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Out of all major energy sources, nuclear is the safest (ourworldindata.org)
655 points by mpweiher on July 31, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 638 comments



I believe the politicization of nuclear energy (the resulting lack of investment & innovation) will go down as one of the major blunders in human history.

We'd be in a far, far better situation with greenhouse gasses if we (as a human race) had continued to invest in nuclear energy. There would have been mishaps along the way, but at a much smaller scale than we're experiencing now with deaths from air pollution and looming risk of a warming planet.

We'd have much, much safer systems with modern reactor designs.


Nuclear energy was politicized from day minus one. It was developed out of government driven military technology. In day zero nuclear energy was set up by politicians: goals, strategies, financing, deployment, risk handling, etc. Everything was coming from energy politics. Investments were directed and the market&regulations for nuclear were set up. Government largely financed it and insures it.

The large scale, the monopolistic businesses and the government centric energy politics made it ideal for corruption. Remember, Fukushima was claimed to be fully save after inspections, just before the accident happened, which destroyed several reactors.

The investment into nuclear energy was a political decision. Every further investment into nuclear is a political decision. The 'small modern reactors' are mostly funded by government and the users are mostly military. The military is already mostly the only user of small reactors: nuclear powered ships and submarines.

Now we see other players which favor other energy politics (like the current US President who favors fossil fuels like coal, because his voters want jobs in the coal industry).

The point is: energy is always politics.


>It was developed out of government driven military technology

That's not a justification. The internet was also developed out of DARPA. Most of silicon valley exists because of cold war electronics warfare research, etc.


Civilian nuclear plants where designed, built, and operated to reduce the costs of nuclear weapons. This resulted in huge subsides, but also a lot of export controls. You can't say that about the internet.

PS: A lot of past regulations seem dumb today, but power was not the primary goal which shaped a lot of policy.


"Civilian nuclear plants where designed, built, and operated to reduce the costs of nuclear weapons."

Nope. They were, in fact, designed in a manner that made it very difficult/inefficient to use them to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Reactors designed to produce weapons-grade material operate in a completely different regime. In particular, you need to refuel them on a short continuous cycle, lest the desired plutonium be burned up in the normal operation of the reactor. Power reactors, by contrast, were designed to burn up much more of the fuel, and be refueled all at once.


In terms of manufacture, I agree. Further, Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years so we don't currently need anything in the way of production. So, yes direct production was mostly from dedicated reactors.

However, the lack of reprocessing beyond simple plutonium exaction increased the demand for uranium ore. This lowered prices and because waste was not reprocessed early stockpiles where created, even if they where not in fact used. So, the impact would have been minimal except the lack of innovative R&D calcified the industry around this approach.

Further, there was an actual attempt to extract plutonium from civilian reactors: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Valley_Demonstration_Proj... was really a legacy of this failure as it only produced 4,373 lb of plutonium vs https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanford_Site which produced most of the US's plutonium for nuclear weapons. Which is why I feel this is a little more nuanced than your suggesting.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sellafield#Calder_Hall_nuclear...

Early commercial nuclear reactors, here the British Calder Hall Power Station, were producing plutionium and electricity.


That was more or less a prototype. No one uses power reactors to produce plutonium. It just isn't done.


The UK had 26 of these Magnox reactors for electricity production. These nuclear reactors were coming out of military technology and some of them were built and operated for dual use: Plutonium production and energy production.

The UK now sits on around 140 tons of plutonium from fuel reprocessing...


The UK has about 200 warheads.

The US has almost 7,000.

The US has never used commercial power reactors to produce plutonium, because they simply aren't well-suited for the purpose.


>never used commercial power reactors to produce plutonium

That's not true. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Valley_Demonstration_Proj...


That was essentially a demonstration plant. Note that it only ran for six years, only produced 1,926 kg of plutonium over its entire lifespan, and was shut down because producing plutonium from spent fuel from commercial power reactors proved to be uneconomic.

2000 kg of plutonium is a rounding error, given that well over 1 million kg of plutonium have been produced since WWII.


I think it is true (in the USA) but rather meaningless. I don't think we want commercial entities producing plutonium unsupervised by the military.


How did west valley produce power? Your link is unclear.


No, it simply reprocessed spent nuclear fuel. It was not economically useful to do so, but we only really learned that by trying.



The second paragraph concludes the reactor was built for nuclear weapons development, I don't see how it can be considered "another example."


It's another example of a reactor designed to produce electricity and plutionium. North Korea a;so operated a smaller 5 MWe reactor creating electricity for a town and plutonium for their weapons program.


It's a reactor designed to produce large amounts of plutonium. Any reactor produces some amount of energy, nuclear reactions are famous for their energy creation.


> It's a reactor designed to produce large amounts of plutonium.

It's a dual-use reactor: plutonium and electricity production (200 MWe).

> Any reactor produces some amount of energy

But not electricity. For that a power plant has also turbines, generators, etc., ...

The US for example had no electricity production in the early reactors for Plutonium production.

But the US Hanford N produced both Plutonium and electricity for the commercial grid for 21 years...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N-Reactor


>But not electricity. For that a power plant has also turbines, generators, etc., ...

Yes,but if you don't do that, you're just wasting energy. The US realized that, which is why they added electricity generation to the N Reactor. Both were still designed to create plutonium, and would not be built without the aim of nuclear weapons.

It's like saying we grow the same corn for the edible part and for biomass. While technically true, the edible part is driving the production.


>Civilian nuclear plants where designed, built, and operated to reduce the costs of nuclear weapons.

ARPANET was designed, built, and operated to enable the exchange of information in the face of nuclear annihilation of cities.

The big famous radio dish on top of the hill behind Stanford and the signals research that went into it was placed there to look for anti-ICBM radar signals bouncing off of the moon from Russia.

We are standing on a mountain of tech based on research driven by the cold war. Nuclear energy is no different.


My favorite bit is, the first customer & funding grant of the transistor was for a particular application that needed something far more resilient to vibration, temperature, etc than vacuum tubes - ICBM's.


It's a bit different when you use it for terrorbombing not one, but two cities - to make sure the design works.

I guess you could argue that GPS has killed as many children now, by way of guided missiles and missiles fired by drones - but there's still a gulf between unleashing terror on a divine scale as a part of a publicity stunt and geopolitical maneuvering, to making warfare incrementally more efficient.


Given Hiroshima and Nagasaki likely saved at least a million Japanese lives, your point is unclear.


That is assuming Hiroshima and Nagasaki sped up the process of surrender (and probably assuming that most of that million of lives would have been lost to firebombing civilian targets). I don't think the point is unclear - but it could very well be wrong.

I don't think alternate-history fables is much of a defense for war crimes, however.

You might hold that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was done to speed up Japan's surrender, and/or that they did speed up Japan's surrender by a meaningful amount. Further, you might argue that somehow two bombs was meaningfully better than one for this purpose.

From historical record, I'd say it's more likely Japan would've surrendered quickly either way - and that the motivation was more on establishing the USA as a superpower for the post-war era.

Either way, I think it's hard to argue that dropping of nuclear bombs on cities was done "for the sake of their people". After all, no-one was forcing the US to continue the war in the Pacific - or to capture Japan. The US could have sought a cease-fire and withdrawn to Hawaii or similar earlier borders. If the goal was to "save lives".


Well most of the internet and internet companies continue to exist because of military tech, and military strategy. It turns out the internet is a wonderful tool for psy-ops, and social influence, a la Arab Springs. Even Tor, and decentralization technologies are/were military tools.


Come on, network communication and nuclear energy are different planets. I kinda agree that without national plants things might have been better, but these kinds of efforts and risks cannot exist outside of govt for a while.

It will take some guys to figure out MSR designs if possible, and then they'll be small and safe enough to access the private market.


Agree, but he has a point. First application of the internet wasn't mass destruction.


Indeed.

I suggest people check out part six of Adam Curtis' Pandora's Box, that cover this.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandora's_Box_%28TV_series%29#...

On top of all of this we had a generation that was hammered about the dangers of a nuclear war, including the potential poisoning of the environment around a blast by fallout.

And at the core of all this we have the issue that radiation is a silent killer. We can't smell it, we can't see it, we can't feel it. This amps up the fear element greatly.


"And at the core of all this we have the issue that radiation is a silent killer. We can't smell it, we can't see it, we can't feel it. This amps up the fear element greatly."

As well it should. Dangerous things that you cannot detect with any of your human senses are rightly to be feared.

This behavior is well-preserved in humans for a reason.


Gas you use to cook with doesn't smell either. They add stuff to it so u can smell it. It is just as silently deadly without these additives.


They add stuff to it because it's very important to be able to detect when it is present.


What do you plan on adding to radioactively-contaminated materials so that people can see, or hear, or smell, or taste it?


Thats borderline ludditeism. We can't detect CO or even CO2, should that stop us from using fire?


"Thats borderline ludditeism. We can't detect CO or even CO2, should that stop us from using fire?"

I said that fear was justified - not that we should or should not use those things.

Similarly we should indeed be afraid of CO for those very same reasons. I know I certainly have a healthy respect for, and fear of, CO.


CO detectors are in pretty widespread use.


Humans can detect CO2. An elevated level of CO2 makes you feel out of breath. Reducing O2 has no impact other than you pass out.

If you use fire, the "invisible" risks are oxygen deprivation or monoxide poisoning. You will be quite aware that something is wrong when there is too much CO2.


The most pressing problem facing humanity today is "using fire" - that is, CO2 generation from fossil fuel.


That has nothing to do with the nonsense that we should avoid using something powerful or dangerous simply because our human senses are not equipped to detect it. You are literally surrounded by toxicity in modern materials, power transmission, and machinery. 110 volts is enough to arc and create ozone. Basements can accumulate radon. Cooking can release toxic gasses. These are not reasons alone to avoid modern conveniences.


Yet the Japanese use/used the crap out of nuclear. You'd think they of all people would want nothing to do with it. At the end of the day it's all about dollars.


The Japanese people do largely want nothing to do with nuclear energy. Opposition to it still triggers some of their largest scale protests in a country that does everything to shy away from this kind of unrest.

But the political reality is that Japan is a client state of the US empire and the base of its operations in SE Asia. It's not functionally a democracy. The people who made money off of it were the alliance of conservative politicians and organized crime, backed by the CIA, who brought it to the country in the first place.

http://www.japansubculture.com/how-the-cia-helped-put-the-ya...


You forgot their experience with Godzilla too.


Fukushima was safe, by all standards. This was not related to corruption. It was simply not designed for the rarity of a magnitude 9 earthquake and the scale of the tsunami that followed. Your house in a five hundred year floodplain is not unsafe for lacking stilts. Safety costs money, this wasn't corruption.


http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-...

> In the last century there have been eight tsunamis in the region with maximum amplitudes at origin above 10 metres (some much more), these having arisen from earthquakes of magnitude 7.7 to 8.4, on average one every 12 years. Those in 1983 and in 1993 were the most recent affecting Japan, with maximum heights at origin of 14.5 metres and 31 metres respectively, both induced by magnitude 7.7 earthquakes. The June 1896 earthquake of estimated magnitude 8.3 produced a tsunami with run-up height of 38 metres in Tohoku region, killing more than 27,000 people.

This risk needs to be addressed. That many people were killed by a tsunami is a catastrophe. But one would also like to have a stable energy system that does not go down like that and creates a huge problem (financial, technological, human, ...) for several decades.

The japanese nuclear industry is famous for their corruption. Reactors were claimed save, which in a single event were totally wrecked. We are not talking about a single problem, but multiple problems (failing electricity backups, failing outside electricity, exploding buildings, ...), design mistakes (fuel is difficult to reach) and problems generated by running these reactors (like the amount of spent fuel on-site which needs lots of electricity for cooling).


> The japanese nuclear industry is famous for their corruption.

Not just the Japanese nuclear industry, Tihange 2/Doel 3 Nuclear Power Stations are sitting right in the middle of Western Europe and they are another catastrophe waiting to happen.

