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Are Fast-Breeder Reactors A Nuclear Power Panacea?

Plutonium is the nuclear nightmare. A by-product of conventional power-station reactors, it is the key ingredient in nuclear weapons. And even when not made into bombs, it is a million-year radioactive waste legacy that is already costing the world billions of dollars a year to contain.

And yet, some scientists say, we have the technology to burn plutonium in a new generation of “fast” reactors. That could dispose of the waste problem, reducing the threat of radiation and nuclear proliferation, and at the same time generate vast amounts of low-carbon energy. It sounds too good to be true. So are the techno-optimists right — or should the conventional environmental revulsion at all things nuclear still hold?

Fast-breeder technology is almost as old as nuclear power. But after almost two decades in the wilderness, it could be poised to take off. The U.S. corporation GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) is promoting a reactor design called the PRISM (for Power Reactor Innovative Small Modular) that its chief consulting engineer and fast-breeder guru, Eric Loewen, says is a safe and secure way to power the world using yesterday’s nuclear waste.

The PRISM (Power Reactor Innovative Small Modular) reactor being developed by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy would consume spent nuclear fuel to generate electricity. A design such as this one is now being considered at Sellafield in the UK, with proponents saying it is an effective and safe way to recycle nuclear waste and critics charging it would be unsafe and expensive. (Courtesy of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy)

The company wants to try out the idea for the first time on the northwest coast of England, at the notorious nuclear dumping ground at Sellafield, which holds the world’s largest stock of civilian plutonium. At close to 120 tons, it stores more plutonium from reactors than the U.S. and Russia Britain’s huge plutonium stockpile makes it a vast energy resource. combined.

While most of the world’s civilian plutonium waste is still trapped inside highly radioactive spent fuel, much of that British plutonium is in the form of plutonium dioxide powder. It has been extracted from spent fuel with the intention of using it to power an earlier generation of fast reactors that were never built. This makes it much more vulnerable to theft and use in nuclear weapons than plutonium still held inside spent fuel, as most of the U.S. stockpile is.

The Royal Society, Britain’s equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences, reported last year that the plutonium powder, which is stored in drums, “poses a serious security risk” and “undermines the UK’s credibility in non-proliferation debates.”

Spent fuel, while less of an immediate proliferation risk, remains a major radiological hazard for thousands of years. The plutonium — the most ubiquitous and troublesome radioactive material inside spent fuel from nuclear reactors — has a half-life of 24,100 years. A typical 1,000-megawatt reactor produces 27 tons of spent fuel a year.

None of it yet has a home. If not used as a fuel, it will need to be kept isolated for thousands of years to protect humans and wildlife. Burial deep underground seems the obvious solution, but nobody has yet built a geological repository. Public opposition is high — as successive U.S. governments have discovered whenever the burial ground at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is discussed — and the cost of construction will be huge. So the idea of building fast reactors to eat up this waste is attractive — especially in Britain, but also elsewhere.

Theoretically at least, fast reactors can keep recycling their own fuel until all the plutonium is gone, generating electricity all the while. Britain’s huge plutonium stockpile makes it a vast energy resource. David MacKay, chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, recently said British plutonium contains enough energy to run the country’s electricity grid for 500 years.

Fast reactors can be run in different ways, either to destroy plutonium, to maximise energy production, or to produce new plutonium. Under the PRISM proposal now being considered at Sellafield, plutonium destruction would be the priority. “We could deal with the plutonium stockpile in Britain in five years,” says Loewen. But equally, he says, it could generate energy, too. The proposed plant has a theoretical generating capacity of 600 megawatts.

Fast reactors could do the same for the U.S. Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the U.S. launched a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership aimed at developing technologies to consume plutonium in spent fuel. But President Obama drastically cut the partnership’s funding, while also halting work on the planned Yucca Mountain geological repository. “We are left with a million-year problem,” says Loewen. “Right now there isn’t a policy framework in the U.S. for solving this issue.”

He thinks Britain’s unique problem with its stockpile of purified plutonium dioxide could break the logjam. “The UK is our best opportunity,” he told me. “We need someone with the technical confidence to do this.”

The PRISM fast reactor is attracting friends among environmentalists formerly opposed to nuclear power. They include leading thinkers such as Stewart Brand and British columnist George Monbiot. And, despite the cold shoulder from the Obama administration, some U.S. government officials seem quietly keen to help the British experiment get under way. They have approved the export of the PRISM technology to Britain and the release of secret technical information from the old research program. And the U.S. Export-Import Bank is reportedly ready to provide financing.

Britain has not made up its mind yet, however. Having decided to try and re-use its stockpile of plutonium dioxide, its Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has embarked on a study to determine which re-use option to support. There is no firm date, but the decision, which will require government approval, should be reached within two years. Apart from a fast-breeder reactor, the main alternative is to blend the plutonium with other fuel to create a mixed-oxide fuel (mox) that will burn in conventional nuclear power plants.

Britain has a history of embarrassing failures with mox, including the closure last year of a $2 billion blending plant that spent 10 years producing a scant amount of fuel. And critics say that, even if it works properly, mox fuel is an expensive way of generating not much energy, while leaving most of the plutonium intact, albeit in a less dangerous form.

Only fast reactors can consume the plutonium. Many think that will ultimately be the UK choice. If so, the PRISM plant would take five years to license, five years to build, and could destroy probably the world’s most dangerous stockpile of plutonium by the end of the 2020s. GEH has not publicly put a cost on building the plant, but it says it will foot the bill, with Proponents of fast reactors see them as the nuclear application of one of the totems of environmentalism: recycling. the British government only paying by results, as the plutonium is destroyed.

The idea of fast breeders as the ultimate goal of nuclear power engineering goes back to the 1950s, when experts predicted that fast-breeders would generate all Britain’s electricity by the 1970s. But the Clinton administration eventually shut down the U.S.’s research program in 1994. Britain followed soon after, shutting its Dounreay fast-breeder reactor on the north coast of Scotland in 1995. Other countries have continued with fast-breeder research programs, including France, China, Japan, India, South Korea, and Russia, which has been running a plant at Sverdlovsk for 32 years.

But now climate change, with its urgency to reduce fossil fuel use, and growing plutonium stockpiles have changed perspectives once again. The researchers’ blueprints are being dusted off. The PRISM design is based on the Experimental Breeder Reactor No 2, which was switched on at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois in 1965 and ran for three decades.

Here is how conventional and fast reactors differ. Conventional nuclear reactors bombard atoms of uranium fuel with neutrons. Under this bombardment, the atoms split, creating more neutrons and energy. The neutrons head off to split more atoms, creating a chain reaction. Meanwhile, the energy heats a coolant passing through the reactor, such as water, which then generates electricity in conventional turbines.

