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Debating Nukes

nuke.gifYesterday's Sustainability Sundays post from Gil Friend, "Houston: We've Got A Problem," generated quite a bit of discussion, much of it about whether or not nuclear power should be considered a -- or the -- solution to global warming, peak oil, and other unfolding energy-related problems. There are plenty of good reasons for worldchangers to oppose the expansion of nuclear power, but the institutional forces pushing for it are formidable. It's a recurring debate, one not limited to the comments in WorldChanging: this Friday, the Long Now lecture series will hold a discussion about this very topic, pitting Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, who opposes expansion of nuclear power, and Peter Schwartz, a former board member of Rocky Mountain Institute and chair of Global Business Network, who sees the potential for abrupt climate change as sufficient cause to support the expansion of nuclear power. (Disclosure: I used to work for Global Business Network, and still do occasional projects for them.) As always, if you can't make the event (because you don't live anywhere near San Francisco, for example), you can download the Long Now programs within a few days (a couple of weeks at the outside).

A useful argument about nuclear power is one that admits that the opposing sides each may have strong arguments; fortunately, Friday's discussion looks to be of that nature. Long Now characterizes it as a disagreement between environmentalists, and given that Schwartz now sees global warming as the biggest problem going, I'll accept that depiction. Moreover, the discussion is explicitly not a debate: The format requires each speaker to draw out the other's views and then restate them in a way that satisfies the opponent, "That's right. You got it." Smart.

It's an important topic, and I look forward to the event. I am hopeful that the discussion will be a good one; normally, the issue of nuclear power provokes an epidemic of jerking-knee syndrome. Many long-time opponents of nuclear energy are set to reject anything that has "nuclear" in its name, and dismiss new technologies designed to prevent meltdowns or similar problems as just more "electricity too cheap to meter" nonsense. At the same time, many of the loudest pro-nuclear voices are of the same ilk that not too long ago accused global warming of being "junk science," and now latch onto any idea to discredit environmentalists.

I'm hopeful that the discussion will quickly brush past tired old arguments. No talk about meltdowns (a variety of reactor designs can now make meltdowns physically impossible) or about the impossibility of solar alone totally replacing all energy production (a mix of solar, wind, ocean and bio could); let's hear more about molten salt thorium and the economic efficiency of "negawatts." Let's move this debate -- or whatever it is -- forward, please.

Comments (19)


So much of this issue lies in the framing of the problem, namely:

1> Nuclear Power
- are all reactors created equal? are these new reactors worthy of reconsideration?
- waste?

2> The Environmental Problem
- is CO2 the big issue?
- if so, what are the trade offs?

Even a highly nuclear future wouldn't change much in some critical areas; collapse of biodiversity is mainly caused by impacts other than global warming.


No, all reactors are not created equal. There was an enormous amount of work done on molten-fluoride reactors in the 50s, 60s, and 70s that could make abundant supplies of thorium useful as an energy source. Download chapters 11-17 of the book "Fluid Fuel Reactors" from:


and learn more. The files are called "FFR_chap11.pdf" and so forth. Learn how different, safe, and efficient a nuclear reactor can be over today's solid-fueled reactors, and then have a good cry that this book was written in 1958 and no one ever made this happen.


I do hope that the discussion will keep in mind that in comparing costs we must include ALL costs, not just some of them. Add up all the known costs everybody can think of and then add 20% to that because no matter how hard we try we can never think of all the costs.

I will disclose for faireness that I am with Amory Lovins on this one, and think there are many many ways to make the services energy (or negawatts) give us way cheaper in real costs than any nuclear path. AND I COULD WELL BE WRONG!


The main push on nuke power is the 4th or is it 5th gen combined energy and hydrogen generation plants.

The plants themselves are far better then the oold type 2-3 plants and are alot cheaper to build and quicker to build.

As for the fuel remember its a metal. Encase it in stainless steel and concrete and put it someplace very out of the way and its not gona move.

Its not green ooze.

