What’s Wrong with Nuclear Power?

A couple of days ago I was reading the CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate transcript. Of course I am always interested to hear what the candidates have to say about energy. There were a lot of good comments, and the usual spattering of dumb comments. But I won’t dissect them right now. What got me to thinking were the comments of John Edwards (on Page 2):

EDWARDS: Wind, solar, cellulose-based biofuels are the way we need to go. I do not favor nuclear power. We haven’t built a nuclear power plant in decades in this country. There is a reason for that. The reason is it is extremely costly. It takes an enormous amount of time to get one planned, developed and built. And we still don’t have a safe way to dispose of the nuclear waste. It is a huge problem for America over the long term.

I also don’t believe we should liquefy coal. The last thing we need is another carbon-based fuel in America. We need to find fuels that are in fact renewable, clean, and will allow us to address directly the question that has been raised, which is the issue of global warming, which I believe is a crisis.

Following this, Barack Obama said that he favored including nuclear power in the mix, and Hillary Clinton said she was agnostic about nuclear power. She did play the “oil” card, which is to say that she thinks the solution to our energy problem is to take from oil and then let the government figure out how to spend that money on alternatives.

I have been accused occasionally of having various anti-nuclear views. This is amusing, given that I have never written anything negative about nuclear power. In fact, until this post, I didn’t even have a tag in this entire blog on nuclear energy. The main reason is that I am not well-versed in the pros and cons. My understanding is that the main pro is that nuclear can provide an abundant source of energy for quite some time. This is also a reason that I favor a transition to an electric infrastructure: We are going to run low on liquid fuels long before we run low on the ability to produce electricity.

As I understand it, the primary negative is still that we don’t have a good solution for dealing with nuclear waste. Obviously, we can’t just pile up waste indefinitely, and I am not sure how reactors around the world handle this problem. And of course historically there have been the occasional Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, which ensures that nobody is going to want a nuclear reactor in their backyard.

So, who is correct? My feeling is that we will desperately need nuclear energy in the not too distant future. But what about the waste problem? How do other countries deal with the waste problem? I presume France, with all of their nuclear reactors, must have a solution that the population is comfortable with.

For an extremely negative view of nuclear power, see the recently published essay by antinuclear activist Rebecca Solnit:

Reasons Not to Glow

CNN also presents a negatively slanted view in a just-published article, but they do discuss the waste issue a bit:

Going nuclear

But my own view is that we are going to need it in the mix.

46 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Nuclear Power?”

  1. When I have a free moment, I always check this blog first, but when I have a second free moment, I read: thoriumenergy.blogspot.com.

    While it focuses mainly on Thorium Molten Salt reactors, the discussion forums review a wide range of other nuclear options.

    Molten Salt reactors are VERY safe and with Thorium will produce a fraction of the waste. Thorium reserves could also last hundreds of years.


  2. RMI has some interesting points about nuclear power. Here are several articles they have written on the subject. See particularly the second article in the series (scroll down).

    Their basic position seems to be that the problem with nukes is not inherent safety issues or even the waste, but scalability and scale-appropriateness. Nukes are big, expensive and SLOW to build. (And the potential cost of rushing the process is high.) They are also inherently part of the big-central-plant model of energy production and distribution, which RMI says (and I agree) we need to move away from, in favor of interlinked but semi-independent distributed generation islands.

  3. If nukes are big, slow and expensive to build, it is largely due to artificialities of the licensing process, which are gratuitously expensive and bureaucratic. Yes, licenses need to be reviewed carefully and we need to ensure competent people are going to be running the plants, but the current process is a huge hurdle. Next come the lawsuits, protests, and so forth by people who often don’t have all the facts, and who occassionally literally put up roadblocks to plant construction.

    In response to this, the nuclear industry makes each reactor as big as possible, also due to the belief in economy in scale. Right now they legally have every incentive to go as big as they can right off the bat. If they could make smaller reactors, they could get them operational much quicker. One of the technical roadblocks on large nuke plants is casting the pressure head. Smaller pressure heads could be made much quicker and cheaper.

    I think a good analogy for the electrical grid is the model that computers went through for the past few decades. First we had a few huge mainframes, and everyone else had dumb terminals that fed off of them. Then the pendulum swung to PCs in isolation, and now we have the internet, with a combination of very powerful servers and a network of small, smart PCs. The Economist had an interesting article on Smart Grids a few years ago that I think is similar to what I’m talking about. I think we will end up with a few large electrical generators, like hydro and nuclear, which will be supplemented widely by wind, solar, wave, etc. which will help spread production around and closer to consumers to help ride out variations.

    As far as waste goes, there was a great article in Scientific American a year or two ago on a reprocessing method and a reactor that could burn the “waste” without proliferation fears. Besides, the “waste” issue really is kind of moot since there are already plants in operation.