The problem is that in this process only around 1 percent of the potential energy in the uranium fuel is turned into electricity. The rest remains locked up in the fuel, much of it in the form of plutonium, the chief by-product of the once-through cycle. The idea of fast reactors is to grab more of this energy from the spent fuel of the conventional reactor. And it can do this by repeatedly recycling the fuel through the reactor.

The second difference is that in a conventional reactor, the speed of the neutrons has to be slowed down to ensure the chain reactions occur. In a typical pressurized-water reactor, the water itself acts as this moderator. But in a fast reactor, as the name suggests, the best results for generating energy from the plutonium fuel are achieved by bombarding the neutrons much faster. This is done by substituting the water moderator with a liquid metal such as sodium.

Proponents of fast reactors see them as the nuclear application of one of the totems of environmentalism: recycling. But many technologists, and most environmentalists, are more skeptical.

The skeptics include Adrian Simper, the strategy director of the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which will be among those organizations deciding whether to back the PRISM plan. Simper warned last November in Critics argue that plutonium being prepared for recycling ‘would be dangerously vulnerable to theft or misuse.’ an internal memorandum that fast reactors were “not credible” as a solution to Britain’s plutonium problem because they had “still to be demonstrated commercially” and could not be deployed within 25 years.

The technical challenges include the fact that it would require converting the plutonium powder into a metal alloy, with uranium and zirconium. This would be a large-scale industrial activity on its own that would create “a likely large amount of plutonium-contaminated salt waste,” Simper said.

Simper is also concerned that the plutonium metal, once prepared for the reactor, would be even more vulnerable to theft for making bombs than the powdered oxide. This view is shared by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the U.S., which argues that plutonium liberated from spent fuel in preparation for recycling “would be dangerously vulnerable to theft or misuse.”

GEH says Simper is mistaken and that the technology is largely proven. That view seems to be shared by MacKay, who oversees the activities of the decommissioning authority.

The argument about proliferation risk boils down to timescales. In the long term, burning up the plutonium obviously eliminates the risk. But in the short term, there would probably be greater security risks. Another criticism is the more general one that the nuclear industry has a track record of delivering late and wildly over budget — and often not delivering at all.

John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, and Paul Dorfman, British nuclear policy analyst at the University of Warwick, England, argued recently that this made all nuclear options a poor alternative to renewables in delivering low-carbon energy. “Even if these latest plans could be made to work, PRISM reactors do nothing to solve the main problems with nuclear: the industry’s repeated failure to build reactors on time and to budget,” they wrote in a letter to the Guardian newspaper. “We are being asked to wait while an industry that has a track record for very costly failures researches yet another much-hyped but still theoretical new technology.”

But this approach has two problems. First, climate change. Besides hydroelectricity, which has its own serious environmental problems, nuclear power is the only source of truly large-scale concentrated low-carbon energy currently available. However good renewables turn out to be, can we really afford to give up on nukes?

Second, we are where we are with nuclear power. The plutonium stockpiles have to be dealt with. The only viable alternative to re-use is burial, which carries its own risks, and continued storage, with vast expense and unknowable security hazards to present and countless future generations.

For me, whatever my qualms about the nuclear industry, the case for nuclear power as a component of a drive toward a low-carbon, climate-friendly economy is compelling. [A few months ago, I signed a letter with Monbiot and others to British Prime Minister David Cameron, arguing that environmentalists were dressing up their doctrinaire technophobic opposition to all things nuclear behind scaremongering and often threadbare arguments about cost. I stand by that view.]

Those who continue to oppose nuclear power have to explain how they would deal with those dangerous stockpiles of plutonium, whether in spent fuel or drums of plutonium dioxide. They have half-lives measured in tens of thousands of years. Ignoring them is not an option.

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. Originally published at Yale Environment 360.


Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.
Paul O's picture
Paul O on Aug 7, 2012

The piece clearly says,

"Fast reactors can be run in different ways, either to destroy plutonium, to maximise energy production, or to produce new plutonium. Under the PRISM proposal now being considered at Sellafield, plutonium destruction would be the priority."


..............What are/were you referring to?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 9, 2012

It's always nice to see favorable evaluation of an important and beneficial technology like the IFR, but this article also strongly hints at (without refuting) some blatant anti-nuclear mis-information.

The main one is the implication of an imminent danger from nuclear waste.  Yes, nuclear waste is hazardous, but safeguarding it is technically straight-forward and affordable (compared to the enormous value of the energy released in creating the waste).  Dry cask storage has been proven effective over a multi-decade timescale, and given that nuclear waste automatically becomes less hazardous over time, there is a consensus among scientists that geological repositories can contain it safely for infinite duration (note too that perfect radiological retention is not require:  extensive Yucca Mountain studies showed that it will leak over thousands of years, yet still meet its safety goals).

The article also hints that nuclear power is too expensive, while renewables are not.  The truth is that even though the cost over-runs and schedule slips are a nuisance, nuclear with Light Water Reactors (LWRs) has always come out cheaper than solar or off-shore wind, and there is no credible reason to expect this to change.  A first-of-a-kind IFR will cost more than an LWR, but that’s the price to be an early adopter.

It will be truly interesting seeing how Britain decides to handle its separated plutonium.  We in the US will probably keep our fast reactor plans (and thorium plans) on hold several more years, not because of renewables, but because of cheap natural gas (i.e. we aren’t committed to meaningfully reduce fossil fuel use).


For some reading on nuclear waste, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, has produced this report on transport and storage of waste:

Here is the US government's prediction for electricity cost by source: 

Showing nuclear for $.11/kWH and solar PV for $.15/kWh (energy storage not included).

Mike Conley's picture
Mike Conley on Aug 9, 2012

I think he's referring to his own pre-concieved notions, rather than the substance of the article. Or maybe it's the acid.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on Aug 10, 2012

This article ends with a political statement, not a scientific one.  I am completely opposed to nuclear power.  The number one reason is the waste created.  The number two reason is Black Swans like Fukushima-Daiichi.  The number three reason is there is no real oversight of the nuclear power industry.  There are very few nuclear physicists graduating every year and the industry is more like a big boys club.  Everyone knows each other on a first name basis.  They all have great paying jobs and incredible benefits and attend conferences all over the world.  And, like a revolving door, they go from government oversight to working in the industry.  It's nepotistic.  

