The vast majority of technical specialists in the field of energy production favor the use of nuclear energy and recognize that it is a safe source of power that produces no direct greenhouse gases. Even when measured on a complete lifecycle basis, CO2 emissions from nuclear energy are roughly equal to the emissions from wind or hydro and about 1/4 of the emissions from solar.
As is frequently noted in discussions about climate change, however, the news media almost never publishes any story about nuclear energy without providing “equal time” to the naysayers who do everything they can to spread doubt about the use of nuclear energy as an effective tool in addressing the world’s energy trilemma of supplying “energy security, social equity and environmental impact mitigation”.
In the case of climate change, the naysaying “experts” often have credentials that sound like they are related to climate – television meteorologist, for example. A similar pattern exists with the merchants of doubt about nuclear energy, in this case the confusing credential might be “nuclear physicist”. In articles about climate change, some journalists have done a pretty fair job in helping people to understand that a talking-head weatherman might not be the best source of accurate information about climate patterns, but they have not done such a good job of helping people to understand that the course work in a nuclear physics curriculum has nothing to do with energy production, thermodynamics or economic analysis of power system options.
One of the traditional “go to guys” when a journalist needs a doubter’s perspective on nuclear energy is Dr. Ed Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Dr. Lyman has a PhD in nuclear physics, but somehow journalists have translated that credential into confirmed expertise on all things nuclear.
On Monday, December 17, 2012, WFAE, the National Public Radio (NPR) in Charlotte, North Carolina, did a piece on the B&W mPowerTM reactor development project. The reporter did a good job in talking to nuclear experts like Pete Lyons, Doug Lee, Chris Mowry and Marv Fertel, but he also followed the journalistic practice of providing Dr. Lyman a forum for spreading his unsubstantiated message of uncertainty.
Dr. Lyman was allotted 7 paragraphs out of 23, nearly one third of the total space. Here is a sample of his message
“My feeling is that if you’re going to have a nuclear power plant it better be a Rolls Royce,” Lyman says.
Lyman sees problems with the entire concept of mass producing small reactors.
“Nuclear power is a technology that is much more suited for large plants, centralized and isolated from populated areas in as small a number of places as possible,” Lyman says.
The comment thread for the article is generally positive and includes a supportive comment from Jim Hopf, who is a reliable and well informed pro nuclear commenter on many articles on the web. Here is my contribution to the discussion:
I wonder when journalists will start to recognize that the course of study required to earn a degree in nuclear physics does not provide expertise in power plant economics, site security, or the thermodynamics associated with keeping a decay heat generating reactor core at a safe temperature?
The market for smaller nuclear power plants is self evident – the vast majority of power generators in the world produce far less power per unit than the traditional nuclear power plant size of 1000 MWe. About 85% of those power plants burn fossil fuels or carbon based biomass and must release a minimum of 500 grams of CO2 for every kilowatt hour they generate. The lowest cost fuel for those plants has a market price of $2.00 per million BTU, not including delivery to the power plant; fully fabricated commercial nuclear fuel – including an allowance for waste disposal – costs about $0.65 per million BTU.
Sure, if built one at a time or if outrageously delayed by legal maneuverings that have little or nothing to do with safety, nuclear power plants can cost a lot more than equivalent fossil fuel plants, but as the naysayers are wont to say, they are actually very similar in technology. They boil water to create steam. There are few technical reasons why a nuclear plant should cost much more than a fossil plant especially if you include the cost of the fuel supply infrastructure required and the waste treatment necessary to somewhat approach the cleanliness of a system that is clean enough to operate inside sealed submarines.
With regard to the safety and security of small reactors, as noted by BobM593, the US Navy has been safely and securely operating small reactors around the world since January 17, 1955. The world also has deep experience in operating and securing small research reactors.
A smaller core that generates less power while operating will have a larger surface area to volume ratio than a large core (providing for better heat transfer) and it will start with a proportionally lower quantity of decay heat after a reactor shutdown. If needed at all, the pumps associated with decay heat removal are much smaller and easier to power with portable generators than those associated with a larger core.
The idea that developing nations should not be able to take advantage of low cost fuel, reliable power plants and emissions free operation is offensive. I used to be in charge of operating a small reactor around the clock with a team of about 35 people, only 6 of whom had college degrees. We all participated in an excellent technical training system, but that only required about 6 months of study and another six to 18 months of on-the -job training to make us competent operators. Every country can afford to train a cadre of people; the US has tens of thousands of experts in the field who could provide a core of instructors and mentors.
One more thing – Ford makes a much more reliable car than Rolls Royce does.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
This is also a good time to point people to a useful history lesson about Dr. Lyman’s employer, the UCS, directly from an interview with Henry Kendall, one of the founders of the organization. It is prime example of how a tiny group of people who are dedicated to a cause and a message can make an outsized impact on public policy. There is no reason to believe that nuclear advocates – starting from a far larger base – cannot achieve similarly effective results with a little creative application of lessons learned.