Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Nuclear lighthouses built by the Soviets in the Arctic [video] (bbc.com)
477 points by etimberg 9 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 251 comments

In the village of Lia, Georgia, on December 2, 2001, Three lumberjacks discovered two 90Sr cores from Soviet radioisotope thermoelectric generators. These were of the Beta-M type, built in the 80s, with an activity of 1295 TBq each. The lumberjacks were scavenging the forest for firewood, when they came across two metal cylinders melting snow within a one meter radius laying in the road. They picked up these objects to use as personal heaters, sleeping with their backs to them. All lumberjacks sought medical attention individually, and were treated for radiation injuries. One patient, DN-1, was seriously injured and required multiple skin grafts. After 893 days in the hospital, he was declared dead after a fever caused by complications and infections of a radiation ulcer on the subject's back. The disposal team consisted of 25 men who were restricted to a maximum of 2 minutes worth of exposure (max. 20mSv) each while transferring the canisters to lead-lined drums.


> The disposal team consisted of 25 men who were restricted to a maximum of 2 minutes worth of exposure

I'm trying to figure out how that works. One team moves the crane and the geiger counters near the device, the next team brings in the lead boxes, the next team attaches the device to the crane, the next team puts it in the box and closes the box, the next team checks that the box is working, and then someone else puts the boxes on a truck?

From the linked report:

During the recovery operations, the following steps were taken:

(1) The vehicle and container were positioned so the rear of the vehicle was close to the radioactive sources.

(2) Two members of the recovery team installed stairs on the vehicle.

(3) The recovery team was divided into two groups. The first was positioned in an area located 20 m from the radioactive sources. The second remained beyond that area at a safe distance from the location of the radioactive sources.

(4) Two members of the recovery team placed the manipulating devices near the location of the radioactive sources.

(5) One member of the recovery team cleared the surrounding area of the radioactive sources.

(6) One member of the recovery team collected one of the radioactive sources and placed it into a special vessel.

(7) Two members of the recovery team transferred the radioactive source in the special vessel to the vehicle.

(8) Two members of the recovery team standing on the vehicle received the radioactive source and placed it into the container.

(9) In the event that a recovery team member became unable to complete their activity (e.g. due to the dose received), a substitute person was ready and available.

(10) The second half of the recovery team conducted the same actions for the second radioactive source.

(11) One person conducted individual dosimetry control for all members of the recovery team and recorded the doses.

(12) Two members of the recovery team conducted dose rate monitoring.

(13) All actions were led by a team member assigned to give commands to start or to stop, according to the plan. A signal to stop was given to every worker after 40 s from the beginning of each activity, indicating replacement by the next worker.

*edit: formatting

Additionally (just skimming) three members received some medical issues:

> Following the exposure on 2 December 2001, all three patients exhibited in the first 24h symptoms of nausea, vomiting, asthenia (weakness), headaches and dizziness, followed by cutaneous radiation syndrome (CRS). These early clinical manifestations and anamnesis of the patients strongly indicated ARS of a haematological type for the three patients. Furthermore, Patient1-DN developed transitory oropharyngeal syndrome.

The last medical condition is usually found in older people, making swallowing difficult: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oropharyngeal_dysphagia

Also the PDF has some helpful pictures and diagrams. Looks like both original containers were nearly stacked and sideways on a rocky/hilly path, in a difficult to get to place.

Those were the three villagers who found the sources. They carried them to the rocks, and used them plus small fire to stay warm overnight.

Probably something like that. By comparison, for certain areas on the Chernobyl reactor roof where the time limit was 30 seconds, each person would be given a shovel, go out on the roof, throw a piece of graphite off the roof, then go back inside and hand the shovel off to the next person.

I believe there's a video on youtube with this, they used a whistle to signal when to stop and change teams. IIRC it was 2 minutes of exposure, followed by hour of cool off time or something like that.

But everytime I hear this story, I got to wonder who would pick up an object generating heat and not question why it's still hot hours later?

"Wondering why it's hot" doesn't necessarily imply "worrying whether whatever makes it hot could be dangerous".

If you didn't know that radioactivity can cause heat, and you found a magic hot rock, do you think you'd go "I don't understand this, must be dangerous" or "I have now clue how this thing works but it's really useful, I'm gonna keep that thing"?

In today world, my default setting is pessimism - so I'd assume it was dangerous. I'm way past thinking 'magic' is harmless.

However, thinking I understand something when I really don't will probably be the end of me :-P

I think non-{science,tech,engineering} people are a considerably more pessimistic about the world than the average.

Russian winter. These guys were looking for firewood, for a fire to keep warm. Cold makes people despirate. And, knowing a little of russian rural culture in the winter, i think it safe to say alcohol may have been a factor.

> In the village of Lia, Georgia

It's not Russia.

Does Georgia not have Russian Winters, or Russian Rural Culture?

No, AFAIK no snow, and very much different rural and overall culture.

People with no education?

I happened to watch a short documentary about this yesterday on Plainly Difficult. A lot of great videos on this channel. https://youtu.be/23kemyXcbXo

I've also watched it, and a few other videos on the channel. Frankly, his videos just seem to be minimally editorialized recitals of wikipedia pages.

For someone that has made so many videos on nuclear accidents, he seems to have a pretty poor understanding of nuclear radiation and contamination.

His "plainly difficult" disaster scale is all over the place, for example, the texas city disaster, which killed >581 people is rated as a 7, while some smoldering garbage at the "West Lake Landfill", rates just below it as a 6.

Heh, story straight out of the Strugatsy Brother's "Roadside Picnic" right there: Advanced tech (I was going to put quotes around it, but it really is) created by a defunct civilization found by people who see side-effects, but don't understand the functionality at all.

This is like those island tribesmen imitating air controller hand signals, because they thought it was magic that summoned supply planes.

Here you can find a detailed report about this event, if you get intrigued as I did : https://www.iaea.org/publications/10602/the-radiological-acc...

> Following the accident, it was determined that eight RTGs [radioisotope thermoelectric generator] of the Beta M type had been brought into Georgia in the early 1980s to serve the radio relay system between the Engury hydroelectric station and Hudoni hydroelectric station, which was under construction at the time. These generators were placed in pairs at four substations located in areas where there were no other means of electrical power supply. In these generators, the heat generating elements were 90Sr radioisotope sources with an activity of 1480 TBq and a heat power of 250 W.

> After the construction of the Hudoni hydroelectric station was stopped, the radio relay system lost its function, and the generators were left without supervision and control. By the end of the 1990s, the generators were disassembled, with the radioactive sources exposed and removed from their original location. Of the eight 90Sr radioactive sources, only six have so far been found.

Was it found out how did two Beta-M type radioisotope thermoelectric generators got to a side of forest road?

Stolen most likely and abandoned when thieves got sick.

>NTV reported that eight such radiothermal generators were brought to Georgia in the early 1980s to power relay antennas during construction of the Inguri and Khudoni hydroelectric plants, and subsequently abandoned. Six of these have now been recovered by Georgian authorities.[5] Despite a search, however, Interfax reported on 24 January 2002 that Georgian police and the Georgian Environment Ministry have been unable to find the remaining two power generators.[5] According to Georgian

So glad Canada plans to litter our country with these soon. They want SMR's in every logging camp, remote community, mine, and so on. Sure they are more dangerous per GW and more costly per GW but they are MUCH cheaper initially so small unqualified companies can get involved. Let the good times roll.

i live within 10KM of pickering Nuclear. I have no concerns as nuclear is among the safest form of power available.

A coal plant puts more radioactive isotopes into the air then any nuclear plant.


dont let the facts get in the way..

Nuclear power plants aren't the same thing as portable nuclear batteries, which is what these are.

No, but risk is all relative.

The video says the replacements were sometimes things like wind turbines. These tend to kill birds.

These RTGs seem quite impressive actually. Simple and easy to construct, if you have a nuclear industry. They survived for decades of being completely abandoned in a society falling apart. The biggest risk was only to people who literally broke in and stole them. There were no construction accidents creating and maintaining endless thousands of kilometers of transmission cables, no dead birds or dead maintenance engineers trying to repair a huge non-solid-state device in the middle of a Russian storm, the lighthouses presumably saved many lives and were cheap enough to build that the embattled USSR could afford to do so.

I wouldn't be surprised if a full lifecycle cost/benefit analysis that took into account the alternatives ended up being strongly positive in favour of this technology.

