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E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 17, 2008, 5:45pm

E. Donald Elliott: 

It will be interesting to see how this all works out in practice and–whether we think it is "essential" or not–if the U.S. actually does expand its commitment to nuclear power over the next few years in response to the challenges of global climate change.

Thank you all for participating in a most stimulating and spirited dialogue.

Our discussion is now closed.

Richard Meserve President Carnegie Institution

Posted July 17, 2008, 5:34pm

Richard Meserve: 

The survey that is reported by Jim was taken at a time when a revised inspection program was just being put in place. Staff was understandably nervous about a new way of doing the work. But the logic of the new approach was appropriate–namely, to adjust the inspection resources to reflect the areas of risk–and I believe that the staff is now quite comfortable with it.

I am not aware that anyone has ever previously alleged that the problems at Davis-Besse were the result of the revised inspection program. In fact, the Davis Besse problem was revealed by a special inspection program that had been launched by the NRC to examine stress corrosion cracking in PWR heads. The hole was the result of the cracking.

Richard Meserve President Carnegie Institution

Posted July 17, 2008, 5:26pm

Richard Meserve: 

The NRC anticipates that it will receive 34 applications for new construction by the end of 2010 and is confronted with several design certifications at the same time. It has been hiring extensively for several years in order to have the capability in place to handle the work flow. But the challenge will be great.

This is only one of the many possible bottlenecks to new construction. One major one is that the Japan Steel Works is the only place in the world that is available today to provide the jumbo forgings that are needed for new plants. The queue to get these forgings is growing long. All of these problems will resolve themselves in time. If there is work, the market for people will adjust. Similarly, new forges will come on line. But there will be some dislocations and interruptions along the way.

Sharon Squassoni Senior Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Posted July 17, 2008, 5:23pm

Sharon Squassoni: 

We’ve moved from asking whether nuclear power is essential to addressing climate change and energy independence to what’s necessary to facilitate modest expansion in the United States if it were deemed desirable. Limiting the discussion to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded misses some of the broader debate that has to be engaged. In order for real, dramatic reductions in carbon emissions in the next ten years, we will have to address carbon reduction in more than the electricity sector.
There is no doubt that the US government should facilitate near-term options to reduce carbon. An objective approach would place priority on options that make the biggest reductions in the shortest amount of time for the least amount of money – efficiency. Note that in almost all technical carbon emissions reduction paths, efficiency accounts for the largest reductions.
We haven’t talked about opportunity costs specifically, but we need to think creatively about baseload power options from diverse sources (see Arjun Makhijani’s Carbon-Free, Nuclear-Free). I like Gwyneth’s recommendation for an agency like the Office of Technology Assessment to help sort out the technical options for Congress. This gets at the heart of the dilemma – how to compare technical solutions across disciplines, sectors, costs, and time.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 17, 2008, 5:15pm

Jim Riccio: 

Regardless of whether the supposed "renaissance" ever comes to fruition, the industry and the public would be better served by a strong, independent regulator. Unfortunately this has not been the case since Richard left the NRC.

The NRC's "risk informed" regulatory approach has resulted in the industry being exposed to less regulation while the public gets exposed to greater risks. NRC/NEI have been whittling away at safety margins to improve the industry bottom line.

It’s time to separate the NRC/NEI conjoined twins and re-instill some independence at the agency.

Unfortunately, the current NRC chairman lacks that independence. It’s hard for the public to respect, let alone trust, someone who was part of the industry PR campaign having his opinions written for him by the industry. See: Will Shill For Nukes

And Doug, it’s not fear mongering to point out that the NRC has done precious little to defend nuclear reactors for a 9/11-type attack. Perhaps if the industry had been more honest about what reactors were and were not designed to withstand, I wouldn't have to debunk their propaganda. As pointed out by Bennett Ramberg, in the NY Times in 2003:

"Keeping the terrorists guessing about our defenses was presumably one motivation for the secrecy. However, it might also reflect the commission's desire to play down its acquiescence to the nuclear industry's hubristic view that the plants are nearly invulnerable... the commission doesn't seem to have learned the lesson of those attacks — not a thing will be done to reduce the vulnerability of reactors to strikes from the air.”

Unfortunately, now nearly 7 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Ramberg is still right. Another example of an agency in need of a serious overhaul.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 17, 2008, 4:55pm

Jim Riccio: 

Just some back ground on Bisconti Research that doesn't appear on their web site.

According to an ANS web page:

Ann Bisconti was previously a vice president with the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), where she directed one of the most comprehensive research programs ever undertaken by an industry on challenging social issues. Bisconti Research continues to conduct public opinion and communications research for NEI under contract and serves many other clients in energy and other fields.

So the poll wasn't merely commissioned by NEI, it was conducted by their former VP.....

Max Schulz Senior Fellow Manhattan Institute's Center for Energy Policy and the Environment

Posted July 17, 2008, 4:49pm

Max Schulz: 

One of the most important things that must be done from a policy standpoint is for the NRC to process in a timely fashion the license applications for new reactors that are coming in. Perhaps Richard has a better perspective on this, but I have heard concerns that there may not be the manpower to do this. It would be a shame, in light of the streamlined application process, if worthwhile projects languished because the NRC didn't have the people and resources to act expeditiously.

Doug Chapin Principal Officer and Director MPR Associates, Inc.

Posted July 17, 2008, 4:37pm

Doug Chapin: 

I would like to take one more shot at putting the safety issue in perspective. For nuclear safety to be of major concern–it has to result in real consequences; for example, a good measure is the radiation impact on people. Jim says I claim containments are invulnerable to damage from airplane crashes; I make no such “claim” although given a choice I would rather be inside containment than on the plane and I expect Jim would be inside as well.

The information I referenced is in a peer-reviewed article in a reputable scientific journal; usually considered a pretty good test of its validity. It has not been refuted in that forum or by USNRC documents despite ample opportunity to do so. What the article says is: let’s assume the containment is damaged so that it leaks (has a hole in it) and on top of that the core is damaged and releases fission products. The physics and chemistry of that situation treated in realistic terms do not allow for large number of casualties at all. Of course, we should do our best to prevent that from happening, but using nuclear power does not perch us on the edge of a precipice leading to a catastrophe.

We ought to build strong buildings; we ought to look at terrorists threats including airplane attacks and we do. One should not use semantics to scare monger that that airplane crashes are not treated and evaluated in the design process – they are – just not in the special category of events called “design basis events” by the USNRC; those events have to be solely dealt with special safety systems. Like waste, we need to understand the facts that are in play here and not allow the dialog to be conducted on the level of tee-shirt slogans. It makes all the difference in the world.

Gwyneth Cravens Author Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy

Posted July 17, 2008, 4:27pm

Gwyneth Cravens: 

In the US, we generate 120 million tons a year of solid waste and 2-3 billion tons of CO2 from burning coal. This is likely to increase unless alternative base-load sources are expanded. By contrast the annual waste from nuclear plants is minuscule and doesn't impact public health or the environment. I've observed various discussions about energy and the environment in which nuclear power is not even mentioned. People are surprised that it provides 20% of our electricity and nearly 75% of our low-carbon electricity.

We need programs to better educate the public, starting in grade school. When most people get the facts, they look at nuclear power and the climate crisis with new eyes.

As Chris points out, we need an agency with a vision of the big picture and the long-term, and it must be apolitical. The history of waste disposal options is studded with stories of promising research that, for political reasons, was canceled or the budget cut.

The Office of Technical Assessment, which used to advise Congress, is now gone. So our representatives instead get scientific and technical information from lobbyists; facts take a backseat. A revival of the OTA is essential as various energy schemes are presented to Congress.

Richard Meserve President Carnegie Institution

Posted July 17, 2008, 4:22pm

Richard Meserve: 

I agree with Chris that our existing structure for managing the disposal of spent fuel is dysfunctional. This is inherently a long-term project and there is a resulting need for management and financial continuity. Placing this obligation in a government agency subject to frequent changes in personnel and to the whims of an annual budget process does not work. A quasi-government corporation with stable personnel and access to the Waste Fund outside the annual appropriations process would be an improvement. But it would be very difficult to get Congress to agree.

Sharon Squassoni Senior Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Posted July 17, 2008, 4:20pm

Sharon Squassoni: 

Thanks, Chris. It still isn't clear whether those polled also favored new nuclear plants (a different question than whether existing plants are ok), which is what we're discussing. Some other data points: The 2003 MIT Future of Nuclear Power study conducted its own poll and found that a majority of respondents favored existing nuclear power plants, but opposed building new plants. Top concerns: environment, safety/waste, cost. At that time–2003–global climate change didn't factor into considerations very much. A more recent poll, by the Pew Foundation, found that 48% of respondents opposed nuclear energy and 44% favored. A February 2006 Gallup poll showed that 55% favored and 40% opposed nuclear energy, but that 55% opposed (vs. 42% favoring) building new nuclear power plants.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 17, 2008, 3:46pm

E. Donald Elliott: 

It is hard to believe but we are rapidly nearing the end of our three-day dialogue.

I will not try to sum up or assert that there is any spurious "consensus." On the contrary, I think several of our exchanges–although generally polite and respectful–have shown that some of us are in fundamental disagreement on important issues, such as whether or not nuclear power is safe, economically feasible and whether waste disposal/reprocessing issues can or cannot be handled successfully.

As we near the end of our dialogue this afternoon, I'd like to raise as a final issue for our consideration: what changes in public policies or institutions might be needed to facilitate a modest expansion to nuclear power in the U.S., if it were deemed desirable (of course, as part of portfolio of responses to climate change, including efficiency, renewables, and advanced coal with sequestration). Chris Crane began to get into that subject in his recent post, in which he calls for a new governmental regulatory institution, and several others have done so obliquely by observing that we should be able do better on certain issues than we have in the past. It would be good if others could consider 2 or 3 concrete recommendations for changes in public policy that they think might make the most difference.

Chris Crane President and COO Exelon Corp.

Posted July 17, 2008, 3:40pm

Chris Crane: 

This responds to Sharon's earlier question. The public opinion research I referenced was conducted by Bisconti Research, commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute in June of 2008. Survey participants were asked if they favored or opposed nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States.

In addition to the data I referenced earlier, a Zogby poll (Zogby is an independent public opinion research firm conducting surveys on a variety of topics with the American public) conducted in June of 2008, found 67 percent of its survey responders favored the construction of new nuclear plants in the U.S. 23 percent of the survey responders opposed construction of new plants in the U.S.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 17, 2008, 3:36pm

Jim Riccio: 

While I respect Richard, my research on performance indicators using NRC data paints a different picture. Whenever the NRC or NEI could not get a performance indicators to trend downward they would merely redefine the indicator to get the results they wanted. I have repeatedly documented this practice in the Nuclear Lemons reports I wrote for Public Citizen. Even the NRC staff thought that NEI had too much influence and that the new process was at best weak. When the NRC first instituted the revised reactor oversight process, the staff was surveyed. The results should have given the Commission cause for concern:

* 70% of those surveyed believed that the new process would not catch declining performance “before a significant reduction in safety margins.”

* 70% of NRC’s resident inspectors believed that the new process “may not identify and halt degrading performance.”

* 79% of NRC staff either had no opinion or believed that the new performance indicators did not provide an adequate indication of declining performance.

* 75% of the NRC staff thought that the nuclear industry and NEI had too much influence and input into the new process.

(Jenny Weil, “Some Regional Staffers Question Adequacy of New Oversight Process.” Inside NRC, January 17, 2000, p. 1.)

Guess what? The NRC staff was right! The new oversight process gave us the Davis Besse debacle in 2002, by NRC’s own calculations the football-sized hole in the vessel head was the most dangerous near-miss since the Three Mile Island meltdown.

Richard Meserve President Carnegie Institution

Posted July 17, 2008, 2:48pm

Richard Meserve: 

The licensees have an economic interest in assuring the safe operation of the plants for many reasons, including their economic interests. Any plant with a serious safety problem runs the risk of an extended shut-down, with the obvious consequence that a plant that is not operating cannot earn revenue. In this instance, economic self-interest aligns with safety objectives. There needs to be a vigilant regulator, but there are pressures that make the regulator's job somewhat easier.
The NRC has maintained data on objective factors related to safety–numbers  of emergency shutdowns, availability of safety equipment, worker exposures to radiation, public exposures, etc. The trends show a consistent improvement over time. These trends reflect the pressures to improve safety performance as well as the knowledge that comes from expanded experience. The companies have learned that vigilance on safety matters is essential to their business. Aggressive maintenance and surveillance, for example, not only improve safety, but also improve reliability. In the early days of the commercial nuclear power, constraints were put in place based on design philosophy (e.g., defense in depth) and engineering judgment. The idea was to assure a wide safety margin. As understanding has grown and analytical capabilities have improved, such as understandings derived from sophisticated probabilistic risk assessments, safety experts have learned that some of these requirements were excessive or even counter-productive, whereas in a few cases the requirements needed to be strengthened. Adjustments based on increased understanding do not reflect a captive regulator. Rather they reflect an intelligent one.

Chris Crane President and COO Exelon Corp.

Posted July 17, 2008, 1:31pm

Chris Crane: 

I want to respond to the ongoing waste management conversation. There must be a better way to tackle waste management strategies than the painfully frustrating path we are now on. The issue is currently entangled with partisan politics, the annual federal budget cycle, and evolving technology. Today’s stalemate simply cannot continue. We need a new path forward. It is my belief that we must reform the overall governance structure of the civilian nuclear waste program. It should be housed in a new governmental entity, to assume the current federal authority and obligations for disposition of commercial spent fuel and high-level waste. It should continue to be under the regulatory oversight of the EPA and NRC. It should be funded off-budget so that long-term programmatic initiatives can be pursued without annual perturbation. It should be charged with both offsite interim storage and the facilitation of solutions (by both DOE and private-sector entities) beyond immediate direct geologic disposal, including recycling and repository options. This new government entity should be a more effective steward of the existing national Nuclear Waste Fund, to which nuclear operators and their customers have already committed $21 billion to date. This fresh approach I believe offers greater likelihood of long-term success.

Sharon Squassoni Senior Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Posted July 17, 2008, 1:24pm

Sharon Squassoni: 

Chris, I'm wondering if you could provide a little more information about NEI's public opinion poll. Were these favorable/unfavorable ratings for existing nuclear power or for new builds? Also, who conducted the polls?

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 17, 2008, 12:58pm

Jim Riccio: 

Chris is right capacity factors are up.
But that is because the NRC has been in regulatory retreat for the last decade.
When NRC/NEI (Nuclear Energy Institute) re-wrote the technical specifications for operating reactors they wiped out 40% of the stop signs known and limiting conditions of operation or LCO's. As Richard Meserve knows only too well, this has made certain nuclear incidents more dangerous than they needed to be. But it certainly helped improve the industry's bottom line.
NEI even provided the NRC with a wish list of regulations to gut along with a dollar amount that the industry would save per plant and the agency has delivered. As my colleague Paul Leventhal, said a few years ago, "The NRC has become a wholly owned subsidiary of NEI!"

Sharon Squassoni Senior Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Posted July 17, 2008, 11:55am

Sharon Squassoni: 

The urgency of climate change should force us to get beyond the "physics" of various energy alternatives to the "engineering." All of the lower carbon-emitting or carbon-free energy alternatives to coal confront engineering challenges, but some are bigger than others. All will require investment; some will take longer than others. Fusion energy could solve all our problems, but we don't have the engineering in place yet. It might happen in the last half of this century. The same is true of thorium reactors and any "proliferation-resistant" recycling. Breeder reactors, here and elsewhere, have experienced technical problems, as Jim points out in his last posting. These are old concepts, but is the engineering ready? If so, we need to carefully consider the opportunity costs of moving forward in these areas.

With respect to Don's post, it's true that the energy potential of irradiated fuel is still high. Light water reactors were initially considered to be an interim stage toward breeders and the use of plutonium as fuel. However, engineering so far has trumped physics. Although fuel could theoretically be recycled many times, France has only recycled its MOX once because it's not cost-effective.

As others have pointed out, however, reprocessing and breeder reactors don't solve the waste problem. They create other wastes, including liquid wastes, which pose safety, security and proliferation concerns. Matt Bunn does a good job of describing them in his Senate testimony (on GNEP, September 14, 2006, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Appropriations).

Chris Crane President and COO Exelon Corp.

Posted July 17, 2008, 11:51am

Chris Crane: 

Operational performance will not preclude an enhanced commitment to nuclear in the U.S. The nation’s nuclear capacity factor in 2007 was 91.8%, the highest ever and a record of reliability that cannot be matched by any other baseload fuel source. Safety performance will not preclude an enhanced commitment to nuclear. The nation’s fleet of nuclear plants has a strong record of safe performance and effective and expert regulatory oversight. Operating/production cost will not preclude an enhanced commitment to nuclear. 2007 estimated average total production cost for the U.S. plants was at a record low, due to the efficiencies of scale and low, relatively stable fuel prices. Total production cost in 2007 was 1.76¢/kwh for nuclear-fueled electricity, 2.47¢/kwh for coal-fired generation, and 6.78¢/kwh for natural gas-fired electricity. Public opinion will not preclude an expanded commitment to nuclear. In fact, public support for nuclear energy as part of a low cost, reliable energy mix has been increasing since 1986 and has reached a favorable/unfavorable rating of 63% to 33% (Nuclear Energy Institute, June 2008). Clearly, the general public is more aware of nuclear energy’s benefits than ever before. Waste disposal issues should not preclude an enhanced commitment.

As other posts this morning have noted, spent fuel is being safely stored at operating and retired sites, pending further technology development and political consensus building. Finally, the economics should not preclude a nuclear commitment either. The nuclear industry is obviously aware of the cost and financing challenges. Operators are working with vendors to standardize designs to reduce cost, to revitalize the supply chain, and to identify and implement more efficient and productive construction methods. Stakeholders in new nuclear build are examining ways to both share and mitigate the substantial costs involved in financing the first new plants, including effective implementation of the provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

John P. Holdren Director White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Posted July 17, 2008, 11:45am

John P. Holdren: 

Much, although not all, of the discussion so far has been contributed by the two camps at opposite ends of the spectrum of opinion about nuclear energy:

The enthusiastic “pro” side: “A large contribution from nuclear energy is not only clearly feasible, eminently affordable, and better than most anything else from the standpoint of safety and public health, but so important to addressing the climate-change challenge that the world simply cannot do without it.”

The determinedly “anti” side: “A large contribution from nuclear energy is probably not feasible (because of resource constraints and public acceptance), if feasible then still probably not as cheap as renewables, and in any case undesirable because of waste, safety, and proliferation; and we can meet the climate challenge without it.”

