantly, IMHO, they completely ignore the learning curve for solar & wind. This is a proven trend, over last decades, appears to be set to continue, and completely changes the discussion.

And on and on....

My own views are pro-nuclear AND pro-renewable. But this requires a scientific and accurate discussion!


> official nuclear death are low - but there is a lot of dispute on the "long tail" of long term deaths from the big nuclear disasters of Ukraine and Japan

Fukushima happened too soon, and it will be a long time before the results of that disaster on the healthy of the surrounding people can be properly analysed.

Chernobyl on the other hand has been studied extensively and considering the scale of the disaster the toll on human life, including increase in cancer rates is lower than expected at the time of the accident.

In particular the Chernobyl Forum's 2005 report found that the increased incidence of thyroid cancer in children had caused 5000 additional cases due to the release of radioactive iodine from Chernobyl.

These are seen as the only additional deaths due to radiation exposure other than the estimated 2000 caused due to directed exposure to clean up workers at the site itself.

You can find an summary of the finding on the World Health organisations website, as well as read the report directly.

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/

https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/chernobyl.pdf


Those are very high numbers.

> estimated 2000 caused due to directed exposure to clean up workers at the site itself

The more common numbers you see are under 50.

This Slate article goes over the uncertainty: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2...


>The more common numbers you see are under 50.

This is a very high number.

The official Soviet total death toll was 2 until risen to 31 in 1986 and repeated.

The point is you'll find all kind of number ranging from 2 to a million death due to chernobyl and number of death is not even a valid metric to measure the human impact of the chernobyl "accident". One of my family member is a farmer living a few thousand kilometer away from Chernobyl, he was working outside on the days where the contaminated cloud didn't reach him according to the government, but still he developed a chronic red blood cell sickness shortly after.

Then again death count of past nuclear accident is a terrible way to assess the impact of nuclear energy, it is a good way to show that humans are bad at dealing with nuclear plants and that nuclear plant are run with not enough regard for security and regulation, not decommissioning due and overdue plants because money and greatly underestimating such costs.


If you look at the work that these guys had to do, particularly on the roof and under the reactor to prevent the core from leaking out, then the number 50 is hard to believe.

These two wikipedia pages are worth reading.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster#Human_impac...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquidator_(Chernobyl)

You can see videos of the work that they had to do.

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=bio+robot+chern...

Also the linear no threshold model is quite questionable when you consider how dosages are measured in an emergency situation, and that different isotopes attack different parts of the body in non uniform fashion. i.e. Skin contact versus ingestion or inhalation.


> There is simply not enough uranium for a full build out of 3rd generation nuclear

This is really important and is often avoided to be discussed: even if the 10% of all world's energy needs are covered by the nuclear energy at this moment, we know we're using some 70 Ktons of uranium per year. Then to use only nuclear energy we'd need 700 Ktons per year. Currently identified uranium resources total 5.5 Mtons, which would last for less than 8 years of such use. Even if those aren't the exact numbers, that are the orders of magnitude.

That's why the breeder reactors would be needed as a "solution," and at the moment they are still experimental, especially regarding the fulfillment of their major promises.

The current state of FNRs:

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generat...

The two only "commercial" plants currently planned are in Russia (from mid-2020s, U+Pu nitride fuel) and China (from 2028, U-Pu-Zr fuel).

Some problems with the breeders are mentioned in

http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr08.pdf


It's ignored because it doesn't matter. Mineral reserves only count ore that can be extracted economically at current prices; at current prices we have sufficient uranium for well longer than it takes to find and extract more (so there is no economic incentive to look).

If usage increased greatly and there was some prospect of greatly increased prices lots (hundreds of times current reserves) of marginal ores become available.

This doesn't hurt the economics of uranium fission for power because fuel prices aren't a significant cost. (this is why it's so hard to make breeders economical -- the main benefit is waste disposal and it's hard to compete with a hole in the ground on price.)


No, it does matter.

Price isn't some abstract thing. It's based on cost, and that which you've got to give up to get something. The entire price system of modern civilisation is predicated on a "cost" of energy that's merely an access cost -- how much it takes to prise it from the ground. Not a replacement cost.

So our price system is predicated on widely and directly utilisable energy sources that offer 30:1 to 100:1 return on cost -- or Energy Return on Invested Energy (EROEI). That's actually down from the 100:1 to 400:1 values earlier oil and coal deposits offered. And too: I can burn coal in a stove in my house, and power or heat systems with oil ranging from fingertip size to 80 MW+ ship engines. We can argue about nuclear energy's abundance or practicality, but there's no arguing over its implementation scale: it's complex, large, and cannot directly power hand-tools, remote-controlled or piloted aircraft, and is only just barely viable for marine propulsion in noncommercial uses (the commercial shipping experiments for nuclear were failures).

Nuclear also presents risks at some different scales than we're usually given to discuss. Though arguably fossil fuel's CO2 problem is a similar example ... but that's not exactly going swimmingly at a global or even national political level.

And even if nuclear does address those issues, it still doesn't give you a portable, safe, convenient liquid fuel, which is what most quotidian applications want for. You can make your own liquid hydrocarbons, but that is expensive, raises the energy cost about 80x above what it is today (you return ~50% of your investment instead of multiplying it 40-fold), and hasn't been demonstrated at the scales we've become accustomed to.


Fuel is a minuscule percentage of the cost of building and operating a nuclear reactor.

The cost of uranium is currently about $90/kg. Citing a previous poster, around 70 MT of uranium is used every year, which comes to about 6.3 G$, which comes to about 2.61 $/TWh. As per the NEI, the cost of nuclear energy is 108 $/TWh. At current prices, uranium accounts for 2.4% of the cost of producing nuclear energy.

Keeping the same profit margins under an increase of one order of magnitude of the price of uranium would mean increasing the price of nuclear energy by roughly 20%.


The cost of everything else about a nuclear reactor is based in hugely understated fossil-fuel subsidised cost basis. That is going to inflate when you don't have those fossil fuels around, particularly for elements for which hydrocarbons are essential inputs or exceptionally difficult to substitute (coking coal for steel, much or all transport, chemical feedstocks, industrial process heating).

But that's less a concern to me than the technological stack and global risk associated with massive (15,000+ reactors) deployment of nuclear technology. Present major incident rate has been about 1 per 100 years of plant operation. How much are we going to cut that down to? 1 per 1,000 years? 1 pere 10,000 years?

Because that's one or more major nuclear accidents per year at a 15,000+ plant scale.

Even getting the rate down to a few per century adds up over sufficient time, and I presume you're in this for the long haul.

Who manages plants and waste processing during major economic disruptions or times of total war between nuclear powered states (which would be, let me check, um, all of them).

The systemic risk side kinda bugs me a bit.


> The cost of everything else about a nuclear reactor is based in hugely understated fossil-fuel subsidised cost basis.

I don't see how that makes nuclear worse than other methods of energy production


Fair point. I'm not entirely sure either.

The most immediate implication is that it simply invalidates a great deal of present future-cost/future-value analysis, by noting that the entire present price and cost regime is severely faulty. It may well be that money is the wrong unit of economic analysis. There are a number of people who've suggested that currency should be considered to be backed in energy (though that's not the same as saying money is energy -- a crucial but nuanced distinction) -- Arthur C. Clarke, Kim Stanley Robinson, and F. Buckminster Fuller among them. I've traced the concept back to H.G. Wells (of whom Clarke was a fan).

Which would suggest that an energy flows model of an economy is of interest, and that for the nuclear instance, you'd want to sort that out based on total available nuclear energy, conversions for provisioning synthesised hydrocarbons (or other fuels, though CH chains are awfully appealing), and how much net free energy (for other activities) you're left with. Plus factors for risk and such.

That could be compared with the models for renewables-based alternatives.

A key benefit to most renewables schemes is that they pose relatively few widespread catastrophic systemic risks. Grid stability seem the main issue if we're still talking electrical systems (and the advantages of electricity are such that we almost certainly are). But solar and wind plants don't suddenly go into catastrophic meltdown, and the tech stack for each is relatively small.

(Hydro power can see regional catastrophic failure, see the Banqiao Dam disaster, 170k killed. But a lot of things had to go wrong, most of which aren't significantly different from what can befall a nuclear site, and the long-term consequences are fairly benign: the region is now home to 7+ million people, 40 years on.)

But, answering your question in part: it seems to me that a combined measure of net free energy, and systemic risk is probably a better assessment criteria than some putative present "cost" analysis based on a flawed pricing system.


I definitely agree with you; the externalities of nuclear power are very often understated.


Do those calculations (108$/TWh) include the cost of safely getting rid of the waste and the insurance costs to cover the damage done by an accident? Let alone the costs of accidents.


For a reasonably balanced view of costs and risks of nuclear power, I'm inclined to look at the IPCC's study of renewable or carbon-neutral energy alternatives, SRREN. I don't have numbers off the top of my head, but believe that nuclear is at least within ballpark competitiveness based on present cost estimates (see my immediately prior comment on why cost estimates are likely not the best assessment tool to use).

IPCC assimilates data from a large range of sources and viewpoints. It's about as close to a concensus view as you'll find. And considerably more sober than the parent article here.

http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report


Only thorium breeders seem feasible for commercial production. Plutonium breeders are terribly unsafe.


Do you have any link of any real development of any useful thorium reactor? If it has benefits, why isn't anybody getting rich developing it now? Even if the western politicians or corporations have any supposed agenda, why don't Russia and China develop or use them instead of scheduling the plutonium (Pu) reactors?


China have announced plans to research development of thorium reactors. The initial schedule put possible commercial deployment as not before ~2040. Some managerial rattling prompted more ambitious schedules, though so far as I can tell, that was based far more on wishful thinking (we want an energy solution sooner) than any significant technological breakthrough.

So, yes, even the can-do, optimistic Chinese see practical application of thorium / MSR designs as decades off.

Previously: https://www.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/1uy239/energy_...


No question they work. Lab reactors were run for years until funding ran out. There were 5 American startups designing Thorium reactors a few years back. I'm guessing regulation killed them.


People assume regulation is responsible for the death of nuclear programs all the time. More likely, it's technical feasibility or cost issues. Which gets back to the "Why isn't China doing this?" Building a lab reactor that implements a theoretical reaction chain, and building a production reactor that puts out terawatt-range power safely and cost-effectively for decades are two entirely different things. Lab reactors are the Hello World apps of nuclear power.


Here's somethign a little stale. Gate's company is looking into it:

http://www.the-weinberg-foundation.org/2013/07/23/bill-gates...


I think we should definitely keep researching thorium. The theoretical aspects are very appealing and solve a lot of problems. My concern isn't that thorium can't work, or won't solve the problems it should solve, but rather that there's a LOT of handwaving and assumptions and finger-pointing from the pro-thorium crowd. If it was as easy, cheap, and safe as they claim, it'd be done already. Doesn't mean it can't be done, just that it isn't as easy or cheap as is claimed by its proponents.


That's exactly the argument I use when I hear "Thorium reactors will solve all our problems!" I don't think thorium will really work, or someone would be doing it by now. But at least it's theoretically safe, as opposed to traditional plutonium breeders, which are safety nightmares with the potential for true runaway.