History of nuclear has taught us that nuclear is very safe until an accident happens. You can see Japan as the latest example disaster where one week before, no one imagined this could happen. here in Quebec, we decided to close a nuclear reactor after Fukushima at a cost of $2 billion

> You can see Japan as the latest example disaster where one week before, no one imagined this could happen

I don't accept this characterisation. I see Fukushima as an example of being curiously diligent in one area, and negligent in another, perhaps because rather than have a "culture" of safety it was simply legislation driven, such that standards dropped as soon as there was a gap/oversight in the legislation. To clarify - as safe as the plant was, it was not in a safe chosen location. Concerns were raised, and ignored. legislation covered the building and operation of the plant, not diligence in planning its location.

security is somewhat weakest-link - it doesn't matter if your doors are metal with strong locks if there are large windows without bars. Fukushima was always unsafe, just conditional on a relatively rare event - by the same measure the unstable warehouse cargo that exploded in Beirut was always unsafe, even if it existed for nearly 7 years.

Chornobyl alone put more radioactive isotopes into air than all coal plants combined. Don't know about ground and water.

This statement could definitely use a source.

For coal power stations:

«According to estimates by the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the world’s coal-fired power stations currently generate waste containing around 5,000 tonnes of uranium and 15,000 tonnes of thorium. Collectively, that’s over 100 times more radiation dumped into the environment than that released by nuclear power stations.»

About 1% of it is leaked into air, so about 500 tonnes of uranium and 1500 tonnes of thorium are leaked into air every year.

However, uranium and thorium are much less dangerous than radioactive iodine, strontium, and cesium.

For Chornobyl, I found estimate at Wikipedia: «An early estimate for total nuclear fuel material released to the environment was 3±1.5%; this was later revised to 3.5±0.5%. This corresponds to the atmospheric emission of 6 tonnes (5.9 long tons; 6.6 short tons) of fragmented fuel.[127]»


But is this an apt comparison. The soviet union was pretty independent from the rest of the west. I's sooner qualify that western/European nuclear is safe, so the average isn't dragged down by despotic/unstable nations.

Nuclear proliferation is a worldwide concern, but a new power plant in your backyard is as safe as relative to the national record.

> A coal plant puts more radioactive isotopes into the air then any nuclear plant.

Until the nuclear plant suffers a catastrophic accident...

The thing is, a coal plant is a guaranteed continuous catastrophic incident.

Don't discount nuclear waste as well. I'm not trying to promote coal here, but nuclear energy has problems too and shouldn't be touted as something it's not: a safe and clean solution.

Don't overblow nuclear waste. Normal responsible operation produces very little waste per electric MWh produced. And we know how to handle it. No energy production solution is perfect but compared to coal/gas pollution it can eliminate it is a nonbrainer.

... And we know how to handle it.

I do not agree with this overall. It holds true only for some timescales and for some assumptions of risk factors.

Not specifically about waste, but still relevant. Fukushima and other plants in Japan were designed to withstand a 100 year tsunami. Bad luck that 3/11/11 was greater than that.

Every analysis is based on some assumptions and all predictions hold true only for limited timescales. Yes natural disasters happen and we can't prevent all of them. Yes we will have "nuclear disasters". The world is under constant threat of semiglobal nuclear war.

But Chernobyl and Fukushima (and others, let's not kid ourselves) are disasters with minuscule cost in lives and environment harm. Every year 60 million people die and out of that 12 million die due to unhealthy environment. Risks of (non-weapon) nuclear energy to life, while they exist, are a complete non-issue. Apart from political changes, we need cheap reliable energy to fix the atmosphere and to fix that unhealthy environment.

Here in Canada we use the CANDU system which is far safer than the systems like what you found in Three Mile Island - and no-one is as foolish as to do the Russian tests again.

Just a friendly reminder that nuclear power causes fewer deaths per terawatt hour than any other energy source known to man.

We will know that after cooling of nuclear waste to background level only, which will not happen soon.

Nuclear waste is safely stored in pools and other facilities, it does not hurt anybody.

if you bury it in the same place you dug the uranium ore from, doesn't that resolve it?

A friendly rejoinder.

Concorde was the safest form of commercial air-travel, until one day in Paris it wasn't.

Nuclear currently has around 3% share of power generation globally. More share than Concorde had, certainly. But not enough to say definitively that nuclear's comparative safety is not just because of its comparative scarcity. It's been a low-hanging fruit.

Scale up to 30% share and be necessarily exposed to new risks which were not exposed at current levels of deployment.

Many of these additional risks would be from economic factors: we'd probably never achieve 30% share without a less rigorous and much less costly safety regime.

30% is a completely arbitrary level that you’ve picked with no justification. I’d suggest you cite some sources to provide depth to the argument that 30% of world power is materially different.

Arbitrary yes. Pick another number that is substantially larger than current share.

I am not going to be able to give statistics, but to me it's obvious. After all these decades, what's been holding nuclear down to its present market share is its economics of safety. Cost overruns all but bankrupted Toshiba, just to give one recent example.

If you want an order of magnitude more installations, you will have to relax those constraints.

So we cannot use today's safety record as proof of tomorrow's safety if we also expect massive increase in deployment.

Which day in Paris? Single accident did not increase overall air travel safety significantly, regardless of what impression you could get from the press.

A single Concorde crash drove that aircraft's safety profile down from the very best to amongst the worst per passenger mile of any aircraft.

...as long as you completely ignore any catastrophic risk for the next 10.000 years.

Do you want a bit of perspective from someone who's been living under a very thick pall of coal-produced smog for many years? 100-500 µg/m³ of PM2.5 at day time (depends on wind speed mostly, right now it's 550 µg), twice or thrice that at night. I don't think my body can tolerate this much longer. If we were to switch the coal power plants to nuclear energy, I'd jump up and down like a little girl. A small risk of second Chernobyl seems just fine in comparison to this. I'd be fine with a risk of nuclear explosion with no chance to escape, honestly.

Not to mention coal actually disperses a ton of radioactive waste, as it contains both uranium and thorium [1].

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coal-ash-is-more-...

Sorry for that, but may I ask where you live? Because if the pollution is coming from a coal power plant, there are filters for that. And I shudder to think what the people (mis)managing that coal power plant could do if it was nuclear instead...

How about switching to renewables + batteries? Solar is now as cheap as coal power in China.

When you add some batteries you will be fine with no pollution. And no waste your childerns childern (and beyond) have to take care of.

It's not actually true that batteries and solar are a perfect clean solution - and neither is wind. Better than coal to be sure, but it's not what you're making it out to be.

Rare earth metals have to be mined in remote portions of China in dystopian hellscapes. Lithium and other minerals also have to be mined, and leave toxic tailing ponds. Solar panels frequently have cadmium and tellurium, which are also hazardous, and need to be managed. Plastics and composites in wind turbines also cannot be recycled.

There are no perfect solutions, and the future will almost certainly require a mixture of kinds of energy.

> Do you want a bit of perspective

Thanks but I don't need a strawman.

Nothing is risk free. The nice thing about nuclear power is that radiation is really easy to detect, with you know, a Geiger counter.

On the other hand, particulate matter emitted by oil and coal plants causes millions of deaths per year, right now. And CO2 emissions from oil, gas and natural gas are bringing us to the brink of an environmental catastrophe.

Detecting radiation isn't the hard (or expensive) part https://www.tri-cityherald.com/news/local/hanford/article225...

Its not nuclear vs oil and gas. Renewables are an alternative with lower cost and lower waste.

A good safety history is a measure of what happened, not what could happen.

Nuclear energy has exceptionally good safety history.

> Nothing is risk free.

I specifically called out SYSTEMIC risk.

What's the systemic risk of solar panels and wind power, for example? A terrorist attack destroying 100 millions solar panels?

> On the other hand

The usual false dichotomy between nuclear and oil/coal/gas.

> And CO2 emissions from oil, gas and natural gas are bringing us to the brink of an environmental catastrophe.

...not to mention the direct release of heat into the atmosphere due to poorly isolated house heating, industrial production and electric generation plants themselves. None of which is mitigated by nuclear. Rather, it's made even worse by any source of cheap electricity.

Nuclear power plants are designed to withstand attacks from crazies. Terrorist attacks done so far have had minimal impact on infrastructure. It is a very minor and manageable threat.

Release of heat due to chemical and nuclear sources does heat the planet, but the contribution to heating compared to effect of increasing CO2 concentration is negligible in the range of 1%, this is well known.

As a Canuck I'm enthused about an increased adoption of nuclear energy. It's far safer than coal or oil, and is able to generate energy on-demand. It's a great pairing to solar, wind, and hydro.

> and is able to generate energy on-demand

Last time i studied this topic one of the main drawback of nuclear energy was precisely that it required accurate forecasts of future demand, so not suitable for "on demand" production, because of how long it takes to cool down. Had anything improved in this area?

