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Should Libertarians Support Nuclear Power?

The Reason Foundation has posted an on-line debate between William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey, and the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor over whether libertarians should support nuclear power. Tucker argues that nuclear power would be economical were it not for political interference, and should be a key element of America's energy future.

The current problem with nuclear is not its underlying economics but the current political climate in the U.S. that is hostile to nuclear and doesn't offer a level playing field. Coal is familiar and politically entrenched and so people don't question the danger it poses. Solar and renewables are showered with subsidies and mandates because they have won popular favor even though they are very low density energy sources.

The real solution then to making nuclear energy economically feasible may lie in changing the popular perception of nuclear as forbidding and dangerous. People should consider nuclear as natural as the ground beneath their feet (hence I have titled my forthcoming book Terrestrial Energy). The slow breakdown of uranium atoms is what heats the core of the earth to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. When we build a nuclear reactor, we are only reproducing this process in an isolated environment. Yet it is so powerful that its environmental impact is 2 million times smaller than fossil fuels or the various forms of renewable energy. If powering the world with virtually no environmental impact can't be made economical, what can be?

Taylor is more skeptical, suggesting that (like many other energy sources) nuclear power cannot compete without massive government subsidies.

Nuclear energy is to the Right what solar energy is to the Left: Religious devotion in practice, a wonderful technology in theory, but an economic white elephant in fact (some crossovers on both sides notwithstanding). When the day comes that the electricity from solar or nuclear power plants is worth more than the costs associated with generating it, I will be as happy as the next Greenpeace member (in the case of the former) or MIT graduate (in the case of the latter) to support either technology. But that day is not on the horizon and government policies can't accelerate the economic clock. . . .

Those who favor nuclear power should adopt a policy of tough love. Getting this industry off the government dole would finally force it to innovate or die - at least in the United States. Welfare, after all, breeds sloth in both individual and corporate recipients. The Left's distrust of nuclear power is not a sufficient rationale for the Right's embrace of the same.

Duffy Pratt (mail):
Are private insurers willing to insure nuclear plants without the arbitrary caps that the Feds have put on liability? I don't know the answer to that, so its not a loaded question, but it would have some bearing on the economics of nuclear power from a libertarian perspective.
10.21.2008 7:44pm
fortyninerdweet (mail):
Taylor's premise has some validity. Limited short term incentive or assistance might be acceptable, but in the long-run if nuclear power can't pay its own way - and then some - we on the right should rethink the scheme.
10.21.2008 7:48pm
J. Aldridge:
I'm all for nuke power as long as we are talking along the lines of a Integral Fast Reactor.
10.21.2008 7:49pm
Malthus:
Instead of all this handwaving, I'd like to see a sober analysis of the French experience in nuclear energy. I know for a fact that there is enough useless space in West Texas to store all the world's nuclear waste for millennia.
10.21.2008 7:53pm
tsotha:
Oil, coal, and gas plants have the economic advantage of forcing other people to pay the consequences of emissions. If we charged fossil fuel plant operators (especially coal) for the impact their plants have on human health and the environment, I'll bet solar and nuclear would look a whole lot more attractive.
10.21.2008 7:56pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
According to insiders I respect, neither the insurers or investors will go with nuclear power without federal caps on liability. Such caps violate the principle of respondeat superior, in that the government does not assume the liability. Of course, we all know that if a major disaster were to occur, like Chernobyl, with billions or trillions of dollars worth of damage, the government would have little choice but to pick up the tab, and pass it on to the taxpayers.

Nuclear power is just too dangerous, in too many ways. Keeping it safe requires an immense, perfect effort, sustained over centuries. We only have to get unlucky once.

But the main threat is material unaccounted for (MUF) being diverted to the wrong people, and the example of its use that will inevitably result in proliferation. Imagine 100 Irans and North Koreas.

So this libertarian opposes nuclear power except in a few uses like submarines and space vehicles. We have plenty of better alternatives, such as solar power satellites.
10.21.2008 8:09pm
jdd6y:
Agree w/ tsotha. Until fossil fuels at least are taxed for their pollution (leaving aside the global warming/climate change issue), then they are in effect being subsidized. In addition, electricity rates are not allowed to float, so, we don't know how much power is actually needed. It is very hard to know what the free market will bear when there are so many tangled regulations and subsidies.

Not to mention, if we are going to light money on fire with stuff like foreign invasions, having bases all over the world, paying people not to work, giving money to banks, subsidizing housing, etc, at least the rest of us could get some cleaner energy out of all this government waste.
10.21.2008 8:13pm
Justin (mail):
I think it is unfortunate that you chose not to update your readers on the allegations of voter fraud in New Mexico being 100% fake.

[Justin -- Go check out the post. On Monday AM I updated it to reflect ACORN's response as reported in the New Mexico papers. -- JHA]
10.21.2008 8:18pm
Johnny Bobby & Dutch LLP:
Libertarians don't have a position on nuclear power, per se. To the extent it is supported by the state (via coerced tax dollars), we disagree with the financial support. To the extent it is supported by private investors and individuals, that's kosher.
10.21.2008 8:20pm
theobromophile (www):
If I'm not mistaken, the huge cost of nuclear power is not in liability, nor fuel cost, but in the time-value of money associated with the construction cost of the plant. Once the plant is actually built, the electricity produced is basically too cheap to meter; the cost is almost entirely that of the plant.

In the '60s, people built nuclear plants in about four years, meaning that it only took four years to start recouping one's investment. That time is upwards of two decades now, which effectively adds a lot to the price: money that you would get in the 2020s, for example, is worth a lot less than money you could get in 2012.

It's not that nuclear power is inherently expensive (like modern solar power technology); it's just that the regulations that governments put on it make it so. The libertarian issue would be with the regulations (which may or may not be necessary), not the cost.