These reactors pressure vessels have serious issues with micro-cracks in their steel and at this point, it's not certain their structural integrity can actually be guaranteed [0]. The solution? Just "regulate" that in the case of emergency cooling the cooling water needs to be pre-heated, so the temperature shock doesn't break the pressure vessel.

Whatever could go wrong with that approach? I guess nobody can imagine a scenario in which the reactor would need massive cooling but the surrounding infrastructure is destroyed and the water can't be pre-heated, what happens then?

Nobody knows and I'd be really surprised if anybody, in a position of responsibility, has even thought that far about this whole mess. It rather feels like they are operating on the principle of "Let's just hope this never happens instead of planning for what we gonna do when it happens and set resources aside".

[0] http://www.fanc.fgov.be/nl/page/doel-3-tihange-2-flaw-indica...


New inspection tools showed micro fissures. The power plant was stopped as a precaution. Then further investigations showed that these have always been there and are not evolving. It was safe all along, that was a false alarm. The power plant is then restarted. Still extra security measures are set, just in case.

To me this just shows that the security is taken seriously. Why is the public opinion so scared about such an exemplary event?


> Then further investigations showed that these have always been there and are not evolving. It was safe all along, that was a false alarm. The power plant is then restarted.

Sorry but that's plain and simply wrong, you are vastly misrepresenting the situation and chain of events.

These micro-fractures are not part of the design and they are evolving [0], documentation of the manufacturing can't be found and it's assumed the manufacturer made them vanish on purpose to hide the fact that cheaper materials had been used to build, leading to the fractures.

These reactors have been controversial for years, they've been taken offline and online many times to look for new fractures and they keep finding new ones, fractures which shouldn't even be there in the first place.

It's amazing how you try to turn this into an "everything is safe, there's no reason to be worried, it was always broken!" even tho everything about this screams "you better be worried" and the neighboring German states (and the Dutch) are already hoarding Iodine tablets [1].

Even the Belgians themselves handed them out to their population, tho they used ISIS as a scapegoat at that time [2]

We are talking about the pressure vessel here, not some unimportant plumping part on some auxiliary system, and they just keep on watching as more fractures build up in there. Where do you think this is gonna lead? The warning signs can't get any worse than this considering these reactors are also running past their original life time.

[0] http://www.powerengineeringint.com/articles/2017/06/new-crac...

[1] http://www.dw.com/en/north-rhine-westphalia-prepares-for-bel...

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/28/all-belgian-resid...


Your own post confirms my assertion that the magnitude 9 earthquake was an exceedingly rare event and did not necessarily need to be designed for. It had been at least one hundred years since the last earthquake of that magnitude. Same for a >10 meter tsunami.

Large scale disasters almost always present as a conglomerate of smaller problems; multiple failures during 100-500 year disasters once again do not indicate poor safety standards and/or corruption.

Safety design is expensive, and there is always a balance between cost and risk, in literally everything that we as humans do, individually and collectively. Hindsight alone is not enough to bill this reactor as unsafe. There are thousands of BWRs operating globally without incident, and they have been for decades. It is ignorant to presume that they are all time bombs.

Edit: I'd like to kindly remind the community that down votes are not for communicating disagreement.


How can you say it was safe with a straight face when it clearly wasn't? That's like saying your car is fine when it's smashed upside-down in a ditch on the side of the highway.

If some standards claimed it was safe, then those standards were simply wrong. By other standards (including, most importantly, reality), it definitely wasn't safe.


>That's like saying your car is fine when it's smashed upside-down in a ditch on the side of the highway.

I'd argue it's more like saying your car is safe when it's smashed upside-down in a ditch on the side of the highway.

It is safe. The safest minivan is fantastically safe. Then it smashes into a semi truck at 80 mph and everyone dies. It was still a safe car, when compared to other cars.


Indeed, some people would therefore conclude we'd all be better off focusing on ways to get around that don't involve driving...


That's a perfectly valid and logical conclusion, and indeed there are many big companies you've heard of (including Waymo, Tesla, Uber, and many conventional auto manufacturers) who are working on precisely that.

Nuclear can similarly be phased out like human-driven vehicles will be.


"Nuclear can similarly be phased out like human-driven vehicles will be."

You have it exactly backwards. Manually operated nuclear plants will evolve into fully automated, completely safe designs. A very similar approach to self-driving cars.


Lets take your car that is smashed, upside-down in a ditch.

When you bought the car, did you think it was safe? Did it pass the government tests, even ones you think might be a bit ridiculous? Were you under the impression it was designed to withstand being upside-down in a ditch?

In all reality, the car was safe when it was new. It simply wasn't designed to withstand such an accident because such a thing is pretty rare in everyday vehicles, although it happens. Some vehicles have such safety precautions, but only when the situation seems to warrant it (a Jeep, for example).

The nuclear plant was the same. It was safe when it was built, only it wasn't designed to handle that magnitude of earthquake because that strength is rare, especially for that area. This is despite designing it to withstand stronger than ever recorded earthquakes. Sure, afterwards the plant was unsafe, but so are many cars after accidents.


> In all reality, the car was safe when it was new. It simply wasn't designed to withstand such an accident because such a thing is pretty rare in everyday vehicles, although it happens.

Except that cars now days do undergo rollover tests and are required to support 3x their weight when upside down.

> Were you under the impression it was designed to withstand being upside-down in a ditch?

I just read that some experts believe the standard should be increased to 4x. My previous assumption about my safety was a bit off, I am safe, but I could be safer.

Sadly enough, the increased rollover standards have created huge A pillars that impede visibility. Citation: http://wardsauto.com/news-analysis/new-pillars-enhance-safet...

So in this case, illogical worry about rollovers causes an actual measurable increase in pedestrian accidents.

Kinda like our worries about nuclear safety ended up causing even more radioactive pollution from burning coal.


What this car comparison is missing is that people accept cars getting crushed into flat metal sheets.

Agree or not, as a society we have accepted that traffic accident is a problem we don't want to pay the price to solve.

A "safe" car is just a mildly safer death trap.

In comparison, people haven't accepted that reactors would go shit and somewhat kill hundreds of people and trash whole regions for hundreds of years.

That's a risk that developpers have included in their plans to some point, but that the general public has not fundamentaly accepted.


You have your facts wrong.

Fukushima didn't kill even ten people, let alone hundreds. The region got so small radiation dose it is already basically harmless ... Decontamination efforts will make it pass even irrational radiation safety levels within 10-20 years. "hundreds" of years is therefore stupid hyperbole.

Public has not accepted nuclear risks because it is ridiculously misinformed. Don't spread pointless fearmongering, please.


> Fukushima didn't kill even ten people, let alone hundreds.

By official counts, 34 killed directly in the evacuation, 573 total, including indirectly, due to the disaster,and estimates are even with the evacuation, additional long-term cancer deaths due to the release could be in the 100+ range as well.


Why design robots to work in the wrecked reactors, when there are people without this irrational fear of radiation?


Well, I guess it's because I would consider my car extremely safe, with something stupid like 12 airbags, active brake assist, active collision prevention, it will even call for help automatically after an accident, without any input from me. Yet obviously it's not safe if it gets hit by a truck going 80mph, and it's not an impossible scenario. If they made fukishima stronger to withstand larger tsunamis, it could still be destroyed by an even larger one. It was "safe" within certain parameters. We can argue that those parameters were wrong, but that's a different discussion.


Well, would be sufficiently safe. Just not in Fukushima.

It was hit by an earthquake. Reactor performed SCRAM correctly. Plant was ok.

Tsunami hit. Fuel tanks were washed away. This should never have been an issue. If you are in a zone that's prone to tsunamis, you don't locate essential infrastructure where it can be hit by tsunamis.

Everything went downhill from there. Including their inability to hook up generators brought by trucks due to some electrical incompatibility.

Now, if only this nuclear scaremongers would go away, then we would be able to upgrade those shambling power plants with modern technology.


> Now, if only this nuclear scaremongers would go away, then we would be able to upgrade those shambling power plants with modern technology.

That's really where you want to put the blame? Don't you think that's a bit dishonest? Nobody is stopping the operators of plants from modernizing plants, nobody except the realities of economics.

Don't kid yourself: If they can keep on running reactors with the least possible effort they will do so because everything related to nuclear involves massive investment costs.

If you had the choice between spending several billion of dollars on modernizing a plant, which you've already amortized, or NOT spending several billion dollars while still making massive profits from the plant, which of these two is the more likely thing to happen? Greed always wins out.

It's not like plant operators want to modernize their plants and are being stopped by protests, nobody is stopping them from modernizing except for their own economic bottom line.


Billions of dollars to modernize plants? Where are you pulling that number from?

This is what parent meant - scaremongering (and resulting ridiculous hyperbole) destroys progress.


And how do you argue about the Diablo "safety" then? It's 6m above sea level, near a major fault line, in fact the only fault in the ring of fire which didn't go off yet in the last decade, and it's critical near to a major technical hub which will be destroyed for hundreds of years if the fault goes off, on land or at sea.

There's no safety, only luck and irrationality.


Your standard of safety does not sound appropriate for nuclear reactors. And, the decision not to spend the money to make Fukushima safer may well have been a craven, if not corrupt, one. TEPCO has been pretty sleazy ever since the accident.


> sleazy ever since the accident.

Do you mean "even"?


So is it really economically at that point? Is developing, prototyping and building a next gen reactor worth the money? Do we even know how much it would take to account for other 1-in-100 year risks? Is it worth it over better solar/wind? Even this: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-31/alphabet-...

I think the answers are clearly, no, no, no, and fuck no. We should be spending money on better solar, wind, having a distributed energy grid, and fusion. Not on a technology that is equivalent to diesel at this point, and something that will kill us.


This is a debate we have all the time, here in France, where we chose nuclear energy as main source of energy for several decades. Nowadays, everybody but lobbyists (because for those reasons, nuclear industry is strong, here) seems to agree renewable is the way to go (but we're far to be able to replace nuclear with renewable), mainly because:

* we don't know what to do with nuclear wastes, and we start to have a lot

* every now and then, you have to dismantle old nuclear plants, and it appears the cost is totally exuberant


Why do you need renewable when there is practically unlimited nuclear fuel available.

> * we don't know what to do with nuclear wastes, and we start to have a lot

Nuclear waste is nuclear fuel. Different types of reactors can use that 'waste' and produce energy. Some reactor types produce far less, easier to deal with 'waste'. Much of that waste again can be used for different application.

The Nuclear waste issue is one of the most successful fear mongering campaigns ever.

The necessary science is done, early version of the technology were developed and are proven to work.

The problem is that no more work is put in developing and improving nuclear power but renewable energy gets money for research and subsidies like crazy. Coal also gets subsidies in many places.

> * every now and then, you have to dismantle old nuclear plants, and it appears the cost is totally exuberant

This is again manly a problem because of the lack of improvement over time. Different types of reacts would make this far easier. Sadly however we are still using the type of reactors designed for submarines.



> renewable is the way to go

Everybody agrees with that. The question is whether we choose nuclear or coal during the transition to 100% renewable (if it ever happens).

> we don't know what to do with nuclear wastes, and we start to have a lot

> you have to dismantle old nuclear plants, and it appears the cost is totally exuberant

I don't know if it's that bad. But again, is this worse than coal?


Why do you need a transitional solution? Why not Manhattan-Project the heck out of a purely renewable replacement? Coal is, for a variety of reasons, a terrible stopgap. And nuclear buildout is too slow and expensive.

For the cost of building significant new nuclear, we could build the new storage mechanisms, and all the solar/wind needed. Faster.


Also here in the Netherlands something similar happened. A company with nuclear waste went bankrupt and it became a expensive problem.


That's a hard question. I certainly would not support replacing our nuclear plants with coal plants, I would prefer everyone stay with their current system and we go as fast as possible to replace them with something worth it : trying to replace a bad source with an other bad one, but a bit better, costs time, money and human resources.