Like a few others in this discussion, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I believe it will be EASIER to surmount the climate-change challenge if we can get a substantial contribution from nuclear than if we cannot; but that, with additional difficulty, the lack of such a contribution from nuclear could be compensated by getting somewhat larger contributions than would otherwise be needed from the combination of end-use efficiency, renewables, and advanced fossil-fuel technologies that capture and sequester CO2.

I also believe that it will turn out to be either infeasible or irresponsible to GET a significantly expanded contribution from nuclear unless its own challenges of waste management, safety (including terrorism vulnerability), and proliferation are addressed with greater wisdom and determination than this country or any other has demonstrated up until now. The motto “fix it or forget it” is germane here; the nuclear option needs fixing in some important respects if it is to be viable on the needed scale, and if we succeed in expanding it WITHOUT fixing it I believe that we or our successors will end up regretting that we did.

[Editor’s note: Professor Holdren’s complete comments can be found in PDF format here]

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 17, 2008, 10:42am

Jim Riccio: 

Breeders and reprocessing?  Haven't we been here before? In November 1955, the first U.S. “power reactor” ever to produce electricity, the EBR-1, (experimental breeder reactor) melted down during testing. The public was not made aware of this meltdown until Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic Energy Commission and the man who claimed nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter” was confronted by the Wall Street Journal and had to admit his ignorance of the accident.

Not to be dissuaded by the meltdown of the EBR-1, The Power Reactor Development Corporation, a consortium of 35 utilities headed by Detroit Edison forged ahead with the first commercial fast breeder reactor. The Fermi reactor was to be a scaled up version of the EBR-1. Fermi the first commercial power-producing fast-breeder reactor in the U.S. also had a core melt accident.,9171,712093,00.html " target="_blank">[See 1968 Time article]

And according to GAO, it will still take 40 years and 4.5 billion to clean up West Valley, NY, site of the failed commercial venture to reprocess radioactive wastes.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 17, 2008, 9:59am

Jim Riccio: 

Doug's claims about invulnerability of reactors to terrorist attack are contradicted by NRC documents. I know because I have the NRC's documents that were pulled from circulation after 9-11.

Unbelievably, the NRC allowed Dave Lochbaum at UCS to purchase their entire library including documents they had scrubbed due to security and safeguards concerns. After 9-11, the NRC too claimed that the reactors were invulnerable. They were forced to retract their statements and acknowledge that 96% of U.S reactors were never designed with airliner crashes in mind.

Ironically one of the few reactors designed to deal with an airliner was Three Mile Island, unfortunately it couldn’t deal with a melt down and spewed radiation into the environment for days.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 17, 2008, 9:42am

E. Donald Elliott: 

I am wondering whether “solving the nuclear waste problem” is really the best way to conceive of the issue. As Gwyneth points out, “spent fuel” retains 98% of its energy. Therefore, it can be “recycled” over and over. Shouldn’t we be talking about “recycling” nuclear fuel (or better yet, “recharging” it, like a battery!), rather than “disposing of nuclear waste” or “building the breeder reactor”? I am aware that some types of recycled nuclear fuel (plutonium) is more easily made into weapons than the type of uranium currently used in US power reactors, and for that reason, the Carter Administration decided in 1979 not to go in the direction of recycling nuclear fuel, for fear of proliferation and terrorism concerns. That was a long time ago and we hoped that the rest of the world would follow suit. But it hasn’t. For example, India recently unveiled an advanced thorium breeder reactor that simultaneously recharges the fuel at the same time that it is producing power.

Isn’t it time to re-examine the decision to "dispose" of nuclear fuel and find advanced ways to re-use nuclear fuel rather than bury it?

Max Schulz Senior Fellow Manhattan Institute's Center for Energy Policy and the Environment

Posted July 17, 2008, 9:34am

Max Schulz: 

Excellent point from Doug. It’s ironic that we worry as much as we do about the “volumes” of nuclear waste, when if we stop to consider those numbers relative to the amount of usable power we get from nuclear, they are extremely tiny. And that goes to the heart of the argument for nuclear power–its ability to pack so much energy into such a small amount of space. Pound for pound, coal supplies about twice as much energy as wood. Oil is twice as good as coal. And a gram of uranium, as Doug points out, is worth several tons of coal. Are there concerns handling the waste? Sure. But again, it’s worth dealing with those concerns in order to derive the tremendous benefits from nuclear.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 17, 2008, 9:23am

Jim Riccio: 

Reprocessing is certainly no solution to the waste problem. Especially in a world where terrorists are intent on securing fissile material for a nuclear weapon. In hearings held before the US Congress, even proponents of nuclear power concluded that reprocessing radioactive waste was unsafe, uneconomical, and unnecessary.

Matthew Bunn of Harvard University testified that, “a near-term decision to reprocess US commercial spent nuclear fuel would be a serious mistake, with costs and risks far outweighing its potential benefits.” Mr. Bunn also stated that, "reprocessing is far outpacing the use of the resulting plutonium as fuel, with the result that over 240 tons of separated, weapons-usable civilian plutonium now exists in the world, a figure that will soon surpass the amount of plutonium in all the world’s nuclear weapons arsenals combined."

Richard K. Lester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cited the Institute’s study on the Future of Nuclear Power, which concluded that, “(w)e do not believe that a convincing case can be made on the basis of waste management considerations alone that the benefits of advanced, closed fuel cycle schemes would outweigh the attendant safety, environmental, and security risks and economic costs.”

The MIT study also found that other waste management strategies are available that result in long-term risk reduction at least as great as those claimed for reprocessing with fewer short-term risks and lower development and deployment costs.

Doug Chapin Principal Officer and Director MPR Associates, Inc.

Posted July 17, 2008, 1:04am

Doug Chapin: 

Nuclear waste is a tiny amount of material in comparison to waste from fossil fuels that is considered to be driving the climate issue; one gram of uranium produces the power equivalent to about three tons of coal; the ratio in wastes produced is even more favorable. Nuclear waste is already separated, captured and sequestered. Further it is nearly all solids and readily contained. The used fuel such as that which goes in a repository is a solid and these solids from all the reactors in the US that have operated so far would fit within the confines of a baseball diamond. It is heavy (60,000 tons) but very dense so it takes up little room. It is highly radioactive; that’s the reason to bury it–to provide shielding. If we don't bury it, casks with a few feet of shielding provide plenty of protection. Nuclear sites make poor targets for terrorists as they are very robust and highly defended, and even if attacked and penetrated by terrorists are not going to cause a major catastrophe; see Science (September 20, 2002) for article peer-reviewed by a large number of US National Academy members. It is not true that nuclear plants are weapons of mass destruction. Radioactive releases from nuclear plants under all conditions, including accidents, are simply not a major threat to the environment or to people, and are very tightly regulated.

Nuclear safety and wastes are not good reasons to avoid nuclear power; in fact, they are probably reasons to pursue it, if one compares it to other power sources on a level playing field.

John P. Holdren Director White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Posted July 16, 2008, 8:34pm

John P. Holdren: 

I am sorry to be slow in joining this interaction. Waste management would be a huge challenge under a large expansion of nuclear energy. A fleet of 1700 once-through LWRs would produce 34,000 tons of spent fuel per year–a nominal Yucca Mountain’s worth every two years. While I personally believe that handling a waste-management task of this magnitude is technically feasible, whether publics will acquiesce in the siting of the needed number of facilities and degree of waste transport through their communities that this would entail is at least questionable. The proposition that reprocessing and recycling would solve this waste problem is a snare and a delusion, moreover, at least with currently available technologies.

Gwyneth Cravens Author Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy

Posted July 16, 2008, 7:05pm

Gwyneth Cravens: 

Yucca Mountain has been thoroughly vetted, will be scrutinized now by the NRC, and, as Max points out could accept all the spent fuel generated thus far plus a lot more.

Military nuclear waste has been safely transported from around the US and stored in a deep geologic repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), since it was EPA-certified in 1999. Area residents like WIPP. A university monitoring center constantly checks the people and the environment for contamination from the facility and has found none. WIPP is in a half-mile deep, stable salt bed 230 million years old. The facility was initially considered for storage of spent nuclear fuel as well, but for bureaucratic reasons, disposal of civilian waste was separated from defense waste. WIPP receives contact-handled waste and remote-handled waste; there's no technical reason why it could not also store spent nuclear fuel (salt is a good conductor of heat and it also immobilizes radionuclides).

Probably the spent nuclear fuel now in pools and concrete casks at nuclear plants will be reprocessed. Spent fuel retains 98% of its energy.

Richard Meserve President Carnegie Institution

Posted July 16, 2008, 6:08pm

Richard Meserve: 

There are moratoria on nuclear construction in 13 states until there is a pathway for the disposal of spent fuel. These are legislative barriers that were established in the 1970's, and there are moves to eliminate them in at least some of these states. Nonetheless, these moratoria could be a barrier to new construction in some places. Their existence simply means that new plants will be built elsewhere.

There is significant uncertainty as to whether Yucca Mountain will ever open as a disposal site. Senator Obama has indicated his opposition to it and Senator Reid clearly places a high priority in blocking the licensing or usage of Yucca Mountain. Nonetheless, although we need to solve the waste problem, I do not think it should be a barrier to new construction. Spent fuel can be stored safely and securely in dry casks for a century or more. As a result, we have time to pursue disposal sites other than Yucca Mountain if necessary; there is a consensus in the scientific community as reflected in several reports issued by the National Academies that deep geologic disposal can isolate the waste for the necessary long period time. Moreover, R&D could lead to technologies that significantly reduce the waste challenge (by transmutation). We have to solve the waste problem in any event given the existing inventory of spent fuel and the increment of spent fuel arising from new construction does not change the challenge. The waste problem, although it needs to be solved, should not become a barrier to new construction.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 16, 2008, 5:39pm

Jim Riccio: 

We haven't addressed either safety or waste. As noted earlier the industry will be judged by its worst performer. This supposed nuclear "renaissance" is just one accident away from oblivion; and it nearly happened in Ohio in 2002. But there is also another issue we haven't addressed: the new threat to nuclear power plants due to terrorism. We've known since the first World Trade Center bombing trial in 1993 that Al Qaeda was targeting U.S. nuclear reactors. That information was contained in FBI testimony from the trial.

The 9-11 Commission testimony showed that Mohammad Atta (one of the 9-11 hi-jackers) suggested to Al Qaeda leadership that they strike Indian Point nuclear plant 24 miles from Manhattan, but was told not yet. If Senator McCain is right and we really are in a hundred year war against terrorism, we shouldn't be building 45 additional terrorist targets that can be used as prepositioned weapons of mass destruction. We should be phasing out nuclear power plants and securing their wastes.

Max Schulz Senior Fellow Manhattan Institute's Center for Energy Policy and the Environment

Posted July 16, 2008, 5:20pm

Max Schulz: 

We haven’t discussed it that much so far, but the waste issue would appear to be among the biggest obstacles to the expansion of nuclear power. A number of states (California, for instance) have moratoria on building nukes until the waste issue is resolved. And obviously the uncertainty over the waste question can dampen investors’ enthusiasm. The irony, I think, is that the waste question has an obvious answer: Yucca Mountain. The real problems with regard to waste aren’t geologic or scientific, but political. And while I think that Yucca Mountain would be a fine repository (assuming the we raised the arbitrary capacity level set years before anyone had a real idea how much the mountain could hold), I am increasingly of the opinion that it is never going to open. And that’s a real dilemma.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 16, 2008, 4:45pm

E. Donald Elliott: 

So if I understand correctly, it seems that no one is really contending that the proliferation risk is a reason for the U.S. not to expand its domestic commitment to nuclear power (although there may be some enhanced proliferation risk if there is a GLOBAL expansion of nuclear power).
And we have already identified the economic issues–on which there seems to be a fundamental disagreement as to whether nuclear power will or will not be viable economically. But on that, everyone also seems to agree that the economics will depend at least in part on the "price of carbon" that eventually emerges. That may in part explain why utilities are waiting until that is clear before they make commitments one way or the other.
For those who aren't specialists, if a cap-and-trade program or a regulatory fee on greenhouse gas emissions such as the bills currently pending in Congress are eventually enacted in the U.S., that will narrow the economic gap between nuclear plants and their fossil fuel competitors, because a nuclear plant does not emit carbon dioxide and so wouldn't need to buy allowances or to pay the tax to operate, but a plant burning fossil fuels would. How much the economic gap would narrow, however, is not yet clear because how much the gap will narrow is dependent upon the stringency of the regulatory program, i.e. the implicit "price" that is put on emitting a ton of carbon. Fossil fuel plants can now emit greenhouse gases for free, which amounts to an implicit "pollution subsidy" to the fossil fuel plants, but that will go away to the advantage of nuclear to some as yet unknown extent if and when a regulatory program for carbon dioxide in enacted.
Is there anything else that you feel should preclude an enhanced commitment to nuclear in order to meet global climate change targets? Safety issues? Waste disposal issues? Opportunity cost? Public perceptions and distrust? Or is it all really down to the economic question?

Doug Chapin Principal Officer and Director MPR Associates, Inc.

Posted July 16, 2008, 4:41pm

Doug Chapin: 

I am in South Africa where there is a desperate need for additional electricity; there are rolling black-outs in the country and they have a major negative effect on the economy. Conservation is very important to them right now and they work at it hard, but with a rapidly growing population and need for more power for their economy and to provide most of the power to Africa, certainly the southern half, they are not going to use conservation to avoid electricity growth and condemn a lot of very poor people to continued dire straits. They need a large amount of power relatively quickly–say 20000MWE over the next 10-15 years. They have no gas, but have copious coal they burn to make electricity now. South Africa makes about 40 percent of its liquid fuels from coal, a process with lots of greenhouse gas emissions. They plan major expansion of the latter capability.

They were a weapons state and are the only one I know about that disassembled all their weapons and shut down their program, fully complying with the NPT. They are very aware of the emissions issues from coal and are seriously considering carbon sequestration which they consider expensive, unproven and difficult; but it is on the table being seriously considered. They have two successfully operating nuclear plants. Asking them to turn their back on nuclear power is nonsense in my judgment. It is safe, they need to see if it is more economic than coal sequestration or not.

Nuclear power is safe, they need to see if it is more economic than coal sequestration or not, but I am pretty sure how that comparison turns out. I don’t see SA as a proliferation threat either, even if they have their own enrichment capability, and their using nuclear going forward would make a real dent in CO2 emissions for the world. So I agree with Dick that proliferation is a red herring, not only in the US but many other countries as well. We need to keep thinking in terms of what works best in each locale and situation.

Max Schulz Senior Fellow Manhattan Institute's Center for Energy Policy and the Environment

Posted July 16, 2008, 3:57pm

Max Schulz: 

As we wade into the discussion about the safety and proliferation risks of nuclear power, it is worth stating something fairly obvious: namely, that we have to weigh the risks against the potential rewards. After all, virtually every fuel and/or energy technology carries with it some sort of risk. Coal is dangerous to mine, and a pile of the stuff can smolder and combust (and, of course, there are emissions concerns). Petroleum is flammable, and let’s not forget the geopolitical complications. Natural gas is highly flammable, too, so much so that terrorism concerns factor into debates over LNG terminals. Manufacturing solar panels means dealing with highly toxic materials. Windmills occasionally kill birds. Hydropower disrupts habitats. And yes, nuclear power means dealing with somewhat dangerous materials.

So the question isn’t whether nuclear power is dangerous. It is. But is it too dangerous? Or can we adequately mitigate its safety risks? The benefits of nuclear power are largely unmatched by other conventional technologies – i.e. the ability to generate huge volumes of absolutely reliable baseload power while using a relatively tiny amount of fuel and making a tiny footprint on nature. Oh, and there are hardly any pollution or GHG worries. Those benefits, it seems to me, are worth dealing with nuclear power’s risks.

Sharon Squassoni Senior Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Posted July 16, 2008, 3:52pm

Sharon Squassoni: 

I agree that Middle Eastern interest in pursuing "nuclear" technology will continue whether or not the US builds new nuclear power plants. Some of those countries have nuclear ambitions that are not limited to nuclear energy, which is dangerous. But I think their interest in pursuing nuclear power could diminish if the US moves in the opposite direction. Since 2005, more than 13 states in the Middle East have expressed interest in nuclear power. U.S. support for nuclear energy as a solution to climate change is clearly sending a message that it's now okay to build power reactors in countries where we would not have supported them in the past, including in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, among others. The United States has the largest number of reactors of any country. If we conclude that it's safe, economic, and we can solve the waste problems, why wouldn't other countries follow?
As for our ability to influence their decisions–and I'm guessing that Dick means their choosing safer, smaller, proliferation-resistant reactors–I think we've lost the game. These states are going to want to buy what's on the market now, which are typically the kinds of reactors purchased by advanced states at the 1000 MWe capacity or above. If they are forced to wait for more modest options, they will likely perceive this as another form of discrimination.
Beyond our domestic considerations, however, U.S. government policies in promoting nuclear energy abroad have quickly outstripped any of the necessary rules for restricting the sensitive nuclear technologies like enrichment and reprocessing. In fact, the GNEP program has probably engendered more interest in enrichment than dampened it. Now, countries like Canada, Ukraine and South Africa have a renewed interest in enrichment. In fact, this is what's behind the G-8 dropping its moratorium on selling such technologies to non-technology-holder states.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 16, 2008, 3:47pm

Jim Riccio: 

It was never my intent to throw a red herring into the discussion. If the industry wants to address climate change with nuclear reactors you are, by necessity, talking about a global expansion of nuclear power.
That's purportedly why the Bush Administration has been pushing the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) scheme around the planet. However not even nuclear power proponents think GNEP is a good idea. John Deutsch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),  a former Department of Energy official and the co-author of the MIT report on the future of nuclear power, told the National Academies of Science that the Bush Administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is “a goofy idea.”

But, as Pacala notes: "If you try to solve even one wedge of this problem with nuclear, it would require a doubling in the amount of nuclear power deployed. Solving the problem entirely with nuclear means increasing deployment by a factor of 10, and if you calculate how many of these plants would have to be in countries like Sudan and Afghanistan, you are just not going to do it."

Gwyneth Cravens Author Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy

Posted July 16, 2008, 3:37pm

Gwyneth Cravens: 

I agree with Richard. The more international involvement with nations that want to add nuclear power plants to provide electricity, the better. We and other nations with experience in civilian nuclear power can partner with countries to help them build the plants and after they're operational control the nuclear fuel cycle.

Although the US pioneered civilian reactor technology, other countries have been applying it and elaborating upon it in useful ways.

I understand that some of those Middle Eastern countries wanting nuclear plants plan to use them not only to generate electricity without burning fossil fuels but also to desalinate seawater. According to Tom Graham of Thorium Power, these new reactors could be fueled with thorium, which is more proliferation resistant than uranium.

