By Timothy Maloney, PhD
Editor’s note: Timothy Maloney has written a number of text books about electrical circuits, electricity, and industrial electronics. The below is a copy of a letter that he wrote to Ralph Nader in response to an opinion piece published by CounterPunch under the headline Why Atomic Energy Stinks Worse Than You Thought. I obtained Dr. Maloney’s permission to republish his letter here, in hopes that it helps his effort receive the attention that it deserves.
PO Box 19312
Washington, DC 20036
Dear Mr. Nader,
I wish to respond to your essay Atomic Energy – Unnecessary, Uneconomic, Uninsurable, Unevacuable and Unsafe appearing on Reader Supported News on October 12, 2013, and at Counterpunch.org. Allow me to address each of the five issues that you raise: Safety; Evacuation; Necessity; Economy; and Insurance.
Safety: This is the heart of the matter. Is it really true that exposure to low-levels of ionizing radiation is dangerous to human health in the short term (cancer /disease), or in the long term (adverse genetic mutations)?
This question ought to be answered by a lavishly funded scientifically rigorous long-term study of primates exposed to radiation at various intensities and cumulative doses, compared to a control group. Such a scientific investigation has never been done.
As a poor alternative, scientific study has been confined to observing the extended effects of accidental radiation exposures to humans – unregulated, of course. There have been no conclusive results from such observations, as pointed out many times by informed observers.
For example, the 2003 summary published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
suggests that protracted exposure of 50-100 milliSieverts may possibly cause increased cancer risk to humans. But more recent studies of residents of the Kerala region of India report no increased cancer incidence in an environment of annual background levels higher than 50 mSv, reported by the National Institute of Health at
That is, residents of the Kerala region receive more than 50 mSv during every year of their lives with no demonstrated cancer risk.
In short, about radiation we just don’t know.
Why then is there such credence by the American public regarding radiation danger?
I would submit that the urge for drama by our news and entertainment media has led them to conflate nuclear energy with our proper fear of nuclear explosion. Honest-intentioned antinuclear activists strive too, separately from the advertising interest. Unintentionally the two groups mutually reinforce one another. You yourself in the past have pointed out the corrupt motivation and corrupting effect of our profit-seeking media structure.
What is the actual comparative record of existing nuclear plants? Numerous studies illustrate the superior safety record of nuclear energy. For example, the well-known Burgherr & Hirschberg study presented at the International Disaster and Risk Conference in 2008 shows the better safety record of nuclear contrasted to coal, oil, natural gas, LPG, and river hydroelectric.
A graphical depiction of fatalities per unit of energy produced in Europe shows the superiority of nuclear to all other sources: coal, oil, biofuel, natural gas, hydro, solar and wind.
But the above performance record applies to the previous generations of reactor technology based on solid uranium fuel. There is coming a 4th generation based on liquid fuel, thorium. The terminology is Liquid Fuel Thorium Reactor – acronym LFTR.
The LFTR concept will change everything that we think we know about nuclear power. Everything refers to operating safety and reliability, waste handling, construction cost, ore extraction, weapons proliferation, fuel availability for the very long term, the whole civilizational paradigm. Allow me to postpone these matters until the Insurance section of my letter. For the moment we are dealing only with the 2013 here-and-now of nuclear energy.
It would be a profound societal mistake to base energy policy on an assumed truth of radiation danger. This is quite unlike the matter of Anthropogenic Global Warming. There is no scientific credentialed authority asserting a threat from low-level radiation, as is the case for the IPCC regarding AGW and climate change.
Evacuation of Fukushima was an awful mistake. The medical journal The Lancet reports that more than 50 people were killed during the panic.
Three weeks later, measurements of airborne radioactive contaminants from March 30 to April 4 by the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety concluded that local residents were unlikely to receive a dose greater than 30 milliSieverts during the following year by remaining in their homes.
Such a 30 mSv exposure would be less than half the annual exposure of the citizens of the Kerala region of India, mentioned above; and about 20% of the annual exposure of some citizens of the Ramsar region of northern Iran on the Caspian Sea. So the Fukushima evacuation is now seen to have been entirely gratuitous and irresponsible.
It is my suspicion that civil authorities are prone to order evacuation from nuclear accidents because of fear of dereliction of duty and their ignorance about the degree of danger posed by a radioactive release.
I agree with you that attempting to evacuate the population within 50 miles of the Indian Point station would be disastrous and should not be attempted under any circumstances. But it might be that a station malfunction could produce mass hysteria, perhaps on the scale of the Mercury Theater broadcast of War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938, or worse.