But the article kind of make me raise an eyebrow when they say that for highly radioactive wastes, we just have to find deep burial sites that will know no geological activity for one million year. Certainly doesn't sound as easy as implied, especially if all earth starts using nuclear power as main energy source.

That being said, I remember reading a few months ago about a breakthrough in Germany in nuclear field, where no rare material (like plutonium) was needed, and wastes were greatly reduced. This could be a global way (and then, we may not even need renewable).


Nuclear is renewable.


>I believe the politicization of nuclear energy (the resulting lack of investment & innovation) will go down as one of the major blunders in human history.

It's more or less ensured that we won't be in any shape to record histories sooner rather than later.


What do you mean "politicization"? Please saw the movie the China syndrome and then 3 mile island happened. Then people were very afraid. These were real possibilities. Does anyone want to live near a nuclear power plant? Do you? I sure as hell would not. How can you twist fear of a disaster in "politicization"?

You are also looking thru the lens of our current situation. Very little was being discussed about the risks of global warming and greenhouse gasses back in the heyday of nuclear power, i.e. the 1970's. The last nuclear power plant in the US was built in the 1970s, which was when the last major accident that happened in the US (3 mile Island). That's not even considering Chernobyl.


It was a conscious decision of a particular US military official (an admiral, IIRC) to use 235U / Pu based process in atomic power generation projects, specifically to be able to generate Pu in large quantities should a need arise.

If Th-based processes were chosen, that cannot easily generate Pu, nuclear proliferation won't be such a hazard. It would have far-reaching political consequences. E.g. USA is strictly against the Iran's nuclear program specifically because it might help produce bomb-grade fissile material.

235U-based processes are also pretty inefficient: about 1% of the nuclear material is burned when the (very active) fuel needs another cycle of refinement. Known Th-bases processes produce somehow less-active waste, and can burn more of the fuel before refinement is necessary.

A number of new, quite a bit safer, nuclear projects aimed to burn 235U and the current stockpiles of nuclear waste exist. But due to the fear-mongering, and likely due to relatively low coal and oil prices, they have little chance to be implemented, at least, in a reasonably short term.

No, I won't mind living near a well-maintained nuclear plant. In fact, I lived ~90km from one for 20+ years. I would be much less happy to live next to a major coal-burning plant, since it produces rather noticeable levels of radioactive contamination during normal operation [1].

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_waste#Coal


> Please saw the movie the China syndrome and then 3 mile island happened.

Yeah, I'm surprised by how little attention this gets. A significant accident occurred that wasn't supposed to, and subsequent investigations showed that there were significant lapses, including from regulators. People can't be experts in nuclear plant design, construct, regulation, inspections, etc., so they need to be able to rely on the authorities in charge. When that trust is betrayed, it naturally has consequences. You can't just say to people, "Well, yeah, last time we told you to trust us we were completely wrong, but this time will be different!"

When problems happen that aren't supposed to happen, people are naturally going to be overly cautious and skeptical of future assurances. That's not an entirely unreasonable reaction.


It is a unreasonable reaction because the amount of damage compared to the reaction was totally out of proportion.

Compare it to the damage of coal and it would not even show statistically.


Yes I do want to live next to a nuclear power plant. I miss my last house where I did, but I now work in a different state: it would be several hours every day of driving to live next to one.

Nuclear power plants are good neighbors: quiet and they pay a lot of taxes. Most of my neighbors when asked where the nuclear plant was pointed to the smokestacks on the coal power plant miles away.


> Do you?

Actually, yes! Statistically it's safer than living next to a coal-fired plant.


I don't want to live next to a nuclear power plant, but I would be fine with living near a dozen of them.

You see, that higher number implies a greater infrastructural and economic investment. Further, the sole large power plant in an area is automatically a military target, whereas if the same capacity were split across many facilities it becomes impractical to attack or control them all.

I'd love to see each municipality in the US above a certain population own and operate its own small reactor, using it to power the municipal utilities. But I do have a bit of a problem with a federal agency operating the only nuclear reactor in a 100-mile radius. It just ends up managed differently, becoming a political power center in addition to an electrical power center.


> You see, that higher number implies a greater infrastructural and economic investment.

A higher number of reactors also means more chances that one of them fails because reactors that don't exist can't fail but those that do most certainly can.

As such the security gains, from infrastructure synergies, would have to be massive to actually be able to offset that.


The reactor that does not exist fails by releasing radioactive fly ash from the coal plant that was never shut down, because nothing was ever built to replace it. Don't discount substitution effects. Your argument would not put safety belts in cars, because the belt that was never installed cannot strangle or entrap its passenger.

Also, do you know of any reasons why the 1000th instance of a design might be less prone to failure than the 1st, or 10th?

Can you think of any reasons why a car door handle might be more reliable (for the same cost) as dirigible door handles? There are many thousands of car door handles in use daily, such that all common failure modes have been seen, and then addressed in later manufactured models. The handle that fails can make the next handle made better able to avoid that specific failure mode.

You want things to fail just a little bit, but not enough to hurt anyone or cost too much money. If something fails, that means it isn't over-engineered for its intended purpose. And the failure point may then be examined to make the next design better, and improve upon existing maintenance strategies.


> The reactor that does not exist fails by releasing radioactive fly ash from the coal plant that was never shut down, because nothing was ever built to replace it. Don't discount substitution effects. Your argument would not put safety belts in cars, because the belt that was never installed cannot strangle or entrap its passenger.

That's a non-sequitur, there are alternatives besides coal just like there are more solutions to the problem than merely increasing energy production.

> Can you think of any reasons why a car door handle might be more reliable (for the same cost) as dirigible door handles?

A car handle is only one piece of a bigger machine, one could argue it's actually rather unimportant because if your car handle fails your car still drives, as such I'm not sure that's actually a good example.

How many iterations did we have on cars, as a whole system, so far? Over a century of designing cars and how close are we to a car that never fails? Which should be a way easier task than trying to make nuclear reactor safe, we had more time for it and even way more need for it, yet we are still nowhere close to having our "perfect cars", as such I just don't see how "perfect nuclear" is anywhere in our reach.


so what is the alternative in the meantime? Everyone breathing coal particles and many people dying of lung cancer before their time? How is the current energy production safe by anY standards? did you even read the article ?


Natural gas, wind, solar, hydro where available.


Hydro is mostly used up in the developed world, it will never go far.

Wind and solar can not even cover all the required growth, specially not outside of the developed world.

Natural gas is a good option, specially to replace coal.

Modern nuclear plants however would be even better.


apart from gas none of the sources you mentioned are short term solutions.


>Does anyone want to live near a nuclear power plant? Do you? I sure as hell would not.

Using logic instead of emotion, yes I would. Hopefully the electricity costs would be cheaper.


Based on nearby real estate prices, people don't mind living near nuclear power plants. There are $500K houses with a lovely view of Seabrook Station.


Compared to a coal plant, yes.


We would be in a better place with respect to greenhouse gasses. But we're also subject to long term disposal of waste products and high risk of pollution of groundwater, and other water sources. Some of those risks will be risks for thousands of years.

The typical answers from nuclear proponents never cover what to do with the waste product.


Nuclear waste is nuclear fuel.

Also new reactor types have solved all these problems. They can create very little waste that only has to be stored a far shorter time.

The problem is that anti-nuclear people have created a environment where no more research happens and old technology just limps along.

The science is clear, the needed technology is understood, we just need somebody to build it. There are startups who try, but its very difficult.


You send it to Yucca mountain or you treat it for reuse like they do in France.


What was the opening date for Yucca mountain again?


Depends on how much of the original work is still usable, I'd guess ten years after funding it.


> will go down as one of the major blunders in human history.

I agree, inability to properly advance nuclear energy will will be regarded as a big blunder in the future. The great irony that Greenpeace, which supposedly wants to save environment, dealt so much damage to it, by protesting nuclear energy.


I bet Fukushima was pretty damn safe, maybe one of the best nuclear power plants designed. The best designs cannot account for everything. There is always a risk of an accident, and you need consider not just accidental but intentional mishaps (dirty bombs).

Very low risk of something happening is not the same is the damaged caused if that risk becomes a reality.


The best designs can remove hole categories of errors. Different reactor types can be passively save and carry virtually zero risk catastrophic failure.


Fukushima was a boiling water reactor, which is not a good design. A good design would be passively safe, which more or less means that you can turn off the plant and walk away without a disaster occurring.


Were the safer designs available in 1971?


Yes they were. Liquid Fuel Molten Salt reactors had been build and tested. The researches were ready to start building production scale units next.


Yes. Pressurized water reactors are very old, they were developed around the same time as boiling water reactors, in the 50s.

Their superior safety has been known for a long time as well, which is why all 58 French reactors active today are PWRs (and most of those in the US are as well).

That being said, it is still probably a bad idea to put a power plant in a place which is known to be exposed to tsunami...


Pressurised water reactors still rely on active security. Molten salt for instance allows passive designs.


> That being said, it is still probably a bad idea to put a power plant in a place which is known to be exposed to tsunami...

...Especially in the country which originated the word tsunami


I believe we had molten salt prototypes already at that time. If that design were favoured, instead of pressurised water, I bet it would have been pretty damn safe.

I believe they achieved relatively high standards despite the lack of funds anyway. (By the way, molten salt is coming back, but mostly lack the funding necessary to prototype bigger reactors.)


"Good" design is ill defined. The fact that a design is riskier than an alternative does not immediately make it worse. Especially when safety can be engineered to arbitrary standards with enough money.


> Especially when safety can be engineered to arbitrary standards with enough money.

There is not 'enough money'. If a reactor shows cracks in the steel in critical places, preventing this upfront might not be technologically possible and afterwards repairing might also be so expensive, that it economically makes no sense.

The big problem: if there is a technical problem, it is politically a very tough decision to close it, because of the costs involved (loss of profits from selling electricity, costs of decommissioning, costs of replacement, ...). Thus a more or less clear need to shutdown the reactor because of technical unfitness will conflict with financial interests and the scale of the money involved makes it worse.


I live pretty close to the San Onofre Nuclear station. They made some upgrades planned for 20 years of operation in 2010, and ended up shutting down the reactor due to premature wear in 2012, and are now planning to decommission the station. I'd be more worried about the financial concerns as an excuse to continue operating an unsafe station if I wasn't seeing the opposite happening in my own back yard right now.


The fact that a reactor may be failing after decades of use does not make it a poor design.

One optimizes for longevity during design, as well as other factors which cost money. It may have, for example, been cheaper to construct, with a strict lifetime after which it would be taken down."Good design" is almost always subjective.

That politics drive nuclear operators to maintain plants past their lifetimes does not indicate poor engineering.


> I bet Fukushima was pretty damn safe, maybe one of the best nuclear power plants designed.

While it was an okay plant, they'd actually been warned about the emergency cooling system as early as 1967. Also, they ignored a 2008 study saying that their plant was vulnerable to tsunamis. The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission found that all the causes of the accident were foreseeable prior to 2011.

> The best designs cannot account for everything.

The common factor in nuclear accidents so far has been operator error, and it's true the best designs cannot completely account for that.


Seriously, there's zero reason that we don't have small portable safe nuclear reactors to power neighbourhoods and large oceangoing vessels by now. Since ocean freight liners and oil tankers produce a large portion if not the largest portion of the current air pollution, it just makes sense to get them completely off of diesel and bunker fuel and equip them with small nuclear reactions, something like a LFTR would be perfect... had we spent the last 40-50 years researching them.

Thankfully, at least China has picked up the slack with LFTR research and hope to have something going within the next 5-10 years. Maybe then the rest of the world will wake up.


The problem with nuclear goes back to the beginning. The original reason for nuclear research, and even the first reactors, was to breed bomb material. Nuclear power was an extension of "atoms for peace" which was originally political cover to continue weapons programs.