We are talking nuclear waste that can last hundreds of thousands of years.  The article argues that now we can create waste to feed new nuclear power plants that feed on that waste, in theory.  I disagree.  The first thing you do is stop creating new waste.  Period.  Solar power has dropped dramatically in price and is now extremely competative with natural gas, coal, etc.  When you combine the true costs of nuclear power including the construction, storage and security of nuclear waste and decomissioning, nuclear is anything but cheap.  If we would take the same amount of money and human energy that we have poured into nuclear and poured it into solar who knows where we would be today.  But you can't kill people with solar.  And let's remember why nuclear came to be: to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Until the issue of nuclear waste is taken care of, until the threat of nuclear accidents is non-existent, humanity is not ready for nuclear anything.  From my point of view, this is not an environmentalist argument.  It's pragmantic one like not drinking battery acid or driving while drunk.  It's an issue of safety.  

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Aug 10, 2012

These so called 4th generation nuclear power plants have some additional advandages.

james ferguson's picture
james ferguson on Aug 12, 2012

I do not pretend to be an expert in this field - but the following appears to constitute oxymoron to me...

>>David MacKay, chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, recently said British plutonium contains enough energy to run the country's electricity grid for 500 years....

 "We could deal with the plutonium stockpile in Britain in five years,">>

So which is it ? 

Either 100 fold gross domestic energy power could be consumed within five years - which seems unlikely - or I do not undertsand - which is possible, or and this seems most likely this is is bad reporting.

Whatever the case , the meaning appears singulalry unclear and this subject warrants clarity and accuracy!

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on Aug 10, 2012

US Freezes 19 Nuclear Power Plant Licensing Decisions

By Mat McDermott, TreeHugger

10 August 12


US Court of Appeals ruling saying that spent nuclear fuel stored at nuclear power plants "poses a dangerous, long-term health and environmental risk" has prompted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to halt all pending licensing decisions, ENS reports.

Affected are 9 construction and operating licenses, 8 license renewals, 1 operating license, and 1 early site permit.

The NRC order says:

We are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions or some combination of both. We have not yet determined a course of action. [...] This determination extends just to final license issuance; all licensing reviews and proceedings should continue to move forward.

The court ruling that brought a halt to US licensing decisions for nuclear power plants stems from an action brought about the New York State Attorney General over the relicensing of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, 38 miles north of New York City and up for relicensing in 2013. One of the three reactors at Indian Point is already permanently shut down, with the remaining two reaching the end of their initial 40-year operating licenses.

Analysis of the impact of an accident at Indian Point shows that if an event on the scale of the Fukushima disaster were to occur, it would be 10-100 times more costly than the $60 billion estimated price tag for that nuclear disaster, in addition to forcing the evacuation of millions of people in the most densely populated part of the United States.

The same analysis shows that should Indian Point be shut down the region would not need to bring extra electricity generation online to replace it until 2020, due to surplus power capacity in surrounding regions.

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Aug 12, 2012

I've always been a tad suspicious of geological repositories for nuclear wastes.  Salt, for instance, is generally water free, seals up any cracks that earthquakes may create and would seem to be an ideal place to store nuclear waste (in old salt mines).  However, salt is a great insullator and nuclear waste, over time, gives out the same total amount of energy (heat) as it would give out rapidly if "burnt up" in a 4th generation nuclear power plant.  That's a lot of heat.  Unless expensive, technologicall vulnerable cooling pipes are  put throughout the mine storing the nuclear wastes, I would think the heat would accumulate until the salt melted and you develop a very small but very deadly volcano wherever you store the nuclear waste.  Likewise in any dry rock.   It is only a gut feel but I can't imagine any dry rock being able to dissipate the heat which is constantly being produced by the nuclear waste.  Add to this the expansion of the rock close to the waste relative to rock further away and you start to have thermal cracking, and tunnel collapse with the possibility of opening up passages to the surface or to water tables.  The only reasonably safe way seems to be to use up the waste in a 4th generation nuclear power plant.  The Roman Empire lasted for about a thousand years.  We now seem to be going through 'go to woe' rather faster.  The American Empire (read John Perkins) is roughly 300 years old.  How much longer will it be around to look after the wastes that are pretty nasty after tens of thousands of years.  It will take a miracle for America to hold on for the next hundred. 

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Aug 12, 2012

I've always been a tad suspicious of geological repositories for nuclear wastes.  Salt, for instance, is generally water free, seals up any cracks that earthquakes may create and would seem to be an ideal place to store nuclear waste (in old salt mines).  However, salt is a great insullator and nuclear waste, over time, gives out the same total amount of energy (heat) as it would give out rapidly if "burnt up" in a 4th generation nuclear power plant.  That's a lot of heat.  Unless expensive, technologicall vulnerable cooling pipes are  put throughout the mine storing the nuclear wastes, I would think the heat would accumulate until the salt melted and you develop a very small but very deadly volcano wherever you store the nuclear waste.  Likewise in any dry rock.   It is only a gut feel but I can't imagine any dry rock being able to dissipate the heat which is constantly being produced by the nuclear waste.  Add to this the expansion of the rock close to the waste relative to rock further away and you start to have thermal cracking, and tunnel collapse with the possibility of opening up passages to the surface or to water tables.  The only reasonably safe way seems to be to use up the waste in a 4th generation nuclear power plant.  The Roman Empire lasted for about a thousand years.  We now seem to be going through 'go to woe' rather faster.  The American Empire (read John Perkins) is roughly 300 years old.  How much longer will it be around to look after the wastes that are pretty nasty after tens of thousands of years.  It will take a miracle for America to hold on for the next hundred. I don't think we hava a lot of choice.

jagdish bidani's picture
jagdish bidani on Aug 12, 2012

Fast breeder reactor technology of hj bhaba using the thorium sands of india and using spent fuel plutonium of theworld will also make terrorists and communities and persons non grata devoid of any chance of proliferating plutonium for stealth weapons. The world will have electricity for 500 years from accumulated spent nuclear fuel of the world.let us not shy away from hj bhaba dreams of fast breader reactor developement using thorium sands of india.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 12, 2012

I agree, this is apparently sloppy reporting.  Probably the reporter has confused "total nuclear waste and DU" with plutonium.  Over its 40-80 year operation life, each Light Water Reactor will produce enough plutonium to startup one or two fast reactors.  

Fast reactors require a lot of fuel to start, but from then on, make their own fissile fuel from natural uranium or depleted uranium.  Natural uranium is a mix of 99% U238 (non-fissile) and 0.7% U235 (the fissile component). Natural uranium can be burned in heavy water reactors, but light water reactors (which are more cost effective) require a higher percentage of U235, i.e. enriched fuel.  Depleted uranium is what's left when U235 is extracted from natural uranium to make light water fuel (which is 3-5% U235, the rest U238).

A 1 GW reactor uses about 1 ton of fissile material per year, so a light water reactor will need about 200 tons of natural uranium, processed into 20 tons of enriched uranium each year.  Over 60 years, this produces about 10,000 tons of depleted uranium (from the enrichment tails) and 1100 tons of recyclable uranium (from the spent fuel), which is available for other uses.  Once started on plutonium, a fast reactor can operate for up to 1100 years from the spent fuel and 10,000 years on the enrichment tails.