  4. I’d be interested in hearing more about the potential proliferation risks. My understanding is that reprocessing spent fuel significantly increases the usable amount of fuel but also increases the risk of proliferation, which is the United States currently does not reprocess spent fuel.

  5. I always have trouble following Rocky Mountain Institute’s reasoning.

    For example, CA will heavily subsidize photovoltaic (solar) panels between now and 2017 (good!). The feds will also subsidize them, and then people will buy them. With the same money the state spends on PVs, we could buy a nuclear power plant, which would provide us 2.5 times the power.

    It is faster to make a windmill or a PV panel. But overall, both efficiency and nuclear power can be added more rapidly, at least today.

    We must continue to subsidize and build solar and wind power. But it is not true that we can add them faster than nuclear power.

  6. Seems the LATimes is cool on nuclear power:The potential for wind power alone is nearly limitless and, according to a May report by research firm Standard & Poor’s, it’s cheaper to produce than nuclear power. Further, the amount of electricity that could be generated simply by making existing non-nuclear power plants more efficient is staggering. On average, coal plants operate at 30% efficiency worldwide, but newer plants operate at 46%. If the world average could be raised to 42%, it would save the same amount of carbon as building 800 nuclear plants.

    Nevertheless, the U.S. government spends more on nuclear power than it does on renewables and efficiency. Taxpayer subsidies to the nuclear industry amounted to $9 billion 2006, according to Doug Koplow, a researcher based in Cambridge, Mass., whose Earth Track consultancy monitors energy spending. Renewable power sources, including hydropower but not ethanol, got $6 billion, and $2 billion went toward conservation.

    That’s out of whack. Some countries — notably France, which gets nearly 80% of its power from nuclear plants and has never had a major accident — have made nuclear energy work, but at a high cost. The state-owned French power monopoly is severely indebted, and although France recycles its waste, it is no closer than the U.S. to approving a permanent repository. Tax dollars are better spent on windmills than on cooling towers.

    Slow, expensive, dangerous. Can’t say I’m too enthusiastic…

  7. Slow, expensive, and dangerous? It is done slowly so that it is less dangerous. The upfront cost is high, but the cost per kWh of nuclear energy is much lower than anything else. Yes it is highly subsidized, but it also produces 20% of the energy produced in the US. This is a well understood technology that produces power without producing carbon. General acceptance of nuclear energy is inevitable if climate change continues to occupy public attention.

  8. jff: As I mentioned, there was a good Scientific American article on a re-processing method that is very safe from proliferation concerns. Plutonium is not seperated out in this method, nor is U235 “enriched” from the spent fuel.

    As far as the LA Times article that Optimist posted, even improving the efficiency of coal plants does not change the fact that they still burn almost entirely carbon fuel (Coal is about 78-90% carbon, the rest is impurities, like Sulfur, etc.) Why is the LA Times willing to overlook the economic disadvantages of wind and PV, and yet advocate coal over nuclear because of cost? Ridiculous. Furthermore, they apparently did not read the study done by Minnesota that said that wind could provide up to 25% of the electricity on a large grid. You still need a reliable, non-variable baseload, like a nuclear plant–you cannot provide 100% of your electricity for a large grid with wind and solar alone unless you invent some new kind of energy storage system. I think nuclear and renewables (especially wind, solar and wave) are the way to go. Obviously the mix will fluctuate based on the region–not much wave power in Iowa… This combination will allow us to displace coal plants, or at least get the old ones off line if we have to use “clean coal”.

  9. They won’t let the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay read Rebecca Solnit – it is considered cruel and unusal punishment 😉

    The US Navy operates 80 nuclear powered vessels with 5,400 reactor years without an accident. So it is possible technically to safely deploy small scale nuclear.

    One of the reasons that nuclear power plants are so big and so expensive is that it takes an incredible effort just to permit a nuclear plant. The same amount of time and money is spent permitting a a 500 MW reactor as for a 3,000 MW reactor. So you might as well go for the bigger one!

    Alternative energies (solar, wind, biomass) aren’t exempt from the hyperinflation we’ve seen in the energy sector. So as nuclear and fossil energy has gotten expensive, so has alternative energy.

  10. I think that nuclear has a place for baseload-type power. If we open the market back up, then nuclear power companies (Westinghouse, GE, Mitsubishi) will continue to refine the process and improve the technology.

    Also, pebble bed and Thorium reactors have a lot of promise from the safety and waste side of the equation.

    As to the nuclear/coal dichotomy, I saw (sorry don’t remember the link) that the U.S. coal fired power plants emit more radioactive waste through their stacks per year than all of the nuke power plants have generated in history. (Not that coal is a popular option!)

