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May 10

Is Nuclear Energy a Viable Solution?

Posted in Environment and Sustainability | Future Technology

Nuclear Energy The word “nuclear energy” always inspires awe, and sometimes fear, because we always associate terms like “nukes” and “radiation” when we talk about something nuclear. But it is not as ominous as it sounds and in fact, for some countries it is a major source of energy. 75% of energy in France is generated by nuclear power and even in the United States, 19% of electricity is derived from nuclear energy.

Currently a major portion of energy is derived by the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas, which release lots of carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere that significantly contributes to the greenhouse effect. Many scientists, probably on the payroll of petroleum companies, argue that no matter how much carbon-dioxide we produce, it will be absorbed by the land and the oceans and this in turn will enrich the plant life both on the land and under the water. Changing climates, capricious weather patterns, dying species and out-of-control epidemics narrate another story.

No matter what the arguments are, even a child knows these days there is more carbon-dioxide in the air than can be absorbed by nature, and we desperately need energy sources that don’t take the environment’s health as a cost. The more fossil fuels we burn to generate power and run automobiles, the greater amount of greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere.

Nuclear energy has its perils, but compared to the dangers of using fossil fuels like coal and petrol, these perils are minuscule. The greatest threat is the radio-active waste that is produced when nuclear energy is used to produce energy. This can be countered by formulating strict national and international laws that make it mandatory to process radio-active wastes before releasing them into the environment.

Nuclear energy is one of the least air-polluting alternative sources of energy. Less land is required to set up nuclear plants, and the fission of an atom of uranium produces 10 million times the energy produced by the combustion of an atom of carbon from coal.

  • Bob Wallace

    Have you investigated how France deals with its nuclear waste?

    Hint: a whole bunch gets shipped to Russia for “reprocessing” and the vast majority of it simply “disappears” there.

    Are we likely to be able to get away with the same practice in the US?

    I don’t like nuclear because of the waste disposal issue and because nuclear plants are constructed and run by humans. And humans cut corners and screw up. Especially if they’re highly motivated to make money.

    But, that said, we might need to build more nuclear.

    But, that said, I have a feeling that solar has pushed new nuclear off the table.

    Nuclear produced electricity is not cheap. And if solar (PV and thermal) provide the peak electricity that we need then those high return kWhrs are not going to be available to pay for new nuclear plants.

    Look at where big private money (T. Boone Pickens, the Google Boys, etc.) is flowing. It’s not to build nuclear plants but in price competitive ‘green’ generation which can be brought on line in a mere fraction of the time it takes to build a nuclear plant.

  • buzz saw

    Anything, as long as we don’t have to ::shudder:: conserve.

  • GreenEnergyTV

    I think that we need to focus more on things like E85 which is less harmful for the environment than nuclear energy. With the US being one of the biggest targets as enemy in the world, the last thing we need is to be shipping, moving, and setting up nuclear plants. It almost seems like you are trying to wave a mouse in front of the hungry cats face.

  • Tse Wei

    Well, nuclear energy is a viable alternative to petroleum as an energy source but the disposal and construction costs render nuclear energy cost-ineffective.

    Plus, we must consider the environmental hazards that nuclear energy will cause. To date, there have been many cases of radiation poisoning amongst nuclear power plant workers. In that aspect of it, nuclear energy poses extreme health risks to humans.

    In my opinion, we should just concentrate on solar and wind energy especially since solar technology is becoming increasingly advanced now. Slowly, but surely, solar energy will become a major energy source in the future.

  • M.Riggbit

    Of course not! The US can barely manage it’s own normal AND nuclear waste NOW. What makes you think it can handle it the years to come?

    Besides, the only way the US is dealing with nuclear waste is by forcing Native American reservations to take the nuclear waste(even if they refuse), causing increased cancer, mutations, sicknesses and death. What monsters. It makes me cringe to be a under today’s government. Hopefully the next generation will be smarter in solving the worlds problems.

    Also, no matter WHERE you put the nuclear waste or how far deep, it will always come back to you in the end. Remember what happened 10,000? Ice age moved EVERYTHING and changed the entire landscape! And that was only 10,000 years ago; TINY compared to the whole lifespan of the earth. Things change. Whatever is buried in the ground will eventually come back; leaving that later generation to deal with OUR waste.

    This article is much too one-sided. We need to look at ALL aspects, both good and bad, of the picture. Not just that it’s better than coal. In my opinion, the negatives FAR over-weigh the positives on nuclear energy.

