Van Snyder's Web about Nuclear Power
Why Nuclear Power?
- Nothing else can provide all the energy we currently use. See the paper by
Heard et al linked below.
- If the problems Heard et al note below can be overcome, providing firm power
from dispersed and variable sources will be extremely expensive. See the papers
by Jenkins and Thernstrom, and by Mearns, linked below.
- Nuclear power is the safest-ever way to make electricity, by an extremely
wide margin. See references in my Long paper about energy
and nuclear power.
- The right kind of nuclear reactor, with the right kind of used-fuel
reprocessing, can effectively destroy the substance we currently call "nuclear
waste," and nothing else can (see link to Plentiful
Energy below). Nuclear "waste" is actually valuable 95%-unused fuel. The
unused fuel part needs custody for 300,000 years, but a better idea is to turn
it into energy and fission products. Fission products are produced at the rate
of one tonne per gigawatt-electric year (8,766,000,000 kWh), or one third tonne
per gigawatt-thermal year. In spent fuel that has "cooled off" for ten years,
See the links to reports of used LWR fuel contents
- 3.93% (39.3 kg/GWe-yr) of fission product isotopes produce 99.3% of
radiotoxicity and need custody for 300 years. These are mixed with 52.7
kg/GWe-yr of nonradioactive isotopes of the same elements, making 9.2%, or 92
kg/GWe-yr, if the trouble to separate them is not taken).
- 43.6% of fission products produce the remaining 0.07% of radiotoxicity and
are less radiotoxic than uranium in nature before 30 years.
- 47.1% of fission products are not radioactive or have such low activity that
ICRP Publication 119 does not list a dose factor.
We will need liquid hydrocarbon fuels indefinitely for airplanes,
and probably for ships, heavy construction equipment, and farm equipment.
Making hydrocarbon fuels from seawater ought to be a net negative CO2 transfer
to the atmosphere and oceans. CO2 that results from burning the fuels will go
into the atmosphere, and eventually back into the oceans, but surely some will
be trapped in plants and soils.
Extracting uranium from seawater will not be necessary for a very long time.
The United States has 80,000 tonnes of spent fuel and 900,000 tonnes of depleted
uranium. This is enough to fuel an all-nuclear all-electric American energy
economy for 575 years -- longer than that to the extent solar and wind
contribute. The long term attraction is that it is essentially limitless.
Uranium salts are water soluble, and are continuously entering the oceans from
the bottom and in rivers. The concentration of uranium in seawater and
ocean-bottom rocks is in equilibrium. As uranium is taken from seawater, more
enters from rocks. There is enough uranium already in the oceans to provide all
the energy humanity currently uses for a million years.
- William H. Hannum, Gerald E. Marsh, George S. Stanford
Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste Scientific American (December 2005).
This is the place to start if you're entirely new to the topic of nuclear
power in general, and especially if you want to know what to do about nuclear
- Charles E. Till and Yoon Il Chang, Plentiful Energy:
The Story of the Integral Fast Reactor. (2011) ISBN 978-1466384606.
Essential reading if you want a deeper understanding of how fast-neutron
reactors create more fuel than they consume, why the Argonne design is
inherently safe, and how it works with pyroelectric refining to destroy nuclear
- David Baurac, Passively safe
reactors rely on nature to keep them cool, Argonne Logos 20, 1
(Winter 2002). "Imagine a nuclear power plant so safe that even the worst
emergencies would not damage the core or release radioactivity. And imagine that
this is achieved not with specially engineered emergency systems, but through
the laws of nature and behavior inherent in the reactor's materials and
- United Nations Scientific Committee for the Effects of Atomic
Scientific Annex D: Health effects due to radiation from the Chernobyl
accident in Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation, UNSCEAR
2008 Report to the General Assembly.
134 plant operators and emergency responders at Chernobyl were exposed to
sufficient radiation to develop acute radiation syndrome, which caused 28
deaths. Two others died from injuries not caused by radiation, one from
coronary thrombosis, and three in a helicopter crash. I don't count
those six as "nuclear related." Fifteen excess cases of fatal thyroid
cancer, compared to earlier decades, out of 6,000 cases reported between
1991 and 2005, were attributed to the accident. The report noted there
is "no scientific means to determine whether a particular cancer in a
particular individual was or was not caused by radiation," and there is
"no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or
mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be
related to radiation exposure."
