As horrific as the events of this weekend have been in Japan, the world still waits to see what will happen in Japan’s overheating nuclear reactors as a result of the earthquake damage. This week’s joint post by jmb275 and Hawkgrrrl is about a topic we’d already been tossing around that has suddenly come front and center in the world: nuclear power.
Just a few quick facts to get us started. Nuclear fission produces 11% of the world’s energy, and it does it without burning fossil fuels which create pollutants, so it’s considered a “clean” form of energy. It is also very efficient, producing a high amount of energy from a relatively low amount of material (uranium). Nuclear power is reliable and produces only a small amount of waste, BUT the waste it produces is extremely dangerous, and we don’t really know what to do with it other than bury it for thousands of years waiting for it to stop being radioactive. It is also reliable and efficient as mentioned, but if there is a major disaster, it is a huge problem (think Chernobyl) which is why most of the cost of nuclear power is in creating safety measures (shut down mechanisms and sensors as well as backup cooling systems that render the plant unrecoverable if used). And, it’s not renewable. When the world’s uranium is depleted, no more energy source. So, the real question is: how much risk is too much to get clean, reliable energy?
jmb275: Having worked at LLNL (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, I have a bit of insight into this. This is a pretty important topic, with or without a disaster like the one underway in Japan. (*LLNL is a laboratory that among other things advances energy security in the U.S.).
hawkgrrrl: I’m a product of association with Three Mile Island. My dad worked there during construction (on the good reactor, I hasten to add) and later supervised the cleanup. No, he did not glow in the dark, har har, as I was asked repeatedly through high school. As this article points out, those who lived through TMI and the subsequent clean up are less worried because they’ve experienced how containment and decontamination work, and enough time has passed to see that side effects were minimal, except to the nuclear power industry itself through the subsequent panic. Of course, Chernobyl, seven years later, didn’t exactly instill confidence, but it points to one of the key contrasts in nuclear power: a country committed to safety, regulation, and expertise, and one that was crippled by poor infrastructure, a lack of safety mechanisms, and unskilled, apathetic employees. I’m sorry, but Homer Simpson would never actually get a job in a nuclear power plant in the U.S., and certainly not in Japan.
jmb275: What’s happening in Japan right now is one of the reasons why I’m not a real huge fan of nuclear fission power and why I think we need to continue investing in nuclear fusion research.
hawkgrrrl: Aside from the potential for disaster, the obvious downside of nuclear power is nuclear waste, which is a huge problem – and the fact that Utah seems so willing to store nuclear waste is something that always made me extremely nervous when I lived there.
jmb275: Yeah, I’m not a fan of the waste at all. For this reason, I’m actually not very pro nuclear fission. But I’m very pro nuclear fusion. I’m a huge fan of putting money into fusion research. A combination fission/fusion reactor would almost be a perpetual motion machine. It would feed itself and burn its waste to 99.9% efficiency.
hawkgrrrl: Agreed, but right now it still sounds like something out of Atlas Shrugged. Since everyone in the scientific field would agree that fusion is the silver bullet, why do you think we don’t achieve it? Is it because the money is controlled politically by oil interests? Or because there is a brain drain in research fields?
jmb275: Our dependence on oil is absurd, and we are technologically much more capable. I also am very much in favor of research money being spent on wind and solar energy as well.
hawkgrrrl: Don’t forget hydro-electric. There are clean energy options out there, and yet so much of the world is still relying on dirty energy like burning fossil fuels. While nuclear power has high risks, it is vastly superior to the ongoing low grade risks of coal and oil and other dirty forms of energy that are constant pollutants and killers but nobody bats an eye over them.
jmb275: I’m not so sure. According to what metric is it “vastly superior”? It certainly produces much more energy per mass of fuel than those alternatives, but I think the downsides are much more significant.
hawkgrrrl: It’s similar to the fear of flying among those who don’t think twice about getting in a car. Per passenger, risk of driving is greater than the risk of flying, but flying deaths happen en masse (as do nuclear disasters vs the higher instances of early on-set cancer deaths surrounding coal plants).
jmb275: I think I understand what you’re getting at with your analogy. You’re really alluding to the fear of risk based on unsupported statistics. However, I don’t think the analogy holds, and I think it’s because you underestimate the risk. In the car vs. airplane comparison, we’re comparing apples to apples, that is the risk of death (primarily). But in the coal/oil vs. nuclear fission comparison, I don’t know of any deaths directly attributable to the harmful effects of pollution, or global warming (perhaps coal mining could be included here, but I think that’s a stretch). OTOH, there are many many deaths attributable to nuclear reactor disasters, and that’s really only the beginning of the trouble with nuclear fission.
jmb275: I think you are drastically underestimating the risks of nuclear fission and its accompanying waste. So even if disasters happen infrequently, the effects of a disaster effect millions of people for years to come, not to mention the (unknown) effects of, and lack of a clear long term solution for dealing with the waste. The incident in Japan last week underscores the problem. No amount of engineering safety mechanisms, or rules and regulations, etc. can prevent unforeseen natural disasters that might further cause a nuclear disaster.
Readers, what do you think? No more nukes? Or better regulation while alternatives are explored? Why do you think fusion has yet to be achieved? Discuss.
Thank you both for the stimulating and thoughtful conversation.
I’m not as informed as I could be on nuclear power issues, but if I’m not mistaken the
French have had some success in re-using spent fuel. Can anyone enlighten me?
