The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 2

This is a sequel to The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 1, where I promised to look at the relative nuclear support amongst print and TV media, scientists and the public. A personal favorite technical source on nuclear power is prof. Bernard Cohen’s textbook The Nuclear Energy Option. While the book is out of print there is a very well-executed online version. For this post we need Chapter 4 Is The Public Ready For More Nuclear Power?

Prof. Cohen analyzed a broad range of opinion surveys that were available at the time of writing ~1990. Here I just want to focus on the hypothesis that “The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it.” If we collected fresh surveys today we might find the absolute levels a bit different, but I claim the relative proportions should be very similar. Here’s the relevant paragraphs from Chapter 4:

While public support of nuclear power has only recently been turning favorable, the scientific community has always been steadfastly supportive. In 1980, at the peak of public rejection, Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, social scientists from Smith College and Columbia University, respectively, conducted a poll of a random sample of scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science, The “Who’s Who” of scientists.1 They received a total of 741 replies. They categorized 249 of these respondents as “energy experts” based on their specializing in energy-related fields rather broadly defined to include such disciplines as atmospheric chemistry, solar energy, conservation, and ecology. They also categorized 72 as nuclear scientists based on fields of specialization ranging from radiation genetics to reactor physics. Some of their results are listed in Table 1.


From Table 1 we see that 89% of all scientists, 95% of scientists involved in energy-related fields, and 100% of radiation and nuclear scientists favored proceeding with the development of nuclear power. Incidentally, there were no significant differences between responses from those employed by industry, government, and universities. There was also no difference between those who had and had not received financial support from industry or the government.

Another interesting question was whether the scientists would be willing to locate nuclear plants in cities in which they live (actually, no nuclear plants are built within 20 miles of heavily populated areas). The percentage saying that they were willing was 69% for all scientists, 80% for those in energy-related sciences, and 98% for radiation and nuclear scientists. This was in direct contrast to the 56% of the general public that said it was not willing.

Rothman and Lichter also surveyed opinions of various categories of media journalists and developed ratings for their support of nuclear energy. Their results are shown in Table 2. [which I've rendered in chart form]

Click to embiggen

We see that scientists are much more supportive of nuclear power than journalists, and press journalists are much more supportive than the TV people who have had most of the influence on the public, even though they normally have less time to investigate in depth. There is also a tendency for science journalists to be more supportive then other journalists.

In summary, these Rothman-Lichter surveys show that scientists have been much more supportive of nuclear power than the public or the TV reporters, producers, and journalists who “educate” them. Among scientists, the closer their specialty to nuclear science, the more supportive they are. This is not much influenced by job security considerations, since the level of support is the same for those employed by universities, where tenure rules protect jobs, as it is for those employed in industry. Moreover, job security for energy scientists is not affected by the status of the nuclear industry because they are largely employed in enterprises competing with nuclear energy. In fact, most nuclear scientists work in research on radiation and the ultimate nature of matter, and are thus not affected by the status of the nuclear power industry. Even among journalists, those who are most knowledgeable are the most supportive. The pattern is very clear — the more one knows about nuclear power, the more supportive one becomes.

For the 2014 perspective, please read Geoff Russell’s wonderful new book GreenJacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change

Geoff articulates how Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club and the like thwarted the substitution of clean nuclear for dirty coal. Those organizations could not admit today what will be completely obvious after reading Greenjacked!: that if they had supported nuclear power from the 1960s to today, then all of the developed world could easily have been like France, Sweden and Ontario province — powering advanced societies with nearly carbon-free nuclear energy.

The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 1

Image and caption credit Chattanooga Times Free Press: Houses in the Hunter Trace subdivision in north Hamilton County are within a few hundred yards of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant near Soddy-Daisy. Neighbors to the nuclear plant say they don’t mind living close to the TVA plant. Staff Photo by Dave Flessner

In 2002 I started looking into our low-carbon energy options. Over the next two years I learned there is no perfect-zero-carbon energy option. I learned that realistic low-carbon energy policy is about deploying scaleable and affordable electricity generation. To my surprise, like the five environmentalists of Pandora’s Promise, I discovered that my anti-nuclear view was based on fictions. I had carried around “The Washington Post accepted” wisdom for decades without ever asking “Why is that true?”

As I was studying the nuclear option, it became blindingly obvious that the people who feared nuclear knew essentially nothing about the subject. Conversely the people who were most knowledgeable about nuclear supported large-scale nuclear deployment as a practical way to replace coal.

