Input on the Most Interesting Facts about Nuclear – Memo to Suzanne Jaworowski, DoE

Hi Suzanne,

In response to:

Please send me your top five most motivating facts about Nuclear by 2/14 end of day.   Thank you!

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this.

I believe this can be boiled down to two compelling motivations:

  • Necessity – why nuclear is an essential energy source that must be harnessed
  • Safety – why nuclear must not be avoided because of its dangers

There are many aspects to each reason so I’ll expand on each reason.

Necessity: Nuclear is Essential

Even if the current administration does not believe in global warming (which is a ludicrous position to take, yet here we are), peoples of the world enjoying energy prosperity cannot deny it from those who currently don’t have it but desire it. Hans Rosling: The magic washing machine | TED Talk | TED.com

So why not continue to use fossil fuels? Well obviously if climate scientists are to be believed, anthropogenic climate change is a clear and present danger to all peoples but even discounting that, coal use kills millions each year (see safety section) and peak fossil will surely threaten future energy prosperity. Lurking in the near future are anthropogenic earthquakes caused by fracking activities. Natural gas prices are expected to rise significantly as fracking is curtailed either by peak gas or safety concerns.

Not to be outdone, renewables are viewed by many to be the world’s saviour, some even advocating a 100% renewables future. Yet such scenarios  consume huge amounts of resources and spectacularly fail reality tests. When doing the math, renewables are found wanting. A very basic problem is that each region needs a custom fill solution since many renewable options are not available simply by applying engineering know-how. For example hydro and geothermal are geographically limited while wind and solar, also suffering less so from geographical placement, suffer hugely due to indeterminacy. Thus not only are these disparate energy harvesting methods, they require transmission, storage, or fill-in buffering to allow harvested power to be dispatched to when and where that power is being demanded:

  • Transmission to shift the power from one location to another is hugely expensive especially when such facilities are used only sporadically. The argument that “the sun is shining and/or the wind is blowing somewhere” can easily be disproven even at continental-sized grids.
  • Storage to hold excessive electrical power until such power is needed remains a huge dilemma since currently the predominant method is pumped hydro which is geographically restricted and the future hopes and dreams rest on battery storage, a method that is limited by physics and realistically could sustain a grid shortage for mere minutes if not seconds.
  • Fill-in using other power generation methods thus becomes the default buffering means and that most often can only be fossil-fueled generation means

All buffering methods cost real money classed as “integration costs”. Such costs are not tagged to the generation, rather are considered to be externalities to the generation enterprise. That being so, results in an unwarranted market advantage thus distorting utility values.

Also note that while indeed renewables generation costs have decreased significantly, their marginal value has also decreased almost in lockstep. Renewables cost reduction trends vs value drop has been aptly explained by Jenkins.

Declining cost vs value plus reasons

The major dilemma of the push to intermittent renewables (IRE) are the complex interrelationships between all components. Such complicated “smart grids” is viewed by just another engineering feat to be accomplished. However there are countless parameters that depend on the good graces of Mother Nature.  Any unforeseen combination of factors can lead to both short-term grid failures to long-term wasted investments. The Rube Goldberg machinations inherent to diverse and intermittent energy harvesting has and will continue to result in tenuous grid reliability. For the time being IRE has the advantage of outrageous levels of subsidization and, as mentioned above, able to distort market value with priority dispatch but such financial models cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Nuclear is thus essential to provide a reliable underpinning to a power system. But even beyond that, there remains a huge gap between the electrical energy that is needed and the overall primary energy need, a gap currently met almost exclusively by fossil fuels. Living space heating/cooling, industrial process heat, and transportation energy needs must be weaned from fossil fuels for the same reasons as electrical power generation; recognition of the decreasing supply of fossil fuels and the need to reduce emissions so as to not impede the good health of people and the planet we live on. Energy has always been the currency underlying any economy and a strong national energy security policy must recognize three key factors:

  1. Fossil fuels are a waning and dangerous resource,
  2. Renewables simply do not have the brawn to address 100% of electrical demand never mind primary energy demands, and
  3. Nuclear is capable of addressing all fossil-fuel applications and renewables shortcomings.

One final aspect of necessity is the attached price tag. Many disparage nuclear for it’s price tag, especially new builds for which the capital cost tag has skyrocketed.  But that’s not true everywhere. Nuclear cost trends in seven nuclear nations have recently been analyzed and the study concluded that trends in Western nations are not present in South Korean nuclear builds.

