An introduction to nuclear power

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"An introduction to nuclear power"

Here are links to all my discussions of nuclear power and its various limitations:

  • Prohibitively high, and escalating, capital costs
  • Production bottlenecks in key components needed to build plants
  • Very long construction times
  • Concerns about uranium supplies and importation issues
  • Unresolved problems with the availability and security of waste storage
  • Large-scale water use amid shortages
  • High electricity prices from new plants

A good place to start is:

My point in these posts is not to say nuclear power will play no role in the fight to stay below 450 ppm of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and avoid catastrophic climate outcomes. I am sure it will.

Indeed, I even include a wedge of nuclear in my 14-wedges “solution” to global warming (see “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 2: The Solution“). Based on my research in the past year, however, I am increasingly doubtful that a full wedge of nuclear — 700 new nukes plus 300 replacements plus 10 Yucca Mountains all by 2050 — is that plausible. It will be a very time-consuming and expensive proposition, probably costing $6 to $8 trillion. Still, none of the wedges is easy.

Fundamentally, the large and growing risks from climate change, particularly the real danger that failure to act NOW means we will approach a horrific 5-7°C warming by 2100 with catastrophic impacts “largely irreversible for 1000 years” means two things:

  1. We must seriously entertain any strategy that can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. We must focus on the lowest-cost options first, because we simply don’t have an unlimited amount of capital.

My primary point is to shatter the widespread myth among conservatives — and others — that nuclear power will be a dominant solution to global warming. No.

It is extremely unlikely to even be 10% of the total solution. This is particularly true in the United States, where we have so many more cost-effective alternatives NOW, as I explain in my nuclear paper and throughout this blog, including energy efficiency, wind power, solar photovoltaics, and concentrated solar power.

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37 Responses to An introduction to nuclear power

  1. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    Helll Joe

    France obtains about 80 % of its electricty from nukes. If France can do this economically, why can’t everbody else?

    I find it quite interesting and revealing that the euro greenies never squawk and squeal about France’s nulcear power industry.

    [JR: They ain’t capitalist, and, they are a small country, we have almost twice as many nuclear reactors as they do.]

  2. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    Better drink another cup of coffee so I can get my brain working and not make any more trivial typos!

  3. My primary point is to shatter the widespread myth among conservatives — and others — that nuclear power will be a dominant solution to global warming. No.

    Who’s saying this myth? Do you have any sources? NEI (the primary advocate for the U.S. nuclear industry) has always said that if you want to reduce carbon emissions and continue to receive reliable electricity than nuclear energy has to be a part of the mix. Not the whole mix, of course, because nuclear can’t do it all (we’ve seen the numbers) but a part of it. We’ve also seen the numbers showing that you can’t reduce emissions and provide reliable electricity at the same time without nuclear. You believe it won’t be more than 10 percent of the solution. Well that’s your opinion, of course. But right now, nuclear provides about 15 percent of the world’s electricity which is already ahead of what you believe we can’t do.

  4. Joe says:

    You can find a half-dozen sources in about 5 minutes on Google.

    You misread what I wrote. I said 10% of the WHOLE solution, not 10% of electricity.

  5. You can find a half-dozen sources in about 5 minutes on Google.

    What words did you search for? Certainly you could provide a link or reference instead of just telling me to go look it up. FYI – I know several liberal bloggers at DailyKos that are huge advocates for nuclear energy, it’s not just the conservatives who believe in the technology.

    I said 10% of the WHOLE solution, not 10% of electricity.