And, very interesting, the people who live in the neighborhoods of existing nuclear plants tend to be very favorable to building more nuclear. Including new nuclear plants to be constructed literally “In their own back yard”, a reversal of the expected NIMBY attitudes. Of course there are economic benefits to the neighbors of a plant, including the taxes paid to the regional government entity. The economic incentives gave people a reason to want to be there, so it motivated them to ask some serious questions:

  • “Should I buy a home near that nuclear plant?”
  • “Will my children be harmed?”
  • “What if there is an accident?”

From reading the recent NEI annual polls I developed an untested hypothesis: the more contact you have with people who work at a nearby nuclear plant, the less you fear nuclear and the more you appreciate the benefits of clean electricity. It’s easy to informally ask your neighbors “what’s the truth?” about things that worry you. And you learn the people who operate the plant are just as devoted to their children as you are.

Here is another encouraging trend: there are significant numbers “voting with their feet” by moving into nuclear plant neighborhoods.

USA 2010 census: the population living within 10 miles of nuclear power plants rose by 17 percent in the past decade.

And if you read the same surveys that I did you will see how strongly the neighbors’ attitudes contrast to the typical media fear-mongering. Examples:

Neighbor of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant “This is a safer neighborhood than most areas and I really don’t think much about the plant, other than it provides a great walking area for me,” said Blanche DeVries, who moved near Sequoyah three years ago.

NEI 2013 survey similar to 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011 “familiarity with nuclear energy leads to support.” 

NEI 2013 survey “80 percent agree with keeping the option to build more nuclear power plants in the future”

BBC Living near a nuclear power station

  • Q: “What’s it like to have a reactor on the doorstep?”
  • A: “I live not more than 100 yards…and it doesn’t worry me.”

NEI survey 2009: “Eighty-four percent of Americans living near nuclear power plants favor nuclear energy, while an even greater number—90 percent―view the local power station positively, and 76 percent support construction of a new reactor near them, according to a new public opinion survey of more than 1,100 adults across the United States.”

NEI survey 2013 [PDF]: “81 percent of residents near commercial reactors favor the use of nuclear energy, 47 percent strongly.”


UK 2013 Why we love living next to a nuclear power plant: “It’s cheap, it’s quiet and, say the residents of Dungeness, blissfully safe”. “Here, by contrast, everyone I talk to enthuses about a strong feeling of security and a rare kind of community spirit. Put simply, they live in houses that happen to be next door to a nuclear power station because it makes them feel safe.”

Next we will look at the relative nuclear support amongst print & TV media, scientists and the public The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 2.

Biomass, solar and wind cannot sustain an advanced society

EROIs of all energy techniques with economic “threshold”. Biomass: Maize, 55 t/ ha per year harvested (wet). Wind: Location is Northern Schleswig Holstein (2000 full- load hours). Coal: Transportation not included. Nuclear: Enrichment 83% centrifuge, 17% diffusion. PV: Roof installation. Solar CSP: Grid connection to Europe not included. Source: Weißbach et al., Energy 52 (2013) 210

I’ve been eagerly awaiting publication of John Morgan’s article, first published in Chemistry in Australia. Fortunately Barry Brook has republished John’s article as a guest post. Here’s a paraphrased summary:

Wind and solar cannot sustain an OECD level society. Adding energy storage buffers the variability, but further reduces the EROI below the economic limit. Therefore solar and wind can reduce the emissions of fossil fuels, but cannot eliminate them. They offer mitigation, but not replacement.

If we want to cut emissions and replace fossil fuels, it can be done, and the solution is to be found in the upper right of the figure. France and Ontario, two modern, advanced societies, have all but eliminated fossil fuels from their electricity grids, which they have built from the high EROEI sources of hydroelectricity and nuclear power. Ontario in particular recently burnt its last tonne of coal, and each jurisdiction uses just a few percent of gas fired power. This is a proven path to a decarbonized electricity grid.

But the idea that advances in energy storage will enable renewable energy is a chimera – the Catch-22 is that in overcoming intermittency by adding storage, the net energy is reduced below the level required to sustain our present civilization.

I suggest you go straight over to Brave New Climate: The Catch-22 of Energy Storage. And follow the comments – there are already some excellent contributions and additional resource links. One important resource is included in the supplementals of the Weißbach et al. paper – that’s the spreadsheet containing all the materials reference data, assumptions and the EROI and EMROI computations. Total transparency — after several hours working through the spreadsheets I cannot find anything to criticize. If I do find some issues I’ll add updates here.