More modern designs can ramp faster, but still not fast. The main issue is that the largest cost of a nuclear power plant is the capital investment to build it and staff to run it, which is fixed. In comparison fuel costs seem to hover at about 25%.

Therefore you need to run your plant at about full power all day to have a chance to recoup the investment. With renewable, although intermittent, sources vastly undercutting nuclear on price many hours of the day this becomes an even harder calculation.

Based on this nuclear is an uniquely bad pairing together with renewables, and it will only get worse. Say you can make massive profits on average one hour per day, but that means all other methods of energy generation of storage can make the same, and still undercut you.

This isn't even factoring in that it is impossible to get insurance for a nuclear power plant.

It sounds like it makes more sense with sufficient battery technologies then (which don't yet exist).

Thanks for the information.

That's a fair criticism. I don't know the numbers, but I'd be curious to see them. Especially around modern designs.

> It's a great pairing to solar, wind, and hydro

No it's not - to compensate for times when there is not enough energy from renewable sources, you need power plants that can be shut down and brought back online quickly, and nuclear plants are certainly not that.

Nuclear power plants can vary power output quickly if planned during the design. As France has an installed capacity of more than 60 GW of nuclear power production, their power plants can quickly adapt their production. That's needed to keep the network balanced.

France has 80% nuclear. It works there not because French reactors can respond meaningfully to short-term meteorology, but because: 1) France is connected to a continent-sized grid and 2) All of France's neighbours are nowhere near 80% nuclear, so will buy this baseload power.

If Germany, NL, Denmark, Spain, UK et al. had 80% nuclear France's nuclear power would become uneconomic.

It's the grid and unique political considerations, not those plants' responsiveness that makes it work for France.

The French do vary the power of the reactors to follow the load [1] [2]. They don't purely rely on their neighbors, far from it. As a consequence, the usage factor of the plants is lower than nuclear plants in countries where they they purely use them for base load.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Load_following_power_plant [2] https://www.oecd-nea.org/nea-news/2011/29-2/aen-infos-suivi-...

Incorrect, we don't need all power plants to ramp up/down in seconds. Energy demand of a provider during the day follows roughly the same curve for the specific time of year. Thus ramping up/down of baseload can be and is planned in advance. The random variations from that prediction can be handled by smaller number of responsive plants.

I think SMRs are very different from RTG. SMR is an essentially a small and fairly complex reactor design, like a molten salt reactor. It heats water or other liquid, turns it into steam, steam spins a turbine, just like a regular power plant.

An RTG is just a hot piece of radioactive material surrounded by thermocouples that directly convert the heat into electricity.

SMRs are not radioisotope thermal generators.

Great video. I am glad that we are still making serious strides in nuclear energy research. Nuclear is the way to reduce carbon emissions in a substantially significant to turn back adverse climate change.

I too am happy about advances in nuclear energy research, and would like to make a remark regarding its suitability for fighting the climate crisis.

In 2019, just 4 % of the global primary energy came from nuclear power (the figure is about 10 % if we restrict to electricity). Hence replacing fossil sources by nuclear would entail large-scale construction of new nuclear reactors. By the time we're done building these, we will already have exceeded our CO₂ budget for keeping below 1.5 °C at a reasonable certainty.

Also, at the current rate, the Uranium reserves last for approximately 140 years; if all fossil sources were switched for nuclear, it would last for 10 years. This problem can in principle be alleviated by innovative reactor types, but realistically they won't be available for large-scale production in the next couple years.

Luckily, we do have all the technology for phasing out fossil energy while staying within our CO₂ budget: water, wind, solar, storage of synthetic gas, gas-fueled power plants (fueled by synthetic gas obtained using renewable energy). Energy production with these alternatives is cheaper than with nuclear; this fact is an additional issue for expanding nuclear power -- it's not economically viable.

> Also, at the current rate, the Uranium reserves last for approximately 140 years; if all fossil sources were switched for nuclear, it would last for 10 years. This problem can in principle be alleviated by innovative reactor types, but realistically they won't be available for large-scale production in the next couple years.

You either have to use seawater uranium or use breeder reactors of any fuel cycle. If you use both, uranium will last on the order of how long the nuclear fusion fuel of the sun will last (i.e. billions of years).

Most importantly, you don't need to only build breeder reactors right now. The "won't be ready in 10 years, forgetaboutit" argument doesn't really stand, especially as we look to powering direct carbon capture tech alongside decarbonizing a growing world.

National nuclear energy programs have always and will always consider a transition to breeder reactors essential for any meaningful long-term energy source. This has been the known plan since the mid-1940s.

Fun fact (pointed out to me by user pfdietz): If you dig up any average rock on earth, it has more energy in nuclear fuel (uranium and thorium) than a piece of pure coal of the same mass. WOW!

I wrote up a little page on this recently (featuring GNU Units if you saw that article yesterday): https://whatisnuclear.com/blog/2020-10-28-nuclear-energy-is-...

> Also, at the current rate, the Uranium reserves last for approximately 140 years; if all fossil sources were switched for nuclear, it would last for 10 years.

This is a so well known misconception that it is hard to not consider it propaganda by this point.

Known reservers of Uranium are of that size, yes. That's because with nobody bothers to look for more, because not only is there enough known for now, but finding more would actually increase competition and lower the prices - losing those who own the reserves the money.

There is way more Uranium just in the ocean water.

Meanwhile, all the technologies you're listing are either already maxed out (hydro), intermittent with unsolved storage (solar and wind), or vapourware (power to gas, etc).

The 140 years number is also for the very inefficient reactors that are mostly used now, where majority of the "spent" fuel could be reused in different design - but reprocessing is dead for political reasons.

> This is a so well known misconception that it is hard to not consider it propaganda by this point.

Wikipedia paints a different picture but I consider that a fair point and I will look into it, thank you.

> intermittent with unsolved storage (solar and wind)

Can you be more specific about that? I know the figures only for Germany. Here, solar and wind match up almost perfectly (solar excees in the summer, wind excess in the winter) -- we would only need to store energy reserves for about two weeks. Gas tanks capable of storing these amounts already exist, they have been built several decades ago.

> or vapourware (power to gas, etc)

This is the first time that I hear power to gas described as vapourware. I'm very interested in that topic, could you give some more details or pointers?

> This is the first time that I hear power to gas described as vapourware. I'm very interested in that topic, could you give some more details or pointers?

Surely the onus is on whoever is claiming the technology does exist to provide some details of it.

I checked Wikipedia though [0] and the world's total installed P2G capacity looks like...less than 100 MW? It's at best one step above vapourware.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power-to-gas

Also don't forget breeder reactors - those should make any existing fuel supply lust much longer if you can get them working at scale.

> By the time we're done building these, we will already have exceeded our CO₂ budget for keeping below 1.5 °C at a reasonable certainty.

Trying to understand how this is an argument.

Building nuclear reactors usually involves laying concrete, transportation, steel and other sources of carbon emissions.

I'm unsure of the CO2 quantities so I cant make a statement as to whether its worth the CO2 cost.

What I can say is that wind, solar and other renewable alternatives also have initial CO2 costs, possibly lower than that of nuclear reactors.

I don’t think they were saying that just the resources to build the reactors would exceed that CO2 budget, but rather that the world would exceed that CO2 budget in the time it takes to build the reactors.

Would be interesting to estimate and compare nuclear vs alternative "initial co2 efficiency per 1 megawatt priduced", considering large lifespan and power of reactor.

Plenty of such studies have been done. An AFAIK relatively recent and neutral one https://www.carbonbrief.org/solar-wind-nuclear-amazingly-low...

The thrust of it is nuclear power takes long enough to build that if we try to meet the 1.5C goal using principally nuclear power by the time the plants come online we will have put enough carbon into the air from the existing power sources that we'll blow past 1.5C and get into the 'absolutely catastrophic sea level rise' territory instead of just causing whole island nations to disappear and the largest displacement in human history we're currently aiming for.

Yeah, from OPs response, that is what they think.

I think it amounts to "this only solves half the problem, so we shouldn't do it".

Most big problems aren't solved by just doing one thing. When global warming is finally solved, it will have been by 10 separate things that each solved 5-20% of the problem.

Also, imposing an arbitrary deadline in 2029 is horrible project management. In a commercial project it's also dumb, but at least there you can cancel the project, and people move on to do other things.

For Earth, we can't cancel the planet in 2029 if targets weren't met.

If we decided today to do large-scale deployment of new nuclear reactors, then we would see reductions in CO₂ emissions from the energy sector only in ten to twenty years.