In my mind this is pretty simple. If the Japanese with their incredible attention to detail, could not have predicted that the back up generators might get swamped by a Tsunami and create this problem in the first place, then what hope do other nations, who are less careful or concerned about human life(read India and China) have to do this safely. Let alone the short cuts taken by US industry to save cost.
The engineers who work on this stuff are top rate and incredibly knowledgeable and are often overruled because of money. I worry less about design issues than the corporate handling of anything. The recent oil spill being a good example.
I am generally in favor of using nuclear energy but I have little to no faith in the government and industry to make it 100% safe.
“The engineers who work on this stuff are top rate and incredibly knowledgeable and are often overruled because of money.” A good point I forgot to make. As I mentioned, my dad worked on construction of the good reactor at Three Mile Island. He also mentioned that two different contractors were used for the two different reactors, and the ones for the reactor that eventually failed used cheaper materials and were a bit more slip-shod, with more work not meeting spec. It’s not what caused the accident, but it was a known risk as the construction progressed, and is certainly a risk of nuclear power due to the absolute necessity of safety and reliability protocols.
The risks are just too high for me, and the disaster in Japan highlights that point. There are just too many unforeseen factors that could lead to a meltdown with catastrophic and longterm effects on humans and the environment, and we still don’t have a viable way to store the waste. As an environmentalist and someone concerned about global warming, that is a hard decision to come to because I understand the benefits, but I just can’t justify the risks.
My ideal world has houses with solar panels built into the roofs, electric cars, robust public transportation, and renewable energy sources providing the vast majority of our energy needs. There is no room for nuclear.
I don’t remember my science teachers making that mistake.
Really? This was NOT ONE YEAR AGO! How easily Americans forget.
apathetic Vodka-soaked button pusher? When these apathetic Vodka-soaked button pushers fled to America, they were employed in our apathetic Budweiser-soaked button pushing jobs, fyi.
no wonder we’re so confused about what’s going on in Iran with their nuclear ambitions. These are not nukes, hawkgrrrl. Vast difference between weaponized plutonium and uranium and peaceful uses. The rods in reactors like those in Japan cannot be placed on a warhead to detonize over some target. I think it would be useful for one of the two of you to actually explain the difference between fission and fusion in terms of how we can use them. JMB brings up that he/she (I forget) is pro fusion but doesn’t inform us what it is. That might be a better discussion than all these pot shots at teachers and Vodka-soaked Russian button pushers.
Personally a friend of mine used to work as a nuclear engineer at a local plant and he and I discussed frequently the pros and cons of nuclear energy. I am fine with the cons of harnessing this energy. It is better than the alternative. Especially if we continue to increase the population of this planet.
So unfortunately, due to the problems with Japan, and Hawkgrrrl’s schedule, I didn’t get to respond to her last paragraph. I’ll do that now:
Giving the example of Russia underscores precisely why messing with radioactive material is extremely dangerous. Yes, their safety record is abysmal, and we’ve come a long way from that, but the U.S. has had plenty of accidents as well, and Japan’s not exempt either. Their inability to prepare for every event (obviously impossible) is exactly why it remains so dangerous. Besides that, the character of the employee has little effect on the mainstay of safety in almost every field – engineering controls. In most industries there are 3 main sources of safety control:
1. engineering controls
2. safety rules
3. common sense (relying on the employee)
The problem with Russia was the LACK of engineering controls (which allowed the boneheaded employee to cause a disaster), and the reason Japan is so good is BECAUSE of engineering controls.
I’d like to see the study, and see if it has collaborative support. I know there are health complications with coal pollutants and that’s a problem, but I think the health effects and deaths from it are dwarfed by the effects of nuclear disasters and even the problems from radioactive waste.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of our current status with coal and oil, and I fully recognize and abhor the effects of the pollution from those energy sources, but I think the danger is much smaller than with nuclear power. How anyone can call it “clean energy” I’ll never understand. Having said that, I agree with hawkgrrrl that I wouldn’t decommission nuclear plants just yet, especially for densely populated areas that need a great deal of energy per mass of fuel.
Since everyone in the scientific field would agree that fusion is the silver bullet, why do you think we don’t achieve it?
Neither of you got around to answering this. The prospect of fusion just over the horizon has been with us for as long as I can remember (say around 50 years). I’m beginning to think this falls into the flying cars category. (Actually, the Washington Post has an article about flying cars in today’s issue, so they might actually beat fusion into the mainstream.)
On China, don’t forget that they have massive earthquakes too. They’re well aware of the risks. With some of their recent, very strong earthquakes, I cannot remember if they had any problems with their reactors. Then again, China has more land to place their reactors far from dangerous shores. But the Japanese probably didn’t think a 9.0 at the spot where it struck would create a tsunami of the size and scope that it did. Earthquakes and tsunamis are terribly difficult to predict and prepare for. Not only do we not know where they might strike, but we also don’t know in what form, how far under the ground, whether it is under the water or on land, and how that would affect the displacement of water. I’m sure the Japanese had considered all their options, but in the end, Mother Nature will always be more powerful than we are, and that’s just something we’ll have to live with the best we can. I hope Japan does not move away from nuclear energy because of this. I’m confident that if a 9.0 struck on the Oregon fault line (which is in the Pacific, not a few miles off the shore), not only would we probably see Mt. Saint Helens erupt, but no doubt, if we have a reactor near the shore (and I’m not sure where they are located in Oregon or Washington), but they too would be in big trouble. This 9.0 earthquake in Japan shifted the whole planet. That’s not something we can easily account for in our plans.