As for liability: if we had an electrical grid that would allow us to move electricity throughout the country (as opposed to the wonderfully outdated one we have now), wouldn't that enable us to, theoretically, build plants in places like West Texas, South Dakota, and Nevada, where if something happened (although the things are designed to withstand being hit with 747s, IIRC), a few cacti or scrub brush might burn up?
10.21.2008 8:34pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
Jonathan, I'm not clear on what it means to ask whether libertarians should support nuclear power. What is this collective of "libertarians" that can have a determined position?

If you mean "should individual libertarians support nuclear power?" I'd think the obvious answer is "yeah, if they want to."
10.21.2008 8:34pm
rfg:
The government currently subsidizes all of the above- fossil fuels and solar though tax credits, etc, and nuclear through tax credits,direct subsidies of fuel (provided by the Department of Energy at "cost") and indirect support from liability limits.

The liability limits (Price-Anderson Act) were sold to Congress as an absolute must if commercial power was to suceed. If this is in fact the case (and not just the typical BS of a group wanting a special break) then nuclear power would be uneconomical.

Which makes it odd that the "right" favors it.

Personally, I would rather live with a nuclear plant next door that with a paper mill (and yes, I have done both). I figure a coal plant should be about as bad as a paper mill, so by this reasoning, a nuclear plant would be better.

I firmly believe that coal is one of the worst choices, but it is familiar and has powerful friends.
10.21.2008 8:36pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
Justin, are you familiar with the concept of "on topic"?

It happens I was on the RNC con call today about Acorn stuff; I've also written the folks at NMGOP about it. So far, what I've seen reported about that on the D sites hasn't actually corresponded with what has been said; on the other hand, it does appear there really is a "Duran Duran" in Albuquerque. Poor guy.

Before you announce that Jonathan is somehow amiss in not confirming that, you might wait until it's clear it's true.
10.21.2008 8:39pm
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):

But the main threat is material unaccounted for (MUF) being diverted to the wrong people, and the example of its use that will inevitably result in proliferation. Imagine 100 Irans and North Koreas.


You might look into the so called "fission batteries" and other new reactor technologies.


So this libertarian opposes nuclear power except in a few uses like submarines and space vehicles. We have plenty of better alternatives, such as solar power satellites.


And fusion. Oh, and antimatter. If we're going to commit to technologies we don't quite know how to do or make economical, why think small?
10.21.2008 8:41pm
MadHatChemist:
The problem with starting up a nuclear power plant is that the regulations, litgation, and multiple layers of approval make it financially difficult without the government in effect counterbalancing itself.

Nuclear power is safe (Chernobyl was caused by an experiment wherein the safeties were shut off and the operators screwed up), and with proper recycling of waste there is little to contaminate the enviornment with.

Nuclear power is also the only non-CO2 producing power source that is widely available, will be available for a long while, AND is CHEAP and PROVEN.

Just as long as there was a guaruntee that bad lawsuits were limited AND the plant would be built within a not-so-long period of time due to lack of lawsuits/eco-machinations, then government support would be minimal -- outside of regulating the fissionable material itself.
10.21.2008 8:44pm
MadHatChemist:

And fusion. Oh, and antimatter. If we're going to commit to technologies we don't quite know how to do or make economical, why think small?


Anyone intersted in shares of dilithium crystal mines?
10.21.2008 8:46pm
Brian Mac:

If powering the world with virtually no environmental impact can't be made economical, what can be?

That's a statement about nuclear power. Sarcastro is now officially redundant.
10.21.2008 8:46pm
gattsuru (mail) (www):
Once the plant is actually built, the electricity produced is basically too cheap to meter; the cost is almost entirely that of the plant.


Not quite. It's still, best-case-scenario, only a bit less expensive than coal (and about half the price of things like natural gas). The fuel itself is cheap, but other operating costs kill you.

The whole thing's a moot point. You'd be better of trying to sell a human blood-powered generator than a nuclear one, politically, and that's unlikely to change when the average population associates nuclear power with a certain balding donut-eating technician and glowing green rocks.
10.21.2008 8:48pm
Lior:
Comparing coal with nuclear, I think it's clear that coal causes more human diseases per erg than nuclear. The main difference is that coal power plans are a continuous source of low-intensity pollution, while nuclear power plants are a potential source of high-intensity pollution.

Yes, Chernobyl killed some people and caused (some) higher incidence of cancer in its vicinity. But that event should be considered as the total radiocative pollution caused by Soviet power plants.

The problem is exactly that coal power plants cause damage continuously and are therefore not held liable to people hurt by their pollution (difficult to prove that the extra risk from the power plant is what caused a specific cancer) while nuclear plants only cause damage in extremely rare but obvious events where it is easier to claim causation (independently of its existence).

If coal plants were taxed for their environmental externality I'm sure that nuclear plants would become profitable.
10.21.2008 8:52pm
Dr_Mike (mail):
Don't have a link, but much as with oil, solar and wind nuclear suffers from a lack of infrastructure to build the plants. Beyond the lack of nuclear engineers to run them.

I forget where I saw it, but here's a Bloomberg link:

Turns out there's only one press in the world that can turn a 600 ton ingot into a one-piece reactor containment vessel. Either get in line, or build a reactor without containment. The Chinese have a large percentage of the current waiting list.

Oil is expensive because we can't aren't allowed to drill.

Solar is currently limited by silicon wafer production.

I've not checked the links, but I've seen indications that wind is pretty much maxed out until new factories can be built to make the turbines. Of course wind kills birds (false, or _extremely_ exaggerated) and blocks Ted Kennedy's view (true) so we'd have a hard time putting turbines up if they did provide cheap power.

And nuclear. Call my paranoid (the Dr. in Dr_Mike is a Ph.D. in physics, not a medical degree) but I do like a nice solid containment vessel on my reactors.