Some commercial reactors are secretly used for this purpose even today.

Nuclear may have a bright future but it's extremely difficult to cleave energy from the state interest in weapons. And I'm not just talking about the US, this is an issue with nuclear power worldwide.

The biggest blunder was using nuclear technology for bombs first. I'm afraid the word is forever tainted by history.


I don't understand why this would have any effect on domestic nuclear power production in the nations that already have nuclear weapons. Probably the most important question: why don't the US and China get more of their domestic power from Nuclear?

Also, I need to some source for the claims that Atoms for Peace was meant as a cover to transfer nuclear technology. I believe the program was created as a way to provide civilian nuclear generation capabilities to friendly nations, in return for a guarantee that nations would not use the technology for making nuclear weapons (India was probably the most famous "rogue": they used the know-how from the research reactors to build an actual nuclear weapon).


TRIGA type research reactors, probably the most popular model, are specifically designed to be "pulse reactors" that can produce rapid power spikes of 20,000+MW. I don't see how you could argue that the main purpose isn't simulating nuclear detonations.

Same with Sandia Z Pinch machine and NIF. It's all dual purpose tech to simulate bombs since actual testing isn't done anymore.

You won't find anyone that says it outright but the government interest in pulsed power is awful suspect.


Do you have a source for your claims?


I believe the focus on CO2 will go down as a pretty big blunder. As for nuclear, it seems pretty expensive when you account for the total lifecycle of the plants (see sibling comment from France).


The recalcitrant problem of nuclear waste storage is now a permanent part of human history going forward even if not one single nuke plant is ever onlined again. So the dangers of nukes are here to stay no matter what. Making a new nuke plant or not will not change this problem. One could even argue that if we continue developing nuke plants we'll get better at dealing with the waste. If we don't we'll get worse.

Having said that, it takes 30 years to online a new nuke plant. They have to be maintained over centuries. It's easier to make wind farms, geothermal and photovoltaics today, right now. We can't wait 30+ years for nukes to help our clean energy future happen.


Breeder reactors mostly fix the waste problem. Even without breeders, you should think hard about the tradeoff of having a fairly limited amount of solid stuff that you have to take care of for a very long time versus altering the climate of the whole planet and potentially messing up phytoplankton for a very long time, all while also causing all kinds of pollution.


Seems like a "grass is greener" case. The people of Fukushima Prefecture wish they could trade their nuke waste problem for a few dozen feet of sea level. I know I would if I were them.


Nuclear suffers from the same problems as many political issues. The greatest risks of nuclear energy is not "safety," but rather cost, insurance, and financing. As humans our brains are attuned to avoid worst case scenarios instead of fearing more likely, but less scary situations.

Both sides hear the talking points. The talking points target our most passionate and overriding fears, instead of real world concerns. This is because these false fears are more effective than real ones for changing minds.

Having run for office on a few occasions, the most important factor about winning seems to be having a good narrative-- one which seems consistent with voters' personal experiences.


I'm more afraid of having nuclear power plants now that we no longer have a thriving industry to support innovation and technological progress in the field. From my understanding, we stopped innovating in fission power plant design decades ago.


>we stopped innovating in fission power plant design decades ago.

No work on new better designed as continued, we just stopped building many of them:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_III_reactor https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_IV_reactor



We'd be in a far better GHG situation if we had poured all that r&d into renewables, would have gotten solar cost below fossil 20-30 years earlier and probably left fracking and tar sands hydrocarbons forever in the ground.


I suspect the opposite argument could easily be made (if going big into nuclear somehow caused human extinction, which is easy to envision).


One key problem... much of the world's population lives in nations socially incapable of supporting nuclear power, or with governments that cannot be trusted with significant quantities of nuclear materials due to proliferation, or both.

Advocacy of nuclear has a bad tendency to think of "the world" as the US, Europe, Japan, and China. Any solution that aggravates the haves/have-nots divide is going to cause problems.


Plenty of environmental groups would be pretty happy to curb emissions in "just" US, Europe, Japan, and China...


The problem with nuclear energy is that a nuclear power plant isn't very different in concept from a nuclear bomb. Getting the latter from the former is a serious concern. Having the former accidentally turn into a dirty nuke (not a lot of force, but lots of fallout), is scarily easy. Just see 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl.


It is very different. You can't just make an atom bomb out of what's available at a nuclear plant. They're entirely different concepts requiting diffrrent materials.

Chernobyl was an outdated design known to be dangerous at the time it was made, and something like the Chernobyl incident can't happen on anything newer. A study found statistically insignificant rises in cancer rates from the 3 Mile incident.

I recommend the book Atomic Accidents, it's very informative and I believe it went over specifically why a nuclear plant can't just explode like an atom bomb or even really help you make one.


I think it's worthwhile to differentiate between a critical mass fission/fusion bomb and a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb can be made from anything radioactive coupled with a conventional explosive, since the goal is just to spread the radioactive material as widely as possible. Fission/fusion bombs (what we typically would consider as "atomic bombs") are, as you said, way harder to pull off. The general public definitely likes to conflate the two.


It is both different, and not different.

No, your average nuclear plant doesn't have the makings of an atom bomb. But countries that are running nuclear power plants have an obvious incentive to create enrichment facilities for their nuclear power. These facilities are similar to those that enrich further for a nuclear bomb. Several countries have achieved nuclear bombs this way.

Furthermore nuclear plants do not all work the same way. There are advocates of thorium nuclear plants, because thorium is a much more abundant fuel source that should be able to operate more cleanly than uranium. However those plants generate uranium-233 which can be potentially separated through chemical processes in plants that are a lot easier to hide than centrifuges used for enrichment.

Both ways, nuclear power can be a step on the way to nuclear proliferation.


>Just see 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl.

The fact that you would reference TMI in reference to dirty bombs is extremely telling in that you have no idea what you're talking about. The average radiation exposure outside TMI compound was less that an airplane flight or x-ray. Bananas are literally more dangerous.


That is disputed. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Mile_Island_accident#Rel... for claims from critics that official accounts of the exposure were low by a factor of 100 to 1000.

Regardless of which version of the facts you consider more believable, the public was scared witless of the possibility that there was an exposure. As a result millions of people were left with the concern that they could get cancer decades down the road. This public fear is also the most important impact of a dirty nuclear bomb used as a terrorist weapon. Very few of people will get sick, and fewer still will die. But lots will be scared.


> That is disputed. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Mile_Island_accident#Rel.... for claims from critics that official accounts of the exposure were low by a factor of 100 to 1000.

> Regardless of which version of the facts you consider more believable,

Believable has nothing to do with it. An average dose of worst case 1000 times higher, 1.4 REM, doesn't even violate the US federal annual dose limits. Attempting to equivocate this with dirty bombs is either ignorant or a malicious, inflammatory lie to generate fear for an ulterior motive. If you're trying to insinuate some kind of cover-up, the did a pretty terrible job because no new reactors came online after TMI for like 50 years.


Perhaps someone dropped a banana. The average exposure was 8 millirem (equivalent to a chest X-ray), and the peak outside the facility was 100 millirem (average annual exposure).


"Just see 3 Mile Island"

Really? How many people were killed at 3 Mile Island when it allegedly "accidentally turned into a dirty nuke"?


People are scared of nuclear energy for the same reason that they're scared of taking an airplane. Even though it's technically and statistically very safe, the perceived risk appears much greater.

In particular in both cases when something goes wrong it tends to go extremely wrong and you're completely helpless to stop it. In contrast getting in a car accident or slowly suffocating in coal power plant emissions seem manageable.

Personally I'm of the opinion that going all nuclear would be a mistake but on the other hand it's a great way to move away from coal and petrol while we're still figuring out how to scale renewable energies (and maybe fusion, but that's still a moonshot). It provides cheap, reliable and reasonably safe energy with very little CO2 emissions.

I'm more worried about global warming than Fukushima and I'd gladly trade even a dozen of Fukushima-type incidents in the next decades (highly unlikely) if it could stop global warming and its dire, hard-to-revert consequences.

In particular I genuinely do not understand why most ecologists seem to be staunchly anti-nuclear. I can understand asking for better funding in renewable R&D and planning for a transition but, at least in Europe, ecologists seem to favor dropping nuclear immediately, no matter the cost. For instance they applauded when Germany decided to completely stop producing nuclear energy, even if it meant more pollution in the short term. I find that hard to justify.


> People are scared of nuclear energy for the same reason that they're scared of taking an airplane. Even though it's technically and statistically very safe, the perceived risk appears much greater. [...] I'm more worried about global warming than Fukushima and I'd gladly trade even a dozen of Fukushima-type incidents in the next decades (highly unlikely) if it could stop global warming and its dire, hard-to-revert consequences.

I could not agree more, but unfortunately global warming suffers from the exact opposite effect. The perceived risk appears very low to most people, because it is not very spectacular on human time scales. Even though it is by far the greatest existential risk we face.


I'm no biologist or scientist of any sort, but it seems this is a problem with all apex predators to some degree. You get to the top of the food chain by adapting to and being highly reactive to short term and catastrophic risk. Once you get there you have to do a 180 and suddenly be highly attuned to subtle and long term issues to stay there. It's simply a different skill set and frame of mind.


It's probably not very informative to think of humans as apex predators. Yuval Harari in "Sapien" puts forth the interesting point that we were catapulted suddenly from cautious foragers to extreme lethality by our harnessing of fire and other technologies. We likely never had the chance to grow into the role of most dangerous animal. Thinking along those lines, our cautious forager ancestors probably did a lot of responding to short-term and catastrophic risk.

My dog may well have better apex predator instincts than I.


Is there anything in all of biology that IS attuned to subtle and long-term issues? I think I would argue that we are the closest to that.


You are right, there is pretty much nothing in biology that is. Humans are no exception, but until recently it was not a big problem because we did not have the power to significantly damage the climate and the biosphere (though the megafauna would probably disagree).

Fossil fuel powered technology has changed that, but we are psychologically and socially ill-equipped to deal with its transformative power.


Yes, of course. Long-term issues aren't any different than others; they only need longer (more generations) to manifest.

One class (meta-)examples are all mechanism actually promoting mutation, or other methods of genetic variation: Horizontal gene transfer is interesting in this regard. It's the ability to incorporate snippets of DNA the organism comes across.

These mechanisms are an adaptation to the "known unknowns": what if a new pathogen appears, or the environment (temperature, radiation, salinity etc) suddenly changes? To achieve some flexibility, these mechanisms make trade-offs, usually sacrificing short-term reproductive success.


The way humans tend to overvalue short term gain and underplay long term consequences is well covered. This line of thinking bleeds heavily into politics and how our societies organize. Would like to know if it is actually an apex predator thing, it might just be part of being a mortal animal.


New reactor designs completely eliminate the possibility of meltdown. LFRs include an electrically cooled salt plug that seals a holding tank. If power fails, the molten salt melts the plug, and the fuel safely drains into the tank. I particularly like ThorCon's concept, where the reactor is underground. Another plus of this reactor type is that water cooling isn't needed, so siting is much more flexible.

Note that the ThorCon design can use uranium or thorium as fuel. ThorCon estimates it could be shipping reactors in ten years, and could produce 100 GW worth of reactors per year, at around three cents per KWH.

http://thorconpower.com/

I suggest watching the video on this page, it gives a good perspective:

http://thorconpower.com/news


"Completely eliminates the possibility" sounds like something a supervillain would say.

I'm not saying that this passive safety system won't work, or is a bad idea. It sounds great from the brief description. BUT. There's a terrible, terrible tendency of the pro-nuclear side to use bombastic language, and then sneer at those with doubts as ignorant and emotional rather than logical.

Pricing promises are another problem. "Power too cheap to meter" has been promised since the 1950s. It hasn't happened yet.

Be careful with your language.


The senior engineer at my company was from Duke Energy. At the beginning of the Fukushima incident he loudly proclaimed that the safety mechanisms would kick in, preventing a disaster. He held educational session during lunch so he could explain the engineering. We all know the rest of the story.