The reporting also seems to confuse “plutonium” and “separated plutonium”.  The percentage of Britain’s plutonium which has been separated (and therefore is the most worrisome) is apparently small. Perhaps the intent is that it will only take 5 years to move the separated plutonium into the new recycling center, so that it can be more securely guarded and accounted for.  It would be hard to economically justify building a plant with a 60 year life that burned all its intended Pu fuel in just 5 years.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 12, 2012

William, your heat concern is an issue that is known to the engineers and scientist who design the waste repositories.

They have devised three solutions to the problem:

  1. Limit the amount of waste per unit area of the repository.  This is the driving factor for the amount of real-estate used by the repository (the solution used for WIPP in New Mexico).
  2. Provide air ventilation for several decades so the heat rate can decrease, to decrease the cost and repository area (proposed for Yucca Mountain).
  3. Store the waste for several decades in above ground dry cask storage, so the heat rate can decrease, to decrease the cost and repository area (the defacto solution being implemented by utilities).

Heat control is one of the main goals of repository design, so you can rest assured that the matter is being given proper study.  The heat conduction of salt and rock is low, but it high enough to be viable. It is described in the Yucca Mountain reports, and it was a major study area in the Kansas salt mine tests (we put nuclear waste temporarily into a salt mine a few decades ago, just to gather data).

The amount of real-estate used by nuclear waste repositories will be small compared to the amount of land used for fossil or renewable energy generation.  And of course once the repository is sealed shut, the land above it can be put to other uses.

It’s also important to remember that the amount of space used by nuclear waste repositories will not continue growing over the centuries.  Within the next century two, we’ll either switch to all renewables, or a more sustainable form of nuclear (e.g. IFR plutonium-cycle fast breeders or LFTR thorium-cycle breeders).  With sustainable nuclear power, the heat from the waste is nearly zero after a couple of hundred years, so the new waste can potentially be stacked-on top of the old waste.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 12, 2012


All activity generates waste. Nuclear waste is radioactive, but radioactivity is a natural process and radiation is an inescapable part of nature (i.e. it comes from the sky above us, the ground beneath us, and the food we eat).  Generating solar power also creates waste, whether from making PV panels (which requires toxic chemicals which will be hazardous forever), making batteries  (which requires toxic chemicals  which will be hazardous forever) to store the energy, or burning fossil fuels for backup.  

The real question is the overall safety and impact to the environment.  For both of these metrics, nuclear has an excellent track record and excellent future prospects.  Nuclear is unique in that the amount of waste generated by nuclear power is so tiny, that we can afford to bury it far outside of the biosphere.  For fossil fuels, most of the waste goes right into the air, the rest sits in giant piles or ponds, waiting on a future generation to deal with it.  

As for severe accidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl, not only are they enormously more rare than fossil fuel accidents, they also cause much less loss of life and far less harm to human health.  We've had decades to study the environmental and human health impacts of Chernobyl, and the data simply does not support the claims of nuclear critics of high mortality. Basically 50 years of nuclear power has killed fewer people than die every few weeks from pollution and accidents from fossil fuel use.

It's an axiom of the anti-nuclear movement that the scientists are wrong and we can use our gut feel to discover the truth.  Well, that's not a strategy that works in the modern world; we'll all simply end up believing whichever special interest groups lobby the hardest (hint, fossil fuel companies have the most money available for lobbying).

As for whether a nuclear or solar powered world would be geo-politically safer, remember that nuclear fuel can be cheaply stock-piled to produce energy security (i.e. years, decades, centuries), solar power cannot be stored for more than a few hours, and solar resources are not evenly distributed around the world.  Our allies in Europe and Japan have extremely poor solar resources; so in a future world with low cost solar, they will either continue to burn fossil fuel, or import solar energy from the Middle-East and North Africa (they have enough domestic solar energy potential, but it can’t compete economically with that from sunnier countries).  So the Middle-East would continue to have a tense supplier relationship with the West. 

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on Aug 12, 2012

Nathan, yes, all activity generates waste.  But there is an enormous difference between naturally occurring radiation and human created radiation.  The first is unavoidable, the second is avoidable.  It is the accumulation of radiation that is dangerous to living things.  I would argue that nuclear does not have an "excellent" track record.  We really don't have a track record.  There are very few long term studies on the effects of radiation and even those are disputed by nuclear supporters arguing that one can't prove cause and effect over such long periods of time.  I have seen images of deformed children and adults from Chernobyl and the surrounding areas.  Are thyroid cancers due to heredity or the radiated wheat one has eaten?  How do we know?  Who is conducting these types of long-term studies?  No one that I know of. 

I will also argue that as long as it's not your part of the world that is effected by a Black Swan event (a nuclear accident that we are told could never happen but happened), one can continue to argue that nuclear is safe and just fine.  But, if you are from Fukushiam-Daiichi province and your world will never be the same, you've been uprooted and forced to live god-knows-where, you are eating, breathing and drinking radiation (you can't see it), and the nuclear plume is happily floating over California as we type, I think we might have a change of mind.  Black Swans are part of the trade-off with nuclear anything.  Are we really willing to have these types of events happen every 20-30 years?  And, if the world becomes dependent on nuclear power and begins to build 40 to 100 new nuclear power plants a year, do we really believe Black Swans won't happen more frequently?  And the waste generated?  One hundred years of fossil fuel and we are changing the climate.  One hundred years of nuclear waste and accidents and how might the world look at that point?  Just some questions to ponder.   

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 13, 2012

This TreeHugger article combines a couple of different issues.  Yes, replacing the Indian Point reactors with more modern Gen III reactors would improve the already excellent safety of the plant, and would greatly reduce the already very low likelihood that an evacuation would be needed.  No, replacing them with more fossil fuel use (or a combination of renewables with fossil backup) would not improve safety (the resulting air pollution would contribute to the deaths of dozens of people annually).

The "waste confidence ruling" mentioned in the section about the NRC is basically a court battle about the Federal government's failure to meet it's legal obligation to provide a permanent waste disposal solution.  It does not indicate that the waste cannot be safely stored, only that the Federal government is not currently paying for said storage with the money it collects from utilities, and questions the NRC's "confidence" that it can resolve the political deadlock anytime soon.

James Coleman's picture
James Coleman on Aug 13, 2012

Yes, the article does fail to state its terms appropriately in this context. But basically, GE-Hitachi are talking about weapons-grade material being destroyed, and David MacKay is talking about a closed fuel cycle power plant.

