Van Snyder's Web about Nuclear Power

Why Nuclear Power?


Read the linked papers on safety below. Read the UNSCEAR reports about Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Here's a graphic from the Paul Scherrer Institut (bigger means safer):

The following table is from Stefan Hirschberg, Paul Scherrer Institut, A Comparative Analysis of Accident Risks in Fossil, Hydro, and Nuclear Energy Chains, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 14(5) 947-973 (October 2008):

Severe Accidents Causing at Least 5 immediate fatalities, 1969-2000
Sector Accidents Fatalities Accidents Fatalities
Coal 752,259114622,848
Oil 1653,713 23216,505
Natural Gas 901,043 45 1,000
LPG 591,905 46 2,016
Hydro 1 14 1029,924
Nuclear 0 0 1 31

The Chernobyl UNSCEAR report cites 28 deaths that eventually resulted from acute radiation syndrome, two from falling debris, and one from a heart attack. I count the last three as normal industrial accidents, not caused by the "nuclear" part of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Hirschberg cites other sources that speculate there might be up to 5,000 delayed or latent cancer deaths from radiation during the next seventy years in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, and as many as 30,000 in the northern hemisphere. Most such speculations are based upon the "linear no-threshold" assumption for the relationship between radiation exposure and cancer risk. There are no data to support that assumption, and abundant evidence it is fundamentally flawed. See A-Bombs, Bears and Corrupted Science: Reassessing Radiation Safety by Edward Calabrese and Mikko Paunio. UNSCEAR speculated "4,000 future deaths from cancer" in its initial report, but the 2008 revised Chernobyl report replaced it with "undetectable future deaths."

More recently, from Stefan Hirschberg, Laboratory for Energy Systems Analysis, Paul Scherrer Institut, Consequences of Accidents in the Energy Sector, OECD NEA International Workshop, Paris, 20 January 2016:

Severe Accidents With at Least 5 fatalities (1970-2008)
OECD except EU 27 EU 27 non-OECD
Sector Accidents Fatalities Accidents Fatalities Accidents Fatalities
Coal 882,31345 989144025,821
Oil 1793,383641236 35119,376
Natural Gas1091,25737 336 78 1,554
LPG 601,88022 571 69 2,796
Hydro 1 14 1 116 1230,007
Nuclear 0 0 0 0 1 31

In the coal sector, most accidents are mining accidents. In the oil and gas sectors, most accidents are transportation accidents. The Banqiao and Shimantan dam failures in 1975 together caused 26,000 fatalities. EU 27 hydro deaths were caused by the failure of the Belci dam in Romania in 1991.

The tsunami resulting from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake destroyed the Fukushima reactors. No immediate or delayed fatalities have been shown to have resulted from exposure to radiation or radioactive materials, but the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare compensated the family of a worker in Fukushima Plant No. 1 who died from lung cancer in 2018.

Nuclear waste

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). Significant radiotoxicity is produced by only four isotopes, summarized in the following table and figure.

Contributions of Fission Products to Radiotoxicity after ten years
RadiotoxicityElementkg/GWe-yrIsotopeHalf lifekg/GWe-yrCustody
55.95% strontium 21.75 90Sr 28.79 y 11.79 300 y
43.44% caesium 70.52 137Cs 30.04 y 27.52 300 y
0.401% europium 4.473 154Eu 8.593 y 0.56 100 y
0.033% cadmium 3.795 113mCd 14.10 y 0.00529 30 y
0.076% other radioactive 428.2 10 y
0.0% not radioactive470.8 none

See the links to detailed reports of used LWR fuel

Detailed radiotoxicity curves were computed from radioactivity of fission products having half lives longer than five years. There are other detailed reports below.

The only completely closed system that produces no long-lived transuranics is a fast-neutron reactor with fuel reprocessing, such as described by Till and Chang.

Spent fuel has a value of $2,385,309.88 per tonne (52.185 MWe-yr). Fuel processing ought to be a profit center, not a cost center.

My papers

We will need liquid hydrocarbon fuels indefinitely

We will need liquid hydrocarbon fuels indefinitely for airplanes, probably for ships, heavy construction equipment, farm equipment, and heavy freight too large for trains, and maybe for long-distance auto travel.

Fortunately, liquid hydrocarbon fuels can be made from CO2 plus hydrogen using the Fischer-Tropsch process.

