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New York state wants both renewables and nuclear energy (2016) (vox.com)
43 points by curtis 31 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

Unpopular opinion (though getting less so): the politicization of nuclear energy in the 1960s and the resulting lack of investment & R&D advances may go down as one of the biggest blunders in human history.

Even with some modest ongoing investments, we'd have designs that are FAR safer than systems currently in operation.

People got scared (somewhat legitimately) and we regulated them to death. It became so risky and so expensive to invest in nuclear that nobody, not even the big companies with nuclear divisions like GE did it.

People talk about failures of the market all the time, and there are many. This was one of the failures of regulation.

I think we're starting to see a small revival here finally, but is it too late? Renewables are driving down the cost of electricity so any nuclear companies not only have to find a way to be profitable today, but 1, 2, 3 decades from now.

I think it was mostly a failure of human psychology. The over-regulation was simply a manifestation of that - democracy working perfectly.

Blunder 1: war. We dropped a nuclear bomb before we ever made a nuclear power plant. Nuclear became inextricably linked with sickness and death instead of power and prosperity.

Blunder 2: broken heuristic risk assessment. Radiation is scary because it's "spooky" - it's undetectable, and it kills you in a nasty, body-horror kind of way - a long time after exposure. (Although many environmental toxins also fit this bill and aren't so "spooky", so I'm not sure what's going on there). Fossil fuels just aren't "spooky" in the same way, even though the numbers show them as far more dangerous. Chernobyl is enough to put people off nuclear entirely, but even a hundred Chernobyls would not be as bad as the environmental damage wrought by the carbon industry. A bold claim? We're in the middle of a global mass extinction. A hundred Chernobyls wouldn't be a blip in Earth's biodiversity. Even Chernobyl itself is practically a wildlife sanctuary now.

Blunder 3: Status quo bias. Sure, fossil fuels are terrible in many ways. But better the devil you know!

For the general population, nuclear energy may be spooky. On the other hand, some opponents of nuclear energy are well informed. Claiming that their risk assessment is broken does not help the discussion because chances are that they are assessing different risks and they are looking towards different solutions.

From what I have seen, nuclear has earned a negative reputation from far more than its association with weapons and disasters. Many supporters of nuclear also overly enthusiastic in presenting it as the solution rather than as a solution. It makes it sound like the issues with nuclear are being glossed over, or outright ignored. This, in turn, makes supporters of nuclear sound ill informed or as though they have a vested interest.

If nuclear power is going to have much hope for adoption, people need to be informed of how it works, what the risk factors are (preferably with other forms of power generation being used as context), and what is being done to address those risks. Even then, there is going to be some opposition because different people will view different risks differently.

Not sure I agree with #1. Nuclear power had a super utopian vibe going for a good couple of decades. Nuclear power plant orders only started to decline in the early 70's. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_Age

I don't think you can entirely discount the effects of 20 years of Cold War existential threat, accompanied by duck-and-cover videos and the like. People were terrified and fascinated by nuclear technology - this is the era of Godzilla, and of mutant superheroes. Yes, there was a utopian vibe as well, courtesy of a concerted propaganda campaign [1] - but when the eco-movement kicked off in the 70s, nuclear was right in the firing line. That didn't spring from nowhere - it was decades of accumulated fear finding an expression.

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

I agree that it seems like a massive wasted opportunity, but the most compelling argument I've heard against nuclear power is that it creates a vulnerability. If a nuclear power plant in New York City had been successfully attacked 18 years ago, what would the damage have been? We may need to focus on the security of existing infrastructure before we begin to build the next generation of power.

Step 1: Don't build nuclear plants in the middle of major cities.

Step 2: Build extremely strong containment. Not that hard, just keep pouring concrete.

Step 3: Be at peace with the fact that even the worst nuclear incident, while harrowing, would not be the end of the world - which fossil fuels literally are. And it's not like fossil fuels are immune to massive eco-disaster failure points. Deepwater Horizon was far more damaging than Chernobyl - millions of animals perished.

Optional Step 4: don't use a reactor design that involves huge piles of flammable radioactive carbon, uncontained - try for something where the reaction stops if anything goes wrong. Then at worst you get a toxic site, instead of vast amounts of atmospheric radiation.

I agree with all these solutions, and I don't mean to imply that this is an unsurpassable problem, only that our existing security measures for infrastructure are already falling behind as we increasingly rely on them, and these compounding vulnerabilities put pressure on regulators to slow down development.

In US anyway, my understanding is that most of our containment structures should be sufficient to survive a plane impact without loss of containment. [1]

[1] https://asmedigitalcollection.asme.org/PVP/proceedings-abstr...