Also, there are a number of designs for reactors in the 25-60 MW range which might be appropriate for some of the developing countries. Toshiba and NuScale are working on projects of this kind.

Richard Meserve President Carnegie Institution

Posted July 16, 2008, 2:42pm

Richard Meserve: 

The interest of Iran and other Middle Eastern countries in pursuing nuclear will arise regardless of whether or not the US builds more nuclear plants. If this discussion is about whether the US should choose to pursue nuclear power, proliferation concerns are largely a red herring.

It is true that an increase in nuclear plants worldwide will increase proliferation risk. That is because the need for fuel will result in the need for more enrichment facilities and the proliferation of that capacity entails the risk that the enrichment facilities could be used for the production of highly enriched uranium, a weapons-usable material. But again, the need for expanded enrichment capacity will arise regardless of a US decision on nuclear power. The proliferation concerns about nuclear technology are real and are serious. But our capacity to influence such matters is enhanced by involvement in nuclear power, not by turning our back on it.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 16, 2008, 2:33pm

Jim Riccio: 

I think what we're concerned about is not that the US will proliferate, but that the expansion of nuclear power globally will pose a threat of proliferation. According to reports in the NY Times & Christian Science Monitor, U.S. government officials voiced these concerns last year.

The Iranian nuclear program, which the Bush administration continues to contend is merely a cover for a nuclear weapons program, has spurred interest in the region. In the past year, thirteen Middle Eastern countries have announced their intent to pursue nuclear power. The interest expressed by majority Sunni Muslim states is viewed as a direct response to the nuclear ambitions of Shiite Iran. Additionally, in 2004, a report from Jane’s Intelligence Review concluded that an increase in the number of nuclear power plants worldwide would directly increase the risks associated with nuclear weapons proliferation.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 16, 2008, 1:22pm

E. Donald Elliott: 

I'm not clear whether or not someone is contending that a modest expansion of civilian nuclear power for electricity generation in the U.S. (say from 20% of our electricity today to 30% or 40% by 2040 or 2050) would substantially increase the proliferation and/or terrorism risks–and if so, how that would work?
I suppose we might not want to see nuclear reactors in Iraq or North Korea for those reasons (and maybe regret seeing them in Pakistan). But since climate change is a global problem, expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. and other "capital-rich, advanced industrial economies" contributes to solving the world-wide problem and creates more room for other, less "advanced industrial" countries to use other methods of power generation and still stay under the global targets over all.

Richard Meserve President Carnegie Institution

Posted July 16, 2008, 1:07pm

Richard Meserve: 

The reality is that other countries are committed to the pursuit of nuclear power, including many new entrants, regardless of whether the US is involved. It has seemed to me that we are in a much better position to influence the safety and proliferation regime that will attend the expansion of nuclear power in these countries if we are a participant in the enterprise rather than a bystander. Proliferation concerns are not a justification for the US to reject nuclear power. In fact, they justify enhanced involvement.

The proliferation concerns with nuclear power do not arise directly from reactors. Fresh fuel enriched to 5%, which is typical of reactor fuel, cannot be used in a weapon. Rather, the proliferation risk arises from the other parts of the fuel cycle–enrichment and reprocessing. What is needed is an international regime to discourage and limit the places in which enrichment and reprocessing take place and to make sure that they are under tight safeguards. Moreover, reprocessing is occurring today in other countries using technology that produces separated plutonium, which is a weapons-usable material. Again, our non-proliferation objectives would be served by seeking to assure that reprocessing involves technologies that do not produce a weapons-usable material stream. We can have no influence on the technologies that will be applied by other countries if we are not serving as leaders in defining a safer and more proliferation-resistant path.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 16, 2008, 1:00pm

Jim Riccio: 

Ms. Craven's comment is at odds with the NRC testimony to Congress in the wake of the Chernobyl accident. NRC testimony stated: "Unit 4 at Chernobyl contains characteristics of both containment and confinement. There appear to be two regions that appear to be designed to withstand 27 psi and 57 psi. These volumes are in turn interconnected with two suppression pools via pressure relief valves and downcomers. The remaining portions of the plant are housed within a confinement structure."

Additionally, not all reactors have massive domes we associate with nuclear plants. GE and Westinghouse ice condensers are especially vulnerable. In 1986 Harold Denton, former director of NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, again acknowledged this vulnerability while speaking to utilities executives at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Denton noted that, according to NRC studies the GE Mark I reactors had “something like a 90% probability of that containment failing."(Brian Jordan, “Denton Urges Industry to Settle Doubts about Mark I Containment, Inside N.R.C., June 9, 1986, pp. 1, 3.)

U.S. reactors are not designed to withstand meltdowns. Meltdowns are considered "beyond the design basis" and engineers were not required to design against them.

Gwyneth Cravens Author Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy

Posted July 16, 2008, 12:24pm

Gwyneth Cravens: 

Carbon reduction begins at home. Per capita, the US is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases. Here, commercial nuclear plants are not connected to weapons production. Here, there is careful monitoring of the spent fuel. Here, many of the reactor operators and technicians have been trained by Naval Reactors, which has operated 254 reactors without any release of radioactivity. Here, the accident rate at nuclear plants is lower than in the banking and the real estate industries.

Since it will be decades before alternative energy sources can provide base-load electricity, and provide it on a large scale to meet growing energy needs as the country uses electricity more and more as its preferred fuel, then nuclear power is essential in this country.

Nuclear power, well-managed, is safe. Certainly safer than fossil fuels, which cause thousands of deaths annually. Our reactor designs are completely different from the Chernobyl reactor and all our reactors are enclosed in several layers of containment–Chernobyl was not.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 16, 2008, 11:08am

Jim Riccio: 

One of the many reasons environmentalists oppose expanding nuclear power is the threat of proliferation. Stephan Pacala from Princeton has cited this concern in 2004 when he was asked if there were climate wedges that were not worth pursuing.

According to Pacala: "I personally think nuclear is a non-starter. In the article we were not trying to choose sides, only to point out the mitigation technologies that are already in place. However, I cannot imagine that in this era of concerns about terrorism that we are going to start the production of fissionable material all over the world. It is disingenuous when the Bush administration says that the way to solve this problem is through coal and nuclear."

Christopher Paine Director, Nuclear Program Natural Resources Defense Council

Posted July 16, 2008, 11:04am

Christopher Paine: 

I am rising to our moderator’s challenge to shift to the broader nuclear issues with this 500-word post:

A global nuclear build-out raises a host of non-carbon costs and risks that must be weighed in the balance. Nuclear power is the only energy technology that requires an international safeguards regime to discourage countries from diverting fuel-cycle facilities and materials to make weapons. It is the only energy technology for which government must assume the ultimate liability for catastrophic accidents, and the only one in which the waste is so dangerous and enduring that government must assume responsibility for its long-term isolation from the biosphere.

Reliance on the nuclear fuel cycle entails some irreducible proliferation risk arising from dissemination of the knowledge, materials and equipment required for nuclear power generation under purely national control. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s application of peaceful use “safeguards” seeks to make this risk tolerable for a nuclear nation’s regional neighbors and the international community. However, as seen in the current case of Iran and several other states of past and present proliferation concern, a national commitment to nuclear power can serve to justify a national interest in acquiring sensitive uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities that are on the critical path to bomb-making, even if there is no present intention to head in this direction.

The international safeguards systems remains ill-equipped to deal with the nuclear diversion threat from such facilities, and thus it would be irresponsible to press today for a global nuclear power expansion that would require the growth and spread of such facilities. The present Administration has sought to deal with this obvious objection by proposing a civil nuclear condominium to match the military one already possessed by the five “permanent” members of the UN Security Council. But the rest of the world is unlikely to accept in the civil nuclear sphere the replication of the prevailing weapons oligopoly, and thus the severe proliferation threat posed by a global nuclear build-out will persist.

We should also remind ourselves that for any given class of reactor, its future output worldwide is contingent on the actions of the least competent nuclear operator on a bad day. This argues against pushing reactors on states that lack the technical infrastructure, safety culture, official transparency, and government accountability that are essential to minimizing the risk of accidents that could paralyze a large share of nuclear power generation.

Finally, we must consider the risks to our own and the global environment posed by a large increase in global uranium demand. This could make marginal US uranium deposits economic to exploit once again, and raises the prospect of a disastrous re-run of the severe environmental and public health abuses that marked the last uranium boom. Judging by its performance to date, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other government agencies are utterly unprepared to prevent such a recurrence.

In sum, nuclear power remains an option for some capital-rich, advanced industrial economies, including the U.S., but one to be expanded only when all the environmentally sustainable alternatives available at equal or lesser cost and risk have been tapped.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 16, 2008, 10:39am

Jim Riccio: 

According to the pamphlet Exelon released yesterday: "Exelon will not commit to building new nuclear plants, however, until we are satisfied that our conditions for safety, regulatory stability, bipartisan federal, state and local support, spent fuel management and cost have been met." So despite applying for a license from NRC, it seems the decision makers at Exelon have not yet been convinced that new nuclear is a viable option.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 16, 2008, 10:24am

E. Donald Elliott: 

Jim, no offense taken. We've already had a lot of discussion about the economic costs and it is getting pretty technical, narrow and abstruse. So my suggestion–and it is only a suggestion–is that the dialogue might be more productive and interesting if we were to broaden it out a little bit to include some of the other reasons why people object to nuclear power in addition to economics.
You mention safety, for example, and cite a T-shirt for the proposition that it is intuitively obvious to everyone that nuclear power is not "safe." I'm not sure everyone on the dialogue would agree with you and the T-shirt that it is ludicrous to suggest that nuclear power is safe. Plus where energy supply is concerned, "safety" is a comparative issue. There are also significant human health issues surrounding the use of coal (both air pollution and mine safety issues). So maybe it would be productive and interesting to discuss a broader list of the objections to nuclear power and not just restrict ourselves to dueling estimates of the costs.
And in any event, to some decree the economics of nuclear power is a moot point. If you're right and no one thinks it is economic and therefore won't finance it, then a major expansion of nuclear power is unlikely to happen. So the interesting case for policy-makers to consider is whether we should decline to "go nuclear" for other reasons of social policy even if it turns out to be economically feasible (which I already understand that you don't think that it will ever be.)

Christopher Paine Director, Nuclear Program Natural Resources Defense Council

Posted July 16, 2008, 10:13am

Christopher Paine: 

Doug, you wrote: “I agree that a cost basis per carbon avoidance for utilizing new sources is one of many useful yard-sticks. How do renewables look today on such a basis if I need large amounts of power now or in the next seven years?”

Here is the latest from the CPUC on that question. No doubt, there is quite a wide range for some of the renewables, but they are clearly in the running with new-build nuclear and it looks from this chart as though at least some projects could be brought in for considerably less than nuclear estimated $0.154 per kWh. Seven to ten years hence, given current technology trends, one would expect this chart to show even more competitive cost ranges for renewables relative to new build nuclear. The cost of end-use efficiency savings per kWh is not on the chart, but my understanding is that in California this has typically run from about $0.02 to $0.045/kWh.

Chris Crane President and COO Exelon Corp.

Posted July 16, 2008, 10:02am

Chris Crane: 

The nuclear industry, the Department of Energy, and the nuclear regulatory process have made major strides in addressing the lessons learned in the last generation of nuclear construction, in preparation for the next generation of new build. The regulatory process is substantially improved, providing significant opportunity for public participation as well as strengthened predictability for investors. Consortia of utilities and vendors have worked together to drive standardization of design, under the auspices of DOE's Nuclear 2010. Plant designs are improved, capitalizing on passive safety features and simplification of mechanical systems. That focus on improvement has resulted in the announcement of more than 30 COL (combined construction and operating license) applications.

Exelon plans to file its own COL application this year for a site in Victoria, Texas. This progress domestically follows significant progress internationally, particularly in Asia. Japanese companies are successfully building new plants on schedule, on budget, using innovative construction techniques. Those techniques are available to us. The U.S. industry still confronts challenges in new build: the investment required is substantial and daunting - a fact recognized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Nuclear new build also faces the same commodity cost escalation and financing issues faced by any other mega-construction project. But the continuing growth of the U.S. economy demands the energy supply to support it. Increased nuclear generation, both to keep pace with demand growth and to begin to replace high-emissions sources, is an excellent option.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 16, 2008, 9:44am

Jim Riccio: 

No offense Don, but your hypothetical reminds me of an old T-shirt: Pigs can fly, the earth is flat and nuclear power is safe!

I would be happy to discuss why I and other environmentalists oppose nuclear power. However, the issues of waste, safety, security, and proliferation are not the issues upon which the CEO's will decide to build new reactors.

Sharon Squassoni Senior Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Posted July 16, 2008, 9:38am

Sharon Squassoni: 

Before moving on, as Don suggested, to the underlying views about nuclear energy, I would just like to point out that Doug's question—how do the costs of renewables look today or in the next seven years?—needs a longer timeframe. As a Westinghouse official recently pointed out, no new nuclear plants are going to come on-line in the US by 2015.  Even if we could assume that the utilities applying now for COLs are going to build those plants, it's almost a decade from application to connection to the grid. So we have to look at how renewables are developing now.  And the experience of installing wind power in, among other places, Texas, is pretty encouraging.

One other note on the ability of the nuclear industry to ramp up its production. As the Keystone Report pointed out last year, the required rate of build to add 700 GWe of additional capacity by 2050 (assuming most of current operating reactors will have to be retired by then) is about 25 per year, which was achieved only in the highest construction years in the 1970’s/80’s. For the past two decades, fewer than 10 reactors per year have come on-line globally. The industry currently can't do more than about 10/year, particularly in the critical area of reactor pressure vessels. Undoubtedly, the industry will respond to increased demand with more capacity, but is this going to happen soon enough? The IEA's Energy Technology Perspectives Blue Scenario requires a rate of build that is, on average, 32 reactors/year. Allowing for slower rates in the earlier years, it would require upwards of 40 reactors built per year in later years.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 16, 2008, 9:28am

E. Donald Elliott: 

I think we're really on the same page on this one and arguing about semantics. Yesterday I said "even if we could do it theoretically without nuclear, at what cost?" Then Chris and Doug came back and said: "it's not a theoretical issue; consider the costs."  That's exactly what I was trying to do:  Steer us away from the unproductive theoretical debate about whether we could get there without nuclear and back toward the practical one. Sorry if I wasn't clear, but we are in vigorous (if not aggressive) agreement on this! The substantive issue is whether nuclear would, in fact, decrease (or as some apparently maintain, increase?) the economic and social costs of meeting GHC targets–not the unproductive "theoretical" one of "could" we comply without nuclear if we ignored the economic and other costs of doing so.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 16, 2008, 9:15am

Jim Riccio: 

Richard was right. I was citing "all in" costs vs. overnight. But shouldn't these corporations be more honest about the true costs with those being asked to foot the bill? So the consumers were being told that the cost would be in the $3000 to $5000/kWe range and the actual cost was as much as than double that....sounds like the same old nuclear industry to me.

Not even the industry believes that all those expressing "interest" will actually build. Unistar said they wouldn't build a new nuclear reactor unless the government guaranteed that they wouldn't lose money, i.e. loan guarantees. Nuclear is so expensive that many of these CEO's are being asked to bet their corporation. The cost of a new nuke represents the entire value of their corporations.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 16, 2008, 9:00am

E. Donald Elliott: 

As I reflected on our discussion yesterday, I was particular impressed by the point made by Cédric Philibert, Richard Meserve (and others) that we probably want to achieve global climate change goals with the minimum of social disruption and pain, and as a practical matter, that probably indicates a balanced, diversified approach with some additional emphasis on nuclear, as well as conservation, energy efficiency, renewables, and advanced coal with sequestration. However, I understand that some of us disagree and are still opposed to nuclear. I am wondering if it would be productive today to drill down to explore the underlying basis of that opposition?  Is it really all about economics, or doesn’t the opposition also reflect deeper concerns as well? Assume hypothetically that it could be shown that a least-cost, greenhouse gas compliance strategy includes nuclear (without government subsides); wouldn’t Greenpeace, NRDC, and others still be opposed? If so, why?

Doug Chapin Principal Officer and Director MPR Associates, Inc.

Posted July 16, 2008, 1:06am

Doug Chapin: 

I agree that a cost basis per carbon avoidance for utilizing new sources is one of many useful yard-sticks. How do renewables look today on such a basis if I need large amounts of power now or in the next seven years? We need to make sure that costs are done on a level playing field with transparency so one can see all the numbers and make valid comparisons. The costs for new nuclear are becoming public and they are higher than they were before, but we have not seen or heard the comparable numbers produced in a comparable way for the other “cheaper” paths. I don’t think anecdotal info does it; the utilities do not use anecdotes or books written by advocates to make those calls. So a big need in this area is authoritative, relatively unbiased numbers the public and the decision makers can use to set policy. There are also premiums that one is willing to pay for special circumstances and this must also apply to carbon avoidance as well–cheapest is not always best. The light beside my computer is so dim here that it is hard to see the keyboard, but it is energy efficient from the look of it.

Second, I am not the expert, but I think there is real evidence for the “rebound” effect on increased use resulting from increased efficiency. Isn’t that why people buy more cost efficient cars or air conditioners in many cases? They could just use the same old device less, but many buy the new one so they can drive as far or farther and set the thermostat at the same place or lower and not as much more as they might; in effect, they have a budget for energy. We should still conserve, but efficiency changes don’t relentlessly translate into reduced consumption matching the efficiency change. It is always less expensive and saves more GHG to turn the lights off than it is to buy new energy efficiency light bulbs, but a lot of folks don’t do that.

Chris Crane President and COO Exelon Corp.

Posted July 15, 2008, 6:38pm

Chris Crane: 

I agree with Doug Chapin and am not part of any potential consensus that climate change COULD be challenged effectively without nuclear. My company's distribution companies have an obligation to serve their customers' electricity needs. Therefore, cost and reliability must be an integral part of this conversation. Why focus on addressing climate change at very high cost without nuclear, when more broadly based response at lower cost is within reach?

Christopher Paine Director, Nuclear Program Natural Resources Defense Council

Posted July 15, 2008, 6:36pm

Christopher Paine: 

“Overnight costs” are an industry convention to compare the material, labor, and project management costs of building a new plant if it could be built “overnight.” The relevant costs are the full-up cost estimates, one of which Jim Riccio cited, which include allowances for real escalation during construction, financing and site costs, grid integration costs, and other owners costs (training, startup, permitting, and amortized reactor engineering costs).

