Monday, May 29, 2006

California Part II -- The Shifting Debate

Part II: How Has the Debate Shifted? Has the Media Missed the Change?

Most media coverage is still focused on the old “pros verses cons” of nuclear power. But as we said earlier, we believe that old debate is largely irrelevant in the minds of most thought leaders. As people re-consider nuclear power, they are thinking about the issues from a completely different perspective.

Let’s look at this new paradigm and attempt to re-frame the nuclear debate in terms that better match what people are thinking today.

Global Warming vs. Nuclear Waste

Old Debate: Do we have a solution for nuclear waste?
New Debate: Is waste from fossil fuels is a much bigger problem? If so then maybe nuclear waste isn’t such a bad alternative.

Over past few years, global warming has become the premiere environmental issue. Al Gore has made tremendous progress educating the public about its dangers, culminating in a movie called “An Inconvenient Truth” – playing at a cinema near you!

But the very success of the Global Warming campaign is what drives people to take a second look at nuclear power. In theory, carbon dioxide emissions are creating enormous systemic changes in the ecosystem. Flooding, acidic ocean water, die-off of species, reversal of the Atlantic current…all these point to massive, widespread, and devastating changes, which are predicted to impoverish or displace millions of people.

Compared to this, nuclear waste starts to look like a minor problem. For example:

Although nuclear waste is extraordinarily dangerous (everyone admits that), a very tiny amount of it can substitute for relatively huge amounts of carbon waste. One barrel of nuclear waste prevents millions of barrels of carbon waste.

Carbon waste has a unique problem: it is always immediately spewed into the atmosphere…it is “polluting the commons.” On the other hand, nuclear waste is never spewed into the global environment. It is retained by the original nation which produced it. It is almost impossible to ship. So nuclear waste does not “pollute the commons.” By definition , nuclear waste forces the society who create it to be responsible for it. From this perspective, the argument could be made that nuclear waste is the more environmentally responsible choice, compared to carbon waste.

Yes, nuclear waste is a potential risk, but that’s still an “if”. If the barrels leak. If terrorists manage to bypass rings of military protection. If the barren wastes of Nevada suddenly become desirable real estate. Many unlikely things would need to happen, in order for nuclear waste to become a major disaster. On the other hand, carbon waste is causing a disaster, right now, on a global scale.

Many environmentalists have supported carbon dioxide sequestration, a technology which aims to pump these millions of tons of carbon waste into the ground or deep ocean. But this highlights the problem: how can people complain about “no solution” for nuclear waste, when there is clearly “no solution” for carbon waste either? And the huge volume of carbon waste makes it a much more difficult waste problem to solve.

In summary:

What’s worse, a few barrels of nuclear waste stored somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert, which “might” leak and poison a very small local area…


Millions of tons of carbon dioxide and coal smoke spewed into the atmosphere, which is already causing massive worldwide destruction?

Renewables Vs. The French Success

Old Debate: We should try to convert to mostly renewable sources.
New Debate: France converted 75% of their electrical grid to nuclear power in a few decades. Why don’t we do the same thing?

For decades society has discouraged nuclear power and encouraged conservation, solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. There have been big government subsidies, tax credits (especially in California) and investment in dozens of new technology startups and research programs.

These efforts have produced promising results, but nowhere near the promises made by supporters of the technology. Decades later, the slow growth of renewables has left a gap, filled by burning ever more millions of tons of coal every year. As we’ll describe later in this paper, the state of California has met the vast majority of it’s electric need with natural gas and is planning to meet much of it’s future needs with coal.

Electrical demand is skyrocketing, and it shows no signs of slacking off. If we subtract “old style” renewables like hydropower, geothermal, and trash burning, which are largely tapped out, the actual contribution of wind and solar and tidal power are still a few percent or less of demand.

When debating nuclear power, opponents say “yes, but nuclear power couldn’t meet the need either”. However, every major government knows this argument is false. The nuclear industry is quite capable of building astronomical numbers of additional capacity, outstripping wind and solar power by a huge magnitude.

The proof? Simple. France converted their entire electrical grid to non-carbon emitting in a mere 25 years. They did this by building over 50 nuclear reactors, mass-production style. These reactors have been humming away for years, and the French have been quietly enjoying the cleanest air and lowest rates in Europe. Indeed, they export a great deal of the electricity that provides stability to the electrical grid when the wind turbines in Denmark and Spain stop turning.