Yes. Rather famously, the US tested this with a jet smashed directly into a concrete wall, resulting in the video in this article about it. https://interestingengineering.com/crashed-jet-nuclear-react...

I hope that would be the case, but there are other ways to attack infrastructure. Besides physical security vulnerabilities, we have a lot of critical infrastructure that's Internet-connected and running software with known vulnerabilities. Nuclear power plants are some of the most secure in this area, fortunately. There's also the unpatchable problem of the vulnerabilities of the human mind to be swayed by extremists, and young people with career opportunities are constantly targeted. We have procedures in place to protect against these sorts of things, but they are not advancing as fast as our attack surface is increasing, and we rightfully don't want to sacrifice privacy and freedom for security.

It also creates a vulnerability to crony capitalism, top-down control, corruption, and overtaxation.

It doesn't help that we have headlines calling them "nukes" which continues that negative spin.

> People got scared (somewhat legitimately)

Not really. The reality is that most fear is based on totally false believes that exist in popular culture.

If people actually understood the real level of dangers they would not nearly be as scared.

The risk is real, but as you say is smaller than other risks we don't even think about, like the people coal has killed with pollution and will still kill through climate change upheaval.

I don't think this can be considered a failure of regulation; that the regulation stopped short of an outright ban is much more of a failure of regulation in some ways.

The tail risks involved in nuclear power are just too high. It's not a question of laymen misunderstanding or thinking that radiation is magic or being scared by the specter of Chernobyl.

If there's anything that Fukushima should have taught us, it's that we underestimate the risk that bad things can happen with nuclear, and we overestimate our ability to engineer around those things.

I think it's increasingly likely that in the far future, when energy needs are no longer the bottleneck for progress, we'll look back on the idea of using nuclear fission as a power source as a laughably dangerous concept; on par with using x-rays for shoe sizing [1] or an atomic powered car [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoe-fitting_fluoroscope

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

> If there's anything that Fukushima should have taught us, it's that we underestimate the risk that bad things can happen with nuclear, and we overestimate our ability to engineer around those things.

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_Daiichi_nuclear_disa...:

> there were no deaths caused by acute radiation syndrome. Given the uncertain health effects of low-dose radiation, cancer deaths cannot be ruled out.[11] However, studies by the World Health Organisation and Tokyo University have shown that no discernible increase in the rate of cancer deaths is expected[12]

So basically Fukushima has taught us that over-reacting to nuclear accidents has not yet gone out of fashion? And that even when "radiation releases exceed official safety guidelines", there are still almost no consequences to humans?

Comparing fission generation to those other things is unfair. Fission reactors produce gigawatts of power, Shoe-fitting fluoroscopes were gimmicks and the Ford Nucleon was literally a toy.

The severity of Chernobyl was greatly compounded by the fact that the Soviet government went out of their way to conceal the severity. The response to Fukushima had no such operations in place; the response was swift and well-organized and evacuations were rapid and deliberately more severe than the situation seemed to warrant. Monitoring was also used to detect elevated radioactive isotopes in drinking water and other secondary effects to prevent them from causing more widespread damage.

That said, is it your belief that if the government had taken no action to protect the civilian population, that the impact would have been similar -- "no consequences to humans" as you say? Don't confuse the severity of the scope of the accident with the casualty list; the disaster was very serious and should not be underplayed. And most of all, it should force all of us to reconsider our assessment of the potential damage that can be done by failing nuclear power plants.

I must have missed something with Fukashima. How much land area is going to be literally lost (sumberged in water) due to it? How many cities? How many species are projected to go extinct because of it?

Nuclear was our alternative to the biggest environmental crises we have ever faced. The baseline consequences of not using it are worse then the tail risks you cite.

You could make exactly the same argument about renewables. In terms of negative impacts they are very similar.

How much money was spent on it, building it, operating it, cleaning it up, and losing what had been invested in the region around it? How have these costs have been passed on to the Japanese population as taxes, fees, or in other ways? I don't think we'll ever know.

If you are arguing that because you missed something, then the figure is zero, I don't think that's a reasonable argument. I don't think that is what you are saying, right?

Whatever the amount is, if that same amount of money had been put into renewables, many of those people would still be living in their homes today, with sustainable power for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes, when there is a crisis as you mention, the alternatives have to be weighed against each other. Just because one alternative addresses the crisis, doesn't mean it is the best alternative. Sure, we can use both if absolutely necessary (renewables and nuclear being the alternatives we are talking about here) but it makes more sense to me to start with the sensible one, namely, renewables, and use both only if, repeating myself, absolutely necessary.