Many Americans make no distinction between a hydrogen chemical explosion as happened at Fukushima and an actual nuclear explosion. We should initiate a campaign of public education to forestall a possible panic if Indian Point or other nuclear station does suffer a Loss of Coolant Accident.
The broader goal, in my opinion, should be embarkation on a national program to expeditiously shut down all coal- and natural gas-burning electric plants, and replace them with baseload generators that are equally reliable.
Necessity and Economy: We know for certain that an electric grid energized by steady-speed alternating current generators, properly called alternators, functions reliably. In the US, grid down-time is less than 0.1% and our electric motors are seldom damaged by harmonic aberrations or transient surges on the power lines.
It is by no means certain that an electric grid energized by intermittent, variable-frequency, poor-waveshape sources, that is, wind and photovoltaic solar, can function reliably. It has never been tried. There are reasons to think that it cannot succeed.
Even if it could be made to function it would be: a) Enormously expensive; b) Resource-intensive (steel & concrete, with concomitant extraction damage); c) Land intensive; d) Dependent on natural gas to fuel a fleet of fast-starting backup turbines to rescue the electric supply when none of the wind and solar in the region is producing, and the local short-term storage is exhausted.
a) Expense: Recently I calculated the dollar cost to replace the closing Vermont Yankee nuclear pant with wind and solar.
A combination of 50% wind, 25% PV solar, and 25% concentrated thermal solar – CSP – will cost about $12 Billion for straight substitution of the plant’s annual energy production, ignoring the issues of: f) Intermittency; g) Short-term energy storage cost (batteries, perhaps); h) Additional long-distance transmission-line capacity for importing energy from elsewhere in the New England region; j) Overbuilding in order to contribute some surplus to the dispatchable reserve for times when other locales are without power, and; k) Natural gas combustion turbines, NGCTs, along with their gas supply pipelines, for our ultimate fallback.
Vermont Yankee now produces 620 megawatts, baseload-reliable. It contributed 0.125% to our nation’s total electric production in 2012. Fossil fuels contributed 68% of the USA total.
68% divided by 0.125% = 544 times. That is, it would cost 544 X $12 B = $6.5 Trillion to replace all America’s fossil-burners with wind and solar, ignoring issues f, g, h, j and k. And issue k really means that we are still burning fossil carbon for 20% of the country’s electricity, in accord with the 2012 National Renewable Energy Laboratory study.
http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy12osti/52409-1.pdf Page 86, etc.
b) Resource extraction for steel and concrete: The Vermont Yankee analysis calls for: Steel: 450,000 tonnes; Concrete: 1.4 million tonnes. Multiplying that single plant replacement by 544 to replace all our present fossil-burners, we obtain: Steel: 245 million tonnes, which is 3 year’s total USA production; Concrete:760 million tonnes, which is 1 year of total USA production. Issues g, h, j and k still are not accounted for.
c) Land lost from agricultural production or wildlife habitat. Replacing Vermont Yankee requires 73 square miles. Refer to my derivation. Therefore for the whole USA, 73 sq mi X 544 = 40,000 sq mi. For comparison, the entire state of Connecticut is about 5000 sq mi. We’ll need eight Connecticuts to do the job. At least we can still grow crops on wind-farms, but the tractor furrows won’t be perfectly straight.
d) Natural Gas: ln 2012 we generated 30% of our electricity from natural gas, burning 9.1 Trillion cubic feet of the stuff. We also consumed 16.4 TCF for other uses, especially agricultural fertilizer, for an annual total of 25.5 TCF.
The “all-renewables” plan from NREL calls for a cutback to 20% natural gas, or 6.1 TCF for electricity, for an annual total consumption of 22.5 TCF. [6.1 + 16.4 = 22.5]
Our nation’s proved reserves are 275 TCF, with possible additional recoverable reserves of 2000 TCF according to fracking proponents.
If they’re right (one wonders about that crowd), we’ll have about 100 years’ supply (2275 TCF divided by 22.5 TCF per year = 101 years), ignoring growth in consumption. If, as anticipated, we have 2% annual compounded growth in usage, that 2275 TCF will last us only 55 years. Until year 2085 if we complete the entire changeover by year 2030, as some at NREL are urging.
It’s weird how compounding works. That’s perhaps the worst flaw in human cognitive functioning – we can’t seem to grasp exponentiation. Genuine exponentiation I mean; not the cheap usage bandied about by the media talking heads.