Prior to a federal program established in late 2005 to provide a federal tax credit worth 1.9 cents/kWh and federal loan guarantee authority (currently $18.5 billion) covering up to 80% of a project’s cost, there were zero applications pending before the NRC for the construction and operation of new nuclear power plants. Absent this degree of federal support, which also includes 50% DOE cost-sharing for licensing costs and “regulatory risk” insurance (against possibly legitimate regulator induced delays in construction) totaling several hundred million for each of the first six units, there would be zero COL applications pending before the NRC.

So it is a bit hasty to conclude from such applications, either pending or expected, that there is a widespread utility consensus regarding the “economic acceptability” of new build nuclear power. That perception will only approximate reality following imposition of a stringent cap on carbon emissions and a resulting CO2 price of at least $50-$100 per ton.

Sharon Squassoni Senior Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Posted July 15, 2008, 6:33pm

Sharon Squassoni: 

In response to Dick and Jim's exchange on costs, one of the criticisms of nuclear energy is that Wall Street won't finance it because of the high risks. So I think it is necessary to look at the all-in costs, which Moody's estimated last year at about $6000/MW. Jeff Immelt of General Electric told the Financial Times that new nuclear plants would not be built in the US without carbon pricing, from which we can infer that the subsidies in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 have not been enough. The question is what price per ton of carbon emitted?

Whether or not the United States builds new nuclear power plants, the strong advocacy for nuclear power by the US, France, and Russia on the merits of climate change and energy security are clearly encouraging many other states to consider nuclear power. Almost 30 states have expressed interest since 2005. Many are developing nations, but some are oil-rich and won't need private financing for their nuclear power plants. Will they have the requisite safety, security, and regulatory infrastructure in place to ensure safe operation of reactors? It's not clear.

Christopher Paine Director, Nuclear Program Natural Resources Defense Council

Posted July 15, 2008, 5:33pm

Christopher Paine: 

Let me respond to Max’s comment. First, my comments were directed at prioritizing investment in available low-carbon energy resources, based on their comparative cost per ton of CO2 avoided, not on excluding any resource, including nuclear. Second, the statement that efficiency “doesn’t do much to lower aggregate energy consumption” contains insufficient information to be meaningful. Certainly, at the level of any economic unit you care to measure–an individual household, town, city, state or country–concerted efforts to accelerate the capture of end-use efficiency gains produces large measurable consumption savings over what would otherwise occur under a business as usual scenario over the same time period. To argue otherwise is to suggest that every kilowatt saved by a more efficient bulb, appliance, or entertainment system will somehow induce a consumer to buy more of these goods in exact proportion to his energy savings, until he returns to his/her previous consumer indifference curve for electricity. I don’t think there is any empirical support for this kind of argument.

Even if there are “perverse” efficiency price effects–some people buying and USING more of a good because it requires less energy and seems more affordable, not all consumers will do this, and not all will do so at a rate that overwhelms the gains from broadly applicable efficiency gains. No one is arguing that efficiency can fully or permanently offset the increased electricity consumption that comes from population growth, a general rise in living standards, or the increased market penetration of a wide range of new electronic devices. Thus efficiency is but one valuable, promptly available, and clean energy resource to be pursued among many, and its low cost relative to new-build nuclear suggests that on a rational ROI basis, it should be prioritized ahead of new build nuclear. So should other low-carbon energy investments with a lower cost per ton of CO2 avoided. When we are exploiting all these resources to the fullest, to the point that a marginal kilowatt of these clean resources is projected to cost as much as a marginal kilowatt of new build nuclear in the same timeframe–that is the time to bring on the nukes, not before.

Richard Meserve President Carnegie Institution

Posted July 15, 2008, 5:30pm

Richard Meserve: 

The cost numbers cited by Jim Riccio are the full costs, including financing and site costs and transmission upgrades, for two reactors. The current best estimate for the overnight cost (in 2007 dollars) of a new reactor ranges from about $3100/kWe [kilowatt - electric] to about $5000/kWe. Other generating companies do not see this as prohibitively expensive, as shown by the fact that the NRC has been told to expect 34 applications for combined licenses for new reactors by the end of 2010. New nuclear is viewed as economically acceptable because of the fast-rising costs for coal and natural gas, the inability of renewable energy and efficiency to satisfy growing baseload power needs even if deployed aggressively, and the inevitability of government controls on greenhouse gases.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 15, 2008, 4:31pm

Jim Riccio: 

Greenpeace is opposed to new nuclear plants due to the unresolved issues of cost, safety, security and waste. We oppose nuclear power in the climate context due to the opportunity cost. Despite government subsidies, new nuclear power is still prohibitively expensive. The latest figures provided by nuclear corporations to Florida regulators place the cost for a new reactor in a range between $12 and $ 18 billion. But the industry's track record would suggest that any new reactor will be well over budget and behind schedule. In December, MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway was the first corporation to postpone plans for a new reactor. When MidAmerican performed their due diligence review they determined that a new reactor did not make economic sense. When the world’s greatest investor won’t invest in nuclear power due to its poor economics, I would think that would cause others to reconsider.

Richard Meserve President Carnegie Institution

Posted July 15, 2008, 4:23pm

Richard Meserve: 

We perhaps could meet our climate change goals without nuclear. The issue is one of cost and hardship in the transition to a different world. The aim should be for a trajectory to a sustainable energy world that is minimally disruptive–economically and socially.

In this connection, it is my view that nuclear has to play a starring role. It is a major source of carbon-free energy that is available 24/7. Wind and solar technologies have the potential for deployment growth, but they are intermittent resources that are distant from users, thus requiring substantial expansion of transmission resources. Some of these technologies are costly and moving them to a percentage contribution in the double digits will require large increases over current levels in manufacturing, employment, investment, and installation. Not all are environmentally friendly.

The harsh reality is that coal provides 50% of our electricity. Somehow we need to move quickly to sequestration–a very uncertain and costly bet–or we need to replace coal with something that is carbon free. If we hope to reduce carbon emissions over the period to 2050, the share of energy that comes from nuclear will have to grow above the present 20%.

Doug Chapin Principal Officer and Director MPR Associates, Inc.

Posted July 15, 2008, 4:12pm

Doug Chapin: 

Sorry to get into the conversation late. I am out of the country and six hours ahead of you. I am not a member of a consensus that we could theoretically meet climate goals without nuclear for two reasons. First this is not a theoretical problem but a real one; so we need real, practical, in the sense of technically feasible and robust solutions. Second, my opinion is we cannot do it without nuclear. I am not persuaded that just because nuclear cannot solve the whole problem in seven years that we should not pursue it. There is no magic timeline and none of the solutions can solve the problem in a short time; the scale and complexity of the problem are just not amenable to short-term solutions. The discussion earlier about the need for a robust portfolio choices, each applied as best for various conditions, seems to me to be the best way to proceed. If there is a consensus evolving, it seems to be there.

Gwyneth Cravens Author Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy

Posted July 15, 2008, 3:56pm

Gwyneth Cravens: 

People in the environmental movement are starting to realize that without significantly increasing nuclear power we can't sufficiently reduce GHG emissions. If a carbon tax is instituted, nuclear power will become relatively cheap. If new reactors (including the more flexible, inherently safe modular micro-reactors now in development) are not added to meet the rising demand for electricity, then instead many more fossil fuel plants will be built to provide base-load. Carbon capture technology is in its infancy and is likely to be energy intensive. New coal-fired and gas-fired plants would not qualify as low-carbon sources. And coal plants would still emit deadly fine particulates.

Jesse Ausubel, Head of the Department of the Human Environment at Rockefeller University and a long-time expert on the impact of human activity on the environment, states that "renewables are not green" because of their vast environmental impact. He writes, "Considered in watts per square metre, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors." [see pdf]

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 15, 2008, 3:19pm

E. Donald Elliott: 

If I read it correctly, there’s a consensus emerging that at least theoretically, we COULD meet climate change goals without nuclear. (That's also a clear implication of the Sokolov "wedges" idea–there are several different combinations that all get to meeting climate goals.) But at what cost?
Plus everyone seems to agree that conservation and renewables also have an important role to play–and some even think they could do it alone. Although again, at what cost? (economic or otherwise)?
So perhaps we can bore down on (1) why not have some new and/or existing nuclear as part of the mix? and (2) what are the costs, timing and other issues that would counsel some people against increasing nuclear, or even to reduce or eliminate our existing commitment to nuclear?
Also, just for clarity, is there anyone out there who thinks that we should significantly increase our commitment to nuclear in the U.S. between now and 2050 (while we and the rest of the G-8 are pledged to cut GHC emissions by 50%)? Or are we really just talking about maintaining more or less what we have (roughly 20%) as part of a diversity of energy sources?

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 15, 2008, 2:44pm

Jim Riccio: 

We at Greenpeace applaud Exelon's desire to address climate change. And we agree that the world can’t wait. But that is precisely why new nuclear plants are a false solution to global warming. Nuclear power can not be brought on line in time to abate the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

John Rowe, Exelon's CEO, said he wouldn't build a new nuclear plant until the waste issue is solved. So it doesn't sound like Exelon will be building any reactors anytime soon. Despite having received government dollars to site a new reactor at Clinton in Illinois, Exelon's drive for a new reactor seems to have stalled and they haven't even applied for a license from NRC. So is Exelon interested in building new nuclear plants or merely getting the carbon credits for the reactors they already own?

Max Schulz Senior Fellow Manhattan Institute's Center for Energy Policy and the Environment

Posted July 15, 2008, 2:19pm

Max Schulz: 

I have to disagree with Christopher Paine’s argument. While I love efficiency, I don’t believe it does much to lower aggregate energy consumption. There aren’t really any “savings” to be had in efficiency. If you think about it, efficiency merely lowers the cost of using energy. Our economy has become wonderfully more efficient over the last several decades … yet as a result we consume far more energy. If we want to curb demand, we should promote inefficiency. We would all drive a lot less if CAFE standards mandated cars that only got three miles to the gallon.

Moreover, I don’t have Christopher’s confidence that renewables can take the lead in our energy economy. The heavy lifters traditionally have been fossil fuels like coal, petroleum, and natural gas, as well as uranium to make nuclear power. They provide over 90 percent of our energy today, because they are far, far better than renewable technologies at efficiently and economically delivering large supplies of reliable energy. Wind and solar deliver less than one percent of our nation’s electricity, and intermittently at that. With no serious storage capabilities for electricity on the horizon, the intermittency of these technologies is a big knock against them.

Chris Crane President and COO Exelon Corp.

Posted July 15, 2008, 1:49pm

Chris Crane: 

Exelon feels strongly about the need for immediate action to address climate change. The formal rollout of the Exelon 2020 Low Carbon Road Map represents several years of thoughtful deliberation on this critical issue combined with consistent, disciplined efforts to improve our supply of electricity in a safe, reliable and cost effective manner. Regardless of the mix that constitutes Exelon's energy portfolio, Exelon sees the potential of climate change as so dramatic that we cannot wait for others to act.

With the help of our valuable energy portfolio mix, the Exelon 2020 Low Carbon Roadmap will reduce, offset or displace more than 15 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year by 2020 through: reducing or offsetting Exelon's carbon footprint by greening operations; helping customers and communities we serve to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions; and offering more low-carbon electricity in the marketplace.

These commitments, along with a strong effort to advocate public policies in support of climate change improvement, are necessary to reverse climate change impact. Obviously, our nuclear fleet is a major component in achieving our goal in this effort. We will need all of our proposed solutions to be "indispensable" for this initiative to succeed. So Don has it right - nuclear is necessary, but not entirely sufficient, to resolve the climate change challenge in a workable way.

Gwyneth Cravens Author Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy

Posted July 15, 2008, 1:20pm

Gwyneth Cravens: 

A few points: Nuclear plants can also run on thorium, which is more abundant than uranium. And uranium is a common element in the earth's crust. The fuel supply for nuclear plants is assured for thousands of years, as has been pointed out. Reactors have been devised that can consume nuclear waste or transmute part of it into much-needed medical isotopes.

Rocky Mountain Institute's claim about greater efficiency trumping new nuclear plants has been analyzed by statistician David Bradish and found misleading.

New reactor designs can be built and brought online more quickly than was once the case. Japan and Canada have managed to do that. During WWII the US mobilized its resources to rapidly turn out ships and planes.

Nuclear plants avoid the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as would occur if about 65 million cars were taken off the road.

Cédric Philibert Senior Consultant International Energy Agency

Posted July 15, 2008, 1:10pm

Cédric Philibert: 

Our recent publication, Energy Technology Perspectives 2008, shows how to halve global energy-related CO2 emissions by 2050. Promoting energy efficiency is the most important area for controlling GHG emissions. Then come in almost equal shares renewables and carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) on large fossil-fuelled combustion facilities. Then comes nuclear power.

Without nuclear power (or without CCS, or without renewables…) it would not be absolutely impossible to achieve the same climate mitigation objectives–but that would be costlier. More likely, for the money our societies are ready to spend to alleviate the threat of climate change, we would do more in using all possible options.

Some countries still have a long way to go on energy conservation. Others have large renewable potential. For example, countries having areas with strong direct normal insulation can produce large amounts of guaranteed and dispatchable solar electricity through concentrated solar. Others have fewer of the same resources, and will need nuclear, or a combination of nuclear and coal with CCS.

Of course nuclear power cannot be developed everywhere, in particular due to proliferation concerns. But I’m often struck by the claims that nuclear cannot bring a significant contribution for it now provides only 6 or 7% of the world’s total primary energy supply. By the same token, solar PV [photovolatics] and CSP [concentrated solar power] provide much less, and we all hope they will be a very important part of the solution.

Christopher Paine Director, Nuclear Program Natural Resources Defense Council

Posted July 15, 2008, 12:46pm

Christopher Paine: 

Referring to Don’s query to Jim—is there “enough potential in ‘energy efficiency and renewable energy such as solar and wind’ that we can do what we have to do on climate based on them alone, without building new [nuclear] power plants”?—the answer, on a pure resource basis, is clearly yes. The US has enough potentially recoverable efficiency savings and renewable energy resources—direct solar radiation, indirect solar radiation, wind, geothermal, biomass, small hydro, and wave-tidal energy, to eventually power the entire US economy, essentially indefinitely, without nuclear or coal. Thus the essential questions involving these resources are the following:

1) Assuming the political will to adopt stringent carbon cap and trade policies and a sharp rise in the CO2 emissions allowance price, what is the likely evolution of “grid parity” prices for each and how do these compare with the levelized cost of new-build nuclear 10 years hence?

2) Will we make the necessary investments in new transmission and distribution infrastructure that will allow us to take full advantage of renewable and low-carbon distributed generation resources, or will the grid maintain its present bias toward centralized “baseload” thermal power plants?

3) Will we have the good economic sense to prioritize, via sensible federal, state, and PUC requirements, investments in efficiency and other prompt, lower cost resources ahead of higher-cost investments like new-build nuclear and coal with carbon capture? 

How large a role new build nuclear is likely to play depends a lot on how one answers these questions.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 15, 2008, 12:25pm

E. Donald Elliott: 

Chris's comment was very helpful. I understand the importance of a diversified portfolio of generation sources. On the other hand, by coincidence I noted that today Exelon announced that "we are making a commitment to reduce, offset, or displace all of our greenhouse gas emissions by 2020," making it (I believe) the first US utility to commit to becoming "carbon neutral." I wonder if it would have been possible for Exelon to make such a commitment without your substantial proportion of nuclear assets? Perhaps that's what you meant by "essential"—not the solution in and of itself, but an indispensible part of the solution?

Max Schulz Senior Fellow Manhattan Institute's Center for Energy Policy and the Environment

Posted July 15, 2008, 12:16pm

Max Schulz: 

Sharon is right that energy independence is a myth. I think our overall goals should be energy, economic, and environmental security, but not independence. I don’t think energy independence can make sense in a world with global markets for fuels like petroleum, coal, natural gas, and uranium (some of these global markets are more developed than others, of course). However, that said, the continued growth of these markets, with a focus on expanding the base of both suppliers as well as customers, helps contribute to global energy security.

Chris Crane made an excellent point that nuclear is just one part of a broad portfolio of energy options. It is not one single "answer" to our energy and environmental challenges, but it must be part of the overall answer as we seek a diversity of supply. Our energy security relies on a diversity of supplies and suppliers.

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 15, 2008, 11:58am

Jim Riccio: 

Last year, Greenpeace published our global energy scenario entitled Energy Revolution that would reduce emissions 50% by 2020 without using nuclear power. We at Greenpeace believe you can abate the impacts of climate with out resorting to new nuclear plants. The report was reviewed by Stephen Pacala from Princeton and the forward was written by Dr. Pachauri, the Chairman of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change].

As Pacala and Socolow posit in their climate wedges, our scenario would replace coal plants with natural gas while phasing out nuclear power. The report can be found here.

The Department of Energy's Five Labs study came to a similar conclusion. In 2000, an exhaustive technology assessment was conducted by five Department of Energy laboratories. They concluded that technologies exist that can reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to below 1997 levels by the year 2020 while reducing oil imports by 2 million barrels per day and enhancing national security. These reductions are achievable without any increase in nuclear power generation from current levels.

Chris Crane President and COO Exelon Corp.

Posted July 15, 2008, 11:31am

Chris Crane: 

Nuclear energy is simply one essential portion of an overall energy portfolio that provides clean, safe, secure, reliable and affordable power to this country. The appropriate choice for our consumers, economy and environment is neither a dangerous overdependence on any one energy source, or an ill-advised prohibition of any one key element. The United States must continue its push toward diversity of a low carbon energy supply. The first and most effective step in energy security is energy conservation and increased energy efficiency. Beyond that, nuclear and renewables must be further developed and utilized, the recent over-reliance on natural gas as a generation fuel must be contained, and development work continued to find economic and reliable ways to use coal cleanly.
To respond to Don's question, the "choice" for a utility executive who is faced with the need for additional capacity is not a single choice of one generation source, but a broad range of less than perfect responses. At this point in our financial and technology contexts: renewables do not provide sufficient quantities of reliable baseload power; natural gas is too expensive and too volatile both in cost and supply; coal is not yet clean enough; and new nuclear (as well as new coal) faces cost issues and an uncertain political path forward. The utility executive looks at costs (operating as well as capital), timing, regulatory and political predictability, local community support, reliability, markets and prices, and shareholder value.
So I reiterate–we need a broad portfolio that takes advantage of every option's strengths, while managing every option's disadvantages. Nuclear is in any event a key part of that response.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 15, 2008, 10:41am

E. Donald Elliott: 

Max’s figures are more consistent with the other projections I've seen than the idea that conservation and renewables can do it alone.

Plus it isn't always so easy for policymakers to get individuals to take all the steps that we should to conserve, particularly when the initial costs seems higher and the economic payback comes over a period of years. Most of us (myself included) don't do everything that we could to conserve.