Nuclear energy is less sensible from a consumer standpoint because it is more centralized, has larger safety issues, creates more hazardous wastes, impacts property values more, raises anxiety levels more, and is more susceptible to corruption, big industry control, crony capitalism, cost overruns, and leads to huge tax increases imposed to pay for all these issues.

Even the property value impact alone should be enough for nobody to want to have a nuclear power plant in their area.

We should go as far as possible with renewables before resorting to a technology that has larger problems.

Today. The policy decisions we are talking about were made decades ago, when nuclear was an established (although young) industry, are renewables were decades away from being viable.

The damage is done. Building nuclear now won't fix it. But with the benifit of hindsight (and the benifit of arguing for the counterfactual), but strangling nuclear power decades ago was a regulatory mistake with literally disasterous consequences.

We will never know what other disasters we fortunately avoided though. And the automotive industry would have kept pushing gas cars, and we would not have averted global warming. I mean... here you are, saying we have a disaster looming, and what kind of car do you drive? Just playing the odds, probably an ICE car.

Throwing some numbers out.

In 2018, nuclear accounted for 4% of global energy production [0]. Since we have been shifting away from nuclear, this represents an underestimation.

Going back to Chernobyl, we have had 2 class 7 nuclear incidents. Scaling this up 25x, this gives us about 1 class 7 nuclear incident every 8 months; assuming no advances in safety occurred since the 70s, when both plants were built. For simplicity, I will round this down to twice a year.

So, how bad are these class 7 disasters? According to WHO estimations [1], Fukushima caused an estimated 0 acute deaths from radiation; 400 long-term deaths from radiation and 1,600 deaths from evacuations (I suspect elevated due to the trigger tsunami). For reference, the trigger natural disaster had about 15,897 deaths [2].

So, in terms of casualties, Fukushima made a natural disaster ~10% worse.

In terms of cost, Fukushima is estimated to cost about $187 billion USD in decommisioning and compensation (Japan Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, 2016) [3]. In addition, the disaster also caused an estimated $266 billion USD in fuel imports to replace the lost power (as of 2016, so 5.5 years of imports); I should discount the hypothetical operating cost of Fukushima, but can't find the numbers for that.

So, to get to 100% nuclear power, we are looking at 2 Fukushima's a year. That is 3,200 deaths and $374 billion USD a year. (In practice, this would not work because there are grid problems once nuclear becomes a significant chunk of power production, but we are really talking about the margin; just extrapolating out to make the numbers clearer). Also, these costs are concentrating in the near term to the incidents, so will go down fairly quickly once we shift away from nuclear.

I was going to compare this to global warming, but it is hard to find good estimates on the damage, and this comment is also already involving much more research then I intenended to do.

In 2010, an estimated 3,000 people died from fine particle pollution from US power plants. [4]. This already almost exceeds are estimate for annual global deaths from nuclear power, so I can stop looking for all the other deaths non-nuclear power causes.

Estimating the cost of not nuclear is more difficult, and at this point I already spent way too much time on this.

I would, however, like to reiterate that this analysis started with me (in my judgment) comically overestimating the cost of the counter-factual nuclear disasters.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_energy_consumption

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/what-was-the-death-toll-from-cher...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_T%C5%8Dhoku_earthquake_an...

[3] https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/836/econom...

[4] https://www.catf.us/educational/coal-plant-pollution/


The problem with nuclear fission will always be the moments when somebody “should” have done a safety test or should have thought about it.

I often think about the reaction Angela Merkel had to the Fukushima incident. Before the Tsunami she had just scrapped the plan to end nuclear in Germany. She is a trained research physicists so that is the position you would expect from her. After Fukushima she immediately started to work on the complete shutdown.

Of course there might a lot of political calculation and the general mood shifted, but in Interviews she said that there was one thing that really got her. Fukushima was in Japan, and after Tschernobyl she always thought that this was an expected problem in a country like the Soviet Union, but in general nuclear should be safe. But after Fukushima, after the obviously bad planning and the mistakes that were done again and again, how can we expect that any country can manage the safety processes better, when Japan can’t do it. It’s not so much a technological question it’s a human and process question.

It's not only about safety though. A big problem with nuclear is the centralization it entails. Big, centrally controlled power, in contrast with localizable options like solar, lends itself to heavy handed state control, big industry exploitation, corruption, and just general top-down control of consumer options. I prefer technologies like solar, which can be installed and controlled locally by the property owner themselves.