But at our current rate, the global CO₂ budget will be fully exhausted in about eight years.

Hence we need to seize other measures, measures which reduce our emissions on a shorter timescale: switching to wind+solar+storage and in the process democratizing energy production, rethinking mobility (massive expansion of public transport, massive price reduction of public transport, massive investion in biking infrastructure, making outer city districts more attractive), putting a prize on CO₂ with a substantial steering effect (but ensuring that the proceeds of such a tax are given, in equal parts, to the population, so that people who contribute less-than-average to the climate crisis have more money available at the end of the day), transforming the system (because even with a prize for CO₂, there are lots of valuable things which cannot be measured in dollars, and competition pressure in unchecked capitalism deepens inequality and exploitation), ...

But at our current rate, the global CO₂ budget will be fully exhausted in about eight years.

We don't actually know that. It's a model projection. Academic models have a long history of being wrong and seemingly always in the direction of being too pessimistic, across a variety of fields.

Do we need to transition away from fossil fuels? Sure. Are the models so robust and so beyond question that nuclear should be ruled out on the basis of a handful of years of construction time? No way. The science is nowhere near solid enough for that.

I have problems with CO2 already. I need to ventilate my room every 0.5 hours to keep CO2 level below 1000ppm.

> If we decided today to do large-scale deployment of new nuclear reactors, then we would see reductions in CO₂ emissions from the energy sector only in ten to twenty years.

Nobody serious is suggesting we do nothing but deploy nuclear reactors. Just in the energy sector, we should do a massive build-out of wind, solar, transmission, and, yes, nuclear.

> switching to wind+solar+storage and in the process democratizing energy production

These have large economies of scale too. While you might want to install a small propeller in your back yard, it's much more cost effective to get the energy from the grid supplied by a large scale wind farm.

> rethinking mobility (massive expansion of public transport, massive price reduction of public transport, massive investion in biking infrastructure, making outer city districts more attractive), putting a prize on CO₂ with a substantial steering effect (but ensuring that the proceeds of such a tax are given, in equal parts, to the population, so that people who contribute less-than-average to the climate crisis have more money available at the end of the day), transforming the system (because even with a prize for CO₂, there are lots of valuable things which cannot be measured in dollars, and competition pressure in unchecked capitalism deepens inequality and exploitation), ...

These may all be good ideas (and personally, I would certainly agree with some of those), but has nothing to do with whether the needed energy is produced by renewables, nuclear, or mass deployment of hamster wheels.

Could you provide some sources? Embodied CO2 & energy is certainly a huge problem, but it seems likely to affect solar & wind as well. Could we really build enough solar and wind at today's level of technology (assuming sufficient economic motivation) without also blowing through our CO2 budget?

At this point, it seems likely to me that we are doomed to at least a 1.5°C global temperature rise.

> Could you provide some sources?

The figure about the proportion of nuclear power is from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_energy_consumption, the figure "140 years" from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_uranium.

> Could we really build enough solar and wind at today's level of technology (assuming sufficient economic motivation) without also blowing through our CO2 budget?

A back of the envelope calculation suggests that the necessary construction efforts require the emission of a couple of Gt CO2e. For comparison, at the start of 2018 our CO2 budget was 420 Gt (now it's about 320 Gt).

Hopefully, MSR's come soon.

i agree that nuclear can help reduce carbon emissions, but that doesn't mean that nuclear waste is less harmful to the planet than carbon emissions are. nuclear isn't any more sustainable than coal or fossil fuels.

It’s arguably misleading to even call it “waste” — it’s recyclable. Even if you don’t recycle it, the little ceramic pellets weigh two hundred fifty-three thousand, one hundred and sixty-four (.55696202531645569620 ±) times less per person than gas and coal (and the difference in volume is presumably many times larger):


> If all the electricity use of the USA was distributed evenly among its population, and all of it came from nuclear power, then the amount of nuclear waste each person would generate per year would be 39.5 grams. That’s the weight of seven U. S. quarters of waste, per year! A detailed description of this result can be found here [https://whatisnuclear.com/assets/waste_per_person.pdf]. If we got all our electricity from coal and natural gas, expect to have over 10,000 kilograms of CO2/yr attributed to each person, not to mention other poisonous emissions directly to the biosphere (based on EIA emissions data [https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_car...]).

> If you want raw numbers: in 2018, there were just over 80,000 metric tonnes of high-level waste in the USA. Between 1971 and 2018, nuclear reactors in the USA generated 3000 GW-years of electricity to make this waste.

> For comparison, in 2007 alone the US burned 948,000,000 metric tonnes of coal. This means that coal plants made 32 times more waste every single day than the US nuclear fleet has made in the past 45 years! Granted, coal made a higher fraction of the country’s electricity, but the numbers are still crazy impressive for nuclear.

> The astoundingly low amount of nuclear waste is thanks to the near magical energy density of the atom.

More: https://whatisnuclear.com/waste.html

Edit: replaced “containable” in second sentence with numbers

Coal plants also create nuclear waste. Trace amounts of uranium and thorium in coal become concentrated after the coal is burned away, leaving high concentrations of nuclear waste.

So, you say, coal waste can be source of uranium for nuclear plants, right? How many tonnes of Uranium we can extract from coal ashes?

Unfortunately, a lot of it just gets released into the atmosphere. Capturing it all would be the obvious next step, but it costs money.

Just about 1% of fly ash is released into the atmosphere.

How much does it cost to handle and transport these tiny pellets? How much energy goes into the materials needed to manufacture the containments? How much energy goes into mining and refining the ore and bringing it to the reactor?

Mining and transporting coal is not free, and more expensive per MWh than nuclear fuel. Simply because of the volumes involved.

How much will it cost to re-capture an contain the CO2 generated by coal and gas?

Could you explain how properly sequestered nuclear waste is not less harmful to the planet as carbon in the atmosphere?

I'm my current view, nuclear waste can be sequestered and stored effecting only a tiny fraction of the planet while greenhouse gases effect the whole planet.

>Could you explain how properly sequestered nuclear waste is not less harmful to the planet as carbon in the atmosphere?

That question can be answered be asking yourself how society would look if the government was efficient, logical, morale and free of corruption. In other words, its an interesting philosophical question, but not one that has any relevance to reality. Unfortunately most people, no how nominally "intelligent" they are, insist that the world exists as they wish it would, rather than it actually does. In reality, mistakes happen, incompetence happens, corruption happens, and unforeseen circumstances happen - all of which render nuclear waste (and facilities that produce nuclear power) much riskier and more dangerous than they would be in an ideal world. Unfortunately, this bit of undeniable objective reality is extremely unpopular (and offensive) to technocrats and others who worship blindly at the altar of human society and technology.

You are unfairly downvoted. Corruption is a real problem: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naples_waste_management_crisis

"properly sequestered" is the key word. There is no such thing.

Here in Germany, we still have not found where to put nuclear waste long-term, and there is no solution in sight.

Even if one day we find one, how do we communicate the potential dangers of nuclear waste to a civilization that is supposed to understand what we're communicating in 30000, 50000 years? With a fancy unicode symbol, like U+2622?

We have no idea what people 3000 years ago were trying to tell us with their fancy symbols.

Nuclear energy is the analogy of tech debt that can never be paid back, ever.

> Nuclear energy is the analogy of tech debt that can never be paid back, ever.

The reason why the "waste" is dangerous is that there's a lot of energy in it - energy that can still be extracted at a later date. It might very easily be very valuable in the future.

Germany is really sad case, where they stopped using nuclear and replaced it with "clean coal". Terrible thing for the planet.

The Greens talk about nuclear waste and Fukushima, and meanwhile German green-washed coal plants and cheating diesel engines put crazy things in the air.

With advanced reprocessing as well as waste-burning containers, the question is about communicating it for ~200 years, not 50000 years. And it would also increase our efficiency in using the fuel to boot.

Vitrify it, clad it with concrete, clad that with steel and dump it in a subduction trench where it’ll eventually join the magma under the mantle.

Let's see. Deepest hole drilling: 12km - Thickness of continental lithosphere: at least 100km. How will you get your nuclear waste there?

That does not mean the solution does not exist or that it is hard. Germany government chose to reject nuclear, I am not expecting that it would then work towards making nuclear more popular.

i just feel like sticking nuclear waste in the ground and pretending that it's not a problem or won't impact the health of the planet is not a solution

Keep in mind that nuclear fuel came out of the environment to begin with. Take a radiation detector to a large/old building sometime that has large granite blocks.

For similar reasons note that coal burning power plants add WAY more radiation into the environment than nuclear plants.