Any national government can say: “If France can convert their grid, why can’t we?”

The US and Britain know that their nuclear industries are capable of similar feats. The nuclear industry in the US was on track to build hundreds more reactors, before the slowdown stopped them. This is why leaders are re-considering nuclear power. They know it works, and can be delivered in mass quantities. On the other hand, wind and solar, while promising, have been much slower than promised.

The prudent choice is to do both. Why take chances?

Iran, Pakistan, and Proliferation

Old debate: nuclear plants create plutonium, which can be used for bombs.
New debate: nuclear plants reduce oil imports, so overseas dictators have less money to buy bombs on the black market .

Proliferation has been the most dangerous consequence of nuclear power. In the past, the argument has been that more nuclear reactors create greater danger of nuclear weapons.

However, that argument is now being superseded by a less black-and-white, more mature view. For example in the past decade both North Korea and Pakistan obtained nuclear weapons. An recent article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine gave a harrowing picture of the black market, and gray market suppliers, that provided the means to build these bombs.

What becomes clear is that these bombs can be created independent of the commercial nuclear power industry. The materials and expertise can be purchased from Russia or China, or other nuclear nations—for a price.

With the current standoff between the US and Iran, in which Iran proclaims its right to build nuclear weapons, the primary issue is oil money. The US and the world is so dependant on the oil exports from or adjacent to Iran, that this gives Iran a “chokehold” on the world, and uncounted billions of dollars, to use as leverage.

All over the world, dictators and hostile nations are enjoying the power that comes with 70 dollar per barrel oil. They can use that money, and that power, to seek nuclear weapons, in addition to repressing their own people.

How can that oil price be reduced? How can every nation have energy security – which is in this age equivalent to military and economic security?

Answer: More nuclear power, less dependence on foreign energy imports.

The Reverse-Cherynobyl effect

Old argument: What about the risk of accidents, like Chernobyl?
New argument: Despite Chernobyl, the Ukrainians are building more nuclear reactors. What do they know that we don’t?

On the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, perhaps the most under-reported story was that the Ukraine is building new nuclear reactors. The Ukraine government announced intention for additional nuclear reactors, to supplement their existing sites.

The Ukrainians have personally experienced the worst-case accident, and yet they appear to be turning back to nuclear power. They will still debate, and may yet reduce or change their plans, but still: after 10 years of nuclear freeze, they are re-considering nuclear power. Why?

They don’t want to freeze. They are dependant on Russia for gas imports. Russia has already halted energy shipments for political reasons and clearly is willing to do so again. This threatened energy embargo is a weapon that threatens the Ukrainians security and their freedom.

Nuclear power has risks, but all industrial processes have risks. Thousands of people were killed in Bhopal, India, in a pesticide plant disaster, yet the world has not banned the manufacture of pesticides. Every year there are coal mining accidents, yet coal mining is not banned. Oil refineries can explode. Hydroelectric dams collapse.

Modern reactors are infinitely safer. The Ukrainians recognize that the Chernobyl reactor disaster was a very old, poorly designed and run reactor. It was the equivalent of a Model-T car. Modern reactors are infinitely better, infinitely safer, and have an incredible safety record. The Ukraine can look intelligently at risks and say “well, in the past we had a problem, but in the future we can see it’s a safe route.”


We haven’t tried to describe every possible argument pro and con. There are many other places to see that debate. Opponents of nuclear power are unlikely to be convinced by these arguments. We simply want to show how the argument has changed, and is continuing to evolve, and this is why nuclear power is getting a second look from many.


At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

While you know that I am generally in favor of nuclear power, I learned something last week that casts serious doubts on the viability of building many more light-water reactors to accommodate future US energy needs.

Essentially, it comes down to Yucca Mountain. It is going to be hard enough to get that repository opened. But it is going to be nearly impossible to get another repository opened, and a major expansion of LWRs would only lead Yucca to fill up faster.

The political need to avoid building another repository has led the US to embark on the GNEP program, with a central goal of that program being the construction of sodium-cooled fast reactors to "destroy" the transuranic waste that is the inevitable consequence of "burning" uranium in a thermal neutron spectrum.