If nuclear is really needed, I would rather see it be the last resort option only in cases where renewables are not sufficient... but this conclusion about whether renewables are sufficient or not should be reached only after best efforts at renewables have been made, which is certainly not the case today.

Renewables are still prone to centralisation. A large solar farm connected to a wide area grid is just more valuable than a lot of little schemes. And the same will be true of battery storage. If it is economic to I stall 1MW locally, it will be even more profitable to install 1GW next to a large substation.

But with solar, both options are available. I’d much rather have that flexibility without being forced to swallow a huge nuclear project or even small mini reactors infesting my area.

Problem isn't designs, problem is generating power, without subsidies, at a rate competitive with renewables. (Particularly, wind.)

Point is, the problem is financial, not technical. Nuclear, any nuclear design, is just expensive. As opposed to the bunches of a thousand windmills that T Boone Pickens wanted to slap up on whim in place after place. Those windmills start generating revenue a month later. It's just hard to compete with that. Which would you put your money into if you were the greedy energy investor?

That's something I feel a lot of people are missing with the nuclear argument, we are having this argument 20 years too late. Nuclear would have been the perfect energy source of the latter half of the 20th century, which if embraced would have allowed us to avoid this ridiculous climate panic situation we are in. However, renewables would have ended up replacing nuclear anyway, not because of safety concerns, but because at the end of the day a wind turbine or solar panel doesn't need to be constantly babysat by PhDs with costly salaries.

> Even with some modest ongoing investments, we'd have designs that are FAR safer than systems currently in operation.

Why would you think that? The problem with nuclear is that we are playing with significant tail risks, which are the hardest to engineer around. Catastrophic failures can have tremendous consequences, and in a sufficiently complex design there will be possibilities of catastrophic failures. While there are dead-simple reactor designs (like radiothermal), the vast majority of approaches work by layering complexity.

After Fukushima I became much more lukewarm on the subject of nuclear power, not so much because it was a huge Chernobyl-like disaster, but because I had repeatedly been told that a modern (post-Chernobyl) reactor was simply incapable of these failures modes. I had even, ignorantly, parroted back almost those exact words when discussing nuclear with people.

> I had repeatedly been told that a modern (post-Chernobyl) reactor was simply incapable of these failures modes

Fukushima was commissioned in 1971. Chernobyl happened in 1986. I would not call the design a "post-Chernobyl" reactor.

I can recommend the section on the wiki page for further reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_Daiichi_Nuclear_Powe...

> I had even, ignorantly, parroted back

I think this is probably the root cause ;)

You are correct. My sense of history is very flawed. Even the construction of Chernobyl post-dates Fukushima, and in fact most still operating reactors.

Still, Fukushima has forced me to adjust my priors in estimating what the level or risk of a nuclear disaster is; before that I was a strong supporter of nuclear because I thought that the risk was essentially zero.

To be fair nobody could foresee this much at the time, at least I can't blame them compared to the average subpar-ness of humanity decisions.

To me it's even more mind boggling that the club of rome 72 report was a Million-scale best seller printed book and nothing happened regarding energy and resource waste. And that's far less sensitive than nuclear physics.

nuclear is not an option for most countries

This is old. Cuomo is forcing Entergy to close Indian Point 2 and 3 in 2020/2021, which were the only financially viable plants mentioned in the article.

The governor's desire to prolong their relicensing process made it more cost effective for Entergy to just agree to close them in 4/5 years, which is a shame because nuclear plants are all about the sunk capital costs.

Why don't we build these reactors deep underground? Doesn't the United States use an old abandoned mine to store spent nuclear rods while they decay?

Is it extremely cost prohibitive to dig down into existing abandoned mines (or even quarries)? and retrofit them with nuclear reactors?

Even if something catastrophic happens, if it's geologically separated by thousands of tons of rocks/dirt/sediment and is away from a water table, it wouldn't be a problem, no?

Cooling can be a problem. Reactors usually have access to large amounts of water (cheap) to expel excess heat so you would need to pump the heat over a long distance to somewhere cool enough to dump the heat to. Or you would need to surround everything in TEGs to convert the excess heat (expensive).

This is from 2016.

A lot of states have been giving carbon credits to nuclear plants for a long time. There are several where it makes good sense to implement subsidies of that nature. So this is not a terribly new idea, nor is it as controversial as the article attempts to make it out to be..

2016. I wondered why there was no mention of the debacle that is Illinois.

care to elaborate?