    Here are the numbers for the whole primary energy supply from EIA in 2005 (pdf, latest available data):

    oil – 34.3%
    coal – 26.6%
    gas – 22.9%
    hydro – 6.3%
    nuclear – 6.0%
    gas liquids – 2.5%
    geothermal and other – 1.5%

    Nuclear and hydro are the only non-fossil fuels that have made somewhat of a contribution to the mix. To me, I just find it hard to believe that the 1.5% from “geothermal and other” will ever dramatically increase if it hasn’t done much yet. Especially since many of them are intermittent and need way more capacity to even generate the same amount of electricity as conventional capacity. But that’s only me…

    [JR: Ya gotta read my solution post that I linked to, David. That defines what I mean by 10%. I’m talking at least one of the 12 to 14 wedges needed. Again, I have blogged at length that solar baseload isn’t intermittent, and plug ins (which NEI touts) solve the wind intermittency issue, if it needs solving. We will see more new solar this century than new nuclear. I’m simply not going to waste time explaining stuff that has repeatedly been explained on this blog.]

  6. PaulK says:

    Geothermal is already commercially viable. It will be a major component of home heating and cooling.

  7. Ya gotta read my solution post that I linked to, David.

    Joe, I keep up with most all of your posts. You propose 2,000 GW of wind for one wedge, 5,000 GW of solar for another wedge and 700 GW of nuclear for another wedge. You say nuclear can’t build 700 GW yet somehow you believe wind and solar can build ten times that for only two wedges. That takes so much more resources, so much more money and so much more land than what nuclear takes, and I haven’t seen you address these aspects yet, though maybe I missed it…

    I’m simply not going to waste time explaining stuff that has repeatedly been explained on this blog.

    Even though you write extensively, I’m sure even your most loyal readers don’t spend hours reading it all. So in the future I think it would be nice if you could just point to relevant posts you’ve written about if it’s pertinent to the discussion. That’s all you need to do. Telling your readers to go look it up themselves is a waste of their time and they probably won’t do it. Just a thought…

  8. paulm says:

    Heres a little fact that will actually become a big issue for nuclear….

    Heat wave shutdown at Browns Ferry stirs nuclear debate
    http://www.climateark.org/shared/reader/welcome.aspx?linkid=83238&keybold=climate%20blogs

    The recent shutdown of a Browns Ferry reactor because of high Tennessee River temperatures was international news.

    http://news.softpedia.com/news/Heat-Threatens-With-Nuclear-Power-Plant-Shutdown-77144.shtml
    Severe drought raging across the southeast regions of the United States will probably determine a temporary reduction in electric power production capabilities of most of the nuclear plants, or even shutdowns,

  9. Bob Wright says:

    Joe, Are you up to date on current nuclear events and R&D, such as GNEP and Argonne national lab recycling projects, Westinghouse’s modular advance passive reactors being built in China, DU fast reactors, thorium, Toshiba’s “nuclear battery”…? There is a lot going on to address the issues you list.

    [JR: And someday it might all be commercial, practical, and scalable. After 5 years at DOE, I’ve had enough powerpoint promises of practical, too-cheap-to-meter energy to last a lifetime.]

  10. Bill Woods says:

    PaulK: Geothermal is already commercially viable. It will be a major component of home heating and cooling.

    That’s a different sort of “geothermal” — using the soil as solar-heated thermal mass, rather than mining heat from deep inside the Earth.

  11. Allan says:

    A serious part of the equation that’s missing from your list is the immense amount of energy and waste that results from mining fissionable materials. This is not a minor part of the equation. Take into account the environmental destruction caused by mines and the carbon emissions from the vehicles and machinery needed to process the raw materials, and you end up with a significant addition to the total cost of ownership.

    On top of that, nuclear power plants encourage centralized power sources when we should be doing anything and everything in DE-centralization so that no one failure can take out large areas of grid (especially failures that could potentially irradiate the environment and cause yet more destruction).

    To my mind, nuclear isn’t part of the solution *at all*.

  12. I doubt you are referring to decentralization to the degree that I take it, but you might find the idea of distributed cogeneration interesting. Look at http://www.miastrada.com and then look at a dialogue on RealClimate starting with #541 at http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/01/cnn-is-spun-right-round-baby-right-round/langswitch_lang/in

  13. Sorry, I was referring to Allan’s comment at 11:38 and neglected to make that note in my last.

  14. Bob Wright says:

    Joe, I can see your frustration, Maybe some of the newest stuff should be pushed out to more practical people like Westinghouse, with the understanding that is where future profits will come from.