Also with reprocessing the entire output of actaul spent fuel from all reactors in america would be about 1 ton a year.. thats 1 ton of something alot heavier then lead as in a small amount.

The question isnt if they will come but will they come as a reaction to worry or as a paniced responce to running blackouts... The nuke industry knows that sooner or later without muke power the old plants will run out soon and blackouts will happen. Do you want to face them now on even ground or then when they hold all the cards and no one will listen to a word you say?

I'm not entirely clear what all the fuss is about - it sounds like the recent cries of alarm about a "war on Christmas", manufactured by certain networks apparently for ratings purposes.

* research on advanced nuclear fission reactors, particularly the integral fast reactor approach, and fusion as well, is an excellent idea, and should be adequately funded. There was money for some of this in the recently passed energy bill; perhaps it should be enhanced, but it's there now.

* we have plenty of experience building and operating reactors around the world; plants based on the existing once-through cycle are a mature technology. If power companies found them economical to build they would be building more. Every power plant has regulatory hurdles to cross; there must be lots of states that would be quite friendly to new plants.

* Nevertheless, and despite large handouts from the government in the past (for example, all nuclear operators are still indemnified from major liabilities by the federal government, and for a fee the feds have also taken on long-term waste disposal responsibilities) no nuclear facility has been built in the US in several decades.

* The main reason is probably simply that coal is much cheaper than nuclear.

So what nuclear advocates should really be calling for is huge carbon taxes sufficient to price coal power higher than nuclear - and then let the nuclear industry compete on a fair footing in the energy marketplace.


No the reason is simple. Its much much cheaper to wait till the old reactors go offline and nothing quite fills the gaps left then it is to push it through right now.

They can save billions by waiting and gain NOTHING by haste.

In the meantime they build plants elsewhere and make money enough to not care what america does or when it does it.

The real money is in china.

How many nuclear plants do we need? The question matters, because while there is an abundance of uranium, most of it is so diffuse (like in seawater) it takes too much energy to process before it ever gets to the energy plant.

Cal Tech physicist David Goodstein, author of Out of Gas:

" [I]n order to make enough nuclear energy to replace all of the fossil fuel we burn today, you would have to build ten thousand of the largest nuclear plants possible. Ten thousand. That's not impossible but it is certainly a daunting task. Even if you did that, the known uranium reserves would last at that burn rate for only one or two decades. "

I've seen the figure "1 to 2 billion" in construction cost bandied about in the last few days on this site.

Maybe. Economies of scale and all that. Nuclear energy is an order of magnitude more complex than any other method of producing energy. Echos of Tainter.

BushCo has cleared the decks for nukes in the U.S.

If more than 50 are built in the next 20 years, I'll eat my hat. 50 have been proposed.

I'm guessing 17 will be built, and 10 decommissioned, in the next 20 years.

China, maybe 20.

Then Uranium supplies will start to get tight. Energy industry monkeys, composed of the selfsame poltroons who are lately scarce and fearful when the topic of lighting up a new NG plant comes up, will probably join the NIMBY crowd and start co-generating with the rest of us.

-The Jolly Pessimist.

Pace Arko:

My guess (Please someone correct me.) is that thorium cycle reactors never became common in the US because they didn't produce sufficient weapons grade material to be militarily useful. One of the rarely discussed aspects of the civilian nuclear power is that some fuel cycles are better for military reasons than others.

Another thing I see, again someone please correct me, is that nuclear power seems to do better in places where there isn't a lot of cheap fossil fuel sources around, like France and Japan.

I think I agree with the skeptics. There are already too many other energy sources--conservation, wind, solar and cheap, dirty coal--for any big push towards nuclear energy in US any time soon.

Having said that, I don't think nuclear energy is going to go away either. It's probably going to remain a part of the energy equation for many decades to come, problematic or not. Research into nuclear technology hasn't ceased, it's only scaled back.


Ok a little facts need to be flung about.

The average nuke plant will only ever use about 10-20 fuel stacks in its lifetime. AND the amount of fuel actauly used each time is less then 1 % of the stack.