So humans don't create radiation, they just mine it, concentrate it, extract energy from it, and then dispose of it. So we are just moving it around, not creating additional radiation.

Imagine we extract uranium from ocean water, the radiation levels in the ocean would go from low, to even lower. If we take the nuclear waste and distribute it across the ocean the radiation levels would (at worst) raise to the levels we started with.

Based on what I've read all the scientists that are experts in relevant fields say that dealing with nuclear waste is a political problem, not a scientific one. There are multiple reasonable solutions. My favorite it making giant spikes out of a mix of radioactive material and glass. Covering the spike with steel and dropping it where the ocean is deep, near a subduction zone, and the sedimentation rate is higher than the leakage rate. By the time the spike hits the ocean floor it's going fast enough to bury itself deeply, the sediment fills in behind and will keep getting deeper, and the spikes will get sucked beneath the continental plate and not bother anyone ever again.

I apologize in advance if I am not understanding you, but the process of fission generates new radioactive daughter nuclides and neutron activated material. The radioactivity in a nuclear reactor isn't simply a concentrated aggregate of the original fuel. It is a heterogeneous mixture of transmuted elements that is quite different from the original in its radioactivity.

Not really, because the nuclear fuel would naturally degrade into much the same materials anyway, just over a longer time frame. Nuclear reactors just speed up the process.

Yes that means higher concentrations of those decay products to deal with in the short term, but these mostly have quite short half lives in the grand scheme of things, in the order of years or decades.

The environmental impacts of nuclear energy are often grossly overestimated, this is why so many environmentalists are advocating for nuclear energy.

Can you explain why sticking it in the ground is not an acceptable solution? To be clear, sticking it in the ground that is neither seismically active nor near water sources. The areas people want to stick them in the ground are thousands of miles from civilizations and meet the other criteria. It isn't like the rest of the waste that we just stick in the ground (like coal, plastics, etc that DO enter our water supply).

Very good question! We could totally stick it in the ground, given: "(1) stable geological formations, and (2) stable human institutions over hundreds of thousands of years." Easy, right?

Problem: "no known human civilization has ever endured for so long, and no geologic formation of adequate size for a permanent radioactive waste repository has yet been discovered that has been stable for so long a period" [0]

The problem isn't the "sticking into the ground" part.

It's the finding of that place that will stay geologically inactive, uncivilized, and not near water sources for the next 100000 years. And then taking that bet.

It's literally like saying "Fuck other people who are born after me".

Plastic stuck into the ground is not radioactive. Plastic stuck into the ground also degrades in a fraction of a fraction of the half-life of Plutonium.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-level_radioactive_waste_m...

> It's literally like saying "Fuck other people who are born after me".

Possibly, but unless there is other realistic low-carbon energy source (and it seems there isn't - hydro is already built everywhere where it can be, and solar and wind are intermittent with large-scale storage being unsolved problem) there won't be any people born after you.

This is exactly my problem with this very common retort. It is exactly "perfection is the enemy of the good." There's 3 solutions to climate that we have right now (and we should be betting on all 3. 1) Fission 2) a miracle in fusion research, 3) a miracle in battery storage. We needed to act 20 years ago (really 50). While we don't act we are still polluting with coal and oil. But I think people are ignoring point #3 and I don't think this is necessarily the fault of the average person because there's an inaccurate representation in the media about the progress and how far we still have to go. Fission is the compromise we make for not having acted 50 years ago. It is a much smaller problem for future generations to deal with than that of climate change. So at this point it is your choice: nuclear waste for the future or climate catastrophe. (Not to mention all the other waste and stuff but that's another discussion)

This stuff came out of the ground in the first place. What are we supposed to do about all the millions of tons of nuclear fuel just lying around in rocks and seawater right now?

What we need to do is evaluate the risks from all the current options. Fossil fuels, renewables and nuclear energy and come up with a balanced strategy. There are people dying right now from radioneucleotides released from fossil fuels, or just ambient radioactivity. It's a matter of relative risk.

That's not a fair comparison because nuclear material for weapons and reactors is enriched. There's not much naturally occurring U235. Not that you can't safely put it in the ground, but your comparison isn't exactly fair.

Can’t we keep it underground just till we have space rockets so reliable and cheap so we can dispose all the nuclear waste to space? Definitely not something we are even remotely able to do now but when talking about hundreds and thousands of years it seems possible.

If, say, 0.01% of millions of rockets, needed to deploy radioactive waste, will blow up in the process, then we will have much bigger problem.

"Space" isn't a place, it's a velocity. Even if you throw something really fast in space, it will eventually come back to you unless it hits something else.

This is not correct. Space is a place. And when people say send it into space they typically mean the sun. Although any uninhabitable body would do fine as well. There are plenty of those.

The amount of energy required to send something into the sun is quite high. It's not like driving 93 million miles, you have to change the orbit of the waste away from Earth's orbit.

I didn't say it was a good idea, but that's what people mean. Although it isn't unreasonable to imagine space elevators and slingshots a few thousand years from now.

> no known human civilization has ever endured for so long

I have 2 points here. 1) The half life is longer than recorded history so this isn't really fair. We've seen humans continually advance. Sure, there has been setbacks and some regressions but we haven't ever come even close at reverting back to the stone or even bronze age. That is highly unlikely and if that were to happen we'd probably have bigger problems. 2) Not all waste is equal. A good rule of thumb is that high energy waste is short lived and long lived waste is low energy. Why? Because high energy waste is shedding particles much faster than low energy. Simply if you use a bucket to remove the water from your swimming pool you'll finish a lot faster than you would if you used a tea cup.

> no geologic formation of adequate size for a permanent radioactive waste repository has yet been discovered that has been stable for so long a period

This is false and I'm not sure where you got this information from. We chose the location for the Seed Vault (and the GitHub vault) for similar reasons. There's plenty of other locations as well, several within the US. As for the bet, I'm betting on generations of PhD holding geologists to make that decision over really anyone else. As long as what they say doesn't set off any bullshit alarms I don't see why they shouldn't be believed. They are in fact the experts in the subject matter and just rejecting their work with no real evidence is rather arrogant and surprising to see on HN. I believe them for the same reason I believe climate scientists. I've read their work, seems reasonable, I've talked to them and they seem reasonable and passionate and well studied. How arrogant would I need to be to tell them they are wrong. My expertise lies in other fields.

I'd also suggest reading what actual plans are and understanding the scale of the waste problem. I find that many people over estimate the scale by many orders of magnitude. [0]

> It's literally like saying "Fuck other people who are born after me".

I'd say that not taking care of climate is saying "Fuck other people who are born after me." You're letting perfection get in the way of progress. We can say similar things about strip mining and rare earth materials. The things we'd need to develop battery storage to make renewables a feasible path forward. We can't wait for a miracle in battery storage. We needed to act 20 years ago. So now we have to make compromises. And as we drag our feet we are still polluting with coal and oil. To me that is the real "fuck you" to future generations. That we got so caught up in perfection that we let high pollution levels continue right on while we prayed for a miracle.

[0] https://whatisnuclear.com/waste.html

There is surely some location in the Australian outback that would meet this criteria, as we have quite little seismic activity

Keep in mind that humans only move radiation around, not generate it.

So sure if you mine uranium and concentrate it, you get a high peak source, but you are literally removing radiation from one place, and moving it to another.

So if you concentrate uranium out of ocean water and them spread the radioactive waste back into the ocean (at the same concentration) you are actually benefiting the ocean.

That's not quite right. Yes natural uranium and its daughters are a bit radioactive (this is partially why the center of the Earth is warm). But when you go ahead and fission nuclear fuel, it breaks into smaller atoms that are less stable. This means they give off their excess energy faster, or in other words are more radioactive. The higher rate of energy release can lead to higher amounts of biological damage.

You can hold fresh nuclear fuel in your hand and be fine. Once it goes in the reactor to be fissioned, you'd get a fatal radiation dose in seconds if you stood next to it unshielded.

Your life expectancy is reduced right now because the air you breath is polluted by all kind of carbon related emissions. Nuclear waste is easy to manage in comparison

Carbon's best case scenarios is worst than nuclear's worst case scenario.

> All of the used fuel ever produced by the commercial nuclear industry since the late 1950s would cover a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards

Source: https://www.nei.org/fundamentals/nuclear-waste

There is the off chance we will discover a way to deactivate them before they pollute

And it's even more likely that we'll end up reusing them, increasing economic efficiency of nuclear fuel.

Exactly this - today's nuclear waste is tomorrow's nuclear fuel (+ some other useful and expensive materials mixed in).

Actually in some countries nuclear waste is already (part of) today's fuel using existing reprocessing technology.