And there's also the issue of international development—developing countries are clearly going to be building more power plants to meet increased demand, so they, as well as we, are going to need non-polluting (or less polluting) ways of producing more electricity.

Let's make sure that we do talk about breeder reactors during the course of this discussion. Because as Sharon points out, one runs out of uranium without them, but nuclear becomes virtually a renewable resource with them. I understand reprocessing our existing nuclear "waste" would supply nuclear fuel for about 2000 years.

As my former boss at EPA, then-Administrator Bill Reilly used to say (with apologies to Wordsworth): "A 'waste' is just a 'resource' in the wrong place."

Sharon Squassoni Senior Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Posted July 15, 2008, 10:27am

Sharon Squassoni: 

Energy independence, in general, is a myth, but especially with respect to nuclear energy's ability to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, for the reasons mentioned by Chris and others. Keep in mind that US utilities in 2007 imported almost 90% of their uranium, 40% of conversion services, and 90% of enrichment. But nuclear energy faces dwindling uranium resources toward the end of the century.  It is not a renewable energy source unless you're prepared to go to breeder reactors.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 15, 2008, 10:13am

E. Donald Elliott: 

I agree with Richard that nuclear doesn't have much to do with the price of gasoline. However, if we build more natural gas plants to produce electrical power, that does increase our dependence on imports (at least in the short run, because of limitations on our pipeline capacity). But we phased out almost all of our oil-fired power plants in the 1970's and 1980's in the wake of Arab oil embargo.

So the real choice for a utility executive today who is considering building additional capacity is probably coal (with or without carbon sequestration), wind, natural gas and/or nuclear. I'd be interested in Chris Crane of Exelon's perspective on how they and others in their industry see and evaluate their options for building incremental capacity. What are the distinguishing factors and pros and cons of each choice?

Jim’s comment is really interesting.  I would certainly agree that nuclear takes a long time and has a high initial capital cost. But are you saying that you think there's enough potential in "energy efficiency and renewable energy such as solar and wind" that we can do what we have to do on climate based on them alone, without building new power plants?

Christopher Paine Director, Nuclear Program Natural Resources Defense Council

Posted July 15, 2008, 10:08am

Christopher Paine: 

It’s important to distinguish between the climate change and “energy independence” goals of a nuclear power expansion. Nuclear already plays a significant role in de-carbonizing the electricity sector, but no current role in the transportation sector, where US oil dependence is greatest. A mass deployment of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles [PHEV] over the next several decades could create a nexus between nuclear power growth and reduced oil dependence, but it does not exist today and will not have a significant impact until there is a major market penetration of PHEV’s and EV’s [electric vehicles], which one would assume is at least 10-15 years away, at the earliest.

Even if this nuclear power-transportation nexus eventually comes to pass, it will not contribute to “energy independence” because the U.S. does not possess significant high-quality uranium resources and thus will not become a significant source of its own uranium consumption. Moreover, given the harmful groundwater impacts of in-situ leach (ISL) mining of uranium–the dominant technology for extracting low-grade uranium in the US–there are sound reasons why increased domestic uranium production is a bad idea. Reactor component production and reactor construction is likewise a thoroughly multinational industry with dominant foreign involvement, so the case for new build nuclear rises or falls on whether it can deliver de-carbonized megawatts safely and cost-effectively.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 15, 2008, 10:00am

E. Donald Elliott: 

I've also heard that Germany may be waffling on its prior (political) commitment to phase out nuclear and meet climate goals at the same time. But just last month, Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd renounced his predecessor's policy commitment to build a new generation of nuclear power plants to address climate change. Rudd said that his country would instead pursue "a huge range of energy options available to Australia beyond nuclear," and this is despite the facts that his country has huge deposits of uranium and currently exports about $600 million of it a year to other countries (see source). But I noted that Rudd was not very specific about the other "energy options" he had in mind, and at the same time, decided to cancel a long-standing ban on new uranium mines, so Australia could mine more uranium and ship it to other countries to use in their reactors! So maybe it is all just political posturing?

Jim Riccio Nuclear Policy Analyst Greenpeace

Posted July 15, 2008, 9:53am

Jim Riccio: 

NASA's James Hansen says that we have a seven year window in which to abate the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. If we actually want to address climate change, rather than merely subsidize nuclear corporations, we need to choose energy sources that are fast and affordable and nuclear is neither.

Nuclear power is a false solution to the problems of climate change and expensive gasoline. The opportunity cost of wasting billions on new nuclear power plants would be better spent on energy efficiency and renewable energy such as solar and wind. According to scientists from the Rocky Mountain Institute, every dollar spent on efficiency and renewables displaces 7 to 10 times the amount of CO2 as a dollar spent on nuclear. Not only is nuclear not essential; it’s not even necessary.

Max Schulz Senior Fellow Manhattan Institute's Center for Energy Policy and the Environment

Posted July 15, 2008, 9:44am

Max Schulz: 

Professor Elliott does a good job laying out some of the challenges facing our energy policymakers. I would add the need to take into account the electricity demands of a growing economy. Simply, we are going to require a lot more electricity than we presently use. We consume about 3.6 trillion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity annually, but the Energy Information Administration predicts our demand will grow and we will consume nearly 5 trillion kWh by 2030. That’s about a 30% increase (and I believe those projections take into account expected efficiency and conservation improvements). That electricity will have to come from somewhere. Nuclear power offers the ability to generate large volumes of baseload power safely and efficiently, while producing no GHG emissions. Meeting our growing demand needs in an environmentally friendly fashion is, to my mind, one of the chief reasons we should encourage the expansion of nuclear power.

Richard Meserve President Carnegie Institution

Posted July 15, 2008, 9:40am

Richard Meserve: 

Electrical generation that does not result in the emissions of greenhouse gases has to expand if we are to limit the hazards from climate change. We will need to use everything in our tool kit in order to reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear power today provides about 70% of US electrical generation that does not emit greenhouse gases during operation. It has to be part of the response. The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has indicated that it expects to receive applications for the construction and operation of as many as 34 new plants by 2010. Not all these applications will be filed and no doubt not all the filed applications will result in new plants. But there is the prospect of significant new nuclear construction in the US. From a climate change perspective, this should be seen as very welcome.

However, nuclear power will have only a very indirect impact on oil consumption. Oil is not a significant fuel for electrical generation in the US. There is the possibility of an indirect impact because of the linkage of oil prices with those of natural gas, which is used for electrical generation, and perhaps eventually through plug-in hybrids. But I do not think that the case for nuclear should emphasize the reduction of US dependence on foreign oil.

Gwyneth Cravens Author Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy

Posted July 15, 2008, 9:34am

Gwyneth Cravens: 

The atmosphere's burden of carbon dioxide increases by 3.2 gigatons annually, we urgently need to apply every means of reducing anthropogenic causes: conservation, efficiency, renewables, and nuclear power, which, along with hydroelectric power, is the world's biggest low-carbon electricity source.

Wind and solar power make only 2% of US electricity and are not reliable enough to provide base-load electricity. At present our only large-scale sources of base-load electricity are fossil fuel plants, nuclear plants, and hydroelectric plants. Coal-fired plants supply about 50% of our electricity. Their fine-particulate waste kills 24,000 Americans annually and causes cardiac and pulmonary disease in hundreds of thousands of others. In the 20th century over 1,000 Americans were killed by dam failures. But not one member of the American public has ever died as a result of the operation of commercial nuclear plants.

According to the Financial Times, efforts are being made in Germany to keep nuclear power. Many other countries are planning either to revive nuclear power or start using it.

E. Donald Elliott Professor of Law Yale Law School

Posted July 15, 2008, 9:00am

E. Donald Elliott: 

Calling climate change one of the greatest challenges ever faced by the human race, some former opponents of nuclear power have recently become its advocates, if cautious advocates. Our purpose here is not to debate climate change, but rather "Is nuclear power essential to addressing climate change and energy independence?"

Today nuclear power produces about 20% of the electric power consumed in the United States, but there has been a virtual moratorium on new reactor construction since the late 1970's in the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents. The percentage of electrical power supplied by nuclear is much higher in some other countries, notably France (which gets 90% of its electrical power from nuclear, according to some estimates). But the percentage is also lower in others, and some countries (such as Germany) are committed (at least in theory) to meeting stringent greenhouse gas reduction targets while also reducing (or even eliminating) their existing commitment to nuclear power.

Which path should the U.S. follow–the example of France, or the example of Germany, or some "third way"? And what about the problem of imported foreign oil and the American public's outrage at $4 per gallon gasoline? Is it economically or politically practical to consider phasing out nuclear when to do so would only increase our dependence on foreign oil and raise prices even higher? Or isn't an increased commitment to civilian nuclear power essential in order for the United States to meet its declared public policy goals of combating climate change and reducing dependence on foreign oil and moving toward greater energy independence?


Doug Chapin MPR Associates, Inc.
Chris Crane Exelon Corp.
Gwyneth Cravens Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy
E. Donald Elliott Yale Law School
John P. Holdren White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Richard Meserve Carnegie Institution
Christopher Paine Natural Resources Defense Council
Cédric Philibert International Energy Agency
Jim Riccio Greenpeace
Max Schulz Manhattan Institute's Center for Energy Policy and the Environment
Sharon Squassoni Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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Reader Comments

There seems to be unavoidable uncertainty in how to meet carbon targets. Conservation at the levels recommended by Greenpeace and others would almost certainly require a radical change in habits--probably induced by high user charges. Is the US likely to do this? And to what degree? More likely we just keep meeting demand by building or maintaining coal generation. So why wouldnt we start building nuclear now to hedge our bets? Especially with such a long lead time, don't we need to move forward on as many fronts as possible?

-- Philip Howard

In addition to the use of nuclear power to mitigate emissions linked to climate change, the discussion panel may wish to entertain the potential for nuclear desalination applications worldwide and in the USA as an adaptive response to the effects themselves (i.e. limited and decreasing freshwater availability around the globe).

I feel this a particularly relevant as the UN investigates available means to feed a growing world.

-- Ed

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Add Yours
1. July 15, 2008 11:40 AM

I disagree with Sharon. Not only is energy independence possible but the road is wide open. There is enough assured thorium reserve at Lemhi Pass to provide 100% of American power for 400 years. The probable Lemhi Pass reserve could last for another thousand years, and the thorium content of the White Mountains of Vermont could provide this country with all the energy we need for many more thousand of years. Sharon, before you write off energy independence look at thorium as an energy resource.

A thorium based energy future would require that a relatively trivial amount of money be spent on the development of a Generation IV reactor, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). There would be significant benefits for doing this. The LFTR is potentially more energy efficient than current reactor designs. It would be an efficient producer of electricity even if built in unites that ate 10th the size of current power generating reactors. Such small reactors can be easily and quickly mass produced. They would be transportable to final set up sites. LFTRs possess high levels of inherent safety, and thus do not require massive containment buildings. The LFTR makes highly efficient use of nuclear fuel A ton of thorium will generate 1 billion watts of electricity for a year. Once the fission byproducts have "cooled down" most can be sold for industrial use. Long half life radioisotopes would have uses in industry, food processing, and sanitation. Thus the problem of nuclear waste would be eliminated.

There are extensive discussions of the thorium nuclear fuel cycle, and of the LFTR on Energy from Thorium. ( I also discus the history as well as the future prospects of the LFTR on my blog The Nuclear Green Revolution. (

-- Charles Barton
2. July 15, 2008 12:31 PM

Thanks for the invitation to comment. Nuclear for energy security only makes for countries with little other energy resources. Japan, South Korea and France are excellent examples. Nuclear for no/low carbon emission makes sense for them and just about everyone else. While the use of conservation and efficiency improvements are the low hanging fruit of policies aimed at energy independence as well as reducing emissions linked to climate change, there is no evidence to suggest they alone will be adequate to achieve the goals of many nations, including the USA, without unacceptable adverse economic impacts. If one considers the projected increases in population and energy demand over the coming decades, aggressive conservations and efficiency programmes will barely keep up. Renewables must be part of the equation going forward, but as Ms. Cravens discusses, they - with conservation and efficiency - will be inadequate and are challenged with respect to energy quality and reliability. An industrial nation can not run on renewables. My own understanding is that a mix of around 20% renewables (other than hydro) is an appropriate balance. Nuclear power is a no/low emission technology that offers the proven ability to generate large quantities of electricity. Back-end (waste management) is not a technical issue. With political will, this can be solved with little drama. I do not believe the USA will get their first (the WIPP notwithstanding). Sweden looks to have a very well managed programme that has effectively involved and informed the public from its early days. Proliferation concerns must also be put into context. Removing all nuclear power plants on earth will not impact proliferation concerns that much. Most concerns today involve higher enriched uranium used at smaller research reactors used globally for materials research, eduction and the production of medical and industrial isotopes. Concerns over facilities in North Korea and, recently, Syria are not linked to commercial power. Few are suggesting Iran reject nuclear power - only sensitive enrichment technologies. Even if we rid the world of commercial power reactors, smaller reactors - as we saw in Canada last year - will not be allowed to shutdown. Many officials promoting renewables, conservation and efficiency only - like Kevin Rudd in Australia - are very lite on technical details and specific deployment strategies based on demonstrated generation technologies. Canvasing data from other nations around the world will show many attempts at such an approach. Denmark, for example, has rejected nuclear in lieu of wind. Their per capita emissions are significant, they are forced to import large quantities of energy from their neighbors (not an option for some countries around the world) and they will fail to meet their Kyoto commitments. As shown here from Europe - ALL countries above who are ahead of their Kyoto schedule rely on nuclear as part of their generating portfolios. Also EVERY country without nuclear plants is struggling to fulfil its Kyoto commitments. The USA, Britain, Sweden and Italy have overturned (or are in the process of overturning) old nuclear practices and policies that looked to put the industry to bed indefinitely. Germany - determined to keep their emissions low and their industrial machine operating - is on the verge of doing the same. Asia (China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and others) leads the world in the nuclear boom. France has begun construction on its next nuclear station and is signing construction contracts right and left for new power and other fuel cycle facilities through nuclear giant AREVA. The nuclear industry is somewhat challenged by a need for greater infrastructure. Physically, the world's supply of heavy industry facilities with the capability to produce large steel components must be expanded. But this expansion was completed in the 1970s and 80s and can be repeated. Human resources are also limited. Skills to manage and complete plant constructions are all but gone in the USA and other countries. Engineers, technicians and operators to keep the plants running are retiring much faster than they are coming in at the junior level. From my own experience this is one of the most significant hurdles - the best written procedure pales in comparison to an experienced and qualified engineer, technician or operator. The resulting resource gap, must be carefully managed. A wise policy may be to start immediately on aggressive efficiency and conservation programmes; deploy significant renewables where it makes sense to do so; and build up nuclear related infrastructure (heavy industry, fuel cycle facilities, and significantly more human resources development) with an aim for more nuclear power stations in the coming years and decades. (Don't forget the potential use of Thorium)

-- Ed
3. July 15, 2008 12:38 PM

While wind and solar power sound great, there are serious difficulties with these sources. First of all they are low-intensity sources, so would require a lot of space to provide the energy needed. For example, I believe it would require a wind farm of about 3000 square kilometres to produce 1000 MW of electricity.

Perhaps more important, even if we could find the space for these renewables, they are intermittent sources, so backup facilities have to be in place when the sun doesn't shine, and the wind doesn't blow. This means large investments in these additional backup facilities. So, if we need baseload facilities as backup why not use them all the time?

Wind and solar can supplement the baseload generation, e.g. for heating water, but I don't think they can replace it. Therefore, we are back to the basic question, how do we provide baseload electricity? The only non-polluting sources are hydrelectric and nuclear. When we have harnesssed all the hydro sources there is only nuclear that can do the job cleanly.

Ralph Green

-- Ralph Green
4. July 15, 2008 1:25 PM

E. Donald Elliott asks, "Which path should the U.S. follow–the example of France, or the example of Germany, or some "third way"?" The present German path seems headed for disaster. The capacity factor of new wind generators is now well blow 20% and each new wind facility has a lower capacity factor than the past. Solar is hopeless with at most 5 1/2 hours of solar electrical generation. If Germany shuts its nuclear plant, it will have no hope unless it builds coal fired power plants. This appears to be what the German Greens want. It would appear that the German model is bankrupt as fighting global warming. The French use what might be described as horse and buggy reactor technology. For a song, much better reactor technology is available. Light water reactors have safety issues that are expensive to correct. They are very big, take a long time to build, and suffer from the problems of the uranium fuel cycle including nuclear waste. and are enormous investments. A comment to more advanced nuclear technology would produce a more elegant, lower cost, less messy system than the French have. In fact there are neet technological solutions to all of the issues about nuclear power which Jim Riccio has raised. We out then to explore the path of advanced nuclear technology rather than to simply confine ourself to the options which Elliott noted.

-- Charles Barton
5. July 15, 2008 1:54 PM

In addition to the use of nuclear power to mitigate emissions linked to climate change, the discussion panel may wish to entertain the potential for nuclear desalination applications worldwide and in the USA as an adaptive response to the effects themselves (i.e. limited and decreasing freshwater availability around the globe).

I feel this a particularly relevant as the UN investigates available means to feed a growing world.

-- Ed
6. July 15, 2008 2:54 PM

As many have made clear, fission-based nuclear energy is a very good interim idea (but only until fusion comes online, and the full benefits of renewables, non-carbon portable fuels, and conservation technologies come to fruition). But Newquelar (in the words of 43 and Danny Quayle) is not simple to just go with in the immediate (i.e. a few years) future even with near infinite resources, and sadly cannot be "flip-switched" at this time without an extreme shift in resources and intentions. The infrastructure of technologists trained in nuclear power (The Nuclerati) - from fuel mining, refining & enrichment, through breeding and/or waste internment - is at this time sorely lacking, especially if "independence" is an important mantra. I note in passing that immigration rules post 9/11 have severely impacted training in nuclear energy and technology in general by restricting the ability of foreign nationals to get graduate education visas (and high tech in general – for example, 70% of the high tech startups in California were by foreign born nationals). Moreover even The Grid infrastructure to handle enough electric power to supplant carbon-fueled vehicles with plug-ins, or even hydrogen production from water, is inadequate. But to some degree all of this does seem to have gotten much more of our attention, now that nearly $60b/month and rising is being shipped to foreign oil suppliers, with the concomitant price of carbon fuels rising in the US. The political opportunity to clean the atmosphere and solve geopolitical uncertainties is a carpe diem opportunity, a sequela based on the public’s self-interest to be able to drive SUV’s, and a belated blessing which the US should seize. In my opinion, mining uranium where the gila monsters or carefree golfers and ATV’s roam makes a lot more sense than drilling under the caribou and walruses(walri?). So a major Nuclear push must include infrastructure, both human education and power delivery, and a set of legislation, taxation and initiatives that fast track NP in the same nature as the Manhattan project, this next election fund-raising-frenzy, competition to publish of the pictures of the brangelina twins, or the prevention of the imminent collapse of the banking system. As many have mentioned, there are wonderful new technologies making nuclear inherently safer during operation (pebble bed; particle accelerator generated neutrons to reach criticality; etc), and which lessen the spent fuel volume (breeding, plutonium fuels, thorium fuels; etc,), and alternatives to present burial sites (albeit very expensive: the antarctic basaltic shield; reburner processing reactors; an electromagnetic mass-driver about 20 km long, capable of launching few kg sized capsules of spent fuel away from the earth, into the sun or far solar orbits; cargo U-2’s or cruise missles, capable of fly-over releases of the spent fuels into Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Western Pakistan, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition secret prisons, the TX,NM,AZ,CA-Mexico border fence area, Washington, DC, the NY Times building, and all the blue states).