    As one of your posts commented, we have built wind capacity roughly equivalent to 8 reactors over the last couple years.

  15. Joe this morning I calculated the price of making West Texas Wind reliable, and then compared it to the cost of nuclear power. Since West Texas Wind generally has a maximum capacity factor of .45, 2 GWs of wind generating capacity would produce the same amount of power in a year as a 1 GW reactor. Since wind generators tend to produce power at off peak times, have of the generated power should be saved to a 12 hour 1 GW battery pack. At $2.7 Billion per GW, 2 GWs of wind capacity would have cost in 2008 $5.4 billion, and the batteries an extra $4.2 billion, or $9.6 billion, without the cost of new electrical transmission.

    During 2008 nuclear generation cost an estimated $4 to $5 billion. Thus the cost of a reliable wind system that was in fact unreliable during the summer peak demand season, would cost nearly twice what a more flexible and reliable nuclear system would cost.
    http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2009/02/texas-wind-not-competitive-with-nuclear.html

    [JR: You can make up whatever numbers you want, but I prefer to stick with what real utilities tell real PUCS (see my May 2008 report for sources):

    Florida Power & Light presented a detailed cost estimate for new nuclear plants to the Florida Public Service Commission
    in October of last year [2007]. FPL is “a leader in nuclear power generation in the United States” with “one of the most active and current utility construction programs in the U.S.” FPL concluded that two units totaling 2,200 megawatts would cost between $5,500 and $8100 per kW—$12 billion to $18 billion total—and that two units totaling 3,000 MW would cost $5,400 to $8,000 per kW—$16.5 billion
    to $24 billion total. 10

    In mid-March (2008), Progress Energy informed state regulators that the twin 1,100 MW plants it intends to build in Florida would cost $14 billion, which “triples estimates the utility offered little more than a year ago.” That would be more than $6400/kW. The whole cost is even higher; “The utility said its 200-mile, 10-county transmission project will cost $3-billion more.” It looks like renewables are not the only source of electricity that requires new power lines. Factoring that cost in, the price would be $7,700/kW.]

  16. jorleh says:

    The nuclear boom is in Finland, Olkiluoto III seems to be no problem. Surely is one more plant to be built, and almost surely two after Olkiluoto III. Even a third planned. In a country of 5,3 million people.

  17. Charales Barton and Joe,

    The actual production of wind farms today in Ontario peaked out at about 20% and most of the day was a lot less.
    (see http://reports.ieso.ca/public/GenOutputCapability/PUB_GenOutputCapability
    —This is raw data without benefit of promoter’s spin.) Fairly recently the government of Ontario set out on an ambitious plan to encourage wind farm development such that their facilities are quite modern.)

    It looks like wind power is catch as catch can and any plan for storage to make it reliable would have to include hard to plan long term storage capability. A daily plan will not get the job done. In our dreams pumped hydro might do it. In Ontario, they have some flexibility based on their hydro resources, so maybe the wind could just act as a way to save the hydro resource.

    But as to cost, it does not look all that promising since it takes a lot of wind equipment to get much power. The peak capacity numbers need to be significantly derated to maybe 10% to 20% to get meaningful planning numbers. Does this take wind off the table as a meaningful climate solution? I leave this as a question, not a conclusion.

    However, I have a lot of reluctance to go crazy with nuclear plant construction. I might add, so do many of the US power companies who were seriously burned by their commitment to nuclear in the 1960s, only to find out that the cost was blown far beyond estimates due to regulation; some of it needed, some of it not. The when the various PUCs decided to stick this cost to the power company investors, huge losses were incurred. I should clarify, my reluctance is more related to the waste handling problem, though I am open to discussions about. Is the French system viable? In general, until something credible is done about this problem, I tend to think nuclear is not on the table either.

