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Out Of Big Oil And Into Big Nuke

The oil gusher in the Gulf is bad. It’s turning people away from fossil fuel, which could be good. If it turned the powers-that-be to clean, sustainable energy, that would be very good.

But here’s what I bet will happen.

Once the weeping and gnashing of teeth has subsided to a numbed realization that we need to do something next, that’s when the real problems will start. That’s when the nuclear lobby will be back.

[Well, that didn’t take long. That was written around May 15th. This was on Marketwatch, May 21st [1].: “Nuclear Option Back on the Table.” ]

They’ll say we need energy, lots of energy, which we can get only from a large, serious energy source, like nuclear. So let’s go over just a few points related to getting energy from nuclear reactors. (I’m repeating [2] myself [3]. There’s a lot more information and links in those long posts.)

By 2050, North America is projected to need some 7.8 terawatts [4] (pdf) of total primary energy under a business-as-usual scenario. The pro-nuclear argument is that it will provide for business as usual without the sacrifices required by trying to make do with renewable, sustainable, distributed energy which can only provide a fraction of what’s needed.

Take them at their word. Let’s say the weak sisters can’t provide more than about 25% of the projected amount. (I’m setting it higher than pro-nuke scenarios usually do out of kindness. Why it’s a kindness will be clear in a moment.)

Since nuclear plants don’t safely last longer than their operating life of 30 years, if that, all the ones needed in 2050 will have to be built between now and then.

We have forty years (or 2080 weeks) in which to build 75% of 7.8 TW, which is 5,850 gigawatts of capacity. The large reactors built now are on the order of 1GW, The number of fully operational 1GW reactors needed to provide 75% of energy in four decades is 5850.

So about one fully operational 1GW reactor has to be completed every day, except Sundays, starting five months ago. If there are technological breakthroughs so that, say, 5GW commercial reactors can be built, then only a bit more than one per week needs to be finished.

That doesn’t include permitting or siting. Just physical construction. With no delays, large reactors take about five years to build, so there would need to be hundreds of reactors under construction at any one time.

Keep firmly in mind that it is renewable, distributed energy that is unrealistic.

Think about it. You’d need about 21,000 square miles [5] of photovoltaic panels to generate 7.8TWh of power per year at the insolation near Chicago or New England, where it’s 0.3kWh per square foot per day, using 12% efficient solar panels. That’s a square 145 miles on each side. The built-up area in the US is about 125,000 square miles [6] (and some of that’s in Arizona and California, not Chicago). So, worst case, if 15% of built-up areas is roofs, parking lots, windows [7], and roadways which could have photovoltaics installed, then 100% of US energy needs would be met. That’s without using wind, geothermal, tidal, or any other clean energy. That could be added. Production of photovoltaic materials would have to be ramped up to where the stuff could just roll off the presses [8]. There’s also the fact that you and I can install PV panels if we put our minds to it. You and I aren’t ever going to be installing nukes. That takes rare and highly trained experts, so it’s a much more serious option.

Moving right along, the next item is construction time and costs for nuclear reactors. Costs are in the billions and time to completion in years, so the business risks are immense.

Note: these aren’t the risks of operation. Liability for those is limited by the Price Andersen Act [9], which makes the taxpayer the insurer of last resort for the nuclear power industry. In current terms, if they lose too much money, you bail them out.

Companies normally carry insurance for projects with business risks too large for them to absorb, but the professional actuaries at insurance companies consider the business risks of reactors (not the radiation risks, just the business risks during construction) to be too large. So, once again, the taxpayers step in to provide guarantees so that construction can go ahead.

For instance, Obama recently tripled the Federal loan guarantees [10] from $18 billion to $54 billion. The guarantees are intended to cover about 80% of costs, so suddenly instead of only being able to build three nukes, we can build thirteen or so. That’s about two weeks’ worth of the necessary number of reactors if nukes are the solution to the end of oil.

It’s a start. And this way that $54 billion can’t be wasted on funding efficiency retrofits of old buildings or a cash for clunkers program.

The third point about using nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels, is that nuclear fuel is a limited nonrenewable resource. If reactors operated on the scale I’m talking about, the practically recoverable uranium would be depleted [11] in a matter of decades.

(New designs [12] don’t change that equation. Commercial fusion energy, or mining seawater or asteroids are not practical solutions on the necessary timescales. Breeder reactors, sometimes called renewable nuclear energy, solve energy problems the same way decapitation solves brain cancer [2]. So-called advanced designs [13] that share the dubious features of breeders, like fast neutron fluxes and exotic coolants, are just more attempts to sell people on the same failed pig in a new poke.)

Insofar as nuclear energy is a real world option, it is not renewable and its fuel would be gone in decades if it was a major energy source.

So. Nukes can’t be built fast enough to replace oil. They’re uninsurable. Uranium is a depletable resource. None of that even considers the usual roster of health, environmental, and waste problems. So, why do nukes ever come up? How can it be that anyone wastes valuable brain cells on such a total loss of an option?