Hydrogen can be extracted from seawater using the copper-chlorine thermochemical process at an energy cost of 532 kJ/mol (about 0.079 MWh/T). One step of the process needs heat at about 1000o Fahrenheit (530o Celsius), almost exactly the core temperature of a nuclear power reactor.

The concentration of CO2 in seawater is 140 times greater than in the atmosphere. Removing CO2 from seawater exploits the oceans' enormous surface area to remove it indirectly from the atmosphere.

In CO2 extraction from seawater using bipolar membrane electrodialysis (Energy & Environmental Science 2012, 5 7346 DOI:10.1039/c2ee03393c), Eisamen et al described the PARC BPMED process to extract 52% of dissolved CO2 from seawater at an energy cost of 242 kJ/mol (about 1.5 MWh/T). There's an abstract here and my copy here.

PARC estimates that liquid hydrocarbon fuels can be made from seawater plus energy using the BPMED, copper-chlorine, and Fischer-Tropsch processes, for $3.00/gallon. The energy density of automotive gasoline is about 12.5 MWh/T.

The US Navy is developing a method using these processes to make jet fuel aboard nuclear aircraft carriers.

Burning hydrocarbon fuels made from seawater would be a net negative CO2 transfer to the atmosphere and oceans. CO2 that results from burning the fuels would go into the atmosphere, and eventually back into the oceans, but surely some would be trapped in plants and soils. CO2 extracted from seawater could also be sequestered in geologic storage.

My idea for a combined energy center

The United States has 90,000 tonnes of spent fuel and 900,000 tonnes of depleted uranium. This is enough to fuel an all-nuclear all-electric 1,700 GWe American energy economy for 575 years — longer than that to the extent solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and other minor players 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. Uranium can be extracted from seawater, but this will not be necessary for a very long time.

External links

Nuclear power


Why Renewable Sources Aren't Enough

  • In Deep Decarbonization of the Electric Power Sector: Insights from Recent Literature (March 2017), Jesse D. Jenkins and Samuel Thernstrom concluded that deep decarbonization without nuclear power will be extremely expensive (and Heard et al say it's impossible).

  • Shutting down reactors is stupid

  • South Australian blackout

    In Why 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.

  • Serious Materials Mroblems

    There are serious materials problems for an all solar-and-wind energy system. Solar power plants need 1,600 tonnes of steel per MW of capacity. Windmills need 450 tonnes of steel and 900 cubic meters of concrete. Here's a graphic from Jim Conca:

    The United States cannot produce enough steel to produce an all solar-and-wind energy system in anything approaching a reasonable time frame. We would be dependent upon China, India, Japan, and Korea, where other customers would be competing. In contrast, a nuclear power plant needs about 50 tonnes of steel and 100 cubic meters of concrete per megawatt of capacity.

    True cost of renewable energy

    Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) vulnerability

    In 1969, the Sun belched out several trillion cubic miles of extremely hot plasma, at very high speed. When it reached the Earth, it caused an enormous electromagnetic pulse. Aurora were seen as far south as Cuba. Power distribution systems experienced significant damage. The American energy economy was smaller, and had essentially no solar panels or windmills. Damage was significant, but not catastrophic.

    There was a much more severe event, called the Carrington Event, in 1859. Telegraph operators discovered their lines worked with batteries disconnected. It caused fires. A few operators were electrocuted.

    The Sun does this every eleven years or so, and it hits the Earth every sixty years or so.

    Solar panels are inherently vulnerable to EMP, either caused by a solar eruption or nefarious actors. The tiny wires connecting tiny individual solar cells would become tiny blown fuses. Windmills are also vulnerable, but would not be nearly as devastated. The millions of miles of additional wiring necessary to a nationwide "all renewable" distribution system would be a giant EMP antenna. It would transmit the damage into every level of the system, destroying wiring, solar panels, circuit breakers, switches, transformers, capacitors, and electronic equipment. It would take decades to rebuild and recover, at enormous expense.

    Large-scale central generators are designed to use large currents; they would be invulnerable to EMP damage. Nuclear power plants, inside four-foot-thick concrete domes, laced with steel, or in underground "silos" as NuScale envisions, are inherently invulnerable to EMP. Small (50-350 MWe) modular nuclear power plants would each have enough capacity and reliability to power their communities independently from myriads of other small sources. They would be distributed throughout the country, and would require a very much smaller interconnect, which would be a very much smaller EMP antenna.

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    Comments? Questions? Spot any mistakes?
    van dot snyder at sbcglobal dot net.
    7 April 2022