New Nuclear Power: A Glowing Review

Last week, the United States approved the construction of two new nuclear reactors in Georgia. The reactors will be the first new plants built in the U.S. in over three decades. I’m lucky enough to know an expert in the field, so I called Jennifer Henning, who works as a design engineer for an engineering consulting firm in the nuclear energy industry in Atlanta, to ask her a few questions about the new plants and what they mean.

Interview below the fold!

Why has it taken so long for nuclear power plants to be approved in the U.S.?

There are several reasons for the delay.  After Three Mile Island in ’79 and Chernobyl in ’86, the nuclear industry understandably felt a considerable backlash about the safety of nuclear plants, public support for nuclear power waned, and no new nuclear plants started construction after that.  A few of the ones in construction were completed in the following years, but many of the plants under construction during that time period simply weren’t finished.

Image courtesy AP

Since then, the lessons learned from those two accidents were applied to increase the safety of the existing plants in the US and around the world.  Fast forward to the last decade, when our concerns over fossil fuel power plants have increased due to the carbon dioxide emissions that are increasing global temperatures, and power companies have started to return to nuclear as one of the many sources of energy to replace fossil fuels.  However, due to the increased safety regulations imposed over the last twenty years, it has become much more expensive to build a nuclear power plant than it used to be. Back in the ’60s and ’70s a company could build a nuclear plant for around $1 billion.

Today the cost is something like ten times that amount. That kind of money takes time to secure, even for large utility companies.  There are of course also political and public interest concerns when you’re talking about a facility that could potentially affect the safety of so many people.  Public hearings need to be scheduled and held, meetings with policy makers, etc.  But even without those factors, a nuclear plant is a complicated system, and these things simply take time to design.  The utilities and engineering firms designing the plants work closely with the NRC to establish a licensing schedule, and there are milestones that must be met along the way to final approval of the design.

How different are these plants from the plants that are in use today? Are they more efficient/safer etc? How are the new designs an improvement?

Simply put, the biggest difference between the new plants and the existing plants is newer technology.  The plants that are in operation today were designed and built around 40 years ago, and so much of the technology in them is 40 years old.  They have received numerous upgrades since then, parts are replaced as they age with newer and better parts, but the fundamental design is old.  So when we apply upgrades to the existing plants, we have certain restrictions simply to make new technology work with the old.  While this doesn’t mean the plants are inherently unsafe; they are in fact, very safe, it does leave out certain options simply because they won’t work with what’s in place.

The newer plants are able to take advantage of all the new technology developed over the last 40 years.  That means that they are much more efficient: they are able to produce more power with the same amount of nuclear fuel, thereby reducing the amount of radioactive waste produced.  The new plants are also able to employ more passive safety features.  A safety feature is passive when nothing needs to be done for it to work.

For example, the new plants use natural convection instead of forced convection in more areas, reducing the number of pumps required to operate the plant.  By using fewer pumps, there are fewer pieces of mechanical equipment to maintain in good working order, reducing the number of possible equipment failures.

Is the fact that the U.S. is so behind with nuclear plants a danger in any way, as plants get older?

As the nuclear plants currently operating in the US age, they must seek licensing extensions from the NRC.  Each plant is issued a 40-year operating license when it is built.  As long as they comply with NRC regulations and maintain the plant in safe working order, they can continue to operate for 40 years.  At the end of those 40 years, they must either renew their license or shut down.  There are several plants in the country that have received a 20 year extension on their licenses.  Of course, they must still maintain the plant in a safe condition for those 20 years in order to continue to operate.  As long as that licensing process is in place, and the NRC maintains independent oversight of the plants to ensure that they are complying with the conditions of those licenses, they will be safe to operate.

However, these plants won’t last forever.  At some point, they will be too old to be able to get a license renewal.  Some plants may not be able to get extensions past the 60-year mark; we’ll have to wait and see what they look like as that time approaches.  The good thing is that the plants are maintained extremely well.  But, as those plants age beyond the point of being safe to run, we’ll need something else to take their place.  Nuclear power provides about 20% of our electricity today, and if that were to suddenly disappear the US wouldn’t have enough power to satisfy our needs.

Wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power are all great alternatives as well since they’re zero-emission and renewable, but they aren’t able to provide a reliable, steady foundation for our power grid the way nuclear can.  They can be extremely expensive as in the case of solar, require vast amounts of land as wind and solar do, and aren’t practical in all areas of the country.  So really, building new nuclear plants is so important because it is a big part of our domestic energy supply going forward because at some point the existing plants will need to be replaced, and nuclear power at this point can’t feasibly be replaced with any other power source.

I don’t think the fact that we haven’t built new plants puts us in any sort of danger, though.  There is a worldwide collaboration within the nuclear industry, and organizations such as the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), American Nuclear Society (ANS), the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) work with organizations around the world to share operating experience information with each other to make nuclear power safe everywhere.

What does this mean for Georgia as a state in terms of energy – is this something we were in dire need of or is it just an additional source?

I’m not aware of any energy deficits in Georgia or the surrounding states, so this is really just a plus for Georgia.  It provides us an additional energy source that once completed will provide steady, reliable power for many decades to come.

There have been concerns raised about this approval coming without first getting all the findings of the Fukushima disaster. Are those concerns valid? Are there any lessons from Fukushima that have been put in place for these plants?