Sam Altman “I believe the 22nd century is going to be the atomic power century”


Russ Roberts in now full time at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, so he has been spending more of his time at the vortex of the Silicon Valley innovation cluster. One of the benefits is that he is becoming progressively more involved-with and excited-about the innovation culture. So his Econtalk guests include a growing number of Silicon Valley insiders. In July Russ interviewed Sam Altman, CEO of the iconic accelerator Y Combinator (YC). Sam confessed in the interview that he doesn’t filter himself very well – meaning it was a refreshingly frank discussion. Here’s Sam:

“I have studied a lot about what I think is sort of the best use of my time and money and what I think will help the world the most. And I really do believe that safe, cheap, clean energy is probably the most important thing an individual can do for the future of the world.”

It was clear to me that Sam has done his homework, and naturally I think his conclusions are indicators of an open, inquiring mind. Evidence:

“There are two nuclear energy companies in this batch. I believe that–the 20th century was clearly the carbon century. And I believe the 22nd century is going to be the atomic power century. I’m very convinced of that. It’s just a question of how long it takes us.

Y Combinator is in a good position to harvest the rewards of innovations that require a long development cycle and heaps of capital. Unlike the typical 10 year venture fund, YC makes a large number of tiny ($120k) bets, 700+ such bets so far since the YC launch in 2005. New nuclear is obviously a very long-term bet, even given that the company will almost certainly have to move to a friendly-regulator nation for the initial licensing. Sam is more optimistic  than I am about the reality of getting a new non-LWR design licensed by US NRC. OTOH if I were talking my book publicly I would be extremely deferential to the NRC staff.

Please do listen to the Sam Altman interview. Update: I found one of the two YC S14 batch nuclear companies. It is Helion Energy who is building an SMR concept. But it is FUSION, not fission:

Helion is making a fusion engine 1,000 times smaller, over 500 times cheaper, and realizable 10 time faster than other projects.

There’s a bit more at TechCrunch. Of all the earlier failed fusion experiments, could this be the one that works Obi Wan?

China hopes to export a 1.4 GWe reactor


I see China’s nuclear program as the most likely path to global deployment of nuclear power fast enough to help mitigate climate change. South Korea will also contribute, but at much smaller scale. 

The World Nuclear Association reports that the CAP1400 may be exported at an estimated capital cost of USD $3000/kW. The CAP1400 design was completed in 2012, site works completed in April 2014 and the State Nuclear Plant Demonstration Company hopes to have this first plant operational by 2018. This all looks like good news to me:

Westinghouse announced in 2008 that it was working with SNPTC and Shanghai Nuclear Engineering Research & Design Institute (SNERDI) to develop jointly a passively safe 1400-1500 MWe design from the AP1000/CAP1000, for large-scale deployment. SNPTC initially called it the Large Advanced Passive PWR Nuclear Power Plant (LPP or APWR). It is one of 16 Key National Projects in China. This development with SNERDI opens the possibility of China itself exporting the new larger units with Westinghouse’s cooperation.

(…snip detailed description of the reactor…)

CNNC and SNPTC have talked of export potential, and SNPTC said that “exploration of the global market” for the CAP1400 would start in 2013, particularly in South America and Asia. In mid-2013 SNPTC quoted approx. $3000/kW capital cost and 7 c/kWh.

China is working diligently on new reactors designs that depend only on Chinese-owned intellectual property. This indicates a leadership that intends to take a big share of the global nuclear power market. That is a very good thing, because the US, UK and Germany have abdicated their leadership role – leaving only France & Russia of the original nuclear market players. It’s going to be an Asian Nuclear Century. Hopefully India will also engage the market once their designs are locally proven.

Image credit Paul Sakuma/Associated Press – Tesla Fremont plant

Government’s role in shutting down the US nuclear industry

A November 15, 2007 Heritage backgrounder “Competitive Nuclear Energy Investment: Avoiding Past Policy Mistakes” provides a brief history of anti-nuclear activists and regulatory turbulence, counseling that, this time around, we must act to avoid those enormous costs.

Amory Lovins loves to say “there are no private investors interested in nuclear power”. That is manifestly untrue. But the fact that utilities and venture capitalists are investing in nuclear today is a miracle considering the massacre experienced by investors in the period 1970 through 1994 (when Clinton killed the Integral Fast Reactor). Excerpts from the Heritage true history:

(…) Investors hesitate to embrace nuclear power fully, despite significant regulatory relief and economic incentives.

This reluctance is not due to any inherent flaw in the economics of nuclear power or some unavoidable risk. Instead, investors are reacting to the historic role that federal, state, and local governments have played both in encouraging growth in the industry and in bringing on its demise. Investors doubt that federal, state, and local governments will allow nuclear energy to flourish in the long term. They have already lost billions of dollars because of bad public policy.