  18. I have not heard about it for a while, but the Navy got rid of their nuclear waste for many years by putting it in containers and dumping it in the ocean. And it was not that far out, being somewhere near the Farallon Islands off the Northern California coast. If I recall correctly there was some concern that the containers might be leaking. That whole thing is curiously quiet.

    So when people say the Navy has handled the problem satisfactorily, maybe some questions should be asked.

  19. MikeB says:

    Apparently Sweden wants to build more nukes – looking over at Finland hasn’t convinced them that nukes and economics don’t mix. Grreat….

  20. All thermal power plants, including nuclear, waste a lot of water. Evaporative cooling of the cooling water used in condensing the turbine exhaust steam results in scandalous quantities of vapor wasted into the atmosphere.

    Now that there is an impending drought, it should be noted that thermal power plants are notorious hogs of fresh water, much more than residential use and landscaping, and second only to agriculture. Siting of nuclear power plants will be severely limited for this reason alone, whatever the economics of building the plant might be.

  21. Laird Towle says:

    Joe:

    Thanks for all your efforts. I consider you a highly credible commentator, but so is NASA’s James Hansen.

    In a recent article, Tell Barak Obama the Truth, http://www.columbia.edu/%7Ejeh1/mailings/20081229_obama-revised.pdf, Hansen describes a 4th generation Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), for which a pilot plant has been built at idaho Nation Lab. He says this reactor runs on current nuclear waste with very high efficiency leaving waste with a half-life of only a few decades. He indicates our current supply of waste would last for several centuries and that the IFR has several intrinsic safety advantages over the currently used Light Water Reactor designs.

    Wouldn’t a crash program to develop such IFRs make sense as he suggests?

  22. Laird Towle,

    The link does not work. Help! It gets us to a Columbia Univ. page but then says “file not found”.

  23. Laird Towle says:

    Jim Bullis:

    Sorry for the typo; try this:

    http://www.columbia.edu/%7Ejeh1/mailings/20081229_obama_revised.pdf

    If that doesn’t work try googling the article title.

    Laird

  24. dennis baker says:

    ( Human Excrement + Nuclear Waste = Hydrogen ) = Electricity

    thats the solution to Climate Change

    not that anyone is really interested

    Dennis Baker
    dennisbaker2003@hotmail.com

  25. Donna says:

    I’m shocked that you’re okay with nuclear energy, and even allow NEI to advertise. It’s known that there have been many unreported and reported nuclear meltdowns and leakages. It takes over 500,000 years to breakdown radioactive material. Transporting the stuff is dangerous. There’s nowhere to put spent nuclear fuel anymore. Hanford doesn’t want more, and what they have is in containers that are leaking. Nearby is the Columbia River, farms, wind-surfers, kids playing. Come on, I just don’t get this cozying up to nuclear. Renewable energy like sun and wind, developing fuels from algae… this is the safer future. Donna

  26. Dan_K says:

    See Nuclean Power in a Warming World by the Union of Concerned Scientists…

    http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/nuclear-power-in-a-warming-world.pdf

  27. Artı says:

    Allan Say it :

    A serious part of the equation that’s missing from your list is the immense amount of energy and waste that results from mining fissionable materials. This is not a minor part of the equation. Take into account the environmental destruction caused by mines and the carbon emissions from the vehicles and machinery needed to process the raw materials, and you end up with a significant addition to the total cost of ownership.

    On top of that, nuclear power plants encourage centralized power sources when we should be doing anything and everything in DE-centralization so that no one failure can take out large areas of grid (especially failures that could potentially irradiate the environment and cause yet more destruction).

    This is very strongly true.