That just means he was an idiot. The problems of the design were well known. The potential failure points were well known and are part of the design. This is nothing new and has been understood for a long time.

A good initial design eliminates many of the complicated failure mechanism.

A molted salted liquid fueled Thorium reactor simply does not have these problems. Coming up with a scenario where it would fail at such a high level is hard to even imagine.


>and then sneer at those with doubts as ignorant and emotional rather than logical

That's because you reply with things like this.

>sounds like something a supervillain would say.


When you tell me something "completely eliminates" the possibility of failure in complex industrial design - you're being emotional rather than logical.

Look, I'm actually pro-nuclear. But I think the arguments made for nuclear power are mostly awful, driven by techno-fetishism and wishful thinking rather than real logic. The "But I'm logical and you're just emotional!" argument is itself an emotional argument, a rush to claim a moral high ground (you'll see the exact same style and phrasing used in any political argument where privileged white guys are dismissing the points of women and minorities).

As others wisely pointed out in this thread, nuclear power suffers from a problem of feeling dangerous even when it's safe - and likewise, global warming feels safe even when it's an existential threat to civilization. If you want to make progress rather than score points, you need to take the emotional nature of the argument into account.

I didn't say your argument sounds like something a supervillain would say because I think the technology is bad. I said it because I think the phrasing is bad. Wise up.


> When you tell me something "completely eliminates" the possibility of failure in complex industrial design - you're being emotional rather than logical.

No.

Modern reactor designs are actually designed in a way that makes it difficult to maintain the reaction. If you are not actively maintaining it, then it will stop on its own. This is opposed to the most common existing designs, where you need to expend effort to _stop_ the reaction.

This is not to say that they cannot fail in some novel ways.


> This is not to say that they cannot fail in some novel ways.

So, then, they do not "completely eliminate" the possibility of failure. Your last sentence seems to contradict the "No." at the beginning of your reply.


> So, then, they do not "completely eliminate" the possibility of failure. Your last sentence seems to contradict the "No." at the beginning of your reply.

I didn't say anything about "completely eliminating the possibility of failure". I said "completely eliminate the possibility of meltdown" which is in fact correct.

ThorCon plans on operating the plants about 100 feet underground, which will even mitigate a deliberate attack with an airliner. There is no way to make anything absolutely, 100% safe, but this approach is mighty close.

That is in contrast with fossil fuel pollution, which kills hundreds of thousands of people a year.


To be fair, Recurecur said:

> New reactor designs completely eliminate the possibility of meltdown.

not necessarily of any failure, to which they were willing to accept that things can fail in novel ways, just not meltdowns in their view.


They consider all the possibilities possible.


>I didn't say your argument sounds like something a supervillain would say because I think the technology is bad. I said it because I think the phrasing is bad. Wise up.

Not my argument, but the point is that comparing something to "what a supervillain" would say is an emotional, not logical, response. What supervillain introduces technologies that are immune to whole classes of failures?

>When you tell me something "completely eliminates" the possibility of failure in complex industrial design - you're being emotional rather than logical.

If someone proposes switching from coal powered plants to natural gas powered plants with the argument that it completely eliminates the possibility of coal dust as a byproduct, would you deride them as well?


Solar prices in the sunniest regions have already dipped below 3c unsubsidized, and are projected to keep falling for decades to come, even without any major technological breakthroughs. So aiming for that price 10 years out, with a new design isn't a very good sign


What are solar prices like in the night? /s

Renewable are all nice and good, but currently we're still building fossil fuel power plants all over the world. It would be better if we instead built nuclear plants. Expanding renewables and nuclear are not opposites of each other.


>What are solar prices like in the night? /s

Is that a rhetorical question? Because night time usage largely relies on battery storage for which economies of scale are also reducing the cost in a similar predictable fashion.


/s means sarcasm

However I will say there are newer solar panels that I've read about being tested which can theoretically produce power by moon light. Granted it won't be anywhere near the amount during the day but generating energy via solar at night time isn't entirely impossible it just won't be generating the same amount by orders of magnitude.


Solar panels already can generate light from the moon, it's just 100000x less.

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

It would be cheaper to do any number of things(battery storage, Nuclear, world power grid) than to build out more solar capacity to capture the pitiful full moon light once a month.


It really comes down to storage. Solar is just now passing coal costs. when it falls another order of magnitue, most of the effort will go to pumping water up hills or batteries or whatever.


Solar at night is currently 10c (again it seems to be falling in price as more roll out), at least in places that have strong enough sunlight for concentrating solar:

https://www.thenational.ae/business/dubai-set-for-world-s-ch...


I feel like when a company says 10 years away it generally means that the company is still looking for funding... and 5 years away generally means they finally got the funding and are now building and experimenting.

China also says 10 years away for the LFR, but I've heard murmors of 5-7 years from a few articles... meaning they likely are finally starting to get some investment.


Its hard to compete in the nuclear business when literally everything else, including useless stuff like ethanol get subsidies like crazy. Also, existing regulation made much of this research impossible.

With the subsidies and research fund wind and solar have gotten we could have LFR easy by now.

Its also hard to sell nuclear when most nation want buy it, either because they can't, want to produce their own, or are against it.

The fact is LFR offer unlimited energy supply at minimal fuel cost, it is green, stable, reliable, controllable and safe. We could have had it 50 years ago, but since then the deck has just been stacked against it and its hard to revive it.

So yes, the company is probably more then 10 years away, but if this was part of a national energy strategy, things would happen pretty fast.


Do these designs also completely eliminate the possibility that human error or outright negligence could cause a catastrophic failure? Because those were almost always major factors in nuclear accidents.


They do, when implemented properly. Take a look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive_nuclear_safety#Example... for why some passive safety features fail.


a) New designs are good, but something that's "10 years away" is more an idea, than it is a product.

b) It's not so much that designs can't be safe, but the trick is realizing real systems based on the design, that actually are safe. Over time.

Never underestimate the power of human mis-management when it comes to corrupting perfectly sound pieces of engineering, especially when you need to plan for a 50, 100 or 250 year horizon.


Ecologists against nuclear baffles me too. You'd think they'd be booster #1. Worst-case, Chernobyl still worked out pretty darn well for the local ecosystem.


> Personally I'm of the opinion that going all nuclear would be a mistake but on the other hand it's a great way to move away from coal and petrol while we're still figuring out how to scale renewable energies (and maybe fusion, but that's still a moonshot). It provides cheap, reliable and reasonably safe energy with very little CO2 emissions.

The last time I really looked into it, it seemed like nuclear energy was a pretty way to combat global warming. It has numerous issues like cost, construction time, production bottlenecks, etc. Renewables seemed a lot better (particularly when you factor things in like the cost reduction as production ramps up), but it would be a mistake to simply think about energy production. From what I recall, things like improving energy efficiency were at least as important.


Some differences between the airplane analogy and the nuclear plant analogy:

1) When a plane fails catastrophically, the impact is limited to a smaller geographical area.

2) Pollution from the failure of a plane doesn't involve what is estimated to be a century-long endeavor to cleanup.

3) The toxicity from plane failures do not invade nearly every facet of life, making entire areas unlivable.

I am not a proponent of nuclear energy because we do not have a way to handle the full lifecycle, including failures. We will have this someday, but the idea of "well throw this waste into a rock formation somewhere and hope it doesn't cause a problem because it takes hundreds of years to handle" is just not reasonable. Even today, the Hanford site in Washington is leaking radioactive shit into the Columbia River and there is no estimated date to complete this cleanup.


I completely understand where you're coming from but you can't just take nuclear energy in a vacuum. Of course if the alternative was between nuclear power plants and the miracle energy drive which runs on dreams and produces terrawatts without any risks and any pollution then there's no question.

But that's not the world we live in. Today we have renewable energy, which is promising but not yet ready to be our sole source of energy. Then we have fossil energy which wrecks our climate at an alarming pace. Then we have nuclear which has its own set of problems but at least won't contribute to global warming.

Sure it's a tragedy that Pripyat and Fukushima are now unlivable and will remain so for a long, long time. But global warming will probably make entire continent-sized stretches of land effectively unlivable. That's what you should be pitting nuclear reactors against.


It doesn't kill many people, because even when there's a disaster, there's time to evacuate. But you lose an entire city once in a while.

Major reactor disasters so far:

- SL-1. Steam explosion due to control rod lifted too far during maintenance. Small experimental reactor, built in the middle of nowhere (Idaho Reactor Test Station) for good reason. Inherently unsafe design.

- Three Mile Island. Meltdown due to cooling water failure due to instrument confusion. Contained by good containment vessel. No casualties. That's what should have happened at Fukushima.

- AVR pebble bed reactor. Pebble jam, radiation leak into ground. Contained, but too much of a mess to decommission.

- Chernobyl. Meltdown and fire due to operational error during testing. Totally inadequate containment. Entire region evacuated and contaminated for decades.

- Fukushima. Loss of coolant and meltdown. Containment vessel too small, reactor cores melted through in three reactors. Containment problem well known in advance; Peach Bottom PA has same design.

A big, strong, containment vessel can keep a meltdown from becoming a major disaster and has done so at least twice. Size matters; a large containment vessel faces lower pressures when all the water boils to become steam. But a good worst-case containment vessel can cost as much as the rest of the plant.

Some of the recently-touted small reactor designs try to omit a containment vessel on the grounds that their design couldn't possibly melt down. That's probably not a good approach.


> But you lose an entire city once in a while.

I can only see two cases of this. Chernobyl and Fukushima. Chernobyl was early on and they pushed it well past what their safety ratings were. Fukushima, they messed up on the calculations on the 1000 year tsunami. The latter is definitely a more reasonable case to point to "things can go wrong". Because that was definitely human error.

My issue though, is we're stuck with tech that is half a century old. This would be insane to do in any other industry. Technology has progressed, but it hasn't gone into industry. PBRs can be a lot safer, and there are a lot more fail safe reactor designs. We can do small reactors with high efficiency, leading to easier containment IF there is a disaster. I love nuclear, but I do agree that building these gen II reactors is unsafe. But the new ones? I think that's the only way we're going to tackle climate change within the time frame we're aiming for.


From what I've heard (through two or three levels of separation), the regulatory agency on Nuclear power is stiflingly draconian. Getting any kind of new technology implemented is prohibitively difficult and expensive, which just adds to the list of disincentives in venturing into nuclear power.


The regulatory agency on Nuclear power is stiflingly draconian.

That's a feature. It's why Harrisburg, PA is still populated.


You don't need Draconian regulation to have effective regulation.


Average time from final designs to shovel in the ground is about 10 years. So already your tech is obsolete by the time you start building. I do agree there should be TIGHT regulations, but there certainly is a limit. Also, it has a lack of subsidies, compared to the other sectors.


So already your tech is obsolete by the time you start building.

Cutting edge tech tends to be unproven and unreliable tech. When you can lose an entire city if things go wrong, worrying about having the latest tech is the wrong priority.


Who said anything about cutting edge? I don't care what you're building, but 10-20 years between when you start to design and have a finished product is too much time.

They have a lot of research reactors, but honestly, the only way you're going to get bigger and safer reactors is if you scale up those research reactors. There is literally no other way. And we WANT to improve safety. Don't we? I'm not saying to use cutting edge. I'm saying use what has been proven at smaller scale and is well tested. Not two generation old technology.

> When you can lose an entire city if things go wrong

This is EXTREMELY unlikely. Even when things go wrong.


This is EXTREMELY unlikely. Even when things go wrong.

It may currently be extremely unlikely -- due to the very regulations and processes you are decrying. But, if people like you get their way, the odds go up of seriously bad things happening.


This is actually how the industry as a whole thinks. I like to think expert advice, especially on difficult to understand concepts (hey, we're talking atomic physics here), should be held with more credibility than the layman.