The comments about solar, wind, wave and other renewables are spot on: the need for convenient storage or supplemental sources during the down times - but there are many alternatives for that, assuming that there could be over-capacity of the alternatives to be stored - these include pumped water reservoirs, high pressure underground air chambers, energizing superconducting magnets, thermal “batteries”, and especially making hydrogen fuels both for supplemental electricity generation and vehicles.

A true breakthrough addressing the storage problem, however, would be a world-spanning power grid that would cover for the down times which occur in all places, like solar at night, or the hurricane/monsoon seasons - an equator-spanning global necklace of power: solar, wind, wave etc farms (a solar farm using today's technologies 150 km x 150 km would supply the present US electricity – roughly the size of the Nevada test site), using the solar or wind resources of the driest and hottest and blowingest places between the two tropics parallels (to take advantage of both the northern and southern hemisphere summers), probably based on several lays of parallel/redundant superconducting cables in the longest passages (and obviously with major feeders travelling N/S - perhaps even polar-spanning). The US southwest and Chile, for example, would be supplying China and Australia during their night, etc. Such a grid and solar/other electricity farms would be a truly global megaproject, potentially benefitting all (if done fairly, that is), with wonderful (geo)political implications. Among the many interesting if not ultimately demanded global megaprojects envisioned heretofore, perhaps this could be done in conjunction with transoceanic tunnels (the boring machine rate is about 100 miles/year nowadays), to lessen air-travel but enhance and many others.

A difficulty with many of these plans is the need for huge amounts of energy expenditure needed in advance to enable the new energy supply. An example of this difficulty is solar energy. A present it takes roughly 5 years of solar exposure to get back the energy used to make the solar installation. Thus to make a farm to supply the US at present, using/scarfing 10% of the available electricity per year to make the solar farm would require about 35+ years to produce, as it came slowly online. (Achtung! There are alternative photovoltaic technologies on the horizon which require far less up front energy to produce).

So Go Nuclear, but with planned obsolescence when their ~50 year plant lives expire. In that famous SF film line:
“Nukem! Nukem ‘til they Glow!”

-- pangloss
7. July 15, 2008 2:59 PM

The Greenpeace and RMI claims that renewables like solar and wind can be scaled up faster. This has been stated for decades and not been proven to be true. Many billions per year have been spent in Germany, Spain and other places to subsidize wind and solar but in spite of many years of subsidized build up wind is at 194 TWh globally and 50 Twh in Germany. The Global wind energy council forecasts that if Germany has optimal wind friendly policies then Germany could have 55 GW of wind by 2020 generating 150 Twh. Yes France in the 1980s built its 60GW of nuclear power which generate 420 Twh. So the wind and solar build up faster line is bunch of BS. Greenpeace quote RMI and Lovins. Lovins has claimed that nuclear power is a dieing industry since his Foreign Affair article in 1976. Since then global nuclear power has increased by over 400% and is now over 2600 Twh. A lot of the increase was from operational improvements and uprating existing plants (increasing power from existing plants).

Further uprates are possible. MIT has piloted annular fuel which could increase power generation by 50% for existing PWR and there is other work for increasing BWR by 30+%. Westinghouse is working on commercialization. There is still room for standard uprates as well. Applying 50% power uprates would increase nuclear power from 20% now to 30% power generation even if no new plants were built.

China is increasing its nuclear power build. Official target for 2020 now 60GW and discussing have 100 AP1000 reactors built or being built by 2020. (1.25GW-1.7GW sizes). China starting in 2009 the construction of a 200MW high temperature nuclear reactor which would have 40% thermal efficiency and would be meltdown proof. Meltdown was shown in 10MW pilot reactor when cooling systems were turned off. The high temperature reactors are designed for factory mass production.

Nuclear proliferation: to which countries ? Most countries already have actual weapons or the means to produce them. Canada and many other countries choose not to produce nuclear weapons. Countries have historically gotten nuclear weapons first and then commercial nuclear power. North Korea, nuclear weapons but no commercial nuclear power.

Plus the nuclear build will primarily be in places that already have nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

Business as usual nuclear power is on track to increase 200GW and 1400 Twh by 2020. With an accelerated build effort and with 50% uprating this can go to an increase of 600GW and 5200Twh. Wind, solar, geothermal power should be built up as well but there is no reason to not build up the nuclear power. Plus a lot of the build action will be in China and Asia where greenpeace sentiment is meaningless.

-- brian wang
8. July 15, 2008 5:31 PM

Opportunity cost of nuclear power. The choice to develop nuclear power is being made by business and government interests in many countries. Some of those companies such as GE also is a major developer of wind power. If wind power would make GE more money then GE would develop more wind power. Many of utilities and companies involved develop a range of power generation sources. The nuclear industries track record is not as bad as projects cherry picked for high prices and overruns would indicate. Many of recent nuclear construction in China and south Korea have been on time and budget and the budgets have been far lower than the Florida quote. The Florida quote is also a budget that includes everything including extra grid and not just the power plant. Wind power costs: 1.5 billion euro for 500MW. Which generates the equivalent of 150MW of nuclear. So 15 billion euro to make equivalent of a 1.5GW nuclear reactor. Cost: The analysis made by the countries and companies investing in nuclear indicates that they believe costs for nuclear are low enough. With accelerating orders and build. Safety: Externe (swiss) analysis of deaths per TWH for nuclear compare very favorably to other power sources. Expecially good compared to coal and oil which remain the dominant energy sources now and in every forecast of actual energy development. So if wind and solar cannot replace all of the coal and oil by X years then nuclear should be developed along side to displace the far more deadly coal and oil. Air pollution (indoor and outdoor) kills 5 million worldwide (World Health Organization) Security: No meaningful security breaches have been made. Already addressed proliferation (are you going to go back in time to stop Pakistan Khan?) In terms of terrorist action, there are plenty of targets (hydro dams, water supplies, oil refineries etc...) Security layers of nuclear plants is sufficient and pro-actively eliminating or reducing terrorism at the source is the more cost effective option (and more effective in general) Waste: What about the billions of tons of air pollution particulates ? What is the halflife of mercury or arsenic ? How about the twenty thousand tons of uranium and thorium going into the air from burning coal. Did a Greenpeace plan address that in 7 years ? Nuclear can be kept in barrels or pools onsite. Better reactors like molten salt reactors (Japan, Fuji molten salt)or accelerator driven reactors (EU) or high temperature reactors that can burn the waste from current reactors can be developed. Waste which is mostly unburned nuclear fuel. Molten salt reactors were built in the sixties and seventies by the USA so they are not fairy tale reactors. Warren Buffet did not invest in Google or Microsoft either. Warren makes his money where he is comfortable, if he does not invest it does not automatically mean that investment is bad.

-- brian wang
9. July 15, 2008 7:04 PM

The question of is nuclear essential is based on some energy decisions and policy going forward. It is only a question of whether more nuclear will be added along with other power additions. Energy policy does not change that fast. so this would only be a meaningful question for projects starting or in early progress in 2010. It is also not much of a meaningful question for China and several other countries they are already committed to nuclear power for other reasons.

EIA forecast is 86 Quad BTU being added to the world 2010-2020.[reference case 2008]
Currently about 480 Quad BTU in use in the world.
The US uses 100 Quad BTU.
China is forecast to add 33.3 Quad BTU. 110GW of hydroelectric being added by China 2010-2020. 50+GW of nuclear power is being added. So about 6 Quad from hydro and 4+ quad from nuclear.
As noted, China is talking about 100 AP1000 (1.25 GW-1.7GW) instead of 40 built or being built by 2020. And the mass production of high temperature reactors.
Russia adding 40GW of nuclear and India and other countries have firm nuclear power plans. So it looks like 10+ quads based on current plans from nuclear.
At the end of 2006 the US had 11.6GW of wind. This had generated 0.258 quads of energy in 2006. So almost one hundred times that amount to displace coal usage. 1TW of wind power. Also, coal used for industrial processes probably could not be displaced by wind. High temperature nuclear reactors could supply the right thermal energy for those industrial processes.
So how much will some OECD countries adjust their mix of 25% of the world new power build ? Will there be an actual programs to shift the already installed power mix in the OECD ?

-- brian wang
10. July 15, 2008 8:12 PM

Some on the panel seem to assume that the current generating capacity is some type of snapshot that will remain stagnant over the next century. Over this time, current power stations will see the end of their operational lifespans. Many of these stations are large and together account for considerable generating capacity. In addition to new capacity to meet increasing demand, this 'retiring' capacity must be replaced. Considering this bigger picture and what I've already said above, I can not comprehend how we move forward without considerable nuclear deployment.

-- Ed
11. July 16, 2008 7:35 AM

One of the things that has astonished me since I began to research the problem of carbon-fuel replacement is the extent to which discussions are informed by misinformation. Last year discussions about nuclear costs were informed by information that was a year or two out of date. Cost estimates did not reflect recent information. Inflation of materials and labor cost have increased the price of nuclear plants significantly. Critics of nuclear power have seized on this price inflation as an argument against nuclear power. What those critics don't tell us is that the same inflationary factors are effecting the cost of renewable generating facilities ever more than they are effecting the price of nuclear plants. In addition to the price of materials and labor performance related issues effect the cost of renewables. Thus in addition to the cost of manufacture, the reliability issues with renewables have a cost. It is argued, for example that the wind is always blowing somewhere, and there for by linking wind generators all over the country with a grid, reliable power can be delivered. In fact this approach requires an enormous duplication of generating facilities and even then a Stanford study reveals that power would be inadequate 15% to 20% of the time, thus the system would still require back up generation. So we have to have another source of electrical electricity for when wind energy is not available. Thus in addition to the cost of a renewable energy system, we would have to use a back up system. The back up options are to use existing fossil fuel generating facilities, build energy storage facilities, and a third option that is rarely discussed, build nuclear plants for renewables backup. The first option is seriously flawed, if we intend to get serious about fighting global warming. It relies on CO2 generating technology to back up renewable power. In addition, natural gas, a which would be a major part of the fossil fuel back up strategy is becoming increasingly expensive, and is at any rate a non-renewable resource and thus not an sustainable option. Coal has numerous problems. The proposal to sequester CO2 from burning coal is very expensive, has significant complexities, and carries risks that have not been fully assessed. It is doubtful that coal with sequestered CO2 would be less expensive than nuclear power, The second back up option involves the use of energy storage also has significant flaws. First renewable energy technologies are expensive ways to generate the massive amounts of electricity needed to run the American economy. The cost of storage options like Pump Storage facilities or battery arrays turns out to be as expensive as the cost of nuclear facilities. Compressed air Energy Storage (CAES) has been proposed but questions of scaleability and safety exist. In addition, and this is ironic there are questions about radioactive materials like Radon contaminated the stored air, and being transported to the surface in energy recovery. CAES also uses almost as much natural gas as conventional gas generators do, hence it is not a carbon free energy option. If the cost of energy storage is added to the cost of renewable electrical generation the cost will probably exceed the cost of building electrical generating reactor system by a considerable margin. Finally, the third approach to renewable back up is to build reactors to generate back up electricity. Although expensive, this plan would would have several advantages. For example it would not solve the CO2 problems related to fossil fuel back up, and unlike fossil fuels, nuclear energy is a sustainable option. There is so much mineable uranium and thorium in the earth's curst that for all practical purposes we will never run out no matter how much we burn for energy. Reactors are expensive, but not more so than some energy storage schemes that have been proposed. And there are things that could be done to bring down reactor costs. Possibly bring down reactor costs a lot without compromising on things like safety. Nuclear plants are also far more flexible than energy storage schemes. The storage schemes can only accept a limited amount of energy, before they are maxed out. The can only pump out the amount of energy stored. Reactors can pump out a virtually unlimited amount of energy over time. Once the fuel is burned, more can be added. On the other hand if the wind stops blowing for several days, once we drain our storage, we are out of energy, while back up reactors can keep pumping away. Thus back up reactors promise superior levels of power output over time than energy storage facilities do. There is, however, a question that should be asked in any scheme to back up renewables with reactors. "Why use reactors to back up renewables, when the very reliable reactors can do the whole job on their own?" It would be cheaper, and perhaps far cheaper to build the entire system using only nuclear power. This is, I believe what a blue ribbon panel of wise people will conclude in response to President Obama's charge to come up with a solution to our energy issues shortly after January 20, next year. Finally I would like to note that numerous routs to lowering nuclear costs are available. In a series of posts on me blog The Nuclear Green Revolution I looked at the question of how do we replace 100% of fossil fuel use in electrical generation - and indeed in the entire energy economy - with nuclear energy. I stipulated the goals as: 1. Decreasing reactor cost 2. Rapid manufacture 3. The production of as many reactors as were required to replace the use of fossil fuels as energy sources for our society. 4. The highest possible level of reactor safety 5. Resolution of the problem of nuclear waste. I then argued in a series of posts that it was possible to meet all of these goals by using factory manufactured LFTRs. (See the "Keys" posts in my May archive.

-- Charles Barton
12. July 16, 2008 10:38 AM

Jim Riccio has reduced the discussion of nuclear safety to a bumper sticker approach. Jim's approach to nuclear power seems to be based on the repeating slogans coined in the 1970's, without further examination of the subject. I would like for Jim to make a fact based case that Generation III+ reactors are Dangerous. I would like for him to make a case that Generation IV reactors like the Pebble Bed Reactor or the Liquid Fluoride Reactor are dangerous in any meaningful way. We have learned a whole lot about nuclear safety since Three Mile Island. The most important lesson from the Three Mile Island accident was to take safety related decisions out of the hands of the operators, and place it in the hands of built in reactor passive safety systems. Nuclear safety research by reactor builders, has lead to ever safer reactor design. A General Electric description of its latest reactor design, the ESBWR describes, contains data reflecting the evolution of reactor safety. The GE Boiling Water Reactor/4 was expected to have a core melt down once every 10,000 years. The Boiling Water Reactor/6 included safety improvements and was expected to have a core meltdown once every 100,000 years. The Advanced Boiling Water Reactor is expected to have a core meltdown once every 2,000,000 years. Finally a core melt down is expected with the Evolutionary Simple Boiling Water Reactor once every 29,000,000 years. To put the full implications of ESBWR safety into perspective, I would like to contrast the risk posed by an ESBWR core meltdown, to that a far more dangerous and far more likely risk risk posed by a natural phenomena. The 1,500 square mile Yellowstone Caldera super volcano has a history of eruptions dating back 17 million years. The Yellowstone Caldera super volcano erupts every 600,000 to 800,000 years and it has been over 600,000 years since its last eruption. The last Yellowstone Caldera eruption sent a massive blew 240 cubic miles of rock and lava to bits and send an enormous cloud of volcanic dust high into the atmosphere. Such an eruption would kill millions of people, and virtually destroy the American economy. An eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera super volcano is between 50 and 300 times more likely than an ESBWR core melt down. The Yellowstone Caldera eruption could kill millions of people. The number of people killed and injured by a ESBWR accident is most likely 0. A Yellowstone Caldera super volcano would cause horrible suffering to most of the population of the United States. A ESBWR meltdown would cause extreme unhappiness in the head offices of some insurance companies. Guess which event the anti-nuclear crowd is most obsessed with? Hay some of them are related to insurance executives. I might add that ESBRW safety feature in the very unlikely event of a core melt down, are superior to those of the Three Mile Island Reactor, which contained that accident without loss of life or injury. Jim's concerns about nuclear safety are monumentally overblown, and is unfortunately all to typical of the approach to nuclear power offered by Greenpeace.

-- Charles Barton
13. July 16, 2008 12:10 PM

Jim Riccio Trots out all the threadbare anti-nuclear arguments one by one. We have a wealth of evidence on what causes nuclear proliferation, and building reactors to generate electricity in the United States is not one of those causes. The graphite pile reactor, first built during World War II, is still the royal road to nuclear proliferation. Building one was within the capacity of North Korea which centered its nuclear weapons program around them. No one has ever built a nuclear weapon from reactor grade plutonium produced in civilian light water reactors. It would pose an enormous and extremely expensive challenge for a non-nuclear power to extract plutonium from power reactor fuel, and build a deliverable weapon with it. The notion that building reactors in the United States would lead to small nations in Africa to acquire atomic bombs is simply absurd.

-- Charles Barton
14. July 16, 2008 12:12 PM

Cost considerations of nuclear power are indeed important. A cost component in many ways difficult to address is the size of a nuclear plant, which also has social implications. The “sizes” of reactors contemplated can vary by about 2-3 orders of magnitude, from ~10MWthermal (~2-4 MW electric), similar to the remarkably compact and efficient submarine or ship reactors, up to ~3000-4000 MWthermal(~1000-2000MWelectric), the sizes of the largest plants today. Heretofore, there has been little standardization, and for many good reasons. However, the technology has now matured to a point where a step change in safety and proliferation resistance are available, in part due to advanced sensor and computer control, and moreso due to new materials and clever designs. A smaller plant as a modular, fixed design item may have some real benefits from costs of scale, if many are built. Considerably smaller components, in particular the large castings, mean an ease of construction due to the much smaller components, which are more easily transported and installed. Moreover, the speed of construction of plants will have a learning curve that substantially reduces the time (and tehrefore cost)to build when the same plant is built over and over, as is shown in detail in many large assemblies (one only has to look at large commercial aircraft – the first plane produced is nearly an order of magnitude more expensive than the last plane to be produced, in units of hundreds. This was true in WWII in spades wirth the liberty transport ships. This is true generally of very high-tech items. The first DVD recorders cost $5k, whilst now they cost less than $100 with higher performance; same with the first laser printers, digital cameras and GPS devices.). An assembly-line scale production of the large castings, the controls etc will lower costs substantially. This scaling includes modern generators, which can be far more easily phase locked in an array of smaller generators to produce in effect the output of one large generator, due to modern controls. A fixed reactor/powerplant design, the result of several years of improving prototype versions with operational experience, could prove to be very useful and economic. Many efforts are being worked on even as we newtalk (see this admittedly partisan review: ). The various benefits of a small fixed design include deployment in one extreme as a farm of, say, 8-12 small reactors at a large site, driving a fewer number (4-6) of turbine generators, where one reactor or turbogenerator can be down for maintenance or fueling without seriously affecting the output, and at the other extreme, a single reactor per site implementation appropriate to cities with populations under 50,000. Deployment near population centers of a reactor 1/10 or less in size to existing plants may be more feasible; for example, sinking 10 m diameter shafts costs about $200k per meter of depth today, so a 100 m deep reactor “site” might cost an additional $50-100m. A major benefit is in the human performance/manpower needs, where the teams to build, operate, fuel/defuel, inspect and repair reactors are thereby multiply deployable and amenable to universal training systems, and trained in a more universal skill set appropriate for many reactor sites, and much more amenable to standardized testing and skill evaluation, very unlike many of the present situations. Some small reactor designs ( particularly high temperature gas cooled designs – see PBMR for example), can have fairly rapid changes in the power settings, making them appropriate/ideal to be part and parcel of large solar photovoltaic, solar-thermal (where the reactor and the solar-thermal collection system might even share the same turbine/generators), or windpower energy farms, to make up for nighttime/cloudy or no-wind periods, obviating the necessity for energy storage, extending the life of the nuclear fuel due to the renewable energy, while making the renewable sources in effect a fully reliable source of electricity.