The "5 years" estimate is the timescale required to cycle all the plutonium through the reactor quickly, which allows some plutonium to fission, and small amounts of surviving plutonium to be transmuted into plutonium-240. The combination of fission products and non-fissile isotopes renders the material useless for a weapon (pure plutonium-239 is required for a bomb; a reactor can cope with very impure plutonium). This is because the security risk of holding so much weapons-grade material is the government's main concern at the moment.

However, this would burn up only a tiny fraction of the plutonium's energy. The "500 years" estimate is the outcome of using that some amount of plutonium in a larger series of reactors, and reprocessing the fuel to keep feeding it back through the reactors until it was all gone.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 14, 2012

Eric, science is a very rigid discipline.  Most of your impressions have been shaped by propaganda, not science.  A good scientist would never tell you that an accident can't happen, nuclear or otherwise.  Yes, nuclear accidents can happen, but they are rare.  Birth defects can happen anyway, for a variety of reasons.

Again, the scientific way to deal with risk is not to shrink away from the one that has the strongest lobby working against it.  We must objectively compare risks.  The best science we have says that nuclear power is the safest alternative.  And more importantly, because of variability, with current technology, we don't know how to build renewable-rich energy system which doesn't rely on fossil fuel backup for most of the energy!  So unless a miraculous breakthrough occurs, renewable+fossil fuel will always be at least 50% as dangerous as fossil fuels alone.

Scientific studies also assure us that modern nuclear plants are much safer than their 1960s era predecessors (fewer accidents and lower accident severity).  So I'm not worried that a massive increase in the number of nuclear plants will result in frequent accidents. 

Also, I'm not worried about dangerous radiation plumes from far away reactor accidents.  Put a few miles of buffer zone around each nuclear plant (maybe even fill the buffer zone with solar panels to add a bit of daytime power boost), and the threat of serious contamination goes away (the giant evacuation around Fukushima was overkill; a little radiation is just not that dangerous, no matter what the propaganda says).

A good place to read about nuclear power is here:

It's a free on-line book by Bernard Cohen, called "The Nuclear Energy Option", which does a good job of  comparing risks and provides a good background on nuclear power.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on Aug 14, 2012

Nathan, the debate we are having is pretty much the debate most pro and anti nuclear folks are having.  Your viewpoint is no more scientific than mine.  You are convinced that nuclear is the only viable option, that the risk is worth the trade-off, and that the waste issue will somehow miraculously take care of itself.  I am of the opposite persuasion.  I believe humanity is not ready to 'go' nuclear.  The risks are simply too great.  Accidents would happen more often.  Waste would accumulate all over the world.  The impact on our lives would, in my opinion, be unsustainable.  But I am not alone.  I moderated a discussion with the chair of the physics & astronomy department at my local university.  He was deeply involved with Mexico's nuclear industry as well and had been asked to head the inspection team hunting for weapons of mass destruction in Iran.  He opted to teach instead.  He is completely opposed to nuclear power.  Safety concerns, waste issues, the narcissistic nature of the industry, and for other reasons as well. 

It is also disingenuous to equate nuclear as 'clean' energy.  There is nothing clean about it.  From the construction, cooling, and storage issues to uranium mining.  We again would be dependent on foreign uranium, mostly in Africa, if we committed to nuclear power.  Again, a commitment to nuclear means building 40-100 new nuclear power plants a year just in the United States.  Right now we are looking at $8-13 billion per unit just in construction costs.  We are also looking at 10 years down the road before a nuclear plant is fully operational.  What happens if we built solar plants (I'm not a big wind fan either), both traditional and thermal (my favorite), and for those few hours that solar plants are slowing down they are mixed with natural gas?  Or other alternatives?  It doens't have to be either/or.  It can be a combination.  Don't you think this would be a much saner, safer way to meet our energy needs in this world? 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Aug 17, 2012


You keep objecting to nuclear power based not on Fast Breeder Generation 4 tech which we are currently discussing, but on the characteristics of 1960's  era tech. which we are not discussing.

1) Fast breeders can burn Natural Uranium, Uranium Waste aka spent fuel from current technology,  Plutonium from Weapons, and abundant Thorium.

2) Modular new Reactors will be factory built and will not Cost 8-13 Billion dollars.

3) The waste from Fast Breeders will remain dangerous for only about 300yrs.


Paul O's picture
Paul O on Aug 17, 2012

Reading through some responses to this article, I have come to the sad conclussion that some people are just dead set on hating Nuclear power, Period, and It doesn't matter whether or not the technology has evolved past the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of earlier generations. 

They point to costs, and if modular plants allay costs, they'll point to nuclear waste, and if Fast Breeders consume waste,  they lobby politicians to Kill Fast breeder research (The Integral Fast Reactor) and waste storage facilities (Yucca Mountain, Dry Casks).

Then the Nuclear Hate Cycle repeats all over again with them pointing to Costs and nuclear waste.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on Aug 17, 2012

Paul, it's not 'hatred' of nuclear.  It's the understanding that we are not ready for nuclear.  I know that the American economic model is to trust to the invisible hand of the market to take care of everything but I don't accept that ideology.  First make sure that the waste issue is truly a non-issue.  Second make sure that issues like Fukushima -Daiichi cannot happen.  Third, consider the problems with uranium mining and dependency.  Don't go head first into the shallow part of the swimming pool.  We are barely a year since Fukushima-Daiichi and already the call for nuclear power is gaining steam.  Why don't we hear the same drumbeat for solar?  All I ever hear is how expensive solar is, how it can't meet our energy needs, etc.  Why don't we jump into that pool first and when we solve the problems with nuclear, revisit the issue at that time.  In other words, let's use the precautionary principle first.  And the blind greed one last.

Jean-Marc D's picture
Jean-Marc D on Aug 17, 2012

Eric, isn't it funny that the one country that has the largest part of it's energy generated by nuclear is one of those that leasts trusts the invisible hand ?

It's hard to have a clear view of the energy generation field, it's seriously muddled by everybody defending his own option. But I still believe it's quite possible.

However what I have to say probably looks slanted toward nuclear. But I really, really believe I'm just honestly stating the fact that emerge after much research. The fact that such a prominent environmentalist and scientist as James Lovelock has much the same point of view helps me believe I'm correct.

Lovelock recently took side in favor of shale gaz instead of nuclear, but not because he found bad points in nuclear that he had missed previously, but because he tought after Fukushima there would be no way to convince people in favor of nuclear, so that it'd be better to stop pursuing a lost cause, and concentrate on what could success.

- per generated TWh death statistics are hugely in favor in nuclear, even after something like Fukushima, even if we assume we missed some of the effect of radiation and there will be more cancer death than expected.

Nuclear suffers from the same effect as aviation, a big crash make everybody afraid, but on day to day it's a *lot* safer than traveling by car. Since each roof generated just a little energy, a few worker falling from it make it already a lot more dangerous than nuclear. Roof work is classified amongst the most dangerous jobs.

