Nuclear Risk in Perspective: Making Fact-Based Energy Choices

Thanks heaps to Mark Flanagan at NEI Nuclear Notes for linking this article. Kevin Makinson and Andrew Klein wrote a pragmatic memo on electrical generation options for the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). I was a bit surprised to see a balanced discussion under the PPI banner, so it is especially good to see some dialogue in the part of the political spectrum where we often here “all we need is conservation, solar and wind”.

The authors’ enlightened perspective should not be a surprise because Kevin is a Ph.D. Candidate at Oregon State University in radiation health physics, while coauthor Klein is a Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University.

Here’s a representative excerpt, selected because it summarizes the “dirty little secret” that the intermittent options require over-building equivalent peaking power:

(…) The third type of power generation is relatively new to the electricity production world and comes from renewable but intermittent sources such as wind, solar (photovoltaic and thermal), wave, and tidal. Such generation typically must be operated in tandem with peaking power plants of equal capacity to fill the gaps when demand is high and the wind drops or the sun is obstructed by clouds. To provide continuous power from intermittent electrical power sources without peaking power plants would require the effective storage of electricity on an un- precedented scale. We are decades away the development of storage technologies (e.g., traditional batteries, pumped hydro storage, compressed air, molten salt, etc.) on a scale necessary to smooth out intermittent power fluctuations.

I.e., very roughly you have to overbuild generation capacity by about 100% and hence are locking-in a dependance upon fossil energy. Caveat – this is in the typical case where excess hydro capacity isn’t available for firming the intermittent sources. E.g., so long as Norway can sell excess hydro peaking power, Denmark can avoid paying directly for the excess capacity required when there is a week or two of little or no wind.

I wrote a short comment on the PPI article which has not so far been published (presumably in the moderation queue), as follows:

I appreciate the editorial constraints on such a piece for the non-technical reader, but really there is not much to fault in your survey-level article. If I could make one revision I would add a couple of paragraphs explaining that nuclear “waste” is actually valuable fuel for fast neutron reactors like the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). With that understanding, then the used fuel from the US once-through fuel cycle would no longer be a ” largely intractable issue”.

As it happens, progressive author and UK Environmentalist George Monbiot recently wrote an essay for The Guardian on just this topic titled “A nuclear solution ticks all our boxes“. George concluded with this paragraph

So we environmentalists have a choice. We cannot wish the waste away. Either it is stored and then buried. Or it is turned into mox fuels. Or it is used to power IFRs. We should determine where we stand. I suggest we take the radical step of using science, not superstition, as our guide.

For more depth on the IFR the US public media published an interview with Dr. Richard Till, Nuclear physicist and associate lab director at Argonne National Laboratory West in Idaho. He is co-developer of the Integral Fast Reactor, an inherently safe nuclear reactor with a closed fuel cycle.

Another recommendation — the recent article recommending fast neutron reactor reprocessing of the nuclear “waste” by William H. Miller, a professor with the University of Missouri’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute.

1 thought on “Nuclear Risk in Perspective: Making Fact-Based Energy Choices

  1. The article is correct and good so far as it goes. However, it omits the option of using thorium instead of uranium. There has been enough written on the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) that the omission is somewhat puzzling.

    For more LFTR information, check out the following:

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