Rethinking Nuclear Power

Are modern nuclear reactors as bad for us as the environmentalists have painted them?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Environment

Skeptoid #92
March 18, 2008
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Nuclear Power
Artwork: Nathan Bebb

Let's have a seat at Homer Simpson's control panel, chow down on some donuts, and nap away into oblivion while blinking lights and buzzers warn of impending doom and that glowing green bar of uranium that fell into our trousers. Today we're going to examine the popular notions about nuclear power. Specifically, if xenophobia had not killed nuclear power in the United States in the late 1970's, there's a good chance that we'd have all been driving electric cars for the past 20 years; and uncounted billions of tons of carbon dioxide would never been sucked out of the ground, burned in power plants, and exhausted into our atmosphere.

So let's state the obvious. The immediate reaction to that statement is "OK, that may be true, but look at all the new problems we'd have created with Chernobyl-type disasters and lethal nuclear waste." Fair enough, and important questions, to be sure. Let's start with a quick primer on the various types of nuclear reactors.

So-called Generation I reactors were the early prototypes developed by many nations, and actually placed into production in a few cases. Generation I reactors were characterized by fundamentally unsafe designs, and kludged layers of afterthought safety systems. When most nuclear nations began deploying commercial reactors, they were usually of Generation II design. Generation II reactors were significantly improved, but these changes were primarily evolutionary. Most of the commercial plants in operation in the United States are Generation II designs. A little over ten years ago, Generation III designs began appearing in some of the world's most advanced nuclear nations. Generation III reactors incorporate not only evolutionary improvements, but also revolutionary changes such as fuel cycles that result in much less nuclear waste; reduced capacity for the creation of weapons-grade plutonium; and passive safety designs wherein the reaction cannot be sustained in the event of a problem and the system effectively shuts itself down, by virtue of its basic design. The newest plants being designed for commercial use are called Generation III+, which incorporate all the newest knowledge from operating Generation III designs. If a new reactor was approved and built in the United States today, it would be a Generation III+ design. Even if every plant employee keeled over with a heart attack, neither a Chernobyl nor a Three Mile Island type accident would be possible; the systems are fundamentally redesigned so that the reaction cannot be sustained if things go outside the parameters.

The Idaho National Laboratory is the United States' primary advanced reactor research facility, and they've outlined six new reactor types to be developed for Generation IV. The designs take everything to a new level: Lower cost, safer designs, near-total elimination of nuclear waste, and reduced risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. There are also Generation V reactors in the ether, but these are primarily the domain of late-night rumination sessions at the lab, fueled by tequila and pot.

Then there's fusion power, which is everyone's ultimate goal. Fusion reactors have the profound advantages of using simple tritium or deuterium for fuel, producing no significant waste, and absolute safety since if anything goes even slightly off-kilter, the plasma disappears and you have no reaction. It's the ultimate in cheap, clean, safe, renewable energy, despite gross misunderstandings of the technology expressed by Greenpeace and other factions. The first operational tokamak fusion reactor for research is being built by the international ITER consortium in France and is expected to come online in 2016.

So you can probably guess that Three Mile Island was probably not the newest and safest design, and you'd be right. It was a Generation II design. It was the first and only significant nuclear accident in American history. A broken valve caused coolant to leak into a containment facility designed for that purpose, raising the temperature of the core and causing a partial meltdown. Despite significant confusion on the part of the operators (this being their first experience with an accident), and a somewhat lengthy chain of errors and misunderstandings, everything eventually worked out just as it should. There were no deaths or injuries, and despite 25,000 people living within five miles of the plant, nobody was exposed to any radiation worse than a single chest x-ray. All the studies predict zero cases of future cancer, despite ongoing lawsuits that the courts continue to find to be without merit. With proper perspective, Three Mile Island can (and should) be characterized as a shining example of how well the safety systems work, even in the face of human error and old-fashioned reactor design.

But that's not the way it was perceived. By an unfortunate coincidence, Jane Fonda's movie The China Syndrome about a nuclear accident came out only twelve days before Three Mile Island. The Cold War with Brezhnev was in full force and the words "nuclear accident" were simply too much for a scientifically uninformed public. Three Mile Island became the first nail in the coffin of American nuclear power.