The fast-spectrum GNEP reactors will be required (in large number) just to hold the line at 100 reactors in the US, to say nothing of nuclear expansion.

I am very opposed to sodium-cooled fast-spectrum reactors because I just don't think they can be safe enough. (and before someone starts talking to me about the safety tests on EBR-II in the mid-80s, I have a much more rigorous set of safety criteria in mind).

We must build reactors that don't produce transuranic waste if we wish to avoid building more Yucca Mountains. And any thermal-spectrum uranium-fueled reactor will produce a lot of transuranic waste.

The answer is not fast-breeders -- the answer is thorium fuel.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Tom Benson said...


I agree with you about the great value for Thorium energy.

However the political and economic reality -- today -- is that the world wants more nuclear power. In this blog we don't really argue pro or con about which reactor is better. In fact we're not even concerned quite as much with the pros or cons of nuclear power itself.

We assume that nuclear power is on an upswing. This means people, including people in the US, are going to build a lot more reactors, regardless of the status of Yucca mountain.

That means people all over the world are going to build any reactors that they are capable of building...light water, heavy water, boiling, pressurized, pebble-bed, Generation IV, Sodium, and hopefully molten salt.

So, on those lines, the question that would be really interesting is how you envision the financing and politics of the liquid thorium reactor. How would you envision it being built, and by whom? How will it compete with the existing reactor designs which are being vigorously promoted by their developers?

At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose what I am trying to say (and perhaps not very clearly) is that I am becoming increasingly convinced that the driving force towards a closed fuel cycle will not be lack of fuel, or a desire for more efficient fuel utilization, but rather waste disposal.

Since the longevity of the repository is driven by the transuranic isotopes (that are generated by neutron absorptions in the fuel) a cycle that produces no transuranics could have quite an economic advantage.

A utility must carefully consider, before it places an order for a new reactor, whether the federal government will indeed take possession of the spent fuel (as they have promised but have not done) or if the utility will be "stuck" with the spent fuel for an indefinite period of time. Watching the fortunes of Yucca Mountain wax and wane does not give me particularly great confidence that they will ever open that repository, and I sincerely doubt another repository will be opened beyond Yucca.

In which case, Yucca will fill up rather quickly and we will be back where we are now, with spent fuel all stored at the reactor site.

At 11:57 PM, Blogger Tom Benson said...

I think what you say makes perfect sense Kirk. Many of the decisions made in the nuclear arena over the years have been political compromises, not necessarily optimized engineering decisions. Nuclear power seems to be joined at the hip to large-scale politics, and seems it always will be.

Again...count me as a supporter. But what about all the other people who need to be convinced? That's the question I was asking. You've done a fantastic job of ressurecting this concept, archiving the relevant technical data on CDs and starting a blog...all exactly the right things.

But do you have any kind of plan for the next steps for your "campaign?" Again, recognizing that there are a half-dozen competing reactors already in production, and another half-dozen being built (in theory anyway) as part of the Gen IV project. How do you get attention for your concept in this crowded and competitive arena?

At 5:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, the liquid-fluoride reactor is not my concept. Nor do I have a company or something that's waiting to develop it. It's simply something I found that seems to make a lot of sense, and now I'm trying to hold it up and ask other people the same question: does this make sense to you too?

Based on responses like yours, the answer seems to be yes.

There are a great number of new reactor designs that are being pushed right now, but none of them seem to address the fundamental issues that the public (rightly or wrongly) will demand--they want nuclear to be safer. They don't know how much safer, but they want it safer. They want it to be as absolutely safe as possible. And the nuclear industry's response has always been: we're already safe, you just need to realize it!

That just doesn't cut it, because frankly I don't think reactors are nearly safe enough for truly planetary deployment. There's just too many engineered safety systems that have to work.

The next part is waste: the public says, fix this problem...we're not sure what the problem is, but fix it. The nuclear industry says, there is no problem. Geologic burial is fine, spent fuel cooling plants are secure, dry cask storage will hold us for decades.

Again, they're giving a deaf ear to the public, and the public's not going to buy it.

What worries me so much is not necessarily the liquid-fluoride reactors won't get built--what worries me is, that without knowing about the profound safety and waste advantages of that reactor, the nuclear option itself will be thrown out entirely. And no new reactors will get built because policy-makers will conclude that today's reactors represent the zenith of safety and waste management, and it doesn't get any better than this.