Could you clarify the "huge problem of load-following" for nuclear power plants? My understanding is that it's mostly a licensing issue rather than a technical issue, and in practice hasn't had a big impact on CF[1]

[1] https://www.oecd-nea.org/nea-news/2011/29-2/nea-news-29-2-lo...

"Most of the currently operating Generation II nuclear reactors were designed to have strong manoeuvring capabilities. Nuclear power plants in France and Germany operate in load-following mode."

"The economic consequences of load-following are mainly related to the reduction of the load factor... In France, the impact of load-following on the average unit capacity factor is sometimes estimated at about 1.2%."

"Licensing of load-following is specific to each country. In France and in Germany, for instance,load-following is considered early in the licensing process, and no further authorisation needs to be obtained by the utility to operate in manoeuvring regime. In other countries, load-following restrictions apply: for example in the United States, automatic load-following is not authorised"


Load following is a technical issues--nukes are limited in the amount they can load-follow. But winds cannot load follow at all and solar can help some, but doesn't necessarily help cover peak daily load. For example, yesterday in California the system peak load was at 5:49 pm, but solar PV peak was at 9:44 am. data: http://content.caiso.com/green/renewrpt/20151102_DailyRenewa...

Nukes aren't great for load following, but they can load follow some--which is better than wind and solar. To really load follow, you need hydro or nat gas turbines (though nat gas combined cycle can load follow).


Another possibility would be to add massive storage to the grid. Maybe it's pumped hydro or this kind of thing: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8646787. Or perhaps more realistically, if someday soon there are millions of electric vehicles connected to the grid at any given time, especially during current off-peak hours, that storage could be leveraged for load shaping.


Most wind turbines can be regulated very fast in negative direction, i.e. you can change the angle that the blades have to the wind to reduce the force. This is needed for the turbine to survive storms but it can also be (and is) also used to "help the grid".


There are also physical limitations with load following. In a fission reactor you're dealing with a steady state of influx of fission products (by the primary nuclear reaction) and the delayed decay of those products. In fact a large portion of the heat generated by a fission reactor comes from the delayed decay of the fission products. Furthermore some of the fission products are very efficient neutron catchers; notably Xe135 which is so efficient in catching neutrons, that its buildup in a reactor is called "xenon poisoning"; the accumulation of neutron catchers in a fission reaction is called "neutron poisoning".

What this comes down to is, when you ramp down a fission reactor, there's some internal inertia in its internal workings, that will actively prevent it for some time from being able to ramped up in a safely manner. The quicker the shutdown, the larger the amount of neutron poisoning and the longer you have to wait before ramping it up again. This leaves you with a nice second order differential equation coupling the power output modulation factor with the period of that power modulation.

The period of the power modulation is 24h, following the daily load swings, so for a given reactor that gives you only so much load following capacity to stay within safe margins.


That's one advantage of molten salt reactors: the Xe135 bubbles right out, making load following a lot easier. The Transatomic white paper talks about this on page 44 (pdf): http://www.transatomicpower.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/t...


Load-following is both license and technical related in a chicken-and-egg-way. You need to incorporate load-following into your reactor design. More specifically: the speed with which a reactor can modulate its output while staying within nominal operational bounds is a design parameter. If licensing doesn't allow load-following, you're not going to give your reactor that feature.


Thing is to reduce the electrical output of a reactor, you can either reduce the thermal output, but then the entire reactor core needs to cool, or you have to reduce the efficiency of the electricity generation. In the first case we are talking about a timescale of days and in the second case you are burning fuel for nothing. So NPRs are not designed to do much of the second.


The real problem is that to get anything resembling economical use out of a nuclear plant, you need to output 100% almost all the time. New plants are too damn expensive to just let them sit there.


You assert that an article of this nature needs to be "professional", why is that ? It was written for the great mass of laypeople that (supposedly) holds the power over our nuclear future. It is intended to challenge the ongoing anti-nuclear narrative and re-educate. It achieves those aims admirably.

While your criticisms may be arguably valid for a different audience they are irrelevant here.


I didn't mean to downvote you but accidentally clicked on the button and can't go back.

However, I do disagree with your point. I'm pro-nuclear to the degree that it's economical, and found the article to be somewhat insipid due to grandparent's reasons.

Just as there are plenty of people that are irrationally anti-nuclear, being irrationally pro-nuclear is no better at all.


What qualifies as "irrationally" pro-nuclear seems to depend on what time horizon you are using, the same as whether or not it seems rational to dump money into NASA.


it is rational to dump money into NASA, ask Neil Degrasse Tyson for an explanation of the economic repercussion.


Most importantly, IMHO, they completely ignore the learning curve for solar & wind. This is a proven trend, over last decades, appears to be set to continue, and completely changes the discussion.

By 'learning curve,' I guess you mean the rapidly increasing efficiency curves these technologies are on, and in the case of solar(maybe wind as well, not sure) exponentially so.

I certainly agree with you, this is the most important factor in any discussion of current and future energy generation, and carries great weight for why we should all be highly skeptical and indeed hostile towards any thing like future developments of highly destructive energy projects like fracking, or potentially highly destructive like nuclear.

Things like fracking and nuclear carry huge unaccounted for costs that are totally absent from the bottom lines of the companies developing them. It is absolutely absurd and criminal that fracking companies in particular are allowed to run roughshod over our shared environmental heritage creating negative effects that may last for generations. And it is all the more tragic when one looks at the development curve of renewables and applies a little foresight.

Fracking's huge costs in the form of negative externalities are quite apparent to anyone wanting to look for them today, but nuclear fits quite well into this line of thinking as well. Why would we want to burden our grandchildren with the hassle of nuclear waste?

If we don't clean up our act, it's hard to see how future generations aren't going to look back on us as party guests that showed up on this planet, made a huge mess, poured rum in the aquarium and killed the fish, and left without cleaning it all up.

It may sound a little pollyanna-ish, but as you say, the evidence bears it out, if everybody can just chill for a minute or two and maybe look for ways to make their current energy use more efficient, we're on the cusp of having more than enough energy supplied from sources that are harmonious with our environment rather than destructive of it.


Equating nuclear (in all it's forms) and fracking is not particularly helpful. They're very different approaches, with radically different considerations, not to mention that some reactor designs can actually consume existing stockpiles of nuclear waste as fuel.

I'm as big a critic of fracking as you're going to find, but being overly emotional and applying the fallacy of equivocation isn't helping anything here - and might be hurting if the appropriate application of modern nuclear technology can actually solve many of our issues (or at least help). For that we do need solid analysis which does take into account the "huge costs in the form of negative externalities" - which is bound to come from outside the pro-nuclear industry.


The equivalence raised was to yazriel's point of any considerations of future energy generation methods really need to be taking into account the rapid growth of renewables, and not just rapid, but exponential. Which if your unfamiliar with can be rather unintuitive. For example the human genome project was scheduled/planned for something like 10 years, in the ninth year the project was only 50% complete, but the next year the genome was fully sequenced on schedule because the technology and methods for doing so were proceeding at an exponential pace.

So the basic point is, if the available evidence is saying that it is quite likely that renewables will be covering the large majority of our energy needs rather soon then taking any undue risks, or generating energy in ways that involve long lasting undesirable effects are really the epitome of the kind of short term thinking that has gotten us into the environmental mess we are in, and is really a huge middle finger to our descendants, and that's not very nice.

Really, it could even be argued that as long our observations are telling us what they are now about the future of renewables that any present day expenditures on energy development[0] that aren't renewable focused are a huge middle finger to our descendants, and it is immoral for us to do so.

https://duckduckgo.com/?q=solar+exponential

[0]for day to day living for the majority of the planet, there is obviously worthwhile research for space travel and the like.

--- --- --- ---

some reactor designs can actually consume existing stockpiles of nuclear waste as fuel.

Are these in production? What sort of waste/byproduct do they produce? How is it different from conventional nuclear waste? Is it totally inert?

* might be hurting if the appropriate application of modern nuclear technology can actually solve many of our issues*

What issues are you referring to? The fact that much of our current energy production methods are detrimental to the planet as a whole(including us)?

Are you aware that if solar PV continues the growth curve its been on for the past ~20 years, for the next ~10 years, then the amount of solar PV produced energy in 10 years will be equal to the amount of all human produced energy today?


Why is it that solar is always sold based on what might be available in a few decades, while nuclear is judged as if 1950s technology was the only option?

Complaining about the supposed problem of nuclear "waste" (really, unused fuel) is the equivalent of someone today complaining that computers were too large to be useful outside of a few labs. Who would want a "computer" when only a handful of labs would be able to afford the high maintenance costs (replacing vacuum tubes is expensive).

> Are these in production?

No, due to the roadblocks put up by anti-nuclear activists and governments that prefer reactors that generate certain isotopes of plutonium.

> What sort of waste/byproduct do they produce?

The entire point of a breeder reactor is to burn through most of the fuel. We currently only use about 3% of the fuel we put in the reactor. Any breeder should only leave a few % of problematic fission-product waste.

This gets even better when you consider that some of that "waste" is actually useful for various purposes. However, even in the case of the old wasteful-1950s-tech reactor, the amount of waste involved is so trivial, it's hard to compare even to "renewable" technology like solar. (making PV cells has it's own waste/pollution problems

http://spectrum.ieee.org/green-tech/solar/solar-energy-isnt-...

Also, another bonus of using the decay chains of thorium's fission products is that the worst isotopes produced only last on the hundred-year scale, not thousands of years.

> How is it different from conventional nuclear waste?

You're talking a handful of grams per-person-per-year, see above.

The question you should really be asking instead is why every other form of power generation isn't held to the same standards.

> Is it totally inert?

It's far more inert than anything you will find dumped into a coal tailings pond, and I'd rather be near a tiny amount of nuclear power waste than the chemicals used to make PV cells.

> Are you aware that if solar...

Are you aware that most of these "larger" (lol) solar installations are de facto running on natural gas? I'm all for using a variety of technologies, and solar certainly should be an important part of energy generation. Unfortunately, until we find a way to store power quickly and efficiently at the TWh-scale, these unreliable technologies are not viable for base load power.


I concur, this read as some sort of PR propaganda push according to an agenda.

it fails to take into account what actually happens with costs running several times the initial estimates, overdue decommission with no money to pay for it. Look at Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, a first of its kind third gen nuclear plant: building start in late 2005 for 3 billions euros with a starting operational date in 2009. delayed to 2011, then 2012, 2013 and 2014. now it is 2018 with a cost a little under 9 billions.

Then we also have past example of 4th gen reactor, superphenix in France, initial cost under a billion euros, actual building cost and maintenance around 12 billions + 2.5 billions for decommission. building started in 1982, operational in 1984 with an actual load under 10% until a first incident forces to stop it for 2 years, restarts and manage a 11% load early 1989 until another incident forces to purge 400 tons of liquid sodium and stop the plant again, then it restart again in 1994 with a load of 0.1% of the nominal capacity than a change of mission from producing electricity to experimental lab then same year another incident which stops it again for half a year, after a one year hiatus it is restarted and gets its best year of production over 30% load in 1996 and then is stopped for decennial maintenance and decision is made to cut the loss and stop it definitively.

These are not "run numbers" but real world examples of dealing with experimental nuclear plants, which is something else than mass deployment over a whole country as primary source of energy.

