Monday, August 15, 2005

The Power-Hungry World

A pro-nuclear article in the Washington Times raises some interesting questions, as dishonest gibberish so often does.

Nuclear power is on the rise here and abroad after decades of dormancy, driven by the need for a cleaner environment and steady, secure sources of power in the Internet age.
The "rise" of nuclear power in the USA is largely rhetorical, and is fueled by the willingness of right-wing media to treat the matter as a fait accompli. Write enough articles about how everyone has embraced nuclear power, the logic goes, and eventually everyone will embrace nuclear power. It may work, or it may not. I suspect it won't.

If we want to talk about how nuclear power is faring in foreign lands, Germany's situation is worth a mention. Under that country's "nuclear exit strategy," all nuclear plants were supposed to be scrapped by 2020. Sounds great, in theory, but there is the small matter of waste to consider. Germany has enacted a ban on nuclear-waste exports to other nations, which leaves it with thousands of tons of hot radioactive waste, and no good place to put it.

Germany's not alone in this dilemma; things are tough all over. (Rather than bore you with the details here, I'll bore you with them over here.)

Now, let's get back to our friends at the Washington Times:
With worries about terrorism now paramount in the minds of the public and political leaders, concerns about safety that haunted nuclear utilities for decades appear to have receded, replaced by increasing confidence that after a half-century of operating without causing a major public health hazard in the United States, nuclear plants have by and large proven to be safe.
This is quite a paragraph. It begins with a non sequitur; whether terrorism is "paramount" in the minds of Americans or not - and polls suggest that it isn't - the notion that fear of terrorism has caused fear of nuclear power to "recede" makes no sense whatsoever. For one thing, these fears aren't mutually exclusive; the fact that nuclear plants and waste dumps are ideal targets for terrorism may not yet have percolated into the hive-mind of the Washington Times, but more individuated forms of consciousness have surely managed to grasp it.

Of course, what naysayers like myself fail to reckon with is the amazing progress we've made in ensuring plant safety:
A new generation of power plants on the drawing board, some with automatic methods of shutting down in emergencies, promises to be safer than before.
Wow...automatic shutdown systems! Whatever will they think of next?

As it happens, nuclear power plants are already equipped with automatic shutdown systems (whether they work reliably is another question). I don't know how many people will be comforted to learn that some unspecified percentage of the "new generation" of atomic plants will be equipped with this standard-issue safety feature.

So far we've learned that nuclear power is fashionable, and that it's possibly a bit safer than it used to be, and that it has been validated in some obscure way by 9/11. With those crackpot notions duly espoused, the only thing left to do is explain that nuclear energy is nonpolluting:
In the West, nuclear power is gaining an image as a clean energy source. Nuclear plants emit none of the pollutants or greenhouse gases that are byproducts of the most common sources of power: coal, oil and natural gas.
One might just as logically say that natural gas plants emit none of the radioactive isotopes that are byproducts of nuclear fission. In any case, uranium enrichment produces plenty of greenhouse gases, and the nuclear industry uses huge amounts of fossil fuel. France has estimated that its nuclear industry produces about 25 million tons of CO2 emissions per year, without factoring in emissions from uranium ore mining and preparation. We can argue about whether that's an improvement over other types of energy production, so long as we can agree that there's a stark quantitative difference between 25 million tons of emissions, and zero tons of emissions.

In closing, I'd like to turn things over the dewy-eyed, Birckenstock-wearing treehuggers at the Economist, who have managed to explain the financial problems with nuclear power pretty clearly:
Taking into account the uncertainties, most studies done on nuclear economics (including the most authoritative ones, done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs) conclude that new plants built by the private sector, with investors bearing the full brunt of risks, are not economic without subsidy.

Though nuclear vendors are promising that their new designs will cost only $1,500 per kW of installed capacity, that assumes ideal conditions and no delays. A more realistic assessment (indeed, the consensus view among experts not aligned with the nuclear industry) is that new plants will probably cost close to $2,000 per kW. That may be less in real terms than the capital cost of previous generations of nuclear plants, but it is still about double the capital cost of a conventional coal plant today.
And this, of course, is without factoring in waste disposal, a problem for which there is no safe and cost-effective solution, and which renders null and void any proposed environmental benefit of nuclear power.