    (Please help me with the link and/or fact-checking, I don’t like making unsubstantiated comments)

  11. Found some interesting stuff on nuclear vs. coal:


    > Yes. Typical concentration of radioactive material in coal is about 4
    > ppm. A 1000 MW coal plant burns approximately 11,000 tons of coal every
    > day. The total emissions of radioactive material are therefore about 88
    > pounds per day. (40 Kilos to those who use a sensible measuring system.)
    > Of that, about 1 % is assumed to be released as fly ash in a modern plant
    > with 10% in one with no scrubbers or bag house. The rest goes into the
    > unmonitored ash pile which is often right next to a body of water.
    > Of course, even this amount of radioactive material has no discernable
    > health effect on the local population.


    About 25 tonnes of spent fuel is taken each year from the core of a l000 MWe nuclear reactor.

    40kg per day is about 15 tonnes per year, so the nuclear plant is still producing somehwat more waste (and that’s neglecting low level stuff you have after decomissioning like pipes and conrete etc.)

    It’s not a lot more, though, and the coal plant is putting a lot of that into the air, whereas the nuclear plant isn’t.

  12. I’m not sure where Peter Sichel gets the notion that we don’t have enough fuel and I am very confused how it won’t help with global warming. No, it won’t replace transportation fuels, but it sure could displace a lot of coal plants. Nuclear is far less carbon intensive than coal, much less intensive than natural gas, and even beats solar and wind. (manufacturing the solar panels takes a lot of energy, raw materials and generates a lot of toxic waste, the only carbon expended in the nuclear cycle is building the plant–a once in 50 years occurance, and mining and refining the fuel. Many reactors, such as CANDUs don’t need enriched fuel). Scientific American had a good issue dedicated to energy that illustrated this comparison.

  13. PowerPointSamurai said…
    If nukes are big, slow and expensive to build, it is largely due to artificialities of the licensing process, which are gratuitously expensive and bureaucratic.

    Yes, but this isn’t going to change either, so it’s pointless to construct alternate realities where nuclear power doesn’t face such legal liabilities.

    manufacturing the solar panels takes a lot of energy, raw materials and generates a lot of toxic waste, the only carbon expended in the nuclear cycle is building the plant–a once in 50 years occurance, and mining and refining the fuel. Many reactors, such as CANDUs don’t need enriched fuel). Scientific American had a good issue dedicated to energy that illustrated this comparison.

    CANDUs do require enrichment, just less than most American designs (by memory I think it is 0.5% versus 4%). The latest CANDU paper designs require relatively high enrichment (~3.0%) in order to improve performance and achieve a zero void coefficient, which was previously positive.

    The ERORI of nuclear power varies greatly depending on the quality of the ore.

  14. I am inclined to disagree with Robert McLeod when he says that it’s fantasy to think we can change the legal hurdles facing nuclear power. This is an entirely self-inflicted wound in the political process. If the pressure to reduce our carbon footprint increases (which it will) and significant problems emerge with “clean coal” that delay its inception or fail to live up to expectations (which is extremely likely), we could easily see some common sense emerge and the process could be streamlined without any decline in safety or due diligence. Opponents of nuclear power will likely call this another “subsidy” though…

    Making the licensing process more realistic also opens the door for PBMRs (Pebble Bed Modular Reactors) which could be assembled in a jiffy and have other very attractive features, like their modularity, fuel handling, safety, etc.

    I also think lawsuits and demonstrations will decline as people increasingly see nuclear as a more attractive option. One way they could do that is to increase transparency so the public can take more ownership and understand what goes on in a nuclear plant instead of getting their perceptions from The Simpsons.

  15. Standard Candus DO NOT require enrichment, just conversion to UO2 pellets. Natural uranium is 0.7% U235, and this works fine. The Advanced Candu will require slightly enriched uranium (1.5-3%), though.

    Interestingly, spent PWR fuel is about 0.9% U235 (plus a lot of other stuff). The DUPIC fuel cycle envisions using spent PWR fuel in a Candu. Instead of a once-through cycle, you can get a twice-through cycle by reconfiguring the spent PWR fuel into Candu-style fuel bundles.

    I’d like to see a good analysis of EROEI, with varying ore quality. Anti-nukes say it’s not good. Pro-nukes say it is. It would be nice to have an unbiased answer.

  16. Uranium is so cheap and abundant we throw 99% of it away. That’s the main reason nuclear waste is such a problem. The other issue is plutonium and a few other actinides which remain highly radioactive for 100,000+ years. What repository can guarantee that kind of lifetime?

    There is a better way. So-called “fast reactors” burn all the uranium and destroy the long-lived actinides. The result is a vastly smaller quantity of nuclear waste which becomes less radioactive than the original ore in a more reasonable 300 years.

    Why don’t we build such reactors? R&D in the western world keeps getting killed off for political reasons, so we’re still 20 years from commercializing “closed fuel cycle” fast reactor technology. There’s no economic incentive for the private sector to pursue it — why invest to build a more efficient fuel burner when the fuel cost is essentially zero? And why spend money to make the waste stream manageable when there’s no charge imposed on an unmanageable waste stream? It’s a lot like coal — why build IGCC plants when Powder River Basin coal costs $15/ton and there’s no charge for CO2 emissions?

