Addressing remaining concerns about nuclear energy

In recent years, critical thinkers who have habitually objected to using nuclear energy have conceded that it has a good safety record and that its CO2 and other air pollution emissions are a tiny fraction of produced by the most efficient natural gas power plants. They also recognize that nuclear power plants, unlike power sources that depend on the weather, can be controlled by operators or automation to produce power on demand.

These thinkers, who are often professionally employed problem solvers or teachers, have begun reconsidering their objections. Some, like Stewart Brand, Robert Stone, Mark Lynas, Jim Hansen, and Ken Caldeira have accepted the importance of nuclear energy and become advocates of its inclusion as a major component of our future energy supply system. Some observers remain skeptical and hesitate to complete their conversion because they believe that nuclear energy has intractable issues associated with costs, waste, and international control.

Bob Brecha (@BobBrecha), a physics, sustainability and renewable energy professor at the University of Dayton, published a piece on Huffington Post titled Nuclear Power – The Solution to Future Energy and Climate Challenges? showing that he is one of the thoughtful energy commentators with a narrowing set of objections to nuclear energy. His piece also explains the sources of his remaining skepticism about the future importance of nuclear energy.

It is worthwhile to seek people like Brecha and to offer some observations that might help him to overcome his remaining objections and join in the effort to make nuclear energy a big part of the future energy and climate solution set.

Brecha acknowledges that nuclear energy has low life cycle emissions, that constraints on raw material supplies are not substantial, that breeding might make those constraints virtually disappear, and that nuclear energy is far safer than coal. However, he still believes that nuclear energy is too expensive, that waste issues are unresolved in a politically acceptable manner, that a combination of efficiency and renewable energy can supply almost all the power we need, and that controversies like those surrounding Iran’s nuclear program show that international control issues prevent nuclear from being a truly sustainable power source.

Each of the factors in his remaining objections can be either reduced or eliminated.

Brecha’s description of nuclear costs is worth discussing. Here is a quote from his piece.

Nearly all technologies decrease in cost as we gain experience and as the scale of installation increases. We have seen this most dramatically in the case of solar photovoltaics over the past decade, a technology for which costs have dropped by 80-90% from where they were a few years ago. Nuclear power may be the only counterexample to this pattern (see here and here). There has been a steady increase in the cost of building nuclear power plants over time, partly due to the need for redundant and complex safety measures.

The first question one might ask is “Why is nuclear power different from other technologies? Why is it a unique counterexample to the expected economies of experience and scale?”

There is nothing unique about nuclear technology that explains why it should be an outlier. As many opponents frequently point out, fission is just another way to produce heat. Like other heat sources, a large portion of nuclear heat is used to create steam at high temperatures and pressures.

That steam is turned into useful electricity by systems of pipes and rotating equipment that is virtually identical to the systems used in plants where combustion is the primary heat source. My direct experience with operating various heat sources is that nuclear reactors are uniquely simple and easy to control; there is little reason why they should be so darned expensive.

My assessment is that nuclear project developers have rarely applied conventional techniques to drive down costs and improve construction and manufacturing schedules.

Even though we have been using nuclear fission energy since the early 1950s, there are few examples of sustained efforts to build on experience and apply well understood techniques to improve economics by reusing designs, establishing repeatable processes, manufacturing a series of identical machines with interchangeable parts and driving down costs by avoiding production delays and interruptions.

In those few instances where those techniques have been applied–most notably the construction of a total of 42 Westinghouse/Framatome-designed 900 MWe three loop pressurized water power plants in France, South Africa, South Korea and China–there is solid evidence of cost reductions and schedule improvements.

I cannot provide details or links to available studies, but I can testify from personal knowledge and experience that the U.S. Navy has also achieved substantial economies of series production for several different pressurized water reactor designs that have been installed in submarines an aircraft carriers. The magnitude of the savings has varied significantly; annual production rates are a major factor in achieving a full measure of the potential cost and schedule improvements.

A unique challenge faced by nuclear energy developers has been the dedication, skill and coordination with which opponents have engaged in efforts to ratchet costs. They have worked to impose additional requirements, intervened in projects with the specific aim of inserting delays, challenged regulatory agency integrity, seized on every crisis as an opportunity for additional impositions and worked to energize citizen opposition by spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt.

In answer to Brecha’s mention of a “need for redundant and complex safety measures” the imposed measures were often not needed. They were desired and suggested by people that wanted to harm their competitors. In many cases, they were accepted by nuclear developers or contractors with varying degrees of enthusiasm depending on their own business models and revenue expectations from change orders.