Photograph from Tokyo Electric Power Company via Kyodo/AP

Of course, we want to learn as much as we can about the whys and hows of the Fukushima disaster.  We need to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.  I’m certain that over the coming decade the NRC will require several new safety features to mitigate the chances of a similar disaster happening here. Some likely upgrades to existing plants will include longer backup battery life and better protection of emergency diesel generators, but any possible new requirements are still being developed by the NRC.  However the NRC’s initial investigation into the causes of the Fukushima disaster, in order to determine if any immediate changes needed to be made to the plants in the US, found that no immediate changes were necessary.

The NRC feels that the plants currently operating in the US are operating safely and the chances of the same type of disaster happening here are extremely remote.  As the long-term investigation continues, if there are any new requirements for US nuclear reactors, the new plants will be subject to them just like the existing plants, and they’ll need to make design changes to comply with new requirements if they don’t meet them already.

Do the anti-nuclear lobbyists have valid concerns or are they a bunch of squishy hippies?

When I tell people what I do for a living, and what industry I work in, I get a variety of reactions.  Some people think it’s really cool, other people just give me a deer-in-the-headlights stare and aren’t really sure what to say next, some people ask me if I glow in the dark, and every once in a while I meet someone who tells me they think we need to get rid of nuclear power.  The last response is the one I get the least, but I do get it.  Nuclear energy is powerful stuff (pun intended), and we need to treat it with the respect it deserves.  The nuclear industry takes safety extremely seriously.  Our clients have daily, weekly, and monthly safety topics.  Safety is incorporated into every task that takes place, whether it’s engineering design, operations, maintenance, even routine everyday tasks.

Koji Sasahara/AP

The NRC acts as an independent watchdog organization to make sure that the plants are following safe practices, and if they don’t they’ll get fined or can even lose their operating license.  While the energy provided by nuclear plants is important, nothing is more important than the safety of the people living near these plants.  Keep in mind, too, that the people responsible for keeping the plants operating safely would be the first to be harmed if something goes wrong.  Their families live in the nearby towns as well, so they have a very personal interest in keeping their plants operating as safely as possible.

Another thing to consider is: what would happen if we shut down all the nuclear reactors in the U.S.?  That’s 20% of the country’s power gone.  We’d have rolling blackouts until we could replace that energy.  Energy prices would probably go up considerably as well.  Currently, there is no feasible replacement for nuclear power.  I mentioned all the major forms of renewable energy earlier, and they could help to bridge the gap, but they simply can’t replace nuclear power.  Solar only works when the sun is out; solar and wind both take up vast areas of land; hydroelectric is only feasible in areas where there are large, reliable amounts of moving water; and geothermal just can’t provide enough energy to make up the difference.   If we build more coal plants, we’re speeding up climate change by the increased emissions.  So while using these other forms of energy helps us to diversify our energy sources, cutting nuclear out altogether is not a viable option.

Assuming the plant will be on a river and will need a steady supply of water, are there concerns if we were to have another drought?

Things like the frequency and severity of droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural events are taken into account when determining the licensing basis for plants.  Plants built near oceans are designed to withstand hurricanes and floods.  Plants built in earthquake zones are designed to withstand more seismic activity.  Though I can’t speak to the specifics of these new plants planned to be built in Georgia, I would expect their design to take into account that another drought is likely to occur at some point in the future and they must be able to continue to operate safely when it occurs.

Do we have to be worried about nuclear waste in Georgia? How will we guard against the irradiated mutant monsters that will stalk o’er the land?  is there an ointment or something? :)

Nuclear waste is currently stored at the site of each nuclear reactor in the country.  The storage facilities for nuclear fuel are designed with similar requirements to the nuclear plants themselves.  They must be able to withstand natural disasters and be protected against sabotage for extremely long periods of time.  Even if a plant stops operating, the utility that owns it must continue to store the nuclear fuel located on its site.  As long as the fuel continues to be stored in a safe manner, we have no concerns of three-eyed fish showing up in our rivers and lakes.  My personal opinion is that a centralized national storage site for nuclear waste would be good to have to allow some of these sites, particularly plants that are no longer operating, to relocate the waste to a single, consolidated facility.  However the fuel is stored in a manner that is safe.

When you take control and hold the eastern seaboard hostage, will you have any openings for minions and/or henchmen?

My takeover plans are top-secret and I can’t share them with you.  However, the nuclear industry is going strong, and several companies in the industry have continued to hire through the recession.  A person with an engineering degree, a strong technical background, and the ability to pass fairly rigorous background checks could have a pretty good career working in nuclear power.

Any other interesting things about these plants or about nuclear power in general you’d like to mention?

As an engineering geek, I get pretty excited when I hear about new innovations in technology, and these plants fascinate me.  I look forward to the day when I get an opportunity to work on an upgrade to the new plants, though it’s likely pretty far down the road.


Jennifer Henning has a BSE in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  She works as a design engineer for an engineering consulting firm in the nuclear energy industry in Atlanta, GA.  She performs engineering design modifications to nuclear plants around the country.  She is also a member of North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NA-YGN), U.S. Women in Nuclear (USWIN), the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and the Atlanta Skeptics. Many thanks to her for putting up with my questions! :)

Featured image via David Goldman, AP


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I was disappointed to not hear anything about thorium.

