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Nukes can never be the answer

One bizarre effect of global warming is how it’s become a reason to make the problems worse.

Global warming is so bad, that we have to pull out all the stops. That’s true. So far, so good.

But then people go on to lobby for fuel that doesn’t reduce greenhouse gases, that takes land away from food production, and that’s already causing food crises and environmental destruction. They lobby for hydrogen made from coal, because hydrogen is so clean-burning. (No, no, don’t look at the coal plant. Look over here at the hydrogen car.) And they lobby for nuclear power. The first application in over twenty years to build a new nuclear reactor was recently submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The nuke stuff just blows me away. At least the other technologies haven’t been tried on a national scale in the US. If you’re stupid, you could pretend you can’t figure out what the problems are. But nukes have been tried. They did not work. They do not work. They will never work, because they can’t work.

Let me go over exactly why that’s true.

  • At or near twice the current price, there is theoretically enough uranium on the planet to meet energy needs through about 2050. Doubling the price achieves an extra ten years worth of uranium mining as leaner deposits become worth the work. This is not a linear relationship. Eventually, probably around 2100, the maximum price people can pay will meet the last of the uranium that can be extracted at that price. (Miguel Torres writing for The Oil Drum.)

    Short version: Uranium is a finite resource. It will run out about the same time as oil or shortly thereafter.

  • The world currently produces some 7 billion tons of CO2, which will rise to 14 billion by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario. In order to remove one (1) billion of those tons by using nuclear energy, the world needs an extra “700GW (gigawatts) of nuclear capacity, double what’s produced at present by 440 reactors. So that means 880 new reactors …. [T]he United States is responsible for roughly a fourth of all carbon output, we’ll say that the U.S. would need to build around 220 new nuclear reactors by 2050.” (Pascala and Socolow in Science and Brad Plumer.) Let’s give ourselves a wildly optimistic amount of time to get the regulatory ducks in a row, and say that we could start the building project in 2010. That’s one new nuke being built every 2.2 months, just to reduce a small part of the emissions.
  • About 30% of energy use is in transportation, almost all of it currently oil-based. Nuclear energy, by itself, does nothing to change that. A switch to electric cars would have the same infrastructure costs regardless of the source of the electricity. It costs the same to ditch your old car and buy an electric, no matter who your electricity bill comes from. Nuclear energy is not necessary to make the switch.
  • Nukes are dangerous. We all know that. What fewer people are aware of is that they are so dangerous they are uninsurable. If companies actually had to pay the amount of money it would take to induce an insurance company to take on the risk, the power generated would be eyepoppingly expensive.

    The problem is solved by a neat hat trick called the Price-Anderson Act. First passed in 1957, it limited liability for reactor-owning companies. Currently, the limit that any one company must pay out is $95.8 million. (The direct costs of cleaning up Three Mile Island in 1979 were near one billion. That does not include cleaning up the dead plant itself, which is now a mothballed no-man’s land. It does not include the cost of storing the mountains of extra waste. It does not include any indirect medical, real estate, or other costs.) The government maintains a fund that companies must pay into in the event of an accident, which is capped at 9.5 billion dollars. Any costs above that belong to the federal government, i.e. taxpayers. Any costs the government can avoid belong to the people who’ve been harmed. You are the insurer of last resort for the nuclear industry. That subsidy has been valued at about $2.3 million per reactor per year (pdf). Unfortunately, nobody’s paying you your share.

  • Nukes are also dangerous because they are targets for sabotage. The fuel cycle poses a proliferation risk, whether to rogue people or rogue governments. We’ll probably have more immediate concerns at the time, but if the damage is done away from the reactor itself, it’s not covered by the Price-Anderson Act.
  • The idea of using nukes to help a globally warmed world has its funny side. Cooling water is essential to keep reactors from going critical, and in order to do its job it has to be, well, cool. During the heatwaves the world has been having the last few summers, many nukes have had to be shut down or slowed when the rivers supplying their coolant grew too hot. This past summer, a plant in Alabama had to be shut down because of the heat. The problem certainly has technical fixes, such as using the reactor’s power to refrigerate its own coolant, but those are also ironic.
  • The next two biggies are dealing with the radioactive waste and decommissioning the plants. High level radioactive waste, such as spent fuel or reactor cores, will stay dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

    (For instance, Plutonium 239 is one of the elements involved. There are tons of plutonium as part of spent fuel waste. (see, e.g., this readable July 2002 article in the National Geographic.) Half of a pound of plutonium will decay to Uranium 235 in slightly over 24,000 years. Half of the remaining half pound will then take 24,000 years to decay, and so on. The Uranium 235 is itself radioactive, with a half-life of 704,000,000 years. The decay chain of plutonium is complex, but one more of the subsequent steps has a long half-life, Protactinium-231, 32,700 years. All of these are alpha emitters, meaning that aside from chemical toxicity, their radioactive toxicity depends on ingestion. If they’re not breathed in or eaten, i.e. if they can be kept out of the biosphere, they’re not very harmful. Other elements in the decay chain are gamma emitters, which is why a lump of plutonium becomes more dangerously radioactive in the early years of its decay.)

    Just finding a geological formation that has no water to leach toxins out of the stored spent fuel, and that has zero geological activity for that length of time, is a near impossible task. Building a waste disposal site is an expensive undertaking with enormous political costs. Only one has been built in the US, Yucca Mountain. Local opposition is huge (and now includes Harry Reid, Majority Leader of the Senate). It has yet to store any high level waste, but the first civilian shipment is supposed to happen in 2017. Until permanent storage somehow becomes available, much fuel waste is stored in “temporary” pools on the grounds of the reactor where it was produced. Many of those are already full. There’s a big, but quiet, fight about so-called interim storage. The situation for low and mid-level waste is no better.