Global Nuclear Reactor Deployment Costs - Duration

The first graphic demonstrates those trends while the second graphic suggests a cause in the case of the US; the increasingly long time it takes to build these things.  Now perhaps America has lost it’s expertise in nuclear construction and no doubt that plays a role but also , I suggest,  regulatory oversight is key reason for “administrative delays”. It can be argued that NRC over-regulation is hindering progress. Nuclear advocates look to you to “clear the swamp” of frivolous regulations that do not impinge on safety in the least.

 

Safety: No Concerns are Showstoppers

The second compelling reason to support nuclear is it’s safety record.  Many, perhaps most people, do not believe this to be the case which makes the challenge much greater. I suggest that there is nothing rational about people’s fear of nuclear. Those fears come in several categories of concerns and all woven together into a seemingly unsolvable dilemma.

It seems to me that the only way folks will overcome their fears is if they are forced to face them. Many of us may well have shark-a-pobia but not fishermen, or surfers, or anyone working in marine enterprises because their livelihood depends on it.  In other words when it matters, people can overcome their irrational fears of shark attacks. Similarly, people must first understand that nuclear is absolutely required before they will question their radiophobia and come to realize that their fears are groundless.

Let’s look at the facts:

Perceived danger            versus                 Actual danger

Dread vs Danger

Radiation safety concerns underpin this perception of danger and the dread felt by many citizens. It’s the sham of radiophobic FUD  that’s been allowed to fester and is even supported by government officials who either have been deluded themselves or know better but are afraid of the political fallout from resisting public fears. A quote from one paper: ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND POLITICAL  CONSEQUENCES IN WESTERN EUROPE by K. BECKER

Also difficult  to  quantify  are the  costs  of the psychosomatic  stress and anxiety  in the general  public.   For  example,  estimates  of  thousands   (up  to  40.000!)   additional abortions  in the  post-Chernobyl  months  in  Western  Europe  have  been  published and seem not unlikely,  considering  the  atmosphere  of  radiophobic  hysteria  which  had been  created  in  some  countries.  Late  effects  include  an  intensified  radiophobia, resulting  for  example  in  patients  refusing  radiation  therapy  or  radiodiagnostics  even when they  badly  needed  it.

The fear of radiation is much worse than it’s physical effects. We live in a radioactive world in which we would not have evolved the way we have without it.  Our bodies have adapted and we possess many defense mechanisms to the ionizing effects of radiation.  Radiation levels below 100mSv per month result in trivial damages in comparison to other ionization damages that take place in each of our cells, thousands of times per second, most prominently due to oxygen free radicals.

Radiation Dose Rates Compared (pg 227 NifL)

Repair mechanisms continue to be discovered, the conclusion being that the LNT hypothesis is a lie that needs to be deep-sixed to the annals of history. Low level radiation doesn’t kill but radiophobia sure does!

Radiophobia Kills

And because of this phobia people died needlessly for example during panicked evacuation  in Fukushima following the tsunami and ensuing Daiichi nuclear plant explosions. Not a single person has died of radiation yet the thousands of drowning deaths are conflated with the Daiichi accident. Fukushima Death Attribution

Technological safety concerns are held by a large segment of the public who fear that the reactors themselves are dangerous beasts.  Yet the US nuclear fleet has been operating, effectively without incident, for decades. The fear of nuclear power is NOT rational. It’s tantamount to fearing a shark attack but riding a motorcycle to the beach. Uninformed individuals are *terrible* at risk assessment. Nuclear reactors must be acknowledged to be superior to even air travel, something most people have no qualms about in spite of the occasional tragedy.

Nuclear has saved millions of lives and claiming it is equal to nuclear bombs is just as absurd as saying gasoline is the same as napalm. Just because it shares some fundamental physics, does not make them the same thing. A nuclear reactor CANNOT EXPLODE in the same way a nuclear bomb does. Such an event is impossible. There have been only a few explosions related to nuclear power plants, and not a single one of them has been a nuclear explosion. Chernobyl was the most devastating, as the actual pressure vessel burst, but this was a steam explosion, the same type an old fashioned train would experience if the boiler valves failed. Fukushima’s explosions were also caused by water, but a very different kind of reaction. The superheated water was vented into an enclosed space, which was ill-advised to be sure, since the water dissociated into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen is a very effective fuel and all it needed then was a spark or sufficient heating and boom, a hydrogen explosion, just as takes place inside the cylinder of a hydrogen fuel cell car but on a much larger scale.