    The US will do nothing meaningful with nuclear. The small but fanatical opposition can cause enough delay and cost overruns to make nuclear uncompetive. Why endure the hassle when we’ve got all that cheap, abundant coal? And if coal is too dirty for our sensibilities (as with Californians), we’re rich enough to outbid less affluent people for semi-clean fuels like natural gas. Let THEM burn the coal. Meanwhile we’ll throw up a few windmills and PV panels to make ourselves feel better.

    I believe China and India will lead the way with nuclear. Unlike the US, they have billions of people whose lives will be measurably improved by cheap, reliable electricity. Real costs (concrete, steel, labor, etc.) are much cheaper and fake costs (20-iteration EIRs, absurdly complex permitting, frivolous delay-oriented lawsuits, etc.) are almost non-existent. They won’t shut down half the industry for years over a small accident, even if it kills a couple of workers(heck, thousands of Chinese coal miners die every year).

    I hope China and India choose to commercialize fast reactors. Then if the western world finally decides to get serious about CO2 in, say 2030 or so, we’ll have someone who knows how to build them. If we ask nicely.

  17. doggydogworld:

    lead and mercury are dangerous forever, but we haven’t stopped using either.

    The blog author might be interested in looking up the Oklo natural nuclear reactor. Basically, geology constructed the right geometry for a nuclear fission reaction to occur 1.5 billion years ago. The resulting fission products haven’t moved since.

    Another link of interest is SKB, Sweden’s geological nuclear repository.

  18. There are probably no other field in energy discussion than nuclear power where there are a lot more disortions and outright lies as common knowledge. As someone who has to deal with the reality of it in work, the common discussions can drive you sometimes nearly out of your mind. If someone wants to read about both the pros and cons of nuclear power I would recommend http://nuclearinfo.net/ . They at least try to give a transparent view on their basic data and present both sides of the argument pretty evenly.

    One point that I would like to make is that the proliferation concern is a total red herring. The nuclear fuel used in power reactors in such a form that it would be almost as easy (and lot less detectable) to make the needed amount of nuclear fuel from raw ores than process the power reactor fuel into usable form. Small research reactors are totally different matter as they usually have fuel with higher enrichment that is in more accessible form than the power reactors. However almost everyone who might build a nuclear plant already has a research reactor, they are a lot more prevalent than people think – most western countries that are said to have “no nuclear power” have at least one such reactor.

    The waste is usually stored in interim storages in power plant perimeter. This is not only due to the lack of final repositories. Spent fuel has to cool down for 20-40 years before the final disposal, so there has been very little fuel that even could be placed in the repostories. furthest with the repository planning is Finland that has made decision on it. Finland is helped by the fact that bedrock in Scandinavia that is geologically very stable and intact (no major faultlines). There is more information on that at http://www.stuk.fi/ydinturvallisuus/ydinjatteet/loppusijoitus_suomessa/en_GB/loppusijoitus/ . Finland is also the only western country that is building a new nuclear plant.

    And I would like to see any credible source that gives nuclear plant a poor EROEI. Nuclear fissions have by their nature so tremendous energy density that you will get a very positive EROEI despite the ore quality. Most of the energy consumption needed to generate nuclear fuel comes from the enrichment, not mining. Economically the ore quality has a lot more effect.

  19. I presume France, with all of their nuclear reactors, must have a solution that the population is comfortable with.

    I may be wrong about this, but I seem to recall that they ship it over to us in the UK. The French are just fine with that.

  20. Mike said: “Slow, expensive, and dangerous? It is done slowly so that it is less dangerous. The upfront cost is high, but the cost per kWh of nuclear energy is much lower than anything else.”

    The cost of the actual fuel is much lower than anything else, but nuclear plants need ridiculous amounts of highly trained people to run them – and since no two plants are alike in the US (because we have a privatized energy system, unlike France), these people have to be trained at a plant and then stay there. The control room runners go through more training than a doctor or pilot – and have to be paid for it – all to prevent any potential disaster. The cost of running a nuclear plant is so high that it hasn’t made economic sense for companies to do it. I think the UK’s recent decisions on this are telling – not banning new nuclear plants, but letting private companies build them if they want. I bet you none will be built.

    On the other hand, (in response to Karen Street – “We must continue to subsidize and build solar and wind power. But it is not true that we can add them faster than nuclear power”) in Germany in 2005, so many windmills were built that the same amount of electricity is produced from them as from an average-sized coal plant. That’s one year, and running them is free.