    That is a two hour video, but there is a five minute “abstract” at the beginning of the video going over the basics of a liquid fluoride-thorium reactor. It would be cool to hear Jennifer Henning’s opinions on these different types of reactors.

    1. I too would also like to hear about Thorium or LIFTR’s from a perspective that isn’t connected with Flibe Energy.

      Flibe claims that Thorium reactors could provide the entire planet’s energy needs for thousands of years to come. That’s a hell of a claim. Que Carl Sagan.

  2. An “expert” with disclosed industry ties and a completely condescending and uncritical interviewer. This passes for skepticism? We can do better methinks.

    1. Yes, I find the whole thing extremely disturbing.
      I mean, just the way the question is asked “Do the anti-nuclear lobbyists have valid concerns or are they a bunch of squishy hippies?” … What the fuck? Do you think the whole of Germany stops using nuclear because we are all hippies?

      1. Knowing Maria and this website fairly well, I can tell you with some confidence that “squishy hippie” was tongue-in-cheek.

        If either of you has a suggestion for an alternative energy expert you’d like to see interviewed, please feel free to offer it.

  3. Ok, seriously, what the flying fuck is this? Promoting nuclear power without any valid criticism whatsoever. The statements are so full of white-washing I’m still too baffled to believe this is actually on here!

    “Wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power are all great alternatives as well since they’re zero-emission and renewable, but they aren’t able to provide a reliable, steady foundation for our power grid the way nuclear can.”

    – Why is that? That’s just thrown in here, when it is NOT TRUE. Germany is just doing this at the moment, making the zero-emission powers the one that people will rely on while phasing out the gas/coal/nuclear crap.

    “and the chances of the same type of disaster happening here are extremely remote. ”

    – yeah, wow, because it’s not people in Japan thought the same fucking thing!

    “cutting nuclear out altogether is not a viable option.”
    – if this were true, why do other countries do it??

    “However the fuel is stored in a manner that is safe.”
    – This is so wonderfully vague and tells us nothing. There is no safe way to store it, there are so many ways power plants and their waste affect human beings living near it.

    Wow. Just wow. This is a new low for this website, really.

  4. I had no idea there were other people with experience in nuclear energy around here.

    The U.S. could easily follow Germany’s model, the very minute the U.S. has Germany’s power needs. Shouldn’t be hard, since Germany has 25% of the population. Looking forward to it!

    1. That’s a pretty serious red herring, Phlebas. Raw population is virtually meaningless. What matters is per capita consumption, which is only slightly less than the US, and population density which is slightly higher. As to renewable not being a viable replacement for nuclear, Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford suggests otherwise in freely downloadable, published and peer reviewed study.

    2. Not to mention that Germany is the size OF MONTANA! So making wind energy and sending from Kansas to New York shouldn’t be any problem, right?

      As for this article, there are real questions about nuclear energy that were not addressed and the interview style was clearly tongue-in-cheek which belies the seriousness of the subject matter.

      Nuclear can be just as safe as, and far less polluting, then fossil fuel sources. It needs to be part of the solution,at least in the interum, since the zero-emission options have their own concerns among which are toxic materials used in their manufature, geographical issues, ecological problems, not to mention the need for better batteries which themselves contain toxins. There are others but I am not an expert.

      The old saw of “nukes are bad” is only half of the story. Of course the lie about nuclear being the only future solution is bunk too. Looks like the truth, as often happens, falls somewhere in the middle.

      1. See the comment above about size.

        I don’t see how sending energy should be a main problem, it’d still be simpler than getting gas from from Russia to the other side of Europe. They still did this anyway.

        I really would not have minded a piece on renewable power and nuclear power that considered both critically, but this is not it.

        Are the downsides to the sources of renewable energy we have now? Yes, of course, and I’m not denying them. But claiming, as the interview does, that it’s merely impossible for them to be a substitute is just simply false and they don’t even give proper arguments to argue against.

      2. The US has the technology to make a supergrid that allows power to be swapped nationwide, we simply haven’t invested in the infrastructure other than in a single corredor in the Pacific Northwest down to California…using German technology, none the less. As I said, population density does matter, but “supergrid” technology is available, of the shelf. We just haven’t invested in infrastructure.

        1. And the fact that we haven’t invented in the supergrid is a huge fucking bottleneck for advancement of power generation.

        2. Sorry I write these things a little hastily and screw up on the spelling, I meant “invested in”.

          And yeah, our legislators would rather spend on unwinnable wars than our power grid.

  5. “chances of the same type of disaster ”

    Who cares about chances of the same type of disaster? No two accidents are the same.
    What are the chances of disasters no one thinks (or wants to think) of today?

  6. Jesus H, people.

    No one is claiming that nuclear fission is the magic bean that will bring us energy forever. But like mrmisconception said, it’s superior to burning fossil fuels. How many people have died worldwide in nuclear accidents since Chernobyl in 1986? And how many have died in mine accidents since then just in West Virginia?

    If we can get zero-emission energy efficient enough to give us the same amount of energy, then that’s great. Something like that should be the goal. But we aren’t there yet, so we should take some interim steps. We can’t just straight to perfectly clean energy, so let’s phase out the dirtiest stuff for CLEANER stuff. In the meantime, let’s get to work on the necessary infrastructure to support renewable energy.

    A follow-up article on renewable energy would be a great companion piece. Maybe one of the Chicks can take that on.