I VERY explicitly stated
meaning that coal mining disasters could be included as a death associated with coal and oil, but that I’m talking about the pollution and I think it’s stretch. And then you put in a link about coal mining! Hawkgrrrl pointed out that a study has attributed deaths to coal pollutants, and I’d like to see it. I still think it’s a stretch, but I could be wrong.
As for fusion vs. fission, I’ll give a brief synopsis later. Gotta go eat right now.
pollution from coal is highly harmful to the human body.
Click to access toxic-air-report.pdf
One solution is to move to smaller, module nuclear power plants.
Below is a link to a company out of New Mexico. Their reactor is the size of a hot tub, can generate power for 20,000 homes, costs $25 million and has a passive design that can’t overheat.
If you’ll more closely read what I’ve written (instead of just disagreeing with me) you’ll see that I acknowledge this point (several times), and am not advocating coal/oil energy. I said death (very deliberately), and I’m talking about the kind of death that is caused by nuclear disasters here (where causation is clear as in the case of acute radiation). Nuclear disasters cause far far more death and harm to the environment than coal pollution has.
For fusion vs. fission:
Disclaimer: I’m not a physicist, so I don’t know all the details and might be wrong on some points. Fusion is when two nuclei are joined together. Fusion is the process that powers the stars, our sun, and of course hydrogen bombs (which are the only real successful example of humans using fusion power). Most fusion reactions use tritium and deuterium as fuel (though it’s not restricted to this, those are the just most likely candidates for ICF (inertial confinement fusion)). The byproducts of the nuclear reaction with these materials is helium-4, some neutrons, and 17.59 MeV of energy (basically E=mc^2).
The problem is that fusion requires a tremendous amount of heat and pressure (witness the sun). Creating such a scenario on earth is not trivial. LLNL has had several lasers (Shiva, Nova, and now NIF) which had goals to obtain fusion. Each time (up to NIF) it was found that more energy and pressure was needed. Without going into more details, the NIF is a highly complex, enormous (think two football fields) 500 terawatt laser that is designed to achieve this. This form of fusion is called inertial confinement fusion (ICF) and is the most promising. There are other possible mechanisms, including a facility being built in the UK which will use magnetism, but it’s still a long ways off.
LLNL is very close. The NIF is finished, and experimentation is being done. They have in fact obtained neutrons from their DT shots providing some strong evidence that they will achieve a full fusion reaction.
Fission is somewhat the opposite process, that of splitting nuclei. The by products are energy, neutrons, and nuclear waste.
When fusion was heavily researched in the 50’s and 60’s, many (including Edward Teller, and E.O. Lawrence) envisioned a fusion/fission machine. The fission reaction would provide fuel for the fusion reaction, and the fusion reaction would drive the fission reaction. The result would be a highly efficient, high output energy production plant. There are existing ideas, plans, and papers to build such a machine, relying of course on fusion (still in progress), as well as non-trivial advances in laser optics, engineering, etc. The biggest hurdle to such a machine (besides fusion itself which appears promising at this point) is that a laser like NIF would need to fire at about 10 Hz. Currently, a laser like NIF can only fire once every 3 hours or so.
Such a machine is certainly a long ways off, but I think it has promise, and might happen in my lifetime. In the meantime I strongly support wind, hydroelectric, and solar forms of energy and I think we’re making good progress in advancing those forms of energy. Fission, to me, is not a good long term alternative to coal and oil as I think the dangers, and environmental damage are too great to be offset by the benefits.
I checked out one of those links to the WHO. From that article it would appear that the causation of death from indoor pollution from burning fossil fuels is fairly strong in some cases. I’m not sure exactly what goes into “indoor pollution” exactly, but the problem appears to be concentrated in 3rd world countries with high levels of poverty. The article suggests it’s because they can’t afford “cleaner” sources of energy and more efficient appliances.
So I will concede that death occurs as a result of coal/oil pollution. Perhaps I have underestimated those effects, though acknowledgment of that point does little to persuade me that fission is a better alternative. But maybe it is.
I will continue disagreeing with you because no matter how specific you want to get, there is plenty of easy to get evidence of death by coal pollution.
I don’t know if you remember this series that the New York Times did on China, but here’s a fantastic article about their coal industry and the vast, negative impact it has had on the lives—and deaths—of the Chinese people.
By the way, the answer to SLK is that spent uranium fuel rods can be reprocessed (i.e. recycled) into plutonium, where they can enjoy another life as fuel for a plutonium-powered reactor.
This dramatically reduces the amount of waste, but the waste that is left is more dangerous.
Finally, there’s no danger of running out of uranium anytime soon. If someone designed and built a reactor that used the melon-sized uranium cores of our existing nuclear weapons stockpile, we could power our country for CENTURIES without mining any additional ore.
Good grief! I’m going to agree with Dan on something.
Yep, JMB, if you invent a scenario that moves the northern half of Japan 8-13 feet to the east, kills 10,000 + people at bare minimum, injures 10,000’s of others, destroys their jobs and life savings, knocks down whole cities, and scatters every bit of toxic waste in them throughout the environment in a completely uncontrolled release, you can take out a nuclear power plant and release its radioactivity, too. Some fraction of those people exposed to radiation may get some cancer later. Many more will get cancer later and THINK it’s because of the radiation, because they just don’t know how much radiation is already in the environment and what other environmental hazards produce cancer.
On a good day those sick people would bother me. Japan isn’t having a good day, so our fears about the radiation compared to all of the other suffering these people are enduring strike me as way overblown.