Honestly it's difficult to find another energy source for small remote deployments in Polar regions, where solar + battery can't be used for much of the year. Propane TEG's and methanol fuel cells are probably the best suited thing, but they have consumables that create logistical problems. Wind can work in some places, but a lot of places in Antarctica and Greenland are not very windy, and ice loading etc. present problems.

RTG’s are extremely expensive, the USSR made expensive use of them for politics not economics.

Remote applications would have lower costs but those should give you some idea of the reasons. https://inldigitallibrary.inl.gov/sites/sti/sti/7267852.pdf

The space ones are expensive partially because weight is an important consideration. For a terrestrial RTG, you can use Strontium or something else that's much cheaper (but much less weight-efficient).

See e.g. https://inis.iaea.org/search/search.aspx?orig_q=RN:9398623

They are used in space because it is much more difficult to use solar beyond Mars. Modern solar has helped in Jovian missions but RTGs are still preferred (even Curiosity uses a RTG for low solar radiance reasons). And beyond Jupiter good luck having a powered device with anything except for a RTG.

yes of course, what I mean is why the space RTGs are so much more expensive than terrestrial RTGs, where weight is not a consideration. For space, it makes sense to use the exotic plutonium isotope if it saves on weight.

Oh yes. Another thing to consider is the weight of the titanium that encases the RTG just so you don't fry the other electronics. Dealing with radiation in space is pretty difficult and radiation shielding in general is still a pretty complex problem. On Earth we pretty much solve it my mass (more mass == more shielding) but we don't have the luxury with space applications. There's a lot of advanced composites there and layered material. It is a really fascinating subject. There's also people trying to harvest some of this energy into usable electricity. I worked on one of these devices (focusing on betavoltaics) and it isn't going to power your house, but you can power things like a heartbeat signal for your craft (and of course use it to trickle charge batteries on long missions).

I think I remember hearing about photonics coupling to isotopes for some sort of nuclear battery? Do you work on that?

I don't work in this space anymore. Some I can't talk about but part of what I can talk about is still a pretty big problem, which is finding layer ordering, materials, thicknesses, etc of the shielding. You have problems like that neutrons are absorbed differently than protons, alpha particles, and beta particles (all those are charged). So you want to use thing like hydrocarbons for neutrons (read plastic) and you probably want to dope it. BUT there's a big problem that the energy level matters a lot. Gadolinium is known as having a good neutron cross section, but that is only for thermal neutrons and hot neutrons (as you'd find in space) don't see gadolinium differently from dense materials like titanium and aluminum (good for charged particles). So the problem is to layer, dope, etc. And to do that while accounting for secondary factors like that you can have materials become hot as exposed to radiation and then you also have to consider physical shielding. The solution space is extremely large and you search it by simulation.

As for getting electricity you can probably imagine that if you have two conductive plates that they will get charge levels across them and that's a capacitor. There are other ways to extract energy though and finding ways to do this is very helpful. But there is a theoretical limit to the energy and don't expect to replace solar panels unless you can capture those particles and use a nuclear process instead of an electromagnetic one.

If you're interested in this start searching for betavoltaics[0]. That uses the E&M process whereas an RTG uses a thermal process. There's nothing stopping you from using both though.

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

That’s still showing a break even around ~30$/gallon fuel costs in 2020 dollars for pure heating applications. It’s hard to reach those kinds of delivery costs. It’s even worse when you want to use RTG’s for electricity as you add complexity and lower efficiency.

You're missing the autonomous part of the equation. An RTG and light will run independently with occasional checkups for decades. A gas generator will not. So now your costs have to account for a permanent local crew, sending supplies for them (food, etc.) and constructing a building they can live in. That's on top of shipping the fuel itself into the desolate location.

They needed to go to these lighthouses multiple times a year even with RTG’s, presumably to change bulbs etc. Truly remote areas without people don’t need lighthouses. In that context operate generator N for X hours then swap to generator N + 1 and repeat as needed.

The more modern solution for even more remote areas is fuel cells which can last significantly longer between inspections.

yes, but if you want to leave a device buried in the middle of nowhere on the ice sheet for 10 years that draws ~30W, an RTG is much simpler (only have to transport it once, no moving parts, no need for exhaust, etc.).

Delivery and deployment costs to the middle of the ice sheet are not cheap.

If you only need 30W for 10 years then Lithium thionyl chloride batteries are a viable option down to -55C. In continuous operation waste heat will give you significant temperature leeway. That’s going to be expensive and very heavy, but there really isn’t a good option for truly remote applications.

30W is kind of the no mans land of remote power. Batteries are becoming seriously impractical, but nothing is the clear winner.

I mean, outside of polar regions, solar + battery hybrids work well enough year-round. Solar + fuel cell + battery hybrids can work in Polar winter if you can transport enough fuel, but the exhaust requirement is a problem (moving parts + can't let your fuel cell + batteries get buried in the snow). The solar panels also need to be raised every once in a while (or mounted high enough in the first place).

Eventually reversible fuel cells might be a good option (use excess solar in the summer to produce methanol or whatever, then consume it in winter).

edit... so I need 40,000 of these: https://www.batteryjunction.com/xl-205f.html :)

Lighthouses typically shine a beam up to 20-30 miles, depends on height obviously. I would imagine the loads would be at least 1kW especially with old fashioned incandescent bulbs?

It's not hard when you're delivering fuel to one location 1000km in desolate wilderness with no road access. Your only option is basically ship borne helicopter, and then you have to make this trip semi-regularly.

Plus. nuclear material are only expensive because there are not enough usage - hence the economy of scale is small. They're arguably cheaper in the Soviet Union (even if they followed market terms).

These where used for lighthouses which aren’t exactly useful if people stay 1000km away from them. Now for unmanned Antarctic observation or something then that’s a possibility, but hardly going to feed economies of scale. Outside the Arctic circle solar panels + batteries win hands down.

As you probably already know, RTGs were of course commonly used in Antarctic weather stations in the past, by both the US and others:


The last was removed in 2015, as far as I know.

I wonder if there's any version of that which is legal (and feasible?) for a civilian to build and use.

20 years ago, UChicago Scav Hunt had an item on the list: "Item 240. A breeder reactor built in a shed, and the boy scout badge to prove credit was given where boy scout credit was due. [500 points]"

The story of how the Students made it is pretty great! https://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/homemade-breeder-r...

Well, for the application I was looking into this for (remote deployments in Greenland and Antarctica) it would be almost certainly politically impossible, so did not pursue, but I doubt it's possible to purchase Sr-90 in non-negligible quantities as a civilian (you can purchase it as a calibration source easily enough, I think, but at great expense).

I found some speculation that you might be able to build one out of thorium from smoke detectors and lanterns, as in the David Hahn case, but not much. No way this would be legal though.

I've never heard of thorium being used in smoke detectors. As far as I know it is always Americium, including in David Hahn's case.


The thorium is in the gas mantles.

well you'll very slowly get some thorium in the decay chain :)

Are RTG only extremely expensive today because of low demand/supply and consequently a complete lack of economy of scale?

They require processing of a very high level nuclear waste which is extremely nasty to work with and in limited supply. So, there really isn’t much in the way of economies of scale to work towards.

You can think of the upper limit for RTG’s as the amount of heat generated by spent nuclear fuel which worldwide doesn’t add up to that much power. Basically RTG’s don’t really generate extra heat just recycle and sort the spent fuel by isotope to get a dense power source.

Well if we were reprocessing all the fuel in the storage ponds of the existing reactors, then the "waste" isotopes would probably be a lot less expensive on their own.

Yes, pretty much.

E.g. Germany has loads of Sr-90 as a product of their fission power plants (typically PWRs fed with low-enriched uranium), at least some of which is already vitrified in borosilicate glass along with the other high-activity waste and currently standing around to cool down so it can eventually be stuffed deep into probably a rock salt formation.

It's not hard to separate it (and the Cs-137) from the rest of the spent fuel, if so desired.

Greenland is actually very windy. I was surprised when playing with


that in some scenarios Greenland has the cheapest power in the world.

Depends where! The region around Summit Station (the most accessible part of the interior) is not reliably windy, for example:


Started browsing photo spheres. Here's an awe inspiring one relatively close by: https://www.google.com/maps/@54.30123,138.6972783,3a,90y,345...

> Most have no protection, not even fences or warning signs, and the locations of some of these facilities are no longer known due to poor record keeping. In one instance, the radioactive compartments were opened by a thief. There are approximately 1,000 such RTGs in Russia, all of which have long since exceeded their designed operational lives of ten years. Most of these RTGs likely no longer function, and may need to be dismantled. Some of their metal casings have been stripped by metal hunters, despite the risk of radioactive contamination.


