Nuclear Power

If you believe in climate change and you’re not championing Nuclear power as a critical piece of reducing carbon, you’re not being realistic.

I follow several people on Twitter that are experts in the field. The most prominent is Ben Heard, from Australia who founded and is a proponent of using nuclear power to address the global catastrophe that is climate change.

Yes, renewables like solar, wind, tidal, are all great types of renewable energy. But they will never compete with Nuclear on electrical generation to replace what is called the “Baseload” that high carbon electrical generation currently produces today.

Let’s put this in perspective shall we? Frorm here:

Baseload is the electrical generation you need all the time. Ben Heard has a great article on it.

If we zoom into renewables:

The important part here is over the course of the last 45 years, renewables have not even been able to accommodate 5% of the energy growth as the world continues to consume more & more energy.

How about those fossil fuels, eh?

So if you believe there is a climate emergency, and you are against Nuclear, I’d love to hear how realistic you think it is to believe that energy generation, which creates such a massive CO2 debt, can be replaced.

Other good links:

@Fifth_Fret brought up this awesome online book that has volumes of information on energy use and renewables and how climate change is impacted:

PS: I didn’t want to resurrect a thread from 2013 b/c it was too focused on the US.

Waste is the byproduct of nuclear fuel and if there is are two NIMBY’s around Nuclear power, one is waste. It seems most people are stuck in the 1980’s with regards to how we look at waste. First off, there are several different types, and how dangerous they are. Here are a couple of tweets / pictures that might be able to chip away at the worldview of nuclear waste:

For one thing, waste from modern nuclear reactors is small. It doesn’t take very much area to store them. For another, engineers have improved how we store them immensely.

Existing old fuel waste can be re-processed so that it’s half-life is considerably reduced to centuries instead of millenia.

Newer fuel processes get that down to decades.

Reserved for safety

Reserved for cost

I suspect part of the problem is that while nuclear power is objectively safer than most other forms of power generation, the consequences of a disaster are far, far more significant. That is, say there’s a 1% chance for a catastrophic failure, compared to something else with say a 5% chance. So far, so good. But if that 1% happens, it will do X damage, while if the 5% happens, it will do X/100 damage. People are understandably leery of even very minor possibilities of really bad things happening I would guess.

That, and Chernobyl on HBO.

One of the newer fission plants that has a lot of people excited is the one being proposed by Oklo energy. called the Aurora. They’ve recently been granted a site in tIdaho.

We really need to stop thinking of the older designs. These newer designs reflect decades of engineering learning.

Problem with this calculus is that maximum disaster for nuclear can be high, cumulative damage (even setting aside carbon and climate change) is far higher for fossil fuels.

Like the amount of radioactivity released in fly ash is higher for coal than the radioactive waste in nuclear. The amount of contaminants released as per the course is higher. Things like fly ash containment breaches can ruin entire river ecosystems.

And this isn’t even disaster. The damage is done as par for the course. The local health effects are baked in. The damage of normal ‘safe’ operation is far higher than even disaster projections for nuclear.

The trouble is small cumulative daily damage is harder to detect and act on than flashy one time events. Higher cancer in a community due to decades of pollution isn’t as obvious as the death and disease from a discrete event.

But there’s nowhere even close to a 1% chance of failure for a modern reactor.

The chance of failure is many, many orders of magnitude less.

The AP1000 has a maximum core damage frequency of 5.09 × 10−7 per plant per year.

You can run an AP1000 for half a billion years before it has a core failure… Which doesn’t even mean that it would release any nuclear material into the environment. Just that it’s core suffers some kind of damage.

Safety is a just a factor in the cost, it’s fine if you account for adequate precautions.

But mainly the overall cost just isn’t competitive and all the trends are in the wrong direction. Every plant takes longer to build than expected, has huge overruns, etc. Maybe we can change this but it’s not looking good. ‘Baseload’ power is charged at a premium and often by the time the plants are build, the entire local power market has changed and everyone is stuck paying super high prices. You can’t run the plant at 25% power and save 25% costs, like you can with natural gas.