  • Bob Wallace

    Read up on how that nuclear “golden child”, France, deals with its nuclear waste.

    Some is shipped to Russia to be ‘reprocessed’. About 10% returns. The other 90%?

    And read up on how they crammed a nuclear dump down the throats of one little sparsely populated village.

    And their leaking dump in Champaign.

    No one has a demonstrated solution for nuclear waste.

  • B4

    I’m not much for big federal programs but I believe we should be developing and operating nuclear power plants, paid for out of our tax dollars. No more utility bills. Just pay your taxes and turn on the light.

    How long do you think it would take Americans to convert their terrorist-fueled, gas-guzzlers into garden planters and switch to electric cars?

    Don’t do it to appease environmentalists, it’s a much more important issue – national security!

  • ska

    As respondents 1,4,5, and 6 point out, potentially lethal nuclear wastes have an unacceptable waste isolation record and no realistic prospects for improving the record. If the costs of safe decommissioning and waste storage are accounted, nuclear cannot compete with even current efficiencies of solar and wind. Without including those costs, proliferation is the cost we would bear – also unacceptable, thus the early demise of breeder reactor plans in Europe and elsewhere.

    As importantly, any investment in nuclear is continuing a path of diminishing energy returns on energy invested. Uranium is finite, requires massive fossil fuel inputs for mining, and will only require more as rich ores are depleted within the next hundred or so years.

    We need to focus our full political, social, and technological will on the transition to renewables – whose EROEI will continue to increase – so that we can live within the physical limits of our planet. If we don’t self-impose such limits, climate change, irradiation, nuclear war, or simple Malthusian reality will set them for us.

  • John G.

    Of course the U.S. should utilize more Nuclear Energy! The empirical evidence is very clear, especially for those concerned for the environment:

    1. Nuclear Energy creates minuscule greenhouse gases.
    2. Nuclear Energy is the only other alternative energy proven to provide the amounts of energy comparable to what oil and coal currently produce. Hydro-electric is next in line. Solar & wind power, as great as they are, cost more than 1000% more to operate and require a great deal more precious of our real estate.
    3. The U.S. currently has a large domestic supply of Uranium, as long as we don’t keep exporting it to China & France, so we will not be dependant on foreign resources.
    3. The U.S. has been a leader of Nuclear Technology – an expertise under-utilized in this country only to be put to use (with critical acclaim) by countries like France.
    4. Nuclear waste, while some if it is extremely toxic, can be controlled and protected. A Chernobyl style melt-down is the overarching fear. Modern designs have made that type of meltdown near impossible. Even then, the deaths & environmental impact due to nuclear energy is negligible compared to oil fires, oil spills, coalmine disasters, etc.

  • Bob Wallace

    Your #2 is so grossly incorrect that it negates your entire post.

  • John G.

    To be sure, as the cost of oil increases, alternatives become more cost effective. I did, however, pull data from two sources for the current delta in costs & profitability:

    1) Dr. Thomas Hinderling, “Solar Islands: A new concept for low-cost solar energy at very large scale”, 20 May 2008.(

    The article states: “All current solar solutions are at least 5 times, most often rather 10 times (500%-1000%) more costly than .”

    2) WallStreet Journal, “Wind ($23.37) v. Gas (25 Cents)”, 12 May 2008. (

    The article states: “The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) concludes that solar energy is subsidized to the tune of $24.34 per megawatt hour, wind $23.37 and “clean coal” $29.81. By contrast, normal coal receives 44 cents, natural gas a mere quarter, hydroelectric about 67 cents and nuclear power $1.59.

  • ska

    Re: posts 9 and 11:

    Nuclear greenhouse gases: though the nuclear reaction that produces heat and thereby electricity produces no CO2, that’s a minuscule part of the equation.

    Life cycle analysis (LCA) of nuclear energy clarifies CO2 outputs: 1, mining, milling, and processing of the ore chain; 2, construction, operation, maintenance, and decommissioning of plants; 3, transportation, excavation, construction, etc., to sequester waste. These inherent parts of using nuclear are fossil-fuel intensive and would make nuclear’s CO2 production exceed other nonrenewables once our rich ores are depleted within decades.

    Nuclear’s amount of energy cf. fossil fuels: excellent point, and the crux of nuclear’s risk. Because nuclear is so energy-dense _at the moment_, some are tempted to pursue it at the dire opportunity costs of lost investment in renewables and other localized, sustainable solutions. We would need such technologies as the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of nuclear turns negative anyway, and lost time will compound the chaos of such a fundamental cultural transition.