  28. The issue seems to stand thus:

    1) Global climate change is real, and we are quickly approaching various thresholds beyond which our ability to reverse, or even to modify, current trends will not be sufficient;

    2) The worst things we are doing now (oil, coal) will go on making the problem worse unless better things become available on a global basis as soon as possible;

    3) Better things (solar, wind) are happening already and can be expected to get better given adequate research and investment;

    4) Things (solar, wind) that everyone agrees are good, or at least very much better than fossil fuels, may not progress and become available on a global basis soon enough to reduce global carbon emissions below critical threshold levels;

    5) Therefore, it makes quite a lot of sense to invest in the research needed to figure out how to make nuclear power available safely and affordably, in case it is needed, if the other sources people like more than nuclear prove inadequate to prevent overshooting critical thresholds;

    6) It is reasonable to question whether investment in nuclear R&D might deprive or delay the efforts we must make on other alternative energy sources, or give us a false sense of security. Such a question could probably be answered by knowledgeable people.

    7) Finally, however, it is simply not reasonable to regard safe, affordable nuclear technology as chimerical, as unmentionable, even as somehow sinful. Safe nuclear options may turn out to be unfeasible. They may turn out to be unnecessary. But we should not regard the very idea of nuclear energy as some kind of intellectual kryptonite to be avoided under any and all circumstances. What’s to be avoided are emotional and dogmatic rejections of any proposals that might get us into the next half-century with better prospects than we have now.

  29. I find it quite interesting and revealing that the euro greenies never squawk and squeal about France’s nulcear power industry.グループウェア
    I’m simply not going to waste time explaining stuff that has repeatedly been explained on this blog.

  30. Steve Beers says:

    Lest we forget Brown’s Ferry, Kyshtym, Hanford, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl–all accidents occurring with fewer than 1,000 reactor-years of experience– prior to the crash construction of 1,000 reactors which some are advocating, maybe we should look at more recent events that might have some bearing on the prudence of a crash program of global nuclear expansion.

    Let’s see:

    -we’ve been talking about invading and attacking countries (N Korea and Iran) whose “peaceful” nuclear pursuits have proven to be cover for bomb-making. We are rightly worried about the stability of a nuclear-armed Pakistan which used “civilian” reactors to obtain their materials;

    AND

    -we’ve spent $3 trillion plus, killed 1 million plus, and curtailed civil liberties globally in response to hijacked airplanes damaging massively hardened buildings like the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. What if those planes had been steered into nuclear reactors instead? What other values would we now propose to sacrifice to pursue a nuclear future?

    AND

    we’ve seen a major bridge collapse on I-35 in Minneapolis. If something as prosaic as a highway bridge can suffer a major failure, how can a complex nuclear construction program not fail to produce more accidents?

    Since nuclear is NOT economical compared to the current fossil fueled options for electricity, transportation, and heating, one wonders at the rush for construction.

    We know solar, wind, and other renewables work, so we are implicitly judging that the current economic cost of these more benign options is the reason to choose nuclear over them.

    We are implicitly saying that money is the reason to inflict cancer and genetic defects on current and future generations as well as the risks of nuclear proliferation, accidents, and terrorism.

    Setting aside ANY new supply options, there is also the choice of simply using less energy rather than impose the health costs of nuclear on future generations.

    If greater efficiency or outright curtailment of energy use are more economical than ANY new energy supply options, then why the “need” to create nuclear waste that will have to be managed for time spans 100 times longer than human civilization so far? Is it moral to impose these costs on future generations compared to simply reducing our energy use? What gives us the right to impose these costs on those that have no voice?

    Does it make sense to infinitely expand energy consumption, like a glutton going from 3 meals a day to 300? At some point, growth will have to stop. It is plain insanity to say we must turn the world into a nuclear trash heap in order to keep on growing population, industry, and personal consumption ad infinitum.

    It is crackpot realism to say the world must grow to have a population of 20 billion billionaires in order for us to be happy, secure, and fulfilled. It is nihilistic and vain to say nuclear is the only way forward.