@whut said...

Bunch of people supporting nuclear, or at least considering, that you might not imagine include Jared Diamond and James Kunstler.

The big rhetorical trick used by the nuclear proponents involves only considering the steady-state operating costs in comparing efficiencies. Only when pressed will they include the start-up (and presumably shut-down) costs.

Phila said...

Yeah, I've seen both those guys go on about that. It definitely affects my overall perception of Kunstler, in particular. He ought to know better.

I'm willing to accept that nuclear power plants might be a necessity...but if we're going to debate it, we have to debate it honestly and look at all the costs. And so far, I've seen no evidence that you can be pro-nuclear and honest. My view is that when an idea is actually good, you don't need to lie to promote it.

The shut-down costs of nuclear...that's a whole other question. Very expensive and messy!

Engineer-Poet said...

I'm not sure how people come to the conclusion that decommissioning is expensive and messy.  It's been done a number of times, and the costs appear to be known.

Carbon emissions from the fuel cycle are another bogeyman.  I looked at one of the reports cited by the nay-sayers, and found that it assumed (a) that a large fraction of all uranium enrichment would continue to be done with gaseous diffusion (centrifuges use about 1/50 the energy), and (b) that gas-centrifuge plants would have to be replaced frequently because of "wear".  Wear on what?  Are the buildings going to fatigue because the rotors spin so fast?  How about the inverter drives for the motors?

Suffice it to say that I found a large number of extremely questionable claims in the first substantive chapter, and then I stumbled across NEI's claim that the entire report had been refuted years ago.  I dropped my effort.

The researchers (I use the term loosely) hid their actual claims several levels deep in their site, perhaps to satisfy the non-quantitative analysts with sound bites before getting to the meat.  They've since moved it upwards, or so it appears; I haven't the time to check.

@whut said...

Don't the costs of shut-down cover the entire half-life of the radioactive waste? How convenient to leave this out of the equation.

Doesn't stuff that gets buried in the ground have a habit of coming up over time? Ask the farmer with the big rocks that keep popping up out of the ground. Dang, I thought I got rid of all those durn boulders!

The point being that you can't just sweep all this stuff under the rug (no pun intended).

Engineer-Poet said...

Frost heave only brings up stuff from around and above the frost line.

As for half-lives of radwaste, there's a relatively simple solution for that:  pack it in glass blocks and pile it in the desert under a canopy.  Watch it for 200 years, during which time all the short-lived (and thus hot) isotopes will pass through 6 or more half-lives.  Recover, chemically process to remove the remaining isotopes of interest (long-lived stuff) and dump the remaining stuff permanently as low-level waste.

All stuff in the glass blocks should be oxides or salts and thoroughly non-combustible.  Even if someone could drive a truck bomb to it or crash an airplane on it, your cleanup would consist mostly of finding particles scattered from the event and sweeping them into a new container.  If you built a pyramid or other structure to allow cooling while protecting against attack, even that problem would disappear.

JMS said...

Building a pyramid is one solution. Expensive, of course. Moving tons and tons of waste around, expensive and dangerous.

The solution the nuclear industry favors is "rubblizing", that is, de-commissioning reactors in place and covering them with a layer of topsoil.

Sadly, our current generation of nuclear reactors were not designed to be retired via a few swipes of a bulldozer blade.

Engineer-Poet said...

I object to the use of the terms "expensive" and "dangerous".  Relative to what?  The amount of waste is trivial compared to e.g. coal ash (if you think that doesn't cost money to transport, you're dreaming), and the shipping casks are highly overbuilt.

If someone was looking for a target for even a truck bomb, a shipment of spent fuel would be one of the least damaging they could pick.  Not only is it inherently "hard", the possible damage is small and people are seldom nearby.