People must stop thinking that nuclear power plants are ticking time bombs. The components that wear out are the very same ones that wear out in a coal plant, turbines, valves, and pipes. These are not an issue to replace and trained personnel have been happily refitting and upgrading the current fleet of reactors for years.

And within a decade, emerging Generation IV nuclear technologies are expected to tackle many applications which renewables have no hope of addressing. Generation IV nuclear technologies are expected to improve the safety of currently installed nuclear plants because of the atmospheric pressures being used rather than the 30 atmospheres of pressure current reactors are designed for.  Far less labour and material intensive containment structures will suffice and designs being undertaken will be small enough to be buried in the ground to withstand even a direct aircraft strike. Such features should allow drastic cost reductions, allow not just stable, clean electrical power production but also many industrial process heat applications industry, while maintaining equal or even greater safety margins.

Application and Deployment

Waste safety concerns are expected to continue unabated unless the general public is better educated as to the nature of the waste. Such concerns are largely radiophobic in nature.  Nuclear wastes are tiny amounts in comparison to those of power generation means from other energy sources. Slightly-used fuel (SUF) remains well-maintained in dry storage containment at each nuclear reactor plant.  Unlike wastes from power generation from other energy sources, are not allowed to enter the biosphere.

A Comparison Of Power Production Wastes
A Comparison Of Power Production Wastes

A comparison of power generation wastes:

  • Nuclear: not allowed to enter the biosphere yet disappears.

 

  • Renewables wastes: allowed to enter the biosphere and last forever.

 

  • Coal: poisons and radioactive wastes free to enter the biosphere forever.

 

This situation suggests that a double standard is applied to Nuclear and needs to be recognized as such.

The US was on track to significantly reduce the waste profile by employing reprocessed SUF and using that reprocessed fuel to supply Integral Fast Reactors (IFR) .  However that program was kiboshed in 1993 by the Clinton administration which had many anti-nuclear advocates in charge of energy affairs. Notable programs like the General Electric-Hitachi PRISM design (based on the forerunner to the IFR technology, the EBR-II), and other Generation IV “fast-spectrum” nuclear technologies which intend to be ready for deployment in a decade, hold the promise that current SUF stockpiles can be “burned” rather than buried. In the meantime, SUF remains held securely from entry into the biosphere.

Proliferation safety concerns are an overreaching issue within global communities.  The US has demonstrated great leadership in stewarding nuclear knowledge as its awesome power can be misused by cloistered nations who feel the best defence is a good offence — having the nuclear bomb.  However it should be recognized that the cat has been out of the bag for now a half-century. unlike the messaging from many NGOs committed to end the use of nuclear weaponry, reactors can be designed to minimize any proliferation risks. This is not a technical issue, rather any proliferation concerns are truly a political issue.
Out of more than 15 countries that have pursued nuclear weapons since the first nuclear power reactor came online in the 1950s, only five — Argentina, Brazil, India, Iran and Pakistan — began pursuing nuclear weapons after a nuclear energy program had already been initiated.

Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Weapons Programs, 1954-2015

 

Why Nuclear Energy Programs Rarely Lead to Proliferation

 

 

 

That’s a telling statistic and which bodes well for the many world communities who strive for energy sufficiency and, yes, energy prosperity.
Fifty one nations have nuclear energy; just nine have weapons. What more proof is needed that nuclear energy prevents the spread of nuclear weapons than the fact that South Korea has nuclear energy and no weapon while North Korea was denied nuclear energy and obtained a weapon?

Neighbours: One with Bombs, the other with Power

 

 

Saving Power in Danger: Michael Shellenberger Keynote Address to IAEA

 

 

 

In Conclusion

I urge you to focus your efforts to the twin motivating drivers of nuclear energy; necessity and safety.  Best wishes and Godspeed in re-energizing the US nuclear power industry.  US ingenuity fostered development of nuclear technology but unfortunately the first demonstrations of nuclear power were with weapons of war. That has left a generation of American citizens who fear all use of nuclear. That dynamic must change otherwise the nuclear core competence will be lost.  Meanwhile China and Russia, India as well, forge ahead with their nuclear reactor technology and ensuing commerce. It must be accepted that the US has lost a step or two. However its not yet time to admit defeat; the US can regain its leadership role but it will require insightful vision and strong leadership to change current trends.

With Best Regards,

 

Ike Bottema

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