The United States once led the world in commercial nuclear technology. Indeed, the world's leading nuclear companies continue to rely on American technologies. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, federal, state, and local governments nearly regulated the U.S. commercial nuclear industry out of existence. U.S. companies responded by reallocating their assets, consolidating or selling their commercial nuclear capabilities to foreign companies in pro-nuclear countries.

This paper reviews how overregulation largely destroyed the nuclear industry and why it remains an obstacle to investment in the industry. This dynamic must be understood and mitigated before the true economics of nuclear power can be harnessed for the benefit of the American people.

(…) Investors are right to be wary. Anti-nuclear activists have already exploited the authority of public institutions to strangle the industry. Now these same public institutions must be trusted to craft good public policy that reestablishes the confidence necessary to invite investment back into America's nuclear industry. To be successful, the new policies must create an industry that does not depend on the government. They must mitigate the risks of overregulation but allow for adequate over sight while preventing activists from hijacking the regulatory process.

(…) Activists Gone Wild

Anti-nuclear groups used both legal intervention and civil disobedience to impede construction of new nuclear power plants and hamper the operations of existing units. They legally challenged 73 percent of the nuclear license applications filed between 1970 and 1972 and formed a group called Consolidated National Interveners for the specific purpose of disrupting hearings of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Much of the anti-nuclear litigation of the 1970s was encouraged by factions within the government.[4] Today, activist organizations determined to force the closure of nuclear power plants, such as Mothers for Peace, continue to use the legal process to harass the nuclear energy industry.

Activists went well beyond simply challenging nuclear power in the courts. On numerous occasions, demonstrators occupied construction sites, causing delays. For instance, in May 1977, the Clamshell Alliance led a protest that resulted in the arrest of more than 1,400 people for trespassing at the Seabrook plant site in New Hampshire.[5] In California, the Abalone Alliance adopted similar tactics and frequently blocked the gates of the Diablo Canyon power plant.[6]

A watershed victory for the anti-nuclear movement occurred in 1971 when a federal appeals court ruled that the construction and operating permits for a nuclear power plant violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. As a result, util ities were required to hold public hearings before obtaining a permit to start a project.[7] This decision created a major opening in the process that anti-nuclear activists could exploit.

Changing the Economics of Nuclear Power

(…) In addition, the role of the judiciary cannot be overemphasized. Congress's loss of enthusiasm for nuclear energy led to more aggressive regulation, and because jurisdiction over nuclear issues was divided among multiple committees, there was no unified congressional direction. The result was an expansion of costly and often unnecessary rules.

In June 2006, the NRC listed over 80 sources of regulation,[8] including over 1,300 pages of laws, treaties, statutes, authorizations, executive orders, and other documents.(…) Because the interpretation of NRC regulations was left to the discretion of individual NRC technical reviewers, each license application would often result in its own unique requirements.[9]

(…) This inconsistency increased costs, further sour ing Congress on nuclear power and leading to an endless spiral of legislation, regulation, and still more added costs. Between 1975 and 1983, 430 suits were brought against the NRC, leading to 2,349 proposed rules and regulations–each of which required an industry response.[10] The addi tional and unexpected controls created industry wide uncertainty and raised questions about the long-term economics of nuclear power. They also drove up capital costs.[11]

This was all done by the NRC without adequate information. The NRC recognized as early as 1974 that it was issuing regulations without sufficient risk assessment training or cost considerations. It did not even have a program to train employees in how to conduct a review using NRC guidance.[12] Yet the commission continued to issue regulation after regulation.

(…) The shifting regulatory environment gave rise to additional reviews from numerous public institutions.(…) between 1956 and 1979, the average construction permit review time increased fourfold. The average time required to bring a plant on line from the order date increased from three years to 13 years during a similar time period.[15]

(…) As more inspections and inspectors were required, delays often resulted from inadequate regulatory manpower. Workers had to spend inordinate amounts of time waiting for inspections rather than building the project. The oft-changing construction specifications also led to mistakes, which created further delays.Even after construction was complete, delays often continued. Delaying plant completion could cost up to $1 million per day.[17] Stories of costly and unnecessary delays litter the history of U.S. nuclear power. Plants such as the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island were completely built but never used because extremists succeeded in scaring the public and political leaders.

Overregulation Leads to a Declining Industry

Overall, regulation increased the cost of constructing a nuclear power plant fourfold. [19] Such cost escalation would have been justified if it had been rooted in scientific and technical analysis. Regrettably, it was largely a function of anti-nuclear activism, agenda-driven politicians, activist regulators, and unsubstantiated public fear. A total of $70 billion was added to the cost of nuclear reactors constructed by 1988, and this cost was passed on to the ratepayers. After 1981, the cost of constructing a nuclear power plan rose from two to six times, [20] which means that either consumers paid significantly more or utilities incurred losses if they did not charge market prices. Neither circumstance was sustainable.