As for decommissioning expense, I have suggested the construction of reactors underground so that waste heat could be used.  Decommissioning needn't be all that involved; unload the spent fuel, perhaps remove some elements like reactor vessels, fill the mine with mud or concrete and walk away.

Phila said...

I object to the use of the terms "expensive" and "dangerous". Relative to what? The amount of waste is trivial compared to e.g. coal ash (if you think that doesn't cost money to transport, you're dreaming),

"Dangerous" relative to waste that's not radioactive, for starters. The disposal strategy for coal ash may not be great, but it beats what goes on at, say, Sellafield.

"Expensive" relative to an energy form that has fewer externalities, for starters.

Obviously, I don't think much of nuclear power. Doesn't mean that it can never be improved upon. But before I support it on any level, I'm going to want to see certain things: transparancy, an honest assessment of all costs, and so forth. I think Engineer-Poet is looking at things from a somewhat idealistic standpoint, which is fine. But the gap between theory and practice is what troubles me.

E-P also wants to know why people think of decommissioning as "expensive." According to the Uranium Information Council (a very pro-nuclear group, "Japan's Tokai-1 reactor, a UK Magnox design, is being decommissioned after 30 years service to 1998....Total cost is expected to be about 25 billion Yen."

That's not an astronomical amount of money, but I think "expensive" is a fair adjective to use. The same source estimates that decommissioning US plants costs $320 million per plant.

On the other hand, consider this: Decommissioning the UK's ageing nuclear power stations will cost billions of pounds more than originally expected.. Sudden upward spikes in costs seem to happen pretty often with nuclear power.

And that's a big part of the problem, really. If we're going to consider nuclear, we also have to consider it terms of political realities and an an existing power structure.

Engineer-Poet said...

How about "dangerous" relative to things that are toxic?  Coal ash has heavy metals like arsenic that will remain toxic (and carcinogenic) until the end of time, and simply burning coal releases mercury, which is a neurotoxin.

It's vastly easier to isolate a ton of spent reactor fuel than a hundred thousand tons of coal ash.  Ash goes into landfills, which are nowhere near as well-isolated (physically or geographically) as Yucca Mountain.  Mercury falls out for dozens of miles downwind.

Someone would have to work very hard to cause even one fatality per century with spent reactor fuel; those shipping casks are armored almost as well as tanks, and would take immense effort to breach.  Coal ash travels in open hopper cars and is rained on after it is dumped.  How much leached arsenic will it take to cause that many fatal cancers, let alone the morbidity from the toxic effects?

Given a choice between generating power with a coal plant in my back yard vs. a nuke, I'll take the nuke - and I know darn well it's the least of evils, with a return to life before electricity being the biggest.

Engineer-Poet said...

Oh, I forgot about expensive.  $320 million to decommission a $1 billion powerplant just isn't all that much.  If the plant generated 1 GW peak at 80% capacity factor for 30 years, $320 million is just 0.12¢/kWh even if you don't pay interest on the reserves.

Anonymous said...


Well, maybe you're right. Who knows? Obviously, I'm not in favor of burning coal, either. In fact, I wouldn't even be having this conversation if coal and oil weren't so patently disastrous.

Still, I look at Sellafield as being representative of the governmental approach to nuclear power. Whether that sort of contamination is worse than coal ash is perhaps debatable; if it were up to me, though, both would be illegal.

You seem to be OK with Yucca Mountain. That's your right. I'd like to assume that it's a subject on which people of goodwill can disagree. I'm sure if you were in charge of this country's nuclear agencies, they'd be perfect. But until I see evidence that intelligent, honest, competent people actually are in charge of these agencies - and that research isn't falsified, and that appropriate regulations will be written and enforced - I'm going to remain skeptical.

As I've said repeatedly, I'm open to new ways of looking at this issue. But I'd like to see actual evidence that a new nuclear era isn't going to involve business as usual for corrupt firms like BNFL. In my darker moments, I see no reason why a government like our present one couldn't manage to increase coal ash contamination, and global warming, and nuclear proliferation, and radwaste disposal problems simultaneously.

That said, you make a good case for a positive outlook...perhaps I'll share it someday.