Putting unreasonable expectations on nuclear plants as this article does is a recipe for major disaster and public disappointment, this is not helping the nuclear energy production nor the energy issue itself.


"We could do it for $1 Trillion with liquid-fueled Molten Salt Reactors, on the same amount of land, but with no water cooling, no risk of meltdowns, and the ability to use our stockpiles of nuclear “waste” as a secondary fuel."

This is not a production-ready technology, though. I believe there are lingering problems with corrosion. And the claim that the MSR doesn't require secondary water cooling is odd: what's the turbine working fluid heat dump supposed to be?

I really object to phrasing energy policy as either/or. Build out renewables, now, because that's ready. Let's give the MSR a fair go at getting to production-ready, see if the problems can be worked out.

Let's not build a nuclear plant whose output is subsidized to twice the normal wholesale cost: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22772441


Yeah, there are a lot of alternate nuclear reactor designs that look great on paper but have never had the full scale engineering done to see if it is practical. And they look cheap because you don't even know half of the stuff you have to do that makes it expensive.

It's like rocket design where you go "just put a bunch of explosives in a tube and go into space, this shouldn't be too expensive or difficult..."


This is where John D Clark's book "Ignition!" really shines: it's the history of the science of rocket fuel as problem solving. Plenty of candidates on paper, need to be tested for detonation, hypergolicity, ease of ignition, handling, effect on plumbing etc. Red fuming nitric acid is a good example: great oxidiser, doesn't need cryogenics but is liquid even in arctic temperatures. Only problem is it eats through the tanks, until they discovered that adding a small quantity of HF made it OK to store in stainless steel.

I suspect that he would have taken one look at handling radioactive corrosive liquid at 600C and asked to go back to the nice safe rocket lab with only a few explosions.


I've seen Ignition! referenced quite a few times on this site. Is there a reasonable place to get a reprint?



Thank you, went to save it to my dropbox and found a copy already there...


Googling for [john clark ignition] yielded http://fringe.davesource.com/Fringe/Explosives/Ignition.An-I... (also on archive.org)


Yup. Rocket science is dead easy. Tsiolkovsky, and... that's about it. Rocket engineering, on the other hand...


True; many of these dream reactors probably won't work, because that is the nature of things. But the full-scale engineering never gets done because of anti-nuclear propaganda playing on mass public ignorance, so at the rate we're going now we'll never know.


Full scale engineering, free of the liberal treehugging you decry, happens in China, India, Russia, and elsewhere. You'd think we'd be seeing better results than we are.


Well, at least Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant was being delayed due to protests by local people. Another reason why better results are not being obtained is because of the subsidy on CO2 emitting fuels by not taxing the externalities (which would make nuclear power significantly more profitable) and also difficulties in obtaining nuclear material (NSG, for example). Kudankulam power plant generates power at 4.29 rupees/kW.h which is barely profitable compared to other methods (mostly fossil fuels).


China literally just got started and betting pretty big too so hell yeah we're going to see results in the next 10 years.


If there's positive buzz about molten salt reactors, the most likely source of that buzz is people who want to get rich selling molten salt reactors.


Corrosion is not a problem. But there is still a ton of work that needs to be done with molten salt reactors. But it's work we should do, I feel. I used to be skeptical of the idea but after doing a considerable amount of research I changed my opinion, the core design has a myriad of advantages and it's practically criminal we aren't dumping gobs of money into research for it.

As for water, the working fluid of the heat exchanger and generator can be water, though Helium or CO2 would make more sense.

Additionally, renewables are absolutely not ready to take over base load power generation. They are an incredibly flawed system in their current form, and incredibly expensive (in multiple ways). They can be improved but it'll be a long, long way before we can rely on solar and wind as the core (rather than periphery) of our power generation infrastructure.


Wait wait wait, you're going to have to provide a citation for this claim that corrosion is not a problem.

I was told by faculty with joint appointments in matsci and nuclear engineering that it is a major issue and that while they've developed some alloys that look reasonable in the recent past it's still academic research unproven in scale up.

Holding molten salts is really hard... they corrode the heck out of even high end commodity stainless steels (this I know from professional work). Protective coatings help for sure, but they crack over time, especially with any thermal cycling. Inconel and similar alloys maybe, but it's really not straightforward to block grain boundary corrosion! Add to that neutron embrittlement...

I've not kept super up to date, but it's hard to imagine that these alloys went from academically unproven to industrially certified in the last seven years.


Hastelloy-N, it's expensive stuff but it works. Corrosion is one of the difficulties of molten salt reactor designs, but it's manageable with the right materials. And the tradeoff is that you don't need an enormous high-strength containment vessel (because everything radiological is at 1 atm), you don't need to pump water into the thing constantly to avoid "really bad things" happening (Fukushima), etc, etc.


Exactly this.

Specifically you should read the findings of the MSRE (Molten Salt Reactor Experiment) at ORNL.

Wikipedia has a relatively laymans explanation of the state of the Hastelloy-N when the experiment concluded.[1]

It's worth mentioning Hastelloy-N isn't that expensive all things considered. It would probably come out to a small percentage of the reactors total cost factoring in R&D expenditure etc.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten-Salt_Reactor_Experiment...


Additionally, while using a lot of Hastelloy-N would be expensive, in the context of a full reactor it's a modest expense. Especially when you compare it against the extremely enormous forgings and gigantic reinforced concrete structures that traditional lightwater reactors use. Overall you end up with a much smaller and much safer reactor. And one that can burn existing high-level transuranic waste as well. It's such a huge win it's criminal we're not spending billions in R&D right now.


Well, thanks for the citation. I'm now much more confused about why this is what I was told in class by an expert in the field. Maybe he meant specifically the difficulty of finding a steel up to the challenge, it was a decade ago so some fidelity may have been lost!


I know not much about material science, except for some very painful experiences in an industrial setting+. But I have a feeling people tend to think fluoride salts are going to be as docile when molten and exposed to a high radiation flux as they are as room temperature solids.

+ Ethylene-oxide gas + moisture + heat -> plying rough trade on supposedly compatible materials.

Not my problem but a customer I worked with had a gamma ray sterilization unit. There were some limit switches which they needed to replace after ten years. Replacements, same part number, manufacture swore up and down they were identical, would crack after three to six months.


Oak Ridge ran an MSR for four years without difficulty. One solution is to just do that, rather than trying to make a reactor last 60 years.

At least two startups are going that route. ThorCon's design is a plant with reactor cores as replaceable "cans," each lasting four years in production plus four years of cool-down before shipping to a reprocessing facility. Terrestrial Energy has sealed 7-year units.


china is betting big on liquid fluoride thorium reactors. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/ambroseevans-pritchard/...

China’s thorium project was launched as a high priority by princeling Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin. He estimates that China has enough thorium to power its electricity needs for “20,000 years”. The project began with a start-up budget of $350m and the recruitment of 140 PhD scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics. It then had plans to reach 750 staff by 2015, but this already looks far too conservative.

http://blogforarizona.net/could-thorium-reactors-provide-the...

Paradoxically, though, given thorium’s history, it is the difficulty of weaponising thorium which many see (as it were) as its killer app in civil power stations. One or two 233U bombs were tested in the Nevada desert during the 1950s and, perhaps ominously, another was detonated by India in the late 1990s. But if the American experience is anything to go by, such bombs are temperamental and susceptible to premature detonation because the intense gamma radiation 233U produces fries the triggering circuitry and makes handling the weapons hazardous. The American effort was abandoned after the Nevada tests.


https://illumin.usc.edu/assets/media/1067/thorium_reactor04....

I think the main idea behind thorium safety is that the radioactive material can be removed without shutting down the plant, which is not possible with Uranium rods.


Molten sodium was at the heart of the Santa Susana nuclear disaster in southern California, which was covered up for fifty years. Needless to say, I'm skeptical.


There's a big difference between sodium, which reacts vigorously with water and air, and salt, which you have on your dinner table.

Santa Susana was a sodium-cooled reactor, but a "molten salt reactor" uses salt. It's chemically inert and doesn't require pressurization.


Vaporized sodium is at the heart of nearly every streetlight. They're not causing disasters. Just having the same material doesn't make the safety the same.


Yes, also it's been fifty years, so I'm sure tech has advanced. I didn't say I wouldn't consider it, just that skepticism is warranted, due to frequent lying about risk.


Well, we'll know soon how the new AP-1000 reactor works. The first unit starts up next year, in China.[1] The first US unit should start up in 2019. It's a boring old pressurized water reactor and should work.

The history of large exotic reactor designs is poor. Sodium-cooled reactors have sodium fires. Helium-cooled reactors have helium leaks (The Ft. St. Vrain story is sad; good idea, but some badly designed components in the radioactive section.) Pebble bed reactors jam. (A small one in Germany is jammed, shut down, and can't be decommissioned.) Molten salt reactors require an on-site chemical plant which processes the radioactive molten salt. Chemical plants for radioactive materials are a huge headache and have the potential to leak. With pressurized water reactors, you only have to handle water, not radioactive fluorine salts.

All designs where the radioactive portion of the system has much complexity have had major problems. Fixing anything in the radioactive part is extremely difficult. But the reactor has to run for decades to be profitable.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanmen_Nuclear_Power_Station


Actually, renewable energy is, when you actually run the numbers in a sensible way, pretty cost effective: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378775312... - this finds that with 90% solar/wind and modest amounts of storage, electricity would be cheaper in 2030 than it is today, and that the cheapest option is actually a vast overcapacity. There are plenty of flaws with that article, but still less than this post.


Just to be clear, the article is saying that using solar power technology from 2030 would be more cost effective 90% of the time, not that using 90% solar energy today would be cheaper by the time we reach 2030.


They assumed electrochemical storage which is really expensive and invalidates there findings, renewables would be significantly cheaper than there suggesting.


They also assume a wide grid and overcapacity, which balances it out. And their storage capacity is minor, and they assume relatively cheap backup power. Like I said, there are plenty of things wrong with it, but it's nothing like what is wrong with the OP.


It doesn't invalidate their findings, it means they understated their case - thought I think that is what you are saying too.

(Also, http://www.theretheyretheir.com/. Not usually a grammar Nazi, but that's pretty hard to read)


Battery cost are projected to drop significantly over the next 5 - 10 years.


Battery costs have been dropping radically for the past decade, and there's both aggressive startups (Tesla) and established giants investing heavily in the technology, which will continue to drive prices down.


Hydro is ~1/30th of battery costs. Nobody is prediction price swings on that scale.


Just a reminder that energy use and electricity use are not the same thing --- about 2/3 of all energy is used for heating and transport, and electricity can't be used for that. (Because it's too hard to store, and because the electrical grid simply can't transport that much.)

Sure, solving renewable energy is a really valuable thing to do, but it's still only solving 1/3 of the problem.


The electrical grid will be upgraded, it's not static. Heat is easy to switch to electric. Short transport will move to electric. Longer haul transport is more difficult, but liquid fuels can be generated from CO2 in the air or water (at somewhat large expense). However, if there is large amounts of overcapacity, then liquid fuel generation via electricity might become economical.


Isn’t the solution to long haul transport electrification of the rail network? An alternative would be a swap and go battery network for the road system. The nice thing about a swap and go battery network is we have storage to even out demand and production.