(…) In total, $30 billion was spent on nuclear plants that were never completed,[26] which is more than the value of most of the companies that are considering new plant orders.


The BN-800 reactor startup is big news


The BN-800 is the big brother to Russia’s BN-600 fast breeder reactor which has been supplying power to the electrical grid since 1981. This is a sodium-cooled, pool-type reactor (like the EBR-2). I think it is a big deal because successful deployment will allow Russia to close the fuel cycle, while accelerating China’s deployment of fast breeders.

Wikipedia: Designed to generate electrical power of 880 MW in total, the plant is the final step to the commercial plutonium cycle breeder. It is planned to start producing electricity in October, 2014. 

…China’s first commercial-scale, 800 MWe, fast neutron reactor, to be situated near Sanming city in Fujian province will be a based upon the BN-800. In 2009 an agreement was signed that would entail the Russian BN-800 reactor design to be sold to the PRC once it is completed, this would be the first time commercial-scale fast neutron reactors have ever been exported.

Could Russian success with the BN-800 support GE-Hitachi’s marketing of PRISM – their commercial design of the infamously-terminated IFR project? We don’t know how successful the BN-800 will prove to be.

China will be getting access to more cost and technical data than any other outsiders. So if China proceeds with their agreement to build to the BN-800 design that will be encouraging.

Scaring The Japanese People With Radiation Is Criminal

I realize many journals and on-line publications need sensational headlines to attract readers. It seems necessary in these times of social media and 24-hour news cycles.

But it becomes unethical to push bad science without doing at least a little due diligence. I understand anti-nuke ideology cares little about science and is never held to any technical standard, but in some cases reporting bad science hurts people who need good science to make personal decisions for themselves and their families.

James Conca explains in depth why the latest instance of media fear mongering is a “textbook case of this malfeasance is the Fukushima-induced thyroid scare in Japanese children”.

Since few in the public read peer-reviewed journals or have the patience to plow through jargon-filled papers, it is the responsibility of scientists to communicate clearly and for journalists to have reputable sources.

Ironically, it has repeatedly been shown that the worst health effects from Fukushima have come from the fear of radiation and the forced evacuations, not from any radiation effects (Gaji 2013;Japan Daily PressWHO ReportNYTimes). Not one person has, or likely will, die from Fukushima radiation. But many people have died from the forced evacuations, fear and depression resulting from both well-intentioned and politically-motivated ignorance on radiation doses and effects following the accident.

What scales faster — nuclear or renewables?

Nuclear has scaled 5  7 times faster than renewables

Michael Shellenberger, President of the Breakthrough Institute, posted this graphic on Twitter. I think this is a very effective way to demonstrate that nuclear has scaled 5-7 times faster than renewables. Moreover, that rapid scaling was accomplished using the old “build one plant at a time” designs and supply chain (when there was no pressing climate emergency).

Today we know that nuclear can scale far faster by mass manufacturing advanced designs. China is already beginning to create the required supply chain. America, France, Germany, Britain – all could be part of saving the planet – if they choose.

For an in-depth examination of these issues see the Breakthrough special report “How to Make Nuclear Cheap“.

A Marriage of Two Agricultures & Vermont, the Stupid State

Jason Sibert interviews Raoul Adamchak co-author with geneticist Pamela Ronald of one of our favorite books Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Jason introduced the interview with the story of the Stupid State Vermont, the first US state silly enough to:
  • Shut down Vermont Yankee, the nuclear plant providing >70% of Vermont electrical generation.
  • Attempt to ban GMOs by mandating labeling.

Jason wrote:

Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. “Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, ‘Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what’s in our food,’” Shumlin declared.

The framing of a consumer’s “right to know” has proved to be a powerful political instrument. Around the country, state legislatures are considering labeling GMOs, with the goal of many to ban them. At the same time, the environmental benefits of organic farming are touted as the better alternative, as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. But is the whole argument misguided? And do genetic engineering and organic farming both have something to teach us?

Please read Jason’s short interview which leads with this smart question: Can organic and biotech be considered converging technologies?

Yes. They both aim for an ecologically sound form of agriculture and both aim to reduce toxic inputs. For example, both organic farmers and farmers of pest resistant GE crops use a nontoxic insecticide called BT.

Organic farmers spray BT, whereas farmers that grow BT cotton don’t need to spray because the bacterial gene encoding is built into the crops genetic code. BT is a favorite tool of farmers because it does not harm mammals and is specific to pests and that is why organic farmers have used it for over 50 years.