  31. Estetik says:

    interested in this kind of article. if you wanna me I will publish all my work which continues about 1 years. thanks for your article and being as a base of my works.

  32. quixote says:

    Very well researched and excellent article. I bogged down on the comments though, and gave up at about #10. It’s amazing how any post pointing out the horrific economics of nuclear power brings advocates swarming out of the woodwork. Who pays these people?

    One point I find fascinating about nuclear power is that the nuclear industry itself doesn’t believe it’s own optimistic scenarios. Without the Price-Andersen Act to limit liability, no company in the US would even consider building a nuke.

    The liability limit has been raised from a totally laughable $600 million to $9,000 million, but anyone who’s seen the tab for Three Mile Island knows that’s pretty laughable too. There’s a clause in there about the federal government picking up some of the costs beyond that, which means the taxpayer. You.

    But even that doesn’t begin to cover the expected expenses of an accident. So who supplies the missing “insurance”? The nuclear companies are not willing to take on that stratospheric level of risk. They expect ordinary citizens to do that. We’re the “insurers” of last resort for the nuclear industry.

  33. medyum says:

    Joe, I keep up with most all of your posts. You propose 2,000 GW of wind for one wedge, 5,000 GW of solar for another wedge and 700 GW of nuclear for another wedge. You say nuclear can’t build 700 GW yet somehow you believe wind and solar can build ten times that for only two wedges. That takes so much more resources, so much more money and so much more land than what nuclear takes, and I haven’t seen you address these aspects yet, though maybe I missed it…

    [JR: Never said we “can’t build 700 GW” — just don’t think we will and don’t think it makes a lot of sense, if we are trying to adopt a least cost solution and make a transition to cleaner energy sources that don’t run out.]

  34. V.Manoharan says:

    Pl see the following link.
    http://ultimateglobalwarmingchallenge.com/entries/UGWC_Hypothesis.pdf

    In my opinion, water vapor is THE root cause for global warming. Nuclear powerplants release 50% more water vapor than regular powerplants, due to their design. Hence they are THE part of global warming problem , NOT THE SOLUTION.

    In the present agriculture, for each 1 molecule of CO2 fixed, 100s of water molecules are released as water vapor. We accumulate more solar energy worldwide solar energy in the form of water vapor.So we have to have rethinking on agriculture (agriculture with water bodies,micro forests etc).

    Liquid water handles heat better. We are losing liquid water on land due to Green revolution in agriculture,wrong color for roofs,roads and global warming. We have to restore the balance by accumulating good quality water on land, in order to have some chances of survival.

    Dark colored roofs,roads also accumulate more solar energy worldwide solar energy in the form of water vapor,indirectly. So massive whiteroofing,light colors etc can reduce the impact and reverse global warming.
    http://green.yahoo.com/news/afp/20090526/sc_afp/climatewarmingusbritainchu.html
    http://209.157.64.200/focus/f-news/2259127/posts
    The above links, indicate that even Nobel laureate, do not think beyond energy saving.

  35. igmuska says:

    You have to expound on the uranium aspect of your list. Here’s the start: many Native American reservations have been poisoned by legacy uranium mining. There are still many un-reclaimed uranium mines still poisoning water on these Native American reservations. Although Rep. Waxman recently prodded the US EPA to accelerate its Superfund reclamation on the Navajo Reservation, his action neglected to include other reservations namely the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservations (South Dakota), and the Spokane Indian Reservation (Washington).
    At the time of uranium mining, there were no regulations forcing reclamation; the lack of regulations also promotes the thought that uranium mining is safe when it is clearly not. Also there are no health effect studies connecting uranium exposure to these reservations’ current health crises (diabetes, cancer, learning disabilities and reproductive issues). The lack of regulations and uranium exposure health studies doesn’t make nuclear energy safe.
    The irony is that the current nuclear generating stations are using uranium that poisoned Native Americans.