Consider coal. It’s made from dead organic matter that gets deeply buried under sediments. The sediments come from mountains. The mountains are brought up from deep in the earth and bring with them radioactive materials and their radioactive decay products. So, guess what. The coal seams themselves contain radioactive materials.
In fact, thirty years ago or so when I was in the Nuclear Regulatory field (cleaning up the bomb making sites of the DOE), the DOE was able to show that some coal piles were emitting more radiation than some of the DOE nuclear contamination.
Seriously…Dan, you make these posts just impossible to discuss. Although you may have good points…You are so effing ridiculous and “in your face” about everything, that I just have to move along to the next post.
The problem is that natural disasters happen all the time. This is the second massive tsunami in less than ten years. Major earthquakes similar to this hit every year or two. Volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, asteroids, etc. There is simply no predicting where these will hit, and more nuclear reactors means more risk. And when one goes, the effects are devastating and extremely long term. And you can’t downplay the long term increase in cancer rates, the good people of TMI had increased cancer rates, birth defects, miscarriages, and more for years.
And that’s just natural disasters. Human error and tampering will always be a factor. These reactors are designed, and the fuel makes it possible, for operation for decades and decades. You cannot pretend to know which regions will be stable and safe for nuclear power for decades into the future. There are just too many risks, and enough other viable alternatives.
Perhaps I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make. No one is claiming that coal isn’t harmful (despite what Dan infers). My argument is that fission power is not really a better alternative. Nothing in your comment goes any distance in demonstrating that fission power is less harmful or less polluting. On the contrary I’ve tried to provide examples that it’s more dangerous. Nuclear disasters destroy entire ecosystems making everything there entirely unusable for years and years.
You cite a communist-made set of nuclear disasters and attribute it to the “nuclear” aspect. You should have attributed it to the “communist” aspect. Do you realize what the same economic system did to the Aral Sea?
My point regarding the Japan quake is that the destruction by the quake is so great that the presence or absence of the nukes is almost irrelevant. It’s in the noise level, but our psychological fear of radiation is so great (because of its association with atomic bombs) we can’t process it. We act like radiation is made up of tiny little zombies coming to get us and any touch means instant death.
That wall of water moving through Sendai was BLACK with contamination from non-nuclear sources. That will have health consequences, but they will simply not be noted. And chemical contamination can have an infinite half-life.
Yesterday, the New York Times cited an incident in South America in which contamination of medical waste occurred.
“People are so afraid of radiation that any threat of exposure can cause what Dr. Brenner called psychophysical consequences. He cited an incident in 1987 in Goiania, Brazil, in which people were exposed to radioactive material stolen from a hospital. Fearing contamination, about 125,000 sought medical exams. Thousands reported symptoms of radiation sickness, like vomiting and rashes. Ultimately, only 249 turned out to have any signs of contamination.”
nuclear energy is like an airplane as coal energy is like a car. An airplane crashing is far more newsworthy and far more “big” than a car crash, or even hundreds of car crashes. Yet far more people die of car crashes. In fact, like the comparison between coal and nuclear energy, last year, there were no deaths from nuclear energy in the United States, and no deaths from airplanes in the United States. Meanwhile, last year, many people died from coal accidents and pollution and many people died from car crashes. In the end, however, even the best pilot cannot survive a sudden, strong storm from Mother Nature
but we don’t stop flying just because of that.
can anyone explain what happened with cold fusion?
My attempt is to demonstrate the effects of dealing with this stuff. The fact that it’s communism’s fault doesn’t change the fact that no food grown within a 100 mile radius of that location is safe, nor is the water supply, etc. My point is, accidents are inevitable, and this is stuff you don’t wanna mess with. Nuclear accidents are far more deadly and environmentally damaging. The level of strictness in procedure, regulation, care, etc. of a substance or item is directly a function of how dangerous we feel it is. It’s why we don’t allow weapon grade plutonium to lie around carelessly.
Yeah, there is some paranoia. In the U.S. most of our yearly dose of radiation comes from the Radon emitted from earth itself. The bulk of the rest comes from medical procedures. The job with the highest radiation exposure is airline pilots and flight attendants (in my opinion they probably get an unhealthy yearly dose). Nuclear engineers and workers are much lower on the list. But acute radiation poisoning is a given in the event of a disaster (for those in close proximity), and widespread radioactive material is dangerous. I don’t think this amounts to little zombies, but there is certainly a danger. There’s a good reason why Nevada fights tooth and nail to keep Yucca mountain from being a dump zone.
Indeed. Not sure why this is relevant to the debate over nuclear power. This post wasn’t really an outcry over nuclear power because of what happened in Japan. We had been discussing nuclear power previously, and it seemed timely now that they’re facing issues. I agree that the nuclear issues pale in comparison to the tsunami/earthquake.
Yes, I agree, there is an irrational fear of this stuff. It’s in part because it’s not well understood (consider the ongoing debate over long term effects of cell phone radiation). I don’t think we need to be afraid, but I’m not sure that ramping up nuclear facilities is a good thing either.
Some overarching thoughts
I’ve noticed that one of the biggest problems with these posts in general (whether it’s me or Hawk) is that too many people see that someone has a certain opinion on an issue, they take this to the extreme, and attribute the silliest assumptions to that person. It seems it’s impossible to take a moderate stance on any subject. If I’m not in favor of unions (but acknowledge they do do some good) I must be a right wing nut-job. If I don’t favor nuclear fission power I must be pro-coal/oil power and completely dismiss any effects therefrom. And, in addition, I’m pretty sure Dan just wants to make me look like a fool.