So there you go: high energy costs. Political, logistical, logistical and political, and logistical.

But no, building a hundred nuclear plants in the next couple years just won't happen. And I've ignored the economic issues completely...
10.21.2008 9:05pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
If nukes are economically viable, somebody will/already would have, put a nuke on a small pacific island nation where the bribes/lobbying fees are cheap, produced power, and then found a way to transmit the power. Energy storage and transfer is difficult but not impossible. If you have a source of cheap energy you can make hydrogen from water or aluminum from bauxite or run undersea cables, etc. That this hasn't happened suggests nukes might not be all they claimed to be by some of their supporters.
Missing from the usual discussions is an understanding of how the former american nuke industry was a byproduct of bad economic legislation dating from about 1908. Electric distribution has some attributes of a natural monopoly,and at the time it was thought that government could efficiently centrally plan and manage economic happenings. So we got cost-plus utilities, where regulated entities got to spend as much as they wanted, charge it to captive ratepayers, then add 6% profit for their stockholders. The outcome was these big kludges of expensive plants, built by Brown and Root aka Haliburton, instead of the kind of efficient systems an unregulated market would have produced. Under Carter, this arrangement was at least partially dismantled, so electric production is now more market based, but is still far from a free market.
10.21.2008 9:16pm
Dr_Mike (mail):
Hmm, the link didn't go. Let's try again.

Bloomberg JSW vessel

Ah, you need to put a description into the link. The "Link" button didn't prompt for that, just for the actual link. Perhaps a message indicating "Place a description between the > and the (open carrot)a> tags" would help. Except replace the (open carrot) with the key to the left of >. You know, shift-comma.

Isn't it fun, talking in a language humans understand, but the computer will allow?
10.21.2008 9:22pm
Dr_Mike (mail):
OT, but this is the place for it.

I finally (after posting twice, my problem not yours) read your Comment Policy. I didn't bother to read it before posting as I was sure I would not violate any sane policy, and had no fears on that account.

I do like your particular way of phrasing "Preview is my friend." If folks have not scrolled down beyond the "Add a comment" box, I suggest that you do so now.
10.21.2008 9:32pm
Laura S.:
Right now our antiquated approach the nuclear fuel cycle means that we produce twice as much nuclear waste as the French, and nearly 100x as much as the Japanese have demonstrated is technologically possible.

This is an outrageous result of regulatory policy, the resolution of which the Bush administration has only taken tepid steps.

Please read this Congressional Research Service report:
http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RS22542.pdf
10.21.2008 9:44pm
poul (mail) (www):
how about we remove the artificial barriers the left built in front of nuclear energy and let private companies build plants without any government subsidies? sound like the best of both worlds to me...
10.21.2008 9:45pm
Lucius Cornelius:
There are new designs that are vastly safer than the reactors we built in the 50s -70s. For instance, pebble bed reactors (gas helium) or other designs that produce less power per unit, but also are incapable of generating enough heat to damage their components.

Reprocessing of nuclear fuel can reduce the amount of radioactive waste ultimately produced (France is able to store the waste from all of their reactors in a very small area). President Carter instituted the policy against reprocessing fuel, IIRC to stop the spread of spent fuel that could be converted into weapons grade material.

There is some very exciting technology on the horizon...the thorium reactor which produces power while reducing other nuclear waste into less hazardous material (and produces no waste that could be converted into weapons grade material).

Much of the opposition to nuclear power seems to come from people who are ignorant of the advances in technology. Nuclear power is much safer now than ever. Much safer than coal. And more practical than orbiting solar collector satellites.
10.21.2008 9:55pm
John Neff:
In 1983 WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply System) defaulted on bonds with an estimated value of $2.25 billion. The bond were to be used to fund construction of nuclear power plants.

If you are interested in purchasing bonds to build nuclear power plants it would be a good idea to find out how that happened.
10.21.2008 10:08pm
markm (mail):

Turns out there's only one press in the world that can turn a 600 ton ingot into a one-piece reactor containment vessel. Either get in line, or build a reactor without containment. The Chinese have a large percentage of the current waiting list.

But if you scroll further down the article Dr. Mike linked to, you'll learn that other companies are now building presses of sufficient capacity. Free markets adjust to changing requirements. It can take a few years, and I think it will in this case - but if I were trying to build a nuclear plant in the USA, I'd be a whole lot more worried about how long it would take to get the permits than how long we'd have to wait for containment vessels.
10.21.2008 10:24pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
Nuclear power is just too dangerous, in too many ways. Keeping it safe requires an immense, perfect effort, sustained over centuries. We only have to get unlucky once.
The worst nuclear disaster in the U.S: Killed -- 0, Injured -- 0, Private property damaged - $0. As I remember (we lived 30 miles from TMI at the time) the same week there was a natural gas plant accident in Pennsylvania that killed half-a-dozen people. That wasn't even unusual enough to make the front page.

I have a friend who refuses to live within 100 miles of a nuclear plant because it's so "dangerous." His home is about ten miles downstream from a major hydroelectric dam.
It's not that nuclear power is inherently expensive (like modern solar power technology); it's just that the regulations that governments put on it make it so. The libertarian issue would be with the regulations (which may or may not be necessary), not the cost.
Actually the major cost of building a nuclear plant in the 1970s was litigation. The nukeophobes kept filing lawsuits/injunctions delaying construction until they made it impossible for anyone to get one built.
10.21.2008 10:46pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"According to insiders I respect, neither the insurers or investors will go with nuclear power without federal caps on liability. Such caps violate the principle of respondeat superior, in that the government does not assume the liability. Of course, we all know that if a major disaster were to occur, like Chernobyl, with billions or trillions of dollars worth of damage, the government would have little choice but to pick up the tab, and pass it on to the taxpayers. "

I'm not sure the government is the superior in your discussion of respondeat superior--I think the liability caps violate the more basic principle of allowing harms caused by ultrahazardous activity to be fully compensated. Nuclear power may be clean and productive, but if no one is willing to set aside adequate reserves or insurance to compensate expected third party harm (and yes, it should be strict liability for this kind of activity, unless someone has a compelling argument otherwise), then the plants won't exist in a free market (or at least a free market plus a system of common law tort liability, which most libertarians accept).
10.21.2008 10:52pm
Old Grouch (www):
@Jon:
We have plenty of better alternatives, such as solar power satellites.
I'm not sure I'd want to be around if some out-of-control multi-megawatt satellite beam happened to drift through downtown Phoenix.