Lots of these have been abandoned in the wild. One caused an incident in Lia, Georgia in 2001. https://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/Pub1660web-81...

I was going to post this exact link but you beat me to it by 14 minutes :-D

All I say is - if you're not good with gore, skip the section about the decay process of the affected people, it's not pretty.

At least the lighthouse generators were decommissioned and "all RTGs are now gone" (mentioned at the end of the video).

"Gone" as in cleaned up or as in "they disappeared and we have no idea where they are"? Sounds like a mix of both.

Gone as in taken to/from a boat with a helicopter, as seen at the end of the video. What happened afterwards, Rosatom knows.

Except we know some of them did disappear, either washed away in storms or carted away by whoever.

There is a strange looking structure in the water just north-east of the light.


Fish trap?

maybe squid hunting? judging by the lights...

In Sweden between 1930-1970 we produced building elements from concrete where oilshale was used to burn the chalk and the ashes of the fuel was mixed into the concrete!

That shale ash was so rich in uranium that the concrete turned blue! Since then thousands have died by passively breathing the radon evaporation from the walls in some Swedish houses.

On the subject RTG elements are also used in space probes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H62hZJVqs2o

Also available with English subtitles for free streaming at:


Came to post this. A great film.

These are the same types of batteries used on space probes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_ge...

The materials listed on the Wikipedia page and used by the Russians are not practical for large scale use. It's simply too dangerous to have that much weapons grade material or bone seeking material out in the wild. Some isotopes are better than others, and I expect there will be strides using specifically generated isotopes that are not weapons grade, are not bone-seekers, and have much short half lives (decade not 80+ years), and have beta decay.

What's the issue with Cs-137, then? The gamma radiation? Otherwise, is SrTiO3 really that bad? What's the risk there, someone stealing it for a dirty bomb?

can you clarify what you mean by bone seeking? i have a very rudimentary understanding of radioactive materials

Strontium has similar properties as calcium and thus ends up in your bones when ingested where it will cause prolonged damage. Hence bone seeking

He probably means beta emitters, which concentrate in the thyroid and bone marrow.

This is kinda what I envisioned when people talked about backyard small solar reactors. I wish someone was building a commercial venture out of it.

The worlds first nuclear-powered lighthouse in south of Baltimore. Nuke-battery removed many years ago. Some friends purchased it and made it into a retreat/bed&breakfast. https://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=423

Why would you turn an RTG device into a bed and break...


The Soviets sure liked nuclear energy. The only remaining nuclear icebreaker/merchant ship (the Sevmorput) is still in operation. However it's a bit tricky to actually ship anything with it as most countries don't allow it to enter their ports, let alone their water. They mostly use it to ship stuff to Antarctica.

Russia still operates multiple nuclear icebreakers. Some of them are brand new.

As far as I know two Arktika-class ships are still in operation. Both Taymyr-class icebreakers still operate

Then there are five new project 22220 vessels under construction or under order. Each of them has two reactors that produce. 175 MW total.

Russia is planning to start building Project 10510 nuclear-powered icebreakers within 10 years.

Not to mention the floating nuclear power plant "Akademik Lomonosov" just got commissioned as well.

> However it's a bit tricky to actually ship anything with it as most countries don't allow it to enter their ports, let alone their water

I'm curious, why is that? The US, and other nations, routinely sail nuclear powered ships into ports all around the world.

Nuclear powered warships. As far as I know there was only one nuclear freighter, and it was more of a PR stunt. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/NS_Savannah

Part of the problem was that NS Savannah was obsolete about the time it was introduced, combined with essentially requiring military crew to operate due to US law.

So you introduce a very expensive to run freighter that requires complex cargo handling just as containers are starting to take the world. Not a good idea.

My hunch is that most Western countries would be hesitant to allow anything that is nuclear + Russian on their shores. This article does not answer your question, but it sounds like as of 12/2020 the boat may be headed to the scrapyard due to needing costly repairs.


Your hunch is in line with my hunch, mostly.

I doubt it has to do with it being of Russian origin - but more-or-less the unknown level of maintenance the ship and it's reactor have had since the fall of the USSR.

The reactors on these ships cannot be readily weaponized; there's practically no risk there. However, the reactors require a full crew to operate, even when just sitting in port being babysat (there is no "turning off" a rector).

During the collapse of the USSR, regular maintenance and full crew staffing would have likely been challenging, putting the condition of the reactor in uncertain territory.

Yes I thought many aircraft carriers are nuclear-powered?

All US ones are yes. Most of their subs too I believe.

All current US subs.

The last diesel class was the 3x 1950s Barbels, decommissioned by 1990: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbel-class_submarine

They do?

Doesn't seem to exist many civil nuclear powered ships at all. And barely any non-US/Russian ships, at least still in service. From my quick searches at least.

Large nuclear military ships likely have some port restrictions anyway.

> Large nuclear military ships likely have some port restrictions anyway.

The restrictions are more to do with the size of the ship, not it's propulsion mechanism.

Routinely, US Submarines and Aircraft Carriers (all powered by nuclear reactors) sail into normal civilian ports around the world for various reasons.

New Zealand is one country that refuses to allow nuclear-powered anything near.

And they sent a whole load of liquid metal reactors into orbit too. One crashed on Canada and the others are in disposal orbits and will come down in a very long time... All for a few months worth of radar.

Maybe SpaceX sends a Starship to catch them and brings them to the moon or somewhere else where they won't be a problem.

Martin made some of those in the 1960s.[1]

[1] https://i.ebayimg.com/images/g/5PQAAOSw53dc2vtp/s-l1600.jpg

With proper maintenance it is best possible source of energy in that regions. It's shame "green deal" gained too much hype, proper/safe nuclear energy most sustainable way with good ROI.

While I agree it's a shame nuclear energy has such a stigma, I think its stigma developed and solidified long before "green deal" was a thing.

Comments below show that while theoretically true, the real world maintenance failures do not help to promote more of this.

Disclaimer: I'm pro-renewables and pro-nuclear if it can be done "right".

By "nuclear", my understanding is that these used thermoelectric radioactive batteries, not nuclear fission reactors. Big difference. Much lower maintainence.

(Basically you get a hunk of radioactive material that heats up from its own radiation and harvest that heat for electricity.)

It's still fission. Just natural decay without management to speed it up or slow it down. In reactors the fuel rods naturally decay slowly and can be sped up with neutrons. So they can be turned 'off' and adapt to changing electricity needs. But RTGS are very static. Principle is still the same though. Both decay, cause heat which is made into electricity.

Technically speaking, fission is defined as splitting a nucleus into large chunks, approximately half the size of the original atom.

These things use radioactive decay, which is either alpha or beta particles coming out at a constant rate. Alpha and beta decay are not considered fission. (Though you'd have a reasonable case with Beryllium-8 alpha decay to Helium-4!)

Spontaneous fission decay is a thing and does happen. But not enough to power any of these kinds of things.

So why can't we have this tech with radioactive waste in our home or cars? With a proper lead shield would it be dangerous or not?

RTGs don't provide enough energy to power a car. You're looking at 1kW electrical maximum. The one on mars lander Cruiosity provides about 100W electrical power nominal.

But the main reason is that people are stupid and some would inevitably pull theirs apart and contaminate their surroundings with pretty nasty radioactive material. There's no engineering or practical reason why we wouldn't have RTGs for a heap of civilian applications, the reason is that people suck.

NASA is currently working on a 'micro' scale fully self contained fission reactor for the next mission to meet the higher power demand of the craft.

That's only about a factor of 10 from being useful. If you have a 10kW battery, or 10 1kW batteries, you can use that to charge a Lithium battery for a day which will get you 100 kW for 2.4 hours per day, which sounds pretty damn useful for typical urban commuter use.

I think it'd be much cheaper to use PV for this use case.

I was going to reply saying I don’t want tiny pieces of radioactive material all over my house/globe, but then realized I have a tiny explosive (battery) in my hand and littered all of my house.

Yeah but when your phone battery blows you just have fire. You don't have to abandon your house because it's contaminated :)

People freak out when they hear "nuclear" and "radiactive", but there are 3 types of radioactivity.

Alpha and low energy beta emitters such as those used in nuclear batteries are not dangerous at all if shielded properly. In fact they are MUCH easier to shield than shielding a Lithium battery from the possibility of fire.

It's gamma emitters that are much harder to shield properly.

> Alpha and low energy beta emitters such as those used in nuclear batteries are not dangerous at all if shielded properly.

Read: if there is no feasible route for them to be aspirated, ingested, or get into your eyes.

