Sunday, April 5, 2009

Time for Nukes

I was given extensive schooling on the issues related to nuclear power back in the 1970s. I was delivering an educational program about energy for the University of California. It was funded by the local utility, but they knew that they needed the credibility of the University for it to have any value, so they took a hands-off approach. The training program itself was organized by a strongly pro-nuclear group, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, based in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, home of major nuclear facilities. Fortunately, the University of California knows how to handle such situations, and I was protected from pressure from ORAU. There was only one confrontation: a speaker from the utility that suffered the Brown's Ferry cable tray fire refused to answer my questions about the peak core temperature, and I pressed him hard to produce the number. Afterwards, my ORAU hosts sat me down for a little "attitude adjustment" session. It was ended by a call to my boss, who hearing both sides and figuring out what was happening, instructed me over the phone to look abashed and embarrassed and say "Yessir" many times. He then told my tormentors that he had set me straight and that they should allow me to contemplate the seriousness of his instructions. When I returned to Davis, he congratulated me for standing up to them.

Anyway, all of this serves to justify my claim of being objective AND knowledgeable about the nuclear power issue. I got the opportunity to talk to some of the top people in government and industry, to visit a number of power plants of every type (I'm one of the small number of people who've actually been inside the containment structure at Diablo Canyon, as well as going inside oil burners, the geothermal facility at The Geysers, two coal burners, and several coal mines). I also benefited from the fact that the Davis campus of the University of California, where I worked, was designated one of the technical repositories of all the energy-related technical materials produced by the Federal government, so I had direct access to every technical report on everything.

So when I claim that anti-nuclear fears are baseless, I know what I'm talking about. The arguments against nuclear power are bullshit. For example, the canard about waste disposal -- that issue was settled thirty years ago with the release of the API report on radioactive waste disposal. Since then we have gathered mountains of data on actual performance of the test sites, and the data has supported all the conclusions drawn thirty years ago. There have been no surprises, no disappointments. If you read the anti-nuclear propaganda closely, you'll discover that they don't claim that rad waste disposal is technically impossible; they claim only that there is no operational rad waste disposal site in the country. And why isn't there a site? Because they've whipped up the fears of citizens so that NIMBY factors, not rational decision-making, control the policy. Basically, their argument boils down to the statement that people are too irrationally frightened by rad waste disposal to permit it.

Safety factors are an even more egregious canard. People point to the Chernobyl accident as an example of how dangerous nuclear plants are. What they don't point out is that the graphite reactors at Chernobyl were never seriously considered in any of the Western nations because they bristle with safety problems. Worse, Chernobyl had no containment structure. Western reactors are kept inside huge concrete and steel domes with walls ten feet thick. The Chernobyl reactors were inside a flimsy building that offered no resistance to the release of radiation.

What about the Three Mile Island accident of 1979? That was, if anything, a demonstration of the effectiveness of the overall safety designs. There were multiple failures in that accident: maintenance failures, equipment failures, and operator mistakes. The reactor itself was reduced to intensely radioactive slag. Even so, the containment structure held. There were several releases of radioactive gases, but intense monitoring of the air and the soil in the immediate aftermath of the accident, as well as the health of the nearby population, has demonstrated that there were no statistically significant effects. Indeed, one calculation showed that the greatest threat to public health was the flight of people away from the accident; there were some automobile accidents attributable to the heavy traffic, and a few deaths. 

Compare all this with the lengthy track record of nuclear power over the last 30 years. The French get 80% of their electricity from nuclear, and they have never had a single significant accident. The Japanese get a smaller share, and they've had a few minor coolant spills, but nothing serious. And in this country, in the thirty years since Three Mile Island, we've had enormous amounts of electricity generation and no serious problems. The anti-nuclear doomsayers have been proven wrong. The technology works safely.

By the way, there were two substantial arguments against nuclear power in the 1970s: capital intensity and proliferation. The capital intensity argument observed that a big nuclear program would sponge up lots of capital, driving up interest rates for the entire economy. This argument is no longer significant; although at this grim time for the economy, there's no free capital, in general the economy now is large enough to capitalize lots of reactor construction. 

The proliferation argument was the most serious, but nowadays the cat is out of the bag. Short-term geopolitical advantage has at every point trumped long-term anti-proliferation discipline, and time and again the anti-proliferation rules have been bent to keep friendly nations on our side. When even a podunk nation like North Korea can build nukes, we have to admit that our anti-proliferation efforts have failed. 