Well, there’s a lot of money to be made for a few people in any big construction project. Highway money pork is nothing compared nuke pork. Roads to nowhere have been built for the pork of it, and nukes will be, too, if the recipients have much to say about it. (One day after I wrote that, I came across this report [14] from January 31st:

Rather than try to propose a similar project that, like Yucca, might take decade [sic] of grueling planning only to be shot down at the end, the administration’s solution is to commission a panel of experts that includes academics, politicians and businessmen like Exelon CEO John Rowe.

The panel will consider fixes like making some easy changes to waste handling laws, but will doubtless also look at some ideas that have gotten little play in the U.S., like breeder reactors that can reprocess old waste into new, usable fuel. [Emphasis added]

The other good thing is that reactors keep the energy monopoly right where it is now. Backyard mini-nukes [15] get, ahem, glowing reviews full of that old time optimism, but it’s not an option many people would choose for their kids’ playground. So there aren’t any real worries about any of that distributed energy, profit-draining hokum. That makes this nonrenewable polluting energy source a real solution to the problems caused by the other nonrenewable polluting energy source.

Get ready for the serious, correctly dressed people telling you so.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Out Of Big Oil And Into Big Nuke"

#1 Comment By Red Craig On 29 May, 2010 @ 21:24

I’m only talking about the US in this comment, because Canadians don’t like it when Americans tell them their business. In the US, 104 nuclear plants generate 20% of the electricity. At current rates, 75% would require 390 power plants. Probably, Canada would require another 40 or so. How the demand could reach 5850 power plants in 2050 needs closer examination than this article provides.

A couple other points also need to be addressed. It takes thousands of commercial-size wind turbines spread over hundreds of square miles to generate the same electricity as one nuclear power plant. Using your 5850 power plants as an indicator, North America would need six million 3-MW turbines spread over 500,000 square miles. Clearly, this is not a practical target.

Also, the world will not depend on electricity supplies that are available only when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. An energy plan that requires people to stay in their cold dark homes the rest of the time won’t succeed.

I didn’t want to comment on the possibility of constructing 21,000 square miles of solar panels.

It is true, though, that breeder reactors will be an essential part of the world’s energy future.

#2 Comment By quixote On 29 May, 2010 @ 21:53

Yes, 104 nuclear plants generate 20% of the electricity. The point of the piece, however, is the argument that nukes could replace fossil fuel.

If nukes have to supply all the energy, that’s estimated around 7.8 TW in 2050. (Some estimates are double that.) I’ve suggested they only have to supply 75%. That’s 5.85 TW or 5850 GW.

Wind is a useful energy source in some, even many locations. As I discuss in an [3] there are theoretical limitations to wind power, given current and near-future technology, that make it unable to provide 100% of our power. You’ll notice my example was solar providing 100% of power, not wind.

The problems with breeder reactors range from weapons proliferation, orders of magnitude more high level waste, higher and longer lasting toxicity, much greater disaster potential in case of unforeseen circumstances. And so on and on and on. If that’s your idea of a solution, I sincerely hope you can find another planet to live on so you don’t ruin mine.

#3 Comment By Red Craig On 29 May, 2010 @ 22:15

Really, to solve this important problems requires more than snippy slogans. I can’t find the 7.8 TW figure in the reference you cited.

In any case, your concerns are misplaced. Breeders don’t contribute to proliferation any more than conventional nuclear plants do because they produce the wrong isotopes. It’s many times more difficult to make a bomb from spent fuel from either kind of reactor than from uranium. Furthermore, breeders reduce the amount of waste, and it has the same degree of hazard. The hazardous nature of nuclear spent fuel is well understood, so much so that no one ever has been harmed by it.

As far as living on this planet is concerned, here’s what anti-nukes have accomplished: by forcing the world to use fossil fuels, especially coal, they have caused the deaths of millions of people from pollution and poisoned the soil and the oceans and changed the ocean’s chemistry and even changed the world’s climate. You’ve already ruined the planet to the point where it is serious danger of becoming uninhabitable. You’ll never stop lying about nuclear energy because you’d have to admit your culpability.

Instead, you offer idiotic plans like 21,000 square miles of solar panels.

#4 Comment By Neurovore On 30 May, 2010 @ 00:37

Nuclear power really is not the bogeyman that people make it out to be. Unfortunately, certain groups have erroneously linked it to the production of nuclear warheads when the production of nuclear weapons and generating energy from nuclear fission are almost completely different types of technology. Reactor grade material is practically useless for warhead production, not to mention that it is too contaminated with plutonium-240 which serves as a reaction poison in terms of bomb detonation. Since the difference in atomic weight between plutonium-240 and plutonium-239 is very small indeed, attempting to to remove the plutonium-240 from spent fuel stockpiles would be a major headache for terrorists and would probably result in a bomb that would be unpredictable in terms of when it would detonate if it did at all. Even if it did detonate, it would more than likely be a “fizzle” rather than a major explosion like they would be hoping for. If somebody was really dead-set on building a nuclear weapon, it would be much easier to build a facility dedicated for that purpose instead of trying to use breeding stock that would probably turn out to be useless.