> 2/3 of all energy is used for heating and transport, and electricity can't be used for that

Well, here in the Netherlands, the majority of the trains will soon (2018) be powered by 100% wind energy. 50% since this year.

So it's categorically (and I would think obviously) incorrect to say "you can't use electricity for transport".

http://www.ns.nl/over-ns/campagnes/maatschappelijk-betrokken...

Heating is another question entirely. You have more of a point there -- it's hard to find an alternative to natural gas for heating.


> Heating is another question entirely.

It's actually a comparatively easy problem to solve. Have a large boiler, heat that with electricity while you have an abundance of energy and keep it moderately well insulated. Drawing the heat off that is simple.

Storing electricity for usage as electricity is the primary problem.


Apparently, most nuclear power plants even produce less energy than if their area was instead covered by solar panels. Says Musk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-n6xJOFbvA


That's not even close to being true.

Ivanpah has the capability of producing about 400 MW. It produces no energy at night, and doesn't max out the rest of the time. It rests on 4,000 acres of land. [1]

The Palo Verde nuclear plant can produce 3,939 MW from three reactors (currently operating at 3,875 MW). It's located on 4,000 acres of land. It can actually generate 3,875 MW, and can do it all day long if necessary. Most nuclear plants don't run at max capacity often, but it's irrelevant given the extreme difference, reduce it by 75% and it stomps Ivanpah. [2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivanpah_Solar_Power_Facility

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palo_Verde_Nuclear_Generating_...


I guess you'd have to count the Palo Verde 10 mile inner emergency zone (200,000 acres). Then you'd be down to 0.02MW/acre, well below Ivanpah's 0.1MW/acre. That's a bit unfair though, since that area does have a small population, so it's not entirely cut off.


I seriously doubt that claim.


Run the numbers on it. What's a reasonable expected area for a real-world nuclear power plant? (not the fantasy of the OP, but what real plants usually cover) Reasonable peak and median output long-term for that much solar panel? Throw in some batteries for storage to stabilize the output, and the numbers are pretty compelling.

Then throw in the cost of covering, say, a square mile of land with solar panels versus the cost of building and operating a nuclear plant, even the ridiculous fantasy numbers of the OP. Solar looks pretty good.


A sibling commenter already did run the numbers on it, and found nuclear ahead by a factor of 10: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10503382


I should add, that's just for the largest US plant.

The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa monster in Japan, with seven reactors, was capable of producing nearly 8,000 MW on just ~1,000 acres. Or upwards of 50 to 80 times what the best utility solar installations today can produce at max output on the same amount of land.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashiwazaki-Kariwa_Nuclear_Pow...

The Solar Star installation could end up being the best solar comparison right now (completed in June). At max capacity, it might narrow the ratio such that the Japanese plant is capable of producing 50 to 60 times the power on the same land.

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


Solar star is theoretically capable of about a terawatt on about 4k acres, so that makes the reactor about 15-20 times as efficient. Still a huge difference, but don't hype the numbers too much.


I can't find any source suggesting the Solar Star is capable of 1 TW output with 4000 acres. SunPower's own fact sheet† gives about 1/1500 that capacity for the 3200-acre installation. Where did you hear this?

http://us.sunpower.com/sites/sunpower/files/media-library/fa...


Gigawatts, not terawatts. My bad.

579mwh ~= .6gwh, on 3200 acres. Assuming a larger 4000 acre site and some efficiency gains on this immature tech, a gigawatt seems reachable.


The Ivanpah plant isn't a great example. The tech is already going obsolete, and it's producing far below theoretical effectiveness. It should be able to produce a terawatt. Fundamentally, it's because solar is immature technology, and nuclear is mature. So what would the efficiency and cost be for a mature solar plant? And how do we get to maturity?

If a solar plant could hit 50% of the energy efficiency on the same land (and the poor-performing Ivanpah plant reveals that it's possible), that raises a question of why we need the cost and complexity of nuclear.


Solar Star (see adventured's comment parallel to yours) may be the current state of the art. It claims 747 MW on 3200 acres. That still doesn't put it in the same league as nuclear.


As a followup, I did some calculations and figure the US averages about 534twh of electricity - say it peaks at 1000twh, which seems reasonable. Both solar and wind appear to be capable of about 1twh per square mile these days, based on existing installations. So 1000 square miles of wind/solar, plus some battery caching, could provide 100% of our typical energy needs. This seems pretty feasible to me.


True, but does it have to be? We can throw more land at the problem. I live in the midwest, where we're starting to see the countryside dotted with windmills. If you can generate a terawatt per square mile, how many do you need?


Considering that no one will want to live near it, and not allow it to be farmed either, such plants aren't as space efficient as they might seen.


Then cover that "unwelcoming" area with solar panels. Win-win.


It would be on right ballpark in Sahara. Assuming that we use current kilometer scale safety zones around power stations.


it's true. somewhat. I mean the energy of the nuclear station stays constant. however the peak power of the solar panels will be higher. but I doubt that the solar panels will still be creating less energy over a longer period of time. unless you build both inside a desert and there you would have other problems like the sand which affects the lifetime of your panels, etc..

btw. i'm against nuclear and non renewable energy, however I think its hard to actually replace ever "bad" energy in the next 10-20 years. we will need a longer time for that. especially since building renewable energy plants fast isn't good for our environment either.


The peak power of solar panels is not higher today.

The highest capacity US nuclear power plant can out-produce the best utility scale solar installation by 10 fold, with both at max capacity, on an equal amount of land.


no with peak power i mean. full sun no cloud the whole day, etc. perfect things wheater for solar energy. However this barely (never) happens. so the energy of the panel changes throughout the day. however highest (possible) peak of solar could definitly be higher than a nuclear power plant (anywhere in the world) on an equal amount of land.

nothing to do with today. just a "what would happen on a perfect day". peak vs peak. also peak of a nuclear power plant could be raised by human and solar panel peak is barely measurable, since there are a hugh amount of factors that could change it.


How can you be against nuclear when you don't even understand the level of output of a nuclear plant? You also suggest that nuclear is mature, but that doesn't mean there aren't new reactor designs being developed.

Solar is also mature by your lame definition of just being around for a long time. In fact, solar has been around longer than nuclear in that regard so it must be more mature then. /s


What's wrong with non-renewable? That simply means it won't last forever. Is it really important that whatever energy generation we use can be repeatedly maintained and operated forever? I don't see any problem in making the most of the Earth's uranium resources while it's cheap enough. In the worst case, we'll just have to stop doing that later rather than sooner.


I'm in the awkward position of supporting nuclear power in a country that has its anti-nuclear stance apart of its national identity. New Zealands Prime Minster David Lange famously argued against it at an Oxford Union debate, and ever since kiwis have viewed it as us standing against the 'big guy'.

Some people I've spoken to view this as on par with not supporting the All Blacks. To top this off, they typically have an irrational fear of nuclear power steaming from pop culture such as The Simpsons.

It's New Zealand's dirty little secret that we're no where near the "100% pure" ad campaigns we're running. Half our rivers are polluted beyond repair. We have less forest coverage than Japan. We flooded vast tracts of land for our dams. And we're still dependent on non renewables for our electricity.


As I understand it, another important part of New Zealand's anti-nuclear position is the French bombing of the Rainbow Warrior--a Greenpeace boat en route to protest French nuclear tests--in a New Zealand port. The lack of international response to the attack certainly had a big impact on foreign policy, and I have to think that it influenced popular opinion of nuclear power as well. Incidentally, this was just a few months after Lange's Oxford Union debate.

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


As another commenter has mentioned, Japan is kind of a special case (although it would be great if it weren't). In 1600, when the shogun rose to power, there was a real threat of deforestation. Many laws were passed to stop the cutting of trees. Japanese people endured many hardships over the centuries because of these policies. However, there was an understanding that the forests were key to the ecological balance of the area (they control water run off, which helps the farmers and allows rivers to deliver nutrients to the sea which helps the fisheries). My understanding is that in the Edo period (from 1600 to the late 1800s) virtually everything was recycled and then when it couldn't be used any more, it was burned as fuel -- there just weren't resources available to do otherwise.

There is an ebook [1] extolling the virtues of Edo society, and while I think you have to take it with a grain of salt (it paints a very rosy picture), it is very interesting.

I noticed another book [2] which looks like it would be an interesting read, but I haven't done so yet.

One of these days I'd like to learn more about current forestry practices in Japan. I live in Shizuoka prefecture and I see some areas cleared occasionally for tea fields. Also, some of the cedar stands are threatened by invasion from bamboo and you can sometimes see them trying to clear the bamboo and replant cedar. But firewood is currently so cheap that you can often get it for free in my area, which worries me slightly.

[1] http://japanfs.org/en/edo/index.html

[2] http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520063129


> We have less forest coverage than Japan.

Japan has forest coverage of 67%, which is very respectable. New Zealand has 31.87%. Next 3 countries after New Zealand are Germany, Canada and United States.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_forest_ar...


Canada is funny though - with so much arctic and prairie land it throws off the calculations. That's not necessarily due to deforestation however (even though there is a ton of that going on).

http://www.biodivcanada.ca/380C93C6-737C-440D-BA5E-011787F42...


Plus Uranium is dug up across the ditch and comes in a Wallabies jersey - how very unpatriotic.


The article looks at the cost of energy over the lifetime of the nuclear power plant. There is no argument that energy generated through fission is very cheap when looked at that way. However that totally ignores the enormous startup costs.

The great thing about wind and solar is that you don't have to build a whole farm. You can start small and keep adding as you come across more capital.

In any case I don't see why one needs to make it a dichotomy. The entities who invest in alternative energy are probably not the same ones who could invest in a nuclear power plant because of the above mentioned startup costs.

It's not clear to me whether fission will come back any time soon but wind and solar will keep gaining in market share.


The startup capital required for nuclear fission is so immense that it doesn't make sense from an economic time-value perspective. The problem with most renewables (excl. thermal and hydro) is that they are incapable of meeting 100% of electricity demands by their nature without better storage technology.

The economics are pushing towards renewables but I feel that nuclear makes more sense for our society in the near-term (we need to get away from coal and other fossil fuels).


99% of the worlds grid storage is pumped hydro because nothing else works out. Pumped storage is 70% to 85% efficient, can come online within 15 seconds, and works at scale.

The reservoir can provide about 13 GW·h of stored gravitational potential energy (convertible to electricity at about 80% efficiency), or about 2% of China's daily electricity consumption. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tianhuangping_Pumped_Storage_P...

Construction cost: $900 million USD maintenance costs are also minimal.

PS: ~14 GWh for 1 billion ~= 14 MWh for 1 million = ~14 kwh for 1000$. http://www.teslamotors.com/powerwall = 7 kWh for 3k or 2.3kwh per 1,000$ and much shorter lifetime.


The problem is that we have very limited amount of natural reservoirs. Practically every natural reservoir out there already has power plant, is on a desert or belongs to natural reserve.

With tesla solution the problem is going to be limited amount of lithium. There is maybe enough lithium to get a powerwall to every household in U.S. and EU. But rest of the world is fucked.


You can just use two large dams in a row. The Columbia for example has 60 dams on it's watershed some fairly close to each other. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ec/Pacific_...

Granted, this would be a significant retrofit, but it's significantly cheaper than starting from scratch. And, assuming the net daily change is ~0 it's not going you don't lose existing power generation capacity or add significant environmental impact.

Also, you don't need very many. China can shift ~2% of it's daily power needs with just one location. Get into the 10-15% range and your done.


You can run the numbers for thermal storage. It's not fantastic. Probably a 60-70% return on input + plus waste heat. However thermal storage are very compact. Rough estimate I get; 100MW for 10 hours with a 2.5 acre footprint. One also gets about 40MW of waste heat which could be used for commercial or industrial heating.

Currently though, complaining about storage has a cart before the horse aspect. Since for the immediate future photo voltaic plants are competing with gas fired peaking plants not nuclear or coal fired base load plants. (If you ever wonder why the Koch brothers really don't like Solar plants it's because solar cuts into the market for natural gas)


Wow, I'm actually surprised that the battery comes that close. When one of the newer battery technology materializes those numbers might reverse.


Vanadium redox flow batteries are shipping, with their manufacturers claiming that they beat Tesla's lithium ion both on cost and geographic density:

http://www.uetechnologies.com

http://www.imergy.com


Don't forget Li your down capacity after just 3 years and you might get 15 years total. Pumped storage is good for 50 years before a refit and the reservoir is probably good hundreds if not thousands of years.


Of course, pumped storage (or any kind of hydro) is many orders of magnitude more dangerous and environmentally destructive than fission.

The Banqiao Reservoir dam failure alone killed over 170,000 people and made over 11 million homeless.

I worry far more about the hundreds of millions of people living downstream of the Three Gorges Dam than I do about people living near fission plants.


That dam failed when 1 year's worth of rain fell over 24 hours if it had not been there a lot of people would have died anyway.

On net Dams have saved far more than 170,000 lives in china alone. Flood control is more or less a necessity in the modern world adding energy generation on top of that is a minimal risk. ex: From 1998 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1998_China_floods loss of 4150 people, and 180 million people were affected.

PS: Direct deaths where ~26,000 people. The 145,000 died during subsequent epidemics and famine which where blamed on the dam, but that was a convenient excuse and far from the root cause.


I get that it's important to be objective, to look soberly at costs and benefits. But 'only' 26,000 direct deaths? Oh, that's fine then.


Yes, poor word choice. I was comparing 26,000 from a failure in 1975 to 4,150 in 1998 even with lot's of flood control.

Even with lot's of flood control floods still kill some people. But, dams prevent many floods, reduce severity, and generally give significant warning time when there not going to be enough. So, most deaths are from small rivers that feed major ones instead of major rivers overflowing.

Without them, things would be far worse.


Pumped storage probably makes more sense when it is paired with fission than when not. The power companies built this one that isn't quite so scary:

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


a large amount of startup capital is of regulatory nature. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUdwgbh6he4


I don't think unregulated nuclear is a good idea. Safer reactors would require less regulation and you could argue that even for current reactors our regulation is excessive. The bottom line is that efficient regulation is a hard problem and to use nuclear power we need to either solve that problem or endure inefficient regulation.


It's not that simple. Nuclear regulation in the US has turned (similar to the FDA) into an innovation stifling behemoth... It's a lobbying place and a capital sink and has little to do with safety. If it was about safety, they would shut down current reactor designs yesterday and had started working on Thorium alternatives 20 years ago. The youtube link I posted from TEAC7 conference does explain that quite well.


The current regulation has been pretty effective at what it was intended to do: stop the production of nuclear power plants without the politically unpopular attempt to outright ban them.

People saw Chernobyl and said "none of that in my backyard" and successfully managed to write rules so onerous that they're effectively a ban.

Unfortunately, any plans they had for a solar power revolution in the 70s died when the technology turned out to be outrageously expensive and impractical, and we've been stuck burning coal waiting for the technology to catch up. 40 years of filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses because of one spectacular failure halfway around the world and one scare in our own country.

Another irony is the fact that all of our current reactors are old designs and less safe than new ones would be if we were allowed to build them.

Of course all of the political pressure has also killed our waste management plan as well, so everybody has to make due with less safe ad-hoc setups on every site.


I'm not arguing in favor of our current regulation, I'm saying that it is hard to fix and you can't throw it out altogether.


It's not actually that hard to fix. We know how to regulate large industrial operations that use dangerous substances. The problem is that we don't use those regulations, we use a whole different set of regulations that were created by people whose specific intent was to make construction uneconomical.

Example. One of the problems that have occurred is that the regulations change during construction. You spend a billion dollars on construction and then the regulations change and you have to start over. The simple change that the construction rules a plant is evaluated under are the ones in effect when construction began would solve half the problem in itself.


There's a difference between regulated nuclear and over-regulated nuclear. If you take a look at the regulations around nuclear startup/operation you'll see some of the policies are insane.

Compared to fossil fuels, which has been successfully lobbied to be under-regulated, you'll stark differences. If fossil had to even approach the same safety/environmental rigour of nuclear, fossil fuel market share would drop quickly.


Nothing about nuclear fission requires startup capital to be large.


There is a 5-10 year lead time between digging the first hole and opening the plant. That's >$100 million in capital investment for 5-10 years without any return, so the plant has to have a present lifetime value >$140 million the day it opens.

This ignores various risk cases associated with building a plant that drive the return on capital further up.

Source: used to value these types of investments professionally.


You're assuming a very particular kind of nuclear fission machine.


I am unaware of any kind of practical nuclear fission machine that doesn't require a high initial capital investment. Could you link some examples of commercially operating units? It has been a few years since I was in the field but I was unaware of any proven changes to the fundamental economics of the industry.


There's a good chance you can see one at your local university or shipyard. The post to which you're replying doesn't use the terms "proven" or "commercial", so let's not move the goalpost. Then we can talk about YC-funded startup UPower, Fluor-owned corporation NuPower, etc. Studying engineering is also a good way to reduce reliance on examples.


I was unable to find any data on the 'NuPower' technology; could you provide links?

What I found on UPower indicated that it's a nuclear thermal battery, I love that technology but they aren't legal and wont be because of widespread concerns about terrorism and radioactive contamination.

Also, my educational background is in engineering and I have worked on determining whether it's financially feasible to build power plants for a living. I would really love it if you could provide some evidence for your arguments.


NuScale Power, sorry (mobile typo). UPower are making a reactor but some sources have incorrectly called it a battery. There are no laws in the U.S. (or any nation I'm aware of) that make small reactors or nuclear batteries illegal. My only argument so far is "Nothing about nuclear fission requires startup capital to be large", which is trivially true.


The design and safe construction does.


Very informative read and eye opener on this topic: http://thorconpower.com/costing/should-cost-versus-did-cost


Additionally, many people are completely unaware of the vast variety of fission machines of all shapes and sizes -- rocket engines, ramjet engines, space power reactors, research reactors, isotope production reactors, submarine power reactors, Army mobile power reactors, etc. -- that were produced and operated 50 years ago. To say nothing of the variety we could build with today's metallurgy, CAD, etc.


The biggest problem with nuclear is making the numbers work. You end up paying something like 80% of the cost 1 GW/year * 50 years before you get your first cent in revenue. That's a very tough thing to finance. Cost and especially time overruns during construction can easily tank the project financially. About the only way to make it work is to be a regulated utility that has a long term captured audience for its power. One that's very likely to be the same size or bigger for the next half century. Even there you still have to worry about technological change pulling the carpet out from under you in 20 or 30 years.

That's leaving aside the questions of insurance, local and federal regulatory approval, and waste disposal / decommissioning costs.


That doesn't make any sense. Wind and Solar PV have to be financed for probably 99% of the upfront cost. All power generation is like that - very capital intensive.


Wind and solar can be built MW project by MW project, and turned up in weeks or months. You'll take years just to get a nuclear reactor approved.

EDIT: What's that Bezos quote? "Your margin is my opportunity?" Same for renewables. Your delays are my opportunity.


I'm unfamiliar with the term "MW project", could you please clarify?


Nameplate capacity is the number registered with authorities for classifying the power output of a power station usually expressed in megawatts (MW). Power plants with an output consistently near their nameplate capacity have a high capacity factor.


If you can raise $1B/year for 10 years for an energy project, to build nuclear, you'd have to wait roughly 5 years to accumulate enough capital to start construction and then it'd be at very least 5 more years before you got a dime in revenue. If you wanted to deploy solar, you could buy $1B/year off a manufacturing line, start earning revenue from day 1, and start making payments to your investors.


Understand your point - but you can split nuclear into smaller phases too and phase them in.

Solar and wind aren't immune to this either. You don't want to generally build things say 10MW at a time - that would require 100 rounds of planning, regulator approval, engineering design and the like for a big utlity scale solar and wind plant. You generally do it in big chunks too. And there have been big holdups especially in getting grid interconnect.


> If you wanted to deploy solar, you could buy $1B/year off a manufacturing line, start earning revenue from day 1, and start making payments to your investors.

IE What SolarCity is doing with their SolarBonds and the solar panel factory they bought in upstate NY.


Of course that does make sense. To build a wind mill and to distribute the costs is a totally different kind of economic endeavor than to build and finance a nuclear power plant, which can only be profitable with state subventions anyway.


Which grid-scale wind or solar projects are profitable without being subsidized by the government?

I'm not aware of any.


Wanted to make the point that you don't have to have grid-scale projects if you distribute it. One windmill at a time, each with its own financement, investors and profitability. I admit that was not clear.


Virtually all solar and wind projects of any significant size are heavily subsidized by the federal, state, or local government. I am unaware of any exceptions to this.


Neither is the person who modded this down, apparently. :-)


So you're saying that no nuclear plants are going to be built because of the threat of renewable energy sources becoming cheaper or perhaps other tech like fusion?:

http://www.geek.com/science/germany-is-ready-to-switch-on-it...


Are you comparing an experimental technology like Germany's fusion reactor to proven wind generation that is driving commercial reactors out of business?

http://midwestenergynews.com/2015/05/01/exelon-we-have-to-ha...


I'm saying that > 50 years is a long time and a lot can happen.

I could have also pointed at Google's Sunroof project as an example of a large company betting that solar can compete:

http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/212363-google-is-launchin...

I couldn't guess what energy producing and distribution technologies will be most prevalent in 100 years.

Advancements could just as easily be made relating to fission reactors, so I don't think it's fair to say that large power companies shouldn't invest in more reactors. But, I agree there is probably risk in investing in them.


The longest-lived "proven" wind project in CA is shutting down. http://www.insidebayarea.com/breaking-news/ci_29048836/altam...


800 of 4900 turbines are shutting down.

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

It's not clear from that what the other operators are doing, but there seems to be some work put into replacing smaller turbines with larger ones that are less disruptive to birds.


These are old, small turbines going offline. They will be replace by a 100 new ones that are going to produce a lot more power.

Funnily enough, these old wind turbines are worth good money in pure raw materials. Expect near 100% recycling for them.



If they're going to have something called a NERD NOTE, they should at least get their units right:

"The entire planet’s electrical consumption is right around 5 terawatt-hours."

5TWh per what? Per second? Per hour (then why not 5TW?)? Per year? Cumulative over all of human history?


Its roughly 5 TWh per 2h (to spare you the algebra, thats 2.5 TW power generation)

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrical_power_generation


Watt is joule/second.

Write it out and algebraically cancel the units and you'l understand that you don't understand, and then maybe you will.

As a rule, in future, try to understand before mocking, its a better way to live, take it from me...


I think you've misunderstood the point. Terawatt-hours is ambiguous, without specifying a time period.

In particular, Terawatt-hours can be converted to Joules. To say that humanity's energy usage is X Joules is meaningless without specifying the time period that that energy is used over. For example, it means very different things to say that humanity uses 5 TWh per day than to say that humanity uses 5 TWh per year (versus 5 TWh since the dawn of recorded history!).


The context is deathprint” (casualties per terawatt-hour) or deaths/joule, time cancels out. If you read the NERD Note alone your right of course.


That's not the context that everyone else is referring to. They are referring to this:

"[NERD NOTE: A terawatt is a trillion watts. The entire planet’s electrical consumption is right around 5 terawatt-hours. One TWh (terawatt-hour) is a constant flow of a trillion watts of electricity for a period of one hour.]"

The argument others are making (which I think is correct) is that it is meaningless to say "The entire planet’s electrical consumption is right around 5 terawatt-hours" without specifying a time frame over which that consumption occurs.


A terawatt-hour is 3600 terajoules (a measure of energy, not power). So you've got your units wrong, unfortunately.


You might say, for example, that "in 2008, the world total of electricity production was 20,279 terawatt-hours (TWh)." You need the time period however for it to make sense. Referring to a continuous generation capacity would be measured simply in terrawatts. As in "this number corresponds to an average rate of around 2.3 terawatts continuously during the year."

The original article has an error as pointed out by the parent. Insert ironic mocking statement here.


There is not time period in context of deaths/joule. There is only a error if the note is taken out of context. On its own its ambiguous sure.


The German wikipedia does have some interesting references to reports on thorium reactors from the British National Nuclear Laboratories [1][2]:

> In the foreseeable future (up to the next 20 years), the only realistic prospect for deploying thorium fuels on a commercial basis would be in existing and new build LWRs (e.g., AP1000 and EPR) or PHWRs (e.g., Candu reactors). Thorium fuel concepts which require first the construction of new reactor types (such as High Temperature Reactor (HTR), fast reactors and Accelerator Driven Systems (ADS)) are regarded as viable only in the much longer term (of the order of 40+ years minimum) as this is the length of time before these reactors are expected to be designed, built and reach commercial maturity.

1: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fl%C3%BCssigsalzreaktor#Kritis... 2: https://web.archive.org/web/20130126205622/http://www.nnl.co...


The reason for this is that Germany had developed and build 2 prototype thorium reactors, and had its fair share of issues with them.


Thorium in LWRs are inefficient. If you're going to use a LWR, use the fuels they were designed for. The efficiencies of Thorium only really come into play using a MSR.


Hmm... the article has solar/wind costing 6 or more times as much as nuclear

Wikipedia has them costing about the same https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source#...

Plus solar etc. are dropping in price in each year in a way that nuclear isn't. I suspect someone's numbers are a bit off.


Hahaa, look how they considered the cost for nuclear waste storage:

"Because the future cost of safe storage is uncertain, we refrained from including any numbers."

Of course I'm joking. They just didn't mention it.


The word "centralized" does not appear anywhere in their post, which tells me that they are not thinking about that as an issue. But it is an important bias of nuclear energy, the bias toward centralization. One of the benefits of solar is that it can be either centralized, or decentralized, or a hybrid of the two. Being less biased in this way, it opens up more flexible options.

Another important aspect of solar is that its performance is a moving target. Because solar cells are improving over time, comparisons against them need to be kept updated, or else the underlying assumptions of the comparison are invalid.


>The word "centralized" does not appear anywhere in their post, which tells me that they are not thinking about that as an issue

why is centralized power an issue? It was only recently that power generation became decentralized (through renewables such as wind and solar)


For one, the argument that "solar takes a ridiculous amount of area" becomes less compelling if you realize that each home can supply its own energy using existing roof area.


I am not reflexively anti-nuclear. However, I have never heard a satisfactory answer to the simple question: "How do we store nuclear waste safely?"


We burn it! That is, nuclear burn it, not chemically. And what can't be burned can be bombarded with neutrons into radiological inertia. And what can't be neutralized in that sense can be molten into a ceramic, more specifically, a glass, and stored underground. Which is of course where it came from, when you think of it. Seriously, nuclear waste storage is not a problem. This page gives an excellent eplanation: http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/chapter11.html

Nuclear energy has lots of problems, and I personally think this article is not worth this place on HN, but waste is not really one of them, especially compared to the scale of chemical wastes from fossil fuels.


Do you burn it? Why is it than that every reactor I know of, in US, WE, Japan, stores tones of extremely dangerous waste on site?


Since regulations don't allow any other option e.g. the US doesn't allow reprocessing.

Also: what better place to temporarily store nuclear waste in the exact same place where it is produced where safety and security measures are already in place?


I will try without the condescending tone of the other commentor: Why does this not increase the possible damage a meltdown would cause?

Or does it increase the possible damage, but the security is high enough that the expected damage is lower than storing it elsewhere?


First, a containment structure[1] is a key feature in any reactor[2]. These are massively over-engineered specifically to contain even unlikely problems. We learned that this was important after the SL-1 accident[3]. As you suggest, this is a feature designed to fail safely - the containment should keep the rest of us outside the building safe, and doesn't say anything about what happens to the stuff in side.

> meltdown

This term is thrown around a lot, and while solid fuel melting in a traditional reactor is a serious event, a lot of people seem to think that "meltdown" is some kind of terrible or damaging event. The reason people in the nuclear industry panic over a possible meltdown has little to do with safety; up until that point you could - in theory - still reasonably believe that the reactor could be fixed and (eventually) restarted. After a meltdown, you have to assume the core is trashed and is now a financial liability instead of your main source of revenue.

Meltdowns are a terrible event financially. The actual melting of the fuel involves the passive-safety, which are usually designed to drain that fuel into (multiple) areas where it can cool down without criticality risk.

All of this is still discussing very old features. This is like worrying about today's computers because vacuum tubes are fragile and need to be replaced when they burn out. Modern reactor design is very different, because we learned form the problems that happened in the original designs, just like any other technology. Unfortunately, propaganda based on radiophobia has been a serious roadblock. Ironically, this means we're stuck using older designs that should have been replaced decades ago with modern reactors that emphasis passive safety.

If you're interested in a brief overview of these problems (and why some of us believe thorium breeder reactors are the answer for many of these problems), I recommend watching "Th"[4]. Just remember it's an overview, and they skip over some of the details to keep it short.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Containment_building

[2] a feature that was missing at Chernobyl, which is one of many reasons that accident affected such a large area

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOt7xDKxmCM

[4] http://thoriumremix.com/th/


Yeah, right next to a reactor, so that a meltdown causes 10x more damage.


I think brrt is talking about "burning" nuclear waste in a molten-salt reactor or similar. Some types of existing fission reactors can only utilize a small percentage of the uranium in their fuel rods, after which the rods must be removed. The rods must then be stored, and possibly reprocessed afterwards.

MSR and other fission reactor types can utilize 100% of the fissionable material put into them, so this sort of leftover "waste" is not such a problem.


Yeah, so there is a solution to nuclear waste - in fantasy land.


It's called a breeder reactor, they are quite common in some places (but not in the US). I guess those places are "fantasy land"? Pretty cool since I can visit them.


Because "just burning it" requires engineering and implementing a different nuclear technology with its own issues.

Nuke advocates always practice magical thinking. Wave away safety concerns. Write off intractable waste disposal issues as "just bury it". The reality is that nuclear as it stands today is a relic of the Cold War. Solar, wind and gas are the future.


Because burning it involves superheated, radioactive phosphoric acid.


What are you talking about? No it doesn't.


The designs I have seen dissolve the spent nuclear fuel in phosphoric acid and then operate with liquid fuel. ( Perhaps there are proposals that do not operate like that, but I think you want to homogenize the fuel as much as possible which means some kind of liquid fuel.)


How do you superheat phosphoric acid? Wouldn't it dissociate?

It's not used for an active reactor, but rather to dissolve cold fuel and extract more usable uranium.

Liquid fuel reactors don't use phosphoric acid, they use uranium tetrafluoride (a salt) or water.


No, you want to burn all the short lived isotopes, not just Uranium. So the designs I am talking about use spend fuel dissolved in acid as a fuel. There is also spent fuel recycling, where you take Uranium and Plutonium out of spent fuel and manufacture MOX fuel, but that is an entirely different process.


specifically, NOT a glass: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synroc


And still radioactive.


Dumping it to the ocean is pretty safe. Seriously: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_disposal_of_radioactive_...

However, since people don't easily believe water's a very effective radiation shielding (even if there's an xkcd of it https://what-if.xkcd.com/29/) and that heavier than water metals kind of tend to stay put at the bottom of the ocean, other means of disposal might be more realistic. Recycling in breeder reactors, digging huge holes to the ground, buildings which last longer than pyramids etc.

Of course, how one defines "safely" is tricky. Perfect safety is impossible, of course. One can't guarantee that our hole will stand to the heat death of the universe - but just ensuring that the disposal will cause less harm to earth and its living beings than any other energy production method is fairly easy to do. Even windmills kill some people, animals and fauna during normal operation, so if we set "less murderous than windmills" as an acceptable safety standard, we could settle for the ocean disposal, for example.


Actually, Britain did that. They dumped most of their waste in the channel.

Result, 20 years later: The waste did not dilute, the radiation in the channel is damaging the local animals.


The channel's a really dumb place to dump waste. There's a massive difference between a life-rich continental shelf with a complex ecosystem, and the barren abyssal seafloors five miles down. Put the waste there and it will just stay there for millennia.


This doesn't seem like a very straightforward process. If it were, I'm sure we'd get rid of all sorts of nasty shit that way. Is every component of "the safe nuclear power we'll have in future" yet to be developed?


Pretty much. Hitachi is currently selling their IFR design "on-the-shelf" by name S-Prism. Russians are operating and selling their BN-600 and BN-1200's.

It's not like things are completely problem free, but that's kind of unreasonable expectation for any industrial or commercial project.

E.g. advertising breeders as a solution for the nuclear waste problem is a bit tricky, since we already have centuries worth of waste to dispose of, plants will only be operated for some decades etc. We would need to increase humanity's electric consumption to tenfold or more to justify enough breeders to dispose all current nuclear waste in reasonable time.


The barren abyssal seafloors are life rich with a complex ecosystem for what we know of it and in matters of ocean we know pretty much nothing.

Also the cost to get there is quite high and there's no reason to think radioactivity would stay there.


It's not supposed to dilute. It should stay put and not spread around.

Most human activities tend to displace natural ecosystems. Waste dumps (nor windmills) are no exception. The question is, is the damage lesser than greater than in proposed alternatives?

Though I do not understand why did they choose to dump the waste to the channel? If I would dispose the waste by sinking, I would use a kilometers deep trench to minimize risks for reacquirement and environmental damage. Do they plan to dig up the waste sometime in the future?