    “cost” vs. solar and wind: nuclear has a price advantage over these, but not a cost advantage. We are not paying the full costs of nuclear now, just as we are only beginning to pay the full costs of fossil fuels i.e., climate disruption. Dollar per MWh subsidy comparisons are fallacies for the same reason: nuclear is energy-dense at the moment with decreasing EROEI, while renewables are energy-distributed with increasing EROEI.

    Uranium supply: only adequate as a means to help us transition to renewables within the next 30-60 years.


    Toxics: Chernobyls are far from the only risk. Just as one example, humans cannot control our nuclear wastes over an historical span (e.g. fissiles proliferated from a fractured USSR), so there is less than reasonable hope that we could do so over geologic time.

    It’s time for us to step up, make real technological change, and end the denial/bargaining stage of our collective easy energy grief.

  • Soylent

    The Rössing mine in Namibia mines low-grade 330 ppm uranium ore. Their energy consumption and production figures are public and from them you can deduce that ~500 times more energy is available from this uranium in a light water reactor than is consumed in mining it. If you apply Storm Van Leuweens methodology and figures to the Rössing mine you get an estimate of about 5; at which the Rössing mine would consume more energy than the country of Namibia.

    Storm van Leuween is also quite fond of quoting the energy intensity of enrichment in the inefficient gaseous diffusion plants, rather than the much more efficient centrifuges that now dominate the market. He not very fond of mentioning CANDUs which use natural uranium or “spent” LWR fuel without enrichment. He doesn’t like to mention insitu leaching, far more energy efficient but unable to recover valuable byproducts like copper.

    Energy intensity is clearly not a serious hindrance for mining low-grade ore-bodies; but it could be the case that it’s somehow uneconomic to mine low-grade uranium for other reasons. I don’t think that would be the case either as a pound of yellowcake, costing about 60$/lb, will give you ~50 barrels of oil equivalent of heat in a light water reactor and ~5000 BoE in a breeder reactor.

    The cost of natural uranium is a vanishingly small part of the cost of operating a nuclear plant. It’s not even a large cost of the fuel elements themselves(enrichment and fuel fabrication/cladding both being much larger parts). LWRs could easily afford to pay 10 times the price for yellowcake and breeders 1000 times the price. At such prices it becomes, at some point, economical to mine sea-water with ion-exchangers. Sea water contains an estimated 4.6 billion tonnes of uranium, that’s about 1000 times more uranium than we’ve ever mined(and it’s in equilibrium, more will leach into solution if you remove some; until a new equilibrium is reached).

    And then there’s thorium; molten flouride reactors look promising but only a few experimental ones were ever built(it wasn’t what the navy wanted and it eventually got mothballed).

  • ska

    Post #13 further demonstrates the necessity to externalize nuclear’s costs to call it affordable.

    With Namibia’s globally second-lowest population density, 30-40% unemployment, 2$/day living standards, and 20%+ HIV rate, the Uranium mining companies might affordably budget to pay residents there to eat the radioactive mine tailings. Those companies assuredly don’t face political will to make them pay anything like the real costs of safe mining or remediation, so they don’t pay those costs. The Storm material, being a life cycle analysis, incorporates such costs, thus definitely derives a higher energy cost than current Namibian practice.

    Another mine often cited to demonstrate the affordability of mining low-grade ore-bodies, Olympic Dam in Australia, achieves its remarkable cost effectiveness by operating outside The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988, the Development Act 1993, the Environmental Protection Act 1993, the Freedom of Information Act 1991, the Mining Act 1971 and the Natural Resources Act 2004.

    If exempted from law, environmental and public health responsibility, and effective safety regulation, and consideration of proliferation risk, nuclear is clearly the affordable choice.

    Breeder reactors have so far proven unworkable by a combination of market forces, safety and proliferation risks. It would be inadvisable to hold one’s breath for news of net-energy-positive seawater Uranium extraction, unless one lives in Namibia.

  • Cyril R.

    No breeders haven’t demonstrated to be able to afford even zero uranium fuel costs as their investment (capital) costs are so prohibitive, it’s a total non-starter.

    I like nuclear power but the negative learning curve effect of light water reactors worries me. By the time the new nukes that are being build/contracted in the US are completed they may have already become obsolete on economical grounds. However we shouldn’t be building any more conventional coal powered plants, and for me that’s priority number one.