  21. People that talk about the limitless potential for renewables generally haven’t thought it through or they’d realise there’s still a problem with power storage awaiting a breakthrough. Renewables are also not without consequences for the environment (to fish, birds, land use, etc.). People who dis nuclear on cost while promoting solar must not be looking at the numbers. As for the waste issue, it seems overblown to me simply because the scale is so much smaller than fossil energy. Someone should do a graphic showing physically the amount of waste generated by a 1 GW nuke over a year, versus the CO2 (assuming it was liquified) of a 1 GW coal plant for a year – there is no comparison. Heck I bet the coal plant puts out more solid waste in the form of particulates than all the waste from the nuke plant. Waste should be reprocessed to reduce its volume and to recover unburnt fuel. This reduces the volume waste by a factor of 10 or more. The bottom line is that until we get a breakthrough in power storage, we will either continue burning coal for baseload power (and NG for peaker power), or we will build more nukes. Given how long fusion power has been “a few decades away” I think it’s imprudent to bet the future on a breakthrough that may be a long time coming.

  22. Just to point out, nuclear isn’t solving storage issues any more than renewables are.. it powers the electricity grid – not cars. Same with coal (unless you count its ability to power ships and trains, which mostly run on oil anyway). We have nothing today which stores energy in such high concentration and easily transported way as oil and natural gas (liquid or compressed).

  23. The blog author might be interested in looking up the Oklo natural nuclear reactor.

    Yes, I know about Oklo. One of the things I used to spend time doing was debating against Creationists. I often used the Oklo example to show why the earth couldn’t be just a few thousand years old. That and one other (Lake Suigetsu’s 50,000 varves) were especially difficult for Creationists, and I convinced more than 1 that the earth was not young on the basis of these examples.

  24. Doug,

    I don’t have time to refute you in detail right now, but I gotta say, you’ve got alot of gall making blanket claims like People who dis nuclear on cost while promoting solar must not be looking at the numbers., particularly in this forum.

    Short form: Intermittency becomes a problem when your solar and wind components (note that there are other forms of renewable energy) exceed 20%-30% of your total energy supply. We’re no where near that fraction yet. When we do get there, there are a variety of possible solutions, including HV-DC transmission, flow batteries, V2G. There’s also the radical notion that we could adapt our energy use to the available resource (gasp!) through demand-side management.

    That said, we’re going to need baseload power, and we’re not going to get that from solar or wind sources in most places in the near term. But there is at least one solution that is much, much better than nuclear: on-site and/or localized distributed cogeneration. Electrical conversion efficiency is as good or better than all but the most modern powerplants, and utilizing the waste heat offsets further consumption of fossil fuels, giving a total carbon density of ~1/3 of current practice.

  25. To Anonymous on 7/27 3:10 pm replying to me:
    They’re not “control room runners”, they’re reactor operators (RO’s for short). The amount of time it takes to train a doctor is measured in years, the amount of time it takes to train a pilot is measured in hours; might that argument cause more confusion than anything else for a layman? There are 103 nuclear reactors operating in the US right now, and they have been operating for decades. Utilities have received license extensions for 48 of these, with 10 more license extensions being applied for now and another 23 plants are expected to file for a license extension (from http://www.nei.org). Does that not suggest to you that at least 81/103 plants are profitable? Suggesting that personnel costs are enough to make a nuclear reactor operate at a loss are totally unsubstantiated, and seem ludicrous given the willingness of utilities to want to extend the lifetime of a number of reactors. Please reply with a handle…

  26. I just wanted to comment on the assertion that the nuclear industry is NOT paying for the waste stream…they are. There is a fund that they had to pay into from inception for waste disposal, which is supposed to go into helping fund Yucca Mountain. The problem is that many politicians are greedily eyeing that money and are looking for ways to raid that pot.

    For the record, however, I am against a geological repository, and favor reprocessing for reactor fuel–even if we have to force the nuclear industry to do it. This “burns” the plutonium and other stuff terrorists might use, and solves the long term storage issue to boot. The most dangerous remaining fission products then only need about 300 years to degrade below background radiation levels (i.e. less radioactive than your garden variety natural environment) vice 100k years for current high level waste. By the way, some of these products, such as Xenon, have interesting properties and uses, like propellant for ion drives, medical stuff, etc. There actually might be a market for some of it if it was available. For example, if Xenon were available, and ESA/NASA continues perfecting ion drives, someday more satellites might have them for orbital adjustment, space tugs, etc.

    Also, on the cost assertion, I can’t remember where I found it, but I have a chart with electrical production costs on it, and nuclear costs about 2 cents per kwh, versus something like 9 or 10 for natural gas. So much for nuclear being expensive to operate. The vast majority of your costs in nuclear are in the financing for the initial build. Nuclear also has consistently had a 90+% availability rate for quite a while.

    This said, I do favor adding distributed renewable energy to the mix to at least 25%. The state of Minnesota did a study that indicated that the grid can handle up to 25% wind. Unfortunately for Minnesota, it doesn’t have much of a chance to add other renewables, such as solar, and only a little bit of wave (Lake Superior) to that renewable mix. I also emphasize distributed because having 50 windmills all concentrated on one spot isn’t a whole lot different to the grid than having an intermitantly operating coal plant at that spot. We should encourage the program some states offer to allow private land owners to install wind turbines, spread out over a wider area to smooth out grid fluctuations.