I work in a related industry, part of which is in space radiation mitigation. If you have any real questions about disasters I'll be happy to answer the best that I can. But forgive me if it appears to me that you are the one who is jumping to conclusions, preventing real progress, and harming lives.


I used to moderate a gifted list. It was around 300 people, all of whom were used to being the smartest person in the room. So they tended to default to assuming that if you disagreed with them, you were merely uninformed and stupid. It took a while to convince people to talk to each other respectfully and from an assumption that both people are smart and informed and their different points of view are not merely evidence of stupidity.

I occasionally see that same pattern play out on Hacker News. It would behoove you to check your ego at the door and assume that most of the people you speak with here are also well informed. In the mean time, I see no real reason to try to engage you further. Meaty discussion is never founded on chest-beating and condescension.


How would you balance the two? From my experience "most" industry is ~10-20 years behind research. That's how long it takes to work out the kinks, be that mobile phones, cloud computing or AI. So while the US and Europe mess around spending stupid money on ITER the Chinese will be rolling out molton salt reactors leaving the west behind, and that 'sucks'. But these are big projects, running them like a Turkish ticket website would be a catastrophe. How exactly would do you re-balance the checks and balances?


So there are certain aspects that can be be iterated upon faster than others. Something like shielding is going to be faster, and can be iterated upon, compared to something like the main reactor. That may also be because that's what I'm more familiar with.

I am also in favor of more small reactors, vs fewer large reactors. I think this provides a higher safety level and ease of upgrading. Plus you can just bury these entire reactors in the ground.

As for regulation, I agree that it should be strict. But the process needs to be streamlined so it doesn't take too long. That time is prohibitive to the technology (see the new reactor construction and it bankrupting Westinghouse). I don't have the answers to how you would optimize the system, but I think think we need to open the discussion up. Start asking questions like "Is covering the first $12b of damage reasonable for all reactor types and sizes?" "How do we ensure that a reactor type is ready to move from research to production?" And such. I don't think "let China test them" is a reasonable response either. The questions get brushed off because most of the public is still afraid of the technology (see this thread. I doubt many of HN users has worked anywhere related to this field, but look at how many have strong opinions). But the people that work in it have less fear. It is like working with anything dangerous, you have to always be aware of it, but that doesn't make it too dangerous to even handle.


From what ive read about nuclear technology, the reason the west has big non salt reactors is that they wanted them for making nuclear bombs. providing energy was a by product of making nuclear weapons.

That also accounts for much of the delays, they are using the tech for so many naughty things they need to wait for staff turnover on the project so no one knows too much about what they are doing.

So while I agree we need to "open the discussion up", I dont believe that discussion will be allowed because of the war politics involved.


> wanted them for making nuclear bombs

This was definitely a big part, but there's a lot that goes into it. Things like enrichment plants. The proportions of 235 vs 238 is substantially different in a bomb vs power plant. This is how we can tell what the Iranians are doing. So using big uranium plants is an excuse to make a lot of 235 and 239Pu.

But just because the past was focused on war efforts, doesn't mean the future needs to be. Many technologies transition from the military to public sectors. And I'm happy to see that talk about nuclear in the news more often, because I think this is the way to open up the discussion. Unfortunately, more people currently oppose nuclear[1]. And one of the most harmful things I see is that there is this idea that the tech isn't green. Because we don't have a battle of green vs nuke vs fossil fuels. It is really green vs fossil.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/190064/first-time-majority-oppose...


By design.

People will oppose/support whatever they are told to as a general rule.

if facts mattered, we would never of had a majority of people supporting the dropping of white phosphorus on the kids of Iraq (at the time)

It wasnt that long ago people were being told wind and solar "would never be green" due to the manufacturing costs.

But none of that changes the basic question. how would you balance the over design v speed trade off. Especially when every change to the initial design adds a few mill $'s to the bill.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/climate/nuclear-power-pro...


> People will oppose/support whatever they are told to as a general rule.

I would argue that this prevents total human progress though. But we won't get into that because it is a huge discussion.

Again, I'm only in a related field, so take my answers with a grain of salt (pun intended). I also don't have the answers to regulations. That is an extremely complicated topic. But I can bring up problems that I'm aware of.

I also don't know how to speed up the bureaucracy. I'm a scientist, not a politician. We have some reactors in the US that were built in <5 years. This is true in other countries too. <5 year construction time is reasonable to me. Just not 10. When you're operating for 25 years that is too large of a percentage. My simple answer would be "look at what has been effective in the past and emulate it. Improve upon it." But I think there is little drive to do this given the public opinion. And I think it would take a large study to figure this out, though I'm sure someone has but I'm not aware of it.

The most important thing I think that needs to be changed is that there needs to be a smoother path from research reactors to commercial reactors. I know a major problem is that no one will insure new reactors. There is this idea that if it hasn't been done commercially then it is unproven. I'm sure part of this is fear and part is bureaucracy. Unfortunately we always have to take a leap at some point. We can't just wait for China to build reactors and say "Oh, well it works there, so it is proven." China wouldn't be building them if they weren't confident in the designs.

I am also in favor of smaller reactors. Many of these newer generation reactors can be created quite small. Their outputs are lower than the large reactors, but you gain a significant level of safety. This is on top of the benefits from new generation reactors (less waste, significantly higher efficiency, and passive meltdown mitigation solutions). I think a way to encourage the use of smaller reactors is to reduce the max pay for cleanup in event of disaster. Currently plant owners must cover the first $12b (which is significantly more expensive than the average cleanup cost in the US). If you have smaller reactors they literally cannot contaminate as much.

> NYT article

Here we're running into the problem where things are cheaper when they are mass produced. When you don't build reactors for quite some time you have to reinvent processes. Now I will also say that the AP1000 is a gen III+ reactor (and has passive protection), but the Watts-Bar is gen II. Also remember that the first gen III was built in 1985 (commissioned in 1980). We've been slow to implement new technology in this field. The average of tech is around 20 years since invention to mass production, we're nowhere near that. This may be just personal frustration because I work in an area where two industries are extremely slow to implement progressive designs, space and nuclear.

Why I, and many others, think nuclear is essential for the future (you can find a lot about this in the most recent Paris talks): It is the only significant energy source that can provide constant power (and a lot of it). Wind and solar do not operate continuously, and are highly dependent upon environmental conditions. Hydro and geothermal also don't have these limitations. We currently don't have the battery storage technology to utilize a power system based upon only wind, solar, hydro, and geo thermal. Adding nuclear to this suite of technologies helps fill that gap, while being extremely environmentally friendly. The waste isn't nearly the problem that the public thinks it is, mainly because there isn't much total waste.


So, I was with you right up until you got back on your hobby horse of insisting that other people on HN are merely stupid idiots with unfounded opinions and this is the only reason they might disagree with you:

The questions get brushed off because most of the public is still afraid of the technology (see this thread. I doubt many of HN users has worked anywhere related to this field, but look at how many have strong opinions).

This is not a good basis from which to make an argument and it actively undermines the process of effective public discourse.

I am trying to be helpful here. I am sure you won't see it that way because it is public and it is critical of your remarks and that won't feel very good. But, maybe you could be the one in a million people who decides to use that fact as evidence of the truth in my statements that attacking other people doesn't strengthen your argument instead of being one of the other 999,999 people who just insist what I say is irrelevant because it hurt your feelings, while failing to see the irony there.

Best.


A nuclear power plant has a lifetime of over 50 years, so it pays to make sure you're doing it right.

It's like complaining that space probes and satellites use outdated processors and other computer technology. The Deep Space Climate Observatory was launched in 2015 with a 17 year old processor.


And now you're seeing a shift to smaller satellites with shorter operation lifetimes, and in lower orbits. This allows for use of off the shelf hardware and faster iteration. The barrier for this was brought down because it is cheaper to send hardware to space and the idea of a cluster of small sats isn't crazy anymore (because you need many satellites to provide continuous service to a specific ground location when using LEO).


> Also, it has a lack of subsidies, compared to the other sectors.

It has significant federal R&D and liability-related subsidies, as well as other federal and, in several states, state-level subsidies. Nuclear is by no means deprived of subsidies.


And a stream of potential employees flowing, fully-trained, out of the military.


There's a huge subsidy in that the Federal Government subsidizes the disaster insurance.


Owners of plants are responsible for the first $12b. 3 mile cleanup was well under this. So I'm going to have to disagree. But I'll give a caveat, it is a sample size of 1. A major accident would cost much more, but they are extremely unlikely.


> Some of the recently-touted small reactor designs try to omit a containment vessel on the grounds that their design couldn't possibly melt down. That's probably not a good approach.

Agreed, but, fail-safe and walkaway-safe designs coupled with moderate containment vessels seem like a good medium. It is all about mitigating risk. I don't think we should ever accept that a design has actual 0 risk for meltdown, but, if you design with a goal of having 0 risk of uncontained failures and then design containment for a moderate level of failure, that seems like you have a robust overall solution.


Even if there is a meltdown it will have localized environmental impact. Which will self correct in few centuries. Greenhouse gases are affecting the whole planet, same with minerals for batteries.


>design containment for a moderate level of failure

What on earth does this mean? When would an (as of yet) uncontained failure be considered moderate?


In a nuclear disaster case, it isn't nothing or Chernobyl. Like all things in life, there is stuff between the extremes.


Coal occasionally destroys entire cities too. Ever heard of Centralia? I'd honestly rather move to Fukushima or Pripyat than there. And that's ignoring the economic devistation coal left behind.


I'd never heard of that until now. Extremely interesting.


Do you have a source about Fukushima containment failures? I've not heard any confirmation that primary or secondary containment structures failed at any point during or after the meltdown.

The latest reports seem to indicate that primary containment is intact at all three reactors. As usual, you have to read between the lines - these editors always seem to hate nuclear power, or love fear and chaos, or both:

https://asia.nikkei.com/Japan-Update/Nuclear-fuel-likely-mel...

http://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/energy/nuclear/melted-fu...


If the containment had held, there would have been no radiation release outside the plant.

Moderately detailed description: [1]

More detail: [2]

[1] https://www.livescience.com/13271-containment-breach-fukushi...

[2] http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-...


> If the containment had held, there would have been no radiation release outside the plant.

This is not how it works. Containment structures prevent the actual core materials from exiting the reactor, since those are heavy metals with high radioactivity and long half lives. The latest reports suggest that the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) in Unit 2 is likely breached, but this is inside the primary containment vessel (PCV).

In both the Three Mile Island and Fukushima incidents, radioactive steam was vented to the atmosphere. Additionally at Fukushima a breached pressure vessel probably leaked radioactive water into the primary containment vessel. This water was pumped out (into spent fuel storage, I think). I've also heard concerns that the spent fuel pools were feared to be leaking into the ocean, but so far as I know that hasn't happened enough to cause alarm.

The radiation inside the containment structure where the Unit 2 RPV breached is really high, "dead in a couple hours" levels. Outside the reactor buildings (the red dots on the map in your second link) background radiation levels didn't rise any higher than the natural background radiation in parts of Kerala, India, and in several other places around the world. Much higher than normal for Japan, sure, but nothing dangerous. Those levels can be explained by the Iodine and Cesium isotopes in the vented steam.

Calling these happenings a "containment failure" is disingenuous at best. The 50-year-old containment structures at Fukushima appear to have done exactly the job they were designed to do, after a magnitude 9 earthquake no less.


From "Report by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Association":[1]

Confinement of radioactive material and control of radioactive releases

As a result of the damage to the reactor cores in Units 1–3, large amounts of steam and hydrogen escaped the reactor pressure vessels. This, in turn, pressurized and heated the primary containment vessels. These vessels were breached and steam, hydrogen and other gases, together with radioactive material, were released into the reactor buildings and eventually to the environment. The primary containment vessels of the reactors had not been designed to withstand the pressure that could be generated in a severe accident; because of this, venting systems had been installed in the 1990s [22, 23] to limit the pressure in the containment vessels in the event of an accident. There are indications that the primary containment vessels for Units 1–3 failed at various stages in the progression of the accident. This was the result of the pressure and temperature in the primary containment vessel rising to levels that were far in excess of their designed capability before venting could be implemented (see Section 2.1). The leakage of radioactive material from the reactor cores was partially mitigated by the suppression pools, which retained some of the radionuclides released from the reactor pressure vessels.