Actually a worker in a nuclear plant is more secure a white collar in a bank (yes, it's the official statitic, even including Fukushima and Chernobyl). Everything is so strictly controled inside a nuclear plant, than the work fatality is about 0.

- In effect, Nuclear competes against Coal and nothing else. Both are the cheap baseload power generation that runs all over the day. When the US stopped building new NPP, it immedialty started to build more coal. When I check the power generation in Germany, I see that the generation curve of nuclear and coal are exactly the same. Germany has still a lot of coal power generation (around 40% of total), and if they had not stopped those NPP last year every bit of nuclear generated power would have displaced coal power, not renewables.

That's important because coal is very, very evil. The environnemental dammage is absolutly huge. But that's not the only thing. North Carolina just proved in trial that the TVA coal causes premature mortality, asthma, chronic bronchitis and cardiopulmonary illnesses. After the spill 4 years ago, the  Kingston, Tennessee residents have their local river polluted with arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium. Some of the levels were still recently 200 times the autorised limits.

- Coal waste is worse than nuclear waste. Nobody wants any of the product listed above in his drinking water. But 130 million tons of coal waste are produced by the US every year. Opposite to the nuclear waste there is no possible way of disposing of such a huge amount of waste safely. Even if only one river is as badly polluted as the kingston one, groundwater pollution has been found all over the US.We are worried about the possibility of nuclear waste pollution in a very far away time scale, but the coal waste pollution is actually unmanageable today. Nuclear waste is actually around 10 thousand times smaller, so that can be managed. Not coal waste.

- Read Lovelock about nuclear waste if you don't believe me but after around 200 years, when the fission product have recessed, nuclear waste is not a lot more dangerous than the original ore was. In Oklo in Gabon, a natural nuclear fission reactor just accidently appeared 2 billions years ago. Now the interested thing is that the waste just stayed there. It polluted nothing. After 2 billions years, it just was still were it initially appeared.

Recently crabs were fished in the vicinity of fukushima, and not a trace of last year caesium could be even measured. There was much talk some time ago about mesuring caesium in tuna. But actually the amount was so low that it's only the ratio between caesium 134 and 137 that could really tell it was coming from fukushima, and not a remnant of the atmospheric weapons testing of the 60's.

- When large scale energy production is concerned, the state of things doesn't move fast. Something revolutionnary may be found tomorrow in a laboratory, but it'll take at least 30 years before it's large scale technology massively in use.

This post clearly set the state of things today :

Coal is around 40% of the world electricity, Nuclear is 12%, Hydroelectric 13/14% and Solar is 0.25% (wind 2%). We can no longer say that's only because no money has been spent on renewable, and it'd be easy to have much more. In the 2000-2009 timespan, around 1300 billions dollar have spent on renewable, only 140 billions dollar on nuclear.

Germany alone has spent more than 130 billions dollar on solar and is only 3% solar. Solar panel are cheaper today, yes, but German start to see scale problem that require other just as major spending to solve. Generation in winter is 4 to 5 times lower than in may, so the only solution is to have major overcapacity in summer (that even with cheaper panel is far from free) and storing as hydrogen. But that means massive investment in hydrogen generation, storage, burning turbines, where again the cost rises in the hundreds of billions of dollar. Hydrogen generators are very expensive today.

So the reasonnable thing today is to invest on nuclear to remove coal, the most polluting, the most unhealthly, the most CO2 generating power. And do more research about solar to develop solution than can scale to being the main power source at reasonnable cost. Maybe 20 years from now that will the good choice instead of nuclear. But not today.

Jean-Marc D's picture
Jean-Marc D on Aug 17, 2012

You are wrong on several points :

- 4th generation nuclear power plant get almost all of their energy from fission of atoms. In waste, there is only decay

- When we bury waste in 20/30 years from now, 90% of the activity will come from fission products. They are not there for long, in 200 years there won't be much left, and in 600 years their activity will be much less than the one of the rest. The decay of fission product immedialty produces stable elements.

What will be left, the actinides, release a lot less heat.

- The speed of heat release is the most important factor. There is already much heat in the underground, it raises by 3°C for 100 meter. Down 4000 meters, it's 140 ° C. Believe it or not, most of it already comes from radioactive decay. So the heat just will dissipate, it's nothing impressive.

Don't forget that dry cask made of concrete are already able to dissipate the heat of the older waste, once it has spent 5 years in pools.

James Coleman's picture
James Coleman on Aug 17, 2012

Why did you randomly disagree with the free market ideology in your third sentence (and again at the end, by implication)? If there's one thing I'm sure any commentator interested in energy policy already knows, it's that no major decarbonisation project in energy works without government involvement; fossil fuels are still the cheapest option by far, and (to put it mildly) it sounds like none of us here are keen on that!

Uranium mining is only a problem if fast breeder reactors, like the one mentioned in this article, or thermal breeders, using thorium, are never deployed. Fast breeder technology is mature, but has never been commercialised before because there was no pressure on uranium supplies; the reason they are now becoming a serious commercial prospect is because future fuel availability is causing forward-thinking people to look for ways to use the ~98% of the fuel that's currently just wasted (literally, it's discarded as nuclear waste). It's by no means an argument against fast breeder technology, though you imply it is.

Issues like Fukushima-Daiichi are arguably already solved;reactors dating to 1980 or later were designed to be passive safe, so they would suffer fewer problems if active systems were lost (e.g. coolant power fails). It's worth noting that the two newest active reactors at Fukuhima, units 5 and 6 (also the largest units on the site) never posed a health hazard, it was the oldest three units (and smallest units). Japan's newer power plants, including the nearby Fukushima-Daini (which suffered similar failures) likewise caused no public safety issues. It's more than a little disingenuous to ignore the major safety improvements since the 1970s, pre-Three Mile Island, as an argument that it's not feasible with modern technology.

How dangerous radiation is, is a related issue that could fill a whole textbook with arguments and counterarguments; but considering that even under LNT, the worst-case model, Fukushima's radiation will cause around 150 deaths (worldwide) according to a recent study, there's certainly scope for questioning why Fukushima causes so much fuss. Considering that an average 1GW coal plant, functioning completely normally, causes around 45,000 deaths over a 40-year operating life, any energy-related protest movement that's more concerned about ending nuclear energy than ending coal energy, is missing a whole herd of elephants in the room!

You say there is no call for solar; I disagree, I hear a lot of positive news on solar power on a regular basis (more so than nuclear, actually, on lesser technical grounds). It gets (proportionately) far more support than other non-renewable energy systems; the main limitations thus far are the relatively small manufacturing base, and day-night intermittency. The former is solvable, is being solved, and will help bring costs down; the latter is a much bigger hurdle because regular changes in power supply put a lot of strain on the national grid, and currently the only ways of storing that energy are incredibly expensive and pretty inefficient (with no effective solutions on the horizon as yet).