@arbitraryaardvark:
somebody will/already would have, put a nuke on a small pacific island nation where the bribes/lobbying fees are cheap, produced power, and then found a way to transmit the power...
You DO realize the distances involved? You can't transmit any significant amount of power over ordinary undersea cables when you're talking thousands of miles. Superconducting technology? We can't do that yet. (About the only method that comes to my mind that might be practical would to use the nuclear energy for water electrolysis on site, then ship liquid hydrogen in supertankers.

@Dr_Mike:
Turns out there's only one press in the world that can turn a 600 ton ingot into a one-piece reactor containment vessel.
And I'm sure that, if we embarked on a program to build nuclear plants (and it looked certain that some would actually get built), somebody, somewhere, would be glad to build us another one. ;-)
building a hundred nuclear plants in the next couple years just won't happen
No, but we could build, say, 20, using existing French or Japanese designs, within the next ten. Which is better than building nothing.
10.21.2008 11:04pm
Oren:

Are private insurers willing to insure nuclear plants without the arbitrary caps that the Feds have put on liability?

Depends on what bizarre bullshit torts courts and juries are willing to accept. If there is strong Daubert-inspired gatekeeping of bogus science (e.g. Love Canal) then perhaps. OTOH, if a small spill (e.g. TMI) causes the nuclear company to assume responsibility for every birth defect and cancer case within 50 miles then, well, not so much. Remember, if you impanel enough juries, eventually one will be found with 12 absolute morons.

True story: I worked for a small (250KW = 330HP, less than your average sports car) research reactor on a college campus. One day, I was sitting next to a lady on the bus that knew that the reactor was causing her dog to lose its hair. I nodded politely (omitting the fact that I worked there) while she rattled off at least a dozen symptoms putatively attributed to our activities.
10.21.2008 11:22pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
Old Grouch:

@Jon:

We have plenty of better alternatives, such as solar power satellites.

I'm not sure I'd want to be around if some out-of-control multi-megawatt satellite beam happened to drift through downtown Phoenix.

You'd hardly notice. The energy density of the beams is not much higher than the RADAR antennas that provide ground controlled approaches that have passed through your body when you fly.

Now, some have raised the issue of using laser beams directed to aircraft in flight or ships at sea, and that could be a danger if misused, but it is easy enough to have them turn off if the lock is lost. Could even be upgraded into a weapon that could give Osama a really hot day -- or used against us if put up by an unfriendly country.

The Japanese plan to put them up in a few years. Do we want another country to become the world's main source of cheap energy? Wouldn't it be better if we became the main exporter of energy to the world instead of an importer, at a price that would discourage other countries from building nuclear plants -- that might not use the new "safe" nuclear technologies, but the old quick and dirty ones that are a step from proliferation?

Read the mzsterial on the link I provided. Don't rely on kneejerk impressions. This is a well-developed family of proposals that is well-supported by experts in the field. They require no new technology, other than scaling up what we already know how to do, and finding ways to reduce costs, such as by mining the moon or asteroids for materials.
10.21.2008 11:46pm
KenG (mail):
The "liability" issue is a red herring. If the criteria existed that all commercial activity had to be covered by liability insurance for the maximum conceivable accident, nothing could be done. Picture an airliner crashing into the Superbowl. Picture a private automobile crashing into a crowded church and exploding. Nuclear power has a unique situation that discourages creating spin off operating companies and shielding the parent from liability. This provides the public with billions in liability protection against events that haven't happened in almost 60 years of operating experience.
10.22.2008 12:01am
Tom Hanna (www):
Government is so thoroughly entangled in the energy industry from regulation to subsidies that it's nearly impossible to say whether what is, on its own merits, economically efficient. In such a situation, the only good answer is to acknowledge that more cheap energy from whatever source seems to be advantageous to every other industry and to consumers.
10.22.2008 12:45am
Michael Edward McNeil (mail) (www):
Turns out there's only one press in the world that can turn a 600 ton ingot into a one-piece reactor containment vessel. Either get in line, or build a reactor without containment.

Reminds me of the (perhaps apocryphal) story of a study from around the turn of the last century, which concluded that automobiles had no future in the United States of America — because there then existed only a few hundred miles of road in the entire country.

Right now our antiquated approach the nuclear fuel cycle means that we produce twice as much nuclear waste as the French, and nearly 100x as much as the Japanese have demonstrated is technologically possible.

That may be true, but even as things are, the amount of high-level nuclear waste that must be stored and has been generated within the U.S. within the entire history of nuclear power in this country would fit within a football-field sized (actually less than 250') cube (to wit: 400 million liters) (Nature 421, 783 (2003)).

The worst nuclear disaster in the U.S: Killed -- 0, Injured -- 0, Private property damaged - $0. As I remember (we lived 30 miles from TMI at the time) the same week there was a natural gas plant accident in Pennsylvania that killed half-a-dozen people. That wasn't even unusual enough to make the front page.