Making a new device that has this property seems to be a pretty straightforward problem that we know how to do. The problem comes when an old device has been damaged or destroyed kinetically or via pyrotechnics.

It's more complex than that in case of a failure, because ingesting an alpha or beta emitter - directly, or through the food chain - is going to be dangerous to health. Can't exactly line your intestines with lead.

And while giving RTGs to general population isn't the brightest idea, it's stupid to consider these issues as a wholesale dealbreaker for nuclear technologies.

Good question. Pity people on HN are downvoting such well-intentioned curiosity. I think people are working on that ...


I'm not an expert on that tech though.

The danger depends somewhat on the type of radioactive material used and how much of its radiation is alpha, beta or gamma, it's toxicity (independent of its radioactivity, plutonium is one of the most toxic substances in existence), half-life etc. But really, the main problem with proliferation of RTGs is dirty bombs. If you used them in cars or homes you can imagine the kinds of issues you might have with a serious collision or wildfires.

In any case, people actually once proposed cars like that! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Nucleon

Having lots of them around, means still lots of radioactive accidents, because of normal accidents.

And to actually power your car, I believe they have too little power output, so they would only make for a expensive and dangerous car batterie, but one you do not have to charge.

(also, terrorists, dirty bombs, ...)

Yes and their output is static. What do you do with all that heat when you're not driving?

Use the nuclear battery to charge a secondary lithium battery, and that is the battery that the car actually uses to drive.

Considering cars are typically used for <10% of the day, the battery's static output wattage only needs to be about 1/10 of a car's operational wattage.

Basically when you get home and park your car, it just starts charging on its own from its nuclear battery. Optimize the nuclear battery size to minimize excess. If that battery gets full, release the excess as heat to the ground or sky, and also use some of it to maintain the lithium battery at optimal temperature. It will be only 1/10 of the driving wattage, so it will be much easier to do something with it.

Or plug in the car when you get home and it can power a good fraction of your home.

Right now, I would say, I would not have to worry about getting into a cold and icy car. But in the summer ...

Mine bitcoins, help solve complex puzzles etc, charge batteries or the grid..

It does not generate a lot of power.

RTGs are also used on a lot of US and Russian deep space missions...

The most convenient decay source is Plutonium-238 because it does not produce any gammas during the decay which would require lots and lots of shielding to protect people. It has long half life of 87 years so a reduction in power of roughly 1% per year. However, it's weapons material - not okay for wide use. This cannot be overstated. Making nuclear weapons today is very easy when you have the requisite materials (Ted Taylor of Los Alamos used to say it would take 3 guys a few months starting from scratch). With today's off the shelf timing systems, explosives, and manufacturing, it could be even faster.

Next up is Strontium, but that is quite dangerous due to human uptake in the bones. And there's polonium - very poisonous and too short a half life to be used.

I have heard from a friend in the business of a new concept that generates desirable isotopes specifically for decay heat sources in a reactor in an encapsulated form which gets rid of any weapons material or processing of radioactive material.


The Saturn mission Cassini had 72 pounds of plutonium on it. The Pluto mission New Horizons has 24 pounds of plutonium to power itself.

Beautiful short documentary. In my paranoid mind i was expecting the lighthouse actually being an Intercontinental ballistic missile with atomic warhead. Stupid me!

For a very good writeup by the organization Bellona, which is also in the video see https://bellona.org/news/nuclear-issues/radioactive-waste-an...

Someone who is a nuclear expert, could you answer some of my nuclear questions please.

1) the sun is a giant nuclear reactor and we indirectly derive most of our energy from it. Radioactive elements in general are the most energy dense and I agree with the idea of “nuclear energy in every home and office”. Sounds amazing. What makes nuclear so dangerous?

2) are there nuclear materials with short half life. Such that if you turn it off, it’s safe by default. It doesn’t require constant cooking and isolation.

3) is if there is a super intelligent alien species out there, most likely they’ve figured out how to harness nuclear power and make it portable. Is there a way we, as human species can do the same?

If voyager and the Mars rovers are operating on nuclear power, can we have nuclear powered planes, cars and robots that are safe and ubiquitous? (Safe nuclear batteries)

Physics major with an interest in nuclear science. Does that count?

> the sun is a giant nuclear reactor and we indirectly derive most of our energy from it. Radioactive elements in general are the most energy dense

Worth noting that this is conflating two different phenomenon: fission, and fusion. Despite the similarity in spelling, these have very little to do with each other.

Neither of these have much to do with the "nuclear generator" in the article, which is based on natural fission, but not a chain reaction. It's actually more akin to refined, bottled geothermal power.

> What makes nuclear so dangerous?

First of all, it's not. Nuclear is one of, if not THE safest and cleanest form of power. But there are risks worth worrying about, even though with modern designs and regulatory procedures the risk to life and the environment is less than with other sources.

Those risks basically boil down the fact that radioactivity causes cancers, thyroid disease, and in high doses various lethal forms of radioactivity sickness. And like all heavy metals, radioactive materials can easily get absorbed by our biology and deliver that harmful radioactivity slowly over time.

When there is a leak of radioactive material (like Chernobyl, Fukushima, or almost happened with Three Mile Island), the result can be pretty damn scary. But what nuclear nevertheless safer than other energy sources is (1) these events are rare, and nuclear is otherwise perfectly clean and safe; and (2) modern designs cannot fail in the way these older reactors did. For example, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island failed in pretty much the same way, but Three Mile Island's design kept the radiation entirely contained. When deciding about new power plants, we should be evaluating the risks of new designs.

You might wonder what makes other power sources more dangerous. Coal and natural gas have obvious health and pollution concerns. But wind and solar both involve A LOT of materials processing, construction, and maintenance, all of which have dangers that add up. Geothermal and hydro power are probably the two power sources that are better than nuclear, but aren't available everywhere.

TL;DR Nuclear is scary. It's not necessarily dangerous (compared with other sources of power).

> are there nuclear materials with short half life. Such that if you turn it off, it’s safe by default. It doesn’t require constant cooking and isolation.

I think you are confusing controlled fission reactors vs. radioisotope generators.

Fission reactors are the big nuclear power plants, which you can turn on and off. There are ways of making this safer and having less lethal byproducts. Mostly we need to start using breeder reactors, which reprocess spent fuel, instead of just putting it in waste pools and forgetting about it.

Radioisotope generators are what TFA are about. Purified chunks of radioactive material (like plutonium) are naturally hot from their radioactivity, which is basically the same reason the Earth is hot--that's why I called it bottled geothermal power above. You then just attach some thermal couples to the outside of the plutonium, to generate electricity from the difference in temperature.

You cannot turn off a radioisotope generator. It just goes on being hot for decades, until the main radioactive elements have decayed away.

> If voyager and the Mars rovers are operating on nuclear power, can we have nuclear powered planes, cars and robots that are safe and ubiquitous? (Safe nuclear batteries)

Unlikely. We know how to make small nuclear power plants, as we use them in submarines. But it's not easy to do this in a safe way, for reasons that are too complicated for a HN post. But basically it is the safety equipment that makes nuclear power big and bulky.

Thanks a ton for the detailed responses. Do you have any links you recommend for me to learn more about the latest advancements of nuclear so I have my knowledge up to date ?

“New nuclear reactor design” on google should provide you plenty of rabbit holes to go down.

How do I download this video (with the subtitles if possible)? Youtube-DL doesn't help.

You can find the mpd stream and the subtitle in network tab.

For me: youtube-dl.exe -f bestvideo+bestaudio "https://vod-dash-ww-live.akamaized.net/usp/auth/vod/piff_abr..."

And the subtitle(EBU-TT-D format): https://vod-sub-ww-live.bbcfmt.s.llnwi.net/iplayer/subtitles...

Vlc can play it with the sub.

I assume they're not worried about the fissile material being used in a dirty bomb?

It's a legitimate concern. Although the fuels in RTGs (PU 238) will not engage in a chain reaction, like a traditional nuclear reactor, they could be used to fashion dirty bombs. No such uses are known, but the material has caused serious radiation burns. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_ge...

The real damage of these dirty weapons is very limited, it's mostly physchological/fear. This stuff itself is not easy to spread with an explosion and it's not a deadly exposure either. You can't make a real nuclear reaction from this.

There are ways to make dirty bombs orders of magnitude more dangerous. The problem is that radiation will spread and contaminate a large area for long time, so the bomb cannot be thrown over border then.

Interesting, thanks for your comment. I just did some further digging and it looks like the fuel is essentially a puck of metal alloy and radioactive material. Nuclear chemistry is so cool!

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact