Nuclear Power

Yucca Mountain without waste costs nearly $400 million a year to run, and that is cost to the public, not the entities generating the waste. Assuming all works out and Yucca Mountain is begun to be used, a new facility, either adjacent or in another location, needs to be started on immediately.


Is there any serious thought going into shooting the waste by-product into space? I understand the danger of a nuclear accident on the launch pad. Is it just too dangerous?

I shudder at the thought of a Challenger-type accident, with hot debris being spread around the Atlantic. Is that a real concern?

If not, it seems to be a great solution, assuming it’s cost effective (which it may very well not be).

Not even close to cost effective. Putting things into space is very expensive, including in terms of the energy used.

Absolutely, unequivocally, no.

It is absolutely too dangerous.

Yes, it is a real concern. There have been 123 shuttle launches to date. We have lost one shuttle during launch. These are very poor odds for the catastrophe that would occur if high-level nuclear waste was spread into the upper atmosphere. The loss rates for unmanned rockets are even higher.

While it may sound like a good solution, it is probably the worst thing we can do with the waste. It’s simply too dangerous and too expensive.

With current launch techology, it is as far from being cost-effective as one could imagine. Typical launch costs to orbit are in the range of $10,000 per pound. However, we woudn’t want to fill the orbital space around the Earth with high-level nuclear waste, so we would want to launch it on an escape trajectory. These would probably cost 1-2 orders of magnitude more. The energy costs associated with trying to do this would probably take a significant dent in any energy benefit from the fuel in the first place. (Comparing these would make a fun physics problem, BTW.)

Also, before you suggest it, it actually takes more energy to launch an object into the Sun than it would take to launch it into an escape trajectory from the solar system. This is because it takes a great deal of energy to get the change in velocity from Earth’s orbital speed to an orbit that intersects the Sun.

You don’t seem to understand that these other power sources simply do not scale to the level where they can replace all our energy needs. Here in Alberta, we have tremendous conditions for wind energy. Southern Alberta is the mouth of a large venturi through the Rockies, and gets sustained high winds over a large area. We have wind farms all through the region. Huge ones. There are some places in Southern Alberta where all you can see is row and row of wind turbines stretching out over the hills in several directions. It’s actually quite beautiful, in my opinion. I’m a big fan of them.

But they only produce 4% of our power. And the generation area is only reasonably close to Calgary. The entire North half of the province is too far away, and doesn’t get enough wind. So wind power is out. Oh, we might continue building in the South and someday get to 10%, but that’s about all we can manage. And we still need to size our other power plants as though the wind farms didn’t exist, because we can’t have brownouts when it’s calm.

Solar? Solar’s great, for some uses. I’m sure it will be part of the energy mix some day. But like wind, it’s not stable base-load power. It’s available when it’s available, not when you need it.

Some people hand-wave away the problem by saying we’ll just store the power in batteries, or store it by pumping water up into a reservoir when we have excess power and releasing through water turbines when the sun or wind isn’t available. And that’s all well and good, but there are huge efficiency losses in these methods. Batteries only return a certain percentage of the energy pumped into them. The rest is wasted. Water pumps cost energy to run, and water evaporation in an open reservoir steals a percentage of your potential energy.

So regardless of whether we ultimately get to 20%, or 50% of our total energy needs from wind and solar, we still need stable, constant energy sources. The only sources of that today are hydro, coal plants, natural gas turbines, or nuclear reactors.

Hydro is tapped out, and quite dangerous (hydro accidents have killed more people than any other energy-related accident, including nuclear. Nuclear, in fact, has the safest and cleanest record of ANY of the energy sources mentioned. And that probably includes wind and solar if you include things like accidents from falls when working on wind towers or cleaning solar cells on roofs).

Natural gas and coal both burn fossil fuels. So if you don’t mind that, we can just go ahead and build more coal plants. There’s enough coal around to last us quite a while.

But if that bothers you and you don’t think that’s an acceptable answer, there are really only two technologies on the horizon that can supply base-load power in a scalable way and not emit CO2: Nuclear, and clean coal with carbon sequestration. We’ll build both, I imagine. clean coal’s big problem is that it’s expensive, and won’t be available for at least 15 years. Oh, and Greenpeace opposes it, and so do many other environmentalists, because they don’t like coal mining and burning coal in the first place, and they think carbon sequestration is risky because the carbon could be released by accident.

That leaves nuclear. If you think this through logically, you’ll see that we don’t really have any other good options. Or rather, we do, but together they can’t close the gap that we currently need coal to fill. You can’t just hand-wave this problem away. So long as U.S. energy policy ignores nuclear power as a significant player, it will not be taken seriously. By me, at least.

There is no ‘ultimate source of power’. We will have many sources of power, for a long time to come. None of us knows what the ultimate ‘winner’ will be, and it’s entirely possible that there won’t be one. We’ll have roughly the same mix of power sources we have now, but the relative ratios will change over time as economics dictate. Maybe wind will gain a little market share, someone will make a cool tidal generator and pick up a couple of percentage points with it. Some people will have solar cells, some won’t. Some areas will have nuclear plants, others will still have coal, clean or otherwise.

This is actually what you want. You want an organic shift over time to better ways to produce power. You don’t want to come up with a grand central plan and impose it, because if you’re wrong in your assumptions it would be disastrous, and in so doing you would crowd out all the research and innovation in other energy sources that could lead to breakthroughs or improvements that would make them a better choice. So you have to let the market evolve. You can push it a bit with incentives and taxes, and you can streamline government regulations or use them to level the playing field (i.e. make sure there are no subsidies or taxes rewarding or punishing one source more than the other). Price in carbon and other pollutants. Then be confident that the market will sort it out.

To Sam’s post I would add:

Natural gas, oil and coal are all fossil fuels. But Natural gas is less CO2 intensive than oil, which in turn emits less carbon dioxide than coal.

I’m a nuclear skeptic: from what I can tell, natural gas is a cheaper method of greenhouse gas reduction. But I think nuclear has a role in our energy portfolio. And I support it in foreign countries that are politically stable, since they pay the higher construction and nuclear disposal costs while I benefit from the lower greenhouse emissions.

I lean towards natural gas and advocate expansion of the US’s LNG infrastructure. For one thing a world market in the product would discourage the practice of gas flaring. But in the end I think we should set a price or a target for CO2 and let the market converge to its decision.

Well stated. Tying ourselves to a grand central plan is a bad idea. I think solar panel technology is currently in the future-landfill stage. Lots of cool ideas coming up that would leap frog it and when they are perfected then they will naturally take their place. Solar thermal is making headway in the desert states and I expect that to increase over time. It only lacks a cheap conduit material to make it really cost effective.

Wind. Oiy. Not a fan at all. Coming back from Oshkosh I flew by a wind farm of approx 100 units and they weren’t moving at all. Totally unreliable on a day to day basis and we have no way of storing it on a good day. when they do work you don’t want to live near one because of the noise and God forbid they don’t fail and fling 150 feet of death your way.

Coal shouldn’t be discarded because of CO2 because the gas can be scrubbed and sold to algae farms which in turn make diesel fuel which can be used to boost fleet economy without reinventing the frickin wheel. We don’t have to invent one damn thing to switch cars over to diesel. Nothing changes with manufacturing or fuel distribution nodes.

Ah, so the ease of creating a solar facility is exaggerated. Do you think German scientists Gerhard Knies and Franz Trieb’s predictions of the abilities of solar energy to fulfill the world’s energy needs are overstated?

And thanks for the lengthy reply Sam.

What other energy sources would you say have had unfair subsidies or taxes for promotion? You don’t think pushing certain alternative fuels will help accelerate a natural energy reliance and balance out an oil monopoly?

To those of you who have compared natural gas and coal to nuclear, wind, and solar: doesn’t/shouldn’t the fact that those are non-renuable sources severely inhibit their usage?

Since we’re talking mix, how does reduction in energy consumption fit into things? Not just finding ways to be more efficient and whatnot (though certainly needed), but actually changing our perceptions of day to day living.

Rhythm, it’s not a bad thought… provided the world population stays steady or decreases.
The problem is, it would require global control of individual lives by some government in order to enforce it, on a very direct and personal basis.

Do you see the inherent issues here?

If they are talking about having solar basically become a primary power source in the next few decades then they are definitely overstating their case. Currently solar makes a pretty decent alternative or subsidiary source…but getting it up past even 10% of our power needs would be a huge undertaking, both in terms of cost and in terms of impact to the environment. People have this idea that once you put solar in that it’s good to go…free energy from the sun! Doesn’t work like that…there is quite a bit of maintenance involved. Also, it doesn’t work just anywhere…you need to put it somewhere there is a lot of sunshine (duh, right?). Problem is, a lot of places that would be perfect for solar (here in the US anyway) are out in the middle of no where…and how do you propose to get the energy from there into the grid without a huge amount of loss?

The other thing about solar is the power density per square foot of panel (or reflector if you use one of those Spanish solar collector type plants) is pretty low still. They are still working on this and I’ve seen some cool focusing technology that might help…but the technology is far from ready for prime time.

It’s possible that someday solar MAY become a primary source of power. Maybe one day we’ll be able to have really high density (thus lower footprint) solar panels or reflectors…or maybe we’ll be able to use huge satellite solar collectors and beam power back down to earth. But today, right now, solar is a bit player in terms of our over all energy needs. We should use it as part of the mix of energy technologies, by all means, but our expectations shouldn’t be that solar (or wind or biofuels) are going to be a replacement technology for coal…because there is no way they are going to be that in the foreseeable future, despite the enthusiasm of it’s proponents. The only real alternative to fossil fuel replacement technology is nuclear…and the sooner people accept that the sooner we can REALLY take a chunk out of our CO2 emissions.


We have an inexhaustible source of coal in the US (in the practical sense). Technology will easily replace it before we come close to using it up.

By continuing to use coal and transferring the CO2 from it to bio-diesel production we also have an inexhaustible source of transportation fuel.

Certainly, and I didn’t mean to come across as a Ludite or suggesting that we get all the world’s children to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace. In that starry-eyed vein, one only need look at the Kyoto Protocol to see how global cooperation isn’t an easy task (though I suppose one could counter with Montreal).

But if we have problems now, imagine what it will be like in a few decades as China, India, and a host of other developing nations start competing for the same limited resources. Government action or cooperation is one thing, dramatic price shocks are quite another.

Can the entire world afford 24-hour giant supermarkets with heaps of produce from all over the world? It’s more of an economics argument for changing life style and expectations should technology not be able to keep up with demand. I think, though, that this is fodder for a different thread.

Back to the nuclear question, there is something else that makes me consider it a tenuous investment. All it will take is one accident — anywhere — to once again kick nuclear power in the Teslacles. Imagine the investment, the shift in economic momentum to accommodate nuclear power, etc. suddenly becoming stagnant and untapped because some yahoo in a plant somewhere didn’t correctly parse “you can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor” (hey, that’s two SNL references in one post). Given political realities, that’s all it will take.

Now, bringing it closer to home, consider if in twenty years (not so long on a building new plants time scale) some truck on its way to Yucca has a spill. Or is hijacked. Or goes missing. Yes, you can prepare for all sorts of contingencies, but again, consider the political implications: what happened after Three Mile Island? Say that “nothing really happened” all you want, but you have to consider the state of nuclear progress since then.

Forget about the risk to health and safety, I’m not sure it’s even a sound economic risk.

I know what you mean; it is this uncertainty that people have about nuclear. Aren’t the consequences of single human error to high? A programmer could mess up some code and cost lots of money for a company (and they take lots of redundancy precautions) - but supposedly a single nuclear worker could mess up, get in a crash (while transporting), or anything forseeable any day of the week. Maybe this is an overstated fear, but is it an irrational one? Especially if we are trying to optimize power plants geographically (people have suggested solar in the desert is too inefficient - we could potentially have nuclear in a lot of residential areas).
If the time it will take to build and switch over to nuclear is so high, then how is prospect of a completely different (like solar in the desert) energy plan so ridiculous? We know that technology progresses relatively quickly - and in 20 years our increased efforts for an alternative could (will certainly?) pay off.

Leaving aside the question of if a single worker could accidentally (or even on purpose) cause such a problem in a modern reactor or while transporting waste to a repository like Yucca Mtn (they couldn’t IMHO), all life is about risk and assessing the relative risks vs the benefits. Simply put, a nuclear accident would be ugly…but it would be a purely LOCAL ugly problem, and would involve a purely local cleanup. Use of coal however (or even natural gas) has GLOBAL implications. Since there isn’t anything else that can generate power on the scales we are talking about one needs to assess the situation with open eyes…is it better to risk a low probability event that might have a nasty but purely local impact, or continue to use an energy source that has less impact locally (well…this isn’t actually true either but lets keep things simple) but a lot more potentially harmful GLOBAL implications?

You still aren’t getting it. It’s not that it would take a long time to build a solar plant to replace our fossil fuel power infrastructure…it’s that with current technology you CAN’T DO IT. Period. It can’t be done. It’s not an option. Nor is wind AND solar going to replace a majority of our fossil fuel power infrastructure.

As to the lead time to build nuclear reactors, you have the same chicken and egg problem here. The reason it takes a long time to build reactors is because of all of the resistance from eco-groups (and NIMBY-ism) to build reactors. Especially the new pebble bed reactors designs don’t take anywhere near 20 years to build. Think about it for a minute and you’ll see…think about the Chinese constructing the 3 Rivers Gorge Dam. Then consider…do you REALLY think that, leaving aside the resistance, it would take longer to build a power plant than something like that??

Get the hippies and anti-nukes out of the way and we could be rolling newer, safer and more efficient nuclear plants out in a decade…especially if we are really serious about CO2 emissions and Global Warming, and we want to make replacement of FF power plants a priority. Keep dreaming about wind and solar and it will be decades before they are ready as a true scalable replacement technology to our existing power infrastructure…and so we’ll be putting more decades of CO2 into the atmosphere while we wait for magic pony technology to finally arrive and be deployable on a sufficient scale to make a difference.


The alternatives are nuclear, or coal, and risking putting Florida largely under water when the ice caps melt isn’t a good economic risk either.

Frankly, you aren’t so much arguing against nuclear, as you are arguing that Americans are too stupid to survive as a nation. Now, personally I find that quite believable; I have no problem imagining America refusing to go nuclear even as the oil runs out and the seas rise. I can see future Americans gagging and coughing up blood on the smoke from coal plants they’ve removed pollution restrictions from in the name of the all-holy free market, and adamantly opposing nuclear energy because of the health risks.

What’s wrong with finding ways to be more efficient and whatnot? After all, that’s basically what economic growth is.

We’ve had a massive switch from labor-intensive technologies. In the US, we’ve had a massive switch from wood-intensive technologies, as noted in Zotti’s Barn House. Both shifts were driven by the price mechanism. There’s no reason why we can’t do the same with CO2-intensive processes.

Before we start putting on the hair shirts, let’s try what has worked in the past.

Pure emotionalism.

News flash: Hippies are not politically powerful. Former hippies are not politically powerful as a group.

Furthermore: nuclear power won’t exist without governmental subsidies. Financial markets simply lack enthusiasm for nuclear power because it is expensive and risky, with the risks focused on construction overuns. This is despite the massive and federally-sponsored liability wavers, assumption of disposal risk and even direct operating subsidies, courtesy of the most recent energy bill.