Even the massive Chernobyl disaster of 1986 thus far has killed fewer than 50 people as a result of direct exposure to radiation, while the incidence of radiation-induced cancer in the 200,000 sq. km most strongly affected rose by a mere 3% in the aftermath (Nature 437, 118 (2005)).
10.22.2008 4:47am
PersonFromPorlock:
In citing the dangers of nuclear power, we tend to ignore those of 'accepted' power sources. But a year and a day after TMI, an oil rig collapse in the North Sea killed 123 people, and coal miner deaths happen often enough to be unremarkable. When you think about it, even a few drivers of home heating oil delivery trucks must die in traffic accidents every year.

So the question isn't "is nuclear dangerous?" but "is it more (or even as) dangerous as other forms of power generation?" I suspect the answer is "no" but that we don't want to hear it because what little danger there is comes to us rather than to people we can pay 'to take the risk'.
10.22.2008 8:31am
docjim505 (mail):
Tom Hanna - Government is so thoroughly entangled in the energy industry from regulation to subsidies that it's nearly impossible to say whether what is, on its own merits, economically efficient. In such a situation, the only good answer is to acknowledge that more cheap energy from whatever source seems to be advantageous to every other industry and to consumers. [emphasis original]

I think this gives an answer to those who claim that nuke power isn't cost effective. The simple fact is that we don't know because the market price is so grossly distorted. Further, we haven't built a nuke plant in this country (Navy ships aside) in years. How can the industry "innovate" when it isn't allowed to do much more than operate the plants that it built years? In principle, it seems to me that a nuke plant is quite cheap over the long run: once built, it only needs routine maintenance and upgrades in addition to refueling every couple of decades.

The real problem is that the left has done a thorough job over the years of scaring the bejebus out of people with horror stories about nuke plants, radiation, China Syndromes, and Hiroshima v2.0. Witness Oren's story about the woman who was SURE that his little college nuke plant was making her dog's hair fall out (sounds like some of the paranoia one hears about cell phones and brain cancer). Even if we could build a nuke plant that was 100% safe, it would be politically almost impossible to get it built. How the French and Japanese can do it is a mystery to me.
10.22.2008 8:51am
Ryk:
The Chernobyl reactor itself was an accident waiting to happen, in great part due to *extremely* poor design. If nothing else, they used graphite as the moderator (the material that slows down neutrons so that they're more likely to cause fission inside the reactor) -- this graphite causing the tremendous amount of contamination seen when it caught fire and sent radioactive smoke across huge swaths of landscape. In contrast, US pressurized-water reactors use water as a moderator, making that particular problem moot.

If you'd like a laundry list of what was wrong with Chernobyl, I'd be happy to provide it. Otherwise, I'll look into links for further information.

There are many things that can be done to make the system failsafe by design, so that if anything is mishandled the reactor simply shuts itself down with no harm to components or environment. The pebble-bed type reactor mentioned earlier is a more recent example.

My question, coming from the engineering side as I am in no way a lawyer, would be how badly constrained the design criteria are on present-day reactors due to poorly-written/poorly-thought-out regulations? Is it even possible to build safer plants, and get them through the regulatory process?
10.22.2008 9:25am
Mad Max:
And fusion. Oh, and antimatter. If we're going to commit to technologies we don't quite know how to do or make economical, why think small?

Don't forget lunar Helium-3!

The whole thing's a moot point. You'd be better of trying to sell a human blood-powered generator than a nuclear one,

So America has less courage than the French and the Japanese? Hmmmmm.

Don't have a link, but much as with oil, solar and wind nuclear suffers from a lack of infrastructure to build the plants. Beyond the lack of nuclear engineers to run them.

So building that infrastructure and training all those people would create tens of thousands of jobs??? Wow, what a horrendous drawback. We'd never want to do that!
10.22.2008 10:06am
Kolohe:
Ryk-
The key design flaw in the Chernobyl plant was not the graphite per se, it was the fact that the combination of how the graphite and water cooling worked made it so that there was a short period of a *positive* reactivity insertion right when you needed to shut the plant down as soon as possible. So it was like a car which gunned the throttle if you had to slam on the brakes to avoid an accient

PWR's are very safe, very proven designs, but are expensive and actually overengineered for most commercial uses.

One other thing mentioned in the thread by others.

Nuclear plants can't actually be placed in 'the middle of nowhere'. The main thing they need is a steady supply of cooling water (preferably fresh, but not absolutely required - you're just going to use some power to desalinate so you lose some efficiency). But you can't really build in the desert as far as I know with most current designs. (BTW, that is the one 'emission' - effluent water that has been heated several degrees above ambient. Which can have some environmental consequences. However, nearly all power plants have this same issue.)
10.22.2008 10:36am
Mad Max:
you can't really build in the desert as far as I know with most current designs.

Palo Verde.
10.22.2008 10:44am
Don Miller (mail) (www):
I will admit my biases about Nuclear Power up front (6 yrs as a Navy Nuclear Power Technician).

I find that the reason people fear Nuclear Power is that they are uneducated about it. The Anti-Nuke crowd spreads disinformation so well and so unopposed that people accept it as truth.

I believe that the Nuclear Power industry has always been hampered by Government security regulations on the industry for so long that they no longer have the ability to educate the public.

The education is difficult too. People have to understand the different types of radiation, the different isotopes produced in nuclear waste and their half-lifes. Technologies of disposal, routes of exposure. Reactor safety design, the differences between new tech and old tech. What made Chernobyl an especially bad design and how designs of US plants make the same result impossible.

I have met Medical Doctors who didn't seem to grasp that you have to ingest Plutonium for it to poison you. Its sad really.

The reality is there are several very good technologies in existence to permanently entrain radioactive particles to keep them out of the environment. The simplest solution (and most wasteful) is the one the US Government has adopted of not recycling spent fuel rods. Because the nuclear waste is trapped in the structure of the metal. Unless the fuel pellets are melted, the waste can't get into the environment. Wasteful because 90% of the fuel in the rod is still viable when it is removed from the reactor. Recycling would concentrate the waste into a lower volume and allow the uranium to be reused.