Seven years later in 1986, things got much worse. Chernobyl was suffering from inadequate funding. Much basic maintenance had never been performed. It had only a skeleton crew, nearly all of whom were untrained workers from the local coal mine. The only manager with nuclear plant experience had been a worker installing small reactors on board Soviet submarines. Some genius decided to run a risky test of a type that no experienced nuclear engineer would ever gamble on. The test was to shut down the water pumps, which must run constantly in that type of reactor; and then find out whether the turbines, spinning on their momentum alone, had enough energy to restart and run the pumps during the forty-second delay before the backup diesel generators would kick in. The test was so risky that one faction within the plant deliberately disconnected some backup systems, trying to make the test too dangerous to attempt. The test was run anyway. It didn't work, the pumps couldn't keep up, the graphite core caught fire, the coal miners couldn't find any shovels so they didn't know what to do, and the reactor exploded. If you think I'm exaggerating this, there are extensive resources both online and in print, if you really want the hairy truth. In this short space I'm probably not even giving you ten percent of what a travesty this was — I'm tempted to call it a joke but it's so not funny. For example, they scheduled this right in the middle of a shift change, and the new workers coming in didn't even know what was going on.

Two people died that day, and some 30 to 60 people were dead within three months. Predictions of eventual cancer deaths caused by the radiation run from 1,000 to 4,000. And, of course, the damage to the local environment is extensive and difficult to estimate. The terror of a radiation cloud blowing across Europe was the second nail in the coffin of American nuclear power.

Not only was Chernobyl a monumental failure of the human element, the plant was a Generation I design, specifically an RBMK reactor, which is generally regarded as the least safe reactor type ever built. One design flaw is that the core used combustible graphite, and this distinction is the main reason that Chernobyl-type disasters are not possible in most reactors around the world. Only a very few Generation I designs are still in use, all in the former Soviet Union, and all have been retrofitted with improvements intended to prevent this type of accident. Other nations have long been lobbying for the closure of these reactors, and rightfully so.

How do the dangers of nuclear energy compare to the dangers of fossil fuel energy? A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that some 50,000-100,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer caused by particulate air pollution, the biggest cause of which is coal-burning power plants in the midwest and east. Even taking the maximum predicted death toll from Chernobyl, we would need a Chernobyl-sized accident every three weeks to make nuclear power as deadly as coal and oil already is. Shall I repeat that? If the world was filled with Generation I reactors run by feuding coal miners, we would need a worst-case scenario every three weeks just to match the US death toll we've imposed upon ourselves by clinging to our current fossil fuel system. Next time you see a hippie cheering the defeat of nuclear power in the US, realize that a healthy environment and saving lives are clearly not their priorities.

Well, maybe to them it's more about the future of the planet than about saving lives today. Maybe they just don't want to see high-level nuclear waste created that's going to poison the planet for tens of thousands of years. I can see that. But here's the problem with that logic: The plants we're designing now produce less waste than ever. Some on the drawing board produce none at all. We've already created most of the waste that we ever will. It already exists. It's out there. Lobbying against future cleaner plants won't make the existing waste go away. It's out there now in temporary facilities in neighborhoods all across the country, way more vulnerable than it would be in proper permanent storage in Yucca Mountain. [Update: The Yucca Mountain facility has since been canceled. - BD]

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Opponents say that Yucca Mountain is geologically unstable or otherwise too hazardous, so the waste might leak out. Well, trust me: The location of the Yucca Mountain site was one of the most lengthy and expensive decisions the government ever made. What do you think they were doing with all that time and money, picking their noses? Well, it was a government program, so a large part of the time and budget probably was spent on nose mining. Nevertheless, this was one of the most scrutinized decisions ever made. Environmentally speaking it's as good a site as we could hope for. If you're concerned about it, go to a neutral and reliable source and research it personally. From every scrap of reason I can muster, environmentalists should be Yucca Mountain's #1 fans. I can't imagine why they prefer to leave the waste out where it is now, unless they are driven more by ideology than by science. Who would have thought that?

There is a safe and clean solution to our energy crisis, gasoline prices, and global warming. It's the latest generation nuclear reactor.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

ACS News Center. "Air Pollution Linked to Deaths From Lung Cancer." American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, Inc., 6 Mar. 2002. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <http://www.cancer.org/docroot/NWS/content/NWS_1_1x_Air_Pollution_Linked_to_Deaths_From_Lung_Cancer.asp>

Bernarde, Melvin A. PhD. Our Precarious Habitat... Its In Your Hands. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2007. 243-287, 417-425.

Cohen, Bernard L. The Nuclear Energy Option: An Alternative for the 90s. New York: Plenum Publishing Corporation, 1990.