To be clear, I have a moderate stance on nuclear power, though overall, I do not favor it as a long term solution to oil/coal.
Gee, fusion research continues. Just is harder to reach than estimated. But my nephew got his PhD from MIT on the topic not that long ago … and works outside a university on projects now.
I’m not trying to make you look like a fool, JMB. You noted that you didn’t think there were any evidence of major deaths attributed to coal pollution. That’s the only thing I’ve said against you in this post. I apologize that I was rather harsh on you on the union post.
Yeah, in comment #13 I conceded this point. I’m still not persuaded that nuclear fission power is a good alternative, but I was wrong in assuming there were no deaths attributable to coal pollution.
I think I addressed the car vs. airplane analogy in the post. I don’t think it’s the same, but as I said in the post, it points to our inability to properly assess risk. It’s not the same because it doesn’t capture the risk associated with nuclear power IMHO. For example, suppose that aircraft crashes were as uncommon as they are now, but instead of killing 200 people per major crash, it killed 500,000 people. What would that do to your risk assessment? The risk of any individual accident remains the same, but the risk is substantially higher. Nuclear disasters can kill many people very rapidly. In addition, the lingering effects are unquantifiable, and in many cases poorly understood. An entire ecosystem covering thousands of miles can be damaged, polluted, and made unusable. To me, the danger to human life, and the environment is not properly captured in the car vs. aircraft analogy.
I think nuclear power as a solution to the coal/oil problem is like replacing the atomic bomb with the hydrogen bomb.
A few months ago we had a commenter (Jed Rothwell) that challenged what I thought I knew about the so called “cold fusion” experiments. I looked into it a bit more during that time. My conclusion is that it is unfortunate that it gained “pathological science” status because the experiments do indeed appear to be repeatable, and there is something interesting happening. Fleishmann and Pons couldn’t explain it, and I think some people jumped the gun in claiming it was nuclear fusion. The more serious inquiries into it call it an electrochemical reaction. I don’t think it matches what nuclear fusion would give us, so whatever it is, I don’t think it is actually fusion.
The DOE, and several other agencies and countries have conducted investigations (the DOE has done it twice now) and have all concluded that although there is something going on, it’s not a new nuclear reaction (i.e. fusion) and not worth sinking research dollars into.
The two primary mechanisms which have merit for obtaining nuclear fusion are inertial confinement fusion and magnetic confinement fusion. ICF is the furthest along with NIF-like facilities in France, and Japan. Both of them are watching NIF anxiously to see what happens (the facility in France is called “Laser-megajoule” and there has been a somewhat friendly competition between them and LLNL). There are plans from the EU to build an MCF machine in the UK, but last I checked it wasn’t very far along.
I think ICF will carry the day and demonstrate fusion but it’s a long ways into the future before the technology is demonstrably useful for energy purposes.
Thanks jmb. I’ve always been fascinated by the whole Pons and Fleischman experiment, but I just don’t understand it at all. It’s been off the radar for quite some time.
I have to say that it has been interesting to hear the debate back and forth between you and Hawkgrrrl. I had an epidemiology professor (Dr Lyon at the U of Utah) that studied the “downwinders” following the open air atomic tests in Nevada in the 1940’s and 1950’s. On the one hand, Lyon has clearly demonstrated an increase in thyroid cancers as a result of those atomic bomb blasts.
On the other hand, if you’re going to get cancer, thyroid cancer is one of the more treatable cancers. He has said that people attribute many forms of cancer to radiation that just aren’t applicable. Dr Lyon said that other cancers (such as breast cancer, leukemia, etc) just aren’t associated with radiation. There is a bit of hysteria going on, and nuclear waste isn’t quite the bogeyman that many have made it to be.
But I must side with jmb here. I can’t consider nuclear power “clean” power when the waste products are so hazardous. If people want nuclear power, then bury the waste where the power is generated. Quit sending it to Utah and Nevada. These 2 states shouldn’t be considered America’s radioactive landfill. If only we could launch all of our nuclear waste on a rocket into the sun, perhaps that would be a nice alternative. Perhaps the sun could fuse it back together with all the pressure and heat.
My biggest problem with nuclear power is how to handle the waste products. Nobody wants it in their backyard, and as a Utah resident who visits Nevada on a regular basis, I don’t want anyone else’s nuclear waste. If you made the mess, you take care of it in your own state–quit sending it to Utah and Nevada.
I don’t think that nuclear energy is “clean” either, because at some point through the process there is tremendous waste. It is, however, a better source of energy than coal. Plus this planet has so much uranium in it, we’ll never run out. I do agree that simply putting it back in the ground is not a workable long term plan. Personally I prefer that we harness more solar and wind energy.
I really liked the solution Steve linked of smaller nuclear power reactors that are very localized (e.g. 20,000 homes only) and overheat-proof due to smaller size (a hot tub?). Why not take this micro-level for an individual home or block of apartments? You could hook one to the window sill, like some people use a composter. It would certainly bring transparency to the process, and on a smaller scale, risks could be more easily contained. Waste would be miniscule. It might feel a little like having your own kryptonite factory, though.
Dan, I’m all for wind and solar power. There are some wind farms here in Utah at Point of the Mountain. I’m not sure we’ll ever build another hydro-electric dam because of all the environmental concerns (which I’m not sure I buy–but once again, it’s not my house being flooded either.) Can we bury the nuclear waste in your town?
I like the hot tub idea–I haven’t heard it being used in real life. I’d definitely like more info on it, but once again, where does the waste go? I’m not sure I buy the argument that “waste would be miniscule.”