Another tidbit. When a fuel rod is removed from a reactor, the radiation levels are so high, it is life threatening from just a short exposure, however, this high level radiation is from Cesium and Strontium. Their half-life is so short that they are completely consumed in approximately 200 years. At that point the radiation levels from the fuel rods will be the same as when the fuel rods first went into the reactor. IE, safely handled with minimal shielding or protective clothing.

The other problem with the US Nuclear Energy Industry is that, except for the US Navy, every nuclear reactor in the US was a custom build. Each one was individually licensed and built. Because each one was custom built, efficiencies of production never happened. Training and emergency procedures for each reactor are different. Control systems are unique to each plant.

Compare this the the French experiment. The French Government licensed 1 reactor design. All of them were built identically with common parts, control sytems, training and procedures.

I'll quit talking now, but I hope I said some things that make people think a little differently.
10.22.2008 11:36am
Don Miller (mail) (www):

The worst nuclear disaster in the U.S: Killed -- 0, Injured -- 0, Private property damaged - $0. As I remember (we lived 30 miles from TMI at the time) the same week there was a natural gas plant accident in Pennsylvania that killed half-a-dozen people. That wasn't even unusual enough to make the front page.


Actually, the worst nuclear disaster in the US happened in Idaho in January, 1961. SL-1 was an experimental low-power US Army project to develop a portable reactor. Following a routine refueling, 2 soldiers and a sailor were reconnecting the control rods to their driving units. For an unknown reason, one rod was manually lifted to its full height instead of the few inches that was needed. The instantaneous steam bubble that was created caused the pressure vessel to explode killing all 3 military personnel.

In the mid 80's when I first learned of this accident it was still classified officially as "secret" by the US Government. It was common knowledge in the Idaho Falls ID area but almost unheard of outside of this area.

All radioactive materials were contained inside the building the reactor was housed in. The long-term result of the project was the US Army and the US Air Force abandoned their reactor research programs and left the US Navy as the sole DoD Nuclear Power program.
10.22.2008 11:51am
Justin (mail):
JHA,

Your only update is that ACORN claims "at least some" of the votes weren't fraudulantly casted. Now, those who are following the reports would know that ACORN and independent examiners have determined NONE of the votes were fraudulently casted, and the Republicans have DROPPED THE CHARGE.

Your update is plainly insufficient, and will only further to perpertrate the he-said-she-said mythology of voting abuses when there is no factual evidence of such, much like recent gubernatorial or presidential elections.
10.22.2008 11:55am
Justin (mail):
Charlie,

If you were on the RNC call today, I assume you must have stepped away and simply assumed there was part of the call about actual voter fraud in New Mexico that was about "actual voter fraud in New Mexico."

As John Marshall stated:


Then this morning, the RNC sent out a press release announcing a 3pm conference call with reporters "on the recent developments in New Mexico regarding ACORN."

But at 11am, ACORN -- the community organizing group that Republicans have been trying lately to turn into a voter fraud boogeyman -- held a conference call of its own, asserting that local election officials had confirmed that the 28 people in question, mostly low-income Latinos, were valid voters.

So here at TPMmuckraker, we wondered what the RNC's response to this would be. And on the 3pm call, we asked party spokesman Danny Diaz.

Diaz dodged the question. He talked about an incident with ACORN in Washington state, then referred us to an October 9th Wall Street Journal story, which did not address the allegation made last week by the state GOP about fraudulent voting in the Democratic primary. (Instead, it reported that the FBI had opened a preliminary investigation into thousands of fraudulent registration forms submitted in an area near an ACORN office.)

When we tried to follow up, Diaz cut us off and shifted the discussion toward a general attack on ACORN for submitting fraudulent registrations.

In other words, it looks like the RNC had scheduled a call to tout evidence of voter fraud -- not voter registration fraud, mind you, but actual voter fraud -- being perpetrated by ACORN in New Mexico. But when ACORN appeared to come up with compelling evidence that no such fraud had occurred, the RNC held the call anyway, simply shifting the focus to other vague allegations against ACORN -- then refused to address the New Mexico situation when asked.
10.22.2008 11:59am
Elliot123 (mail):
"Those who favor nuclear power should adopt a policy of tough love. Getting this industry off the government dole would finally force it to innovate or die - at least in the United States."

I doubt the problem is innovation. It's the multiple layers of regulatin and lawsuits that have to be factored into the costs. Under our current system, any innovation will be met with more regulation and lawsuits. As innovation lowers actual costs of design, construction, and operation, regulations and lawsuits step in to soak up any savings.

Libertarians then complain about the dole. That's how environmentalists get libertarians to fight their battles for them.
10.22.2008 12:04pm
John Neff:
Don Miller

I knew about the SL-1 accident a day after it happened because it was reported in the newspapers. I also read articles about the accident long before 1980 and in the late 60s I talked to a Navy NCO who was stationed at the facility when the accident occurred (his theory was it was a murder/suicide). It is possible that something about the accident was classified but the accident was not covered up and the basic facts were reported. My recollection is the SL-1 was a total loss so that cost was not zero.

There was a partial meltdown of the Enrico Fermi reactor in Michigan that chilled out the use of commercial breeder reactors. That turned out to be a very expensive incident so the claim of zero cost is bogus. A lot of people forget about the Chalk River reactor meltdown in Canada. When Jimmy Carter was in the Navy he was one of the members of the crew that dismantled the reactor another total loss.

A workman at a commercial nuclear plant somehow was able to start a chain reaction and got a fatal dose of gamma rays. That accident is not counted as a nuclear power fatality if fact it is not counted at all.
10.22.2008 3:06pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
Ryk:

The Chernobyl reactor itself was an accident waiting to happen, in great part due to *extremely* poor design.