Not that we shouldn’t subsidize research and some plant construction in the hopes that we can resolve these problems. But are first goal should be to build long distance high capacity power grid and let all the carbon free sources fight it out on the market (this would also help nuclear, since they could build a plant in a locality that wants it, and sell the power elsewhere, rather than having to build it next to your customers.)

It doesn’t when we put them into our Navy ships. There were cost overruns recently with the Ford, but it wasn’t related to the nuclear reactors.

It’s worth asking what the actual source of the cost overruns is, since we’re able to make compact reactors that sail around the ocean, without trouble, and have been doing so for half a century.

I haven’t done any research on this, but I would guess the military is fine with high costs since they get huge advantages like being able to stay underwater without refueling, etc. Similar with rockets where you pay extra for a lot of power in a small space. But we don’t see joe-cargo-ship using nuclear power plants because it wouldn’t actually be cheaper, right? (I feel like Russia must have tried this…)

Well, it’s mainly that building a small nuclear reactor is still expensive. And a cargo ship doesn’t need anywhere close to the amount of power that an aircraft carrier requires.

But you can look at the actual costs… They aren’t crazy.
The USS Ronald Reagan has 2 A4W reactors, that each produce 550MW. That’s over a gigawatt, that floats.

And the total cost for CVN76 was only $4.5B. That’s a reactor that can produce a gigawatt of power, for 25 years without refueling… Oh, and it also had a bunch of expensive military technology, and is also a city that has a crew of around 6000 people.

We can absolutely build tons of nuclear reactors, if we wanted. France did in the 70’s. They built 85 nuclear power plants in 15 years. And they did it 40 years ago.

Oh, I wasn’t saying it was a good analysis, just that to me it seems like one of the reasons people shy away from nuclear power

And to @Timex’s point, the numbers I was throwing out were obviously just place holders, as I have no idea what real numbers would be. The important thing is perception.

I also think that @Quaro has a good point about costs. Especially when you toss in liability concerns. The cost of insuring a nuke plant must be astronomical, because if there’s even a .000002% chance of a Chernobyl event or worse, the underwriters are going to shit bricks.

Nuclear power can be made super-safe, as @Timex is fond of reminding us. There’s technology to make it happen. But it’s not really about technology any more.

The nuclear power question now is about public opinion, politics, and profit incentives - in approximately that order. Public opinion has already been covered pretty well above - people are scared, and it would take a massive effort to fix that. That drives the politics, and additionally politicians really have no reason to educate their constituents. It’s really easy to stir up fear and NIMBY feelings, and those get you votes. Finally, the incentive to generate power as cheaply as possible in order to maximize profits has led in the past to regulatory capture, poor design, and cutting maintenance corners. That has to be handled, not necessarily by removing profit motives but certainly with better controls, in any future nuclear programs.

But that’s the thing… There’s no chance at all that a modern nuclear plant could fail like Chernobyl.

Never is a really long time. You think a trip to the drugstore is a long time, but that’s peanuts compared to the lifespan of earth. And you can’t really use global numbers, as only a few countries actually invest in renewables, and not much at that.
Having said that, hail nuclear, with a lot of caveats, such as not running them for profit, as energy companies can’t not fuckup… which they can’t anyway at the moment, there’s tons of practical research to be done.

Pretty much no one can deny that if all countries had made the same choice France did 50 years ago, we’d all be better off now; we’d have pushed global warming catastrophe many decades into the future.

We didn’t make that choice because we had cheap and abundant fossil fuels and didn’t calculate the externalities.

Non-nuclear carbon-free technology has advanced a lot in the last 50 years, but every renewable except geothermal and rooftop solar has its own potentially disastrous environmental impacts at scale.

What if the choice was simple. Nuclear power, or the death of millions of people all across the globe? A simple binary. And yes I know that it isn’t that simple. Just a what if.

Then we’d build nuclear plants in the next year. We wouldn’t care about whether they would disturb ancient bones in the ground, and crap like that.

Might be true scientifically, but I bet you dollars to donuts the insurers don’t care. The near-certainty of massive billion dollar lawsuits in the event of any disaster I’m sure is a terrifying thing to the bean counters.