Conclusion: Relying on natural gas to back up intermittent wind and solar will not get us through this century if our economy keeps growing at 2% per year. Even if those liars are telling the truth.
So. We don’t dare keep burning coal, and we don’t have enough gas to support the NREL’s renewables plan. It sure sounds like nuclear is necessary.
Efficiency? Hah! Saw a car with Texas plates a while ago; bumper sticker read: “Drive 100 – Freeze a Yankee”
How expensive is it, really, to build a state-of-the-art Generation 3+ solid-uranium nuclear reactor?
We’re not likely to find that out here in the USA or in Western Europe. That pesky democracy idea; everybody sticking his nose in. Holding town-hall meetings. Complaining. Filing suit. (Can you imagine the eminent-domain suits if we start taking people’s land for wind- and solar-farms and transmission rights-of-way? Second amendment remedies, a la Sarah Palin? Nightmare.)
Say what you will about totalitarian enemies of human rights. They do know how to build stuff. The two Westinghouse model AP1000 reactors under construction in Sanmen China have experienced modest cost increases over initial estimates. They were re-estimated in May 2013 at $3.27 Billion per 1100-MW reactor.
If that number holds, the capital construction cost will be about $3 per watt. Those are continuous watts, available all the time except when the reactor is being refueled. Westinghouse /Toshiba expects the units to be shut down for a period of about 40 days for refueling, once every 1-1/2 years. Up and running 93% of the time, essentially different from the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t experience with WWS.
Let us normalize these economics to the 620-MW Vermont Yankee output. Replacing that lost production China-Style would cost: 620 MW divided by 1100 MW X $3.27 B per reactor = $1.8 Billion.
Please compare that to $12 B needed to replace lost production with wind & solar. Looks like an 85% cost saving on construction only.
The China Nuclear Energy Association announced that the first of four model AP1000s is scheduled to come on-line in October 2014. Then we’ll know for sure about the economics.
As I mentioned in passing in the Safety section of this letter, all discussion about nuclear Generation 3+ is really just a transition topic. Whatever Safety and Economy virtues we can sing about in Generation 3+ are far superseded by the virtues of Generation 4 LFTR. So much so that private insurance companies will be bidding down the cost of insurance premiums once they realize the extent of the risk, which is tiny. Let me describe the features of LFTR that make it so free of risk.
Insurance companies are in the business of spreading risk and skimming 5 or 10% from the pool of premium payers. To set their premiums profitably they must be able to assess risk correctly. They’re pretty good at assessing natural mortality and house-fires, but they’re basically incompetent at credit-default swaps and nuclear reactors.
They shouldn’t be criticized about nuclear reactors because they’re under the influence of a (probably) grossly exaggerated fear of ionizing radiation, like all the rest of us.
If the only thing they were responsible for was repairing the physical plant damage from an equipment malfunction, they could step up and take on the risk. It’s the health issue that they can’t deal with.
To remove this incalculable risk burden, they would love a reactor design that: m) Can’t melt down; n) Can’t explode due to hydrogen gas; p) Can’t explode due to violent steam expansion; q) Can’t leak fluid from its pipes; r) Doesn’t make radioactive waste.
Let us engage each of these five criteria, by referring to my LFTR slideshow at
The relevant pages from the slideshow are given.
m) Can’t melt down: Pages 26-34, 46, 53-57
LFTR has liquid fuel flowing continuously through hollow tubes. It does not contain solid fuel trapped inside a sealed fuel-rod, with water flowing over the exterior surface of the fuel-rod.
Therefore there’s nothing to melt. There is no need for heroic effort to guarantee continuation of water flow even after a nuclear chain-reaction has stopped.
Instead, when the chain-reaction stops, or if any untoward temperature excursion occurs, the fuel simply gravity-drains out of the core’s hollow tubes, flowing into a dispersal tank where residual heat cannot concentrate.
It is not the reliability of backup cooling that makes LFTR meltdown impossible. There is no backup cooling. There’s nothing left to cool because the fuel has exited from the core.
n) Can’t explode due to hydrogen gas: Pages 28-31, 45
LFTR doesn’t have any hydrogen in the reactor cell because it doesn’t use water, H2O. It uses liquid fluoride compounds in place of water. None of the fluoride molecules (there are four of them) contains hydrogen atoms.
With no hydrogen atoms present there can’t occur a hydrogen explosion, which was the Fukushima downfall.
p) Can’t explode due to violent steam explosion: Pages 26, 27, 30, 45
LFTR doesn’t contain any water, either liquid or steam. There are no gases of any kind in the fuel loop. There is no possibility of the fuel liquid vaporizing into a gas because the vaporization temperature for fluorine molecules is very high, much higher than the reactor’s operating temperature.
