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Promise or problem? A debate on nuclear power

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The association of plutonium with nuclear weapons often leads to a greatly exaggerated perception of its risks. Here, a disk of plutonium which emits low-energy alpha particles is held in the palm of a hand (Image: bubblews)

Yesterday’s post about nuclear power sparked a minor but enlightening exchange on Twitter whose culmination is a thoughtful perspective by Nicholas Evans (Twitter handle @neva9257), a research associate at Charles Sturt University in Canberra. Earlier I had posted Nicholas’s response in this space but he indicated that he was more comfortable posting it on his own blog since for some reason he thought that my “editorial” comments on his perspective inferred more agreement than what he believes it implies. Below is my response to his post.

Putting risks and rewards in context can turn trouble into opportunity

I thank Nicholas for his articulate comments. Since I agree in principle with most of the things he says, our real disagreement to me seems to be more a matter of degree. Since there’s not much of substance that I disagree with I will thus keep my response short.

We both agree that radiation and its effects should always be considered in context. This analysis certainly goes both ways, but it seems to me that the public and media usually err on the wrong side when reacting to any report of nuclear accidents. For instance, even before any details of the damage from Fukushima was known, people were already talking about a cloud of fallout reaching California and stocking up on iodine pills. To me the precautionary principle seems to go into overdrive when dealing with anything nuclear.

Nicholas raises the all-pervasive question about the effects of low-level radiation. The so-called “linear no-threshold model” is indeed controversial, but controversy does not always imply that opinion should be evenly split; an issue where opinion is split 80-20 can still be considered controversial. To me the evidence against the LNT model (such as the absence of excess cancers in radiation hotspots) seems to outweigh that in its favor. But even if low levels of radiation can cause some damage, we need to put them in context. For instance if we were really worried about low radiation levels we would never fly, or get CAT scans, or live in Colorado. We do all this because to us the benefits of being able to fly, detect potentially serious diseases or live wherever we want outweigh the risks. And that is where we need to ask what the risk of nuclear is relative to other technologies like fossil fuels and what the risk will be relative to the effects of climate change. I think the comparison with geoengineering is a fallacy; unlike completely unproven and potentially world-altering geoengineering schemes, nuclear energy is limited in its scope, has been meticulously studied and tested over fifty years and has a generally impeccable safety record.

Nicholas points out the hurdles that Generation IV reactors face and I agree with him; these kinds of hurdles are faced by any new technology. To me however, the great strength of these reactors is their diversity which allows designers to combine the best features of successful designs. For instance, sodium may be inflammable and corrosive but you can use helium gas in its place. Plutonium may cause certain problems, but thorium is an attractive alternative. In addition these reactors are explicitly being designed with passive safety, so engineers are very mindful of what they need to watch out for. At the very least, considering the benefits these reactors may provide, both private corporations and governments should be supporting research into them on a war footing.

Nicholas also talks about the dangers of the plutonium that many (but not all) of these reactors use, dangers that can lead to proliferation and accidents. As I have mentioned before, there are many safeguards and solutions to the use of plutonium. Reprocessing can make plutonium-containing waste both cheaper and more proliferation-resistant. In addition it would be almost certainly fatal and vastly inefficient for terrorists to try to steal plutonium from a reactor and build a bomb with it. Plutonium is one of those mythical substances which seem to generate more heat than light; it has a relatively long half-life and is therefore not intensely radioactive, and can cause real damage only through inhalation. Even when inhaled, the element causes a tiny increase in lifetime cancer risk over the background rate; in fact many of us have measurable amounts of the element in our bodies. As in other nuclear-related matters, the association of plutonium with nuclear weapons often leads to a greatly exaggerated perception of its dangers. It’s really about psychology, not physics, chemistry or biology.

Finally, Nicholas talks about the political hurdles in the use of nuclear power, its association with secrecy and the tight controls that have been exerted on it by both government and private corporations. I am in complete consensus that ignoring these political problems would be ignoring the elephant in the room. He mentions that 10 utilities control 70% of nuclear power plants, but it’s also worth mentioning that it’s the regulatory regime, public disapproval, the general lack of enthusiasm and the dearth of trained nuclear engineers (a point with which I completely agree) that thwarts more utilities from stepping in. The government has not been friendly to utilities since Three Mile Island (a non-event as far as human cost was concerned), and it is only by giving utilities more flexibility and not imposing unreasonable constraints of cost and time that can encourage further investment in terms of technology, safety, investor interest and education.

Nicholas says that “changing these institutions, allowing innovation to happen securely, and introducing competition into the nuclear marketplace are as much social and political changes as they are technical.” and I could not agree more. Competition especially is the key to improved reactor designs and that is where the government and public education are both important. Yet we cannot ignore the disproportionate attention that technical and scientific issues often get, attention that routinely exaggerates risks at the expense of a reasoned discussion of tradeoffs and realities. In addition technical issues are often confused with political ones, leading many to believe that the problems are much more intractable than they actually are; for instance people constantly talk about waste or proliferation or radiation as if their real problems were all scientific, when the truth is that most of the stumbling blocks are political. If we all had a sure grasp of the real benefits and drawbacks of the science and technology and simply talked about the political hurdles it would already indicate much progress. And I welcome the time when we are ready to do this.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. N a g n o s t i c 1:41 pm 06/6/2013

    Nuclear power is the obvious solution to all but the stubbornly doctrinaire. Their ox is being gored.

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  2. 2. Mark Goldes 1:48 pm 06/6/2013

    Nuclear power has an unrecognized Achilles Heel. In the event of a surprisingly possible solar superstorm worldwide blackouts are expected to last for months.

    Nuclear plants without grid power for at most two weeks are meltdown candidates.

    John Kappenman, an authority on solar storms, has stated we can expect “hundreds of Fukushimas”.

    See the AESOP Institute website for cost-competitive alternatives to nuclear power now being born.

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  3. 3. Cramer 3:12 pm 06/6/2013

    Mark Goldes,
    Nuke plants do not require the grid for scramming and reactor cooling. They have diesel generators to run cooling pumps when grid power is lost.

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  4. 4. Carlyle 6:15 pm 06/6/2013

    The AGW scare is falling apart. I am glad about that. An unfortunate side effect will be a lessening demand for us to cut out wasteful burning of fossil fuels. If only the AGW believers had been genuine environmentalists instead of promoting fairy tale solutions & falsely calling CO2 a dire threat, they could have at least left a positive legacy instead of which their ignorant advocacy has further delayed a necessary change.

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  5. 5. sault 9:58 pm 06/6/2013


    Several commentators on these boards have shown you time and time again through countless scientific papers that you are just plain wrong about climate change. Regardless of what you (and the polluters of the world) would like to believe, CO2 traps heat and burning fossil fuels has increased its concentration in the atmosphere a great deal. Why you are trying to derail a discussion about your favorite energy source with unscientific nonsense that flies in the face of reality is beyond me.

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  6. 6. sethdayal 10:04 pm 06/6/2013

    Seems Nicholas can put out garbage and nobody is allowed to thrash it. What does one expect from a Big Oil publication after all.

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  7. 7. xponen 12:15 am 06/7/2013

    People always talk about “how safe the reactor was..” but why didn’t they talk about “where these uranium came from?” and “how do the waste is stored?”?

    It doesn’t make sense. Why keep mentioning about the reactor only when the risk is not just the reactor?

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  8. 8. Carlyle 4:22 am 06/7/2013

    5. sault 9:58 pm 06/6/2013
    Lots of things are beyond you sault.

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  9. 9. Chryses 5:34 am 06/7/2013

    Nuclear electrical generating capacity is the least uneconomical alternative to fossil fuel.

    Link to this
  10. 10. sault 11:40 am 06/7/2013

    Again, more problems with this article…

    You can try to optimize breeder reactor technology by picking and choosing elements of these reactors interchangibly, but only to a certain extent. Your helium coolant example would require a much higher rate of mass transport through the system and the lines would have to be under high pressure as opposed to the atmospheric pressures you can get away with by using a liquid metal coolant. Either way, the path forward for breeder reactors is not clear at all and they will require several decades of development before they are ready to produce commercial quantities of power.

    And as I have said before about reprocessing, one only needs to look at France to see how it will probably turn out. The French government basically had to spend billion$ building up the reprocessing industry from scratch only to produce fuel that costs 10x as much as virgin MOX fuel. Requiring this level of government involvement (in addition to the French government basically dictating that their country would be nuclear-powered) means that they are locked in to this arrangement by policy instead of market forces and huge inefficiencies can and do occur. For example, the current French government is trying to get nuclear below 50% of their electricity supply eventually to keep the country from being so dependent on just a single energy source.

    As for plutonium, some isotopes are more radioactive than others, so your assertions about this element need to come with HUGE caveats. And look how easy it was for India and Pakistan to use their civilian nuclear power programs as a cover for their weapons program. These two technologies are locked at the hip via the Manhattan Project and a viable, proliferation-proof commercial reactor remains far out of reach.

    And what goes unmentioned in the article is the nuclear industry’s implosion in the 1970′s and 1980′s. If you look at history, you would see that reactor order cancellations and project failures were already hobbling the industry for years before Three-Mile Island:

    “As a December 1978 Business Week’s Special Report “Nuclear Dilemma: The Atom’s Fizzle in an Energy-Short World” explained:

    One by one, the lights are going out for the U.S. nuclear power industry. Reactor orders have plummeted from a high of 41 in 1973 to zero this year. Nuclear power stations are taking longer to build, and the delays are tacking hundreds of millions of dollars onto their costs. Waste disposal, which was supposed to be solved by now, is not. The export market is already glutted and shrinking fast. And the cumulative effect of these and other troubles has been a severe erosion of both public and political support for nuclear power.

    Furthermore, domestic utilities are facing such shrunken growth projections for electricity demand that even if the nuclear industry’s political, social, economic, and regulatory difficulties could be solved, there may not be an adequate market left for their product. Not soon, but within 10 years, the U.S. nuclear industry is apt to contract dramatically, and it may collapse altogether. Says a senior, nonnuclear executive at General Electric Co., one of the four remaining reactor makers: ‘The existing nuclear industry can’t survive. Period.”

    His is not a radical view.”

    The entirely necessary safety improvements that came out of TMI put the nail in the coffin, however. To get new reactors built, the NRC has streamlined the permitting process and the federal government has offered tax credits and loan guarantees. In addition, state regulators often let utilities building new reactors collect billion$ from their customers for years before their reactors become operational via “cost recovery”. This puts a lot of the risk of building these plants onto ratepayers and if these reactor projects fail (not an insignificant risk given the industry’s history), then they lose those billion$$$ with nothing to show for it. Even with all these financial “shortcuts” in place, reactors STILL cost around $8B a pop and take around 10 years to build. This is wholly inadequate to meet the challenges of climate change.

    Why are we spending so much money on nuclear power when we waste about half of the energy used in the USA for no good reason? A recent article in SciAm showed that the average home’s electricity use could be cut by 90% with comprehensive efficiency measures that use existing technology. Businesses and industrial plants could probably achieve similar reductions as well, saving money while they reduce emissions much quicker than new nuclear power could. Solar, wind and other renewable energy capacity can also be installed MUCH faster than nuclear generating capacity can. We’re running out of time in dealing with climate change and we can’t be focused solely on higher-risk options when a big part of the solution is already proven to work and is sitting right under our collective noses.

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  11. 11. sethdayal 1:45 pm 06/7/2013

    Nobel Prize in Economics “Paul Krugman” 6 June 2013 on the futility of any discussion with our resident jokester and self styled expert on all things – Sault.

    “If someone says the sky is green, you prove that it’s actually blue, and the next day he comes back once again insisting that the sky is green, and this happens repeatedly, you eventually have to acknowledge that mannerly debate about the color of the sky just isn’t enough; you have to go meta, and talk about the fact that this guy and his friends just aren’t in the business of honest discussion.”

    “bad-faith arguments don’t deserve a civil response, and if the attempt to be civil gets in the way of exposing the bad faith, civility itself becomes part of the problem”

    Once again for the umpteenth time I administer another Sault trashing. As usual everything he posts is a pant’s on fire fib he makes up in his fevered imagination.

    The Soviet Alfa sub ran successfully on Gen IV lead based nukes for a decade and several SMR’s with the same technology are on track for service in less than 5 years. The Russkii’s have worked out their Gen IV BN-600 on the grid for 10 years or so and both India and Russia have new Gen IV designs going into service this year in India’s 500 MW case at less than 3 cents a kwh and first of 5 to 2000. China’s Gen IV HTGR is under construction for 2017 service after a successful run as a test unit.

    GE has offered to have its design approved ready to build Gen IV IFR Prism in service as designed and tested at the Idaho National Labs in the early 90′s on its own dime within5 years if the Brits are willing to pay them to destroy their plutonium stocks.

    Numerous nuclear scientists and engineers believe they could have the MSR concept in service within 5 years – if the government was willing to overrule its Big Oil donators, pry 1% of the money spent on wind and solar and give them a shot on a technology already proven to work on a smaller scale.

    There is no cogent argument that today’s civilian nuclear industry has any effect on proliferation. As N Korea shows anybody can build a nuke weapon with a $10M test reactor.

    More lies.

    Areva tells us the cost of French Mox is the same as new uranium and France’s new commitment to 50% nukes has to do with the government need for Green Party support. It will be gone in the next election.

    The AP-1000 includes all the safety improvements of the eighties and it is still by far the cheapest energy available at 7 cents a kwh commercial 3 to 4 cents public power. The shutdown in the 80′s was caused by the Green movements alliance with Big Oil and its takeover of the NRC. Shoreham was the last straw where a $4B completed ready for operation unit was denied license because a Green village selectman in a hamlet 15 miles away refused to approve an evacuation plan. Over a million Americans have died since as a result of the air pollution from the ensuing massive coal plant construction. There are no subsidies for current US nukes.

    There is a massive nuclear buildout happening in China, India, and Russia which will soon be joined by other Asian and Middle East countries. These countries are not corrupted by Big Oil. In the US with its politicians and media owned by Big Oil, even though nuke power, especially that built by public power, is far and away the cheapest form of energy available to us today, today’s fascist business interests would rather spend a small amount of capital on gas plant and collect a lucrative gratuity on future fuel sales paid for by the taxpayer, than a large amount of capital and no gratuities on nukes. They pay a lot of graft to our corrupt politicians and media to keep that scam going. If they had to guarantee their prices for the next sixty years like nukes in effect do, not a gas plant would ever be built.

    Thinkprogress is a notorious antinuclear green blog caught in numerous lies over the years. Why bother quoting them?

    More lies.

    The VC Summer project is 30% complete on schedule for a 5 year build at $4.4B/GW 7 cents a kwh- the cheapest energy there is. If build by public operator TVA that cost would be 4 cents a kwh. Japanese ABWR’s are built in less than 3 years at $2B/GW as are Candu’s at 4 years. The new SMR machines forecasted to take the US public power industry by storm by 2020 are predicted at 3 year builds at $3B/GW.

    It has been proven over and over again that the cost all in of solar and wind is 90 and 40 cents a kwh. Neither saves any GHG’s with gas backup, and to date there is no backup solution envisioned.

    Unless something is done, in 20 years the West’s third world bankrupt ghg spewing pariah economies will be running on 40 cents a kwh wind and 90 cents a kwh solar but getting all its energy from 17 cents a kwh gas, while the BRIC country’s zero GHG populace will be laughing at our dumb butts while running their prosperous countries on penny a kwh Gen IV nuclear.

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  12. 12. Fanandala 4:07 pm 06/7/2013

    @ Mark Goldes,
    nuclear plants can incorporate steam driven pumps. As long as there is decay heat steam is generated and drives the cooling pump. If they had had them at Fukushima there would not have been a problem.

    Link to this
  13. 13. johnhart 4:14 pm 06/9/2013

    Concerns about the health effects of low dose radiation exposure are complex, but extensive research to date (except for some questionable findings like the cancer clusters reported near nuclear reactors by German researchers, which are deficient in multiple regards) have been unable to demonstrate any negative health effects of consequence. To the contrary, a growing body of literature exists supporting a hormetic dose-response relationship such that workers exposed to chronic low levels of radiation demonstrate improved mortality and other beneficial health effects. Some types of cancers clearly can occur in elevated exposure situations at higher than expected rates, but other much more common and deadly cancers are actually reduced. There is also strong evidence of an enhancement of general immune function under conditions of modest increases in exposure, such that other common diseases occur at lower than expected rates. Skeptics dismiss studies in nuclear and shipyard workers showing zero harm as demonstrating a “healthy worker effect” but a careful reading of the research exposes this idea as unsubstantiated or disproved. Here is a good overview of this area with links to source materials.

    The principle obstacles to a rapid expansion of nuclear at this time seem to be political and technical.
    The technical problems are solved or close to solution now and only need a few demonstration and scale-up projects to validate the economics and safety of fourth generation designs, meanwhile the generation 3+ reactors like the AP1000 and EPR (European Pressurized Reactor) have been certified, are being build around the world, and have better economics and much better safety parameters than the aging fleet of current US plants.

    Perhaps we would be wise to overcome our reflexive objections to government management and ownership of industries in this instance and emulate the French experience, which has led to the safest, lowest cost and best managed reactor fleet extant. A unified government run program, either with or without private corporate participation, could guarantee that the highest standards of engineering, design, construction, operation, and management consistent with the goals of reliability, safety, and minimal proliferation risk predominate.

    Of course the first job to enable all this is to convince legislators and the public to re-evaluate nuclear power in light of current realities. Nuclear can be the fastest and least costly way to decarbonize our economy. We need to be sure it is done with the greatest attention to planning, safety, and cost, as well as public acceptance.

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  14. 14. Carlyle 4:25 pm 06/9/2013

    It is remarkable how opinion in support of nuclear has strengthened on forums like this in recent times. Better late than never.

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  15. 15. GRLCowan 8:26 pm 06/10/2013

    xponen asks, “Why keep mentioning about the reactor only when the risk is not just the reactor?”

    It’s because the radioactivity risk essentially *is* just the reactor. Fuel that has been long out of a reactor is still dangerous in principle, but actual injuries to people have only ever been inflicted by reactors that were capable of accidental runaway — Chernobyl, SL-1.

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  16. 16. Cramer 6:21 pm 06/11/2013

    Chernobyl Disaster…

    Fanandala said, “nuclear plants can incorporate steam driven pumps. As long as there is decay heat steam is generated and drives the cooling pump. If they had had them at Fukushima there would not have been a problem.”

    Is this speculation? Or is this actually being considered?

    [note: steam driven pumps are already used for normal ops., but should they be powered from decay heat?]

    It’s interesting that you said this. This is similar to what happened at Chernobyl. They were testing the ability to use generator coast-down power (after steam shutoff to generator) to run reactor coolant pumps. The insufficiently powered pumps were not able to keep up with cooling requirements which then created steam in the cooling water. This then created a positive feedback loop leading to the steam explosion and meltdown.

    For details see:

    Granted, Chernobyl was not a light water reactor where water is the neutron moderator. In the Chernobyl type reactor steam in the coolant water increases the fission rate (Rx power) while in light-water reactors steam would reduce the fission rate (see “positive void coefficient of RBMK reactors”).

    Regardless, I do not know if it is wise to use the reactor and/or the main generator to create steam and/or electricity for cooling requirements during and after plant shutdown. This should come from the grid. And if the grid is not available, it should come from onsite fossil fuel generators and boilers. They simply should not be located in the basement where they can be flooded. (and redundancy is a given)

    This comes down to plant and reactor design. I doubt decay heat powered emergency systems could be retrofitted to our PWR and BWR designs.

    If you have information of what is actually being done (or researched) in the nuke industry around the world that contradicts this, please comment and provide the references.

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