Part of the success of the opposition has resulted from the sheer size of each project. It’s difficult for a power plant that can produce enough electricity to supply the needs of close to a million people to fly under anyone’s radar, especially when the operation of that power plant can result in the loss of several hundred million dollars per year of fuel sales, along with a lesser quantity of sales of additional products and services.

It is possible, especially with smaller power plant designs, for nuclear energy to achieve cost and schedule performance improvements that approach those seen in solar and wind energy during the past decade. Success in this area will also depend on the ability of nuclear supporters to smooth regulatory, project management and financial hurdles. Nuclear supporters should learn from successes and try to market their product as well as the renewable energy promoters have sold the public on the benefits of their favored technologies.

No one who has worked in the nuclear field in a position that provides any visibility into costs should be able to deny that there is a large opportunity for improvement.

Here is how Brecha describes his concerns about waste.

The issue of nuclear waste disposal, which has not yet been satisfactorily resolved, has not even been mentioned yet.

Most importantly, a sustainable energy system cannot be one that leaves its waste to be cleaned up by future generations – especially when other options do exist.

Many nuclear system innovators, including companies like TerraPower, Transatomic, Flibe, Terrestrial Energy and ThorCon, have a different view of waste than Brecha. They see it as an opportunity or as a raw material that can become fuel for their advanced designs.

I tend to agree with those designers. Used nuclear fuel is not a waste and not a burden for future generations. It is valuable raw material and a resource that can make life better for future generations. It is a positive legacy, not an imposition.

Brecha also has concerns about fears and accidents worth addressing.

In addition, there is no other energy source about which we must continually fear the slightest human error. It is clear that coal power currently kills vastly more people than nuclear power ever has. But the catastrophic events around Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima have left long-term scars over large areas and dislocated hundreds of thousands of people.

As noted above, a large portion of the fear experienced by many people is a direct result of opponents seizing on the opportunities provided by well-publicized accidents or events. Almost everyone can recite the names of the accidents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, but few seem to understand the limited consequences associated with each one. Critical thinkers should recognize that the existence of just three accidents during the past 50 years of nuclear plant operations around the world is good news, not fear inspiring news. That recognition should be enhanced when they understand that Chernobyl was the only one that caused any fatalities and that the number of identifiable bodies is well under 100.

Comparing that history to any other source of on demand power, not just coal, shows just how safe nuclear technology can be. There is no justification to continually fear nuclear energy, especially in light of studies like the NRC’s State of the Art Reactor Consequence Analysis (SOARCA).

Of course, there are plenty of nuclear energy opponents that want people to cling to the fears that the opponents aggressively continue to promote. Critical thinkers like Brecha should be immune to this kind of imposed fear.

Finally, Brecha’s objections based on international control regimes can be effectively addressed by recognizing some of the interests involved in the discussion.

If we look at debates right now about Iran’s nuclear program, the subtext is that we (Industrialized countries? Western countries? The U.S. alone?) should be allowed to determine who else is admitted to the nuclear club, or at the very least, that we should have the option of tightly controlling access to nuclear technology and fuel. This attitude represents a new kind of energy colonialism and should be unacceptable in the 21st century.

My view is that neither the U.S. nor the rest of the world has the right to discriminate against other nations, especially those that have signed binding agreements or treaties that relinquish any possibility that they will use their nuclear knowledge to build weapons with which to threaten their adversaries.

As I’ve noted here on several occasions, I believe that much of the animosity and public attention paid to Iran’s nuclear energy development program is rooted in economically motivated efforts by Israel and Saudi Arabia to constrain Iran’s ability to compete in international markets and capture sales.

Painting Iran as a pariah has successfully encouraged the development of international sanctions regimes that severely constrained Iran’s hydrocarbon sales for a half a decade or more. Keeping that country from building nuclear plants to supply domestic energy needs will ensure that it keeps burning oil and natural gas in domestic power stations and does not replace that demand with nuclear fission. Doing so would free up a steadily increasing portion of production to sell into the more lucrative export market.

The current suppliers to that market have no desire to have to deal with additional supplies and the resulting price pressures.

Bottom lines.

  • Nuclear energy costs can be substantially lowered without the need for continued federal subsidies.
  • There is enough raw fuel material to last indefinitely, especially through the refined use of already proven techniques for breeding and recycling.
  • Nuclear energy projects can be encouraged to proliferate around the world without increasing the risk of nuclear weapons use.
  • Excessive fears about nuclear energy are not justified, but they are encouraged by people with ulterior motives. There’s little to fear but fear itself.

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