Nuclear Energy? pt. 1 Basics

In this post, I cover some of the common arguments and misconceptions about nuclear. I will start with the arguments, more or less by categories, and break them down with brief rebuttals that we will go into in future posts.

I’ll start by quickly saying that if we want to curb CO2 emissions (which is absolutely essential for combating global warming), we need nuclear. It produces absolutely no CO2 in the production of energy and can stand up against natural disasters and other setbacks that other forms of energy experience (for example, the wind stops blowing and the sun goes down).

1. Efficiency: “Nuclear uses as much energy as it produces” and “clean energy is already more efficient” are two arguments I’ve heard against nuclear energy. Anyone who says this is incredibly misinformed, or deliberately lying. Nuclear produces between 75% and 95% of it’s capacity, or two to three times what wind and solar can produce. Also, some nuclear reactors are 95% efficient with fuel use, and almost all nuclear waste of any type can be used in certain reactor types (although not always at maximum efficiency).

2. Waste and pollution: Nuclear waste is a touchy subject for some people, as nobody wants it buried near them for fear that “it remains radioactive for thousands of years.” Yes it can, and burying it has been a proven effective method of disposal. There are storage sites that are perfectly capable of handling all the nuclear waste we could ever produce with no issues. The amount of waste produced by nuclear power is insignificant when compared to coal waste; if waste is your main concern, you should be thankful that nuclear is an option! Nuclear waste does decay over time, something that can’t be said for the rare-earth metals used in solar panels (which on average only have a 25 year lifespan, compared to nuclear’s average of 60+ years).

Some people want to argue that the pollution and carbon footprint caused by mining the materials for a nuclear plant are too much. When you compare nuclear to the alternative (strip-mining for solar and windmills, and mining coal), nuclear is again the best option. Even uranium mining is significantly less dangerous than many other forms of mining, because we are aware of the potential dangers and take appropriate precautions. Overall, nuclear power results in less deaths per megawatt hour than any other form of power generation.

3. “Nuclear power can be converted into bombs,” and “nuclear is vulnerable to terrorist attacks.”
The uranium used for nuclear power is not the same as the uranium used in bombs. Uranium used for bombs needs to be more than 90% U235, while the uranium used for power plants needs to be close to 4% U235. Uranium is naturally around 0.7% U235, with most natural uranium being U238. Plutonium is similar in that the plutonium used for bombs is not the same as what’s used for power generation (and Plutonium’s rarely used for power generation as it’s highly toxic and almost never occurs naturally; it’s man-made).

New reactor types called Molten Salt Reactors (MSR’s) use thorium and other radioactive elements as their fuel, and are designed to be virtually meltdown-proof. The fuel for these reactors could never be taken and made into a bomb.

Also, technically, everything is vulnerable to terrorist attacks; but nuclear power plants are often massive cement structures, that can indeed withstand the impact of a jumbo-jet (just like most dams can).

4. Cost; centralization of power; “poor countries become dependent on rich ones;” “insurance companies won’t go near nuclear, which means financial responsibility falls on the tax payer”

Like anything else, the cost to build a nuclear plant has three parts- first, the cost of all the physical materials needed for construction, costs of fuel once it’s ready to run, etc. Second, the cost of labor to build and operate it; and third, permits and applications for government approval. This is where the real setbacks happen; the general public has so little knowledge of how nuclear energy works that they simply don’t want it near them, and in this regard the government actually seems to listen (of course, money from coal and oil companies helps feed the fear). If startup costs to build a nuclear plant didn’t include much in the way of red tape, we might see more popping up.

Centralization of power is sometimes seen as a bad thing, especially when we’ve had situations like Enron in the past. My thought here is, why can’t each city have it’s own small reactor? There are plenty of design options that are incredibly safe and efficient, and there’s no reason power would have to be any more or less centralized than it currently is.

As far as “poor countries” (I won’t be putting quotations on every instance of this phrase but doing it here, I think you get my point) depending on rich ones for power, why can’t we have companies build in poorer countries, where power is likely to already be less reliable/available, with the stipulation that after costs are recovered, power then becomes owned by that country? Oh yeah, because there’s no money in that. That would be a problem solved though. Until we’re willing to do something like this, we can’t pretend we really care about the poorer countries anyway. Also, many poor countries are a lot more affected by climate change than we are in the US. Nuclear is the only power source that can effectively get us away from coal dependency.

I’d like to point out here that the insurance company argument is another that is either so hugely incorrect it’s unbelievable, or a downright lie. Insurance companies love nuclear because the safety standards are so strict. Chances of a catastrophic failure are so low it’s not even worth mentioning (this doesn’t matter though, because all NPPs are covered by the Price-Anderson Act).

This is the real problem isn’t it; perceived risk vs actual risk. People suck at assessing risk, and it’s because of this that they are afraid to fly in an airplane, while having no problem driving everywhere, despite your odds of dying in a car being seriously something to consider almost daily, while your odds of dying in an airplane being lower than getting struck by lightning. But I digress…

5. “Number of reactors dropping, nuclear is obsolete, people don’t want it;” “Transportation is dangerous;” “No safe level of radiation exposure.”

The number of running reactors is dropping, because the cost of startup is high and the fear of the ones currently running is outrageous, despite all the facts favoring nuclear energy (facts are things Americans don’t care about, at all). Nuclear is tried and true; it’s been operating safely for over 70 years and newer designs are coming out all the time that are even safer, cleaner and more efficient than older ones.

Transportation of nuclear products and byproducts is no more dangerous than the transportation of anything else; arguably less so, because again, the nuclear industry is so highly scrutinized for safety. There are safeguards for the safeguards’ safeguards in nuclear. And another way to look at it; what’s the cost of not switching to nuclear (over coal)? How often do you hear about oil spills in the US, and how much is spilled into US waters annually? (Here’s a hint, 1.3 million gallons annually, without a major spill occurring). Risk perception.

“There is no safe level of radiation exposure.” This just simply isn’t true. Almost literally everything around you puts out some level of radiation. Your own body contains tiny amounts of potassium 40, the radioactive isotope of potassium. Like with anything else in the world, the dose makes the poison. Radiation is known to increase your chances of cancer if exposed to 100 milliSieverts within a year. The average yearly dose of someone who lives in the US is 3.6 mSv. A chest x-ray gives you 0.1 mSv. The sun will give you cancer before other everyday sources of radiation do (not to mention smoking, drinking alcohol, etc).

6. Chernobyl and Fukushima and Bears, OH MY! I’ll get into these in another post. Yes they happened, but again, risk perception. Bridges have collapsed in the past, that doesn’t mean we need to tear down all bridges; it means we learn from the mistakes that contributed to these accidents, and apply that knowledge going forward.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” -Marie Curie.