  27. I am against a geological repository, and favor reprocessing for reactor fuel–even if we have to force the nuclear industry to do it. This “burns” the plutonium and other stuff terrorists might use, and solves the long term storage issue to boot.

    Why don’t they reprocess it now? Too expensive? Surely not more expensive than dealing with storage issues?

  28. GreenEngineer:

    Re. my comment:
    People who dis nuclear on cost while promoting solar must not be looking at the numbers

    Why is that such a galling statement? I find it galling when I hear statements like that made by Edwards in the recent debate, where he cites cost in passing among a number of reasons we shouldn’t look at nuclear. The solar projects I’ve seen (as reported in newspapers in recent months) are going to produce power at 20+ cents per kwh – that’s 3 times what nuclear power costs. What am I missing?

  29. RR, reprocessing was banned on grounds that reprocessing represented a proliferation risk. I think it was Carter who did it. It might really have been more for political reasons.

  30. Why don’t they reprocess it now?

    France does. Britain is restarting their THORP plant (a leak in 2005 shut it down). Russia and Japan do some reprocessing.

    Surely not more expensive than dealing with storage issues?

    It’s a LOT more expensive than dumping it in a big pool.

    As noted the US shut down reprocessing efforts for political reasons. As such the US runs a “once-through” fuel cycle. Burn as much of the U-235 as we can then dump the fuel. Since natural uranium is only 0.7% U-235 once-through is extraordinarily wasteful. But uranium is dirt cheap, so it’s cost effective as long as you ignore storage.

    The reprocessing in other countries is sometimes called “twice-through”. In a reactor core U-238 (99.3% of natural U) gradually turns into plutonium. Twice-through reprocessors separate the plutonium and uranium out of the spent fuel and use it to make mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel rods. As I understand it MOX fuel is not reprocessed a 2nd time because at this point there’s too much Pu-240 which is not fissile.

    Once-through burns up a percent or so of the original uranium. Twice through burns up a few percent. Fast reactors with closed fuel cycles burn it all.

    The Sodium Cooled Fast Reactor (aka Integral Fast Reactor, Advanced Fast Reactor, etc.) is perhaps the best known design, but there are others. IMHO fast reactors with closed fuel cycles are clearly the best technical approach for nuclear energy. But the economics don’t work as long as fuel and waste disposal are basically free.

  31. MOX fuel can be burned in existing commercial power reactors. Molten salt reactors have not yet been built. This is all beside the point anyway. The important thing is that the technology exists today and is in use by a few countries to reprocess spent fuel, reducing the amount of high level radioactive waste.

  32. But the economics don’t work as long as fuel and waste disposal are basically free.

    At least as far as waste disposal is concerned, “free” = “priceless”. It costs too much (financially and politically) to do it right, so they take “temporary measures” which of course become standard operating procedure, because the problem gets bigger over time, not smaller. In the meantime, the people who support nuclear on an economic basis get to trot out numbers based on this essentially no-cost “solution” to the waste problem.

    A great irony, no?

  33. optimist–LA Times excerpt: “Further, the amount of electricity that could be generated simply by making existing non-nuclear power plants more efficient is staggering. On average, coal plants operate at 30% efficiency worldwide, but newer plants operate at 46%.”

    I would guess that going from 30% to 46% requires, at a minimum, new boilers, new turbines, and new control systems…to call the resultant an “existing” plant is a little sketchy. What’s left from the original plant?..probably not much, other than the electrical switchgear and the coal-handling equipment.

  34. Nuclear power isn’t exactly renewable. How long can we expect nuclear fuel to last without reprocessing and with reprocessing? With current technology and with more advanced technology like the thorium fueled reactors?

  35. People keep writing that nukes or other power grid plants won’t help with cars, and so are not so important.
    This ignores the possibility that conusmers will migrate to PHEVs when gas prices get high enough, (or governments mandate same).
    Already, it seems very technically feasible to have PHEVs with 40 mile range, enough to handle most commutes. Evidently, our power grid is up to it, though probably some extra juice from solar, wind and nukes would help.
    There is a great argument for mandated nukes: It behooves no sinle consumer to spend more on a PHEV. The reduction in pollution is negligible, and the reduction in demand for fossil fuel, and thus price of fuel, also ngeligible.
    In fact, most consumers would want for everybody else to buy PHEVs, thus driving down gas prices and cleaning the air, while they make no sacrifice.
    LIke paying taxes, it would be great to freeload on everybody else.
    That is why high MPG cars should be mandated, or gasoline heavily taxed.
    PHEVs and biofuels are a wonderful to obtain higher living standards, energy security and lower pollution. Bring on the nukes.