Sadly, since when many people think of nuclear power, they think it would lead to nuclear weapons which has helped fuel the historical opposition of nuclear power by the anti-nuclear weapons movement as well as blacken the name of nuclear energy in the eyes of many environmentalists. Unfortunately, this was a result of good intentions gone bad as what is one of the cleanest sources of energy in existence has suffered as a result of decades of scaremongering and highly politicized campaigns by misguided activists groups and politicians (Often in the back pockets of fossil fuel lobbyists) over the decades.

Part of the reason why nuclear power plants take so long to construct is because the licensing agency in charge of overseeing them, the NRC is staffed with bureaucrats rather than anybody with experience in the field of nuclear engineering unlike the DOE. Because of this, the process of applying for the construction of a new plant is a very expensive one, and utilities must pay for the expensive application process out of pocket. The approval process itself is a byzantine maze of regulations and pointless red tape that only adds to the amount of time to get a new site approved. Before construction can even begin, panicking local activists will often attempt to tie up the construction permit in munncipal courts for years. This adds even more time and therefore more expense to the process of building a nuclear power plant.

Needless to say, if the application and construction process of nuclear power plants was greatly streamlined like it is in other countries such as South Korea, the issue of uncontrolled costs could be largely be solved. In addition, since each nuclear power plant is largely “custom” built at the site, it would drive down costs even further if utilities could pick from a pre-approved, standardized design template instead of having to go through the full, wasteful NRC licensing process all over again.

Another reason why nuclear construction costs have gone up is the fact that much of the infrastructure that we would need to built reactor components has been dismantled as we have not built any new nuclear reactors since the 1970s. To use an example, we no longer have the industrial capacity to produce the large containment vessels needed for the reactor chamber. At the moment, Japan is the only country that has the large steel-forging presses needed to construct such a piece of equipment and they already have a long line of customers. It would take about two years of “waiting in line” before they could supply us with such a vessel. This should serve as motivation to upgrade our industrial capacity in order to supply us in order to adequately meet the needs of maintaining our nuclear infrastructure.

Concerning the issue of operating licenses, nuclear power plants are extremely well-built facilities that can last a very long time as they can easily withstand earthquakes, or the occasional collision of a 747 with negligible damage to the exterior of reinforced concrete. The only reason why operating license terms first granted in 40-year spans during the approval of an operating license is because this represents the amortization period used by most electric utilities. In any case, a nuclear facility is free to apply for a license extension after that time period which is why most nuclear facilities are approved to run up to 60 years before their components are rendered obsolete with time.

This is why existing nuclear reactors in the US have efficiency capacity ratings up to 90% making them extremely profitable. This would be impossible to achieve if they really were the “leaky, run-down, zombie” facilities that idiots like Christian Parenti would have you believe. As I am a strong supporter of science, I believe that skepticism is important and that is why I get frustrated when you have people getting hysterical over nuclear energy applications when there has never been a death from radiation exposure in the history of civilian nuclear power reactors in the US. The much referenced Three Mile Island incident resulted in no deaths or casualties, as the containment dome prevented a major release of radioactivity into the surrounding area precisely as it was designed to do. The maximum dose of radiation that was sustained by anybody was roughly comparable to getting a chest x-ray, or what you would be exposed to from background radiation during an airline flight.

There is a blog dedicated to debunking bad science that I highly recommend called Depleted Cranium. Its author has written some excellent articles concerning the fears of nuclear weapons proliferation:


As well as some of the issues that some anti-nuclear groups such as Greenpeace hold against nuclear power:


Again, I do not mean to come off as preachy or antagonistic. This blog does a good job of writing about progressive ideas and I otherwise agree with the author on her political views. I also consider myself an environmentalist, which is why I advocate coming up with rational, scientifically-based solutions to environmental problems that can be implemented on a practical level. Nuclear energy is not being fully utilized to its true potential at the moment as it could go a long way towards alleviating the environmental problems associated with our dependence on fossil fuels as wind and solar power are too intermittent to be relied upon for baseload energy demand.

#5 Comment By quixote On 30 May, 2010 @ 09:01

One more time:

On the one hand you have clean, renewable energy sources that provide distributed jobs and improve property values and can satisfy projected energy needs. (Note that 21,000 square miles of PV panels really could be built, formidable as it sounds, because millions of people could be building them.)

On the other hand, you have a polluting resource which will run out rather soon and physically cannot be built fast enough to satisfy requirements. (Radioactive pollution is not better merely because it’s different from petrochemical pollution.) Money spent on Option Two cannot be spent on Option One.

That’s a no-brainer. So I can only assume that Red Craig and Neurovore must be overthinking the issue…?