All the power plants in america combined use about 1 ton of fuel a year. Over 100 currently as no reprocessing is done YET.

America has some of the largest uranium deposits in the world. We have ALOT.

Many of the current nuke plants were experimental and dont produce alot of power. The newer ones produce alot more power.

We are currently looking at only needing at most 250 new plants. Id expect the total fuel used would go up to maybe 5 tons a year/550 plus tons a year.

And the final fact. If we are dependant on fission power in 150 years much less when uranium AND thorium and other nuke fuels all run low... we desrve to go back to the stoneage.


Oks found more current numbers.

Currently as of about 1999 the us uses 2000 tons of nuke fuel a year BUT this is highly misleading as we dont recycle it and only a small part of the fuel to begin with was what we actauly use AND only a small part of that is used up the first time... confusing?

Let me explain.

Modern reactors use SLIGHTLY enriched uranium fuel. just a few percent of the entire stack is the fuel the rest is other forms of uranium.

After 1-6 years most times 4-6 years in a reactor it is "spent" That means from 1-5 percent of the small amount fo fuel in the stack is used up.. so its realy realy small amounts of a realy small amount of the stack. Also some of the other forms of uranium are now plutonium.

So 2000 tons a year but only about 3-5 % was the fuel we were using and only about 3% of that got used... so um blah its math you do it!

Now here is the kicker. Not only can we reprocess that fuel to get the rest of the fuel we are currently using. MOST of the stack is uranium 238 or was it 5 er whatever its stuff that can be made into plutonium. That is MOST of the stack and plutonium reactors generate just as much energy per bit of fuel as uranium ones....

The amount of fuel we can make without reprocesing is HUGE and we have found MASSIVE deposits of uranium relitively recenrly...

But recycling it can increase stocks 50-100 fold and convertion can go beyond that an arseload more.

And then we have thorium and other nuke fuels.

In short as neo would say whoa!


The thorium-uranium-233 cycle has a big advantage over the uranium-238-plutonium-239 cycle, namely, that the thorium cycle can be done in thermal-spectrum reactors and that 233U is inevitably contaminated by 232U, whose decay chain makes it lousy as bomb material, whereas the 238-239 cycle must be done in fast-spectrum reactors, cooled by liquid metals, and the 239 is fantastic bomb material. It is as if God gave a choice: bombs or energy, and we've chosen the wrong way.

Excellent summary Jamais.

And yes, it is about time that disputations were arranged to maximize light, rather than heat. I have long spoken of the method that you describe -- in which each side is required to restate the other side's position, before opposing it -- and called this the "Paraphrase Challenge." A mature person seeks to make sure that he or she is on target and addressing the opponent's genuine views... and not hurling brickbats at a strawman.

Of course, this relates to what I think is the core problem in society today -- a plague of self-righteous indignation which -- according to recent science -- may be part of the worst addictive "drug" process in civilization today... a self-doping phenomenon in which the habitually indignant take over every interest group, from left to right. (See: http://www.davidbrin.com/addiction.html) Indignation junkies do not want to paraphrase their opponents, as a step to negotiating with them. They WANT to screech at strawmen carricatures.

Perhaps, someday, science will rescue us from this memic plague. I can think of nothing more useful than highly-publicized proof that the habitually self-righteous are (effectively) drug addicts. It would empower moderates across the spectrum.

In any event, if there is one place where you'll likely find eager pragmatic modernism, instead of dogmatism, it will be at a debate like the one at GBN on nuclear power. I hope it goes well.(For more on paraphrasing: http://www.davidbrin.com/disputationarticle1.html

As for nuclear power, I hope that the following points will come up during the debate. They may be a bit obscure.

1. As a science fiction author, who thinks in terms of aeons, I am amused by all this talk about Yucca Mtn being unsatisfactory as a waste depository, because of possible leaks in 10,000 years. We are aiming to - within just a century - become a people who will be capable of either robotically re-packaging such materials or else MINING such repositories for rare radionuclide treasures. In any event, collecting them in one place is better than leaving them scattered near our cities.