Countering all this is the increasingly desperate situation arising from global warming. It is no longer a mere desideratum that we limit carbon releases; it is now an imperative. And we continue to build new coal plants in this country. Every nuclear plant that we build saves us from building a coal plant. The choice is not between nuclear and solar or between nuclear and wind; it's between nuclear and coal. Yes, we want to build as much wind and solar power as we can; but we're still going to be building coal plants and anything we can do to reduce that building program is to our benefit.

Lastly, we must not forget that the supply of fuel for nuclear power is nearly infinite. All the studies show that even one-pass fuel cycle has plenty of fuel to work with, and if we employ some fuel-reprocessing technologies, we can increase the effective supply of fuel by an order of magnitude. Beyond this beckons the seductive possibility of breeding fuel. A peculiarity of nuclear technology is that it is possible to breed more fuel than you burn while operating a power reactor. In other words, a nuclear power plant can be designed to create more fuel than it consumes -- LOTS more fuel.  This is the technology that opens of up the possibility of near-infinite supplies of nuclear power. 

There is a catch, of course: the technology originally conceived for doing this -- the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor, or LMFBR -- is completely unacceptable in terms of safety. The first big prototype, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor project, was killed by the Carter Administration, and everybody now agrees that it was the right decision. Using liquid sodium a as coolant is not a good idea, because sodium bursts into flame in the presence of oxygen. Imagine what would happen if the coolant in your car engine would burn if there were a leak. Not a happy thought, that.

Fortunately, there are some new reactor designs that, while not as efficient as an LMFBR, are still capable of breeding fuel, and can do so safely. We'll need to put them through lots of testing before building a bunch of them, but they could extend the life of nuclear power -- and completely eliminate the need for fossil fuels -- by mid-century. Don't you think that eliminating our dependence upon fossil fuels would be an excellent goal to reach?

So let's put aside the irrational fears and consider nuclear power as an alternative to coal. 


Sue said...

A strong and very persuasive argument. I would like to hear a bit about mining, however, as anything involving scraping stuff out of the earth has complicating factors.

Chris Crawford said...

Yes, mining is probably the most dangerous link in the nuclear fuel cycle -- not waste disposal. The problem is that the tailings contain elevated amounts of uranium and, because the deposits are all in the arid West, we get dust blowing from the tailings, and if the dust is inhaled, it creates an elevated risk of cancer. The only solution is to create a big unpopulated zone around all such operations. Usually, this isn't difficult because the open pit mines are in unpopulated areas anyway. However, when most of these mines were first opened in the late 40s and 50s, obtaining uranium was considered a national security priority, so little thought was given to such niceties as protecting the locals. The fact that some of these mines were on or near Indian reservations made it even easier for operators to dismiss safety concerns.

The bottom line: there are some real skeletons in the closet here, but these represent the idiocies of the past rather than the capabilities of the present.

Pat Jenkins said...

please map out where you plan to put all this "waste" chris for me. though i am with you, as for being in favor of the most effective and reliable form of energy (whatever that may be), i fear the biggest arguers against nuclear power may be your fellow "enviromentalists"!!..... i hope the whole blue island almanack's crew has a happy easter!

Chris Crawford said...

Until a month ago, Yucca Mountain was the designated site for rad waste disposal. However, the Obama Administration has decided not to use this site. I am surprised by the decision because Yucca Mountain has been studied thoroughly for decades and is demonstrably safe. However, the NIMBY forces in Nevada are strong and it appears that they have succeeded in getting that site shut down. So we have to go back to some of the other sites that have been considered. My guess is that we'll continue to screw around with this nonsense, flitting from site to site, with nobody willing to accept the rad waste, until an accident at a temporary storage facility leaks lots of radioactivity into the environment and there's a big stink. At that point people will finally find the political gumption to settle the issue; my guess is that it will include the selection of several sites so that nobody feels picked on.

Sue said...

Chris, after reading your post, I think that I'd like to include a unit in my "population, resources and change" class, to get the students to think seriously about nuclear power as a future option. Could you recommend websites/readings that I could include in that unit? Can I use portions of this post (properly credited to you of course) in that lesson?