  36. I’d like to give a few links on some of the subjects discussed above:

    Nuclear power is both safe and clean, under any rational definition. Over their entire ~40-year history, Western nuclear plants have not killed anyone and have had no measurable impact on public health. They have a negligible impact on global warming. Meanwhile, coal plants cause ~25,000 deaths every single year in the US alone (hundreds of thousands worldwide) and are the leading single cause of global wamring.

    Many studies on overall external (i.e., public health and environmental) costs of various energy sources has been performed. These external costs are calculated and quoted in equivalent economic terms (in cents/kW-hr). All such studies show that nuclear’s external costs are much lower than fossul fuels. Most show nuclear’s external costs to be similar to renewable sources. The latest and most exhaustive study (by the European Commission) is at:

    (hit the results tab)

    The net CO2 emissions from the entire nuclear power process are a tiny fraction of fossil fuels, and similar to renewables. Nuclear’s net emissions are ~2% of coal and ~5% of natural gas. The results of a detailed net emissions study are at:


    Given that nuclear is a non-emitting source just like any other (e.g. renewables) the statement that it does not help global warming is baseless.

    Long term uranium supply will never be a problem. As I discuss here:


    and a uranium supply expert discusses here:

    uranium is a ubiquitous element in the earth’s crust, and we have sufficient supply for hundreds of years even under the once-through fuel cycle (w/o significant reduction in ore grade). With breeders (which we may need after ~2100), the fuel supply is essentially infinte.

    As for economics, the only thing nuclear can’t compete with is dirty, conventional coal w/ no sequestration of CO2, or other pollutants. If coal’s massive external costs were accounted for (through CO2/pollution taxes) or under any system where CO2 emissions are limited, nuclear will easily win out over coal. Not only are renewables intermittent (which will limit them to ~20% of generation at most) but they are more expensive than nuclear, not less (with the exception of wind, which is about the same cost).

    Nuclear is not more subsidized then renewables (certainly not on a per/kW-hr basis). A comparison of total dollar subsidies for each energy source, along with their energy contributions are shown at:


    Nuclear power pays for all of its waste management and plant decommissioning costs. The plant must contribute to a trust fund for its decommissioning (at a cost of ~0.25 cent/kW-hr) and the plants pay the govt. a 0.1 cent/kW-hr fee to the govt. that will fully pay for all repository (Yucca Mtn.) costs. All costs for temporary storage and handling of nuclear waste are also fully paid for, and included in nuclear’s price.

    Given that we will eventually reprocess (at most ~50 years in the future), one repository is all we’ll ever need, even with a large scale nuclear expansion (as reprocessing can reduce the bulk and heat generation of the waste by a factor of ~40). Although reprocessing is slightly more expensive, it will only add a fraction of a cent/kW-hr (~0.2 at most) to nuclear’s price.

    Nuclear can (and will) completely isolate its wastes so that they never have any significant impact on the environment or public health. Nuclear is the only major energy source that fully manages, and pays for managing, all of its waste products. Requiring fossil fuels to do the same would roughly double their price, making them uncompetative w/ nuclear.

  37. IMHO fast reactors with closed fuel cycles are clearly the best technical approach for nuclear energy.

    Thanks for that. Lots of good information there. This thread turned out like I hoped it would: Lots of passionate debate. That always helps me see the issues more clearly.

  38. As to 46% efficient coal plants, they’re either gasifying the coal, or are supercritical steam plants (I’m no expert, but basically this involves involves running your plant at very high pressures and temperatures; water under these conditions starts acting like both a liquid and a gas). You can’t retrofit an existing plant to get that kind of efficiency gain – if you could, everybody already would have, because it would cut the fuel cost 50%.

  39. the problems with nuclear:
    – uranium supplys are also limited and a bit of an unknown quantity

    – nuclear waste currently indeed just gets piled up on the surface. There is not a single working long term storage site worldwide and there might never be on: nuclear waste needs to be contained safely for several ten thousand years – there is no way to guarantee that a depot will not leak over such a long time.

    However, the biggest problem i see is exemplified by the current crisis over Iran: It is easier to build a nuclear bomb than a civil nuclear reactor. Whats more, nuclear reactors produce plutonium that can be used in bombs. So anyone who has the technology to build a reactor can just as well use that knowhow to build a bomb (not to mention the temptation to terrorists to either blow these reactors up or do nefarious things with nuclear waste).
    Now the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty says countries can build legally civil nuclear reactors but not bombs. This is what Iran is saying it does.Under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty what Iran is doing is completely legitimate! The catch is obviously, that once they have the technology, packing the fissile material into a bomb is just the last, and not even most difficult step, so the concern about countries like Iran making bombs in the end is justified. The only way to completely prevent this would be a global end to the nuclear economy.

    On the other hand, i believe, if we spend as much money for research and development of solar power (like concentraded solar you wrote about), we could get the energy from solar for little more money and a lot more global safety.