If only we could dump banana peels into a flux capacitor like Doc Brown does in “Back to the Future!” That will give us at least 1.21 Jigga-Watts! (I know, I know–it’s a GigaWatt, but it’s much funner to say Jigga-Watt!)
There are some great ocean-based hydro-electric solutions being done in Hawaii. I realize that only helps those who live by the ocean, but it’s a start.
Since Hawk mentioned steam rising from nuclear power plants rather than smoke, does anyone else wonder if this steam contributes to global warming?
:eye roll: Seriously? Does your teapot contribute to global warming? Do people running marathons contribute to global warming? Do heated debates contribute?
I am not surprised by the eyeroll, but I keep hearing that lawnmower emmissions are next to be regulated for global warming reasons. I am interested in the global warming topic (no strong opinions either way), but if la nina and el nino can affect weather patterns, I don’t think it is unreasonable to question venting seriously hot steam continually into the atmosphere. I thnk it’s a bit hotter and more voluminous than a teapot, and if we are seriously concerned about lawnmowers, then I think it is fair to ask the question about high quantities of steam. they build these reactors near large water sources for a reason because they consume tremendous amounts of water. it is not a little teapot.
Nuclear power is considered to be a big part of solving global warming by replacing dirty energy that is based on fossil fuels: http://rebirthofreason.com/Articles/dickeymf/Fear_of_Nuclear_Power_and_Global_Warming.shtml
Nuclear power does not emit the carbon dioxide, sulfer dioxide, or nitrogen oxides that cause global warming: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/nuclear/page/nuclearenvissues.html
Additional water vapor in the air will return to the earth in the form of rain, in this case clean rain. And while it’s a mighty big teapot, it’s not even a drop in the bucket to the amount of water vapor that already gets pulled through the water cycle as a course of nature on a daily basis. Even if everyone on the planet boiled a pot of water simultaneously, it would not increase global warming – that’s akin to the question about nuclear cooling towers.
Cow farts, OTOH, are an issue as they contain methane. Eating hamburgers is a bigger cause of global warming than nuclear power.
And I apologize for the eyeroll. I believe it’s the same response I got from my dad when I suggested that idea at age 13. Fun being raised by a nuclear engineer.
uh, my town is New York City…much as rural folks have something against big cities, this is probably not a good place to dump nuclear waste. 🙂
I do think that the best place for us to deposit our nuclear waste is inside our Great Incinerator In The Sky. 🙂
@ The Other Clark (#15) – Thanks for the response!
thanks hawk. while the steam is cleaner than fossil fuels, I still take issue with calling nuclear power ‘clean.’ it is my opinion that the waste is much more hazardous than coal or oil. I will freely admit that the environmental damage from the exxon valdez or gulf oil spill or iraqi oil fires were pretty severe, but radioactive contamination will last centuries longer, imo.
So in a recent conversation, Hawk mentioned she wishes there was a bit more discussion on why we haven’t achieved fusion yet. I took the time to answer her and I’ll re-post it here if anyone is interested:
Creating a sun on earth is not trivial that’s for sure. We have never, up to this point, had the capability to produce that kind of pressure and heat (at least not in a controlled environment). When I was at LLNL there were some political and activist issues. LLNL had three previous “world’s largest laser” and each time it was found that we need higher temps, and more pressure. Many are skeptical that NIF will work, even many nuclear physicists who work at LLNL. A guy in my ward was one of those. He ridiculed NIF regularly. The gov’t was initially very slow to fund NIF in part because of that skepticism. Additionally, NIF is about $3 billion over budget (that’s sort of the way these things work though in this industry. Company gives a bid and gov’t says it’s too much. Company continues to lower bid until gov’t agrees to fund it, then company ends up needing as much as the original bid). Additionally, there were occasionally protests at the lab from people who still associate LLNL with weapons (which admittedly is a valid complaint from a historical perspective).
To put it in perspective, fusion is considered one of science’s grand challenges, much like creating a conscious robot, or understanding hypersonic fluid dynamics. You brought up “too damn stupid to figure it out” and there is some of this at play (well not the stupid part, but ignorance). Plasma physics is poorly understood (which is also one of NIF’s goals; to increase understanding in this area) and yet plasma physics are what governs the nuclear fusion reaction. The truth is, no one knows what the hell happens at 1.5×10^7 degrees Kelvin and 1.6×10^5 kg/m^3 pressure because no one’s been able to study it. If you think about that for a while you start to get an idea of the challenges. What sensors would you use to examine such a reaction at that heat and pressure? What materials hold up under those conditions? If you do create a miniature sun in the lab, how do you keep the explosion from destroying the lab (NIF has a 2 foot thick 10 meter in diameter concrete and aluminum target chamber that is encased in a room with 5 feet thick walls of concrete)? Since the fusion target fuel is about the size of a small BB, how do you focus laser light onto a target that small, and how do you keep a laser with that kind of power from destroying all the optics that could potentially focus the beam? Amidst all this, you need to cryogenically cool the target as it’s being blasted by the laser.
The point is, even if we understood the science, in theory, the engineering challenges are ENORMOUS (much more difficult than sending a man to the moon). NIF is really an engineering marvel. Over the course of 15 years, since NIF began, there have been some huge engineering advances that have solved many of the problems I listed above.
I’m very sure fusion will happen within our lifetime. We’ve only been working on it for 60 years. It took longer than that to advance the aerospace industry far enough to put a man on the moon.