    Companies are trying to avoid drawing attention to the waste problem by not actually disposing of the waste. That way they can rely on rosy estimates from the days when people were full of hope, and don’t have to contend with actual costs that are orders of magnitude higher. The workaround is to say on-site storage is a fine solution. Meanwhile, waste with nowhere to go is already choking the nukes we have now.

    Decommissioning plants is an even bigger problem that the whole industry is trying to pretend out of existence. The expected lifespan of a reactor is thirty to forty years. Many don’t make it that far because radiation is hard on materials. But however long they make it, the whole reactor core is high level waste. Except for the tiniest, oldest reactors, there is no way to move the whole core as a unit. It would have to be cut up and shipped out in pieces. Everything that touches the core also becomes high level waste. The only reactors that have been decommissioned are tiny, old ones where the whole core could be loaded on a barge. All the others are just sitting there, while the companies hope nobody notices. Properly decommissioning one ordinary-sized reactor would cost billions.

    As with waste, the decommissioning problem is dealt with by not dealing with it. Instead, old plants are relicensed in spite of age-related malfunctions.

  • This list so far hasn’t even mentioned the environmental, health and fuel costs of uranium mining, transportation, and processing. It hasn’t mentioned the long term health and environmental risks from the permitted levels of radioactivity and pollutants released by reactors during normal operation. Transmission losses, necessarily around 7% since nuclear energy can’t be decentralized, are another factor.
  • Finally, the supposed solution to the uranium supply problem is to run breeder reactors. The plutonium fuel is surrounded by a blanket of non-radioactive uranium (U238), which is turned into plutonium and radioactive uranium by the energetic neutrons coming from the fuel. That can then be processed and used as fuel itself, so the plant generates more fuel than it uses, hence “breeder reactor.” (This doesn’t violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The blanket is trapping energy, not creating it.)

    Plutonium is highly explosive. Unlike ordinary light-water reactors, these plants really are sitting bombs. The radiation levels are much worse than the already high ones at ordinary reactors. Because of the plutonium decay chain, a lump of the stuff actually gets more dangerously radioactive with time. Plutonium239, the main isotope involved, is also the one needed for nuclear weapons. These plants increase nuclear weapons proliferation risk by orders of magnitude. Much more high level radioactive waste is produced. Decommissioning one of these plants isn’t even discussed in the ordinary press.

    Fast breeder plants are huge complicated facilities. Once built, it takes some time for them to generate fuel, and it takes time to reprocess it. For all these reasons, fast breeders wouldn’t make much difference to the world energy budget before about 2050, and that’s assuming we get on it and start planning to build them right now.

    Short version: fast breeders will solve the supply problem. They will solve it too late to be any use. They also stand a good chance of making the planet unlivable in the process.

The facts, with their well known liberal bias, are overwhelmingly against nuclear power in any form. But surely, there has to be some positive fact somewhere. It can’t be all bad or people wouldn’t be so eager to build them.

It’s true. It isn’t all bad, depending on who you are. Utilities are regulated. Regulation stipulates that they’re allowed to make money proportional to their investment. It’s one of those ideas that seemed good at the time. It was supposed to give utilities an incentive to invest money in infrastructure. But what it means is that they’re rewarded for spending money. The regulations forgot to make sure the money was spent cost effectively. And nukes are the most expensive thing out there.

So, yes, nuclear reactors are good for the utilities. Any large, centralized, expensive method of generating electricity is better for them than anything small, cheap, and distributed. When they do wind power, they’re only interested in huge turbines that generate megawatts. It’s more efficient, they say. (That’s true, technically, but it sure isn’t true socially.) When they do solar power, they like solar concentrators, in which acres of mirrors or fresnel lenses focus an intense beam on a central tower and produce, again, megawatts of power. Or acres of sun-tracking photovoltaic arrays that produce megawatts. There’s a pattern here. It’s true that sometimes large point sources of energy are needed, but they’re not the only thing that’s needed. Changing the regulations could bring the incentives in line with reality.

The problem with the “debate” about nukes is its similarity to the “debate” about evolution. To be considered serious, you have to give time to both sides of the issue. You have to be willing to see validity on both sides. Anything else is shrill.

In the eagerness not to be called any names, people try to convince themselves nukes are worth trying. Again. But that’s not cost-free comfort. The money spent on nukes can’t be spent on energy efficiency, which, by itself, could achieve the majority, not some piddling fraction, of the carbon reductions we need (see, e.g, pdf, American Solar Energy Society summary of studies, 2007, p. 32.)

That bears repeating. Energy efficiency in transportation, buildings, and industry could reduce energy needs by over 50%. Energy efficiency does not involve a reduction in living standards. One could argue that the reduced pollution is actually an improvement. Nukes, with all their costs and radiation, assuming pie-in-the-sky building schedules, could provide barely a fifth of that, and then only for a few decades. So, between industry executives and stroller-pushing greenies, who, exactly, is the cloth-headed idealist who is avoiding the facts?

The money spent on nukes can’t be spent on clean, sustainable energy. It can’t be spent on changing power systems from a supply-demand model to a distributed production and power-wheeling model. Money spent on nukes does more than create waste and huge new problems. It prevents real solutions from happening.

Other links:
Union of Concerned Scientists, the great-granddad of citizen organizations pushing for safety in the nuclear industry.