-- pangloss
15. July 16, 2008 12:31 PM

As far as proliferation is concerned (I suppose the second amendment and its shibboleths aside – but widdershins, a nuke in my garage, ”just-in-case”, seems prudent, nu? How cool would that be, to wash it on the driveway on a Saturday morning? I suppose that would be both keeping and "baring" arms. If nothing else, for mass deer hunting…), proliferation will be a moot point when the US becomes a net importer of food (when the midwest breadbasket fails and the west’s irrigation water vanishes), and the world at large verges on mass starvation due to global warming. If the uncertainty of nuclear war and terrorism doesn’t get us, global warming will, and almost to a certainty, if nothing urgent is done. To not do everything in our power to reduce global warming seems utterly irresponsible, far more than the danger of proliferation, which is far more controllable than having the atmosphere inexorably against human life on earth. An amusing series of simulations of life on earth done over the past ~20 years have estimated that once humans were able to reach the technical sophistication to understand and produce radio, that the average life of civilization would be about 200 years, before it destroyed itself through all the means at hand (weapons of mass destruction, collapse of the environment and the ecosystems, etc.). We are about half-way there, and have about 100 years to go before we become extinct as a social organized system. And if you look around, this prediction seems just all too near to becoming true (I personally am far more worried about genetically engineered bioweapons escaping into the wrong hands or being invented by biohackers, as low cost breadbox-sized hack-the-genome gadgets become possible, than I am worried about a handful of nukes in the wrong hands - mutually assured destruction of [sic] rogue states or states allowing nukes in the hands of extra-governmental organizations still has a chilling effect on an exchange of nukes. We should change our policy to Lunch-On-Warning... out-to-lunch is so much better than out-to-launch...). If this amusing scenario about our survival past about 2110 is true, it largely explains why even if there are many intelligent beings “out-there”, that we have not heard from them. Setting aside the energy limitations of transmission over interstellar distances in even the few longer lived civilizations that may exist, the probability of a 200 year wide spherical blip of radio transmissions crossing the earth and reaching us while either we exist as able to receive it or them to exist as able to transmit it to us when we exist is exceedingly small. Drawing a 200 light-year circle around the solar system yields essentially no stars with habitable planets. Where are the aliens, when we so desperately need them to unite this planet?

-- pangloss
16. July 16, 2008 12:39 PM

To Sharon Squassoni's question about ramping up nuclear build. Not all nuclear reactors need the big containment dome forgings. Candu reactors don't. Areva (france nuclear) is designing reactors that would use a more easily built 300 ton forging. Russia also makes their own forgings. South Korea's large forging capacity is coming online and is already taking orders. Britain and China are also building up large forging capacity. China is willing to weld two half size forgings together (this was a procedure done earlier in the nuclear industry). Japan steel can turn out four of the steel forgings that contain the radioactivity in a nuclear reactor. They will double capacity in the next two years. Japan Steel caters to all nuclear reactor makers except in Russia, which makes its own heavy forgings. Plus Canada's CANDU reactor do not need these forgings. Areva, the world's biggest reactor builder, is considering modifying its newest design to be able to make the central reactor-vessel part from a 350-ton ingot instead of more than 500 tons as required today. Another alternative is to turn back the technological clock and weld together two smaller forgings, said John Fees, CEO of McDermott International Inc.'s Babcock & Wilcox Co., which built the Three Mile Island reactor. That technique was used over the past 40 years in the U.S. and France and is still applied in China. China High temp reactors do not need large forgings either. Neither would Hyperion Power Generations Uranium hydride reactors. to Jim Riccio - Again proliferate to which country or group? N Korea already has the tech. Iran has all the know-how and is working on getting the material. Pakistan has the bomb. What is the differential risk? Countries get the bomb first then they get nuclear power. If China has 11 reactors and 300 nuclear bombs or if China has 500 nuclear reactors and 300 nuclear bombs then what is the differential risk? Proliferation has happened slowly over the last 6 decades. Proliferation has killed no one. No new country that has gotten nuclear weapons has killed anyone with nuclear weapons. Meanwhile over 200 million people have died from air pollution and over 300,000 have died from coal mining. Conventional weapons have killed over 150 million since the end of WW2. Why not concentrate on things that are actually killing people every year in very large numbers instead of theories of greater risk which are not correct. Should not more dangerous or deadly actually kill more people?

-- brian wang
17. July 16, 2008 3:29 PM

My question, as a non-expert, is where power capacity will come from in 10 and 20 years. In the US it's 50% coal today. This is not clean power, and some of those plants will also need to be replaced in the ordinary course. Don't we want to replace that with something cleaner? Then the question is one of comparative real cost, taking into account carbon. Is nuclear competitive in a world that fairly values environmental externalities?

-- Philip Howard
18. July 16, 2008 4:35 PM

Sharon present a strange argument that the focus of United States energy policy should be on the message we send, rather than on the economic problems we face. This I take to be an argument that the tail should bre waging the dog. Let us assume for a moment that we follow Sharon's line of reasoning and defer nuclear construction in the hope of influencing the nuclear construction policy of Middle Eastern countries. Now let us also assume that the Chinese embark on a program to have completed or be constructing 100 or so reactors by 2020 as has been reported they plan to do. And let us assume that India has embarked on a program of building reactors capable of producing 40 GWs of electricity be 2020. Is it reasonable to assume that the Middle Eastern countries will completely ignore what the Chinese ad the Indians are doing and only pay attention to the United States? Won't the real message that a "no build because it is the wrong message policy" send be that the United States has profoundly stupid leadership?

-- Charles Barton
19. July 17, 2008 11:00 AM

There seems to be unavoidable uncertainty in how to meet carbon targets. Conservation at the levels recommended by Greenpeace and others would almost certainly require a radical change in habits--probably induced by high user charges. Is the US likely to do this? And to what degree? More likely we just keep meeting demand by building or maintaining coal generation. So why wouldnt we start building nuclear now to hedge our bets? Especially with such a long lead time, don't we need to move forward on as many fronts as possible?

-- Philip Howard
20. July 17, 2008 11:27 AM

Several, if not all, on the panel seem to assume the USA is the global leader with respect to the expansion of nuclear power. If this is the case, I do not agree.

For example, the USA has the most nuclear power reactors, but many countries rely on nuclear for a greater portion of their stationary energy supply. Also, from the comparative perspective of one socio-economic block, the EU has more nuclear power stations than the USA and appears to be much more involved in the practical implementation of a global nuclear renaissance through the nuclear giant AREVA among others.

The GNEP has not been strongly backed by some US scientists and the congress in general, but this does not mean it is a bad idea. France, among others, is in the process of becoming its principal driver. I expect the US role to continue to diminish to the serious chagrin of many at US national laboratories.

Even control of US NSSS suppliers GE and Westinghouse have become diluted through foreign investment.

The above assumption should be challenged - what is its basis?

-- Ed
21. July 17, 2008 2:18 PM

FACT: deaths from U.S. civilian nuclear power reactor accidents = 0.

Yes nuclear fission is dangerous. So is driving your car. But the nuclear industry has a proven safety record. The numbers don't lie. Overcome your fears by mitigating risks. That's how you live and function in a technologically advanced society.

As for reducing CHG, the nuclear fuel cycle has a very small carbon footprint compared to ANY energy source currently available. Therefore, placing smaller carbon footprint energies on the grid means less carbon in the air. What is so hard to understand?

Waste is a BIG problem. Reprocessing is NOT economical. Japan, UK, and France have lost billions trying to do it. FACT. Look it up.

Can more nuke plants make any difference in combating climate change? It is impossible to predict. PERIOD. Read about complex dynamic systems analysis from the Santa Fe Institute when you have time and you will understand.

Is this online debate interesting? YES. Does it shed any new light on the subject. NO. People need to get MUCH smarter about climate change before they can start to debate the pros and cons of potential energy solutions. The climate is a complex adaptive system and since humans affect it, its forcing function is also another complex adaptive system (humanity). Try and understand THAT system!

If you truly believe reducing CHG emissions would help mitigate climate change. You will need to have a flexible energy portfolio that is sustainable AND over time reduces CHG emissions. EASY :)

Someone, somewhere, has got to come up with a U.S. energy policy sometime. By God I hope the people who do it aren't idiots.

-- Pheonix
22. July 17, 2008 2:36 PM

Energy per capita is fairly closely correlated with wealth per capita. Certainly it is possible to organize a society to be several times more efficient with energy but those are decisions are city planning and infrastructure that take many decades to alter substantially. Radical de-powering is basically an argument to be several times poorer than a society with several times more energy would be.

Breeder: Russia has been running a 600MW breeder since the 1980s in Beloyarsk. Russia has restarted construction of an 800MW version. They are planning to sell that technology and those systems to Japan and South Korea.

India and China are also have very active breeder technology programs.

Pointing out some historical bad projects is somewhat helpful in the way that pointing out the Pinto and Edsel cars had issues that should not be duplicated.

Copy and improve upon what works and is successful. Nuclear power has successes to be copied and improved upon.

What about the coal power ? How fast will that get displaced without more nuclear ? Will CO2 scrubbers and sequestering also handle the particulates and other pollution ? Each of the cleaner coal technologies to this point have not addressed all of the other pollutants. Renewable and nuclear power to this point have not even eliminated the new fossil fuel plants that are being built. How long until there is no more new fossil fuel plants? How long until there is rapid displacement of existing fossil fuel plants ? How much longer is it until all fossil fuel is displaced without nuclear in addition to advanced renewables ?

Even moving the billions of tons of coal uses a lot of diesel fuel for the trains, trucks and ships.

-- brian wang
23. July 17, 2008 3:00 PM

The idea of subsidy to new nuclear build, in the form of loan guarantees, has a wrinkle that is not, I think, paid enough attention: it corrects a governmental conflict of interest.

If a developer spends a few billion on a nuclear plant and then, due to legal delays and rule changes, gives up, that's a few billion wasted. But in the past, government has not felt the pain of this waste. Quite the contrary: at current natural gas and uranium prices, a gigawatt-year's electricity production from natural gas means about $0.1 billion in royalties.

If a government fails to red-tape a nuclear project to death, and fails to get enough astroturf protesters to intervene, it makes the same gigawatt-year from less than $0.04 billion in uranium. That's kind of hard to get $0.1 billion in royalties on.

Thus, if government doesn't lose several billion dollars paying back defaulted nuclear construction loans, through failure to orchestrate a nuclear project cancellation, it loses about the same in natural gas revenue in the plant's first few decades of operation. One way the few billion is just wasted, the other, it stays in citizens' pockets.

Will uranium continue to be ~30 times cheaper than natural gas? Well, in the past two years the rate of increase of known uranium reserves has been about ten times the rate of use, so if the ratio between the prices of a natural gas joule and a uranium joule changes, the likely direction of the change is upwards, to natural gas 100 or more times more costly than uranium.

--- G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan 'til ~1996

-- GRLCowan
24. July 17, 2008 3:08 PM

This was a very interesting conversation and I'm glad I got the chance to read through it. One question I have regarding Mr. Crane's quotes on costs for nuclear power is whether or not they include the government subsidies that nuclear power gets in the States? Someone mentioned earlier that the US currently gives a 1.7c/kWh tax credit for all nuclear sales which would effectively double this number (though still make it much cheaper than natural gas).

One other thing that I think should be mentioned is that while solar and wind technology is improving all the time, nuclear reactor design has been improving as well. Unfortunately, due to all the regulatory red-tape, it will take longer for a country to realize these new ideas. Specifically with regards to proliferation concerns, I thought I'd put forward the idea of Heavy Water Reactors. Canada (your friendly neighbour up north) has been researching this design for decades and it has a proven safety record. While the heavy water is a little more expensive to obtain, the huge advantage that it has is that you only need to refine Uranium ore to a 2% concentration level as opposed to the 5% required by light water. The result is that a country does not need to invest in any kind of refinement infrastructure *if* their only goal is for power reasons.

Also, the Chinese have been conducting some very interesting research into pebble bed reactor design. Basically, the uranium fuel is pressed into small pebbles of graphite about 1 cm in diameter with the entire sphere coated with a highly resistant silicon graphite shell. The key component of this is that since the fuel pellets themselves are separated from one another, it is virtually impossible for a critical mass of uranium to combine together to create a meltdown scenario. Granted 'impossible' has been said before, but I still think that this is a big step forward in the safety development. Unfortunately, the extra packaging does lead to a larger volume of waste being produced, but as with all things there are trade offs.

I just brought these forward since I want to let people know that any new reactors built would be able to incorporate a few of these new design/control features; they aren't building the same reactors they constructed 50 years ago when those breeder reactor accidents happened.

I want to end with the fact that I really appreciate Mr. Schulz's comment regarding the quantity of risk that we're willing to accept. Yes nuclear power has had accidents in the past and we've learned from that, a lot. There's no reason that we cannot take reasonable precautions to prevent them from happening again and still consider building more. I like the concept of wind & solar (I just graduated from a university where I was a major member of the Solar Car team, and the 2008 American Solar Challenge is going on right now!) but I'm just worried about capacity issues and the ability of people in general to adapt to a new lifestyle. I think it has to happen, but I'm just not convinced that the transition can be me completely through an expansion of wind /solar/tidal power sources. Thanks.

-- Trevor K
25. July 17, 2008 4:08 PM

Ho-Kay: Because much new-talk has centered on proliferation and nuclear waste, I would like to advertize a Sub-Critical power reactor based on burning Thorium – a Thorium fueled reactor breeding U233, but in a subcritical assembly, called an Energy Amplifier (EA). For newtalkie purposes here, what you want and need to know is that it is proliferation-resistant, produces very little long lived radioactive waste, far less than U/Pu based fuels, and is near accident-proof, far more-so than almost any other concept. In an EA, sustained fission is only obtained by supplying a source of neutrons externally. The EA uses an active component, a particle accelerator, to produce a powerful beam of protons with energies ~1 Giga-Volts(10^9 eV) and thereby neutrons (unlike a critical reactor, where the fuel itself produces in effect too many neutrons, passively, and can run away). These protons hit a heavy metal target such as lead, thorium or uranium, and produce “spallation” neutrons (fast neutrons - and perhaps boosted with a neutron flux amplifier consisting of a thin layer of fissile material surrounding the primary spallation target to get a factor ~3 in neutron flux). The use of neutron amplification in CANDU reactors has been proposed to enhabce fission, but while CANDU is a critical design, many of the concepts can be applied to a sub-critical reactor system. Thorium nuclei absorb neutrons, thus breeding fissile U233, an isotope of uranium which is NOT found in nature. Moderated neutrons then produce U-233 fission, releasing energy. (Note: India is already running such a “breeder” cycle in that a very small research reactor is operating using U-233 fuel, extracted from thorium, which was previously irradiated and thus breeding U233, but in another reactor. When this started in 1996 it was hailed as a first step towards the thorium cycle there, utilising "near breeder" reactors.) The subcritical reactor using external neutrons is called an “Energy Amplifier” because a large fraction (5%-10%) of the produced electrical energy goes back into the accelerator, in order to keep the reactor going - hence the reactor in effect "amplifies" the supplied energy by a factor 10-20. (i.e. one needs ~10-15 MW of proton beam power; these accelerators have an average efficiency of 60% wall-plug power to beam-power). This is entirely plausible with currently available technology.

The concept has several potential advantages over conventional nuclear reactors:

- Subcritical design means that the nuclear reaction could not possibly run away, unlike most critical assemblies - the accelerator delivers just enough neutrons to sustain the reaction, and no more (and simply cannot accidently deliver more neutrons). If anything went wrong, shutting off the accelerator causes the reaction to stop and the reactor would cool down. Accelerators are complex critters, and innumerable small upsets can stop it instantly. Indeed, unlike a critical assembly, one has to make the accelerator operate to generate energy (i.e. a blessing and a curse, since if the accelerator breaks, your lights, George Foreman Hamburger Grill, electric knife, and Wii all go off, along with your electric blanket); stopping the accelerator is instant and all too easy, but thereby easily made fail-safe.

- Thorium is an abundant element — much more so than U, estimated about 5x more in the earth’s crust— reducing strategic and political supply issues. Moreover, several of orders of magnitude less ore need to be mined and disposed of to obtain the Thorium. Essentially all the mined thorium Th-232 is fuel, able to be used in a reactor, as contrasted with uranium, where only 0.7% of natural uranium can be used in a reactor. So potentially there is ~40 times more energy in Th than U in the earth. Some estimates claim there is enough thorium to generate energy for ~several thousand years at current consumption rates - but, in any case, far more time than needed until fusion and sustainables take up residence in our consciousness and landscapes.

- Thorium eliminates costly and energy-intensive isotope separation, as with Uranium fueled reactors, or the dangers of handling and processing of radioactive waste to obtain bred-Plutonium fuel. The elimination of weapons-grade uranium enrichment-capable plants worldwide would reduce the potential proliferation to negligible levels.

- Far less long-lived radioactive waste is produced — the waste material would decay after ~500 years to the radioactive level of coal ash. This is a spectacular advantage.