With no steam, there can be no steam explosion.
q) Can’t leak fluid from its pipes: Pages 48-50, 62
LFTR operates at very low internal pipe pressure, lower than the water pressure in our household plumbing, about 10 psi. Therefore a leak is extremely unlikely. Even if a pump-seal did leak the liquid would dribble onto the floor, not spray out like a ruptured home water pipe. There it would simply freeze solid as it cooled below 500 deg C upon the floor.
r) Minimal radioactive waste: Pages 40, 41, 63-65, 71, 84
There are two kinds of radioactive waste: 1) Heavy atoms, call them actinides; and 2) Medium-weight atoms, or fission products, FPs, which are created when heavy atoms break apart.
The actinides, mostly uranium and plutonium, are the proliferation worry.
LFTR has almost no actinide waste. That is because, unlike a solid-fuel Generation 2 or 3 reactor, it does not have its fuel removed before it has all been consumed. LFTR fuel atoms are in liquid state so they can keep recirculating through the core tubes indefinitely until they are completely used up.
The 2nd kind of waste, FPs such as cesium and iodine, can be further subdivided. There are short-lived atoms (isotopes), and long-lived isotopes. Broadly, short-lived means half-life less than 150 years, long-lived means HL more than 150 years.
For a liquid-fuel reactor short-lived FPs are not waste at all. They are producing useful heat as they radio-decay at a quick rate. So there is no incentive to remove them from the fuel to set them aside as waste. They too are allowed to recirculate through the core tubes indefinitely until they have given over all their decay heat and have stabilized into non-radioactive isotopes. Only then are they removed from the fuel stream. That accounts for 83% of the reactor’s fission products.
The remaining 17%, just 130 kilograms for one year of operation of a 1000 MWe plant, can be continuously extracted from the fuel by chemical engineering processes. A LFTR never has to shut down for refueling due to build-up of FPs, unlike a solid-fuel reactor.
The entire waste burden for one year of operation will be only that 130 kg, with a volume of about 0.02 cubic meter – a cube 11 inches on a side. Conglomerated, it will decay to the same radiotoxicity as natural uranium ore in about 40 years. It reaches one-tenth the radioactivity of natural ore, innocuously stable, after 300 years.
Robert Hargraves, Thorium – Energy Cheaper than Coal, 206; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayIyiVua8cY @22:00
The 130 kg can easily be confined and shielded and stored on-site, or transferred to a central storage facility. For transport it rides in a metal-lined box the size of a milk carton. Alternatively, it can be vitrified in a Pyrex structure occupying about 2 cubic meters, a cube 4 feet on a side. Its atoms are then impervious to water through geologic ages.
From the viewpoint of an insurance executive, the proposition is this: Here is an industrial facility that cannot melt down, cannot explode and burn, almost certainly won’t leak but even if it did so, it would be no big deal. It produces virtually zero proliferable waste. The waste that it does produce has even less radioactivity than the fly-ash from a comparable coal-burning plant.
It is not vulnerable to river flooding or ocean storms because it is not located near a body of water, being free from the requirement of condensing turbine-exhaust steam for reheating.
It doesn’t have much human traffic because it is staffed by only a few permanent employees and little interaction with outside vendors since it needs very little fuel delivery, a consequence of its 100% burnup rate of fissile atoms. It requires almost no maintenance. It just starts up after construction, reaches nuclear chain-reaction criticality, then never shuts off for the next 50 years.
An insurance man contemplating this scene ought to be willing to write an insurance policy. But if he doesn’t, some other executive will. After 10 or 20 years of perfect functioning the first executive will then come back to underbid him.
Mr. Nader, congratulations on your lifetime of striving on behalf of enlightened self-governance. It all comes to naught if our tampering with earth’s biochemistry undermines the ability of the environment to support life as we have arranged it.
With the stakes so high, why try for a WWS solution that some people think might work, if we can solve some daunting problems associated with it? Why risk everything on such a dubious gamble when there is a path open to us that we are sure will work?
Timothy J. Maloney, PhD
Final editor’s note: I have a few quibbles with Dr. Maloney’s description of the LFTR. It is a technology with great potential, but it faces a lengthy and uncertain hardware development cycle before it can begin making an impact on global energy usage. Dr. Maloney glosses over some of the technical challenges that will slow that development.