But it is the standard of design that is likely to be used for the reactors that hundreds of countries will build if we make nuclear power the primary replacement for fossil fuels. It is not enough to build plants in the U.S. that are "safe" if other countries don't do the same, especially if one of the ways they are unsafe is that they permit diversion of nuclear materials to build bombs.

We need a substitute for fossil fuels that is cheaper and less risky than nuclear power, when all risks are considered. One such substitute is solar power satellites. Does anyone have a better alternative?
10.22.2008 3:10pm
Half Sigma (mail) (www):
Unlike wind and solar, nuclear energy has the proven ability to generate large amounts of electricity and be the primary source of power for entire nations: France for example.

But right now, government action is needed because utilities are legitimately worried that if they spend billions of dollars to build a nuclear plant, the government will change its mind and not let them operate it.
10.22.2008 3:43pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"We need a substitute for fossil fuels that is cheaper and less risky than nuclear power, when all risks are considered. One such substitute is solar power satellites. Does anyone have a better alternative?"

Great idea. How about passing a law that says all our power has to come from satellites in ten years? Then we can just sit back and wait. We won't have to develop anything else since we can be certain the satellites will work just fine. No need for nukes, coal plants, or oil drilling while we wait, since we know the satellites will do it all.

The no nukes and no drilling strategy has worked so well for us over the last ten years, let's do it again.
10.22.2008 4:22pm
Dan Weber (www):
Before listening to any solar power satellites seriously, ask the following questions:

1. How many watts do your solar cells generate per pound?

2. How much does it cost to get each pound into the orbit you desire for your satellites?
10.22.2008 4:42pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
As long as my Private Defense Agency doesn't support the concept of Strict Liability (one of those unfortunate modern innovations), I can build Nukes cheaply.

Nukes are expensive primarily because of regulatory costs including Strict Liability, licensing, and all the rest.
10.22.2008 4:59pm
Grant (mail):
I'm a pro-nuke liberal, primarily on the grounds that it's likely to be safer than the coal we're using now. However, the massive externalities make a 'libertarian' approach to nuclear power development unattractive. It's those externalities that led to "the artificial barriers the left built in front of nuclear energy" that poul referred to above.

By the Left, I expect poul was including the Republicans who have controlled Congress and the Presidency for so many recent years and had ample opportunity to remove those "artificial barriers." (Since we've now redefined socialism from "favoring state ownership of the means of production" to "favoring a progressive income tax," I think you can consider most Republican members of Congress over the past 30 years as not just the Left, but socialists.)
10.22.2008 5:34pm
A.C.:
We're going to get to test all these notions about how a future US nuclear industry will look. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's web site says that it has received 16 applications to construct new nuclear reactors, mostly (but not exclusively) at sites that already have one or more of the things.

Six of the applications are for a standard Westinghouse design that has already been certified for use in the US. Toshiba is now the majority owner of Westinghouse, but I think the design predates that.

Five reference a standard design developed by GE Hitachi. This design hasn't been certified yet, but the review is underway.

Three reference a standard design developed by the French company AREVA. This design hasn't been certified yet, but the review is underway.

One references a standard design developed by Mitsubishi. This design hasn't been certified yet, but the review is underway.

One references a standard design developed by General Electric (without Hitachi). This design has been certified.

So the French and the Japanese are clearly big players, but GE and Westinghouse (who made most of the existing nuke plants) are still around. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out over time.
10.22.2008 6:13pm
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
Dan Weber:

Before listening to any solar power satellites seriously, ask the following questions:

1. How many watts do your solar cells generate per pound?

2. How much does it cost to get each pound into the orbit you desire for your satellites?

Wrong questions, since the proposal is not to manufacture the photovoltaic cells on the Earth and then lift them off the Earth. That is a red herring used by the Nuclear power advocates. The proposal is to manufacture everything in space using materials from the moon or asteroids. The start-up costs to implement this off-Earth industrial system would be high, but estimates for the ultimate delivery cost of electricity to the surface run less than $0.04/kilowatt-hour, or less than hydroelectric or other sources. But that is for at least 10 such satellites. Doesn't make sense for just one. However, 35 satellites could meet all the needs of energy for the entire planet for the next century or more.
10.22.2008 8:46pm
Eli Rabett (www):
Ooooo the free market fairy is gonna take us to the moon. Not
10.23.2008 12:14am
Ryk:
Kolohe -

The key design flaw in the Chernobyl plant was not the graphite per se, it was the fact that the combination of how the graphite and water cooling worked made it so that there was a short period of a *positive* reactivity insertion right when you needed to shut the plant down as soon as possible. So it was like a car which gunned the throttle if you had to slam on the brakes to avoid an accient

PWR's are very safe, very proven designs, but are expensive and actually overengineered for most commercial uses.


I would consider that as arguable, in that the use of graphite moderator for an RMBK design was a two-fold mistake. Unlike in a PWR design, the graphite control rods were *inserted* to increase power to the system, by increasing moderation of neutrons. The light water used as coolant was also used as a neutron absorber, but the problem with using non-pressurized water is that once you form steam, it no longer absorbs neutrons.

In the accident sequence, the reactor was losing power due to a specific test -- since the pumps were not receiving enough power to circulate the water sufficiently, voids were formed -- lots of neutrons were present, neutrons were slowed by the graphite, but no absorption by the coolant to slow the reaction. They tried to insert the control rods to bring power back up for cooling, but unfortunately the control rod had a meter of void space after a graphite tip and before five meters of graphite control rod. That void space displaced additional coolant, and provided an additional power spike by reducing neutron absorption.