I'm by no means against solar, but this isn't a competition, and treating it like one just prolongs the fossil-fuel hegemony: every watt of energy not generated by fossil fuels is useful and necessary to prevent the very urgent problem of climate change.

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Aug 17, 2012

Hi Paul

I don't think we have any choice.  We have to adopt nuclear power and 4th generation nuclear power at that.  It is the only practical way I can see of getting rid of nuclear wastes sitting all over the world from as far back as the Manhatten project that created the first nuclear bombs.  Sad that we have to go this rout when wind power is coming in at around 8.3c per kWh (and is sold for around 20c/kWh) while solar panels have finally dropped to around a dollar per nominal watt and are now coming out with built in micro-inverters, allowing one to harvest all the power that each panel generates. If on the other hand, we build nuclear power plants that create yet more waste, we have basically thrown away our right to exist as a species.  It is a little like watching people deny climate change after seeing "Chasing Ice".  As individuals we are incredibly clever.  En Mass, unbelievably stupid.



Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Aug 18, 2012


The liquid fluoride thorium reactor, tested and proven albeit, not as long as the LMFR, seems VERY convincing. Aside from technical issues (from the '60's such as how to deal with pipes and valves in the extreme environment), has got to be the safest way to nuclear fission. No high pressures, no water to explode and inherent safety.

Kirk Sorensen worked with NASA and is now an avid supporter of this "old" technology.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Aug 18, 2012

As you can read from the article, Fast Breeder (and LFTR I think) tech, will get rid of all that waste and turn it into hundreds of years of power.  LFtR Can't melt down because it's already  in a liquid state, and it can't blow up because it has no means to generate the hydrogen which is what actually blows up in a catastrophic accident.

The way forward is to abandon the aincient generation 1 and 2 technology. Why Run a coal driven Locomotive train when there are electric Mag-levs available?

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Aug 19, 2012

And there would be much less of that waste per unit of power compared to the dangerous light water reactors we use now :)

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on Aug 19, 2012

fireofenergy, yes, there would be less waste but there would still be waste, waste that has a 300 year shelf life.  It's a little naive to believe that we humans can keep nuclear waste safely for 300 years.  300 years ago the United States didn't even exist.  We can't find Civil War battlefields.  And I can still remember living in Albuquerque, NM when San dia labs wanted to flush 'low-level' radioactive waste right into the city sewer system.  Why?  Because the federal government was cutting back and dumping nuclear waste down the drain was a cheap way of disposal.  How can we guarantee anything for 300 years?  Much less 100,000 years?  The issues go back to three things: waste not being an issue, guarantees that Fukushima-Daiichis cannot happen, and that uranium is plentiful and cheap.  If all of these cases don't exist, why on earth would we want to go down this path? 

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on Aug 19, 2012

jmdesp, a couple of items.  First, Germany is not 3% solar.  It has nearly 22 gigawatts of solar power feeding over 50% of its electric needs.  If Germany can do this, imagine how Texas, Arizona, California, and other southwestern and western states could feed the entire country's energy needs through solar panels and solar thermal plants.  Again, my argument is that the reasonable thing to do is to invest in solar power, natural gas to augment any solar slowdowns, and do much more research on nuclear to see if one day there is no harmful waste, guarantees that there cannot be Fukushima-Daiichis, that we are not dependent on expensive and finite uranium, and that the cost of building a plant is not what it is today.  In other words, just the reverse of your argument. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 21, 2012

According to Germany's 2009 electricity consumption was about 590,000 GWh, or about 67 GW average.  Using your value of 22 GW (nameplate peak) of solar, and assuming a 15% capacity factor, that's 3.3 GW average of solar, or 5% of the total demand, not 50%.

The instantaneous value may spike to 50% in June, but that just illustrates the extent to which a solar-rich portfolio will be dependent on fossil fuel backup.

I don't have an exact price handy, but I seem to recall the German solar feed-in tariff being in the range of $0.30/kWh, which is a factor of 10x higher than the marginal cost of power from a coal plant (assuming the plant already exists, or is needed anyway for backup).

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 22, 2012

Yes, this is pretty typical of pro/anti-nuclear arguments:

- "anti" leads off with traditional bumper-sticker propaganda (waste, cost, risks...).

- "pro" earnestly tries to respond with fact based answers from mainstream sources.

- "anti" dismisses all cited facts, for various reasons (principly distrust of science and society, or a general preference for sources that use scare tactics), then repeat the discredited anti-nuclear slogans.

Eric's arguments are unique in that they demand advancements in the handling of waste, and the sustainability of uranium ore and ironically are posted to an article about fast reactors which are designed to address those very issues. (as Paul points out upstream)

The "solar + natural gas" argument was also a surprise, since I thought natural gas had fallen out of favor (at least publicly) with the "antis".  Natural gas use still results in serious accidents and releases pollution which kill many people annually, and it still emits greenhouse gases CO2 and fugitive methane, and drilling for it still occasionally contaminates ground water.

Here is some reading on energy related accidents.

It reports that natural gas kills 10x more people than nuclear; so it does not support the claim that "solar + natural gas" would be safer than nuclear.  It is focused on severe accidents, so it ignores the deaths from air pollution from fossil fuels (which tilt the balance further in favor of nuclear).

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 22, 2012

Paul, here are more attributes of fast reactors:

They use uranium so sparingly, that we can never run out of it (200 times less ore is required than with light water reactors).  The entire outer crust of planet Earth is endowed with a few parts per million of uranium and a dozen ppm of thorium; this means that the average ton of dirt or rock has enough fast reactor fuel to provide more energy than a ton of coal! (even allowing for the energy cost of extracting it).  Better yet, the oceans contain trace amounts of uranium that can be extracted with no digging, and this uranium is continually replenished by rain erosion (uranium extraction from sea water was demonstrated 30 years ago in Japan).  Fast reactor fuel will always be cheap.

Note that we are confident that they will result in far fewer serious accidents (i.e. those that expose the public to released radioactivity), in part because designs like the IFR don't have steam in the core, and don't require off-site power for cooling.  If the nuclear fuel melts in an IFR accident, any radioactive gases that are released from the fuel are trapped by the containment structure (in contrast, for a light water reactor, the containment can only trap gasses until the steam pressure becomes too great, and the containment must be vented; steam is generated in the reactor if the electric cooling pumps lose power).  The IFR does not have water or steam in the core, and the core is passively air-cooled when the reactor is shutdown.