That should be clear enough.

The radioactive water problem is huge. It was not "pumped into spent fuel storage". Several large tank farms were built to store it, along with a processing plant to remove radioactive solids. Some of it did leak into the Pacific Ocean.

[1] http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/Pub1710-Report...


> These vessels were breached and steam, hydrogen and other gases, together with radioactive material, were released into the reactor buildings and eventually to the environment.

Exactly what I described in less alarming words. Steam, hydrogen, other gases, and "radioactive material" (Iodine and Cesium in the steam) are not the same thing or anywhere near as dangerous as actual melted fuel and corium escaping containment. Conflating this with the idea of molten core materials breaching containment is extremely irresponsible.

I'm not entirely sure about the radioactive water situation, and it sucks to hear that it may be worse than I thought. Do you have a source confirming the extent of contaminated water that ended up in the ground or ocean? It's really hard to find anything unambiguous here, tons of stories about "leaks" but many of those reports are actually about leaks into the reactor buildings. As far as I can tell a very large number (trillions?) of becquerels went into the Pacific Ocean right around the time of the tsunami, and since then no water outside the reactor complex has been measured with radiation levels outside regulatory limits (although they've been pumping groundwater collecting in the basements into big tank farms, like you said). It does look like the large volume of water pumped into the ocean initially (to make room for contaminated core water in the spent fuel pools, like I said) may have accumulated in bottom-feeding fish near the site. And it looks like there may be water from the site leaking into the ocean at some rate (although not enough to make any ocean water unsafe to drink). Other than that all I can find is an enormous volume of noise and fearmongering.


Same can be said of Hydro though. Even the part about passive safety measures that are often inadequate on installations.


A case in point is Banqaio Dam, which killed 25,000 people immediately and many more in the aftermath.

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


Some of the small reactor designs use other coolants, like molten salt, which stay liquid over a wide temperature range at atmospheric pressure. If a pipe breaks it just drips out and solidifies. You still want containment but it can be much more compact.

An example which is pretty far along is Terrestrial Energy's IMSR: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IMSR#Containment


> Chernobyl. Meltdown and fire due to operational error during testing. Totally inadequate containment. Entire region evacuated and contaminated for decades.

Isn't decades a bit generous? Do we expect to move back in 2080? Does seem right AFAIK wrt the fallout in Norway contaminating reindeer (by way of lichen) - there's still measurable increase in radioactivity, but within presumably safe levels.


While not a reactor, there's also the criticality accidents with the so-called Demon Core, aka the core for what would have been the third bomb to be dropped on Japan.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demon_core


- Fermi 1 in southeast Michigan, core meltdown. No casualties.


It appears that these figures take into account _just_ energy production. They don't seem include the mining, enriching, construction of reactors, disposal of waste, decommissioning reactors, etc. When mining low-grade ore (which isn't uncommon, and is becoming more command as high-grade ore becomes more scarce), nuclear plants are as inefficient as coal-fired plants [1]. Nuclear advocates tend to ignore the full system, and focus on where nuclear shines: power production. The setup to get to that point is extremely costly.

[1] https://www.stormsmith.nl/i05.html


Doesn't it address this in the intro paragraph?

"The production of energy can be attributed to both mortality (deaths) and morbidity (severe illness) cases as a consequence of each stage of the energy production process: this includes accidents in the mining of the raw material, the processing and production phases, and pollution-related impacts."


What are the sources of CO2 for mining and all the rest? If it's electricity production then you're basically blaming nuclear for emissions from fossil fuel generation, since those would be much lower in an all-nuclear world. If it's transport then it's more justified, but when looking at how it could be in the future, transport can be electrified to close that loop.


It's mostly due to the chemistry required to liberate the Uranium from the ore. What you have in the ore is mostly Uranium oxides. You have to strip away those pesky oxygen atoms in order to further process the Uranium. And in that process quite the amount of CO2 is produced. Now keep in mind that this must be done to all the Uranium, before it undergoes enrichtment. So for every atom of U235 you get about 200 (give or take) atoms of U238 and you have to account for all of them on the chemical side of things.

It's not that much better with Throrium either.


Throrium is produced anyway as a waste product. No additional mining is needed.


What part of that process produces CO2? I'm reading up on it but everything I find gives a fairly simplified view of things. The chemical reactions discussed on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium_hexafluoride) don't involve any carbon, but maybe it's from some secondary aspect?


How is that compared to mining for battery and solar material? It's a double standard to hold nuclear accountable for manufacturing when the same is not applied to solar/wind.


I didn't compare it to battery/solar at all. I just wanted to point out one source for the chemical environmental impact of Uranium refinement.

Alas, if we really compare to solar, then keep in mind that for a solar cell you can use 100% of the refined silicon, whereas with uranium you end up throwing away a large fraction (over 95%) with low enriched fuel, and an even larger fraction (over 99%) with high enriched fuel.

Add to that that uranium is not among the most abundant elements on Earth (about 1ppm), whereas silicon is the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust (about 27%). That alone gives silicon a huge advantage in energy/chemical impact on the environment compared to uranium.

Oh, and maybe I should point out that the chemistry to work with uranium is also a lot more nastier than with silicon. Uranium is a heavy metal, so it all happens through complexes and acidic chemistry, which limits the options on chemical pathways. Silicon OTOH is very similar to carbon in its chemistry, so there are vastly more options to process silicon, and that alone allows for far more efficient processes.


batteries and solar components need numerous extracts of minerals and a bunch of chemistry as well but as.you pointed out the solar lobby is happy to ignore all that when claiming they are a clean source of energy.


No source of energy is clean, in that respect. The best you can do is separate one time production and continuing operating pollution, and account for both. Using that to show pollution per Mhh at 5, 10 and 20 year intervals should be sufficient.


Reiterating my original comment, it would also be good to distinguish between the whole-lifecycle pollution generated now, with current electrical and transportation infrastructure, and the whole-lifecycle pollution you could achieve if you applied the "clean" technology to the whole lifecycle.

For example, solar panel production requires a lot of electricity. That electricity is mostly generated from fossil fuels. But if you supplied that electricity with solar panels instead, it would be way cleaner. Which is correct? We should probably present both numbers, if possible.


An optimistic upper bound (unlikely but possible renewable adoption for material production energy), and pessimistic lower bound (current mix of evnergy for material production), and a best guess. That might convey enough information to give someone a good guess as to how things might turn out.

It starts to sounds complicated, and to be a lot of information to digest for a decision, but another way of looking at it is that correctly assessing and planning for energy needs in the future is so important that ignoring information like that when making an assessment is irresponsible. We need more nytimes.com style widgets that allow you to tweak the values to easily digest data like this, and that clearly reference where the data and assumptions come from.


I agree that the full environmental cost should be known in all cases, but I hope you expect that the bias is somewhat justified by the fact that uranium functions as a fuel while solar and battery materials are multiple-use.


One can compare, but the nuclear industry pointedly ignores those areas, so I sort of assume it doesn't win on those points. Also solar/wind materials I would think are fairly recyclable.


The figures in TFA don't talk about solar, and the parent comments don't mention it. Who is making the supposed double-standard here?


Then you need to count the whole refining process that goes in making usable petrol, too. This is not totally unique to nuclear.


Of course you also need to count that. But accounting for extraction and refining adds something like 20% to fossil fuel emissions, whereas it's claimed to vastly increase total nuclear emissions.


Sure, but this is a percents vs quantities problem. If nuclear has almost zero emissions in power production even the smallest increase will look like a massive increase percentage wise. It still may compare very favorably to fossil fuels for lifecycle emissions.


The original comment linked to https://www.stormsmith.nl/i05.html which claims that, when you account for the full lifecycle, CO2 emissions from nuclear are comparable to CO2 emissions from coal. If true, then no, it's not a percents vs quantities problem, it's just a quantities problem.


> So for every atom of U235 you get about 200 (give or take) atoms of U238

How is that even a problem? Nuclear power plants do not require much fissionable material at all. Compare that with any fossil fueled power plant.


It means that you have to invest a lot of energy in extracting material that's thrown away later without going to extract one bit of energy at all.

For making solar cells you don't have to be picky in which isotope you make them from.

Also there's only about 1ppm of uranium in the Earth's crust, whereas silicon is the second most abundant material (27%). So you don't even have to spend a that much energy just to separate the non-silicon stuff from the silicon-stuff, whereas a huge amount of energy in uranium production is preoccupied with doing just that.

If you go outside and take any rock, you're holding in your hands mostly silicon and oxygen. Strip away the oxygen and you get pure silicon.


Thanks for the info. It's seeming that solar and wind are better from a full-lifecycle perspective, and if we can just solve that pesky energy storage issue then it's done.

Nuclear is oddly politicized, both pro- and anti-, whereas I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. It's not the worst power source but it's also not the best. It's not worth continuing to invest in for the future because better sources are already coming online that don't have the associated fallout risk, hazardous materials disposal issue, and intensive mining/refining processes.


your link didn't provide any numbers as far as i can see, so i'll add another one. This one is very long though, my quoted numbers are from the appendix and are merely estimates. Read the article if you want to know more about it.

> Regarding bare plant costs, some recent figures apparently for overnight capital cost (or engineering, procurement and construction – EPC – cost) quoted from reputable sources but not necessarily comparable are:

  * EdF Flamanville EPR: €4 billion/$5.6 billion, so €2434/kW or $3400/kW
  * Bruce Power Alberta 2x1100 MWe ACR, $6.2 billion, so $2800/kW
  * CGNPC Hongyanhe 4x1080 CPR-1000 $6.6 billion, so $1530/kW
http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/economic-as...


Of course, this is only comparing to fossil sources, not solar, wind, or other renewables (except biomass).

I don't think this is going to matter in the end, though. The best, most optimistic arguments the nuclear proponents can make would still take 20-30 years to build out enough to make a standard-deviation difference in greenhouse gasses.

Meanwhile, solar/wind are already hitting production costs that rival or beat nuclear, with lower setup costs and other barriers to entry. A wide variety of storage are being actively developed (with real investor support) to cache cheap surplus production from solar/wind, making a mostly-solar grid viable. What will our solar/wind/storage grid look like in 30 years?

Nuclear as a stepping-stone to solar won't matter. It's faster and easier to just to straight to solar.


> Of course, this is only comparing to fossil sources, not solar, wind, or other renewables (except biomass).

You can include them, nuclear still comes out ahead.

Solar, wind, etc, are not very power-dense. So you need a LOT of installations, building all of them inevitably has fatalities and injuries. (Falls for example.)

From here: http://energyrealityproject.com/lets-run-the-numbers-nuclear... (and you can google tons more sources):

Deathprint:

    Wind ………………  0.15 deaths / TWh
    CSP …………………  0.44 deaths / TWh
    Nuclear ………  0.04 deaths / TWh
Or here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2012/06/10/energys-d...


I don't think the exact numbers matter at all.

What matters is that solar is generally perceived to be safer, easier, and cleaner than nuclear at any scale. I feel confident that I could set up my own solar installation safely, and that makes me more likely to do so, regardless of the fatality rates of using ladders or driving to the hardware store.

Because it's easier for clean energy adopters to take small steps towards solar than large steps towards nuclear, I think that's what they will do.


The risk of injury or death while installing solar may be greater than nuclear by the numbers, but if a guy falls off his roof installing a solar panel it doesn't poison the land around him for hundreds of years


If a guy falls off a roof building a nuclear plant, it doesn't poison the land for hundreds of years either. A more fair comparison would be if a PV manufacturing plant had an industrial accident and hundreds of thousands of gallons of nasty chemicals o to the land.