    As for the tone, Skepchick used to be able to bring the funny as well without a high-pitched whine from the audience. Maria’s questions were phrased in a silly way, but there were real questions underlying them. And Jen responded seriously, so what’s the problem?

    1. “But we aren’t there yet, so we should take some interim steps.” Yes we are. Read the Stanford study.

  7. “Keep in mind, too, that the people responsible for keeping the plants operating safely would be the first to be harmed if something goes wrong” Well it worked so well at Prypiat. Heck, why even have OSHA? I mean, workers would be the first people to get hurt, so they would never do anything unsafe right?

  8. I don’t know anything about this subject matter, so I’m going to stay mum, except to say that this discussion is fascinating!

  9. //My personal opinion is that a centralized national storage site for nuclear waste would be good to have to allow some of these sites, particularly plants that are no longer operating, to relocate the waste to a single, consolidated facility. However the fuel is stored in a manner that is safe.//

    My concern here is the long term effects on several generations down the road. The nuclear waste will be around for 10s of thousands of years. Let’s say in the next 6000 years, order breaks down in the united states and we no longer have the infrastructure to maintain these sites properly.

    A huge section of Belarus is currently irradiated and it’s been causing cancers and birth defects among the people there ever since 1986. Given that the waste will be around much longer than we can predict political stability, it makes sense to do address the waste problem with extreme prejudice.

    In short, the issue of storing nuclear waste needs some SERIOUS future-proofing.

    I think what she suggests here to localize the waste to a few remote sites in the country where its effect on natural resources is minimized is very good. I hope her and those responsible for nuclear energy in our country will make a significant effort towards this.

  10. I appreciated this article quite a bit – I’m not going to get into debates with anyone, but I do agree with Jennifer!

    The only thing I will say is that Germany’s electricity pricing is three times that of the US. This is in part because of their grid, but also in part because of the energy sources use. Nuclear is safer and cleaner than coal, and has a steadier production than wind or solar, and requires less space than wind, solar, or hydroelectric, and can be done in more places than wind, solar, hydroelectric, or geothermal. I don’t know if it’s the best power source, and I certainly don’t think we should ONLY use nuclear, but I do think it’s a fundamental part of reducing the carbon emissions that everyone is so concerned about, as well as other dangerous air contamination that coal creates.

    And seriously, for everyone getting mad that they brought in someone from the industry to talk about it, how do you expect to really be a skeptic without hearing different viewpoints? You can’t just read another skeptic’s interpretation of everything! Was everyone pissed during the Fukushima crisis because Skepchick was interviewing someone who had worked in nuclear — or was that only okay because he had negative things to say?

    1. Germany’s average is 0.134 Euro per kwh, 2011 data
      US average is 0.115 dollars per kwh, 2009 data

      As of today, google puts 0.134 Euro at $0.176

      That’s 53% more, not 300%. If you read the study I posted you see that renewable uses fractions of percent more space than nuclear, and that spread across the grid, that renewable is just as reliable. Also, I’ve glad we got the perspective on this article. I’m not complaining its by an “industry insider” or anything, just that the basic premise, that we need to go nuclear instead of renewable has been proven false.

      1. My bad on the electricity costs – the site I was looking at must have had bad data. I do know when I was staying in Germany, the person I was staying with had power bills that were thrice mine, and their house was the equivalent of my first floor.

        In order to verify that study, I’d have to read the study and all of it’s references. I do disagree with some of their arguments against nuclear – partially because it doesn’t appear to address any of the potential safety issues with the other energy sources. I would like to point out that the only reason people know about the things they mention (redoing modifications at Diablo Canyon, etc.) is because of the reporting system that the nuclear industry requires.

        They don’t appear to note the amount of land required for nuclear plants in that study, either, unless I missed it while I was reading, which makes it hard to compare.

        I do work in the industry, so I admit I have a bias. However, I don’t think that moving entirely to renewables *right now* is the correct choice – I don’t think we should be shutting down our plants, and I do think building more plants is a good idea.

        As far as the complaints about who was interviewed, I was not talking about you. :)

      2. Your cost analysis is incorrect. You’re comparing industrial costs in Germany to residential costs in the U.S. using sets of data that are two years apart. The exchange rate from the time period you’re comparing should be used, rather than the current exchange rate. If you average the rates from November, the exchange rate works out to about 1EUR=1.355677USD.

        Industrial costs in the U.S. for November 2011 are 0.066USD/kWh
        Industrial costs in German for November 2011 are 0.134EUR/kWh, equivalent to 0.1817USD/kWh, or 2.75 times more than the U.S.

        Residential costs in the U.S. for November 2011 are 0.1188USD/kWh
        Residential costs in Germany for November 2011 are 0.2281USD/kWh, equivalent to 0.3092USD/kWh, or 2.60 times more than the U.S.

        Germany’s high consumptions rates are slightly less, but not significantly.

  11. Yeah… no.

    I have working experience in American manufacturing, family in nuclear power, and a rough knowledge of the state of American regulatory agencies. Based on those things, I personally can’t support the construction of new nuclear power plants in America. I’ve seen too many insane “cost-cutting” measures, heard a couple of scary stories, and don’t think that the government can or would act as an adequate watchdog of new construction.