  • Techman

    As opposed to current light water reactors which use uranium-235 (0.7% of all natural uranium), fast breeder reactors use uranium-238 (99.3% of all natural uranium). It has been estimated that there is up to five billion years’ worth of uranium-238 for use in these power plants—

    We have the materials to make USA energy independent. Use nuclear power to produce hydrogen from ocean water for automobiles and keep oil and natural gas for making industrial products. We can reclaim much of the nuclear “waste” (like the French do) and what is left over can be launched using a “rail gun” which has been largely perfected for use by the military. (I have video of a military rail gun ‘shooting’ a projectile). None of this is Science Fiction. All exist and the technology isn’t new. All that needs done is large scale engineering to deploy these technologies quickly and on a massive scale. Everyone keeps waiting and arguing about the correct course of action while we (USA) become weaker and more in debt. Eventually the economy will turn bad and possibly crash because manufacturing cannot afford the costs of energy for production or shipment of their product and people can’t afford the costs of fuel for their homes or their transportation. It would be a good idea to do this as soon as possible with all safeguards in place.

  • Tom G

    I worked at a nuclear plant for 20+ years and believe they can be operated safely. Fuel reprocessing is possible. On site storage of spent fuel for short periods can also be done. But there are a few things that can’t be done.

    1. Current cost of construction is prohibitive from the perspective of most utilities. A two unit plant can cost anywhere from 3-15 billion depending upon design and location.

    2. Optimistically constructing a two unit nuclear power station takes from 7-12 years.

    3. Nuclear fuel is a limited resource just like oil and natural gas but can be extended by utilizing different reactor configurations.

    Until we have solved the above issues wishing for more nuclear plants is just that – a wish. In short they are currently
    1. Too expensive
    2. Take too long to build, and;
    3, We have not shown the social and political will to start re-processing of the spent fuel.

    Number 1 and 2 can be solved by technology. Number 3 however may never be solved.

  • Otis spunkmeyer

    Low level radiation is acceptable to me since exposure to it is natural. A guy I met who also worked for a nuclear power plant talked with me about encasing the nuclear fuel in carbon balls. If a casing that allowed the heat out without the high level radiation where discovered it would solve all of my problems with nuclear power. except for it not being renewable.(although im not sure we`ve discovered the source for naturally occurring radioactive substances on earth or at least no one has told me, so maybe it is renewable. Such as the earth`s hardcore being a radioactive substance powered by the earths magnetic field drawing in radiation from the sun deep into the center of the earth,hypothetically.

    Maybe cold fusion is a reality we don`t understand for safe nuclear power. in my mind energy can be converted to mass and mass can be converted to energy so a campfire is low cost low radiation renewable nuclear power.

    My thoughts are to cut out the middle man and research solar and hydrothermal power with lava as the thermal source, these would be the ideal nuclear power plants in my uneducated mind Tom.

  • Gary

    Though nuclear plays a role in our energy production, I agree that nuclear is a limited supply and similar to oil. As a post above points out, n-plants are very expensive and time consuming to build. I think the capital is better spent on other sources. We should focus the capital spending on biodiesel, wind and solar energy. Not only would we spread the production distribution over multiple sources (think system failover/backup) but construction of multiple systems will also provide significantly more jobs.

  • Techman

    Not so Gary. Not that expensive at all in a cost/energy ratio. The new style reactors are small and very cost efficient. About the size of a hot tub and can be hooked together like batteries. Rather nice when you check them out. Much safer in that they can not have a melt down (engineering design) and they can not have a radioactive gas release (engineering design). And, if you view my earlier post, you will see there is enough fuel to last the world until the sun goes super nova.

  • Tweenk

    1. Uranium is not going to run out very soon. Just the seawater contains enough uranium to last us for about 5 billion years (if we use breeder reactors) – this is about as long as the Sun will be able to support life on Earth. See Bernard Cohen’s article on this, it looks convincing to me. In some sense nuclear power is more sustainable than solar power! And then there’s thorium, which is 5x more abundant than uranium. Nuclear energy resources are very abundant. Moreover there is little use for them beyond energy generation.

    2. France does not ‘disappear’ its nuclear waste to Russia, they store it locally in experimental facilities. I watched a documentary about it.

    3. Uranium mines do not produce radioactive tailings! After all it’s the radioactive material the mining is about, so that would be a loss.

    4. US nuclear waste is stored in cooling ponds and dry casks at reactor sites. Disposal of waste in Native American reservations is just silly and looks like an urban legend to me, the NRC would never give it a go ahead.