Fast reactor waste (at least IFR waste) is not water soluble.  Two types of waste come out: a metal alloy and a ceramic form.  So even if the geologists make a huge blunder, and water gets into a nuclear waste repository, very little radioactivity can leach out of the waste in 300 years. (light water reactor waste is also ceramic, but it is full of cracks, which allow much more leaching).  Geologists tell us that even the light water waste problem is solvable; the IFR waste problem is easy.

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on Aug 22, 2012

Nathan, aren't you being just a tad disingenuous?  '"Pro" earnestly tries to respond with fact based answers from mainstream sources?'  What kind of argument is that?  Let's look at the history of the nuclear industry.  It was born in secrecy.  Grew up in deceit.  And lives on lies.  To argue that you somehow have the moral high ground is ridiculous.  To also argue that concern over waste, cost, risks . . . is traditional bumper sticker propaganda is well, propaganda.  Have you ever seen a uranium mine?  Didn't we just witness Fukushima-Daiichi, the event that was never supposed to happen that happened?  What part of these are bumper sticker propaganda?  It seems to me I am talking to an ideological zealot and not a scientist.   

Jean-Marc D's picture
Jean-Marc D on Aug 24, 2012

The capacity factor in germany is not 15%, it's barely more than 10%. That's what gives the 3%.

Check on wikipedia even though it doesn't give the number directly :

Capacity varied in 2011 from 17.3 to 24.8. Making an average between the two, the potential was 184 TWh. The number actually generated is 18 TWh

And also on that 50% day (during 1hour and a half), actually it was still only 30% of total generation. If you make the calculation right, that most that germany had to export almost 80% of it's renewable production at a price around 5€/MWh (technically, sun and wind inject in the local network, so what was exported is more the production of the fossil power that could not be ramped down fast enough)

That means that for each *consumed* MWh, Germany was still producing an awful lot of CO2, since that fossil power was almost 100% coal and lignite (brown coal). OK, not 100%, there was a significant part of CO2 free nuclear. But if they go on with their nuclear free plan ...

Jean-Marc D's picture
Jean-Marc D on Aug 24, 2012

I'm not 100% against solar. It getting cheaper at a fast rate, and in some case, it's production curve is reseaonnably matched against consumption.

In a country with a lot of air conditionning where the consumption is highest in summer, during the middle of the day, solar could be integrated in the grid in reasonnable condition.

But where the consumption is higher in winter, at a time where solar produces little, the question is left if the value of solar is worse it's cost. At the very least, thermic solar really shoud be pushed first.

They are some solar water heater that are simple, don't need subidies (or very little) and have a much higher efficiency than PV. Like the system (all the information is on line to build it yourself) or the variant on it.

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Aug 24, 2012

The German system of getting people to take up solar panels has been a huge success.  Solar power in Germany is equal to about as much power as from 5 or so large coal fired power stations.  It is much admired all over the world and Germany is very proud of it.  Sad to say it is a scam on a number of levels.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Aug 25, 2012

It's better than all out societal die off!

Ok, I'm not a scientist (or that positve anymore for that matter) but what happens when we continue to brush aside THE SOLUTION to global warming, THE SOLUTION to energy scarcity and the solution for renewable energy backup.

This, inturn IS the economic solution as any scientific minded economist knows that energy is the foundation to all physical things human and prosperity. Without MASSIVE amounts of energy, we won't be able to build up the capital needed to transition over to the fossil fuel replacements so drastically needed by both our kids and the biosphere itself! Right now, fossil fuels gives us this one and only chance... to make robotic battery factories, to make robotic solar panel factories and to make only the best nuclear reactors which operate on priciples of pasive safety, not redundant safety measures.

The difference is LFTR relies on gravity and a coolant that won't explode. The LWR relies on water (which explodes or evaporates). LFTR fuel is dispersed in the coolant, LWR is solid and WILL meltdown and release radiation if water evaporates away. The molten fuel in a LFTR will expand if it gets too hot, (then it will cool). Redundant means multiple valves and such that can break down in the event of some kind of extreme physical parameters, passive means that it will shut down (unless the law of gravity and thermodynamics changes). Hence none of those LWR accidents would have occured. If a LFTR reactor was to crack in half, it would spill the fluid in its room where it would lose the ability to fission (no meltdown), cool and render the room radioactive (which is still a concern, just vastly much less so). The exact opposite happened in Japan. The solid fuel got so hot, it evaporated the water coolant (or caused it to turn into hydrogen via thermo splitting!) and thus got hotter and emitted more, not less radioactive material. Worst yet, years worth of (un)spent fuel laying around also depends on water cooling. LFTR wastes are just a fraction and can be incased in glass and concrete which does last for centuries (albeit, not thousands of centuries for LWR wastes).

If we give up on science and go backwards, well, there will still be (lots of) people dedicated to do whatever it takes to survive in a world of declining energy and then declining resources. We will thus give our kids anarchy or totalitarian control (because that is what usually happens in a state of decline). Then you would, unfortunately, be right, nobody will properly document the past (and nuclear wastes).

Also, I believe that LFTR or best liquid fueled reactor capable of producing high process heat can pave the way for powering the robotic factories needed by the RE and battery industries.

We need to open up ALL safe energy posibilities because we will NEED an overall (and very large) energy replacement for all those old and dangerous LWR's, much less declining (and hopefully, outlawed) fossil fuels!

Edit: I meant "eventually, outlaw fossil fuels".

Eric Lane's picture
Eric Lane on Aug 24, 2012

William, I'm not sure I understand your argument.  Taxation is a different subject.  Solar power is working in Germany.  I live in Texas.  We have something like 320-340 days of sunshine.  Can you imagine how much power we could generate from down here.  Of course, the oil and gas industry is doing everything in its power to undermine solar. 

William Hughes-Games's picture
William Hughes-Games on Aug 25, 2012

Hi Eric

What I was trying to get at in the article is that the problems with the uptake of solar power are no longer technical or even cost.  Panels are getting down to around a dollar per nominal watt and even panels with built in micro inverters are running around 2.60 per watt.  The affordability of a solar system depends on the regulations that the government sets out and when a government gives you a deal too good to be true (three times the rate for power you produce than for power you use) suspect a scam somewhere.  In this case the German government is milking the system 6 ways from sunday.  How much simpler (and eliminating the need for a separate meter that the customer has to pay for) if the government simply said any excess you produce will turn your existing meter backwards.  In essence, the power company is paying you the same rate they charge you.  At the end of the month or even the year, you would have a financial reconcilliation with the power company and either you would pay them or the converse.  Now the power company has to maintain the lines that allow you to sell them electricity so a line charge would probably have to be part of the mix but it would be the same for the consumer and the consumer/producer.  Imagine the situation of the German solar panel owner when his 20 years are over.  Such a system also doesn't discourage the power company from being your battery as the double metering system does.

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