Yes I suppose it would. But if I had to choose (and I really hope I never do) I'd rather have silicon tetrachloride spilled in my town than nuclear waste.


Perhaps not, but the waste from solar panel manufacturing might.

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

> The paper’s investigation, published in March 2008, profiled a Chinese polysilicon facility owned by Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co., located near the Yellow River in the country’s Henan province. This facility supplied polysilicon to Suntech Power Holdings, at the time the world’s largest solar-cell manufacturer, as well as to several other high-profile photovoltaics companies.

> The reporters found that the company was dumping silicon tetrachloride waste on neighboring fields instead of investing in equipment that could reprocess it, rendering those fields useless for growing crops and inflaming the eyes and throats of nearby residents. And the article suggested that the company was not alone in this practice.


That's not a particularly good argument, though. Are companies manufacturing solar panels breaking environmental laws to cut costs? Probably.

Are companies manufacturing nuclear power components with exotic materials not breaking environmental laws to cut costs? Um.


Moving manufacturing/construction out of China and into the US increases regulatory oversight. It's very likely that nuclear manufacturing done in the US is cleaner than solar manufacturing done in China.


Those numbers are hugely out-of-context. All three are very low compared to other energy sources.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_accidents#Fatalities


But where do those 0.04/TWh deaths in nuclear come from? Are they mostly from a low-probability high-death count event? Is it 1 person per year over a thousand years from solar, or maybe the whole village at once in a thousand years, from nuclear?

If it really is more along the lines of nuclear is safe, but once every five years a worker at the plant might slip up and be exposed to dangerous levels by accident, then I guess I think the comparison makes more sense.


How many deaths as a result of exposure to nuclear waste products do you project over the next 20,000 years?


Zero. Over time it will only get safer, and since there have been none so far, there are unlikely to be more later.


[flagged]


I see one person posting an argument with numbers and links to the source and another just calling them absurd.

Wonder who I should listen to.


This is the thing I don't get about nuclear proponents. While I'm not an opponent, we can scale sustainable energy sources now, we could have a Manhattan project type of program that, while costly, could replace the majority of our energy sources as fast as we can manufacture the panels and turbines. There is so much lead time in building a nuclear plant, it costs so much and then continues to be pretty costly in maintenance.


With a couple of years of development effort we could build a medium sized nuclear reactor that would be extremely save, extremely fuel, cheap fuel (essentially free), extremely reliable and it would solve availability issues.

You can literally mass produce the reactor and send it to standardized facilities all over the place, on or of the grid.

This would not even be very costly, a robust reactor development program to start with and some commercialization of the tech and regulatory change to allow it. No Manhatten projected needed.

I think doing what you suggest and replacing all coal and natural gas plants with reliable energy is pretty insane in comparison. Not to mention that that is only the easy part of the problem. I don't know a reliable way to solve the availability issue. The only close to viable approach is Musk-Style mass production of batteries. Even that is only viable if we continue to make leap and bounds improvements to batteries.

This is about solving the energy needs of 10 Billion people in this century. A Manhattan style mass production of solar cells and wind turbines will not get it done.

Thorium has the highest energy density and its practically unlimited, both in the ground and we already mine it. It simply is not that hart do build a modular reactor that can be mass produced. We know it works, and we know that it solved all the problem we have, including availability, pollution and global warming.


I think a lot of the love for nuclear is technophilia, not reason. We love nuclear because it's hard, requiring exotic engineering and, yes, risk. There's a bigger sense of triumph in it.


I think people love it because you can get an average American's lifetime supply of energy from 1.5 soda cans of fuel and produce 3 soda cans of waste. And it's 24/7 reliable and emission free. That astounding energy density and associated tiny footprint is exciting all on its own.


Solar and wind don't provide predictable power. Even places with high reliance on these tend to have an ongoing dependency on coal (or nuclear) to handle times when supply from renewables drops.


This has been discussed ad nauseam, we need 1) storage, 2) smarter grids (which we need anyways). Of course there will have to be investment but what better investment could there be? We get 1) jobs, 2) cleaner air, 3) to keep living and have future generations able to live as well or better than we did.


> This has been discussed ad nauseam

Then why are you claiming that you do not understand it? Yes, there are potential mitigations but there are major engineering concerns with large scale storage. You say that we can scale solar today but the reality is we can't yet.

Nuclear is sustainable energy that we can scale now without additional concerns about also scaling energy storage. That's why people are interested.


But we can't really scale nuclear, not in any kind of reasonable time frame. Take this for example [1], billions of dollars and decades to finish. Nobody thinks there won't be a transition period where we have to use existing coal, natural gas and nuclear but in terms of what we should be investing in right now, sustainable should be the focus I think. I have no issue with new nuclear plants where it makes sense, but it doesn't seem economically like it is actually that great of a choice given how expensive they are and how long they take to build.


You forgot the link



I think we'll be able to solve the storage-grid engineering problems and scale solar faster than we would be able to scale nuclear. Nuclear is expensive to build.


Please compare it with how expensive energy storage is.


I don't think storage is really the ideal long term solution either, storage is more short term and is more like a buffer I think. The ideal is having large interconnected grids with a great diversity of sources. We essentially have the technology right now, its just a matter of building the infrastructure which nobody is really willing to foot the bill for even though its needed for everyone.


Only until we provide energy storage as part of the power grid - which is coming. Capture surplus from solar/wind when the sun shines and the wind blows, dump it back into the grid when demand exceeds generation. This is doable with technology that's a century old.

We just haven't built it yet. We will.


As well as larger more interconnected grids (probably utilizing HVDC).

It reminds me of this onion article [1]. Its obviously hyperbole, there are actual real issues to resolve but compared with building nuclear weapons and going to the moon?

[1] http://www.theonion.com/article/scientists-politely-remind-w...


Nuclear being safer than other major sources just means we shouldn't demonize it and stop everything right now out of panic. it means it's just an important asset while waiting for renewables to take off.


See my argument above, though... it's going to be faster and cheaper to replace a standard deviation's worth of fossil electricity with solar/wind than it would be to replace it with nuclear. So the "transitional power" argument doesn't really hold.


I have a hard time buying into this.

What's the lifespan of an solar farm with equal output to a nuclear plant? We're about to approve nukes for 80 year life spans.

Nuclear has super low operating cost and a long lifespan. The only real economic downside is how flipping expense they are to build and a major reason for that is we don't have much experience building them (because they've lasted so many decades).

You're also assuming that solar/wind will be faster when we don't have any real solutions for using those sources as a baseload. Storage and distribution is nowhere near being able to handle such demand. The cost of revamping our grid once those technologies do reach maturity is going to be staggering aswell.

Solar and wind are promising but they are still a __long__ way from being proven enough to gamble an entire energy plan on.


Are you arguing that a solar/wind grid can't be done, or just that it's going to be challenging?


It seems to me like he argues that scaling nuclear is mostly known (but expensive) problem.

And that scaling renewables is largely unexplored, and very likely similarly expensive problem.


That ignores another factor- we've been decommissioning nuclear and replacing it with natural gas & coal capacity while we wait for the eventual renewable ramp.


Yes, but that's not an effective argument for building new plants in the face of my critique. It's possibly an argument for delaying the decommissioning of older nuclear plants, but those decommissions are probably due to age-related safety concerns - the owners would likely prefer to keep the old plant running, if possible.

I've argued elsewhere for a flat-out ban on new domestic coal-fired plants. Coal is by far the worst safety and environmental offender. If we forced power companies onto a renewable-or-nothing path, we might see faster progress.


It IS an effective argument when public accepts solutions like Energiewende - ignore age of nuclear plants and decomisdion them all while building coal capacity.

Guess why so many people like nuclear when observing such stupidity.


Not to mention not having some nuclear waste to store for the rest of the foreseeable future.


What is the rest of the forseeable future exactly?

If we use breeder reactors we can get the half life down to 500 years which is easily dealt with via stuff like glass entombment.

The current nuclear waste solution is ignoring a lot of advances from the 90's.


I support traveling wave reactors, explicitly to reduce our stockpiles. If we get some other benefits, like some electricity, bonus.


Breeder reactors are ridiculously dangerous. There's a good reason nobody uses them except for weapons-grade material generation.

They're also a major weapon proliferation problem, since it's easy to use them to generate weapons-grade material. Are you planning to build one in Libya anytime soon?


The Experimental Breeder Reactor 2 on what is now the Idaho National Lab was the first reactor to demonstrate full passive safety in 2 related tests in 1986. In the first, they turned off all primary pumps and did not insert the control rods. The reactor shut itself down and established natural circulation decay-heat removal. This class of event (unprotected loss of flow) would melt the core of almost any other kind of reactor. Then they did a unprotected loss of heat sink to the same result. My dissertation advisor was there, and said that it was glorious. They knew that they had finally achieved truly safe, socially acceptable nuclear energy. Less than a month later Chernobyl happened and the advanced breeder reactors with their inherent safety have still not been developed commercially.

Breeders use low-pressure coolants with very high heat capacity, thermal conductivity, and boiling points so they can go to natural circulation easily at decay heat levels.

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


Breeder reactors are as noted by acidburnNSA extremely safe.

And yes they're a weapons grade problem, thats the point, if we want to store nuclear "waste", which to be honest is just unused nuclear fuel. The way to do that is to make it more radioactive so that its half life is lower.

It is a tradeoff, if we wish to complain about storing unspent nuclear fuel for 10 000 years, we have to accept that we are willingly ignoring other options that can solve that problem of long term storage.

> Are you planning to build one in Libya anytime soon?

Is there a specific insinuation here? Why do you consider this a constructive way of arguing your point whatever it may be?


Fracking sludge isn't a thing? Coal tar sands waste isn't a thing? Mines that leak sulfuric acid aren't a thing? Black lung isn't a thing? Radioactive coal dust isn't a thing?

Our current energy production has hazards and costs that we do not currently account for while we place far too much burden on the alternatives to justify themselves.


Yes, it's much better to burn up the fuel and spread it into the atmosphere where it will cause a massive climate change. Note:I'm comparing nuclear to fossil fuels which was the only tradeoff until some time ago.


> Note:I'm comparing nuclear to fossil fuels which was the only tradeoff until some time ago.

Last I checked, it still is. Solar can't get anywhere near baseline production that we need currently due to lack of storage options. And solar is the only thing which currently has even the possibility of scaling.


Careful how you phrase that. There are lots of storage options that are viable - batteries, gravity, thermal, compressed air, etc - but none that have become major commercial products or installed on the grid at scale. Yet.

But there is no reason it should be impossible, or even outrageously difficult, to store enough offline energy to make a solar/wind grid viable. And, given modern software's ability to manage an automated pricing market from diverse sources, there's tremendous pressure to do just that.

This is why we're seeing massive active investment in storage products - not just Tesla, but many competitors. And not government funding, but rather venture capital. This is a technically feasible market worth hundreds of billions to whoever gets there firstest with mostest.

So I'm not the least bit concerned. Storage options will happen, and they will happen very quickly.


I can build a house today in the Northeastern US that's completely solar powered and off-grid. It adds about 15% to the cost to build. (2500 square foot home, 68k for panels, 18k for batteries, an extra 5k for a heat pump instead of a gas or propane heater.) The price of the panels and batteries is only going to drop.

For on-grid solar, the panels are already the cheapest form of energy available, when paired with a heat pump instead of natural gas. (When paired with using a giant resistor they cost equivalent to natural gas.)


> I can build a house today in the Northeastern US that's completely solar powered and off-grid.

1) 2/3 of electricity generated is directly wasted

2) 2/3 of electricity not wasted goes to industrial and commercial sectors, only 1/3 goes to residential.

3) That's wonderful until you get a string of overcast days and your batteries discharge. Then you need grid backup.

See: https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/content/assets/images/energy/us/...


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