The second was in the amount of material that was contaminated during the reactor operation, *and which was combustible* in the event of a loss of containment (The normal operating temperature was far above the ignition point of graphite in normal atmosphere -- the emplaced graphite was kept in an O2-free containment). The fact that the graphite caught fire was a great contributor to the contamination being spread, as well as greatly complicating emergency response.

As to the present PWR designs being over-engineered... well, that was kind of the point of the question of my first post. How much of that is built into the system via regulation, such that we may not even be able to look at the more modern designs? Given the present length of the regulatory cycle involved in building a nuke plant, are we looking at 30-40 year old technology or older, simply to gain approval?

Jon Roland -

But it is the standard of design that is likely to be used for the reactors that hundreds of countries will build if we make nuclear power the primary replacement for fossil fuels. It is not enough to build plants in the U.S. that are "safe" if other countries don't do the same, especially if one of the ways they are unsafe is that they permit diversion of nuclear materials to build bombs.

We need a substitute for fossil fuels that is cheaper and less risky than nuclear power, when all risks are considered. One such substitute is solar power satellites. Does anyone have a better alternative?


The RMBK design was used in the Soviet Union as a fast breeder reactor, for the production of weapons materials. This political consideration was the reason behind the design specs, not any mistakes on the part of the engineers. They designed and built what they were told to build, and the Russian government had been warned well beforehand as to the dangers of the design. It is in *no* way 'the standard of design' for civilian power plants, in *any* country.

As well, the object under discussion here is the nuclear power in civilian application, as in 'leading the Green Revolution'. The point being that the primary design objective of the Chernobyl site was not electrical, but political, and with knowledge of the circumstances the applicability of the accident to something designed as a civilian plant becomes null.

If the argument against nuclear power turns on the effectiveness of policing by the IAEA, then we can have no real discussion because the premise is false. Countries will comply or not, as they will, especially if as in the present situation they build their own plants. The enforcement is toothless at present. The best means of preventing such is to provide a cheap, safe, and effective pre-built plant that does not allow for the production and removal of fissionable material -- again, an example being the pebble-bed design. After all, if you can't produce material from the power plant, there's nothing to divert.

Admittedly, we're not touching on a whole raft of other issues regarding operation, refueling, etc. if these plants are deployed in the third world -- e.g. control of spent material such that various parties do not create a 'dirty' conventional bomb. I don't know enough to comment on those matters, really. I'm also not sure how applicable they'd be to providing the US with power via such plants, so would not speak to them.
10.23.2008 1:06am
Ryk:
Please note that although I keep mentioning the pebble-bed design, I'm not trying to tout it as the answer to the problem. It's merely an example of a more modern design.
10.23.2008 1:13am
ralph:
I used to work for the government, evaluating the safety of nuclear power plants, and I actually approved several important aspects of the new designs that you are all talking about. Some of them are evolutionaly extensions of the currently operating plants, while others are designed to have fewer pumps and valves, and less piping, because of some clever design features. But the fundamental operational aspects are identical to the current generation, except for (1) the pebble-bed design, (2) the "batteries", and (3) the breeders.

All of these 3 designs represent extensions of the state-of-the art into areas where there is EXTREMELY LIMITED DATA about the performance of the fuel. The proponents will tell you that their designs are "safe" and "proven", but the pebbles for the pebble-bed cannot be produced consistently in a regular factory. The "batteries" are cartoon-reactors that have never actually been built or operated, and the devil is in the details of making them work. The breeders have the most experience, but the environmental/anti-proliferation people will not allow them to be built because of fears of "deadly plutonium". (a crock, BTW)

I think the biggest reason nuclear has a hard time coming back is because of the large number of jobs that it displaces. It is not just the coal miners, but also the entire transportation business that relies on haulage of bulk materials. I can haul one new nuclear fuel bundle in the back of my pickup truck, but the same amount of energy from coal requires two 150-car railroad trains. Think about all of the people who depend on that transportaiton link, making the cars, the rails, the diesel engines, the ships that take it around the world, etc, and you realize that nuclear is a real threat to people jobs an likelihoods. It was not a fluke that the first lawsuit filed against nuclear was by the UAW in Detroit - they realized what would happen if nuclear took over from fossil fuels. You should also realize that 10% of the electricity in the US comes from fuel produced in one, relatively small factory in SC. The mines are actually pretty small, compared to coal, and the enrichment plants are no longer the huge gaseous-enrichment facilities that were built during the war. And, the govt does not just give the fuel away, for cost, as one commenter opined - it is purchased on the open market, which is why the price went from about $7/lb all the way up over $120 recently, and has now come back down.

And I will leave you with the 2 final comments: (1) NONE of the countries that have built nuclear weapons have used the commercial nuclear power industry to produce the fissionable materials, not the US, the UK, the USSR, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, nor South Africa; and (2) the US govt has not paid anything in insurance costs for an accident in the commercial nuclear industry. Plants buy their own insurance, up to a limit, and if a serious accident were to happen, all of the existing plants would first be tagged to pay retroactive assessments to cover costs, and then they would go to Congress for help for the people hurt, JUST LIKE HAPPENED AFTER 9/11.
10.23.2008 2:52pm
Engineer-Poet (mail) (www):
In the interest of clarity, I'm going to correct a few misconceptions from comments above:

1.  Forgings are not used to make containments.  Containments are buildings, constructed on-site from reinforced concrete.  The forged items are the reactor pressure vessels, holding the reactor core and its (pressurized or boiling) water coolant/moderator.

Some reactor designs hold the fuel in tubes with flowing coolant, with an external unpressurized moderator.  IIUC, at least one CANDU design is in this category, as is the Soviet RMBK.

2.  The RMBK design used at Chernobyl is not a fast-neutron reactor.  That requires a coolant like sodium or lead which slows neutrons only minimally; all reactors using graphite moderators are thermal-neutron reactors, not fast-neutron reactors.
10.25.2008 12:37am