- The energy amplifier would produce very little plutonium, so the design is very much more proliferation-resistant than conventional nuclear power (Although the question of U233 as weapon material must be assessed carefully, only very small amounts will be left in the fuel cycle. Moreover, U233 could not be simply chemically separated from the waste, as Plutonium can be, since U232 is also produced. To make a weapon, the chemically separated uranium would have then to be further isotope separated U233 from U232 - and this separation is far more difficult than U235-238 separation since the mass contrast is even less as used in a centrifuge, and then one needs special operations for the centrifuges, since U232 is very radioactive, unlike uranium, which in centrifuging is relatively safe for humans – any attempts at making enough U233 for a bomb would require extreme technical investment, far beyond uranium enrichment, and/or a very long line of suicide volunteers.).

- Inherent safety and safe fuel transport could make the technology more suitable for developing economies, as well as in densely populated areas.

- An “incinerator” - The possibility exists of using the reactor to consume both plutonium and the longer lived radionuclides in radioactive waste, reducing the dangerously large world stockpile of the very-long-lived element, and greatly shortening the half-life of radioactive wastes. In this other role for a subcritical EA nuclear reactor, it is used for the destruction of heavy isotopes, particularly actinides, but also longer-lived fission products such as Tc-99 and I-129. Here the blanket assembly is actinide fuel and/or used nuclear fuel. In principle, the subcritical nuclear reactor may be able to convert all transuranic elements into (generally) short-lived fission products and yield some energy in the process. Much of the current interest is in the potential of the EA to burn weapons-grade plutonium “as-is”, as an alternative to using it as mixed oxide fuel in conventional reactors. This is brilliant!

- No new science is required; the technologies to build the energy amplifier have all been demonstrated in the laboratory. Building an energy amplifier requires only significant engineering effort, not fundamental research (unlike fusion proposals). However, there are formidable challenges, particularly the large volume of molten lead or bismuth lead as the passively convection-circulated coolant, and the pressure vessel needed to hold it without leaks – but this coolant is used reasonably successfully in the Soviet era Russian submarines.

- Power generation might be economical compared to current nuclear reactor designs if the total fuel cycle/fuel costs, especially U enrichment, and decomissioning costs are considered.

- The design could work on a relatively small scale, making it more suitable for countries without a well-developed power grid system.


- Each reactor needs its own accelerator facility to generate the high energy proton beam, which is costly - roughly $1billion per 10 MW of beam power if made in quantity.

- +No single accelerator of sufficient power (> ~10 MW) has ever been built. Currently, the Spallation Neutron Source utilizes a 1.44 MW proton beam to produce its neutrons, with upgrades envisioned to 5 MW. However, a farm of accelerators producing independent beams delivered to the ssame target is easily possible, and the best route to maintain a reliable energy source, since an accelerator can break down - but in a farm of say 10 accelerators, if one went down, the reactor could continue at reduced power. “Bullet-proof” accelerator designs include synchrotrons, superconducting linacs, and synchrocyclotrons, all of which have been successfully used in science, industry and medicine for many years. A modern “blunderbus” of a gigaVolt strong focussing rapid cycling resonant magnet power supply synchrotron could be comfortably built in a 25’ diameter room space. A superconducting linac would take up about 100m of length and 10m wide. With a standardized design, these are easily industrialized gadgets. [Novel accelerators co-invented partially for this purpose include travelling wave induction linacs based on low-loss ferrites, and recently near-sci-fi superconducting large aperture FFAG’s (fixed field alternating gradient) accelerators with bores the size of a garbage can, but with superlative properties and potentially very low maintanence: large chromaticity, small tune-spread, large momentum compaction; large phase advance per betatron-tune; near infinite phase stability; high beta; large dispersion and large horizontal, vertical and skew normalized emittances; small shunt impedence; operating points below gamma-transition; multiple separatrix)]

- The containment and especially the accelerator beam tube are real beasts which better not busts. The core of an EA is mainly thorium, located near the bottom of a 25 metre high tank x 6 m diameter(i.e. ~ 80‘ high x 20’ diameter – a 4:1 aspect ratio hot dog)brute of a tank. It is filled with ~ 8000 T of molten lead or lead-bismuth - the primary coolant, which circulates by convection around the core - no complex pumps as in most water-colled reactors – safe, good – BUT the vessel which holds this must never leak (unlike two of the Russian subs which used this type of coolant). The beam tube must have a vacuum barrier thin window which does not break. Diamond, boron carbide, or silicon carbide are the preferred engineering solutions.

- Care must be taken with the radionuclides produced in the spallation target.

- A simple meltdown of the fuel, but without continued criticality as in critical reactors - i.e. no more heat being generated - could occur in principle if the ability to cool the core was completely lost in a very short time – since the reactor uses passive convective cooling, this possibility, esp. with any sort of passive backup system, is truly remote – the case if the vessel is encased in a heavy secondary containment vessel with meltable barriers holding back cooling fluids (i.e. like an old-fashioned fuse).

If you build it, the lights and electric nail guns will come.

-- pangloss
26. July 17, 2008 5:14 PM

Basically this planet has three sources of energy at present (yikes I may be forgetting some):

(1) those derived from the sun’s energy (gravitationally confined thermonuclear fusion - the sun consumes itself at 20 tons/day) – this includes all fossil fuels, as well as biofuels, hydroelectric, waves, wind, solar thermal & photovoltaics, thermal gradients in the oceans or atmosphere, etc.

(2) those derived from the moon-earth gravitational energy and the self-assembly compression of the earth – tides, geo-thermal

(3) Those derived from fissionable nuclides present in the earth’s crust from the formation of the solar system (which are responsible for much of the earth’s heat): nuclear reactors, atomic bombs.

The latter 2 when used to generate usable energy are fairly long term reliable over short time intervals, but tidal and geothermal power are of limited extractability – and the ocean is a brutal place for active devices. Solar renewables like wind and photovoltaic are short time variable. One major utility of fossil and biofuels is that the time variation of insolation-derived energy is integrated out already. The difficulty with such time-integrated fuels is that the convenient renewable energy conversion from plant life or animal; waste is very inefficient and only slightly carbon neutral, and that of fossil fuels is carbon loading in the atmosphere, and the ultimate scarcity as they are used up. (Note: hydrogen is a terciary fuel, as are many chemical fuels, requiring energy from whatever source to make it – but some interesting solar-driven catalytic reactions with water to make hydrogen may prove possible, however).

The 4th, not yet listable, is fusion, and is wholly the grail. So far, our only use for it is: in thermonuclear weapons (yee-haw! And wave that cowboy hat on the way down…), or in the imagination of cold-fusion delusionists…. But yet it is the ultimate free lunch. Contained in about 1% of 1% of 4 cubic km of seawater (that is reduced to a volume bounded roughly by an area of 3 football fields filled to 100 feet high with water) there is enough deuterium to power the US electrical grid for ~100 years at present rates of growth. There are about 1.33 billion cubic km in the seas, for all present intents an inexhaustible supply – i.e. deuterium D-D fusion – difficult as it is (we start with D-T fusion, of course) – in principle could supply all imagined human energy for over a billion years. It is sobering to contemplate that a gallon of sea water contains as much energy as 300 gallons of gasoline, and when standing at the edge of the Pacific, to imagine that the total energy exceeds 10^23 gallons of gas, an inconceivably large number.

So it is outrageous that this technology is not being given almost unlimited resources to be proven – our long term solution. (look up the sad and near tragicomical “it’s a political football” history of ITER). I am reminded of an episode during the 1973 oil-crisis, an encounter with an olde herr doktor professor, a highly accomplished ivy-league prof, but without any faculty lounge tweedie polish, solder-dust under his liquid Helium frost-bitten fingernails and an IBM punch card peeking from his pocket-protected short sleeve striped oxford shirt, an ultimate-nerd physicist and one of my mentors – albeit scary, an iron-grey brush hawk-like oracular mein, who might remind you of Dr. Strangelove or a robotish-star-ship-science-officer in science fiction, and whose world-view was shaped by the fact that he spent his yodeling leiderhosen peachy (Nietzsche is pietzsche) teenage years in zee Hitler Youth. He gave me his succinct thoughts on both the coming energy crisis and global warming (per se – and quite adamant about our looming disaster). He declared: “Vrabbits haf eet between zeir hindt legs…" .. and then tapping the side of his head with his wissenschaft-pristine unchjewed pencil he said: “Und vee haf eet up hee-ah”.
So Zu Befehl, mein Ubersturmbahnfuhrer!

-- pangloss
27. July 17, 2008 6:48 PM

I have to comment on two issues raised by Sharon.

Long-term uranium supply is simply not an issue, and nobody in the industry is concerned about it. We have centuries of uranium left (at least 200 years), even assuming a once-through fuel cycle and significant nuclear growth.

Uranium is a ubiquitous element in the earth's crust, which we've barely started looking for. The "official" reserves estimates people often quote ignore future discoveries. In the 1920's, the official reserves estimates for oil were less than 1% of what we later discovered. The point we're at today with respect to uranium's discovery history is similar to where we were for oil in the 1920's. We've just started, and barely any effort has been made so far. Now that the price is higher, we're hearing about new, high-grade uranium discoveries every week. The cost of finding new uranium is 300 times less than finding new oil (on an energy equivalent basis).

It will be at least 200 years, probably longer, before we'd start running out of uranium, even with the once-through cycle. 200 years is plenty of time to develop breeder technology, or some other non-fission energy source (e.g., fusion or solar, etc..). Uranium supply is not an issue, with respect to the current debate over the merit of nuclear power.

The second issue concerns how our actions affect the development/proliferation of nuclear power in the developing world. Sharon suggests that interest/pursuit of nuclear in the developed world (US & Europe) is leading to more nuclear power projects in the developing world. The exact opposite is true.

The "bandwagon" argument is weak. These developing countries to not base their energy decisions on what others are doing, or a desire to be like us. They base them on cold hard facts and rational considerations. The reason these countries are pursuing nuclear is that the primary alternatives for power generation (mainly gas, perhaps oil) have gone way up in price in recent years. Due to rapidly increasing demand, these limited resources are running out, as well as increasing in price. Much of the increase in gas/oil demand is due to the increased use of gas for power generation in the developed world, which in turn is due to the developed world's turning away from nuclear power in recent decades.

Increased use of nuclear power in the developed world will act to reduce world gas (and oil) prices (and will make those resources last longer), which in turn will reduce the pressure/desire to build nuclear plants in the developing world. Conversely, if we turn away from nuclear, gas reserves will deplete faster, and gas prices will escalate even further, virtually guaranteeing massive nuclear growth in the developing world.

Finally, it is not even clear that the use of nuclear power in the developing world is that much of a proliferation risk. Nuclear power plants convert low-enriched uranium into something that is much harder to make into a weapon (i.e., spent fuel). Power plants are not the problem, fuel cycle facilities are. In fact, if you want a weapon, you don't even need a reactor. Just build a fuel cycle (enrichment) facility. Indeed, that's what Iran has done. As long as they don't build fuel cycle facilities, nuclear power in the developing world does not represent a significant proliferation risk. And no, it's no harder to tell a developing country with a nuclear power plant that they can't have a fuel cycle facility than it is to tell them that they cant have a nuclear power plant in the first place.

-- JimHopf
28. July 17, 2008 7:11 PM

I see a lot of déformation professionnelle in this discussion which is to be expected but there are also other arguments made on other biased decision making and beliefs. For example, it is a defeatist statement to say "energy independence is a myth". It is more accurate to say "energy independence can be improved significantly to the degree that the USA could withstand the turbulent economic and political forces which now burden its energy supplies." A lot of the comments made in this discussion also use old and misleading information such as "nuclear power [is too] expensive" when on the contrary, it has shown to be one of the cheapest sources of energy if managed and implemented correctly.

I am continually baffled by the fact that we Americans who invented this technology do not look at the success story of nuclear power in France and do not want to emulate what they have done. Smart people learn from their own mistakes but geniuses learn from the mistakes and successes of others.

It is true that nuclear power is not a panacea but it is an excellent starting point to begin a new clean hydrogen fuel infrastructure and desalinization for clean water. Provided we have new fuels and new battery technologies, then we can begin to see a real change in our vehicle infrastructure. Until then, the hydrogen powered vehicle is a farce as well as electric cars which draw their power from dirty coal plants.

The arguments against nuclear power are often based on anti-scientific irrational fears - waste disposal, cost, meltdowns, radiation exposure, terrorist attacks, or weapons proliferation. All of which are non-issues. The rebuttals to counter nuclear power have already proven themselves to be impracticable - conservation, wind, solar, tidal, clean coal. All of which have been invested in significantly and produced no significant impact in the mainline sources for our energy supply nor as much as a dimple dent in the overall supply of energy.

Furthermore there seems to be a great deal of ignorance in regards to the proper use of limited fossil fuels, particularly natural gas which should not be used to generate electricity. Certain fuels are best suited for certain applications and squandering their supply when their are far better choices like nuclear is just plain stupid.

Those who are against nuclear power seem to be taking the stance that it is somehow to worst of two evils when compared to coal, when in fact the far opposite is true. Personally I'm really sick of the anti-nuclear camp being given the credence that they have something to offer in the nuclear power discussion when they are unwilling to budge an inch in their stubborn anti-science views.

Yes, nuclear power has some risks as does everything worth doing. Getting on an airplane, a car, or simply breathing polluted coal polluted air has risks but it makes no sense to abandon nuclear power because it has a super small chance of risk when on a daily basis every individual engages in daily risks that are thousands of times more dangerous than the risk any nuclear power system presents.

As long as this debate continues and we take no significant action toward the goal of energy independence for the USA, then it is virtually guaranteed this country will bury itself by its un-cohesiveness and ridiculous uneducated viewpoints.

-- JasonC
29. July 19, 2008 8:15 AM

The first point I wish to address is the "fear that Uranium dries up in few years". After circa 25 years of no uranium ore research investments, it is clear that it is unfair to claim that uranium resources be "dry" within 20 years or so. This is not the matter since our present BWR/PWR's are superficially burning uranium. The real case is breeder reactor into which a simple gram of Uranium238 (dominant natural isotope) would produce 10,000KWh and possibly 12,000KWh of electricity with more efficient designs to come. Average Earth crust metal content is 9 grams per cubic meter and common granite often more than 30 grams /m3. Allowing $0.01 U238 budget per electrical KWh (compared with present $0.20 per electrical KWh from best combined methane/steam power plants) this makes granite m3 worth $3,600; Extracting its U238 content by usual rude chemical process (grinding, oxidizing and dissolving U) would cost less than $300 per granite cubic meter. This makes uranium cost unsignificant, reserves available for ever (1km of continental crust contains enough Uranium for 500 millions years of present world nuclear energy use...).
We can see that present PWR/BWR, requiring 100 time more metal than breeders, cannot be economically fed with granite. But for breeders, definitively, uranium ore will never be short of, this nonwithstanding existing 5 Mt mines and very probable 18Mt in economically affordable deposit yet to discover. Thorium, almost 4 times more abundant, would even stretch the above... just to be beaten by ocean Deuterium when made affordable.

-- Herve D
30. July 19, 2008 9:00 AM

For me the so called "waste problem" is only a mediatic moto issued to unfairly tag nuclear energy with permanent infamy. Words, declarations, judgements are nothing when not supported by facts and comparisons:
Let's consider a typical Uranium Mine anywhere in US high density populated area. Extract 178tons of uranium (necessary to provide 1,000MWe enriched fuel for one year) containing exactly 474Curies of natural Alpha radiation. Out of which about 12% are generated by Uranium alone once chemically separated from ore, the 425Ci balance remaining in mine wastes.
Then this burnt fuel is reprocessed later on:
Remaining 94% of U238 stored as strategic future breeder's fuel, created Plutonium (~250kg) 99.95% recycled in current thermal neutron reactors. Remaining (17kg) trans-uranic isotopes (Americium, Curium) are extracted and stored until fast neutron Breeders are there to burn them out. Therefore the 0.05% fraction of Plutonium which escaped extraction emits 2Ci only. Cumulated escaped fractions of Americum and Curium would emit 39Ci Alpha dimming to zero at a much faster rate (433y) than left mine wastes (274,000y).
Note1: Natural U238/derivatives Alpha radiation is of same nature as artificial radioactive Alpha radiation.
* We unearthed 474Ci of natural radioactivity,
* Left 425Ci in mine waste,
* Stored 59Ci of U238 until complete fission in Generation IV breeders,
* and have only a "real reactor waste" of 41Ci in the hands, LESS than the natural 59Ci of U238 removed from mine.

One can think that filling back the original mine site deposit with original mining wastes AND the "real nuclear reactor waste" (so diabolically tagged dangerous by propaganda) would reset total Mine radioactivity at 425+41=461Ci, about 3% LESS than Nature did lay there, and of faster decay.

Nuclear reactor actually CLEANS up Nature from the very first minute of mining. This is not a surprise because in conformity with Physics' Law of Energy Conservation.

This is valid at condition to efficiently Reprocess burnt nuclear fuel, as America seems to have now decided.
At opposite, the "Non reprocessing option" would require 170,000 years to dim created Plutonium activity down to mine radioactivity pre-mining level.

There is NO nuclear waste problem .

Note2: The other radioactive fission products, most of them very short lived and only 6-7% of medium life, are expected not to be buried but stored in nuclear installations for self decay under surveillance.
Note3: Sorry for my english, it's not my Mother language.

-- Herve D
31. July 23, 2008 10:39 PM

Nuclear power can indeed reduce our dependency on oil. A single nuclear power plant can cut 2.3% of oil imports and reduce CO2 emissions equivalent to taking 3 million cars of the road. Do the math.

The 2011 Chevy Volt can go 40 miles on a single electric charge of 8 KWH costing $1.20. In a 24 hour day a single 1 GW nuclear power plant can charge 3 million of these electric cars. At 20 mpg conventional cars would consume 6 million gallons of gasoline per day, requiring 325,000 barrels of oil – about 5.1% of US OPEC imports.

-- Robert Hargraves
32. November 26, 2008 2:09 AM

The new generation of wind turbines makes distributive wind solutions feasible in urban areas and other settings where wind power is just not an alternative today.
The American Wind Energy Association does not seem to disagree.
Follow the

-- Jeorge
33. June 17, 2009 5:11 PM

I feel we need to start using more Wind and Solar power. A child behavior modification program can help parents control their children's bad behavior. We should reduce our use of foreign oil as much as we can.

-- Fishman
34. March 4, 2010 12:09 PM

Paradigms is a radio show that combines interviews with music to explore visions of a viable future for life on Earth including humans.

Episode #40 focus on the question of whether or not nuclear power is a viable solution to the energy needs of humanity. Guests are Bruno Comby from Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, and Jim Riccio from Greenpeace.

The episode will air Sunday March 7 2010 at 8 PM EST. You can listen to the live broadcast at, or access the podcast (to be posted a few hours after the broadcast) at

Thank you,

-- Baruch