  40. Like I said above, connecting civil power reactors with nuclear proliferation is a red herring. While it is true that anyone who can build a nuclear reactor can build a nuclear bomb, one should note that most countries that operate nuclear plant don’t build them themselves – I think only USA, France, Germany, Russia, China, Korea, and Japan have companies that currently construct nuclear plants. The Iranian plant is being built by the Russians. Operating nuclear plant has extremely little effect on the capability to build the bomb.

    Another important point is that it is extremely easy to assemble the needed knowledge for a working (though inefficient) nuclear device. Our knowledge on nuclear physics is nowadays advanced enough that the basic information is practically ubiquitious. The main hurdle used to be applying that information on practical device – the needed calculus used to require very efficient supercomputers. However with advancement on computers means that it isn’t problem anymore, few powerful tabletops are all that are needed. Countries like Libya, Pakistan and North Korea have managed to develop needed technologies mostly by themselves so it isn’t that difficult enterprise. You can slow down rogue nation’s bomb program but not stop it by denying access to existing nuclear technologies.

  41. GreenEngineer:

    Didn’t have time yesterday to respond to the rest of your post:

    Intermittency becomes a problem when your solar and wind components exceed 20%-30% of your total energy supply. We’re no where near that…V2G…demand-side management.

    I’m not against renewable power, though I do think people should be up front about what it’s going to cost. I agree that there is a lot of room to expand it from today’s miniscule level. That said, 20-30% is not “limitless”, hence my reaction to the rhetoric. We need to do something about the other 70-80%. Supposing that from this day forward all new power is generated by renewables, we will go decades ramping up to 25%, and in the meantime burn coal. IMO this is not enough to head off a potential climate disaster. In parallel with that we should be replacing coal plants with nukes. V2G is very speculative and I have trouble believing that it will scale to the point where renewables can meet baseload requirements. The energy storage systems on vehicles will be extremely expensive per kwh stored, and optimised for characteristics (weight, charging speed) that don’t matter to fixed-point generation. Round-tripping through them won’t be very energy-efficient, either, so you clearly won’t want to use them with a grid that is powered primarily by fossil sources. Demand management may help incrementally but I have trouble believing it will do more than dent the problem. I could believe that demand management would be effective for a large fraction of transportation energy, but I don’t think there’s much more to be had from existing electric consumption. In sum, I care about where the 70-80% is going to come from and I don’t see it coming from renewables without a power storage breakthrough. That breakthrough could be just around the corner, or it could be a century away. I don’t think it’s wise to count on it to occur in the near future and continue to burn coal until it becomes commercially viable. I think a wiser course is to develop renewables and nuclear plants now, and to shut down coal plants if conservation efforts or renewable projects exceed expectations.

  42. matthias:

    Its hard to bet on a technological breakthrough to solve all the world’s problems that has not yet occured. And most of the problems with nuclear power being discussed now are 1.) solvable and 2.) pale in comparison to the problems that will be caused by continuing to spew the same huge amounts of GHG into the air.

  43. Rob,

    Just wanted to chime in on what others said about why we don’t currently reprocess. Yeah, the nuclear industry right now can get virgin Uranium cheaper, they are already paying for the repository, and it seems to me that a lot of people in the nuclear industry see business opportunities in the repository/storage area. Speculation aside, as someone already mentioned, Carter banned reprocessing because he wanted us to set an example to get others to stop reprocessing to end proliferation. That was a short sighted and ignorant decision, because no country is going to buy that argument since we ALREADY possess nuclear weapons and don’t need to reprocess for weapons.

    Someone else also mentioned the Iranians and other countries who developed their own bomb technology…you don’t really need a nuke plant to build a bomb. I am perfectly comfortable with Iran having a nuclear power plant as long as we could verify and monitor what they are doing, or the world could come up with some form of cooperative fuel enrichment regime where everyone’s nuclear fuel is processed at the same place under international supervision. I really doubt we’ll get any takers on this plan though, as long as a few powers have nuclear weapons and other wanna-be’s don’t. Fair or unfair, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interests for some of those wanna-be’s to get nuclear weapons, or for some of the current powers to unilaterally disarm all of theirs.

  44. When Iran doesn’t actually have any nuclear electricity plants and they are enriching uranium anyways, it isn’t hard to figure out what they want the enriched uranium for.

  45. The main reason nuclear power is so slow is due to the ENORMOUS amounts of regulations heaped on it. It so frustrating to hear anti-nukers use the same tired reasons over and over again when they are the primary cause of the problems. Take the waste “problem”. Enviros have blocked every attempt at creating a permanent storage facility while bitching the whole time about all the waste piling up. And the problem wouldn’t even exist if we just reprocessed the stuff like sensible countries do. Honestly, nuclear power is downright miraculous when you realize it is economical even when only using about 2% of the available energy in the uranium!

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