For those interested, here’s a link to NIF
and here’s a link to the LIFE machine that marries the concepts of fission and fusion into a sustainable long term energy source.
Ummm. You want to trust nuclear waste disposal to NASA? 😀
In general, electricity generation is in the 30-40% efficiency range — whether the electricity is generated by coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear power. That’s because the efficiency is controlled by the steam turbines, not the fuel you “burn” to run the turbines. So if you have a 1000 megawatt power plant, you’re going to be generating about 2000 megawatts of waste heat which is going into the environment somewhere.
firetag, is nasa more or less reliable than doe for handling radioactive waste? i’d say it is a coin flip. and if nyc won’t take care of it’s own nuclear waste, i’d rather a rocket blow up in florida with downwinders living in primarily uninhabited atlantic ocean than contamination of leaking radioactive waste in utah and nevada.
thanks for the explanation on the waste heat. that was my reasoning behind pumping steam into the atmosphere. it could be that cfc’s and co2 are more problematic for global warming, but I don’t think that pumping steam into the atmosphere can be completely discounted as completely inocuous. it could be steam exacerbating the problem with cfc’s and co2. but once again, I don’t claim to be a global warming expert either.
The only way to stop the heat is to cut the power use. Just don’t give up posting to W&T for lent.
Steam does not add to global warming or much of anything negative into the atmosphere. Steam, in and of itself, as it comes out of a nuclear reactor, is simply water vapor. As is clear if you look at any nuclear reactor, the steam dissipates into the atmosphere just a few hundred feet or so away from being expelled into the atmosphere. I’ve lived not far from the reactor in northern Pennsylvania and it’s very easy to see the difference between burning coal and burning uranium. The major problem, as we’ve been discussing, is what to do with spent fuel rods, which are radioactive with a long half life. Maybe if we can find a way to deposit it deep in the mantle of the planet, but I’m not sure we have the capability of getting that deep in the earth. It’s amazing how little power we actually have over this planet of ours
I have often compared the fear of nuclear waste to the fear of our ancestors of sabre-toothed tigers. They were pretty fearsome 10,000 years ago. Why would we worry about them today?
We should have buried the waste in Nevada decades ago and stopped worrying about it. As it is we impose standards that expect the nuclear industry to survive when the planet itself smashes us. Nuclear waste is a minor threat to our bodies; it appears to be a major threat to our sanity.
Says he, who does not live in Nevada near Yucca Mountain.
Just because we can contain the radiation dosage to within tolerable limits doesn’t mean everything is A-okay. You seem to be entirely discounting effects on the ecosystem there. And what about the cost of long term maintenance and containment? The stuff is radioactive for a million years. That’s a pretty nasty maintenance schedule. What about transportation of the stuff to Nevada? What about the need to ensure “enemies” don’t get a hold of it, or worse, target it. I don’t know about others, but I’m much more concerned over those types of issues than the increased dosage to my body from it. Even if I lived in Nevada.
Drop it into one of the boreholes at the Nevada Test Site. That place is already radioactive for a million years, and there are a few dozen large glass-lined chambers deep underground…
I worked on the Yucca Mountain project briefly, providing technical editing and consistency checking for some of the technical requirement documents that linked engineering specifications to environmental and safety regulations.
You have seen me express frustration at ideas I oppose. Ever see me go beyond frustration to break down in actual tickle-me-Elmo hilarity at the absurdity of an idea? That’s what happened when I read those regs.
If those regulations weren’t silly, I’m the reincarnation of one of the Twelve. They were that bad. They required, for example, that you assume human civilization is destroyed so that we forget where the stuff is buried; that we have climate changes on the order of an ice age so that Nevada becomes green and lush and attracts a large population of “post” humans; that these post humans are SIMULTANEOUSLY technologically savvy enough to drill thousands of feet down into bedrock and NOT savvy enough to recognize what they’ve found; that they manage to hit directly on the repository out of all of the Basin and Range province; and that these post humans can not cure cancer the way we treat a cold.
(If cancer is really that tough, we should just defund the NIH and save the money.)
And the opponents WERE still saying those regs didn’t provide ENOUGH protection.
I don’t mind people who believe in an apocalypse. I’m the guy who expects to be up to my ears in angry Mayans if the Gadiantons don’t get me first. But you really can’t worry about “compounding” an apocalypse.
As we used to say in the bad old days when people actually exploded test atomic bombs above ground, there comes a point where there is no sense in worrying about the consequences of making the rubble bounce.
Though with how cheap natural gas is likely to stay in the United States, power plant design has suddenly become very simple.
I want to add another link here on the actual effects of a really bad nuclear accident because this is one area where we DO HAVE SOLID EPIDEMIOLOGICAL DATA that overblown fears about radiation can actually get people killed:
Let me quote from the conclusion:
“None of this takes away from the heroism of the emergency workers at the Fukushima plants who are taking real risks to bring the reactors there under control, nor the need to take reasonable precautions for the surrounding population, especially children. But it is worth keeping in mind the other startling conclusion of the UN study, which was that alongside the radiological effects, the crippling ‘mental health impact’ caused by widespread misinformation was ‘the largest public health problem created by the accident.’ In other words, the most dangerous fallout form the accident is fear. The way to prevent it is for the media to present more balance in the reporting and ‘expert’ commentary the public is currently receiving in massive doses.
Yeah, I think I catch your drift here. It’s clear many are overly worried about it, and don’t understand the dosage they already get via Radon, air travel, etc. I’m totally on board with you here. When I started working at LLNL, I was surprised at how little I actually knew about radiation effects on the body and our yearly dosage. I agree that mass fear and hysteria is no good, and that the media dramatizes everything. No question about that.