Well, they did it because it was easy. And cheap.

If you want safe nuclear power, including demolishing the reactors safely, safely getting rid of all the materials, nine nines safety, etc, then it won’t be profitable.

If you want for-profit nuclear power, then either the government has to subsidize it, or it has to be unsafe.

Usually, it’s both unsafe (companies save money everywhere, including stuff like not securing the generator cough Fukushima cough) and barely profitable.


Depending on the definition of "safe". Digging a long hole to the ground, towing an old to-be-demolished barge on top of Mariana's trench etc. is not that expensive.

The hard part right now is deciding on suitable ground for the tombs. Doing seismic measurements, analyzing the rock formations and especially forming the policies for burial (e.g. do we reserve the option to dig the stuff back up for use in breeders?) can take decades, but it's hardly an expensive part of the process.

The disposal isn't really an acute problem that needs to be solved today. It's not that dangerous to store the junk at warehouses while we use hundred years if necessary to research best viable options.

Nuclear power is expensive, but only if you compare it to burning hydrocarbons and hydroelectric power generation. It's still decades ahead of photovoltaic and wind turbines.


Well...

> but it's hardly an expensive part of the process.

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

> Das Gesetz zur Beschleunigung der Rückholung radioaktiver Abfälle und der Stilllegung der Schachtanlage Asse II („Lex Asse“) wurde am 28. Februar 2013 durch den Bundestag beschlossen.[70] Die Kosten werden auf vier bis sechs Milliarden Euro geschätzt.[71] Sie sollen nicht durch die Betreiber, sondern durch den Bund getragen werden.

Translation:

> The "Nuclear Waste Retrieval Speed Up and Asse II mine closing law" was passed on February 28, 2013. The costs are expected to be between four and six billion Euro. They will be paid not by the owner, but by the federal government.

Germany built one. Turns out it wasn’t that safe. Now we have to dig up all the waste again, and put it back underground into a different mine. And this mine was our only hope, actually, because it was the only semi-stable unused salt mine left in Germany.

Now the government passed a tax "Brennelementsteuer" (Nuclear Fuel Tax) that means the owners of nuclear power plants have to pay parts, approx up to 20% of the costs for demolishing the plants, and still 0% of getting rid of the waste, this money will be gotten as a tax for using nuclear fuel.

And, with this tax, nuclear energy is now, even despite getting similar subsidies as renewables, more expensive than wind. Several large energy companies already sold their nuclear plants and switched over to wind; even the few plants in Germany that were still running after Fukushima are now not profitable anymore.


Bury it deep enough?

Somehow everybody freaks out about nuclear waste and says stuff like "But after 20,000 years it will still retain half of its radiation!"

Well, our industrial waste also contain mercury and other heavy metals. We usually just bury them. Somehow nobody freaks out and says "But after 20,000 years it will still retain ALL of its toxicity!"

I can't fathom why.


And what they also don't appreciate is that nuclear material with a 20,000 year half-life has, by definition, very very low radioactivity.

It's like any other fuel -- the faster it burns, the shorter it lives. And vice versa.


Yes, very much this.

"Long half-life" = "not very radioactive" by definition.

"Half-life of infinity" must sound really scary to these people, but that's the same as saying that it's not radiactive at all.


Very simple - a few tones of Uranium or Plutonium, dispersed in air or water can kill the population of a continent.


Very simply, you're wrong. Badly wrong.

http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/nuclear/nuclear-fuel-from-th...

The ocean contains 4.5 billion tonnes of uranium already. 4.5. BILLION. TONNES. Dispersed in water.

I haven't noticed any continents dying off because of this, have you?


But it's well-known that dying continents leave the pack and slink off into the mantle to die alone, so you wouldn't necessarily have seen it.


Which is, ironically, only possible because of radioactive heat generated by the Earth.

Without radioactivity, there would be no continent to die in the first place.


Have you heard about that discovery called radioactivity? Different isotopes? Ocean water >>> fresh water?


Sure, I've heard of all of those things. What do they have to do with your claim?

You claimed that "a few tons" of uranium or plutonium, dispersed, could "kill the population of a continent".

Sorry, that's nonsense.

Have you heard of arithmetic? Try doing some. Start by figuring out how many tonnes of air there are over North America, then figure out what concentration of plutonium would result from dispersing a "few tonnes" in that volume of air.

Hint: Not nearly enough to kill everyone on the continent. Likely not even enough to make the cancer rate go up by any measurable amount.

Here, I'll even help you out a little. North America covers about 25 million square kilometers, or 25 trillion square meters, and there are roughly 10,000 kg of air over every square meter at standard air pressure, so we're looking at about 2.5x10^17 kg of air, or 2.5x10^14 metric tonnes of air. Plug in whatever number you like for a "few" tonnes of radioactive material and figure out what concentration will result.


Where do you get this stuff, anyway? Wherever it was, I would recommend not placing any credibility on that source in the future.

In fact, if you ground up the Fukushima reactor whole, to a fine powder, and dispersed it over the entire ocean, it wouldn't make one bit of significant difference with respect to the concentration of radionuclides.

Heck, the Soviets used to dump their scrapped sub reactors into the Arctic Ocean whole. There are dozens of them up there, probably (I don't have a hard number on this). It hasn't killed any oceans or continents yet.

Would I go scuba diving near one of the dump sites? Hell no! Am I going to lose any sleep over the prospect of them killing the entire ocean? Likewise hell, no!


Which is why you bury it.


Waste stays very radioactive for millions of years. Even after that remains extremely toxic. Earthquakes, volcanoes, diggers can trigger an apocalypse.


Everyone brushes over that, the billions of dollars to build a plant, and the ~10 year construction time. Any nuclear power plant that has construction started today won't be cost competitive with renewables when it comes online.

It would be like building a new coal plant in the US today. You simply can't compete with wind, solar, and natural gas (which is still superior to coal, and I don't mind it being a stranded asset for whomever invested in it as solar and wind ramp up).


Makes you wonder how they built the first generation of reactors in a few years time for a couple of million usd. http://thorconpower.com/costing/should-cost-versus-did-cost


At least in UK the costs got offset to clear up. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cumbria-21298117


How do wind and solar provide a solid baseline power. And China builds nuclear plants a lot faster and cheaper than we do, and no known accidents. Maybe we can learn something from them. Plus the whole 90% of a nuclear plant's cost is servicing the debt. Once completed the operational costs are a rounding error.


> How do wind and solar provide a solid baseline power.

Properly built and managed distribution networks, along with utility scale battery storage.

> And China builds nuclear plants a lot faster and cheaper than we do, and no known accidents.

Yet. China still gets more power from wind than nuclear, and they're building out wind generation capacity far faster than nuclear: http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2015/highlights5...

> Maybe we can learn something from them.

Indeed. When you're an authoritarian regime, you can operate more fluidly "at scale" (fuck you, I do what I want).

> Plus the whole 90% of a nuclear plant's cost is servicing the debt.

And yet, someone has to pony up those billions of dollars. A kickstarter perhaps?

> Once completed the operational costs are a rounding error.

And when you fail hard, it costs billions of dollars to cleanup: http://www.psr.org/environment-and-health/environmental-heal...

I'll take solar and wind, thanks.


>And when you fail hard, it costs billions of dollars to cleanup: http://www.psr.org/environment-and-health/environmental-heal....

Using Fukushima as an argument against nuclear is such a silly thing to do, and the decades long freeze on any sort of real progress in meaningfully upgraded or new commercial reactors makes this sort of thing a self fulfilling prophecy.

How many industries have catastrophic failures? How many people have been killed by hydro-electric dams? How much financial damage? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banqiao_Dam

We've created a climate where a completely viable power option that is better than what we have now has had innovation massively stifled due to politics and fearmongering, which has in turn made it more difficult for nuclear plants to be a safe option, which then allows for even more politics and fear mongering.

Fukushima? Yes, it was a catastrophic failure. But it was hit by a 9.0 earthquake and then a tsunami. It was scheduled to be shut down two weeks from the earthquake. It was a 4 decade old plant that was being shut down due to it's age hit by some of the worst possible natural disasters, and even then some better design choices, such as a higher seawall, or not storing the backup generators underground would have prevented it. The condenser units also hadn't been inspected or had maintenance performed on them since basically the reactor's opening. Everything that happened with Fukushima could have been prevented even with it's old technology despite being batter with one of the worst natural disasters in modern history. And this is with 4 decade old technology. With a more favorable political climate, how many advances in safety and efficiency could have been made over those decades?


It's not just about trusting the technology, it's about trusting the human processes that govern and maintain that technology. You say that Fukushima could have been prevented, and yet -- it wasn't prevented.

Humans are greedy, generally corrupt, and bad at maintenance when things are going well. To really trust nuclear, we need better humans, since the accidents can be so catastrophic.


utility scale battery storage seems highly improbable to ever be cheaper than nuclear. If we figure a pretty generous 50% loss of energy, that means you need twice as much power production to service the nights and windless days.


Lithium batteries are in no way going to be so inefficient as to have a 50% loss of energy. They're already cost competitive in Hawaii for utility scale storage:

http://www.utilitydive.com/news/hawaii-co-op-solarcity-ink-d...


What happens when when 52MWh (~216 tons of lithium iron batteries) goes into thermal runaway?


You don't have have to put all of the 52MWh side-by-side.


Over capacity and in the US Hydro can easily cover most issues. Other areas may use peaking power plants or grid storage just like today.

PS: If you build more wind than you need it does get slightly more expensive, but the wasted peaks are a fairly low percentage of energy generation so there not that important. ie. If you build 5% more wind than you need the cost only increases by 5% but you need to time shift far less power. Considering how much cheaper wind is than Nuclear you can have a lot of extra capacity factor.


> You simply can't compete with ... natural gas

Not necessarily, not if you include the environmental costs. Natural gas may be considered "superior", if you don't mind the damaging effects of hydraulic fracturing over the environment. Water contamination is no small deal.


I don't disagree with this, but the wells are sunk and producing. We should definitely not continue with hydraulic fracturing; in the interim, existing natural gas supplies can make up the reduction from nuclear's decline until solar and wind overtake both.


The question is not about about "safely", the question is about "in a safer way than the alternatives".

So, let's look at how we can safely store coal/oil waste. We can't, it goes straight in the air, or in the sea. So in this sense, I'd argue even simply dumping our nuclear waste in the Mariana Trench would be safer.



You don't just store it, you repeatedly reprocess and reuse it to extract all of the valuable highly energetic material. The remainder can be stored in geologically stable underground facilities, where it is no more environmentally impactful than uranium ore was prior to being mined.


Being very familiar with nuclear waste, I can say that, from a technical pov, it's a solved problem: just put it deep enough to comply with whatever safety level is required. The problem with nuclear waste is political not technical and not economical.

Reprocessing or transmutation are alternatives to handle nuclear waste but they have in common that they're more expensive and even less acceptable to society.


By not hiding it away, but using warehouses that are actively staffed just like the plant that made the waste. Of course these facilities should be secure installations. But the root of the problem is not wanted to actively take ownership responsibility for the waste. I imagine every major city having its secure storage installation.

Consider the scale of waste generated as well. All the waste used to power a life of electrical usage creates was the size of a pea.


> All the waste used to power a life of electrical usage creates was the size of a pea.