Domenici, Pete, Lyons, Blythe, and Steyn, Julian. A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004. 181-211.

Economist. "Nuclear's next generation." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Limited, 10 Dec. 2009. Web. 19 Dec. 2009. <http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/tq/displayStory.cfm?story_id=15048703>

Ehresman, Teri. "Next Generation of Reactors." Idaho Nation Labortatory: Nuclear Advances. Idaho National Laboratory, 24 Oct. 2005. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <http://nuclear.inl.gov/gen4/>

International Atomic Energy Agency. "INSAG-7, The Chernobyl Accident: Updating of INSAG-1." Safety Series. 1 Jan. 1992, No. 75-INSAG-7.

ITER. "The ITER homepage." ITER - The Way To New Energy. ITER Organization, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <http://www.iter.org/>

Manaugh, Geoff and Twilley, Nicola. "One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham Van Luik." BLDGBLOG. Future Plural, 2 Nov. 2009. Web. 19 Dec. 2009. <http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/million-years-of-isolation-interview.html>

Moss, Zachary. "Chernobyl accident still haunts UK." Bellona. The Bellona Foundation, 1 May 2003. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <http://www.bellona.no/bellona.org/english_import_area/energy/nuclear/28808>

Pope, C. Arden III; Burnett, Richard T.; Thun, Michael J. "Lung Cancer, Cardiopulmonary Mortality, and Long-term Exposure to Fine Particulate Air Pollution." JAMA. 6 Mar. 2002, Volume 287, Numer 9: 1132-1141.

Spencer, Jack and Loris, Nicolas D. "Three Mile Island and Chernobyl: What Went Wrong and Why Today’s Reactors Are Safe." Web Memo: The Heritage Foundation. 27 Mar. 2009, No. 2367.

USA Today. "Study: Air pollution, lung cancer are linked." USA Today. Gannet Co. Inc., 5 Mar. 2002. Web. 21 Dec. 2009. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2002-03-05-pollution.htm>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Rethinking Nuclear Power." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 18 Mar 2008. Web. 19 Dec 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4092>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 171 comments

Modern nuclear energy is clean, efficient, and quite safe. We can either adopt a sensible plan for the future in which we use a combination of modern nuclear power as well as renewable energy, such as wind, solar, etc. We can either embrace nuclear and renewable energy or we can stick with foossil fuels and continue towards climate change and more and more pollution. The wise choice is of course modern clean nuclear energy and renewable energy. It is the only logical path.

Joffbaum, New York, NY
November 11, 2012 3:24am

Personally? Nuclear power and energy savings...we can get a literal order of magnitude of money/energy savings out of recycling (sewer, biofuels, fats, carbonisation) over a single equitable energy solar or wind farm.

This economy isnt about that and as coal mega firms bitch about fracking and vice versa..

I'd far prefer gas..

Mind you, the dumbest idea I have seen is cornahol. Its only 1% more efficient than solar!

Mud (Dr Syd), sin seetee, Oz
November 15, 2012 8:42am

@ Nagilum, Germany

You're being disingenuous using Tuvalu as an example of 100% renewable energy.

1) They are not 100% renewable, period, but do hope to be by 2020.

2) It has abundant sources of energy being islands in a very active part of the Pacific. It uses mostly solar power, because it is very sunny there, which, having been to overcast and dreary Germany several times, I would say was not a viable option there. Tuvalu is planning to use wind power and of course being islands they certainly could use tidal energy.

3) It has a much smaller population whose individual electrical needs are far below that of the modern German.

Renewable energy is not able to guarantee supply like nuclear, coal, oil and gas can, whose power down times are scheduled maintenance.

Maybe if you smothered Germany in windfarms, then on a windy sunny day without high electricity use, with everyone at the beach or on mountains, then MAYBE you can get near 100% renewable, but I doubt it.

Regarding nuclear, security is NOT the only concern, you are using that excuse just to negate a nuclear discussion, the same reason you ignored my aircraft carrier example, I don't believe you to be that much of a simpleton not to have understood my point. The point being that the 5,000 plus sailors are essentially a town of 5,000 people, all powered by nuclear, around the world.

Germany WILL have to accept nuclear power in the future or reduce electrical consumption and security of supply.

David Healey, Maidenhead, UK
January 7, 2013 11:40am

Update? Germany will always be nuclear resourced as it imports power from nuclear nations.

Given the turnaround in german nuclear power philosophy in the last few weeks, you'll find the germanic non nuclear statements would cease.