#53 – The TMI accident in 1979 was probably another example of the impacts of stress. There was a surge in death rate in the surrounding areas in the first 2 years after the accident, and many of the these appear stress-induced (heart attacks, miscarriages) rather than radiation related (cancer).
I see my old professor quoted on the front page of the Deseret News, saying that there is no need for Americans to worry that radiation from Japan is going to cause adverse health affects here. See http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705368914/Experts-No-concerns-yet-for-radioactive-plume-heading-in-Utahs-direction.html
There’s actually far less anti-nuke hysteria over the Fukushima Plant incident that I expected. Of course Greenpeace and the self-appointment activists are going to get on CNN and MSNBC and spout their drivel.
Still, I do have reservations about the Fukushima plant design..namely, yes, place the plant near the ocean (not only next to a ready source of backup coolant but probably also located on marginal land in a nation where land is naturally expensive when you have 35% as many people as in America living on a set of islands about the size of CA (and 3/4 mountainous to boot). What I question severely is why the backup generators where not either located on a nearby hill, above where a tsunami could wipe them out, and a deeply buried power line run to the plant, OR, located the diesel generators on the site, but in a super strong vessel that itself should withstand foreseeable tsunamis…after all, the word “tsunami” is Japanese in origin! Another engineering blunder, IMHO.
Like many other posters have indicated, fear, rather than science, is usually the motive behind the anti-nuclear movement.
As for fusion being the “savior” insofar as energy generation is concerned, while worthwhile of research, it’s still the stuff of science fiction. Most folks think, for example, that the majority of the explosive power of a thermonuclear weapon comes from fusion. That’s utterly false…but, in the stereotyped accent of a Soviet-era politician, “Dat’s vhat ve vanted you to tink!” In reality, what fusion does in a weapon is boost the fission process (the output of heat per mole of deuterium and/or tritium that undergoes fusion is far lower than for plutonium than is fissioned). In a typical two-stage thermonuclear weapon, the bulk of the yield (and fallout) comes from fast fission of the U-238 pusher/tamper in the secondary. This is why, unless science comes up with a practical way to confine a fusion reaction with a net output of energy, that fusion power generation is but a pipe dream.
Still, I’d be all for a top-to-bottom peer review of viability of existing and future designs of our nukes. I’d also advocate the recommissioning of Rancho Seco here near Sacramento, which got shut down twenty years ago thanks to that nimrod Tom Hayden. At least “Hanoi Jane” had the good sense to leave him. More nukes, less kooks. Petroleum and coal are too precious from a chemical viewpoint to be wasted as fuel. So-called greenhouse gas emissions have probably led to far more deaths, cancers, and shortened life expectancies than all the nuke industry screwups.
Also, go biodiesel…what Herr Diesel envisioned for his engine 115 years ago. My old Mercedes runs on whatever veggie oil crap and bio-D I can scrounge (and even used motor oil and tranny fluid mixed in on occasion).
Just saw this. I think it will give you a good sense of where most deaths come from.
Saw that, too. I was surprised about the hydropower deaths, though I shouldn’t have been if I’d thought about it.
In the 1980’s in Wales they experienced a 4.5+ Earthquake in the Snowdonia area. There are two Nuclear plants within 20 miles of the Bala fault line. A few years later the plant was shut down early at a time all other plants in the UK are being kept open well past their sell by date. Chernobyl happened and we were told a radioactive cloud flew over Russia, Europe and landed in Wales-feet away from our power station. We are still monitoring sheep for radioactivity and we have high levels of cancer. What really happened at Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station to close it early…………
For me Nuclear Power is a disaster,which I forecast in the 1950’s.
Its introduction was a capitalist exercise because cost per unit was cheaper than fossil fuel gereation…nothing to do with dirty generation.
My brother in law died at age 46 whilst working at Capenhurst nuclear processing plant,… On his death bed I asked him if he ever registered overdose of radiation…he replied “at the end of each shift”…he died of cancer.
We have been caryying Nuclear Waste from Japan in double bulk head ships for treatment here…Is this why the Irish are worried about sea pollution around their coasts…we are not worried as we earn millions of pounds doing this.
In 1967 whilst working for the CEGB I was called at about 3.0am to the Connah’s Quay B Supergrid Substation during an electric thunder storm, both circuits from the Trawsfynydd Nuclear Station had tripped due to a bus coupler being hit. I was told by the London Supergrid Control Engieers that the Supergrid System was in a critical condition and Trawsfynydd had to be restored by early morning. When I told them I was no longer with the Connah’s Quay District they told me they knew but as I had spent time commissioning the circuits speed of fault restoration was essential.
I would like to know from any Trawsfynydd staff how critical the situation was. I have not followed it up because I was told by my own District Manager as soon as I arrived home, that I should not have gone and that my respondibities were to him. He then ordered me to attend another fault that had occurred at Castner Kellner ICI Plant.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind at all that Nuclear Power is wrong. I belive, like the Germans, and shortly the Japanese it will be stopped by all.
What should be made known is the number of people (like my brother inlaw) who have died at Nuclear installations and if there are any
pockets of lukaemia victims occurring near nuclear installations etc.
I fear for all my ex colleagues who depend on the Nuclear Industry for their livelihoods, but my feelings are heartfelt because I believe there is no future for the world if we carry on as we are with disasters occurring now on a regular basis.