Source on this?

Best I could find shows that 3 cubic meters of waste is generated per year for a "typical 1000 MWe light water reactor" after reprocessing and all (which isn't always done). [1]

With 99 plants in the US (not counting the plants with multiple reactors) that leads to 297m^3 of waste.

With a population of 318 million, that's about 9.3x10-7, or approximately 4-5 peas per year or 367 peas over the course of a lifetime.

[1] http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Nuclear...

EDIT: Forgot that we only get about 20% of our power from nuclear energy, so it's actually closer to 1835 peas.


The complex "social" side of the problem (for example, the vast amount of waste produced by the manufacture of nuclear warheads during the Cold War) means that it is not easily solved. There's a documentary film coming out about this by Peter Galison and Rob Moss. http://containmentmovie.com/


Even ignoring modern reactor designs that can use waste isotopes as fuel, we had a perfect storage solution in Nevada... until Harry Reid sabotaged it, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.


Thorium waste has a half-life at ~100 years. We can certainly build containers to safely store that waste until it is no longer harmful.


a) How is "put it in Yucca Mountain" not satisfactory? b) Do you demand similar levels of safe storage for all of the hazardous materials, many of which are far more dangerous than nuclear waste, produced by other industries, including those involved in renewables technologies?


I have nothing against nuclear energy, but I have a problem with "let's just put the waste, idunno, here and let it sit for a few thousand years".

In Germany, several of the energy companies completley distanced themselves from the waste they produce. I was at a conference once, where one of the heads of EnKK (a dauthger of EnBW) said after beeing asked what he things his responsibilities for the waste are:

"Well you know, you don't care what happens to your waste at home. Look to the law, we are not responsible."

I think this is one of the biggest reasons why nuclear power has run its course. I might be feasable for contries like the US, Russia or China to find a spot where to store their nuclear waste, but in densly populated areas in Europe? No way.

Just look at the catastrophy that is the Asse: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asse_II_mine

Tl;dr: As long as there is no secure way to store nuclear waste for a thousand years, nuclear has no future.


Considering all the delays involved in getting up new plants (both technical and political) we're looking at what, a decade out for something with a break-even point of several decades? How far will renewables be then? There might be some logic to further invest in renewables instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a stop-gap solution that's guaranteed to just take us to peak uranium sooner than later. That said, we shouldn't be decommissioning existing plants for political reasons like the Germans are.

From a personal perspective I think I'm using less electricity than ever. I only have CFL/LED bulbs, flat screen TV's use less power than old tubes, every appliance I own is tons more efficient than the stuff just a generation ago, etc. Heck, even my powerful desktop PC uses a lot less power than before.


Utilities are mostly free to build nuclear power plants. They don't because a) they can afford the construction cost, and b) they can't afford the insurance cost. So the nuclear industry says "no problem, we'll just ask the government to subsidize the construction cost and pass laws to shield you from liability". But they are finding that the "public risk - private profit" paradigm doesn't sell so well anymore for some reason.


Here in Missouri, Ameren tried for years to get the CWIP-financing ban [0] overturned so that rate-payers would build a new nuclear plant rather than investors. In a rare victory for representative government, they spun their wheels until the dropping price of natural gas made the whole exercise academic. They're hoping that other fuels will simultaneously peak at some point so they can lock their customers into decades of expensive power, but it won't be anytime soon.

[0] Why is there a ban, you ask? Because the first nuclear plant they built, in the 1970s, had such catastrophic cost overruns that the entire state swore, "never again".


This article is pretty terrible. The bias is just ridiculous. When discussing wind and solar the author constantly makes assumptions that favor worst cases, and makes questionable comparisons. For example; stating that "more Americans" died from installing rooftop solar than have died from construction or use of nuclear power, cherry picking the most dangerous possible activity related to solar power (some guy up on his roof, which is a dangerous activity with or without solar panels) to the least dangerous thing about nuclear energy (professional contractors constructing the plants and the plants running normally.)

He cites figures when they will be favorable for nuclear or impressive for the point he's making, and leaves them out when they would undermine it. He cherry picks American nuclear experience in the examples above because we have so far avoided truly terrible disaster here with regards to nuclear energy. (Three Mile Island wasn't good but it wasn't Chernobyl or Fukushima.)

He also cites figures for the amount of space needed for solar and wind to replace all current forms of power without sources. Never mind the fact that actually replacing all of our power with renewables is something that will take a century or more, nobody's talking about completely replacing our entire power generation system in the next few decades with renewables or nuclear.

The real question is not "what can replace our whole system today." because the answer to that is nothing. The real question is, as we expand and replace generators that are being decommissioned, what should they be replaced with?

The concerns there people have about nuclear are not about whether it's more cost effective than renewables (if all we cared about was cost we'd keep burning coal, we know we can't do that), or whether it's safer to build, but what is the long term effect and what are the long term dangers. The long term dangers of a solar farm are basically nothing. You cannot get a Fukushima like disaster out of a solar plant.

The pro-nuclear side will tell you "Oh the new reactors are totally safe, you could never have a problem like that." But they've always said that about nuclear plants. "Oh this new design is safe." Then a disaster happens and they say "Oh well that was the old design, the new design is safe."


The total number of people who have died in all nuclear radiation incidents (excluding the use of atomic weapons) is perhaps 20,000, with all but 100 coming from a single incident (Chernobyl). That number is less than the number of people who will have died from pollution from coal power points, alone, last year, let alone the effects of coal mining.

Nuclear power has a big image problem: people overestimate the expected risk of very rare but high damage events and horribly underestimate common, low-intensity risks. If you scale deaths per TWh, nuclear is by far the safest form of energy--solar is about 5 times as deadly.


Yes but how does it compare with the number of people who have died due to solar or wind power?

And while Fukushima may have had a "low" number of fatalities (so far), the mortality statistics don't even begin to paint a full picture of the negative impact of these disasters.

Nuclear power has an "image problem" for a reason; when a disaster happens it's a truly major disaster.

> If you scale deaths per TWh, nuclear is by far the safest form of energy--solar is about 5 times as deadly.

This is totally ridiculous and arbitrary, and only true because so many average people fall off of their roof while installing solar panels.


The current estimate of the number of excess cancer deaths that will ever be caused by Fukushima is between 0 and 100. Radiation actually isn't all that dangerous, especially after a few months when the fission byproducts that have a tendency to bioaccumulate disappear.

Deaths per TWh is not ridiculous and arbitrary. It's comparing energy sources by how much death they will cause for the amount of energy they produce. Any other comparison would be unfair.

The problem with wind and solar is that they produce so little energy, you need to build a lot of infrastructure to match the energy you'd get from even a single coal plant, let alone a nuclear plant (note that nuclear power plants produce very high amounts of power for the space they take up). You can't ignore the fact that more people are going to die from construction accidents with solar power, even if you assume that the construction accident rate is the same (in deaths per man-hour) for both nuclear and solar plant operation.


> Radiation actually isn't all that dangerous, especially after a few months when the fission byproducts that have a tendency to bioaccumulate disappear.

This is a really absurd statement and shows a failure to understand how radiation affects the body. You're missing two key things in that statement; amount of radiation and exposure time. A lot of radiation is deadly over a short amount of time, and a lower amount can be deadly (or at least detrimental) over a longer period of time.

It is said that there is no "safe" level of radiation, radiation is never good. It's just that under certain levels it's unlikely to be dangerous in a human lifetime. But that's the thing, it's unlikely, it still can be.

While you can now walk around the area around Fukushima for ad day and not die, there's a reason nobody's allowed to live there. Because if you did for many years, then you would suffer ill effects. And children and pregnant women in that area would be especially prone to problems.

> Deaths per TWh is not ridiculous and arbitrary. It's comparing energy sources by how much death they will cause for the amount of energy they produce. Any other comparison would be unfair.

It is ridiculous and arbitrary because it's ONLY counting deaths, and only against one specific metric. It doesn't contextualize those deaths, first of all (dying because you chose to try to install a solar panel on your roof when you're not an experienced roofer and dying because the nuclear plant outside of town had a meltdown are two very different things.)

It also doesn't count the fact that thousands of people lost their homes and businesses and had their lives totally upended by Fukushima. There's impacts of nuclear that solar and wind don't have that are not captured by simply looking at deaths per TWh.


>It also doesn't count the fact that thousands of people lost their homes and businesses and had their lives totally upended by Fukushima. There's impacts of nuclear that solar and wind don't have that are not captured by simply looking at deaths per TWh.

I would also add that until now we have been lucky because nuclear accidents happened in areas with a relatively low population density. Japan has high coastal population density but at Fukushima, half the exclusion zone is on the sea with no one living there.

Now imagine a similar nuclear accident in Belgium or Netherlands requiring a 80 km exclusion zone. That would be a substantial part of the country impacted. For example, check the location of : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tihange_Nuclear_Power_Station


I think ""more Americans" died from installing rooftop solar than have died from construction or use of nuclear power" includes all aspects of nuclear power. The "or use" would seemingly include operating nuclear plants. And given the incredibly low number of deaths in the US associated with nuclear power production, it seems fair.


It isn't the same thing though. Workers have consented to the risk and can work to make themselves safer. The general public have not. it is basic professional responsibility to minimise risk to the public. With wind and solar power this is trivial to do. You can make a wind turbine fail safe by not building it within a certain distance of places with people. Making a nuclear plant fail safe is hugely complex and expensive. Ignoring that fact is intellectually dishonest.


It's not everything, though. Because as I mentioned it purposely focuses on America, excluding the two biggest nuclear disasters (Chernobyl and Fukushima.)

Also fatalities hardly tell the whole story. Far more people have had their lives totally upended by Fukushima than have died from it, and then there's all the people born with defects from Chernobyl, or left unable to reproduce, and we have yet to see the long term effects of Fukushima.

Pro-nuclear folks tend to focus on a couple of things; cost and mortality under "normal" circumstances. Because those two things look great. But if you start talking about the full impact that nuclear power has had on it world, the picture becomes far less rosy.


But talking about Chernobyl and Fukushima is like focusing on the Pinto as a rolling deathtrap and saying we shouldn't have cars. Fukushima should have been shut down decades ago when it was discovered the danger earthquakes posed for it, and Chernobyl was such a horrific chain of bad decisions, it might as well have been on purpose.


Large countries run their electrical grid on mostly renewables (e.g. Brazil, Iceland), and large countries run their grid on mostly nuclear (e.g. France, Belgium). Centuries of development aren't necessary to achieve it, it's mostly political will.

Nuclear power has actually a fantastic track record with regards to mortality and statistical risk. The main problem is it suffers from the "Airplane effect" -- the few failures take over the media an the population's imagination, even if the overall safety is great. We can and we should scale both wind/solar and nuclear power, right now, not in a century.


I do not think you can call Iceland (#184 by population and #106 by area) and Belgium (#76 by population and #136 by area) large countries.

>> Centuries of development aren't necessary to achieve it, it's mostly political will.

While political will is important, it is not enough. It highly depends on geographical properties of the country. For example Iceland produces 85% of its energy from geothermal and hydropower sources and Brazil produces 83% of its electricity from hydropower. Both rely on naturally occurring phenomenons, not all countries are lucky enough to have them.

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