Brad Plumer on Nuclear Learnings from France & South Korea

Brad’s excellent essay on Vox interprets the recent Energy Policy paper by Jessica Lovering, Arthur Yip, and Ted Nordhaus. I have really just one quibble with Brad’s “Four broad lessons” summary where he wrote:

1) Stable regulations are essential for nuclear power to thrive. More than, say, solar or wind, nuclear will always need strict safety and environmental regulations. No way around that. The risks are inherently higher.

That’s an example of the “see I’m not pro-nuclear” positioning that we often notice even in informed commentary on how nuclear power fits into the menu of low carbon options. The relative risks of nuclear power are not inherently higher! In his marvelous “Sustainable energy without the hot air” David Mackay’s Chapter 24 Nuclear? examines nuclear power. From that chapter I extracted following graphic. This is David’s computation of deaths per GWy (gigawatt-year), which he has extracted from two of the studies we’ve previously referenced: the EU ExternE research, and the Paul Scherrer Institute.David MacKay relative risks of energy options

  • Our goal is to substitute low-carbon for fossil, especially coal, and especially in the developing fast-growing nations.
  • Amongst the low-carbon options, nuclear has proven to be the safest and really the only scaleable option that can displace coal and natural gas.
  • Nobody is proposing to build more unsafe Chernobyl RBMK unsafe. Yet Chernobyl deaths dominate the tiny comparative death-print statistics of our generation options. Take away Chernobyl and commercial nuclear’s death-print is effectively zero.

When I first studied the relative risks of our energy options I quickly realized that my fears of nuclear catastrophe were based entirely on media mythology. The media don’t report on the thousands of people killed by fossil fuels every year. Even major accidents like the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion are not widely reported or investigated (this 2010 accident was in a suburb of San Francisco: 8 fatalities, 52 injured). Fossil energy causes real people to die every year – real deaths versus theoretical nuclear deaths.

San Bruno gas pipeline explosion

We have a civilizational choice to make: whether we organize political support to scale up construction of advanced nuclear plants that are both economical and orders of magnitude safer than the existing safe 3G plants. If we fail to do that we are going to squander our wealth on the renewables dream – only to find ourselves blockaded by the economics when we are only halfway to our goal of zero emissions energy.

3 thoughts on “Brad Plumer on Nuclear Learnings from France & South Korea

  1. Historically and statistically nuclear has been quite safe. However, had there been no regulations it might well have been far less safe. I fully believe that we need regulations to ensure adequate safety. I also fully believe that nuclear power is essential to reducing CO2 emissions to acceptable levels.

  2. Thanks Frank. I completely agree that nuclear power should be thoughtfully regulated. It’s such a complex subject — I definitely don’t have a deep understanding of how US regulations should be rewritten. That said, I am pretty sure that the Canadian regulatory approach is a better model. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) defines performance standards. Instead, the US NRC prescribes exactly how everything should be done. This prescriptive approach prevents progress in any direction that wasn’t anticipated by the regulators. Consequently the US is losing 4th generation innovators to China (TerraPower), Indonesia (Thorcon), etc.

    • You may be right about Canadian vs U.S. standards. That reminds me of a company for which I worked many years ago.

      I worked for a manufacturer of industrial engines and generators. They had suggested specifications which would have made it impossible for any competitors to get any business of customers had used the suggested specifications. The suggested specifications specified the engine displacement, bore, stroke, and compression ratio exactly. More sensible specifications would specify such things as minimum power, maximum fuel consumption, maximum weight, etc. etc.

      Of course standards should specify PERFORMANCE, not how the performance is obtained. Presumably they could, for the containment structure, specify that the strength must be no less than that of two feet of concrete with a certain configuration of rebar and if a vendor could meet the specifications with something other than concrete and rebar, OK. But specifying mechanical minimums would perhaps make more sense than mentioning materials.

      One would think that influential people in the industry would push for performance standards rather than standards which specify how the performance is to be accomplished.

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