The really sad thing is that they had pebble bed thorium in the seventies and blew it.

That was a 30 year technology leap on hard power Th/pebble bed abandoned.

For such a fantastic bunch of guys, germany makes some strange decisions from time to time.

Thankfully China is growing its nuclear power faster than we have ever imagined.

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
January 17, 2013 9:08pm

@Mud: We turned off the nuclear power plants and exported more electricity than ever in 2012.

@David:
"Renewable energy is not able to guarantee supply like nuclear, coal, oil and gas can, whose power down times are scheduled maintenance. "
There are various ways to store energy and advances are made continuously.
With the same reasoning I can say the opposite as the supplies of nuclear, coal, oil and gas are being exhausted.
Of course if you're willing spend 20% your countries budged on military and ruin your ground water supply by fracking you can secure supply for a little while longer but that's just delaying the inevitable.
People are stupid, the longer nothing happens the more likely they will do something dangerous. Not everyone of course but one or two in the right spot is enough. That's why you get a nuclear disaster every 25 years or so given the current rate of proliferation.

Nagilum, Germany
May 5, 2013 4:06am

Nagilum, your energy cred is a bit wanting...

Coal, oil and gas are sadly in great over supply and clearly undervalued. Its an environmental problem that the "green" politics doesnt really get.

Nucleau fuel has now been mass produced to the extent that we can have a 16TW economy (yep, read that again) for the next few millenia and the only waste would be fission products that have to be stored for @150 years with security and 300 years to total inactivity (wrt to environmental nuclides).

I am quite happy to point out that the future mix is now being nuclear inclusive with China being the greater disseminator of power (it has to) followed by India. In that mix are now fast technologies that burn waste (as described above).

You are right about proliferation/ disasters and people being "stupid" (a quaint vernacular). When you use old reactors to do things they werent designed to do because of inherently poor decisions, you take that process out of their hands.

But compare these nuclear disasters to the disasters that commonly occur in industry in terms of death toll, environmental damage and loss of ecosystem it would be fair to say, the old clunker reactors designed in the fifties and sixties have had a pretty clean record.

Given that they have produced enough nuclear fuel in the form of waste that can power us for possibly many many millenia, they have done far better than any energy technology has done to date.

Its nice to misrepresent things. Just not helpful

Moral Dolphin Back in Mud Suit, Greenacres by the sea Oz
June 5, 2013 4:32pm

For those interested and wanting to do a chart based visual estimate of RISK for doses and historical events, lifestyle etc etc.

This chart has been updated.

http://imgs.xkcd.com/blag/radiation.png

Sorry for a lookey see, but its one where the viewer can get a good fix from a chart.

Mellifluous Dintpod, sin city, Oz
August 9, 2013 5:51pm

My issue with the notion that nuclear power is "zero carbon" is that it seems to assume the fuel appears without carbon cost. I don't know how much carbon is involved in mining, processing and transportation, not to mention what happens at the other end, but for some reason this information is ignored. This brings up another thing which bothers me: who do we trust to inform us about this? The industry is so secretive and security obsessed that I have trouble trusting whatever data may be provided. What happens to the fuel making cost when uranium becomes scarcer? How much fossil fuel is involved in reprocessing and decommissioning? Please, tell us the real carbon cost of nuclear power!

Bruce, Coast of Maine
October 8, 2013 10:29am

Absolutely Bruce, nuclear power production is NOT "carbon neutral" I find that line is often repeated (Brian Dunning - why do you say such obviously incorrect statements? It cheapens your argument and displays shallow thinking about this topic). Even wind/solar power production generates some carbon emissions through construction/maintenance etc of a power facility. I don't know the figures for nuclear power (I've heard it's surprisingly high) but plenty of fossil fuels are burnt with uranium exploration/mining/processing/transportation, power plant construction and maintenance, disposal of waste and plant decommissioning. The industry won't tell you as it is not in their interest. Although amounts would vary greatly between facilities, it can be globally calculated. It's certainly not renewable, carbon neutral or environmentally friendly as many proponents claim. Whatever your position, nuclear power is not the panacea for our energy needs.

Damien Thomas, Sydney Australia
December 10, 2013 6:13pm

Recent information that has come my way about LSTRs (Liquid Sodium Thorium Reactors) seems to indicate that they are not only perfectly safe, but can be used to get rid of the present stockpiles of radioactive waste materials.

Perhaps you'd look into this technology and do an in-depth article on it.

L. R. Lawson, B.C., Canada
February 18, 2014 1:22am

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