Look, I’m not anti-nuke. But some of the pro-nuke arguments strike me as blinkered.
That said, we might not disagree that much, broadly speaking. The path away from fossil fuels will involve a mix of technologies, including efficiency improvements which are sometimes referred to as conservation.

Sorry, I’m not sure I meant that — I’m actually suggesting something much simpler.

Basically, making a major shift to nuclear power is a long term process. This shift will require a substantial commitment of resources and to development paths. Should an incident occur that causes a Three Mile Island-like halting of overall implementation, there will be a tremendous loss of sunk costs, including both actual capital and opportunity costs. Putting all physical risks aside for the moment, I’m suggesting that it would be worthwhile to examine the monetary and political commitment risks involved (by political risk I mean small “p” political/societal capital, not capital “P” Political as in a politicians’ careers). Perhaps it’s not worth it.

I’m making two rebuttable assumptions here (well, more, but I think only two are interesting).

First, that the likelihood of a major incident occurring during the timeframe of the shift is statistically significant. This is based on a few factors. Among them is the notion that if we are going to substantially expand operations, there will be that many more opportunities for mistakes to be made. Tied to this is the notion that nuclear expansion would not just occur here — if the United States considers nuclear power a good pathway out of current energy production limitations, then so to will other nations. Where a nuclear incident takes place is fairly irrelevant as far as political considerations are concerned (you can hear someone arguing against nuclear power mention TMI just as often as Chernobyl).

A difficult term in the above is “major incident.” This suggests the second assumption: whether the actual physical effects are as small as Three Mile Island or as large as Chernobyl is irrelevant to the political consequences of the incident. If nuclear power development is to take place, it will do so under extremely tight circumstances — ad hominems about “getting the hippies and anti-nukes out of the way” aside, there is a strong anti-nuclear force (heh) and a sizeable number of folks who are nuclear leery. The rationality of their particular bent is not germane to the point that nuclear power will have only tentative support for the foreseeable future. A nuclear incident — or even just a scare — will embiggen the anti-nuclear crowd and sway a substantial amount of other public opinion. Just consider what happened post TMI.

The likely spread of nuclear technology to less developed nations is that much more of a concern and again underscores an assumption. Poverty does not mean incompetence, but lack of infrastructure does suggest a higher probability of things going wrong. And when they do, the lack of ability to quickly react will just exacerbate the perception of the size of the problem.

So I’m not arguing that Americans are stupid. Rather, I’m looking at the pragmatic realities of what it would take to make a large-scale adoption to nuclear power, what the possible implications are, and raising the question of what would happen if those efforts suddenly came to a halt in fifteen to twenty years. I think it would be naïve to suggest that a second Chernobyl is not possible, or that it wouldn’t have a strong impact on policy (note that whether it should is not germane). Crying “damn the torpedoes” and pushing a nuclear agenda is also naïve, probably as similarly naïve as not considering nuclear power as a possible energy development path in the first place.

Absolutely nothing — and absolutely required.

The question was based on doubt that increases in efficiency will be able to keep pace with growing demand. We’re seeing China and India just starting to increase their demand for energy (forgive my oversimplification of a very complicated subject), and many other populous countries are not far behind. What happens to energy prices when much of the world’s energy consumption/demand rises to even half the per capita consumption of the West? Even assuming some major breakthroughs in efficiency technology, it would take an absolute miracle of technology to keep pace, even assuming major advances in every facet of the energy pipeline.

So consider what would happen if energy demand far outpaces supply. Without resorting to nanny-like governmental controls, prices would skyrocket and consumption habits would drastically change. What will the perceptions of standards of living look like in forty or fifty years? Right now, at two thirty in the morning, in my little hick town, I can drive to a brightly lit store that will sell me fresh fruits and vegetables shipped from thousands of miles away. I take that for granted. I’m not sure my grandparents did — I wonder if my grandchildren will.