  12. My problem with nuclear is the elephant in the living room: the spent fuel rods.

    The idea of putting all the waste in several remote locations sounds good except you have to get it there, and there currently isn’t any “there” that anyone can agree on. Yucca Mountain was scraped, partly due to concerns about earthquake faults in the region. And we already have more nuclear waste stored in Washington state than any one knows what to do with.

    The Hanford Site includes more than 50 million gallons of high-level liquid waste in 177 underground storage tanks, 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel, 12 tons of plutonium. Much of the liquid waste was storged in single shell casks , which leaked.

    Some of this waste is leaking into the Columbia river watershed:

    Here are a few worrisome quotes:

    “The report, “Citizens Monitoring of Columbia River Radionuclides,” was peer reviewed by a retired Hanford scientist and reviewed by the Oregon Office of Energy.”

    “In addition to plutonium being found for the first time in fish, increased levels of strontium, mercury, beryllium, uranium, and cesium were detected in aquatic creatures. Short and long term effects of this exposure remain unknown, the report states.”

    1. Nuclear is dirty, it is going to kill people. But then so is coal, so is gas, so is solar and the other renewables. Solar is horribly polluting at the moment, this story picked at random to compare to your fish with radio nucleotides in them -( I’d rather live next to the American nuclear power station than any Chinese solar factory.

      Unless we go back to living in caves we will need energy and the energy we use will pollute and it will kill. But why the hysteria over nuclear which manifestly has so far killed significantly less people than coal, gas and oil certainly but probably less than some ‘clean’ technologies like solar?

      I’m no nuclear apologist (Although I’m sounding like it here!) – I’d like to see a debate on a sceptic website that is missing the un-scientific hysteria you get whenever nuclear is mentioned.

      BTW lookup terrapower if Bill Gates pumps enough money into them you could find that nuclear waste you are worried about powering your xbox and 50 inch Tv for a few hundred years.

      1. Can you sight a source that says solar is more polluting over the life of the equipment than nuclear? Everything I’ve read says that photovoltaic plants pay of the energy debt that was used to make them within 20 or so years, whereas non renewables simply continue to pollute as they produce energy. But that’s not taking into effect the processing of silicon.

        Also, my understanding of current state of the art nuclear power is that it only uses 0.5% of the available fuel due to transuranic poisoning of the fuel rods, and the only way to turn convert transuranics into fuel is through fast reactors which are more difficult to construct and have a poorer safety record (with the exception of Superfenix) and fuel reprocessing, which UCS believes is a proliferation risk.

        1. I’m not daft enough to say solar is more polluting than nuclear power. Solar production uses nasty chemicals some of which leach into the atmosphere – some people have even postulated that the NF3 produced by solar production will cause more global warming than the savings from burning fossil fuels. Its a complex picture but the main point is that all energy production is dirty but nuclear is far more preferable to fossil fuel burning. For some reason when there is a discussion about future energy needs you get irrational arguments against nuclear (it will kill us all!) totally ignoring the fact that coal, oil and gas have been vastly more damaging to human health.

          1. “Nuclear is dirty, it is going to kill people. But then so is coal, so is gas, so is solar and the other renewables. Solar is horribly polluting at the moment”

            This why I asked to cite a source that says that solar pollutes more than nuclear. To which you said “I’m not daft enough to say solar is more polluting than nuclear power”

            Ok, so you agree, solar pollutes less. It might produce more in the pollution equivalently per megawatt during initial production, but it pollutes less during use, and eventually hits a break even point, after which everything it produces is more or less free. To which you say “Its a complex picture but the main point is that all energy production is dirty but nuclear is far more preferable to fossil fuel burning”. That’s a red herring. We both agree, nuclear pollutes less than fossil fuels, and renewable pollutes less than nuclear…so what’s the problem?

            “For some reason when there is a discussion about future energy needs you get irrational arguments against nuclear”

            Agreed. There is also irrational argument for it. Human interaction is characterized by irrational arguments.

            But that has no bearing on the issue at hand. If nuclear is preferable because it pollutes less than fossil fuels, than renewable, which pollutes less than nuclear must be more preferable.

        2. “Also, my understanding of current state of the art nuclear power is that it only uses 0.5% of the available fuel…”

          The 0.5% figure is correct for conventional uranium reactors, but those aren’t the only type of reactors. Different types of fuels and different types of reactors can achieve much better efficiencies.

          I linked to a video at the top of the thread that discusses thorium as a nuclear fuel. Even ignoring that it is one guy pushing his preferred nuclear technology, there is a lot of good information about nuclear power in general.

          I think the best point to bring away from the video is about safety of nuclear power. To paraphrase… Is nuclear power safe? Well, what kind of nuclear power? There are lots of different ways to get nuclear power. Asking if nuclear power is safe is like asking, “Is a car safe?” Well, which kind of car?

          The video is two hours long in total, but there is a five minute summary at the beginning about the specific type of reactor this guy is advocating.

          1. Right, I know there are other types of reactors, particularly fast reactors, and that these reactors can consume reactor poisons…however, this requires fuel reprocessing which is recognized by the UCS as a proliferation risk.

    2. I agree – it’s the waste storage that is the real problem, that all the technology and safety advances just haven’t begun to overcome.