    5. Proliferation risks are a purely political problem, because nuclear weapons allow previously unimportant countries to gain some bargaining power. I am 100% sure that no country is seriously considering use of nuclear weapons, they function merely as a prestige boost.

  • precaryus

    The Number #1 problem with the viability of Nuclear Fission as an energy source in the U.S.

    Nobody wants one in their own back yard. Do you?

    Yes it’s fairly clean and yes it has other issues (safety, reliance on foreign sources, waste removal/storage/treatment, etc..), but there is a reason not one new Nuke plant has been started in the U.S. since 1977 despite multiple administrations and 2 energy crisis’s since that time. See above.

  • Tweenk

    I would have nothing against living near a nuclear plant, but I do not live in the US. I wonder what this ‘reliance on foreign sources’ might be – there is a lot of uranium in the US. It’s just that nobody bothered to mine it, because there’s already plenty from Canada and decommissioned nuclear warheads. The recent disarmament agreement with Russia will make even more surplus highly enriched uranium available.

    As for waste, I do not understand why people object to burying it deep underground in geologically stable, dry areas in the form of glass. The only imaginable risk is groundwater contamination, but this is not an issue because a) the material is highly insoluble, b) the chosen areas are very dry (e.g. salt mines)

  • precaryus

    Choosing to live near a Nuke plant and having one built where you already live are 2 different things. For example, existing property values would be perceived to be lessened as a result. I would vote against it too for that reason alone even though I know they are relatively safe.

  • Tom G.

    In post number 17 above I talked about the three [3] things preventing the successful re-birth of the nuclear industry. As of this date I haven’t seen any overwhelming reason to believe we have overcome any of the three which are:

    1. The cost
    2. Construction time, and;
    3. The political will.

    1. Cost reduction is of course possible. Using a different reactor design [Thorium, Traveling Wave, Breeders, etc.] could significantly reduce cost. Enriching the fuel to higher levels would also reduce the number and frequency of re-fueling cycles.

    2. Construction time could be reduced by creating a standardized reactor design and then mass producing 300-400 prepackaged sealed reactors of let’s say 1000MW thermal. For example we have lots of coal plants which are currently being considered for carbon capture and/or some type of carbon reduction and this could become very expensive for utilities if or when Cap and Trade is signed into law. The actual power source or heat in a coal plant is of course coal. It is also true that the steam turning the turbine generator doesn’t care if it was made using coal or nuclear – it’s just steam. So we could if we wanted to build a standardized reactor to replace the heat portion of a coal plant and reuse all of the other parts of the existing power plant. This would reduce carbon output, conserve resources, reduce cost and construction time and it is of course technically possible. However, I don’t know of anyone who is even considering such a plan. Why; because coal is currently a cheaper fuel than nuclear.

    3. This brings me to the last point, political will. We are currently finishing up one nuclear plant we started building back in the 90’s. New reactor designs are pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by several different companies. However, to my knowledge NONE of the designs are geared towards Thorium, Traveling Wave, Fast Breeder, Molten Salt or any other advanced reactor design. They certainly are not geared towards converting coal plants, creating Hydrogen for cars or designed to make drinking water. They are also not small enough to run a small city/town which would encourage a more distributed generation network. They all seem to be geared to large base load power production. So I guess the only reasonable and logical answer I can come up with for WHY we are not building more nuclear reactors is this:

    WE JUST DON’T WANT TO – it’s that simple. We understand the technology, we just don’t have the desire.

    tomgarven [AT]

    if you write please put “REACTOR” in the subject line.

  • precaryus

    Sorry Tom G. but you still miss the point. Nobody wants one in their own back yard. No politician who wants to get elected or re-elected is going to go along with a Nuke plant in their patch. No jurisdiction wants one thanks to Chernobyl and 3 Mile Island. Nothing else matters. Most jurisdictions are fighting Windmills for Pete’s Sake.. A Nuke plant will get built only if the Fed forces the issue and overrides the state and local governments that will oppose it. Even then……

  • Tom G.

    Guess I didn’t make myself clear precarious. I do not believe that we will be building any new nuclear plants until the three items are resolved. I meant for #3 to include I guess by inference your ‘Not In My Back Yard’ [NIMBY] assertions. Sorry I missed that.

    By the way have you read the Scientific American article written in 2008 about how solar could meet our future energy needs? Here is the link if you are interested.

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