2. next generation nuke plants are inevitable. Who do you want designing the prototypes. Countries that have low levels of criticism or a country where criticism is endemic, open, copious and fierce? If we built just ONE new nuke, and subjected it to ferocious criticism and testing, the result would be better nuclear plants in every other country on Earth. We could then do the same for the next one, and the next. Yes, America would be marginally more "nuked"... but the rest of the world could be profoundly less dangerous. This reason, all by itself, is enough for me to favor a return to US construction, at least one per five years.

3. Do not neglect the incredible power of this idea as a bargaining chip. If the environmental community (or part of it) suddenly showed flexibility on theis issue, it could be an incredible act of jiu jitsu, throwing the opposition off balance. Suddenly, we seem the reasonable ones, willing to be flexible. Moreover, the commercial interests who want to get back into this business might then be split off from the Rove coalition. They might then -- in trade -- throw their weight behind new efficiency and conservation standards.

These three points are in addition to the obvious ones -- of fighting global warming and creating a bridge to sustainability. I hope they can get mentioned, at least in passing.

All best and keep up the great work.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

"Let's move this debate -- or whatever it is -- forward, please."


Stewart Brand, one of the founders of the Long Now Foundation, has recently endorsed “Rad Decision,” a techno-thriller novel about the American nuclear power industry. Written by a longtime nuclear engineer, it provides an entertaining and accurate portrait of an American nuclear power plant and how an accident might be handled. “Rad Decision” is at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com. There is no cost to readers.

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand

Correct me if I an wrong, but we are about to
go to war once again with another country
whose crime is that they are wishing to
pursue their nuclear option - with unabashed
enthusiasm for the weapons component.

How many global wars will have to be fought
before we hash out who can have nukes and
who can't.
And would we be fighting over access to solar panels?
I'm just askin..

Nuclear proliferation is an old, old, old problem.

The double standard seems to be that we, the post-industrial world, don't mind if you, an up and coming developing country, have nuclear power plants if your government is stable, at least vaguely pluralistic and generally agreeable with the global political and economic policy of the post-industrial nations.

But sadly, I think this is a losing battle in the long run. Yesterday it was Pakistan. Today it's Iran and North Korea. Tomorrow? Nigeria? Indonesia?

I think the real issue to be concerned with is not the potential to make nuclear weapons. That secret has been long out of the bag for many decades now.

The real concern is to see to it that developing countries evolve towards largely stable democratic states with healthy economies.

Which is why I'm very irritated with how Iran is being dealt with. I'm far, far, less worried about Iran than I am about North Korea.


Invade iran? Not likely. That would be 50 times more difficult then invading iraq was specialy as now they know how to deal with everything we have and how we fight.

On top of this im not entirely sure we truely care so much as we want to delay it till the middle east itself no longer matters to us.

In short we want off the rise before everyone goes MAD;/

Yes the nuke material COULD be a threat but then so was the huge stockpile russia lost track off after the fall. Its not as if plenty of plutonium and uranium isnt out there right now.

What I think is realy going on is we are manuvering WITH china so that iran agrees to sell all its excess enriched uranium to china and then swing into a phase where china would take ove the post of middle east punching.. er policing force.

As for North Korea again we are likely to let china handle that and just growl and act barbaric american empire like to keep em talking to china.


What's going on in Iran right now is an example of the silliness of linking reactors directly with weapons. The easiest way to get weapons-grade fissile material is to enrich uranium. You don't need a reactor for that, and your average sized nation has plenty enough uranium to do it. Uranium's not that rare, and using a centrifuge cascade, it's not that hard to enrich. So saying that we can't ever build a nuclear reactor because of weapons concerns really ignores the fact you don't need a reactor to build a weapon. (it helps, but you don't have to have it)


Oh the reactor isnt all of it we know they wana sell enriched uranium they have said as much. When oil runs low they want a new money maker and they have uranium deposits that are large so of course they will enrich it and sell it no matter what the rest wants. In the end it is thier right and the only choice they have after oil.


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