      I was at an acid rock drainage conference a few years back (I am an environmental consultant who works primarily for coal mines, full disclosure) and saw a talk by the saddest man on earth. This guy was one of the guys in charge of the storage facility in washington. His closure issues made ours look petty and ridiculous, when we worry about perpetual water treatment for a few hundred hectare water catchment, or tailings pond. We worry about what the size of a maintenance bond should be – what is inflation after 100,000 years? Humans haven’t even had money for that length of time. What bank can you put that bond in, so that it will still be there? Or should the government hold it – will Canada still exist? What unit of money will it have to be transfered to; do we really think the Canadian dollar will still be around? How will this company ensure that if not them, someone who will be responsible, will be around in 200,000 years to maintain the plant?

      This guy has to worry about all those things, plus: what material do you make a “Danger – Radioactive – Do Not Enter or Dig Here” sign out of, that doesn’t require someone to go to the site and check it hasn’t rusted through every 10 years? What language do you write that warning in? What symbols can you use that people will understand regardless of language in the future? Do you put a big ole blaring horn on it, so that the humans wandering around after the fifth world war who have lost all knowledge of nuclear power will still see the site and know to stay away?

      How do you build a containment structure that will keep all water and air out for all time? That will resist plant roots and prairie dogs and earthquakes and erosion?

      Nuclear power might concentrate the waste, so that it is in small areas around the world, rather than belched into the atmosphere, but it creates a form of pollution that doesn’t go away on a timescale humans can comprehend. It can start a slow leak that poisons a watershed until that watershed dries up when the continents shift. The problem of active management in perpetuity is not a small one, and until we can figure that out, nuclear power really isn’t an attractive option to me.

      When we stop burning coal and oil, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will start to go down. But even if we stop using nuclear now, the waste will not stop being radioactive for half a million years. That is a big cheque to cash on our descendants.

  13. So, question.

    When the Three Gorges dam in China bursts and kills tens or hundreds of thousands (and makes all the recent tsunamis and earthquakes look quaint in comparison) will we be decrying hydroelectric as vociferously as we are nuclear? I would guess not.

    Any technology has wright and wrong ways to be implimented, I think it would be short-sighted to leave nuclear out of our journey to being totally renewable. It would be great to have a solar generator and a wind turbine on every roof but that doesn’t happen over night and while Mr. Jacobson’s proposal is interesting, I feel it fails to address the unexpected (scarce material costs, weather shifts, politacl turmoil, etc.) a little too easily. Too pie-in-the-sky if you will. The goal is laudable but you must be able to reach that goal in a realistic way, I think that nuclear needs to be in the mix to help us on that way is all I am saying.

    1. Thank you for mentioning Three Gorges. I learned about Three Gorges when I was in 8th grade, and even though the production had already started, it was my first environmental and cultural “protest”, so to speak – I wrote letters, and even saved up and donated to people trying to protect the animals and cultural relics that were destroyed because of the dam. It was a case of too-little, too-late, but it was all I could do with what I knew and the resources I had. People often forget that hydroelectric, while it can be powerful, can result in a lot of environmental damage of its own, and moves people out of their homes. It also has a massive risk if it’s badly engineered (which Three Gorges *is*), just like every other power source.

  14. Not a lot of scepticism here – either in the article or the comments. Not sure why israelkwalker thinks a study proves we don’t need nuclear, 10 studies, 100 studies whatever number prove little. With something so complex a real case is needed – it will be interesting to see how things turn out in Germany when they made that decision based not on science but political hysteria over a single event, not something sceptics should welcome.

    I’m worried that they will end up having lots of gas turbine capacity to handle the periods when the wind is not blowing. Unfortunately a report by the Renewable Energy Foundation in the UK showed quite clearly that when the weather is coldest we get the least wind. So wind and solar are pretty useless for the UK at least – given most energy goes into space heating in the winter. There has been a lot made of the find of trillions of cubic metres of shale gas found in the UK – expensive to extract and polluting but definitely attractive to industry that see a coming energy gap.

    I’d hope wave, geothermal etc could be used to fill the gap. But we are decades away from having any significant generating capacity there let alone the distribution grid we’d need. And FFS don’t attack nuclear on safety grounds we have had over 4 decades of nuclear including some very unsafe reactors, the worst case scenario of meltdown in Russia and Japan…. But during that time there have been tens (Probably 100’s) of thousands of people killed by coal (See particulate pollution, lot more killed than squashed miners).. Even candles kill about 50 people a year – a lot more than Fukushima ever did, and that’s only going to increase with the ‘rolling blackouts’ from lack of nuclear ;-)

    If I was to attack nuclear I’d point to the massive decommissioning costs, TCO etc. But with the Chinese leading the way with Thorium reactors I’d like to bet that will be less of an issue in the next 40 years.

    1. Soon it won’t matter because Andrea Rossi, Defkalion, and other free-energy fraudsters er- entrepreneurs will save us with cold fusion. Dick Smith put forward a $1,000,000 challenge that AR backed away from but the heroes at Defkalion will be showing the world on Feb. 24th that we will soon never need to pay for power again.

      After we buy their rig, and their support, and shit magical fairies with noserings. But after that definitely.

      *Wonder if any of the free-energy nutters will show up here?*

    2. I think one study proves it because I’m not aware of any factual inaccuracies in the study, not from my opinion (because I’m not qualified to hold an opinion on the subject) but from peer review by people who ARE qualified. If you can find criticism of the study from Jackobson’s peers, I’d like to read it.