Which frankly, just isn't good enough for the vast majority of Americans who would accept nuclear power if it was safer and cheaper and cleaner than it is now.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Tom Benson said...

This all makes sense. I'm just glad to see people like you pushing different ideas. 30 years ago, we didn't have the internet to provide a forum to hear about this kind of technical debate. Maybe now the world can really make a smart decision.

At 10:23 PM, Blogger Randal Leavitt said...

While I agree with Kirk Sorensen that we can do a lot better by building liquid fueled reactors, I don't think the people of the world will refuse nuclear power if we don't do this. Nuclear power is already the safest, cleanest, and least expensive form of power available. If people saw these facts in their newspapers they would clamour for nuclear power. Making it ten times as clean, safe, and inexpensive won't help if they continue to hear that it is dirty, dangerous, and expensive. It appears that you can fool most of the people most of the time.

At 11:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I don't think Californians will see the light until we start to have real problems, e.g. blackouts and such. It's too easy for the average bloke to just sign on to the environmentalist message. How's she/he to know that we can't get enough power from wind and solar energy to meet all our needs? No one bothers to "do the math". Instead we are boxed into foolishly building NG-fired plants, consuming an extremely valuable and versatile fuel with many better uses. It's enormously frustrating, but I'm counting on ordinary people to rise up and overwhelm the entrenched opposition once the crisis is upon them. Environmentalists will then be forced to offer a workable solution of some kind. Expansion of renewables and greater efficiency are certainly needed, but the baseload and swing capacity will have to come from somewhere. Environmentalists will then have to name their poison: coal, or nuclear power. Coal won't last forever, and has obvious environmental problems. Will this be enough to shake off decades of brainwashing by the leaders of the movement? I hope so.

At 11:07 PM, Blogger Tom Benson said...


Your analysis is unfortunately pretty accurate. However California has a pretty fast-changing political system and one person, if they wanted to push this issue, could make a difference. The question is, who has the time?

Personally I think Californians are ripe for change.

At 9:00 AM, Blogger johnintx said...

A good article, Tom. I’m almost persuaded that nuclear energy is the way to go, even though our technology still hasn’t caught up on how to deal with the waste problem, maybe it never will. I wish it was just a few barrels of nuclear waste to deal with. Yes, it is almost impossible to ship this nuclear waste, but it is being done, anyway. E.g., the San Francisco Examiner noted that years ago, Taiwan shipped 200,000 barrels of its nuclear wastes to North Korea. Who knows how they disposed of it. If this figure is correct, I can extrapolate that if one nation like Taiwan had that much waste, then there are probably millions of barrels of nuclear waste world-wide. In July of 2001, Russia signed into law that would allow the import of nuclear wastes from other nations. I believe that law has been put on hold for now, but nations are still shipping their wastes out of their country, or dumping it into the oceans. And even countries you would think be more responsible for their nuclear wastes such as the Netherlands, had been dumping their nuclear wastes into the ocean for some 15 years. Great Britain, have said in the past they may have to start dumping their nuclear wastes into the Irish Sea. Lobsters in this area are already radioactive if my source is correct. Nations have deliberately dumped their nuclear wastes in the ocean, and try to cover it up. Pakistan’s high court have found them guilty of it. Russia’s track record is horrendous, as other nations. Even the French have low-level radioactive flows in the Atlantic which have come from their plutonium plant. And the US isn't immune from criticism either.

Doing a google search with our oceans being polluted from nations nuclear wastes, deliberately or by accident isn’t very comforting. I’m not giving up totally on nuclear energy, but it is scary to see how irresponsible nations are with it.

In your summary, you raise a good question of what is worst. Barrels of nuclear waste stored in the Nevada desert, or millions of tons of carbon dioxide and coal smoke spewed into the atmosphere. If memory serves me correctly from the other day of researching this, America right now has 104 active nuclear plants producing 20% of our electricity needs. If we doubled our nuclear plants, that would go a long way to reducing our dependence on others for our energy needs, and also help tremendously on the CO2 problem. And if that particular Nevada site can contain all of our waste for the next 100 years or so, then perhaps nuclear nuclear is the way to go for the US. Maybe by then, technology would have also caught up to how to deal with the nuclear wastes in a better way as well.



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