In the most affected countries (Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) the average
additional radiation dose to the general public over the period 1986-2005
was about nine millisieverts (mSv). Residents "need not live in fear of
serious health consequences," according to the report.
- United Nations Scientific Committee for the Effects of Atomic
Chapter III, Scientific Findings, Part A: Levels and effects of
radiation exposure due to the nuclear accident after the great east-Japan
earthquake and tsunami, in Sources and Effects of Ionizing
Radiation, UNSCEAR 2008 Report to the General Assembly.
"Japanese people receive an effective dose of radiation from normally
occurring sources of, on average, about 2.1 mSv annually and a total of
about 170 mSv over their lifetimes.... No radiation-related deaths or
acute diseases have been observed among the workers or general public
exposed to radiation from the accident.... For adults in Fukushima
Prefecture, the Committee estimates [the increase in] average lifetime
effective dose to be of the order of 10 mSv or less... discernible
increase in cancer incidence in this population that could be attributed
to radiation exposure from the accident is not expected."
The dose from one abdominal and pelvic CT scan with and without contrast
is about 30 mSv. The annual dose on the Tibetan plateau is 13-20 mSv.
The X-ray dose to treat prostate cancer is 72 Sieverts (not mSv) delivered
over a period of 56 days.
Why Renewable Sources Aren't Enough
Comments? Questions? Spot any mistakes?
- 100% Renewable can't work
B.P. Heard, B.W. Brook, T.M.L. Wigley, C.J.A. Bradshaw, Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the
feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems, Renewable and
Sustainable Energy Reviews 76, Elsevier (2017), 1122-1133.
"While many modelled scenarios have been published claiming to show that a 100%
renewable electricity system [that excludes nuclear power] is achievable, there
is no empirical or historical evidence that demonstrates that such systems are
in fact feasible."
Free link: http://www.thesciencecouncil.com/images/pdfs/Burden%20of%20Proof.pdf
- Deep decarbonization is expensive
Jesse D. Jenkins and Samuel Thernstrom,
Deep Decarbonization of the Electric Power Sector: Insights from Recent
Literature (March 2017).
Deep decarbonization without nuclear power will be extremely expensive (and
Heard et al say it's impossible).
- Shutting down reactors is stupid
Michael Buchdahl Roth and Paulina Jaramillo, Going nuclear for climate
mitigation: An analysis of the cost effectiveness of preserving existing U.S.
nuclear power plants as a carbon avoidance strategy, Energy 131
(15 July 2017) pp 67-77.
"Preventing nuclear plant retirements is a cost-effective carbon avoidance
strategy. The premature retirement of U.S. nuclear power plants could eliminate
some of the benefits of proposed carbon regulations."
- Storage can't work
Grid-Scale Storage of Renewable Energy: The Impossible Dream,
Energy Matters (November 20, 2017).
UK had about 26 GWe installed peak label capacity of wind and solar in 2016,
which produced 4.6 GWe-yr in 2016 -- a capacity factor of 17.7%. From the
abstract of the article:
"The utopian ambition for variable renewable energy is to convert it into uniform
firm capacity using energy storage. Here we present an analysis of actual UK
wind and solar generation for the whole of 2016 at 30 minute resolution and
calculate the grid-scale storage requirement. In order to deliver 4.6 GW uniform
and firm RE supply throughout the year, from 26 GW of installed capacity,
requires 1.8 TWh of storage. We show that this is both thermodynamically and
economically implausible to implement with current technology."
My back-of-the-envelope calculation concluded that a
1,700 GWe all-renewable American energy system would require spending 2.8 times
US 2016 GDB per year for batteries alone.
- South Australian blackout
I waited to comment on the SA blackout: reflections on preliminary findings,
Ben Heard explains that the entire grid in the State of South Australia failed
after a windstorm because of a lack of inertia (i.e., frequency stability).
There was insufficient frequency stability, so more and more providers had to
shed load to prevent damage to their systems. What provides inertia on an
electricity distribution grid? Heavy synchronous rotating generators -- coal,
gas, nuclear, hydro. The relatively clean, modern, 485 MWe combined-cycle gas
generator in Adelaide was offline because its economics had been subsidized away
to pay for wind from the public purse.
van dot snyder at sbcglobal dot net.