Correct title: Nuclear power and renewables don’t have to be enemies. New York just showed how (2016)

Nukes makes it sound like they want nuclear missiles but this is about nuclear energy...

Ok, we've put nuclear energy in the title above.

I've said many times that nuclear power needs better marketing. Drop nuclear from the name like the MRI manufacturers did. It's no longer a nuclear plant, it's a traveling wave plant, or a molten salt plant- more descriptive and also separates the concept in people's minds from a Simpsons-esque nuclear plant.

"Krypton production facility"? The mascot could be a neon light.

Those who forget the story of Superman's origin are doomed to repeat it.

Yes... is this an American phrasing? I (from UK) would definitely write this as "renewables and nuclear".

I've never heard an American refer to nuclear power as "nukes". This wording is pure clickbait.

Nuclear powered submarines are commonly called "nukes".

It's not uncommon slang in the US to call nuclear power plants "nuke plants." Hell, cooking something in a microwave oven is often called "nuking it," and that's not even the same kind of radiation.

This isn't American phrasing just the original poster's bad title.

No. This is Vox phrasing to drum up controversy. They do this crap all the time.

To be fair, if you clicked through, it wasn't Vox's phrasing but the original poster's.

My bad. I did click through but didn't re-read the headline. Just assumed it was the same based on Vox's history with clickbait BS.

It might confuse an AI, but a human would immediately know because the word renewables is first.

Maybe it's a regional way of saying "nuclear" but, given the highly negative context of actual nukes, I expected a fervently anti-nuclear article. It'd be like an article in support of euthanasia being titled: "This state wants both end of life care and murder".

Nope. It’s commonly used.

“No Nukes Is Bad News for Climate” https://www.wsj.com/articles/no-nukes-is-bad-news-for-climat...

“How Old Nukes Can Help Green New Dealers” https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-09-10/elizab...

Any reasonable intelligence would have understood from the context.

Would make a good test for anyone’s AI.

> renewables and nukes

and? Nuclear power is just as "renewable" as wind, solar & hydro in every sense of the word.

It's not renewable in any sense of the word! Renewable doesn't mean "clean" (and there's an argument to be made that nuclear isn't even clean, but I digress).

Renewable means an energy source that literally renews itself. To avoid breaking the second law of thermos that implies there is an energy source (Sun) that recharges the renewable energy source with energy that would otherwise be wasted, therefore, you cannot net consume the resource.

In the case of wind and sunlight there is no net consumption of the resource because they'd otherwise be wasted (assuming you put solar over a parking lot and not over fertile land).

Nuclear cannot be renewable because fissile elements don't renew themselves (well, not without a supernova). We can extend the usefulness of the fuel with advanced reactors, but eventually all nuclear fuels, be they fast, thermal, fission or fusion end up with the most stable isotope of Fe - the most stable isotope.

In fact, fossil fuels are infinitely more renewable than nuclear fuels since eventually the biosphere dies, decays and some of material gets geologically captured to become fossil fuels (in geological timeframes).

There are (at least) two energy sources that are definitely not renewable: - Nuclear - Tidal (when we extract energy from a tide, the moon looses potential energy)

Sun is powered by nuclear power.

And it isn't renewable either.


Renewable is a soft definition, however all things considered “renewable” are based off of solar, geothermal, or tidal power. Fission fuels are only generated as endothermic nuclear reactions in violent cosmic events, of which there are none on our schedule. How would we go about finding more fission material once we’ve burned it all up into stable isotopes? “Renewable” is best defined as “useable power that is isn’t non-renewable”. “Non-renewable” is easier to define, since it involves a very clear, short term, one way reaction. Also on fossil fuels: they stopped being generated millions of years ago, so, no, they are not renewable currently.

It's weird to me how many advocates there are for nuclear power on HN. Years ago, I would've been one of them. Now? I don't think I can trust people with nuclear power.

People aren't capable of having a sufficiently long term view. People make short term decisions that are bad in the long term all the time. You see accident after accident caused by people making short term decisions that have a low probability of failure but where failure has disproportionately bad consequences. Just look at unsafe and drunk driving.

So the problems with fission power are:

1. We have no good way of disposing with the waste. This includes the waste produced in enriching Uranium (eg what to do with all the UrF6) as well as reactor waste.

2. As much as coal and other fossil fuels have negative health effects and probably cause deaths, there is only so much damage a single coal plant can do. A single nuclear plant on the other hand can make an area of thousands of miles uninhabitable for generations.

3. Storage and transportation of fissile material (ie reactor fuel) presents a bunch of environmental and security issues.

Renewable (specifically solar and wind) really are the solution here.

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