      1. You miss the point – I’m saying no study can prove any point absolutely. We are not talking about a pure mathematics proof here we are talking about a study full of assumptions, not unfounded assumptions but assumptions never the less. The magic of peer review is just saying the author has not made any known errors and his assumptions are not dis-proven by real evidence from the field (If there is any) – unless an infallible being (God or the Pope?) is one of the peer reviewers then it is not a proof.

        Definition of a sceptic is to keep an open mind, I hope the study has not made any major errors and it is shown to be correct as renewables are the best option compared with using any non-renewable source, that is obvious.

        However I pointed out an example from real evidence gathered by the renewable energy lot in the UK that we had very little wind when it was coldest. This was in contradiction to previous peer reviewed studies that made assumptions about wind speed that turned out to be incorrect in reality. They were good studies by intelligent people – unfortunately reality had other ideas.

        Your study makes mention of the variability of wind speed and how to handle it. Counter to your assertion that this study is a proof the author rightly discusses three different options and its not stated which is the ‘correct’ path as no one knows. The three are – Energy storage local to generation, I know of a few wind farms that pump water for potential energy storage but its not done normally cos it increases cost massively. – H2 production, I won’t go into details on the vast cost of hydrogen storage (An unsolved issue) and the almost total lack of infrastructure to distribute it currently – Distributed energy storage, they discuss how many grid connected battery powered vehicles would be required to offset a given % drop in wind capacity. Totally unproven in practice and has some obvious drawbacks when a wind lull means no one has enough juice to commute to work the next day.

        I’m not saying its a bad study – it looks very well thought out – but no policy maker would or should discount nuclear or any other energy option based on a few studies. Just taking the decades we would need to handle the envisioned problems with wind variability mentioned in your study we will need something other than renewables to fill that gap — I’d rather see nuclear than more coal, gas and oil.

    3. This is false. Germany decided to stop nuclear power a decade ago, then the current government tried to change it back.

  15. These “new” reactors, which are pressurized water reactors (PWR), are already an out-dated design that will produce more spent fuel in a time when we (as a country) haven’t figured out what to do with the already massive stockpile of spent nuclear fuel.

    As mentioned by haydenmuhl in the first comment, the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) is quite promising. So too the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). Both are very efficient, using nearly 100 percent of nuclear fuel, and can burn existing stockpiles of nuclear “waste” and plutonium, converting them to energy production.

    Both utilize passive safety systems, no pressurized water, no need for massive containment buildings (which are there to withstand pressure from a breached cooling system, not contain radioactivity).

    More on the IFR here:

    1. There are also ABWRs – Advanced Boiling Water Reactions, not just the PWRs.

      Are either of those plants potentially able to be built within the next ten years?

  16. I would like to see more discussion about thorium reactors as well. They would avoid the problem of spent fuel rods and other nuclear waste. Frankly, I’d rather we were building thorium plants or spending more money on their research than building another uranium-based plant.

  17. I’m dissapointed in this article. Are we to expect an interview next on global warming with an expert who is in the employ of the oil industry? Maybe an interview exploring the importance of promoting GM foods worldwide, with an expert who works for a big biotech firm? Or even an interview investigating the benefits of having thousands more wind turbines with someone who works for Vesta? I don’t expect “fair and balanced”, but a more neutral perspective and maybe some rational enquiry would be good.

    1. That’s quite the list of bogeymen you have there. Let’s see, you don’t like nuclear, or oil, or wind turbines; is the future of energy production a row of students on stationary bikes?

      And GM crops? one of these things is not like the others. Jeesh.

  18. mrmisconception – Exactly where do I state that I don’t like nuclear, oil, wind turbines or anything else? Point it out to me please, because I’m baffled.

    I am very much pro-nuclear energy and I’m part of a lobby group that’s pushing hard for the Irish government to reverse the country’s daft and uninformed “no nuclear ever ever ever” position. I also have a share in a small wind farm in Co. Galway, and my electricity at work and in my home is supplied by Airtricity.

    What I don’t like, apart from your ignorant supercilious comment and people putting words into other people’s mouths (and Brussels sprouts), is a usually skeptic website providing a slanted viewpoint without any rational criticism. There’s not much difference in a biased interview with a nuclear expert who is paid by the nuclear industry and any of the examples I have given, few of which would be accepted at face value.

    When a climate change denialist website uncritically holds up the viewpoint of someone on the payroll of the Heartland Institute, Exxon Mobil or the American Petroleum Institute, we are rightly skeptical. That same standard we expect elsewhere should be clearly displayed here.

    1. @MudPuddles

      I have incorrectly inferred the meaning of your statements, and I am sorry for this.

      I took your first comment, about this being an advert, to mean you were against nuclear rather than as the criticism of this article that it was. I then incorrectly assumed that you were therefore against the things you mentioned in your second comment instead of it being a list of examples of other articles that “wouldn’t fly” here. My bad, really.

      As for being supercilious, I can lapse into that on occasion but here I was only being snarky. I probably wouldn’t have left the comment at all if you hadn’t added GM foods to your list (so I guess I was being a little supercilious about that) as I feel the jury is pretty much in on that despite what some of our friends in Europe get hot and bothered over. (cue the long list of proof [read opinion] that GM will cause the downfall of all that is holy)

      Power generation (and use for that matter) is a messy business no matter which form it takes and every form has its up sides and down sides and the question is really which balance you are willing to live with, that was really my only point.

      I agree this could have been a much more balanced piece but this is a blog not a news site, we have intelligent readers here who can point out the ups and downs of nuclear and its alternatives. I feel that pointing out a bias is one thing but calling into question a person’s expertise because you disagree or gaslighting (I thought this was a skeptical site!) was unnecessary and, while you did none of that, that was where I was come from when I made my assumptions about your comments.


      Sorry, you got caught in the “smoke from a distant fire” as the old song said.

  19. Hey all

    Apologies for not responding to all these comments earlier; work got a little crazy (and still is) for me. It seems like we’ve settled into a great discussion and I’m really enjoying all the perspectives. For those of you who are concerned that I’m a shill for nuclear power; I had hoped it was clear I was coming at this interview from a somewhat layman perspective.

    I am definitely interested in doing further interviews with other experts in this arena so if anyone knows anyone who you’d like to suggest, please let me know. I’d be happy to interview any Squishy Hippies you’d like :)

    I KID I KID!

    I’m not interviewing hippies :)

    1. People to interview:

      Elliott Negin from Union of Concerned Scientists:

      Someone from one of the 12 groups in Georgia that is filing suit:

      In short there are plenty of extremely knowledgeable individuals on this issue that are a simple Google News search away. This is not some wonky esoteric cause. Nuclear power is a very public and controversial issue for decades and there are tons of folks who could address the issue thoroughly (on both sides).

      1. Unfortunately, a lot of the people filing suits are doing so on the “basis” of 40 year old technologies, and the “past” problems. They flat out discount the possibility that anything can be improved.

        As for huffpo… A lot of the skeptical community has started to disregard them as a source on *anything* other than politics. Why? Because they have a horrifying tendency to run semi-rational stuff right next to articles on quantum woo, chiropractic, and what ever the latest flavor of total BS happens to be. I.e., there is no grounds to trust anyone that writes for them on “any” subject that involves science, unless its confirmed from some place else, and that “someplace else” isn’t the nearest advocate for the position.

        1. Note, also have a similar problem with some of the petition sites I am tied into. About 80% of the time they have reasonable things they are having issues about, then the other 20% of the time they want me to sign petitions about GM foods, or not giving sactuary to space aliens, or some completely bullshit, non-science based BS. I seriously wish, sometimes, that I could sign a second, parallel, petition, along side the one they want my help with, which states simply, “In this specific case, I do not endorse the nonsense in the petition being presenting by this organization.” :(

    1. hydrogen is a power storage device, not a power source, and it even says so in the first line of the wikipedia article you link to. It removes none of the need for a new power source.

      Saying “hydrogen economy” in a discussion about nuclear power is like saying “spoons” in a debate about chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Okay, you have expressed a preference for the delivery device for your ice cream, but you’re not adding anything to the discussion at hand.

      Just had to throw that out there in case there are any politicians reading this.

      1. Thanks for the reply. And obviously, I know all that.

        No power source can be debated in isolation and that is the case here. We have @Israelwalker calling for a national electricity grid and solar power. We have @Ooolon calling for nuclear on the basis that it supplies baseload.

        I call for a hydrogen economy on the basis that it is the final solution to CO2 pollution and global warming.

        The loss of energy through I(squared) R heating when electricity is transmitted over long distances is huge. That is partially overcome by stepping voltage up then down again, but that in itself wastes energy.

        The technology for piping and storing hydrogen gas already exists. There is no loss of energy in the process.

        Granted there are problems in handling liquid hydrogen because of the low molecular weight but hydrogen can be stored in salt domes at ambient temperature and pressure.

        The electricity for making the hydrogen can come initially from any source, fossil, renewable or nuclear.

        I would call for at least a town to be set up with a hydrogen economy as a pilot project and for a national gas pipeline grid before an electrical one.

        1. Mostly I’m just talking about a paper that was done which lays out the case for a renewable based grid, which uses both forms of solar, hydro, wind, geothermal, tidal. I’m not against nuclear, actually, I just find that it’s somewhat misrepresented.

          1. Sure, and I spent a lot of time reading that paper, and find myself in general agreement with it and you, except perhaps over some of the details.

            With electrolytic hydrogen, recyclable energy is storable, which overcomes the baseload argument for nuclear.

            I note Jacobsen assumes a great deal of electrolytic hydrogen use, for industrial heating and for transport, but not for domestic heating ( a huge amount of energy) and that is partly what I was addressing here.

            Then the nuclear vs renewable argument comes down to which is cheaper and easier to handle and store: nuclear waste or hydrogen?

            (ZOMG Hiroshima, 3 Mile Island, Cherobyl, Fukushima vs ZOMG Hindenberg)

            Y’all may want to check with your insurance company before giving an answer.

  20. @ mrmisconception – thanks, and no worries man, sorry I got snappy! It had been a particularly trying day…

    @ Masala Skeptic – I suggest an interview with Dr. Allison Macfarlane (Chair of the Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University, and Associate at the Harvard Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs).

    Another good interviewee would be Anne Starz, Head of the Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Group at the IAEA’s Department of Nuclear Energy.

    For a slightly different perspective, I would also have suggested Dr. Paul Epstein at Harvard Medical School’s Centre for Health and the Global Environment, but he passed away recently – perhaps speaking to their press office to identify someone who worked with him on nuclear energy issues might be worthwhile.

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